serene ambition™

transforming the culture of aging

The Last Day

Posted by Jim Selman on 12/31/06

About 3 hours until the ball drops and we all sing Auld Lang Seins and kiss someone close to us. This year had an early dinner, shared resolutions and went through the ritual of ‘completing’ 2006. I notice that staying up until midnight somehow isn’t what it used to be. Nonetheless, this is a special day no matter how cavalier I may be about it. Every culture seems to have a New Year. I suppose if you are Jewish and Chinese, you could have three New Year celebrations. I wonder if all cultures emphasize completing the past and creating the future as the main point to the process?

I led a seminar last year called “Learning to Die”. The point of the course was to see that if we can truly, deeply and profoundly accept that we are going to die—not just as an abstraction—then we are free to fully experience aliveness and the freedom to be ourselves. I think I was the only one who really liked the title. I got it from something attributed to Socrates who supposedly said that we can never have wisdom until we learn to die. From my point of view, we are dying from the day we are born …. So why is there so much fear and denial about it?

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says people are terrified of dying because they don’t know who they are. This makes sense to me. I don’t think a person needs to believe in any particular religious dogma to realize a profound spiritual truth at some point in their lives—I am not my thoughts and I am not my body. I may not have a well-developed ontology for understanding who I am, but I don’t need a PhD in philosophy to know who I am not.

This is the last day of the year. What if it were the last day of my life? I would still be sitting here typing my blog and feeling happy and grateful for my life. I would still experience love and still have a pretty long list of things that I would like to accomplish or things that I hope others will accomplish. I would hope I would be conscious and serene and accept my parting with as much clarity as I have learned to accept most aspects of my life and my world. If this is the last day, I would want to celebrate the paradox of experiencing the serenity that comes with acceptance and responsibility while at the same time looking forward to whatever possibilities we can imagine for the day after the last day.

In Zen, it is taught to live each moment as if it is the last. This is the point I think of “Learning to Die”. It is obviously easier said than done. People spend a lifetime learning to be that present and that conscious of this mystery we all share. Whenever our last moment arrives, it is also the first moment of whatever is next—for us and all those who will share in our passing. Leaving the metaphysical possibilities aside, I think George Bernard Shaw said it best in Man & Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I can live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.


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Posted by Jim Selman on 12/30/06

I started a conversation about procrastination on Wednesday and planned to do this posting yesterday. I am a day late. I procrastinated. I never actually say or think, “I am going to procrastinate”. It is a judgment I make after I don’t do something that I intended to do. I am sure this is on my mind because of New Year’s Eve coming up, but it is also a big source of discontent and negative self-talk for lots of people.

There may be many reasons for why we keep putting off what we say we want to do. The obvious explanations of habit, patterns, and we don’t really want what we say we want are all variations of psychological explanations. These are always after the fact and, while they do offer an explanation, they don’t satisfy a deep understanding of causality and aren’t especially useful when we are procrastinating. It is like when your mother says “Don’t worry”: it doesn’t help much when you are worried.

I think we procrastinate because we are not complete in some arena. Completion is not the same as finished. Finished is a function of the circumstances. Completion is our way of being in relationship to the circumstances. We all know people who are divorced but not complete, and we all know the experience of being complete in the middle of something like a game. When we are complete, we are present, satisfied and whole, and usually experiencing a deep sense of well-being. Complete is a way of Being.

When we are not complete, we aren’t choosing. Our way of being is that ‘there is something wrong’ and we begin to feel and interact with the circumstances in an attempt to ‘do something’ to finish what we started. We are not present, we are re-acting and resisting the ‘way it is’ and are reinforcing whatever it is that is incomplete. We become attached to what is incomplete and the more we try to change it, the more power we give to it being incomplete.

We get what we resist.

One thing that we can do about this condition is to first acknowledge it as an incompletion, rather than to see it as some defect in ourselves. We can see what exactly it is that is incomplete and ask ourselves what is missing or needed to be complete—not what should we do. If something comes to mind, then do that. If not, relax and observe what comes to mind. Sooner or later, we realize that we need to choose to be doing what we are doing and not resist anything. When we can choose or accept that we are always just doing what we’re doing and can remove the ‘should’ from our thinking, then we are complete and can either give up any pretense that we are going to do something or make a new commitment and get whatever support we need to do what we want to do.

Completion is necessary for us to choose anything.

I think as we get older it is easy to give up, to become resigned—to buy into the conventional thinking that “I am too old to change”. And then the patterns and the ‘incompletions’ rule us as we drift into a condition of resignation and coping with circumstances. The wisest of us are able to simply accept ourselves and the world as ‘the way it is’ and be complete. There may always be things we will want to do, but if we died tomorrow, we would be complete—there would be nothing missing and we would be satisfied with our lives.

I find it useful at year-end to ask myself what is not complete for me from the prior 12 months and make a list of what I see and what is missing for me to complete it. Sometimes it is a “Thank you” I overlooked, sometimes it is something I need to return. Often it’s something I need to forgive myself for. Whatever it is, it is almost always actionable and frees me up in a way that is much more satisfying and meaningful for me than my resolutions list.

Whatever you are doing to celebrate and pass from 2006 to 2007, may you have a safe, sober and very happy New Year.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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New Year’s Resolutions

Posted by Jim Selman on 12/29/06

I’ve been making New Year’s resolutions for more than 50 years now, and you’d think I would have learned something about how to do it well by now. Unfortunately, I am still a beginner at making resolutions—I continue to “make ’em and break ’em” with more precision and predictability than the blooming of flowers in Spring or leaves falling in Autumn.

The lull between Christmas and New Year’s Eve certainly is a great time to reflect on the year past and the year to come. I sometimes wonder why I do this over and over again, even when I suspect I probably won’t keep this year’s resolutions any more than I kept those from previous years. I suppose it is a kind of annual ritual where I acknowledge my good intentions and accept my human failings. I don’t really feel guilty. I learned long ago that guilt is a way to justify doing what we think we shouldn’t be doing—a sort of psychic balancing of the ‘moral’ scales.

No, it’s more like I feel foolish for pretending I am committed to something I am not. The problem, of course, is that I have kept a few of these promises to myself, just enough to think this year might be another exception. This is the same principle, I think, that keeps lots of people playing golf. They hit just enough great shots to keep hope alive that they will become ‘real’ golfers.

For example, there are a few ‘keepable’ resolutions, such as cleaning the garage, writing thank you notes, updating my address book, and so forth. There are others that ‘might’ be kept, such as reading some things I have been stacking up in the ‘to read’ pile or finally taking a long talked about vacation. Then there are the ‘I want to, but…’ resolutions, which include losing weight, doing more regular exercise, finishing my book and learning to play the piano. It is this latter category that leaves me feeling foolish. I can’t quite bring myself to say “I will NEVER learn the piano”, in spite of having spent thousands on missed lessons and it having been at the top of my failed New Year’s resolution list since 1981!

So here is my list again for 2007:

• Learn to play the piano
• Learn Spanish (next level)
• Lose 15 pounds
• Exercise daily (go to the gym)
• Finish my book manuscript
• Stop making resolutions I suspect I won’t keep, but really want to

What it comes down to is whether I am really committed to change something and, specifically, if I am willing to change my ‘self-talk’ about myself. You see, for me to accomplish these goals requires that:

a) I believe it is possible for me
b) I am willing to give up many years of failing at accomplishing these things, and
c) I can be responsible for what it will mean in terms of real changes to my life regarding schedule and day-to-day practices.

For example, I know that if I go to the gym every day for a month or two, it will become a new habit … and that is that on failing to exercise. All I need to “do” is go the gym. I also know that if I get into the habit of going to the gym then I will probably lose the weight and have the time to listen to my Spanish lessons on my iPod, which might at least help in the matter of ‘learning’ Spanish. It all makes sense and sounds so easy a few days before New Year’s Eve. So what is the source of my failure to do so? Why do I procrastinate?

Why does anyone procrastinate?

My thinking here is that it is because our resolutions are ‘open-ended’ … more like intentions than commitments. It is hard to hold an open-ended commitment. This is why AA doesn’t expect people to promise never to drink again—just not to drink today. By focusing on “one day at a time”, the individual can concentrate on what they can manage and not get lost in their idealism in a matter where they have failed over and over again.

I think this year I am going to amend my resolutions and focus on taking action just “one day at a time”. Perhaps by focusing on short-term actions, I will be surprised at how far I have come in fulfilling my intentions by the end of the year.

I will say more on procrastination tomorrow.

Today I am going to the gym.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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Relationship Success

Posted by Jim Selman on 12/28/06

Relationships will atrophy over time. Not because of intentional neglect or lack of love, but because, like any ‘muscle’, relating takes exercise. Use it or it will lose strength and functionality.

I see a lot people in various states of ‘midlife’ crisis confronting their primary relationships from the perspective of ‘time left’. This perspective is different for most of us than the one we had in the early years of relating—even different from the perspective of the ‘maintenance years’ of child-raising and career-building. During these years, there was always ‘enough time’ for either reinventing the primary relationship or, in some cases, completing it through separation or divorce to move on to new experiences.

Having gone through three of these myself, I can confirm that the grass is never really greener elsewhere. While I can think of lots of reasons to end a long-term relationship, lack of ‘zest’ or ‘boredom’ aren’t among them. What it means when we lose the fire and passion in a relationship is that we are beginning to confront our own limitations. We are awakening to the fact that we are finite and mortal, that we need to get on with whatever we want out of life. It is no longer possible to rationalize that there is still “lots of time left”.

Many people in midlife will have transformations and wake up to suppressed dreams that need to be fulfilled. Their primary relationship will be experienced as either an ally in that or a liability. Other than clear, consistent and committed communication of who a person is experiencing themselves to be and what their dreams and requests of their partner are, there is no success formula. This awakening can be disorienting, particularly if the couple has not tended to the ‘weeds’ in the garden of their relationship. But in all cases, it is a good thing if both parties can acknowledge this as a big part of what aging is all about… a kind of second (or third) phase of growing up and taking responsibility for our lives.

In my experience, whether I stay the course with my mate or strike out on my own, the opportunity here is to validate and acknowledge that it is only through the love and space provided by our partner over the years that we are able to have the opportunity to engage in our midlife inquiry and build the future we’ve always wanted.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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Christmas 2006

Posted by Jim Selman on 12/25/06

Christmas is just about here, then the ramp up for New Year’s Eve and the post-holiday recovery. I am looking at the Christmas cards we’ve received and thinking about what to say that hasn’t been said a hundred ways already at this time of year. “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men” seems to pretty much capture the point of Christ’s message, but then it also captures the message of Mohammed, Buddha, a bunch of Hindu Gurus, most Jews, Zoroaster, and just about everyone I know. So why is there so little peace and not a lot of goodwill?

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Winter lights

Posted by Shae Hadden on 12/22/06

Tonight marks the longest night of the year—the time when the prevailing darkness makes us appreciate the presence of daylight all the more. Festivals of light and tree lighting ceremonies abound, traditions meant to dispel the darkness. This holiday season I am very aware of how much ‘light’ is needed in this world… Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by Jim Selman on 12/21/06

I had a great meeting with David Korten yesterday. He is the very inspiring thought-leader I mentioned in a past blog and the author of The Great Turning. His vision of some of the underlying issues that perpetuate the persistence of many of the world’s nastiest problems is brilliant and offers a framework for creating a ‘new story’ of who we are and what’s possible.

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Beauty is a Journey

Posted by Lilly Page on 12/20/06

As I continue to follow my passion, helping people ‘feel’ beautiful, I’ve come to notice that beauty and self-image are one and the same. The journey to real beauty is an interesting path of self-appreciation.

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A Life Worth Living

Posted by Jim Selman on 12/19/06

The following thoughts were shared by a friend of mine on the question of what it is like to ‘be’ older and wiser. I think they express something we can all learn from if we haven’t already.

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Posted by Jim Selman on 12/16/06

Well, today is the first day of Hanukkah (sometimes transliterated as Chanukkah), the Festival of Lights or Rededication. It is the midpoint in the season between Thanksgiving and New Year—the long Holiday Haul. Not only do we consume a lot, but it also consumes a lot of us.

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