On Being Mindful

On Being Mindful

Mindfulness — what is it? It seems to be everywhere. There are talks, magazines, books, classes — all kinds of opportunities to become more mindful. What does it mean to be mindful, and why does it matter?

The 20th century Catholic mystic, Thomas Merton, described our society in this way: “Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite “thinking,” not entirely responding, but we are more or less there.”

Many of us seem to wander through life as Merton described. Or we approach people, situations, and ideas with the presumption that we have already figured out most of life’s searching questions, so we have no need to humbly listen and learn. But mindfulness is a state of being that realizes that we superimpose our own perspectives and ideas on every new situation we encounter. It is realizing that we need to learn to see people for who they are — deeper than just the surface presumptions or prejudices that so easily cloud our thinking. It means learning to approach people, situations and groups that may be foreign or new to us with an attitude of humility and compassion.

Being mindful means that we are learning to see and love our neighbor as we want others to see and love us.


The nature of tyranny

The nature of tyranny

Dietrich Bonhoeffer started his work on Ethics in 1939. Due to World War II and Hitler’s pursuit of Bonhoeffer and his thought and writings, he was never able to finish the work. The following excerpt is relevant for us today. As much as anything, it shows that the human heart really doesn’t change very much. 

The news that God has become man strikes at the very heart of an age in which both the good and the wicked regard either scorn for man or the idolization of man as the highest attainable wisdom. The weaknesses of human nature are displayed more clearly in a time of storm that in the smooth course of more peaceful periods. In the face of totally unexpected threats and opportunities it is fear, desire, irresolution, and brutality which reveal themselves as the motives for the actions of the overwhelming majority.

At such a time as this, it is easy for the tyrannical despiser of men to exploit the baseness of the human heart, nurturing it and calling it by other names. Fear he calls responsibility. Desire he calls keenness. Irresolution becomes solidarity. Brutality becomes masterfulness. Human weaknesses are played upon with unchaste seductiveness, so that meanness and baseness are reproduced and multiplied ever anew. The vilest contempt for mankind goes about its sinister business with the holiest of protestations of devotion to the human cause.

And, as the base grows baser, he becomes an ever more willing and adaptable tool in the hand of the tyrant. The small band of the upright are reviled. Their bravery is called insubordination; their self-control is called pharisaism; their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance.

For the tyrannical despiser of men, popularity is the token of the highest love for mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminal. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob. Contempt for man and idolization of man are close neighbors.

But the good man too, no less than the wicked, succumbs to the same temptation to be a despiser of mankind if he sees through all this and withdraws in disgust, leaving his fellow-men to their own devices, and if he prefers to mind his own business rather than to debase himself in public life. Of course, his contempt for mankind is more respectable and upright, but it is also more barren and ineffectual.

In the face of God’s becoming man, the good man’s contemptuous attitude cannot be maintained any more than can the tyrant’s. The despiser of men despises what God has loved. Indeed he despises even the figure of the God who has become man.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Ethics


Time in literature

There are so many nuances to writing, and it is important that the writer pay attention to every aspect of the narrative or the points that are being made. If the writer wants to give a particular sense of monotony or fast paced action, the way he uses time can be crucial In his classic novel, The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann has this to say about the way time works in a narrative:

“That may well cause amazement–and yet it is perfectly in order and corresponds to the laws of how stories are told and listened to. Because both good order and the laws of narrative require that our experience of time should seem long or short, should expand or shrink, in the same way it does for the hero of our story, for young Hans Castorp, who quite unexpectedly has found himself impounded by fate. It may also be useful to prepare the reader for other wonders and phenomena that are connected with the mystery of time and that we shall encounter while in his company–quite apart from this striking instance. But for now it is enough for us to remind everyone how quickly a number of days, indeed a great number, can pass when one spends them as a patient in bed. It is always the same day–it just keeps repeating itself. Although since it is always the same day, it is surely not correct to speak of “repetition.” One should speak of monotony, of an abiding now, of eternalness. Someone brings you your midday soup, the same soup they brought you yesterday and will bring again tomorrow. And in that moment it comes over you–you don’t know why or how, but you feel dizzy watching them bring in the soup. The tenses of verbs become confused, they blend and what is now revealed to you as the true sense of all existence is the “inelastic present,” the tense in which they bring you soup for all eternity. But one can’t speak of boredom, because boredom comes with the passing of time–and that would be a paradox in relation to eternity. and we want to avoid paradoxes, particularly if we are to live with our hero.”

Good writing requires paying attention to detail and creating a world where the reader can be fully immersed in the story or message that is being relayed. It’s about communicating through every available sense and medium.

Developing an ear for good language

Part of becoming a good writer is developing an ear for good syntax and rhythm. The way words are put together really does determine the effect they have on the reader. As with most things, a person who wants to get better at something finds ways to hang around those who are already the best in that particular field. The same is true with writing good literature. Arthur Plotnik, in his great little book, The Elements of Editing, puts it this way:

“A mastery of good syntax–how words are strung together well–can come in only two ways: by spending the first twenty-five years of one’s life in a drawing room with E. B. White, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bowen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, John Fowles, Langston Hughes, Joyce Carol Oates, James Baldwin, and John Updike–or by reading their works and those of other writers whose choice of words and word arrangement establishes our standards of literate communication.

“An ingrained ear for language comes from reading good literature and balances the domestic babble, street talk, advertising drivel, and work jargon ravaging our brains.”

If you want to effectively communicate your thoughts and ideas to your reader, you must have an ability to use language. If you want to develop “an ingrained ear for language” take the time to read the greats, the literary standard-bearers of our day. Someway, somehow that appreciation for language and the power of words will rub off and begin to make a difference in the way you communicate the things that matter to you.

The nonprofit trap: More is more, so here’s even more

It is a cold reality that most nonprofit organizations feel a relentless pressure to raise funds. And when they’re not raising funds, they’re pursuing donations. Having worked in the nonprofit world for over twenty-five years, I have personally felt that pressure and all that is included in the perpetual need for finances and sufficient cashflow.

Unfortunately many nonprofits allow the pressure to dictate their communication processes. They feel that they may not get another chance with a prospective donor, so they want to get as much information in as they possibly can. Every newsletter is crammed full of as many stories or testimonials as is humanly possible. Web pages contain events, appeals, thanks, hopes, goals, reports, staff updates, biographical sketches, requests for volunteers, and anything else the organization wants to communicate to each reader. And that is frequently all on the same page!

Quite frankly, it’s far too easy for the reader, who is also the prospective donor, to get buried under the avalanche of information. The organization’s mission, purpose, and philosophy can easily get washed away in the flood of details, and the reader leaves not really knowing what the organization is hoping to accomplish … or why.

The best thing a nonprofit can do in communicating its purpose and process is to remember that most readers are initially interested in the “big picture”–the why and the how. The who, what, and when are important, but no internet browser wants ten minutes’ worth of reading on every page of a website.

Any nonprofit organization can improve its communications and effectiveness by reducing the text, focusing on its key points, and drawing the reader into its vision and purpose. This will create an interest that may often turn into action.

More isn’t always more; sometimes it’s just too much. It’s better to avoid the trap.

Would you invite this guy to your dinner party?

Language seems to be in a constant state of decline lately. It’s more about communicating at the most basic level instead of actually conveying meaning with a purpose. Of course, texting often becomes communication in its rawest form. C U l8r kind of says it all, or not much actually.

Since much of communication is driven by emotion, our words often spew forth what we may be feeling, but many times they don’t really give the listener or reader much to go on. For instance, we are often content with a derogatory comment like, “That guy is such a jerk.” Or, “He is a complete waste of space.” Now those do convey a definite opinion or sentiment, but they don’t really convey the fullness of how we view that waste of space jerk.

Compare this description by Gustave Flaubert from his classic work, Madame Bovary. This is a description of Charles Bovary, the Madame’s husband: “Charles’s conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and it was traversed by a steady stream of the most commonplace ideas, all wearing the usual garb and appealing to neither the emotions, the sense of humor nor the imagination.” Doesn’t that impact you much more forcefully than, “He is so lame!”? Either way, “Note to self: Don’t invite this guy to the next dinner party.”

Word pictures are definitely on the decline, but the ability to create an image in the mind of another is still one of the primary keys to great communication. From Homer to Jesus to Tolstoy to James Agee, the ability to paint a picture with words has always been one of the most effective ways of instilling thoughts, principles, and ideas in the heart or mind of someone else. This is one of the primary ways we help our readers or listeners “see” what we’re trying to say.

Make the effort and read the greats. You’ll see word pictures everywhere. There is no better way to learn effective communication than to be communicated to by the best.

What I’m doing here … and why it might possibly matter

I am mesmerized by the art of communication. “How did what I just said become what they think they heard?” If perception is reality, most of us are in heaps of trouble heaps of the time.

The truth is most people don’t listen to what they hear. They don’t read what they see. I am continually amazed how even text messages (with less than 160 characters) can be incorrectly responded to. Or how one major point (how many major points can there be in a text?) is completely ignored.

As our society continues to evolve with the aid of all kinds of techno-gadgets, communication matters more and more. As a writer and speaker, I am continually assessing how we are communicating and how we are not.

I am a freelance writer and editor trying to help people say what they want others to hear and to write what they want others to see. It isn’t always easy, but with a little effort and a lot of typing we can communicate something that might possibly matter.