Pope Francis

Pope Francis.

Although it’s been a long time since I’ve been active in the Church, I am, and will always be, a fervent admirer of the “alter Christus,” St. Francis of Assisi.

“Pope Francis” almost sounds like an oxymoron … St. Francis abhorred pomp, ceremony, and virtually everything distracting him from his chosen path of poverty—real poverty—to find the Lord in “perfect joy.” But the “pope” part is not what this new Francis chose. It’s merely an affectionate customary title, not even a spiritual one, which all Bishops of Rome immediately become known by. Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, didn’t choose “Pope.” He chose the name “Francis.”

That’s an impressive choice. And a news release from the Vatican clarifies that Francis chose his name not for Francis Xavier, or any other Francis, but for the nature mystic of Assisi. Francis, in this age of cellphones and Facebook, of scandals, and outrage, of global warming and multi-national corporate greed.

I have no illusions that this Francis will be the saint of Assisi on the papal throne. He has his own story, his own strengths, his own faults. He will follow God according to his path, and I according to mine. But there is something about hearing “Pope Francis” that inspires me. And more than that, realizing that he chose the name Francis, gives me hope.

God bless you, Papa Francis. May you inspire the world and lead the Church in love and wisdom. May you be well and strong. May you be guided well and listen true. May you be an instrument of His peace.

Announcing Jedi Life

Dear Readers,

I’m happy to announce that Jedi Life, at http://jedilife.com, is now live. I’m excited about it. There are already several complete posts lined up,and I’m seeking guest posts as well. While Jedi Life is the successor to this blog, in some ways it is very different. The theme is “renew the body, free the mind, feel the Force.” Running, diet, nutrition, life hacking, all will be frequent subjects as will practical matters such as breaking bad habits, forming new ones, seeing through societal conditioning, and so on. Spirituality will be an important part of Jedi Life, but I intend it to be more accessible and actionable than my personal philosophical musings here.

I’m also writing an e-book, geared towards the completely out-of-shape, on how to get into shape, start running safely, and love it.

The Wild Things of God will remain here. At this point, I’m not sure sure how often (or if) it will be updated. I may continue to use it for more personal blogging, or just keep it as an archive of my life from 2004-2011. Keep it in your RSS, just in case. So what are you waiting for? Head over to Jedi Life, and give me feedback there! Also, I wouldn’t mind some free publicity. If you could “like” it or tweet it, I’d greatly appreciate it!

Thanks

Words to live by: Jobs on death

Steve Jobs spoke in 2005 to Stanford’s graduating class on how mindfulness on death and the brevity of life aids focus and purpose in life.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer …

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog … On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, … Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Listen to an excerpt on NPR.org, or read the entire address, or watch the video of it below.

How a bookstore coupon changed my life

Just over four years ago, a friend of mine at work gave me a little magenta coupon for a bookstore that a friend of his was starting up. Although I had a backlog of books to read and wasn’t very interested, he practically pleaded with me to visit the bookstore, and help his friend out, if possible. Since I strongly believe in supporting independent booksellers, and I’ve never met a bookstore I didn’t like, I gladly accepted it and decided to check it out after work.

Ned FlandersBut getting there wasn’t easy; its only sign wasn’t readily visible from the road and it was in a run-down neighborhood. The building might have been a laundromat in its previous life, but whatever it had been, it still wasn’t attractive. I walked in, and was greeted by a very friendly blond-haired guy with an ear-to-ear Baptist smile and the most desperately helpful attitude outside of Ned Flanders’ yard.

I explained I was just looking, and he let me browse, begging me to let him know the instant I needed anything. I don’t know how long he had been in business, but I had the impression I was one of only a very few customers to walk in that day, and maybe the first. Browsing was disappointing. There weren’t very many books, maybe just a few hundred titles in the entire store. And at least half were in Spanish! (Anything you don’t see we can order for you, the owner had assured me.)

None of the English titles appealed to me; they were all overstocks of unpopular titles. I browsed the Spanish titles (I couldn’t read any Spanish, but I recognized the name of a familiar author. There were several titles by Paulo Coelho, the author of one of my favorite books, The Alchemist as well as others such as The Fifth Mountain, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. I found myself looking for a copy of The Alchemist in Spanish. I couldn’t read Spanish, but hey, how hard could it be? I had grown up on the Mexican border, taken some compulsory Spanish in school, and could recognize lots of cognate words. (I had never had any trouble understanding “Se Prohibido Fumar” on signs!)

I thought if I bought it, I might be able to learn Spanish from it, and who knows? Barcelona had intrigued me ever since the ’92 Olympics—maybe someday I’d visit it. Maybe I’d even learn Catalan. Who knows, maybe I’d even pick up my long-forgotten, never-spoken Esperanto? Probably not, though. Mainly I just wanted to buy something, because I couldn’t stand the prospect of walking out empty-handed of this guy’s store even though his business was obviously hopeless. I announced I was looking for The Alchemist in Spanish, and there was a little problem; that was the only Coelho title that he didn’t have in stock. (Apparently even El alquimista was too popular to make the overstock collection he had purchased.)

Finally, after several weeks, my special order of El alquimista came in. I found out that night that there’s a big difference between being able to read a No Smoking sign and a single prosy paragraph of a novel in a foreign language! But I was stimulated now. In my high school and college years, I had studied German and Russian, and on my own I had studied some Esperanto and Biblical Greek and Hebrew. Of course, I hadn’t learned much of any of those, and what little I had learned was unused and long-forgotten. But maybe I could actually accomplish what I and the majority of my countrymen fail to accomplish: learn another language to the degree of actually being able to use it.

I commenced teaching myself Spanish with simple grammars, audiobooks, and podcasts. After about eight months, I was very frustrated, and felt I needed to learn a simpler language first, and return to Spanish after I had successfully trained myself to learn a language. I decided to concentrate on Esperanto for a while. I found I really enjoyed Esperanto, and launched a very small Esperanto club with the help of a friend. Esperanto was designed to be exceptionally easy, and within six months, I found I was fairly conversational, and made plans to go to an international Esperanto congress in Montréal, Québec.

But I knew Esperanto would be enough only as long as I hung with just the Esperantists; the main language of Montréal was French; so surely I should study some French, too! That I did, visiting Alliance Française meetups, while I continuing to focus on Esperanto. I had four wonderful days in Montréal where I used Esperanto and French almost exclusively.

Back from the conference I continued to study Esperanto and also Spanish as well. I was determined to visit Barcelona sometime. Esperanto fell into place as my second language without much further active study as such. Practicing with friends at the Esperanto club, listening to Esperanto podcasts, writing my journal in Esperanto, and reading in it occasionally made it almost effortless. And over the next two years, I went to national Esperanto congresses in St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., where I made friends from all over the country.

Spanish was much more difficult for me—the irregular verbs seemed almost impossible—but I persisted and made it beyond the beginning barrier into an intermediate zone through study, reading books and websites, watching Spanish-language movies, and practicing the language at meetups. (I also studied what little Catalan I could.)

Castellers in Esplugues de Llobregat, CatalunyaThis summer, I realized my dream of visiting Spain and spent a wonderful two weeks in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca. Naturally, I did a lot of sightseeing, but my greatest experiences were simply talking with people. I struck up conversations in plazas and parks, on the street, and in the subway. Language enabled me to have a far richer experience of the country than I could ever have had without it.

I’m planning on going to California and Brazil for more Esperanto-fueled travel, and I want to return to Spain, for a much longer stay in the future. Linguistically, I’m continuing work on my Spanish, and will probably learn a little Portuguese as well for the Brazil trip. (And I still intend to pick up French where I left off, and to “reactivate” my high-school German sometime.)

My last four years have been full of language meetings, books and film in foreign languages, travel across the country and far beyond; friends, acquaintances, drinks, meals, and memories. And I’m looking forward to a future filled with travel and language ahead of me.

Which all started because of someone giving me a coupon for a doomed bookstore.

How will what you do today change someone’s life? How will someone change yours? The most insignificant thing you do today might change the course of events beyond anyone’s expectations. This is life, and it’s amazing!

In Training, One Year On

A year ago, I posted about beginning training for a marathon. But it wasn’t really about training for the challenge of marathon, it was more. It was a declaration that this sedentary, unfit, and obese Web developer was going to change his life. And change my life, I have!

In May, I ran the St. John the Apostle Stingray 5K for the second time, finishing it 11 minutes faster than when I ran it in 2009. In June, I ran the CHKD Run/Walk for Kids 8K, and in September, I ran a half-marathon distance in an unofficial time of 3:07:35. Two weeks ago, I ran the Warrior Dash, a wonderful, fun obstacle course complete with scrambling over trailers, wading through a pond, crawling under barbed wire, and jumping over burning barricades.

And after about 24 years of struggling with my weight, and about 12 years in the obesity zone, I’m coming back. I’ve lost 47 lbs. so far, and while I’ve got a good amount more to lose (I’m still overweight), losing a fifth of my shell has been fantastic.

I’ve mentioned previously the book which has been helping me take it off, but here it is again for those who are interested: The Alternate-Day Diet (my review on Amazon). I credit it completely with my weight loss since the periods in which I didn’t follow it I gained weight, no matter how much I ran. If you need a program to kick-start your weight loss, I highly recommend it.

One of the most significant things about this year of physical activity and conditioning, is that I’ve actually stuck with it–never before have I been able to keep with a fitness plan for an entire year. (My previous flirtations with fitness fell apart during frigid Ohio winters!)

Now, a year later, I’ve discovered the joy of trailrunning, and my only regret is that I didn’t discover it sooner.

So, is this one of the Wild Things of God? Well, it is in my book. Like so many people, I’ve had a bit of a mental dichotomy between the “spiritual” and the “physical.” (And I could even write about how such a dichotomy is false while remaining blind to how it still affected me.)

But now, practical spirituality is the only kind that interests me. Meister Eckhart’s famous prayer, “God, rid me of ‘God’,” rings true. Yes, I’ve had a bit of insight into the world being a holodeck, and myself as a part of the interplay of light and shadow, but the point of having a holodeck in the first place is to participate fully in the marvelous presentations.

And tomorrow morning, I’m going to immerse myself in the phenomenon of trailrunning.

La vie, c’est bon! That’s Jedi life in the real world.

Watching Life

LOST poster

Once I watched an exciting past episode of Lost with a friend who also enjoys it, but who couldn’t stop thinking about it as he watched it. An action scene begins, and he shouts, “No way! The water wouldn’t have risen that high!” or “I really doubt Kate would’ve said that; that was off.” Fine. But that’s looking at the show, interpreting it, critiquing it—not experiencing it. He’s enjoying it in a certain way, but I wonder if he wouldn’t enjoy it more to simply enter the world that’s presented on screen for 45 minutes, and leave the analysis aside until the end credits. (I know I do!)

I find myself in an episode that’s going on 24 hours a day, every day. It’s there for me to enjoy every minute, whether that means laughing, crying, complaining, or sleeping.

For me at least, it’s turning out that there’s nothing very mystical about “mysticism” after all. It’s just the desire to experience reality, nothing more.

Beyond Impossibility

Living in a world of “conditioned existence” as Buddhists say,
is living in a world of possibilities, and impossibilities.

Freedom lies beyond impossibility.
All the Teachers know it.

Hence the koans:
What is the sound of one hand?
How does one pinch smoke?
What did you look like before your grandparents were born?

The voice of God from the whirlwind:
Can you bind the Pleiades?
Were you there when the morning stars sang together,
and the sons of God shouted for joy?

The eternal questions of the gurus:
What am I?
What is happening right now?
Is reality really real?

The questions of almost every child
until they learn that one shouldn’t question
the things that others no longer question:
What is beyond the end of space?
Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?
Who made God?

The questions that we don’t laugh at
because they return years later:
Why am I here?
What am I supposed to do?

Beyond impossibility
is this.

Seeds

The mightiest redwood grew from a small seed in a cone, and that, in turn, sprang from a seed from a cone from another redwood, and so on. For generations, centuries, millennia.

Every seed stores not only the raw potential of the mature plant enfolded within it, but of that plant’s future generations.

Every action taken or not taken today, every word said or unsaid, changes the timeline of the Universe forever.

And all futures spring from this present moment, as this moment in turn arises from all the past moments that have ever been.

The seed from which the whole Universe blossomed is the One.

The seed from which that One came forth is unfathomable.

My faith lies not in answers, nor questions, but in that mystery beyond, behind, beneath, within Everything. There is no surer foundation, no wider reach, no grander canvas, no presence more persistent. Or intimate.

When you can dance on nothing at all, you can never fall.

Back to Basics

In an earlier post, I wrote that most people learn to see the world from the ideas they’re taught, instead of “the undeniable aspects of their own experience.”

Yes, there are undeniable aspects of our experience. Do you want to explore what’s undeniable, what’s real, what’s unquestionable? Do you want to get past the crap that has been shoveled into your head since you were a child? Want to see the world, its wonders, and all the people in it afresh? Are you sure? Don’t answer too quickly. Courage is required.

Because when you learn to look at the world and not your thoughts about the world, it might be surprising. And when you learn to look at yourself instead of your thoughts about yourself, it might be more than surprising. It might even be frightening. Or not. But you won’t know until you look. Hence, the requirement of courage.

This has been known for millenia. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus cautions:

Whoever searches
must continue to search
until they find.
When they find,
they will be disturbed.
And being disturbed, they will marvel
and will reign over All.
—Thomas 2

Purpose

I mentioned in my previous post that I’m beginning to have a renewed sense of purpose after three-and-a-half years of not really having one. At that time, I had an momentary experience of nothingness, which I’ve called “the suck” or “the empty ​​​​holodeck.” It not only shattered my concepts of God, but also left me without a sense of purpose.

The experience was freeing in some ways: I felt free from being watched by an omnipresent eye in the sky, and it completely blew away what I call “the personal metaphor”—thinking of God as a “person” in some way, however abstract, with desires and feelings similar at some level to ours. Also gone was the assumption that the world was “real,” in the ultimate sense. The only thing left was that I still seem to be “here” (whatever that means), and that I still experience the appearance of a world around me. What I had in place of “God” and “the world” was a mystery: what causes the experience of there being a world? What does all this come from?

And though that was a bit disorienting, it was definitely freeing. It cleared my head by rendering almost every religious and philosophical debate moot, except for the few things that really matter, but which can’t be answered by the mind, anyway.

Religion was cleared away in a instant, with certainty, such that whenever I hear any traditional appeal to higher authority; “the Bible says…”, “the Church teaches…”, “God wants…”, I have to smile (or I have to remind myself to smile!) and remember that almost everyone naturally bases their fundamental assumptions on memes they’re taught, rather than the undeniable aspects of their own experience.

(On the other hand, don’t think I became an atheist. To me, the popular atheists of today have a pathological lack of curiosity and might as well be dead when it comes to investigating reality. Dismissing literalistic interpretations of sacred texts is child’s play, but where is the interest in the big questions? What causes the universe to appear? What caused the Big Bang?)

So how does this all relate to me losing my sense of purpose? Simple. I had found my purpose in my beliefs, and when my beliefs were gone, my purpose went, too. Hence, “the suck.” So for more than three years, I’ve been drifting in a sense. Now, that isn’t as bad as it might sound. I’ve generally been happy, only rarely depressed. But something has been missing; I’ve felt a lack of motivation, certainty, purpose. It felt a little bit like I was in a fog, because I couldn’t find my “purpose” or “destiny,” and had a feeling that I needed that to be really happy.

I’ve recently started seeing things a bit differently: that not having a predetermined purpose means freedom! There is nothing written anywhere in the cosmos that declares “Jon Zuck is to be such-and-such and do this or that.”

I am free to create and choose a purpose, follow it, change it, resist it, not have one, whatever, but I definitely feel more rooted and alive with purpose than without.

One thing that’s coming into focus as a part of my purpose now, is a desire to help improve the world where people are suffering. Years ago, I was active in Amnesty International as a “Freedom Writer,” petitioning dictators around the world for the release of prisoners of conscience. Then, for several years while I concentrated on the inner quest, I only supported Amnesty financially. Now, I’m wanting to be more active again in influencing this world I’m experiencing, and I’m getting a bit more active with Amnesty again.