Tag Archives: compassion

Steven Universe and the Euphrates Institute Save the Day!

Fostering hope for humanity by investigating alternative channels.

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

-Albert Einstein

I recently had a conversation with an intelligent, informed, introspective young man in his twenties. He said that, aside from advances in technology, it appears that humanity hasn’t really changed. He felt that we are, essentially, still hostile towards one another.

I understand why he feels that way. The media tends to project a story which instills the belief that our chances of getting along on a global level are hopeless. Variations of a zombie apocalypse have dominated the entertainment world and have steadily been infused into the nightly news. It is a story based on fear of the “other”.

There is, however, a steady stream of hope that flows below the tumultuous waves raging on the surface of what gets mainstream airtime. Here are two of my recent favorites:

Janessa Gans Wilder was a CIA operative in Iraq. Her job was to make sense of the “other” or the enemy, and report back so the situation could be handled with greater intelligence.  Janessa discovered that, even when her team managed to stop four terrorists, hundreds of others took their place instantly. She described it as catching drops of water from a leaking faucet. After a month or so of diving on sandbags during deafening explosions, she found herself on a rooftop quietly overlooking the Euphrates river. The calming, life-giving waters below her contrasted with the violence and suffering she knew were on the river’s banks a few miles away. A question presented itself to her, “Which will you choose? Peace or war?”

Janessa chose the peace of the river. Turning a three-month assignment into a twenty-one-month journey, Janessa began seeing the “other” as fellow humans. She listened to the stories of the people around her with the intention of understanding their problems, working with them to devise solutions. This lead her to found the non-profit Euphrates Institute, which promotes peace by building personal relationships with individuals throughout the Middle East and the West. Via tours and talks given by the institute, people in both the West and the Middle East begin to see there are people like themselves behind the fearful stories that have built walls between them. The institute is constantly shedding new light on the impact we have on one another and empowering a more moderate understanding, taking the power away from extremists.

Another far out example of hope for humanity in the world of entertainment is Rebecca Sugar’s cartoon series Steven Universe.  A wonderful role model for children, Steven Universe also carries a deep message for adults. Like Janessa Gans Wilder, the child hero of this show strives to relate to difficult community members and “hostile aliens” with the aim of understanding them, and befriending them when possible. Every episode demonstrates the practical benefits of empathy. Steven shows us that when we uphold our own humanity, we can often transform the “other” into an ally.

Steven and his super-hero teammates  also have the capacity to ‘fuse’ together and become a larger being with synergistic power that transcends what each can do on their own.  This fusion takes place when the individuals dance together with a conscious intention. A brilliant metaphor, that children may miss, but another reason why this is a favorite go-to series for my wife and I.

In 2015, the creator of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was named Visionary of the Year by the Euphrates Institute. Zuhal Sultan was only 17-years old but her orchestra ‘fused’ together young people from every culture and religion in the war-torn country. By playing together, with conscious intention, the heroic musicians become a larger force with a power that transcends what not only what they can do individually but what individual nations have been able to do to build bridges towards peace.

When you are inundated with hostile news and feel yourself loosing hope for humanity, I urge you to investigate new channels to tune into. Steven Universe and  Janessa’s TED talk are great places to start .  Just this week Bill Gates recommended Steven Pinker’s book: The Better Angels of Our Nature- Why Violence has Declined, calling it “The most inspiring book I’ve ever read.”

There are ways for us to change our collective story. They all start by entering the calm-river of our hearts.

“We are the Crystal Gems, we’ll always save the day. And if you think we can’t, we’ll always find a way!”

– Steven Universe theme song by Rebecca Sugar, Aivi & Surasshu

 

The Strength of Gentle-men

The need for a men’s movement for our collective humanity.

Looking at pictures from around the world for International Women’s Day, I am reminded of the hope I felt on January 21st as over 3 million people around the world marched in solidarity to peacefully demonstrate the love of freedom, the love of this planet, and the drive to not be satisfied with less than equality for all women.

I was grateful to be marching in New York and to support what felt like the beginning of humanity waking up to its beautifully diverse potential.  As one sign said, “Women’s rights are Human rights!”

My friend Angie is a mental health and relationship counselor. We talked recently and she told me she has been talking to her male clients about the need for a men’s movement. The women’s movement has risen out of necessity. For women, bonding together to strengthen what has been suppressed goes beyond the right to education and equality. The patriarchy we have clung to as our collective ‘bottom-line’ has created an imbalance that has oppressed the human spirit. Men are conditioned to be bread winners, the top dog, the invading conqueror. Men have been compelled to play a role that equates strength with brute force.

“A mentor can guide a young man through various disciplines, helping to bring him out of boyhood into manhood; and that in turn is associated not with body building, but with building an emotional body capable of containing more than one sort of ecstasy.”

Robert Bly, Iron John

Angie pointed out our former president George W. Bush’s comment, “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account…Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive.” Angie was impressed that Mr. Bush was able to include himself in that equation.

I do feel we are on the cusp of collectively being able to relinquish our death grip on the privileged-based hierarchy that undermines our true nature.

Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius, and the author of the Tao Te Ching, talked about four virtues that “are not an external standard or dogma, but attributes of one’s true nature.”

“The first is unconditional natural piety. Natural piety means love and respect for one’s being, both the internal aspects and the external manifestations.; a state of profound reverence toward natural life.

The second virtue is natural sincerity. To be genuine, earnest, honest and whole-hearted. It also means being free of all self-deception.

The third virtue is gentleness. When one is rough, one tends to be aggressive, inconsiderate and unkind to others. This behavior inevitably rebounds on oneself.

The fourth virtue is being naturally supportive. To serve without expecting anything big in return. Through serving others, one can find dignity and the true meaning of life.”

Lao Tzu

This fourth virtue is referred to by Jewish Mystics as “the will to bestow.”

Tony Robbins, a motivational and financial giant, who exceeds anyone’s definition of what it means to be a man’s man has this to say: “I became obsessed with ways to do more for others than anyone else was doing, in less time. I (decided) I would never stop growing, never stop giving, never stop trying to expand my influence or my capacity to give and do good. And as a result, over the years, I’ve become more valuable in the market place.”

Tony is what Joss Whedon, (awesome TV/Screen writer/director) would say was “among the rare men who understood that recognizing someone else’s power doesn’t diminish your own.”

I have a close friend named Eric Reisman who has started a men’s movement called:

The Gentle-man.  He is a mentor who quests to strengthen men’s ability to see that being gentle is not a sign of weakness but that our empathy leads us to our full potential.

Another hub of men’s groups is the mankind project.

My friend Angie’s desire for there to be a unifying Men’s movement is not to emphasize and increase the distinction between men and women. When men are not fueled by insecurity and the need to dominate, there is a freedom that is offered to everyone.

It may be that the men’s movement we need will arise from those men supporting the women’s movement. Being able to be comfortable with who we are, we can begin to identify ourselves beyond form. Then, we will appreciate the need for everyone’s right to be free of labels and social constraint.

“May all be happy in the knowing that we are one family of being with one common heart, a Heart of imageless perfection.”- Mooji

 

Oscar- panning for the Gold-en rule

Looking beyond the flubs to the treasures the Academy Awards offer us as a unique marker of time.

  ©A.M.P.A.S

There’s a lot of love in this room, and let’s use it to create and champion bold and diverse work, work that inspires us towards joy, towards hope and towards empathy.”

Jordan Horowitz, producer, La La Land

 “Tonight is proof that art has no borders, no single language and does not belong to a single faith…The power of art is that it transcends all these things. That is the magic of the movies and that is what we celebrate tonight.”

-Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs

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I wonder what my grandmother would have thought about Twitter? It seems to have enough power to wreak political havoc or cause the biggest snafu in Oscar history. It is interesting that this year’s awards may only be remembered for what appeared to be Bonnie and Clyde trying to steal the Moonlight.  As with most things, where we put our attention yields up pyrite or gold.  There was also a vein of nuggets throughout the night such as Viola Davis’ speech that escalated this year’s awards for me.

The Oscars are such a unique marker of time. When I was 14, the Oscars were a holiday for me. The movies were a Shangri-La where my dreams and inner being were kept eternally young and whole.  I looked forward to the Oscars, like New Year’s, like Hanukah. It was a mecca for me. Not that I knew what a mecca was, but it was a pilgrimage to honor that which shined bright in my firmament.  Not just the current gathering of stars, but the art that they represented: the chance to simultaneously overcome and uphold the human condition.

This particular year, my mother and I were watching the awards alone when the phone rang in the kitchen. My mom went to answer it and instinctively, I followed her.  I knew by her body language that something irreversible had happened.  I watched grief come through the receiver as laughter and applause rang out behind us, worlds away.  I watched before I understood what had happened; my mother bore herself up to be the bearer of what she instinctively knew would be unbearable for my father. My grandmother had passed away. This burden was momentarily buoyed up in her by the recognition that my grandma had escaped a drawn-out illness. She had bowed out before having to play the role of a patient, which she would not have enjoyed.

My grandmother Ida was the penultimate caretaker. She had cared for my grandfather for years before he died, she took great care of everyone around her. All of her grandchildren were convinced that they were her favorite. It was obviously me. My grandmother didn’t need an Oscar, her conviction was so complete, each of us can lay full claim to being her favorite. There was no measuring the love she showered us with every time we saw her.  For me, the proof was there in the soft golden gingerbread men with their raisin eyes and buttons, the hours she spent in front of her TV set wrestling with reception so I could enjoy my beloved Creature Features, her slipping me money for a party I was ‘secretly’ planning to throw for my friends.  My grandmother was a movie star in my eyes. She always wore sunglasses.  She was the grand poker player. That is, even in great pain, her grandchildren only saw her smile.  We never knew of her troubled childhood, of her mother and siblings having to move into a new apartment every time the rent was due. She held herself up regally. Ida was a matriarch, a magician, a master baker and chef, a conspirator, the delta of our heritage. For me, my grandma Ida was gentle, radiant, the personification of unconditional love.

My father came home.  I stood in the hallway, peeking around the corner as my mother told him. He put his hand on the waist-high stereo console for support but it did not console him. He crumbled. “She was my strength,” he said. I had never known anything but strength from my father. It was harrowing to see him in a seemingly helpless state. I couldn’t bring myself to go to him. I longed to. I didn’t believe I had the strength within myself to cross that distance or that I would be able to offer him what I wanted to give him if I could.

Here was the drama.

How many film makers try to issue the relief that I longed to pour into my father, to fill him; to make him stand again?

My father doubted his ability to move on successfully without my grandmother.  His vulnerability is something that has allowed me to take up my role with strength.  My grandmother lives fully within my father, as does his father. He remains one of the strongest, most tuned in and genuinely caring people I have had the good fortune to meet.

My grandmother was a star. She was strong and had a full life.  She didn’t need a movie to tell her story but she was worthy of one. She didn’t need a lot of words to convey to each of us how special we were to her.  She may have been a queen on Twitter.

During her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, Viola Davis said:

 “You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place and that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist—and thank God I did—because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.

So, here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people. And to … the cheerleaders for (making) a movie that is about people. And words. And life and forgiveness and grace….

…And the people who taught me good or bad, how to fail, how to love, how to hold an award, how to lose. My parents…Thank you.”

As life’s actors, we get to take up our various perspectives: child, parent, sibling, friend, enemy, lover, loveless, confident, fragile, sung, unsung, free, indentured, addicted, connected, intuitive, automated…

“A sky full of souls, you play all the roles. You are the Great Constellation, not just one soul in isolation.” – The Levins/ Great Constellation

This year, the Oscars reminded me to have hope in humanity, even as reports of Jewish cemeteries being desecrated, bomb threats in nursery schools and good citizens being deported rise up to separate us.

“Film-makers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others.” – Asghar Farhadi, director, Best Foreign Film- The Salesman

Keep dreaming, because the dreams we dream today will provide the love, the compassion, and the humanity that will narrate the stories of our lives tomorrow.”

Marc Platt, producer, La La Land

May the gold we seek to be awarded be the golden rule upheld in our hearts.

 

A tale of two clown schools

Transformation is something that occurs within the space between recognizing we are not alone and that external blame is an illusion.
Relying on the past while guarding against projections of fear keeps us rooted in our smallest understanding.  We rise out of the ashes of our own misery and are capable of being clear and kind, which in itself is larger than life.
 
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Last weekend, Julia and I collaborated with Sweet Can Productions to put on a circus show using the music of The Levins called Barely Contained.  It was well received and we felt very fortunate to be allowed to be a part of something that was so funny, beautiful and well, sweet. 
Our friends Jamie and Natasha have an incredible clown act called Coventry & Kaluza.  They are a part of Sweet Can Productions and coordinated this show.
Coventry and Kaluza
During the run, Jaime and Natasha went to see a show being put on by the students of a local clowning school. Jamie told us that there had been a rivalry between this school and the school where they had trained.  Their school put a strong emphasis on coming up with story lines and practicing the beats within that story to convey it clearly and simply to the audience. This other school taught its clowns to work on their individual characters, to discover idiosyncrasies to present to the audience. 
Jamie and Natasha’s teacher had criticized the teacher of this other school and the method he was teaching his students. This had started the controversy and subsequent rivalry.  Fortunately, their instructor finally went to see the other school to see for himself.  After that, he was able to tell his students that they were doing good work in the other school.  He could see the merit in the other method.
I just finished reading a wonderful book by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman called The Dude and the Zen Master, which is a conversation between the two authors using Jeff Bridges’ character the Dude from the movie, The Big Lebowski as a jumping off point.
At one point in the book Bernie says he was taught that if something is not a paradox, it isn’t fully true.  There isn’t just one way of doing things correctly.
the dude and the zen master
Bernie: “…You’re helping people see that there is no one truth, that everything they believe or that others believe is just an opinion…We choose what we choose and then people have their opinions about it. Society may say, “you’re screwing yourself up…. Everybody has opinions… if I can really just be in touch with myself, I’m going to wind up doing things that are good for me and cause me the least pain.
Jeff: There are a number of spiritual traditions that say that you should treat the other person as God, or divine.  Turning that around, you should treat yourself the same way, and with compassion.
Bernie: That’s my opinion too. Just don’t wallow in self- pity.
Jeff: Sometimes I can give myself shit no matter which way I go.
Bernie: So the practice of befriending the self is a good one for you.”
 
I love this concept that there is more than one way of working through and that we can befriend our self in the process. This is especially important in my partnership with Julia.  We both have different approaches of working together that end up providing the needed balance to what we do. My tendency is to push and to go, go, go. Julia makes sure that we aren’t just spinning our wheels but are making traction with the ground.  She reminds me to take stock in what is going on so we can savor it. She helps me slow down to make sure things are done right.  I am pushing us to succeed, to “make it”.  Julia is striving to make sure that when we arrive, we have something to worthwhile to share.
Bernie: In Zen we say that the other shore is right here under our feet. What we’re looking for- the meaning of life, happiness, peace- is right here. So the question is no longer, how do I get from here to there? The question is: How do I get from here to here?
Jeff: I sense these two impulses. One says, Do, do, do, achieve, achieve, achieve. The other says, Sssssshhh, please relax. Do you want to spend the rest of your life doing some sort of never-ending homework assignment? Sssshhh.
Bernie: I always have this red nose in my pocket, and if it looks like I’m taking things too seriously, or the person I’m talking to is taking them too seriously, I put the nose on.
Jeff: Clownsville, man. Tightness gets in the way of everything, except tightness.
Bernie: Our work may be important, but we don’t take it too seriously.  Otherwise, we get attached to one relatively small thing and ignore the rest of life. *
This concept of opening up beyond tightness, to be able to see the paradox in everything and laugh at it keeps coming up so that I will embrace it.
Here’s to befriending ourselves so we can take stock of the fullness of our current picture and the beauty of everyone in it.
*- The conversation between Bernie and Jeff has been juggled in this article. It appears here slightly out of sequence.

The benefits of sadness

Every hurt that is held collects within us. That part of us becomes cynical and critical of all help; suspicious of anything that is not known, that could fool us into further pain.  There is too much at stake to gamble on healing, so we keep a separate side to wait, to guard, to watch.  Still, we can bring ourselves vigilance and validate the protection we offer while slipping ourselves some nourishment and cheer.  Unification is not homogenization, but a balance.

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Julia and I made it home.  It was a successful trip seeing family and staying with friends including Matt Brady, multimedia producer, designer & artist, the perfect person to go see Pixar’s new film Inside Out with.  To say that we were emotionally moved is in line with the movie’s aim but our emotions experienced a paradigm shift. Not only were we grateful and proud of Pixar for making this intergenerational film but they have given us a tool for viewing ourselves in action. Without giving the plot away, we were amazed to see how they handled the relationship between joy and sadness and the role sadness plays in our lives.  h

I for one, as you know, am a huge advocate for joy.  One of the silent prayers I love to offer up calls for the end of all suffering. However, since we are all in the midst of great suffering both directly and indirectly, sadness plays a vital role in the release of our authentic tenderness and compassion.  It expands and connects us to one another.

In Judaism, when someone dies, we sit shiva, it is a period of up to seven days where the family does not go to work but stops the normal routine to open their home to friends and family to receive condolence calls. Traditionally, the person(s) sat on low stools or boxes, to be literally brought low so they could fully grieve the dead and receive relief from the love of the living.  Without this process, or one in which our sadness is validated and expressed, there can be a psychological and spiritual whiplash. This process also allows us to take stock in the community we may have forgotten and gives them the opportunity to be present with the love in their lives.

Ironically in Hinduism, Shiva is an aspect of God that is both the destroyer and transformer, which relates to our sadness destroying what we are holding on to too tightly so that we can transform this moment into bliss.

In Buddhism, bohicitta is the noble heart that breaks open with the recognition that you are not separate from those who are currently suffering. Toglen is the practice of breathing in their pain and breathing out relief for them as well as breathing in joy and sending it out to everyone.

Mother Teresa as well as the nuns that the show Call the Midwife, are based on, funneled their sadness into actively alleviating the suffering of others around them.

May our sadness be mingled with joy so that we are fully and most authentically here.

Love you, Ira

Utah gives homes to the homeless & other solutions

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I saw the attached sign on a friend’s Facebook post.  The state of Utah has decided that the expense of caring for the homeless, (an average of almost $17 thousand a year for each person on the street due to ER visits and jail expenses.) could be reduced by assigning individuals apartments and social workers which only costs the state $11 thousand a year per person.  The result?  Utah has reduced homelessness in their state by 78%.
Below that article is another from Canada, offering 7 solutions to Homelessness including having trade fairs for the homeless where they can get the information and social services all in one place to take the overwhelming confusion out of their plight and provide concrete solutions to combat what appears as a hopeless situation.  The author also points out that homeless addicts present the most difficult challenge.  He suggests that many people have been addicts for a decade or longer and need time to recover. Recovery houses are less expensive than treatment facilities; they provide support and “The best-run recovery centres, such as Impact House in California or The Last Door in New Westminster, report that up to 90 per cent of the clients who complete their programs are still clean a year later.” –By Monte Paulsen
As far as contributing to a homeless charity, my lovely wife has taught me to check out an organization’s report card before contributing, to make sure they are on the level and that the money contributed actually goes for what is claimed. 
The National Alliance to End Homelessness scored a 4 out of 4 from Charity Navigator.  
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Utah is Ending Homelessness by Giving People Homes

Earlier this month, Hawaii State representative Tom Bower (D) began walking the streets of his Waikiki district with a sledgehammer, and smashing shopping carts use…
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The Tyee – Seven Solutions to Homelessness

Each is working somewhere else, and will save money and lives here.
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Charity Navigator Rating – National Alliance to End Home…

National Alliance to End Homelessness is a Human Services charity rated 4 of 4 stars by Charity Navigator. Located in Washington, DC, it is one of 7,525 organizatio…
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PS- Please keep the three kidnapped children from Israel: Eyal, Gilad & Naftali in your prayers.  Visualize their captors hearts opening, so that compassion comes into the situation.  As my friend Janey Pachman Welis said: ” May they (the children’s mothers ) soon be hugging their sons & their weeping turn to gladness.”
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Profile Pictures – Janey Pachman Welis | Facebook

Janey Pachman Welis posted this photo on 2014-06-18. 17 likes. 6 comments. 0 shares.
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May your weekend provide a shelter for you and those around you.