Mortality

Well, I have completed the first protocol: 31 doses of radiation and 6 chemo sessions, all of them accomplished with very minimal side effects. I have a slight rash on my back from the radiation, occasional tightness in my esophagus, but I have been able to eat with no problem, and some tiredness. All in all a very manageable experience.

One of the things I have been pondering are the cancer cells themselves. A normal cell in our body grows to a certain point and then maintains itself with homeostasis until it dies and is replaced by a new cell.  A cancer cell grows and doesn’t stop growing, and as it grows it infects other cells with the same scenario.  If I can eliminate these out of control cells from my body, I will live. If I can’t I will die. The deep irony is that if I win the cancer cells lose, but if the cancer cells win I die, and the cancer cells die with me as they lose their host.

So, if I win they lose, if they win , they lose. Such is the risk of being a parasite. What struck me is that if we do not grow continually in our lives we start to atrophy,  but all growth has its limits. Uncontrolled growth is always toxic whether it is addiction to alcohol or heroin or food or money or prestige or power. They all end up damaging us deeply. Alcohol and heroin eventually kill us. Food addiciton leads to obesity and often diabetes and heart attacks. An inordinate attachment to money can displace our relationship to friends and family.  Uncontrolled power invariably leads to abuse of others as well as the disintegration of one’s being.

Thus, growth has be be balanced, but while 10 t0 12,000 calories a day is a balance for Michael Phelps when he is training for his swimming, that enormous caloric intake for a somewhat sedentary person would indeed be toxic. Thus, balance is not a one size fits all, but rather must be aligned with the person. Babies grow very rapidly in their first few years, and then that growth to continue to be healthy must taper off.  So too, with all of us, balanced growth is a very personal matter that each of us has to learn, for we are all different despite the superficial similarities we share in structure and form. The differences are what count; they are what make us just who we are.

Growth is not just a physical issue. It is also mental, social, and spiritiual. All these areas of our life involve some kind of balanced growth, and it is a balance most of must learn by a degree of trial and error. But if we don’t grow, we stagnate,  and stagnation is one step on the way to a diminished life.

Right now, I am trying to eliminate the cancer from my body to restore myself to a healthful state of life. I may succeed or I may not. What I do know is that this battle is but one kind of battle we face in our lives. To live is to be immersed in ever new challenges, and a life well lived is a life where we continually are creating ourselves  as we always move on into an unknown future.  The irony here is that “the unknown” is the domain of possibility. There is no possibility in certainty.  It is only when we embrace risk and the unknown that we create.

What are you creating in your unknowns these days?

For more of my reflections on life, check out my E-book. Here’s the link to Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=10+Ways+Philosophy+is+Practical+.+.+.+and+Counting&x=17&y=11

You can also find it on Nook, Sony and Barnes &nobel

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Life and Death

Sorry. I haven’t been around for a while, but I am back for now.

Recently, Dec 11th, 2013 to be exact, I was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in my esophagus, so I thought I would like to share some of my reflections on that unexpected news with my readers. For some of you, this will be repetitious, but I thought it would be good to have the salient information on my blog.

My initial research indicated that esophageal cancer is a fairly virulent cancer and progresses rapidly. Right now I am undergoing  chemotherapy and  radiation, and after two bouts of chemo and ten of radiation I am not yet feeling any side effects. Those are the main facts, what is more relevant to this blog are some of my thoughts since the diagnosis.

All of us live with some level of awareness that we will die at some unknown future date, and as a philosophy professor for some 43 years, I had on  many occasions discussed this reality with my students. Young as they were, it was often hard to get any kind of experiential handle on that impending reality, but invariably we had good discussions about the theme, the main insight we usually would arrive at is that it is death that makes life so precious and worthwhile.  Having had all these discussions, I felt I had a fairly honest acceptance of my own mortality, but after the cancer diagnosis, I could feel a real shift take place in me. The sense that I would indeed die some day was something I had acknowledged many times, but now I could feel that the acknowledgment I had lived with was at a distance from me, and was somewhat abstract. Now, with my esophagus in peril , and the rest of me along with it, I felt my imminent death in a much more actively experiential way. I would find myself locking up the house at night, and wondering how many more times I would do that. Taking out the garbage, the same thought surfaced. How many more garbage trips would I get to make before I died.  That sense of the real finitude of all my activities has been with me since the diagnosis. I have a life threatening illness, and my time on this planet is under some new limitations that were not present to me before the diagnosis.

The uphsot of my shift in awareness has been a deepening experiential sense of how truly precious every day, every moment we are alive really is for us.  Even being stuck in slow moving traffic is preferable to being dead. All of my life activities have a preciousness and a value to them that I can definitely feel more deeply now that I am in the domain of cancer and its potentially lethal implications.

The counter feeling to an enhanced sense of the preciousness of all aspects of my life is that I am 82 years old, and I  have lived a full,  wonderful, exciting, interesting, at times challenging, and incredibly  rich life.  I had a career I loved, and my philosophy both as a teacher and as a seeker has enriched me beyond measure. I have had deep, abiding love all of my life. People have been unfailingly kind and loving to me in so many ways.  Someone asked me about my “bucket list,” but my life is wonderfully complete. I have done so many things that I wanted to do, and had so many wonderful friends, and always been blessed with love from the family in my life. Remarkably, I have had two remarkable wives, and Barbara, my current wife has been so remarkable in her support and advocacy for me, that I can’t begin to delineate how much she has done for me, and is still doing every day that we work our way through this latest challenge in our lives.

This is a more personal blog than I usually write, but I think what I want all of my readers to know is that every moment we live is truly precious. Each of us is a unique being that never existed before. Each of us has some unknown window of time in which we live out that existence. Cherish that time. Live fully and live well, and most of all live here and now. There is no going back. We always live into that unknown future.  Enjoy it and breathe in your life deeply.

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Now is the leverage point of all our power.

Now is the leverage point of all our power.

Power is how things get changed from one state of affairs to some other state of affairs.  Hurricanes like Katrina are a result of the gathering together of moisture, clouds, humidity, wind,  rain and waves all moving in some direction. New Orleans just happened to be in the way of where Katrina was going.  All kinds of natural manifestations of power have that element of indifference. They operate within the constraints and possibiliities of the natural laws that are their foundation. This is natural power, and we have limited means of reacting to such power and limited possibilities of controlling such power. Such manifestations of power are how the world operates.

Then there is our own personal, human power which operates on a different kind of foundation.  There are no natural laws governing our personal power other than our specific physical and mental limitations. Mostly, we learn to use our power in the world by a kind of trial and error.  On occasion we learn to make our power effective from the guidance of others, but this is, for most of us, relatively rare.  Most of us are too stubborn, or too embedded in our own beliefs, or too resistant in some fashion or other to be learning from others.

Bascially, we take some action, which invariably generates results. We evaluate the results on a favorable/unfavorable scale, and take  subsequent actions  to shift that ratio to what we see as more useful or more favorable or generally more beneficial to us. Out of this experience, out of our interaction with the world we find ourselves living in we develop a set of coping habits that make our passage through that world less chaotic. In short, through our actions, we develop habits and strategies for coping with the world, and the sum total of those actions on our part constitute the way we make our way in the day-to-day world. Those strategies and coping are the foundation of  all our “power.”

Once something has worked for us, it holds a priority in our retinue of working strategies,  which is good in making it available for future issues, but drifts us away from the unavoidable fact that the world is constantly changing, and what worked for us yesterday may not work at some future date. One facet of our personal wisdom is the capacity to recognize when a given strategy no longer works. This is more difficult than it seems, for once we have a working strategy and have used it over time, the habituation which accompanies its use makes it harder for us to give it up.

There is a story about an experiment with rats, a maze and cheese. The rats are let loose in a maze which has several reachable destinations. Some of these destinations are dead ends, and others have cheese. The rat quickly learns the mazes that have cheese, and when this happens, the rat only goes down the paths that lead to the cheese. Once the rat is habituated to this process, the cheese is removed and placed elsewhere in the maze. The rat continues to seek out the cheese in the mazes that worked for it for some time, but eventually gives up and no longer heads down those now dead ends.

Some wag wryly commented on the difference between people and rats. The rats give up on the dead ends, but all too often we keep heading down those dead ends forever. This is the force of habit in our lives.  Habits are vital to our well being, but there is a time to move on to new habits if we want  to truly enhance and improve our power in the world. That means we need to focus on the present, for that is where all of us act and live all of the time.  We can think about the past or anticipate the future, but we are always doing that in the present time.  Everything that happens to us and everything that we do in response happens in the ever ongoing present. There is no other option. This is simply the way we live. We live always in the present experience. If we pay close attention to that ongoing present, it will show us when old habits are no longer working for us. The more we are present in this way, the more effective we will be in our lives.

Therefore, the source of all our leverage with and against the world is in that continually surfacing, sliding, disappearing present. If you want to travel to Los Angeles and you are in New York, you have to start the journey in NY. If you are in Calcutta, then you’re journey has to begin in Calcutta. If you want to go to College, you have to decide which one, then apply, get accepted, pay your first tuition, etc. In short all that we wish to accomplish follows this inexorable pattern of starting where we are in order to get to where we want to be. This mixture of what is – the present time – and what isn’t – where we want to be or go or what we want to accomplish  is ever the matrix within which we exert our power.  There is no other way. Welcome to the present time.  Make it count.

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Women, Babies and Careers

The “conventional wisdom” is that women will have to sacrifice some loss of career development if they take some time out to have a baby, and in all too many instances this is more true than not. There are questions about whether women can “have it all” or whether women are as “reliable as men,” or whether they can be “counted on to give their best” to the company they work for in the same way that men do this, or that women “have to work much harder than a man to achieve the same degree of professional development.” In short, women have to compensate for their child bearing capacity.

There have certainly been changes in how women are perceived in the workplace compared to  attitudes and realities in the past, but it is also true that there simply isn’t full parity between men and women in the workplace.

However, it is rarely noted, if ever, that every man who is working for a corporation or pursuing some particular profession is only able to do this because all of them without exception had a mother.  The linkage is very simple: no mother, no man.  What this means is that if women decided they wanted to pursue their careers with the same freedom that men pursue theirs and stopped having babies for as little a time as 150 years, the human race would die out completely. There would be no more people at all.

This tells us in no uncertain terms  that women are absolutely essential for the continuance of civilization on the entire planet.  No women who are child bearing, and you have no human race, no civilization.

If we take a brief sampling of famous, significant men such as Einstein, Jonas Salk, Picasso, Beethoven,  Nureyev,  Babe Ruth,  Michael Jordan, Ghandhi and anyone else you would like to name, the one common denominator among all these “men” is not simply that they all had a mother, but for them to exist it was absolutely essential that they had a mother.

If we accorded women the value,  importance and significance they offer to the world, we would make sure that motherhood was  rewarded.  Women who were in the work force and decided to have a baby would be rewarded with time off from the beginning of their pregnancy  and at least a year off  after giving birth with full pay and a guarantee of a promotion when they returned. That would be a minimal acknowledgment.

The irony is that if we truly acknowledged the value of mothers, and treated them accordingly, the whole context of giving birth to those wonderful little babies would shift dramatically. And that shift would make our world a much better place in countless ways because we would be rewarding mothers in accordance with how really important they are for the world to continue to exist. When you acknowledge the full value of anything in the world, it makes the world a better and more realistic place to be.

Motherhood is not counter productive to success, advancement and development in the business world. It is the whole reason that the business world exists at all. No babies, no business, no world. It is truly that simple.

For some more of my thoughts in my E-book,, check out :

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=10+Ways+Philosophy+is+Practical+.+.+.+and+Counting&x=17&y=11

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Time

It’s not how much time you have; it’s what priorities you set.

How often have we said or heard someone say, “If I only had more time, I could do “X” or “Y” or “Z.” Or they might have said, ” I just don’t have enough time.”  In either case, the reality is all of us have all the time there is. There is no such thing as not enough time or more time. There is just us ever embedded in  the endless flowing of time.  The pauper and the millionaire have the same 24 hours every day. The successful entrepreneur and the housewife with 3 children have the same 24 hours every day.  We all have 24 hours every day.

So, what is the issue? Why do we all feel so busy and so pressed and so needing of more time to get done what we need to get done in our busy day-to-day living? The issue is a matter of prioritizing.  Before I expand on the issue of prioritizing, let me make one very important caveat to all of us having all the time there is. The millionaire and the pauper, the college graduate and the high school drop-out, the mother of 3 children and a single woman have very different options within that 24 hour time frame. The options and possibilities each of us have  vary according to the detailed contexts and complexities of our lives. That makes a very big difference in what we can actually accomplish in the 24 hours we all have. Having said that, it still comes back to the reality that whatever options and possibilities each of us has, we all have the same 24 hours each day to do whatever we decide to do or not do.

All that is true, and thus we “prioritize” the obligations, commitments and activities in our lives according to the spectrum of options that fit our circumstances. So, in our lives, it is never possible to have “more time.”  The amount of time is the same for all of us. What varies is what we do with the time we have, and that depends on the priorities we set for ourselves in the framework of our days.  If  your car breaks down in the midst of a busy day where you didn’t “have enough time,”  somehow the “time” to get your car fixed happens. It happens because you need your car, and that need forces us to prioritize the car over whatever else is going on in our lives. We shuffle and rearrange, and get through the day, but we go on with our “not enough time ” life and get our car repaired as well.

The point is that priorities are what determine our actions, not how much time we have or don’t have. Looking at time in our lives is looking in the wrong direction to get our lives to work  the way we want them to work.  It is like putting out the garbage because a light bulb burned out.  It gets us doing something, but not what needs doing to get the light working again.

What, then, is a priority? It is the process by which we decide what to do next whatever it is we are doing.  If you are baking a cake, the recipe is basically a sequential list of priorities that when followed yield up a cake.  If you are going to visit your mother, the distances you travel and the roads you travel on get you to your mother’s doorstep. The sequence properly followed gets us there through rain and snow and traffic, but we get there by following the priorities of how to get there.  Whatever it is that we intend to do, the “doing” of it depends on our setting the appropriate and relevant priorities that will get it done.

If there’s “not enough time” to do what you intend, you haven’t set your priorities accurately, and, in fact, what you do when faced with “not  enough time” is rework what you are doing in some way that  gives you “enough time.” You change what you are doing. You decide to do it at some other time or in some other way. You give it up and move on to something else, or you decide you can only do part of what you intended in the time  you actually have available to you.

So, the direction to take is really quite simple, but not necessarily easy. Give up saying, “I don’t have enough time,” and substitute, “I need to rework my priorities.”  This is the path to having our lives work much more effectively, and we won’t waste all that time thinking we don’t have enough time.

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Solitude

Growing up as an only child with a father who worked six nights a week, and a mother who was often out in the evening,  being alone became for me the default state of my experience. It was being with others that required notice on my part.

Solitude. Some find it fearful; some find it irksome; some don’t mind being alone. Some find solace in it. I found it, for want of a better word, normal. Over the many years of my life, I have been alone a great deal. What does solitude mean? The dictionary tells us it means: living or being alone, without others, solitary, single. What I take that to mean is that we are alone and in solitude when we are not with other people. Being alone means being self contained in some way, and for that to be the case there must be what we call me or I and what we call not-I or not-me. There has to be something else that exists besides us for us to be alone; we have to be set apart in some away or left out or not noticed to be alone in this sense. This is a kind of physical being alone.

There is also being alone intellectually. When I was going through engineering school as an NYU undergraduate, I was surrounded by engineers, all male engineeers. My questions about life and meaning and understanding what this world meant and what it was about and why we were here didn’t sit well with engineers. If you couldn’t calculate it on a slide rule (this was a long time ago, obviously) or you couldn’t plot it on a graph or measure it in a laboratory, it didn’t exist as far as engineers were concerned. I was alone with my thoughts during those years.

There is also being emotionally alone. When my first wife died of lung cancer at 46, she left me alone with our children and the rest of my life. I came to understand that others could empathize and be sympathetic, but I was alone with what I felt, because if they hadn’t lost a spouse, they couldn’t really identify with the experience.  So, there is the solitude of your own experience that others haven’t had and can’t share because they haven’t been there.

There is also the aloneness of losing my illusions. I know the aloneness of losing a best friend at 24, and wondering what he thought as the plane he was on plunged into the wintery North Atlantic near Iceland on a dark, rainy night. I know the aloneness of losing a mother to alcoholism, a wife to lung cancer and a son to suicide. I know the aloneness of losing my youth, and losing my parents. There are so many ways to be alone, but through all of those varying fracturing and renting solitudes, I was still left, and I was left with a choice, Hamlet’s choice, to be or not to be. I could continue or not. Camus, the French existentialist. has claimed that the first philosophical question is suicide, which is to say, why are you here.  Through all the experiences of loss, of pain, of hope and joy,  we make a choice to continue to be here. I choose to be here because this life is precious to me. I cherish it, and the solitude that living brings in so many ways is part of what it means to live in this ever changing world.

But once I was alone, I discovered there was another aspect to solitude besides being cut off from someone or something. There was also a connection, a connection with myself. In solitude, I was faced with me as I just more or less was. I wasn’t accommodating to circumstances. I wasn’t aligning with to socialize with them. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I wasn’t trying  to convince anyone. I wasn’t pursuing any goal related to others. When I was alone, there was no immediate influence from others, and that led to more than I realized.

I remember walking along the ocean’s shore on many cold winter days. The wind would blow cold and sharp on my face, but it felt good, refreshing and revitalizing. I would use those walks to process opportunities and obstacles in my life. Was there anything I could do to influence my mother to stop her drinking? Was there anything I could do to stop her drive towards her own death? Did I want to get married to this remarkable woman or was my singleness more important to me? What were the failings and limits in me that kept me from accomplishing what I said I wanted? What could I do for my children to enhance their lives? Could I sustain the commitment to complete the schooling I needed to become a philosophy teacher? These and many other questions got processed over the years in my times of solitude. Not that I necessarily thought about each question in a specific way. It was rather that the time of solitude unpacked my life in various ways that I couldn’t appreciate or get to when I was with others.

In that kind of context, solitude is a source of insight, of rejuvenation and of renewal. It is as if being alone puts me in touch with aspects and parts of my being that get drowned out in the noisiness of being with others. The quiet of solitude offers a resurgence of my own depths, even when I am not fully aware of what’s happening.

In this paradoxical manner, we are not alone when we are alone; I connect to depths that hide from me in social settings. Solitude can be rending and it can be healing and it can be enlightening. I hear myself starting to sound paradoxical in the way that Vasistha speaks.

I find there is great power in solitude.  It is not the only state I seek, but when I am in solitude, there is a richness to what is there. What is there is me as I know myself, and that is very mixed. I am there with my dreams, my hopes, my regrets, my mistakes, my efforts, my ideas, my accomplishments; I am there with my life with all that it has been: good and bad, happy and sad, painful and joyful, silly and profound, hopeful and disillusioned,  meaningful and meaningless, important and trivial. I am there with the endless array of experiences that make my life what it has been so far. I am there with the possibilities yet to be realized. Solitude has many faces.

I ease back on the stick, and the high wing, two seater aircraft starts to leave the earth. I am in the Army’s “bird dog” aircraft; it’s a multi- purposed craft that is mostly for reconaissance, but right now, I am just flying for myself. I ease off my flaps, and level off at 500 feet, flying over the Arizona desert, not the endless, rolling dunes of the Sahara, but a flat plain of scrub brush, cactuses, arroyos and gravel and dirt. It is a stark vista, but I love the solitude and starkness. The windows on either side of me are open, and the hot desert air blows by me, warming my face. I look out on this seemingly barren landscape, but know that when I land at the practice field we’ve set up to shoot takeoffs and landings in the middle of this desert, and I walk on its surface, I will see that it is actually teeming with the life of the desert. Scorpions and snakes and rabbits and spiders and cacti of all kinds live here in a kind of brutal harmony with this desert. It is not barren to them; it is where they hang out and try to survive. And so too, is my life. I hang out in my life and try to survive.

As I soar over the desert, I fly closer to the arid, barren dun colored and foliage free mountains that border the valley. On the windward side I cruise in near them at 2000 feet and pull back on the throttle, but with the power off, I don’t go down, I go up. I play the windward lifting thermals off the mountains and end up soaring to 6000 feet, all on the power of the wind. I am alone and I am exhilarated; I feel at one with my environment, but I keep an eye on my fuel gauge and engine instruments all the same. This is yet another experience of solitude. It comes in many guises and offers many revelations. I turn for the base to return to earth, to others and to the end of this solitude.

Enjoy your solitude. Use your solitude

Check out my website and my E-book for more reflections

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Differences Among Us

Sometime after I began teaching philosophy I started using  “voting” as a  technique for getting the students more involved.  We outlined the different views for a given issue, and then everyone voted their position. It was a way of pressing them for some initial participation, and from there I could move them into more serious and intense discussions about whatever issue we were working with at the time.

Over time, what I noticed is that no matter how much I thought a given question was not controversial, and that there could really only be one answer, invariably there would be conflicting opinions among the students. The only universal vote I ever got was if  I suggested canceling class.  Other than that, there was disagreement. After many years of watching this phenomenon, it ultimately occurred to me that people do indeed see the world in significantly different ways.

Of course, there were times where there was significant agreement, but there were always hold outs for some other viewpoint.  I say that the differences among individuals “occurred to me,” but it was actually stronger than just a thought. I finally after several years of my voting strategy actually felt and experienced that we were truly different as beings in the world.

Most of these differences were benign and not threatening to others’ beliefs, although occasionally they could fall into an either/or category, but the important point that stayed with me throughout the rest of my teaching career is that these differences were what made us unique in the world. No one else sees the world exactly as we see it. There is overlap, to be sure, but overlap is something still short of complete agreement.

What I came to realize is how valuable and precious these differences among us were for the richness of our lives and our ability to create new things in the world.  Every invention, every new idea or technique, every travel down a new road made the world a new and different place , and those innovations emerged out of those differences among us. Not all those differences are benign, but that is the inherent risk of change. It can be beneficial; it can be detrimental.  Change means something new and different, but not always something better, although there can be no “better” without risking the “worse.” That is the way of it. The possibility of failure is unavoidably linked to what leads us to success. Or to put it more simply, failure and success go together. You have to risk failure to succeed. And our attempts to succeed are driven and motivated by how we see the world each in our own way.  Our differences yield up a richer, deeper, more complex, more satisfying, world at the same time that such positive changes can be thwarted and overcome. I realized further that without those vital and precious “differences,” the world would be a very dull and uninteresting place to be.

It is our differences that lead to the sophisticated, complex, and amazing world that we live in, which means that differences are to be embraced and nurtured. Beliefs such as racism, sexism, us versus them, homophobia, ethnic cleansing, rigid orthodoxy and all the other limiting, crushing, hurtful, vicious beliefs that people can and do embrace are based on some unwillingness to accept  differences in others. They shut down possibility, creativity and positive growth for the sake of a false security grounded in some kind of exclusivity of us against them. Rather, our differences call for celebration.

Embrace our differences, and watch the world flourish!

For more of my thought, you can look at my E-book Ten Ways Philosophy is Practical . . . and Counting.    http://www.cole-kiernan.com/  Go to my website and click on the links page.

 
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