22 November 2019 – The Importance of a Well-Timed Recommendation

In the spring of 1984, a dear friend named Martha suggested I look into the Big Brothers program, the one that matches men with boys who are lacking positive adult male role models in their lives. It was an interesting time in my life, not unlike now, one in which I was in the midst of a transition. I was 21 years old, working a fun but low-paying and soon-to-be ending job. I was three years removed from high school and not really thinking about college.

I had not heard of Big Brothers and wondered why Martha recommended it. She said something to the effect of, “You’re good with kids and I think you’d get a lot out of it.”

The Big Brothers’ office wasn’t far from my north Seattle apartment so I made an appointment. I still remember the name of the person with whom I met, Cindy Libowsky, who became my caseworker. The process of screening men for a placement is a long one so it wasn’t until August that I was matched with my “little brother,” Matt. I remember my early meetings with Matt as feeling like the stars had come into alignment. I felt good about myself and that I was making a difference in someone’s life. This is what drives me to this day.

Clearly, this recommendation from Martha was life-changing for me. It made clear my calling, that I am here to serve people and that this would begin as a teacher. For the first time, I was drawn to college, now knowing what I wanted to do.

Big Brothers asks its volunteers to commit to a weekly activity lasting 2 to 3 hours with their little brothers. So deeply engaged and having the time available, I met with Matt twice each week for at least that amount of time. On Wednesdays, I brought him to my apartment and together, after a quick trip to the grocery store, we’d make dinner. One night we invited his mom and younger sister, Mica, to join us. Matt was in charge of the dinner and made boiled hot dogs. His mom said it was the best meal she had ever eaten and I think she meant it.

On Sunday afternoons, we’d go somewhere, often to a park, to play. Sometimes I involved other members of my family, one of my brothers, Steve, and his wife, Deb, living close by. My other brother, Scott, joined on a least one of these occasions on a day that included Mica. I can still hear Scott’s voice playfully referring to Mica as “that pesky little girl” during a game of whiffle ball in Steve’s & Deb’s backyard. Scott’s wife at the time, Mary Jo, helped me make Matt a beautiful slot car track for his 8th birthday in September.

Late in the year, Cindy from the Big Brothers office contacted me to say that I had been named Big Brother of the Year. Publicity pictures were scheduled to be taken with Seattle mayor Charles Royer. I picked up Matt from his elementary school to take him. He was all dressed up and the pride resonated from him as I, his “big brother,” walked into his classroom to take him to meet the mayor.

For those of you who have appreciated me as your teacher, who have appreciated PSCS as a school, and/or appreciated me as a mentor, you can trace it back to Martha’s recommendation.

Becoming a big brother propelled me forward.

1 November 2019 – May I Be Filled With Friendliness

A little less than ten years ago I enrolled in an online class on the subject of Loving-Kindness meditation. I was living in France at the time, on sabbatical with my family, with the goal of coalescing the amount of kindness-based material I had created over the previous 15 years into a book.

The working title of my book was “The Practice of Kindness” and each of my planned ten chapters was going to feature one of the ten lessons I had created for my most popular kindness class, also called “The Practice of Kindness.” I had envisioned the lessons starting at the center of a circle, core, or heart, and moving outward. Specifically, the first lesson was to do something kind for yourself, the second to do something kind for someone you loved, the third to do something kind for a friend, etc. Start inside and gradually move outward.

Significantly, the tenth lesson was to again do something kind for yourself, my hope being that by the tenth lesson the students would have recognized that each act, regardless of how far removed from their center, was also an act of kindness for themselves. In other words, completing acts of kindness, true acts of kindness, is always a win-win. Your recipient is benefited. And you are benefited.

So there I was, on sabbatical in France, working to put together my book on kindness. I enrolled in the online Loving-Kindness meditation class as a supportive activity, something that would help bring focus to my book project. Interestingly, what it did is help me realize that I didn’t want to write a book about kindness. What I discovered I wanted to do was find a better way to promote kindness. I had thought writing a book would do that.

A book, though, is a static thing. Once it’s written and published, it can’t be changed. That’s not what I wanted.

Instead, I built a website, one to which I continue to add content to this day.

If you aren’t familiar with Loving-Kindness meditation, it’s pretty simple to summarize. You sit quietly and silently repeat several phrases, statements like “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be happy. May I be safe from dangers. May I be healthy.” How long you sit and how long you silently repeat the phrases is up to you. You even tailor them for you preferred language.

We were told that those who practice Loving-Kindness meditation derive many benefits, some too hard for me to believe literally. Sleeping better certainly made sense, but not being stung by bees, not being bitten by a tiger, and having something catch me if I fell over a cliff were harder to accept.

Still, the concept of reducing conflict and being more consistently at peace made sense to me. And I remembered from watching episodes of my favorite TV show from the 70’s, “Kung Fu” starring David Carradine as a Buddhist priest, that the lead character once walked through a pit filled with rattle snakes without getting bitten because he was at one with them.

At the very least, the benefits provided food for thought.

In my class, as I describe above, we began by speaking in the first person, directing these positive messages to ourselves. As our lessons progressed, the teacher invited us to extend our good wishes to a loved one, then to a friend. One of the many things I appreciated about her guidance is that she said there was no one right way to do this. If we wanted to stay focused on directing loving-kindness to ourselves, that was what we were encouraged to do. As we practiced, we were told, we may feel drawn to extend our good wishes to others. If so, do so. Beyond loved ones and friends, we were invited to consider people we didn’t know well, then complete strangers, then people we didn’t like. If so moved, we could silently send good wishes to people we were mad it, those that have hurt us.

I was thrilled to see the overlap between the meditation class and my kindness class, how the practice started with the individual and moved outward from there. Also like my class, there was the obvious benefit the meditation students received as we extended loving-kindness to others. Of supreme interest, extending loving-kindness to someone with whom I was upset or who I felt had wronged me triggered forgiveness. I learned that resentment exists within me, has a hold on me. Loving-kindness is a way to let go of it.

Like I said, the class was nearly 10 years ago. As it wrapped up, I launched my Kind Living website. And like I said, I continue to add content to it. As to Loving-Kindness meditation, I return to it regularly, finding it to be a great calming and cleansing activity.

What prompted me to write this story, however, is an interview I read with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg earlier this week. Salzberg explained that Pali is the language of the original texts that brought forward Loving-Kindness meditation from the past. She said that there are lots of other English words that could be used for what is most commonly translated as loving-kindness. Love, good will, connection are all acceptable translations.

This got me thinking. Since I first learned of Loving-Kindness meditation, I’ve encountered a lot of people who are turned off by its name. Loving-Kindness sounds too woo-woo, they say, especially in combination with it being a meditation practice. On that note, I know a lot of people think that meditation requires them to sit in an uncomfortable cross-legged position for an extended period of time, their index fingers making a circle with their thumbs, and with their mind being blank.

That’s certainly not my experience. I can’t do that, don’t want to do that. Me, I just try to sit quietly, or lie quietly, and relax.

Anyway, setting the meditation structure aside, it was another of Salzberg’s translations that I started thinking might help the average westerner, maybe the average American, find the practice more approachable.

That translation is friendliness.

So instead of framing it as a meditation practice, what about simply saying to yourself, “May I be filled with friendliness” as you go about your day? If that resonates, you might feel drawn to silently wish your bus driver to be filled with friendliness, the cashier at the grocery store, your partner, your teacher. Maybe the person asking for spare change. Yes, maybe you’ll be drawn to wish the person with whom you are angry to be filled with friendliness.

Imagine everyone on your bus, in your school, around your city all expressing friendliness to themselves and each other. That’s a pretty great place to live.

I know it starts with me.

May I be filled with friendliness…

25 October 2019 – Oral Surgery Teaches Me a Lesson About Wholeness

A little over a month ago my dental hygienist pointed out to me a dark spot that had shown up on the edge of the X-ray she had just taken. She called in the dentist who recommended I have the spot reviewed by an oral surgeon as soon as an appointment could be had.

A few days later, there I was, having a much more complex X-ray taken, followed by a conversation with the surgeon:

That dark spot on my dental X-ray turned out to be a cyst.

“There’s no reason to think this is malignant; in fact, I’m virtually certain it’s a cyst. But it needs to come out.”

“Okay, what does that entail?”

“Well, I’ll detach your palate to open up a space to remove the growth.”

“Detach my palate?”

“You’ll be asleep. When you wake up, you’ll start to swell and have bruising, and the top of your mouth will feel like your worst pizza burn ever. And you’ll have stitches between most of your upper teeth.”

“What about the hole left behind?”

“I’ll fill that with donor bone.”

“Donor bone?”

“Yes, from the bone bank.”

I had gone from a routine teeth cleaning a few days earlier to learning I had a growth in my head that needed to be removed and the hole left behind needing to be filled with donor bone from the bone bank. That’s a lot to wrap one’s mind around. I will say, the surgeon did a great job of answering my questions in a simple and straightforward way. I left her office with the surgery scheduled for her first available opening, about three weeks later.

Two days post-op…

I’m writing two weeks after the surgery, having just returned from my post-op appointment in which the surgeon pronounced me well on my way to recovery. The “pizza burn” has pretty much healed. The stitches have dissolved. The swelling in my face that blackened my left eye and caused it to swell shut is gone. And, most importantly, the pathology report came back as the surgeon predicted, a benign cyst, a nasopalatine cyst to be precise.

She did tell me that mine was odd in how it grew and for its size, the largest she has seen in her career.

A large cyst means a large hole was created. At the post-op visit, I asked her how exactly the hole was filled. I had been picturing that somehow the donor bone would be shaped to fill the hole (bone is hard after all, right?), and that in some clever manner this shape would be squeezed into my face while my palate was detached.

“No,” she said, “the donor bone is actually granulated. It’s like sand, which makes it easy to put in the cavity. Over time, it will solidify and merge with your bone.”

I was fascinated by this, imagining her filling the hole with a sand-like material, maybe using a funnel, like I do to fill the pepper mill. She showed me an X-ray she took after the surgery was completed and while I was still unconscious.

The rounded section inside the highlighted area is filled with granulated donor bone.

“There, that round spot is where I put the granulated bone. You can kind of see how it looks a little different than the area around it.”

“Can you tell me more about the donor bone, where it came from, that sort of thing?”

“Well, there are people who donate their bodies to science. Among the different ways these bodies are used include harvesting bones. What we used in your surgery came from what we call the bone bank.”

I found this supremely interesting but didn’t know what else to say. I mentioned that I had this vague recollection of talking to her after the surgery, asking her if I could find out who the donor was so I could thank this person’s family (and maybe know whose bone was at that moment starting to merge with my face).

She laughed, “Yes, you did ask about that. We really have no way of knowing.”

And with that, there was no more to say other than pleasantries. I thanked her for her good work and left the office, a place close enough to where I live that I could easily walk home.

Outside, it was overcast with a bit of drizzle, a pretty stereotypical fall day in Seattle. One foot in front of the other, looking down at the sidewalk, I was still thinking about the donor. I pictured a person making arrangements to have their body donated to science. I wasn’t sure how this happened, if there was some governmental office one goes to in order to make this arrangement or something more simple, like how I’m listed as an organ donor on my driver’s license.

I also started thinking about this as an act of kindness, kindness being a topic to which I’ve devoted a great deal of my life. In the early 90’s I offered what is likely the first online kindness class, and I’ve only expanded my offerings from there. I keep an archive of what I’ve created, all available for free, at kindliving.net.

Several years ago, responding to requests from several of my kindness students scattered throughout the world, I created a class I called “Anonymous Kindness.” Scheduled over ten weeks, each Sunday night I posted an “assignment,” a suggestion for a kindness act that the participants would complete anonymously over the next week. A couple of days later I would send them a message designed to stoke their thoughts and enthusiasm, what I called a message of inspiration. And I ended each week by providing them a summary message, one reflecting on my thoughts about that week’s assignment and their responses to it, which by then they were to have posted to our class website.

It was a wonderful experience for me and, I think, for most of the several dozen participants.

An early assignment had to do with completing at least one and ideally several small acts of kindness. I suggested that opportunities to complete these often come upon us spontaneously, like allowing a driver to merge in front of us, returning grocery store carts to the store, cleaning up paper towels in a public restroom, that sort of thing.

Now, as I was walking home from the oral surgeon’s office, I thought about how simple, how small, of an act it was for me to have checked a box on my driver’s license form to become an organ donor. I wondered again about the donor of the granulated bone in my face. How simple, how small, of an act was it for them to have done something that started a chain of events that led to their bone becoming part of my face, part of me?

It was both small and magnificently huge.

This is the point that I made in my reflection message the week of the “small kindness act” assignment, that we actually will not know how big of an impact our small acts might have. Waving a driver to go in front of you could change their whole demeanor. They may feel more apt to be kind, thoughtful, to someone they see. And then on and on. One small act leads to many small acts that together change the world.

That’s The Butterfly Effect applied to human action.

The back of a sign I saw on my walk home.

A smile, which just a few days earlier I couldn’t manage because of the swelling, came over me. I touched my tender cheek, the space above where the granulated bone was placed, and imagined the donor. At one point this person was alive and went for a walk, the bone in them aiding in their movement. Now that bone was in me.

Whose bone is it, I wondered.

It’s theirs, it’s mine. It’s… it’s, and then an epiphany, it’s ours.

It’s our bone.

And if it’s our bone, then everything is ours, meaning everything is to share. It’s interconnectedness. It’s wholeness. It’s oneness.

Turning onto my block, I had a little chuckle, given I like to play with words. A pun had dawned on me, one that also carried for me profound meaning. The oral surgeon had filled the hole in my face, which had led to me experiencing interconnection and oneness.

The pun?

Filling the whole.