The Key to Unhappiness

It is time to turn the tables. Typically, I focus on what works in life. But today I’m taking a new approach.

It hit me like a ton of sun-baked bricks this morning as I observed life and the people in it that there is one surefire way to ensure a consistent level of unhappiness. And as I scan the headlines and Facebook feeds and other news outlets, I see how easy it is to overlook how often we all do it.

That is to judge others. To wish they were different. To complain when they aren’t. To pick and criticize and throw major tantrums. To catapult oneself into a tirade about how very unjust everyone else is being.

2017-06-11 21.00.43If you have been there in the checkout line or the traffic lane or the dentist’s office or any other place where there are people other than just you, you may have experienced how you have looked at another person and judged him or her on the spot without any basis of understanding of who that person is. And subconsciously you may have waited to find evidence that your thoughts are somehow based in reality. So you wait, like a pounce-happy panther, until you prove yourself right.

And then you laugh or cry or rage about it with friends who think just like you do. And you feel, deep down, justified in your judgements.

Am I judging myself for admitting this?

Oh! To be human is to judge. And assess. And want to be right. About pretty much everything. On a personal level, it can lead to disharmony. On a global one, it can lead to war.

All the posturing and posing and presupposing can be quite exhausting. I’m wondering if we, for a moment, could pause from all the judgement to take a deep, long breath and remember how connected we all are. To exercise compassion even when we don’t feel like reminding ourselves that it is true. Because, whether we agree or not, we all share this planet. We all share the human experience.

And there I go again. Looking at what works. Because clearly what we are currently doing to each other doesn’t.

I’m wondering, even if it is hard, to admit we make unfair judgements sometimes. It is what we #ShareTogether. But that doesn’t mean it has to tear us apart. Does it?

Misery loves company. But so does something else.

One nation. Indivisible. For liberty and justice for all. And yet we’re pretty darn divided. In what we believe. In whom we support. We are so torn apart ideologically that many of us, including myself, have forgotten what we have in common. We have become married to our misery, seeking comfort in those who think like we do. And we are getting nowhere fast as we forge distances from those who do not.

And yet empathy, that great emotion of connectivity, is what helps us feel others’ pain. It is what helps us understand another person’s point of view. Compassion is a precious human characteristic, one that can help us find a way back to each other.

Lake Constance, 2017

Lake Constance, 2017

What we have in common is a lot more than you think. And as I got to thinking about it, I realized seeing common ground helps me see more possibilities. And seeing possibilities makes me hopeful. Which makes me grateful. And where there is gratitude, there is no fear, which is at the root of our collective problem. You see, we have a collective problem. You and I. That’s one of the things we #ShareTogether. Our problem is the separateness we feel about people who don’t think like we do.

So I’d like to do a little experiment. I’d like to come up with all the things we share together, not only as Americans, but as human beings. In order to do it, I need your input.

What is the thing that we all share? I’ve started a list that I will share in meme form on Facebook individually. But first, I’d love to hear yours, which I will happily share with name credit (and with your permission) to my social media network.

#ShareTogether

#WhatWeHaveInCommon

Oxygen. We all need it to survive. Every one of us uses it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A birthplace. Every one of us was born somewhere. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Skin. It’s the largest organ we have. Every one of us has skin. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A favorite song, book or movie. You don’t have to be an expert to hold a favorite song, book or movie close to your heart. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Time. Every one of us has time, even if we live like we don’t. Most of us measure it by the 24-hour clock, others by the rhythm of the Earth. Either way we measure it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The planet. Unless you’re an astronaut currently in space, you’re on it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The sun’s movement. Many celebrated the solar eclipse in the United States yesterday. The sun’s movement is something every one of us experiences daily. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Technology. If you’re reading this, you have access to technology. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Death. You may have never experienced it, but you will one day. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A belief system. Even if you don’t believe in a Higher Power, you believe in something, even if it is nothing. That’s a belief system too. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Childhood. Every one of us has (had) one. Good, bad or indifferent. The fact is every one of us is a child at some point, typically chronologically from the start of life until the end of our teens. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The ability to cry. We have all done it at least once. There is salt in every one of our tears. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for sleep. While the amount can vary, every one of us requires sleep to survive. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for drinking water. It is an essential life force. Without it, every one of us would perish. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

What are your thoughts? Today is a new day. Misery may love company, but gratitude sure does too. Let’s #ShareTogether.

 

The Backward and Hateful Mind

Nestled in the aggregate air of three countries rolled into one atmosphere, I lay awake one starry night to ponder the hating heart. We arrived to our campground on Lake Constance that borders Switzerland, Germany and Austria to the news of a gun shooting at a nearby club just miles from our site. We later ambled to a shopping centre, looking for a chaise lounge, only to see the yellow crime scene tape of the shut down club fluttering in the wind next to the store we intended to enter.

Death’s pallor held sway over us for the remainder of the day. We held our children a little tighter that night and into the following morning. Then news of the neo-Nazi pro-Robert E Lee monument rally in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, hit my Facebook news feed. Standing in our camper in 90 degree heat, I stood slack-jawed and sucker punched at the close proximity of such madness. Again.

In a recent Newsweek article, Deepak Chopra speaks of the hateful brain in which tribalism, our inherent need to belong to a group, can dull our ability for empathy. And as we are entrenched in our own belief systems, we grow farther apart from people who don’t think like we do.

By any measure, it is incomprehensible for me to accept a set of beliefs that excludes an entire race or ethnic group or a group of human beings who love differently than I do. And yet neo-Nazis and white supremacists truly believe they are better and hold the exclusive right to existence.

It’s ludicrous. It’s backward. And it appears to be as prevalent today as it was before the Civil Rights movement.

I have argued unsuccessfully with many a right-wing mind over the past nine months. It has not brought me any closer to understanding why they are so angry, why they feel disenfranchised, unheard, excluded. Like an angry child who didn’t get his way, they stew in their maladjusted righteousness. But about what?

The United States is in trouble. Its political leadership is (in) trouble. Civil society is facing challenges it hasn’t seen since the 1960s. And yet a crowd ten times as large as the rally last Saturday in Charlottesville convened on the UVA Lawn to take it back from the vacuous vitriol the alt-right had sprayed across the grounds just days before and chanted “Love wins.” To regain the dignity of the town in which I grew up. Where I first saw the movie Star Wars. Where I got my ears pierced at the mall. Where I bought my first Levis. Where my family resides to this day.

Hatred lives in the brains of those disconnected from the greater good. How can we draw them back into the fold to seek the light and the love that will overcome the deleterious acts of the uninformed and angered?

I am for the winning team. I am for love. Are you?

 

Lonely Planet

Backpackers be warned. The planet has just gotten a little lonelier today.

Remember the days of yesteryear? When “Lonely Planet” stood for that dog-earred guide that led dusty travelers to the farthest corners of the Earth? To places of discovery and wonder? To waterfalls and arid deserts? To exotic temples and camel rides?

The Paris Agreement, an accord signed by 195 parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020. The whole world, which is clearly impacted by climate change, came together under the agreement to combat its effects. To do something about it. To move from denial to definite action. It was a monumental decision and recognition that we are in this together. The environment does not recognize titles or boundaries or politics. It only knows how to do what it is designed to do.

Nature has unbounded intelligence. It can adapt. It will survive.

We may not.

The only exceptions to the signatories? The Holy See (Vatican) as it is an observer state; Nicaragua, whose emissary claims they are doing climate change on their own; and Syria, a country embattled in a civil war.

148 of those parties have ratified or acceded to the Agreement, even China and India, the countries with three of the four largest greenhouse gas emissions of the signatories’ total (about 42% together).

Where is the United States on the scale of greenhouse gas emissions? The country spews out 17.8% of the world’s greenhouse gas. And yet it represents only 4.34% of the world’s population. Hmmm….

And yet Trump, whose delusions of grandeur as he peers from his perch at the top of his world seem to grow with each passing tweet, has decided to poop in the world’s sandbox by withdrawing the United States from the agreement. He wants to push the coal industry and “save American jobs”. What he is doing is not only short-sighted, it also won’t work. The clean energy industry has surpassed traditional sources in jobs and innovation. China is spreading its green technology throughout Africa, for instance, a profitable opportunity the United States is missing completely.

According to a recent Sierra Club report based on the Department of Energy 2017 jobs data, “[c]lean energy jobs, including those from solar, wind, energy efficiency, smart grid technology and battery storage, vastly outnumber all fossil fuel jobs nationwide from the coal, oil and gas sectors. That includes jobs in power generation, mining, and other forms of fossil fuel extraction.”

The US President claims he works for the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris. For starters, Paris was the location of the conference where the agreement was adopted on December 12, 2015, then entered into force November 4, 2016, just four days before the tragedy that is US politics unfurled with his election win. The best part is it was actually signed at the UN headquarters in New York City, just paces away from his place of residence.  If the man would take just a moment to cursorily review the document, and I mean just the title, he would see that it pertains to the whole world, which includes Pittsburgh, unless the city decides to secede from the planet, which could get interesting. Perhaps Trump would join them then. And we can finally put this whole thing to bed.

In other worlds, Trump is speaking to a handful of constituents at the expense of 7 billion other people.

It is yet another demonstration of the perils this fine nation intends to inflict upon the rest of the planet. And the deep, deep selfishness that fosters hatred in the hearts of those who despise his ignorance.

Yes, Trump, it’s lonely at the top. And as you alienate the country you claim to lead from everyone else, your fall will be even harder.

Truth downtrodden, not dead

If I were to look at the world from a teen’s perspective, life is pretty black and white. It’s either hot or it’s cold. It’s good or it’s bad. It is right or it is wrong. Despite the backdrop of this simplicity, life is pretty complicated as emotions swell beyond the youngster’s comprehension.

As we grow older and our emotions stabilize, truth takes on shade. Grey areas emerge. Shadows lurk behind the meaning of things. And we grow accustomed to truth’s dimming shine. Our indignation weakens as adult life distracts us. We are lulled into a quiet sleep, fact-checking less, digesting garbage without thought and passing on recycled beliefs we’ve stopped questioning.

During some moments in history, the light switches back on. Our eyelids peel back, our backs straighten. We start paying attention with an intensity long forgotten in those high school hallways of yesteryear.

Now is one of those moments. When truth is on the witness stand. When what is said is scrutinized more closely. When the litmus test of reality races to the forefront.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-03-25 um 11.47.02Time magazine put three words and a question mark on its front cover this week.

Is truth dead?

The very fact that the editors pose the question tells me it is not. If we truly lived in a post-fact world, we would have no mind to engage in the inquiry.

In Trump’s attempt at weakening what is real, at his outright inability to withstand truth’s might, at his blaming and slandering and pouting and thrashing comes truth’s ultimate power. He is inadvertently strengthening the very thing he cannot stand: groups who disagree with him.

You cannot fight against forces stronger than you. No tower so high, no wife so beautiful, no pocket so deep, no office so revered will ever make an honest man out of a liar. A cheater. A profane example of human impotence.

The truth may be downtrodden, but it lives on. We are ever vigilant now. The tempest is gathering its gale force winds. The greatest revenge is our own success.

The truth will prevail. And so will we.

 

How Great (Thou) Art

These are bewildering times. As I follow the growing dis-ease on the international political stage, I retreat to the theatrical one, from which I draw endless strength. In the shadows behind the curtains, I can smell the mystery and anticipation of that golden moment the performing arts can carry.

But it isn’t easy,” said Pooh. “Because poetry and hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Indeed, the beauty of art is a magnificence to behold. After a week in the Swiss Alps near the Matterhorn, observing and interviewing over a dozen artists whose bodies are their art form, I have come to realize two things:

  1. Art is like air. We need it to breathe.
  2. Nature heals and holds us high.

Sometimes we forget in the rush of things how important the simple aspects of life are to nurture us and make us whole again. Then, with a gentle nudge from happenstance, we become transformed as we stumble upon a magical moment. Maybe we pay an unexpected visit to an art gallery or attend a performance that moves us so deeply as we witness the connection between artist on stage and the audience below.

In my case it was Viktor Kee, the world’s best juggler whose act has been featured in Cirque du Soleil numerousIMG_6290 times. He is a mild-mannered fellow who likes to laugh. He told me he is always nervous before every performance, which is a good thing. “The moment I am no longer nervous is the moment I must stop doing this.” Adrenaline gives you a laser-like focus. You can’t be distracted, thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner when you do circus arts. Keep your eye on the ball. At all times.

Elayne Kramer, a world-class contortionist and a sixth generation member of an Argentinian circus family, told me she has no regrets. “The road is my home. When I arrive to my house in Florida, I am IMG_6300on vacation. But I can’t stand it there for long. I was born to do what I do.” She has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Good Morning America. Her charm, grace and balance will knock your socks off.

The commitment these acrobats have for their art is remarkable. A couple from Colombia told me when they perform time stands still. They lose all sense of pain and feel like they ‘are floating in the air. By the looks of their performance, they are!

And so, when poetry does not come to us, we must go to the place where it can find us again. Where we can put the pieces back together of our shattered hearts and remember that these times too shall pass.

And the show? Well, yes. The show will go on.

 

 

Slow Culture, Fast World

The honeymoon is over. The bubble has popped. Reality slammed me in the face at 6 am this morning.

That tender space of suspending thinking, in which you float between the time you return from vacation and the return to the day-to-day, is filled with wonder. Your brain has emptied. Your thoughts are fluid. Your consciousness is elevated. You are on a cloud, feet barely scraping the ground. You wonder how long you can keep up the feeling. You hope it lasts far longer than it will. But you hope nonetheless.

2017-02-23 13.49.05“Maybe it will be different. This time.”

And then Monday morning comes. You wake up before the alarm with a startled thought. It’s nothing really. You made a less than optimal decision about something so banal that it’s not even worth thinking about. But you do. And then you get mad that your bliss has been disrupted by something so meaningless.

Just yesterday I chat with my neighbor, revealing I had just returned from the most life-changing trip to Nepal and India. His eyes lit up and he began his tirade about what’s wrong with Western civilization.

“Why do we keep running? Toward what?”

He summed it up beautifully.

“We are distracting ourselves from the thought of death.”

Perhaps he is right, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to take on those thoughts just yet. I guarded my bubble carefully, going on to my yoga class for a moment of “Om”.

In the evening I wasn’t feeling particularly fearful or distracted or worried or annoyed. I drank lots of water and went to bed early. And then morning came with the reality that I had some even harder decisions to make that might rattle even the most Zen-like person. I watched my age-old fear awaken from its slumber, stilled only for the time it took me to realize it is alive and well.

Stay in your center, stay in your center, I told myself as I brushed my teeth, feeling like Julia Robert’s character, Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love.

Momentarily, I have regained ground on myself. Filled with Slow Culture, I cannot deny that it feels strange to be back in a fast, fast world.

The feeling is slipping slightly. I have lost a noticeable grip on the ephemeral sensation of alignment. But I know where to get it when I really need it.

Deep within in the archives of my memory of what has been, what is and what shall be.

 

Our Nightmare Ride to Delhi on the Shanti Express

Life in India is like a mandala. So many pieces and parts, colorful and blending, fitting together in harmony in an ebb and flow of energy and stamina.

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Nothing reflects that truth like a car ride on an Indian highway. The roads aren’t like the asphalt strips with which you may be familiar. They are ribbons of Earth and holes and dust — sometimes the roads cover miles made of tar. But always there is an abrupt ending, sometimes so sudden you have to screech to a halt to acknowledge them.

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

The road in India is also a place of commerce. A chance to sell toys or food or to beg for money inside the windows of stopped cars.

The gaps in the road are the kind of holes that make give your coccyx a new meaning in life. As the vehicle regretlessly slams your body to the ground without shock absorbers or any type of protection between you and the machine that carries you forth, your tailbone involuntarily stamps a circle in the sand, an ethereal moment of “Yes, I was here.”

We hired a car and driver to make it back to the country’s capital by lunch time.

We awoke to the sound of Sadus’ breath blowing through conch shells, their fingers laced over bells ringing in intervals. The music lured us out onto our balcony for one final look at Pushkar Lake before leaving for Delhi.

The driver greeted us at the hotel entrance in Pushkar. In the pitch black pre-dawn air, we only saw the glint of his eyes.

“Bonjour, ca va?”

We blinked, blinded by the darkness.

“Oui, ca va. Allons-y?”

Numbed by the early hours, we sat in the backseat, clutching our backpacks and wondering how long the ride would take.

The driver, who had introduced himself as Kamal and who had a French girlfriend (thus the greeting), tried to encourage our mood.

“You only need three things when travelling through India: Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

It was only then that I observed his head periodically spitting brown juice out the window.

My well-travelled love explained:

“He’s chewing a stimulant to stay awake.”

It turns out he had been driving a young married couple since 10pm the night before. It was 5am and he had an eight-hour drive ahead of him.

He hadn’t slept a wink.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired -- and used often.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired — and used often. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

“Don’t worry, my dear,” my love assured me. “There’s so much to do while driving in India that he won’t fall asleep. Ever.”

Somehow I found his statement to be only vaguely reassuring. And I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much either. In fact, I spent most of the eight-hour ride doing this:

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

For the first two hours we drove in the dark, getting to know one another. I figured if we knew each other’s life

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can.

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

stories, perhaps even loosely, it would create a bond that would hold us together – and out of harm’s way – for the duration of our ride to Delhi. We stopped for chai and what passed for coffee at a roadside stop. As dawn broke, we fell into a comfortable silence.

That is until, in the span of sixty seconds somewhere between breakfast and the first thought that my bladder might burst, we witnessed the following amazements:

 

  • a shepherd ushering a herd of cows across the entire six-lane highway crossing both directions;
  • a troop of camels hauling firewood and galumphing their load serenely to our left (on said highway);
  • a young child racing across three lanes to get to the other side;
  • tuk-tuks filled with twenty people that any Western family of four would consider tight for their standards; and
  • always, always, always the plea from trucks’ backsides to blow your horn.

Kamal got us to our hotel safely and in record time. He manoeuvred through potholes, toll booths, animal crossings and blinding sunlight. He is the only one working to support his entire extended family.

As I held on for dear life, I wondered if we were going to make it back in one piece. Occasionally, Kamal would spontaneously break out in song or chant something in Hindi. It sounded like a choral prayer and so I began to silently pray with him to the Shiva on his dashboard, then Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Whoever Else Was Listening. His job is dangerous and he is not able to say “no” to 2 am requests like ours for delivering tourists to their destinations.

“My family is counting on me.”

We thanked Kamal for his courage for getting us to the city in tact.

May the mandala of life continue its endless cycle of flowing energy and endurance.

It was an experience of a lifetime I won’t ever forget.

Alright then...

Alright then… (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time without Meaning

Western understanding of time is that it is a commodity to be exchanged for money. Our entire system, including institutions, commerce, systems for governance and lifestyle, is based on our time-is-money definition. It creates an environment in which clock combat is king. We immerse ourselves in a pressure cooker and wonder why our heads and hearts hurt so badly.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

Our preoccupation with time is further intensified through our alienation from the natural world. Who has time to dally about, reflect or pause? It is too costly, we argue. We can’t afford it.

But Nature and the time we spend with it is as essential as good nutrition. We are natural beings. We need Nature to remember who we are and why we are here. Our communion with the natural world has been forgotten. And yet it is as important as the air we breathe.

For the past few weeks I have been traveling about Nepal and now India, feeling at one with all things and wonder how I could feel so comfortable in a place so foreign to my usual surroundings.

And then, as I strolled through the desert amongst camels and nomads, it suddenly hit me. The people here mill about towns just as casually as the cows and dogs and monkeys that inhabit the places we have seen. The co-mingle, co-exist and co-inhabit with Nature. The food they eat is real food. It is Slow Food that actually doesn’t need capitalization. They don’t eat processed foods geared toward saving time in its preparation because time and nature are the same.

When we return next week, I hope to remember the lessons I have learned here and, to my very best ability, uphold the same understanding I have gained during my travels to these most exquisite places.

I am humbled by the experience. Blessings to you all.

Why I deleted Facebook

Sometimes self-control is not enough. Sometimes you have to carefully position your own roadblocks to force saner living.

With the press of an “x”, I dismissed the vitriol that had become my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only have I found myself pining for past Republic administrations that now don’t “seem that bad”, I have also started missing those adorable cat videos and those pumped-up versions of themselves that people like to have us believe is true about their fabulous Facebooked lives.

no facebookI miss the tinge of envy I’d feel at pictures of palm trees in places I definitely was not.

I miss the giggles elicited from videos of furry animals, preferably baby ones, tumbling on top of each other.

I miss hoping someone will “like” my post because they like me.

I miss the Facebook I used to know that I’d sometimes playfully call “Fakebook” because we often use it to look better than we are.

But we have entered a new era now. Many of us have become activists, something I truly applaud. And what better way to broadcast sensible causes than the world’s largest online platform?

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to it. Facebook, in my view, has turned into a shouting match, a place of posturing and yes, at times, a platform to share invaluable information. But the more I’ve tried to digest the unfathomable messages, especially from politicians vying for fame and glory, the less I began to trust it as a source for anything real or true or good about this world.

What motivated me to finally hit the delete button on my iPhone app came after reading a post by a Kentucky Senator who mocked the women’s march, calling women “cute” in the most patronizing way possible.

In his eagerness to earn likes and commentary (at any cost, I might add), he has joined the legions of people who will do and say anything to attract attention. It is so sad.

A like is even more short-lived than a soap bubble on a hot July afternoon. It is meaningless if there are only words without positive action behind them.

It broke my heart to see how broken our system truly is.

Fighting against virtual reality is like trying to capture wind in your hands.

What could I possible do then, in the face of such powerlessness, to make a difference?

Then it hit me. I have invested so much time in conversations with people I don’t even know. What if I were to start conversations with the ones I do know? What if I were to reach out to someone in need, right here, right now, in front of my very eyes? What if I were to dedicate all the time I have spent clucking at the injustice online to a cause in my very own town? Not only would I feel better, but that person would too.

So that decides it. Less Facebook. More face time. In real life.

Yes, a new era has dawned and I am ready to take on the challenge. Will you join me?