5 Lessons My Puppy Is Teaching Me

’Twas the week before Christmas, and in through the door, 

I set down my bags, and heard paws scratch the floor.  

My partner had planned his surprise with much care, 

So I’d arrive smelling pet dander and barks in the air.

Five days before Christmas and I arrived home to my first holiday present from my fiancé: a three-month old puppy.  We had talked about a puppy for several weeks leading up to this date.  But ’til that point he had been adamant that we should wait until spring and the conclusion of the harsh Chicago snow and ice festivities.

So, I was shocked.  And it’s taken the past few weeks for my dog parenting self to catch up with the requirements of this fluffy and lovely new addition to our household.

I had a dog growing up, so the responsibilities of pet ownership weren’t entirely new to me.  And I had done some refresher work, reading some acclaimed dog-rearing books to prepare.  The thing that has caught me most off guard has been this:  the intelligence and insight of my three and a half month old pup.

I’m amazed at his keenness.  I’m surprised by his adaptability and eagerness to learn.  I’m shocked by his ability to clearly demand what he wants – and his willingness to retaliate if he doesn’t receive it (“Oh, really?  You won’t give me that food? …how do you like it if I just pee over here?”).

There have been a few takeaway points that he has taught me about my own behavior, even as I try to school his.

1.  Stop, Watch, and Listen

My puppy, Galileo, is a rescue.  His mother, who was about to give birth to her litter, was in a high-kill shelter in Kentucky.  A rescue group in Illinois got her out on the final possible shuttle before she was scheduled to be euthanatized.  So, Galileo and his sisters were born and raised in foster-care in Des Planes.  I am so glad he had a happy home to live in for his first few months of life – but Des Planes is a very different sort of place from downtown Chicago.

The first several days we took him outside to the busy, city streets, Galileo would shake heartily.  He was scared by all the people, cars, and buses.  Since then, he’s gotten much better; but the city sights are sometimes still a bit overwhelming for him.

In those instances when things are a little much, he always does the same thing.  He sits down wherever he is, gets very quiet, and looks around steadily.  He takes in his surroundings.  Once he’s evaluated the scenario, he will get up and start walking again, regardless of how long it takes him to comprehend and feel safe.

I love this response.  Taking a moment, getting very still, and simply observing.

How often, when things get scary and chaotic do we rush to react?  I know for myself that I tend to immediately dive into “problem solving mode.”  And time and again, I observe that I would have served the situation better by taking some time before responding.

My furry son naturally does this.  He’s wary and patient.  And this ability to stop, watch, and then decide is a skill I myself would like to acquire.

2. Deep Sleep and Good Food Are Critical

Our first two days of puppy ownership were marked by a constantly awake critter.  He never slept at all.  I looked up online that puppies are supposed to sleep fifteen to twenty hours a day, and our little guy was only getting seven.  This wasn’t nearly enough.

We started to find ways to get out little guy to relax and snooze.  Super long walks and play times with other puppies became a must.  We had to tire him out so he could reset in sleep.

Without sufficient rest, he becomes a holy terror.  With regular naps, he’s a loving little guy.

And I’m the same way.  It’s reminding me how much rest and down time I personally need – especially during this time of year where the season is naturally encouraging time for reflection and hibernation.

Similarly, the food our foster mom had been feeding him was dry and he was really disinterested in eating.  When we brought him to the pet store, they noticed his skin was dried out and he already had dandruff.  They recommended a new pet food with fish oil – and Galileo just devours it.  He is eating so well, the dandruff is mostly gone, and his behavior is more stable.

I know for myself that I feel more balanced and at ease when I’m eating nourishing food.  Today, for example, I ate four-day old leftovers for breakfast; and I don’t feel as exuberant as I normally would.  I need to pay clear attention to what I’m putting into my body and how that affects my mood.

 3.  We All Go Through Rough Stages 

My dog is teething.  A lot.  When I peek into his mouth, I see these tiny teeth erupting from his gums.  I’m sure it must hurt him quite a bit.  And to assuage that pain, he wants to chew on everything.  Hands, couches, ribbons, toys.  You name it.  We try our best with chew toys and frozen carrots to numb the pain – but it just sucks right now.  It’ll suck for another two months, and we just need to put up with his incessant need to chew until then.

How hard is it to have that same compassion for one’s self?  When I’m having a rough or painful time, how often do I say, “Kaelan, get over it!  Move on!” instead of giving myself the time or grace that I need.  I feel like I constantly expect resilience and health and grace from myself, and have little enough compassion when I falter.  Can I learn to say to myself, as I say to my dog, “things suck a little right now – and I’m sorry – so do what you need to do and I know it’ll get better in a little while.”  Cultivating compassion for the here and now – and allowing myself to do what I need until things get better.

4.  When Things Don’t Go Your Way, It’s Natural to Retaliate

Our new son is a foodie, like his dads.  He LOVES food of all kinds.  And he gets super pissed if we don’t share what we are eating with him.

Separately, he’s doing really well with potty training: he’s learned to go to the door or scratch on the window when he needs to be walked outside.  But often, after a petulant thirty minutes of begging for our food, he’ll walk over to one of those spots and relieve himself without asking to be let out.  It’s almost as if he’s saying, “I know you can’t be mad because I’m in the area I’m supposed to be at to be let out – but I’m not giving you any warning.”  He plays us – and gets “some of his own back,” as they say.

It’s a normal reaction.  But how willing am I to accept that reaction in myself?  When I feel betrayed or disappointed, I often get upset at myself for getting upset or pissed.  I expect myself to take it in stride and not react.  But I do.

I need to have more compassion for myself for the normal, animalistic responses that happen when things don’t work out.  I don’t need to scold myself for not being perfect – just as I wouldn’t scold the little guy.  I need to let myself feel whatever I am feeling without judgement.

5. Intelligence Can Come in Any Age or Form

My little guy has been in the world for merely a couple of weeks.  Yet, already, he is so intelligent.  He learned his name in a day, to sit in a day, and to lie down in two days.  He figures out patterns and ways of commuting through the world at a lightening pace.  He already understands numerous commands and has developed a non-verbal language all his own.  And all within a hair’s breadth of time!

I am a huge believer in learning taking a tremendous amount of time.  Want to learn something well?  Study it for a decade and then get back to me.  I tend to assume that if someone hasn’t taken many eons to explore something in depth, they are a poor steward of that knowledge.  But here I am, babysitting this little, smart dog, who truly understands and can manipulate events within a brief span.  How can I reconcile these beliefs?

I have to start accepting that people may have tremendous insights and knowledge into subjects, even if they’ve only had brief opportunities to interact with them.  Sometimes profound learning happens all at once.  Sometimes learning takes a lifetime.  I need to accept the possibility that I can learn a great deal from those for whom a topic may be quite new.  I need to allow myself to learn from the proverbial children.

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I’m sure that there’ll be numerous other lessons that start piling up over the next several months of dog-parenting.  I’m grateful for what I’m already beginning to learn, and for the lessons yet to come.  Here’s to many more happy and fur-filled months in the home!

5 Steps to Survive the End of Your World

It happened last month: Something that seemed indelible, everlasting, and endlessly-nourishing came abruptly to an end.

We’ve all had it happen: a death of a partner, the sudden cessation of a relationship, the irrational loss of a job, etc.

For me, it came from my spiritual community forsaking me.

For people who have been reading my blog for a while, you know how devoted I have been to my meditation practice.  I had lived in an ashram for years, attended weekly classes, mediated twice daily.

I felt content; I felt sure in my worldview; I felt powerful.

Then, surprisingly and suddenly, my tradition said they didn’t want me to be a part of them anymore.  I will refrain from blabbing about the details of who said what, why this happened, and whatnot.  Suffice it to say that I felt heartbroken, entirely abandoned, and grieving a very dear part of my life that I never expected to see go away.

How do we survive those heart-wrenching, gut-punching, and thoroughly world-shattering events?

When nearly everything you thought you knew and trusted about the world gets pulled away – like a child’s play things kept too close to the shore that get dragged out to sea – how do you continue on?

How do you take that next step?  How do you even breathe?

I’ve had friends get broken up with via text message (from multi-year relationships, none-the-less), I’ve seen friends shunned from synagogues, I’ve known friends to unexpectedly loose stable employment while simultaneously caregiving for someone else.

How can we heal?  How can we continue to grow with grace?

I’ve watched over the past several weeks as certain mainstays in my perception of life have melted away, notions that I felt certain were rock-steady and steadfast.  My worldview disintegrated, and now I’m shuffling through the debris to find the gems with which I can rebuild.

As I’ve continued to struggle through this process, here are some returning thoughts to which I keep cycling back:

1.   Realize that Nothing in Life is Ever Really About You

Roads collapse, bridges burn, tornadoes rip apart communities.  Forces of nature have no will or intent; they just move, and blast whatever happens to be in their way.

We expect that people have a little more intention than a storm, but they seldom do.  They are being pushed and pulled by their karma, their demons, and their own tensions.  We ultimately have little say over how others treat us – all we can choose is how we respond.

So, even if the attack that shattered your world seemed highly intentional – realize that it wasn’t.  It was just someone or something going through their shit, and we were the innocent bystander;  and our lives were the collateral damage.

It really wasn’t about you; it was all about them.

2.  You Have The Power to Let Go and Move On

Once you feel the truth in the fact that you had only a small part to play in the whirlwind, it becomes easier to truly forgive, move on, and rebuild.  We have to let go – and accept the new reality – in order to go on.  Clinging to the shards of our previous life will do no good; all we will build is a Frankenstein-esque mockery of the whole life we once led.

Find the jewels; find the pieces of the previous worldview that still feel true, take them, and go forward.  Let go of the debris.  Much of the broken remnants are perceptions you don’t need anymore.  Let them go with love, find your new truth, and keep going.  Forgive the people that injured you.

3.   Have Patience With Yourself

Allow yourself to have stages of grief and grieving.  Get mad, be surprised, become indignant.  Be sad, lonely, afraid.  Find joy, laughter, and surprise.  Realize that the assembly of your new life will take time to coalesce.  Try to be patient with yourself and others around you – and acknowledge that you won’t feel quite right for a while.

You’re going to have to go through a process of reexamining everything you previously believed, so try not to rush to any assumptions.  Let the process of healing take it’s time and be natural.  Seeds can only sprout out of the soil at a given rate.  There’s no hurrying the process.  After a field burns, it’ll be a bit before new sprouts resurrect out of the ashes.

4.   Use This Time to Discover and Explore

You are at a crossroads in your life journey.  There are a multitude of directions you could go from here.  Take some time to explore them.

Maybe there was a hobby you always wanted to begin.  Maybe there’s a group or class that has always intrigued you.   While your worldview is reforming, you have the capacity to change some fundamental beliefs about your life and the world around you.  So, set out on an adventure to uncover what some of those unrealized dreams might be.  Rediscover your child-like curiosity with the world.

I sometimes like to reframe world-destroying moments with the image of a chrysalis.  At some point, that transforming butterfly inside will become too confined by its self-constructed enclosure; and it’ll have to break out.  The world that it has known for many days, suddenly has to be ripped away in order to allow the butterfly to enter the expansiveness of the wider world.

Moreover, if a butterfly somehow get to be spared the struggle and agony of trying to claw its way out of its chrysalis – if someone cuts it open for him, for example – he will be unable to unfold his wings.  It’s through the struggle of escape that a butterfly produces enough chemicals to allow his wings to fully spread.

Maybe you are like the butterfly and needed your world to break open to make space for something so much better and happier.  Go out and find what those better options might be.

5.  Treat Yourself Kindly – and Surround Yourself With Love

Find those people and experiences that truly nourish you and draw them into your sphere.  Spend lots of time with loved ones and people who bring out your best sides.  Laugh a lot.  Eat chocolate and take bubble baths.  Take hikes and to spend time convening with nature – I personally find time in the forest or by the sea to be so healing and spiritual.

What are other activities you could undergo to make yourself feel good?  The more you focus on the experiences and people that enrich your existence, the greater likelihood that your new outlook will prioritize them.  If you put effort into sustaining good friendships, it’s likely those friendships will play a greater role in your new life.

Find what inspires you, enriches you, and brings you pleasure.  Let those be some signposts to direct the road ahead.

It’s an incredible journey to grow through the total annihilation and resurrection of your worldview.  It’s a harrowing but character-building experience.   For it’s during these times of transition that we truly see who we are, what we are made of, and what is truly important.

I can assure you that this will not be the solitary time your life dissolves; it will happen again.  And, again, you will have the opportunity to choose – how do I want to live?

We get to choose.  We can grow and live with love and compassion; or we can shut down from the heartache.

The choice is yours.  I’m choosing love.  How about you?

Art & Words: Kaelan Strouse; Background Photos by: Dan Machold & Kit

Changes On the Road To Bliss

First and foremost, I want to thank the readers of my blog for their insightful comments, messages, and support.  I have really having a blast sharing my ideas and inspirations with such lovely people.

As this blog is still in its infancy, I am refining the goals and structure of its content.

And I’ve made a few decisions:

1 – I will now start adding fictional writing.  I think stories can shape our perceptions of the world beautifully – and I’d like to explore the motif of The Hero’s Journey – and the metaphors of good vs. evil as applicable to our daily lives.

2 – I will begin reblogging articles that I have had published elsewhere on the inter-webs.

3 – As I will now be doing quite a bit of traveling every month, I would like to start including some photography and anecdotes about observations I make on my trails.  Growth can happen anywhere – and especially while exploring new vistas and surroundings.

I am really excited about where we are headed – thanks for staying with me, on the road to Bliss!

Peace and light, Kaelan 🙂

Photo: Richardson Farm Corn Maze

Finally Revealing the Movie I Love and Made

It is with sincerest joy that I am finally able to publicly share the film I created, Legend of Amba.  This movie is a modern day fairytale about learning what’s inside your heart, seeing clearly what’s happening around you, and owning your personal truth.

This story was inspired by dear friendships I had cultivated through my teenage years and into my young adult life.  It is about that transition point in adulthood where we move from seeking external validation (seeking the mirages of life that we think will bring us meaning) and instead begin pursuing truth, love, and substance.

I am tremendously grateful to have gotten to work with the dedicated artists who made this film possible.  It was a year of intense cultivation to bring this to the screen – and I am so thrilled to share it with you.

I think anytime one puts forth the effort to create artwork of personal significance and insight – it has a reason to be viewed.  I hope that this movie will find a place in your heart – inspire you – and encourage you to pursue your own dreams and goals.  Magic is possible when we believe in ourselves.  There is magic in friendship; there is enchantment in love; there is wonder in every moment.

This is Legend of Amba.  And I am so privileged to share it with you.

Namaste, Kaelan

Why I am Grateful For Everything… and Yes, I Mean EVERYTHING!

Let’s discuss what it really means to be grateful.

Sure, the birthday present, the unexpected surprise planned by a loved one, the raise given by our employer, these are all easy moments for which to be grateful.

But what about the rest of the moments in our days?

What about the boring spells, the trying times?  How about the fights with friends, misunderstandings with partners, the escalation of fears in harrowing events?  Are we grateful for these instances?  Are there any reasons to find gratitude for life’s most trying moments?

I enthusiastically say, “Yes!”

And here’s why…

Inside each and every one of us are little pockets of energy.  They are accumulated from life events, and a great number of them arrived with us when we were born.  These little pockets attract certain life events to occur.  They attract people we need to meet, challenges we must face, and blessings that will grace us.

And there’s a big reason why they do this: every single event that occurs in our lives must happen in order for that energy within us to break apart and become free-flowing.  We attract life situations that make us free through their happening.

That award you got in school could be there to teach you about self-reliance and maintaining humility under great acclaim.   Maybe that broken bone was the result of some previous life action where you hurt someone else, and now you’re learning to deal gracefully with pain and living gently.

Everything that comes into our lives are lessons that we need to learn in order to evolve.

So that means that nothing is either good or bad.  It’s just a tool to help us grow.  And when we can see each event with equanimity – neither rejecting or desiring its occurrence – we become healed.

If we can stay open and grateful for every experience, then those little pockets of energy dissolve and we might never have to experience those events again.  If we form an emotional attachment – wanting more or less of it – the event will keep reoccurring until we finally let is happen without interference.  In this way, as these pockets dissolve, we become gradually more open, free, and happy.

Seldom in life is any experience solely good or bad.  Something that starts out as a great deal of fun might eventually turn into a nightmare.  Maybe that Academy Award that you so long strived for causes a family member to be robbed.  Maybe that partner you begged to come back into your life becomes abusive.

Similarly, highly unpleasant experiences can become great sources of joy later on.  That hardship you went through might have proved how lasting and wonderful your friendships with your siblings could be.  Maybe that broken bone prevented you from going on a trip where you would have become deathly ill.  No one can predict the outcome of events.  In the words of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So this provides us with the tremendous opportunity to just be grateful for every life event.  The fun and the not so fun.  The painful and the blissful.  Everything in the universe has been conspiring to bring you your highest growth and sincerest happiness… if you can just hang on to the state of equanimity.

Every morning I start off my day by feeling gratitude in my heart.  I send text messages to people I love, letting them know how happy I am that they are in my life.  When harrowing events occur, I simply say, “Thank you for my healing.”

I’m trying to reach a state where every moment in my day, every breath I inhale, reminds me to be grateful.  I still have a ways yet to go, but I’m inching continuously closer.

And, oddly enough, it isn’t so much the happy times that are helping me most on this journey.  It’s the really hard stuff, where I prove my mettle, prove that I can remain grateful, that shows me how far I’ve come.

Each day, breath by breath, I get a little closer to the goal.  One day, I will live in a state of complete thankfulness for everything in my life.  I hope to meet you there.

Words and Photo by: Kaelan Strouse

12 Daily Rituals That Make Me a Better Human

Let’s talk about the tasks we do every single day.  Brushing our teeth?  Done.  Flossing?  Well, I do… but I know there are some of you who still struggle with doing this one.  Eating food?  That’s a good one to do daily.  More than these simple and basic tasks, there are a myriad of other activities that we can choose to pursue every day that will vastly increase our quality of life.  For example, as soon as I wake up each morning, I take a breath and think of something for which I am grateful.  Just by starting my day with gratitude, I get to commence my morning in a happy and positive way, even before I check my cellphone or set foot on the floor.

In this article, I will explore twelve daily rituals that continue to bring me better wellness and joy – as well as few extra rituals that I hope to incorporate in the near future.

So, here we go.  Here’s some amazing daily routines to improve one’s quality of life:

  1. Meditation

For those of you who have been following my blog or know me personally, there is absolutely no surprise with this item.  Since I was twenty years old, I have been meditating every day for thirty minutes in the morning and evening.  It clears my thoughts, allows me to be more productive, and – in the worlds of Nightline co-anchor Dan Harris – makes me “10% happier.”  Actually, I think that quotation is a vast understatement.  The frequency of spontaneously occurring happiness has skyrocketed for me.  Before I began meditating, I was an incredibly worried, self-involved, painfully shy, insecure person.  Many a day were spent in blind terror of the world around me.  Over time these issues have melted away; and I have become an infinitely more secure, joyful, confident, and happy individual.  Meditation has led me into a state of fairly constant contentment.  If there’s one item on this list that is worth adopting immediately, it is this.

2. Chanting

Whether it be through attending an concert with friends or dancing alone in the shower to the radio, we have all felt music shift our state of being.  When we encounter music, our cells begin to reverberate at the same frequency of the sound we are absorbing.  If you haven’t yet seen the video of the plants singing to each other, here’s a link to do so now.  It shows how even the simplest of life forms really do vibrate with sound and harmonize with one another.  How much better is it then, if we chant the name of the divine, and let that very refined frequency reverberate through our bodies?  Paul Reps, a renowned Zen master famously said: “Mantra shakes our bones.”  When we chant divine words, our bodies become heavenly.  It shakes out our heaviness, our restrictions, and attunes us to a much higher state of being.  I personally chant the Guru Gita, but have friends that chant the Hanuman Chailisa, the Medicine Buddha Mantra, or an assortment of other sacred words and melodies.  It really doesn’t matter what form it takes, singing and chanting elevated words and phrases of any language (though Sanskrit is very special because its creation stemmed from ancient rishis “hearing” it in deep states of meditation) harmonize our bodies to very refined states of being.

3. Oil Pulling

Oil pulling is a task that’s a little more physical than the previous two items.  Here’s what to do: take a teaspoon of oil (sesame, coconut, or clarified butter [aka ghee] are preferred), put it in your mouth, swish it around for fifteen minutes, spit it out, and then brush your teeth.  Why?  This method of cleaning one’s mouth has been practiced for thousands of years by numerous societies.  Not only does it remove plaque and tarter buildup, improve the health of one’s gums, reduce bad breath, and whiten enamel, but it actually “pulls” toxins out of one’s body through the membrane barriers in the mouth.  That’s why it’s important to spit out the oil at the end, rather than swallow it.  It might sound like new-agey nonsense, but I can vouch from personal experience (and from several close acquaintances) what a difference it has made in my life. It has helped countless individuals cure chronic health issues.  You can find hundreds of fabulous articles about it online.  And hey – if it kept ancient, indigenous cultures on good dental health for their whole lives, then it should be good enough for us as well.

4. Cultivating Gratitude

Yes, I start my day with gratitude – and then I also keep incorporating it throughout my day.  Before I eat, when I finish meditating, when I talk with a friend: I take a few deep breaths and feel gratefulness well-up within the center of my chest – and then lift out of the top of my head.  I send it off to the higher realms to convey that I am so lucky for my experiences.  If we can remember to be grateful for our lives, our worlds truly become magical.  We start to recognize the abundance of blessings already around us, and it sends a strong message to the Universe to keep bringing us more wonderful events.  It’s a self perpetuating cycle: the more gratitude we feel in our lives, the more that arrives to inspire a grateful state.  It’s a simple and profound practice to remember.  Some people keep a journal of items they are thankful for, while I just set earmarks throughout my day that remind me to give thanks.

5. Yoga

If we continue to progress chronologically though my morning, the next item on my “to do” list would be physical yoga.  So, physical yoga is what most Westerners think of when they hear the word “yoga.”  It’s actually just a small fraction of the spiritual discipline of Yoga, with a capital “Y.”  Meditation is Yoga.  Self study is Yoga.  Merging with the divine is Yoga.   I do physical yoga every day because it makes my body strong and healthy, it clears out ailments and restrictions, and it makes me happy.  But even these postures are more of a spiritual practice than a form of exercise.  Yoga purifies the body so it and the mind can rest quietly in meditation.  It soothes the nervous system and invites it to decompress so our focus can be redirected towards the internal, subtler realms.  If you’ve taken a few yoga classes, you know that “high” and “glow” that comes from a physical practice.  It is a very kinetic way to begin experiencing our spiritual nature and achieving a more optimal state of health and wellbeing.

6. Cooking

I also view cooking as a sacred act.  When I go to the market, I drink-in the beauty and ripeness of all the produce.  I feel some gratitude for the animals that offered their lives so that I may be nourished – and try to select the most humane and planet-friendly items I can afford.  When I bring the food home, I lovingly select which items will go into my dish.  I start frying the spices in ghee and feeling love in my heart for having the great fortune to feed myself well.  I choose dishes that will make my belly feel yummy, strengthen my muscles, and help everything in my body reach its ideal state.  I cook the food that will bring me the best health.  And when we pay attention to what our bodies really desire, it’s healthy choices like beets and fruit, nuts and dates, maybe bison and farm-fresh eggs.  Overtime, it’s possible to begin sensing how processed and refined foods lack real nourishment.  We sense what will truly bring us our best health.  And when we eat slowly and with gratitude, the food undergoes an alchemical process and becomes pure life-force for us.  We become part of the cycle of nature: sensing our connection to the earth, the natural world around us, and how everything is perfectly in sync.  Food is part of god; god is in food.  I am the earth; the earth is in me.  I am what I eat; all is one.

7. Dancing

I love to dance.  I view it as a divine celebration of life, love, and happiness.  Usually sometime after breakfast has been digested, I will head to my iTunes app and choose my playlist of “Music That Makes Me Feel Awesome.”  The list includes the likes of “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield, “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, and “Be Okay” by Ingrid Michelson.  It is comprised of songs that make me want to take my shirt off, shake my booty, and bounce all around the apartment.  When I dance, its another way I can thank the Universe for all the blessings I receive.  I offer thanks for a strong and healthy body; I let my joy bubble forth through ecstatic movements.  I act silly, strange, electric, and turbulent.  I dance like no one is watching because, well, no one is.  This is not a dance to entice or impress.  It’s a conversation with the divine, and it is a sacred act.  Sometimes my roommate or a friend will come join me, and it is still a dance of celebration rather than about interacting with another.  For me, it’s the fullest expression of being alive: moving my body in rhythm and time to music that makes my heart alight.

8. Exercise

Some days yoga and dancing is enough for me to feel like I’ve used my body well.  Other days I desire to go to the gym and push my physical limits more throughly.  Now I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but I find great joy in feeling that I’ve exerted a tremendous amount of physical force: that I’ve strained my muscles, that I’ve taught my body to do something that it could not previously execute .  Recently, I’ve been exploring jump-roping and hand-standing.  At first, I couldn’t do either at all.  But gradually, through regular and focused practice, I have attained a modicum of proficiency with both.  I love going to the gym and realizing that I can do one hundred double-jumps, when the week previous I could barely do thirty.  I love landing that handstand, finding my balance, and gracefully lowering, when I previously couldn’t stabilize for even a second.  Learning new skills, pushing physical boundaries, and even simply getting a good sweat every day makes me a happier man.  I don’t think everyone needs this, but it’s important for me.  I don’t like feeling like I’m “trapped” in my body – that comes from being physically stagnant.  I like feeling and looking strong, feeling capable, and knowing that I can do more than I once thought was possible.

9. Time With Loved Ones

This is one of the hardest routines for me to sustain while living in California.  If you read my first article on “Why We Need to Choose Our Surroundings Consciously,” you remember that I discussed how our most frequent and intimate interactions reflect back on our self-worth.  Every day I Skype with my partner, family, and friends.  I text message people out of the blue to let them know I’m thinking of them with love.  I call old acquaintances to ask how they’re doing nowadays.   And with each interaction I endeavor to feel the love, support, admiration, and care that exists between us.

And this is all very good and important to do.  But an even better action is to spend time in physical interaction with loved ones.  Feeling their touch, kisses, embraces, and arms around the shoulders.  There’s tremendous value in touch.   There have been studies that have linked frequent affectionate and caring touch with decreased rates of depression and anxiety.  We are fundamentally social creatures, and we need to feel loved.  Talking and texting is great and so important; but quality face to face time, and hug time, is even more so.  Choosing to regularly spend time with those people who nourish us is a great goal to achieve.

Well, that’s my list of activities I am already undertaking every day to improve my quality of life.  Let’s tack on a few more that I have yet to achieve:

10. Regular Bedtime 

This one is so hard for me.  Some nights I have rehearsals, performances, art events, etc. where I have to be out late.  Other nights, I can stay in and go to sleep whenever I choose.  No matter how much effort I put into having a regular (and early) bedtime, it fails to manifest.  I feel my body and mind are at their best when I’m asleep by ten and wake up around six am. During my seven year residence at the Chicago Ashram, I would have to be at meditation class at six am.  One would hope this meant that I was able to organize my bedtime more effectively, but I wasn’t.  It just meant that most nights I had fewer hours of sleep than my body required.  Since moving to L.A., I may now be allowed to sleep a full eight hours, but it’s hardly ever in the same time of the night; and the later my bedtime, the worse quality of sleep I attain.  I hope sleep schedule will settle down as I age, but thus far it has been frustratingly inconsistent.

11. Regular Meal Times

In very much the same vein as the standard bedtime, I know my body feels at its best when I achieve the following: “every day we are going to have lunch at twelve, dinner at six, and breakfast at eight am.”  But this goal has been even less frequent in occurring than my bedtime.  Some days there’ll be three meals, while other days, two.  Some days breakfast will be at eight, while other days its at one pm.  I truly believe that this is just part of my karma in this life, that I will never eat at the same time every day.  And I recognize that it’s part of having a creative-worker’s schedule.  However, I can sense that my body better absorbs and integrates the food I intake when it’s gotten into a rhythm and knows when and how to prepare.  I’ll chalk this one up to another long-range goal.

12. Baths & Bathing

This one’s kind of embarrassing.  I’m not the best about making sure that I shower every single day.  Yuck – I know.  According to Ayurveda, our bodies are happiest when we bathe in the early morning, before dawn, and again after any physical exertion.  And while I will generally take a shower at the gym after an intense workout, it shamefully does not always happen.  And while there have been swaths of time where I’d get up super early and shower in the dark, that’s not been habitual either.  I’m generally a shower once every-other-day sort of guy… and I’d like to be much better about this.

And not only in regards to showers, but also in taking the time for actual baths.  With salts and bubbles and the whole works.  I know how much better I feel when I let my body soak, allowing  tensions to dissipate through the sudsy water. Or take the time to bathe at a Korean Spa, where I can do it in the comfort and company of my fellow mammals.

Furthermore, the Indian tradition of Ayurveda recommends rubbing one’s entire body with oil before ablutions to increase health and wellbeing.  This practice, called “abhayanga,” is so highly praised in traditional literature, and has such profound healing effects, that I really should make it item number thirteen on this list.  So…

13.  Abhayanga

Everyday, I am going to take the time to rub warm sesame or coconut oil into my skin before taking my bath/shower.  This practice is said to increase strength, radiance, resiliency to disease and infection, and slow the effects of aging.  I’ve done it off and on for years, and when I’ve done it consistently, I have felt positively transformed.  My health has been better.  My skin has been more luminous.  This is something I need to do every single day.  I need to work on keeping my physical body as clean and gleaming as I do my internal spirit.

So, that’s my list!  I hope there were some inspiring highlights for you.  I would be curious to know about other routines that you have found to be tremendously beneficial for your life.  If you have something to suggest, please add it to the comments section below.  And anything you write will be guaranteed to get a reply from me.  So let’s start a conversation about this, please.

Thank you so much for taking the time read my musings.

Namaste!  (The divine inside of me bows to the divine inside of you; inside we are all one!)

Words and photo by: Kaelan Strouse

What We Can Do In These Troubled Times

We are currently in a very troubled time in society.  Rage, anger, hatred, and fear are often at the forefront of our media.  Terror and hate crimes seem to run rampant.  Fears of others due to their race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or social background are incredibly blatant.  As I write this article, the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida has just recently occurred.  Over one hundred individuals were physically injured or killed – and untold others have been emotionally scarred by this senseless violence.

Being born in America in the late twentieth century, I have been fortunate to be raised in a culture of relative peace.  But over the last decade, and particularly through the rise of social media and online news reporting, violence has been sensationalized and made more immediately pressing.  We have become inundated with scenes of horror.  And at the same time, we have increasingly become desensitized to it.  Our “entertainment” has become increasingly brutal, almost to the point of gladiatorial events.  Video games and mainstream films are dominated by graphic violence.  These systems almost purport the idea that an acceptable way to deal with anger and frustration is to go hurt another individual.  That taking a life costs very little and is not terribly damning, according to America’s entertainment.

Moreover, our desensitization extends even more heavily to groups that do not directly include us.  “What does it matter if tens of thousands of people are slaughtered in Syria; we don’t know them, they’re a different culture, and that’s just part of what ‘those people’ do.  Who cares if sixty-four citizens of Chicago were shot over Memorial Day weekend, as they are predominantly poor, black men; and that doesn’t really include me.  So what if a room full of LGBTQ-identified people are lit up by a radicalized homophobe with a semi-automatic rifle? I’m not gay; it’s not my problem.”  It seems that feeling separateness and apathy has become the dominant perspective of Americans and the West in general.

And here’s the problem: if we just identify with the small group with which we surround ourselves, then – you’re right – it doesn’t matter.  If we just identify with being white: it’s a black people problem.  If we’re Christian: it’s an Islamic problem.  If we’re straight: it’s a gay problem.  If we live in a first world country: it’s a third world problem.  Whatever your vantage may be, it’s easy to isolate oneself and decide it really doesn’t matter because it does not immediately affect you.  With the rise of social media, online messaging, and increasing globalization, the goal we must all strive to reach is the understanding of this: all of these struggles are HUMAN problems.

It does not matter your race or ethnographic heritage, it does not matter your religious ideology or spiritual tradition, it does not matter your country of residence or gender identity: the welfare of all human beings is of concern for each of us.  Violence against another living creature – human or animal – is NEVER an appropriate act.  Intentionally causing pain to another being is ALWAYS wrong and unjustified.  I comprehend that we all have hurts, fears, prejudices, misunderstandings, and more; but it is our work as human beings to resolve those conflicts WITHIN OURSELVES.  It is our task to become free, loving, accepting, and tolerant inside.  It’s too lofty of a goal to say we must love and embrace one another as brothers and sisters, but we can surely achieve tolerance and compassion for our fellow humans.  These are some of the simplest skills we teach small children in preschool; surely adults can conquer such.

This is a goal every citizen of Earth can attain within his or her lifetime: cultivating empathy for the whole human race.  Teach your children to respect and listen to their classmates.  Console a neighbor in his time of suffering.  Forgive the woman who wronged you in the past.  Speak love.  Teach kindness.  Practice forgiveness.  And remember two of the “golden rules” I heard frequently while growing up: “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you” and “If you haven’t anything nice to say, then don’t say it at all.”  Those simple childhood guidelines could have worked wonders had the attackers in any of the recent shootings taken them to heart.

We can choose to focus on the discord, the pain, the suffering – or we can choose to focus on the good.  Pay attention to the people in your community helping one another.  Thank the stranger who went out of her way to pay you a small courtesy.  Bake some cookies for a friend just to let them know that you love them and wish them a nice day.  Find ways to cultivate kindness, generosity, heartfelt gratitude, and love.  We can only change the world by changing ourselves.  So let’s start with that.  Begin espousing the behaviors and views that you want the media and the world around you to exhibit.  Recognize your place as a global citizen.  We’ve got a long way yet to go towards unity; but we can make it there, step by step and inch by inch, if we just put in a little work ourselves every day.

Namaste (the peace within me bows to the peace within you, inside we are all one).

Art and words by: Kaelan Strouse

Learning to Love One’s Self

As humans, we are a mass of contradictions.  “I am a good person” can often be paired with “I am selfish.”  When getting dressed for the evening, “I look great” can live alongside “I look like crap.”  So often throughout the day our minds can fluctuate between “I am a star” to “I am nobody,” or “I am amazing” to “I am less than shit,” or “I am so lovable” to “I am unworthy of love.”  This is the human condition: to continually fluctuate in our perception and understanding of who and what we are.

From the Western perspective, we are supposed to solidify our identity and construct a strong persona.  “I am Kaelan.  I am six feet, one inch tall.  I am relatively handsome.  I am smart, kind, and trustworthy.  I am a loyal partner.  I have a clever wit and am generally well liked by individuals.” And according to this view, the more we reinforce those ideas, the more secure and happy we will live.  But what happens when those opposing thoughts creep in, as they will do?  What then?  Do we let the whole foundation of our self-understanding and self-confidence dissolve?  If we cannot quantify and label ourselves, then who are we?

In Eastern philosophy, there is the idea of “samskara.”  This word roughly translates to mean “impression.”   Every experience we have in our life leaves an impression on our subtle body.  Imagine, if you will, a man made out of tin.  With every experience he undergoes, another little dent is made on his metal exterior, pushing it inwards.  Over time, those dents and divots will accumulate, pushing his surface further and further towards his hollow core, until he eventually turns into a ball of metal.  He went from an open and expansive being to a contracted, solid mass.  This metaphor illustrates the exact same process that happens to us internally as we live our lives.  As little children, we start out open and free; but as life experiences accumulate, we continuously contract until we become dense, heavy, and constricted.

Not only do we have to contend with the myriad experiences we’ve undergone in this life, but (if we are still following Eastern logic) also from every previous life we’ve ever lived, which can be many.  This means that we have centuries of impressions pressing on us, pressuring us to contract, that we must overcome.  Now, going back to my original point about the difficulty in attempting to succinctly label our identities, it furthermore means that old impressions can surface and contradict longstanding opinions we have about ourselves.  Have you ever had a strange thought come into your awareness seemingly unassociated with your usual train of logic?  Yet it seems unusually potent?  This could be an old samskara surfacing.

We are assembled by layer after layer of impressions, each vying for our focus and our willingness to include it in our definition of “this is who I am.”  We are filled with so many contradicting identities and desires that it becomes impossible to pin any one down as “this is me.”   Yogic philosophy says that in our previous lives we have been every different gender, race, sexual orientation, belief system, religion, etc.  Because of these opposing and overlapping experiences, the more we try to limit ourselves to any box, the more we realize that we don’t really fit.

“As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.”

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of self-help books.  One of the common themes of this genre is the importance of positive thinking and trying to identify with only the more happy thoughts that bubble forth.  It encourages creating affirmations to affix your amazingness in your psyche.  And book after book, I found myself failing at this.  I felt like I was attempting it well, but my results were lackluster.  I felt frustrated with myself for not being better at this.

Then, when I was twenty, I discovered meditation.  Specifically, a meditation practice rooted in Kashmir Shaivism, Vedanta, and Vajrayana Buddhist practices.  What all those foreign words mean is that it was no longer was about identifying with my positive thoughts.  I discovered that ALL thoughts – the good and the bad, happy and the sad – all sprung from my samskaras.  And that I was actually none of them.  Going back to the image of the tin man, I was the empty space between the sheets of tin.  I was pure awareness.  The thoughts floating into my mind were merely distractions from the pure bliss, truth, and light that occupied the space within me.

Moreover, this emptiness inside was actually none other than the pure awareness of God.  I am God, God is me.  In this lineage/tradition of meditation, I discovered an understanding of non-dualism.  This means that there is no separation between myself and the divine, or the divine and, say, a tree.  Every physical item on Earth (and indeed the whole cosmos) is nothing but pure divine awareness manifested in physical form.  Just as light can express itself as both a particle or a wave – so too, divine awareness can express itself through energy or physical matter.  This is the very substance of current quantum research: everything can be in both the physical and non-substantial form simultaneously.

As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.  Life began to feel like a sea of interconnected awareness, rather than my previous vantage as being an isolated being alone in the world.  I began to identify less with “I am so-and-so and I do this and I won that,” but “I am pure, I am love, I am bliss, I am everything, I am nothing.”   In India there is a very famous mantra: “Om Namah Shivaya.”   It roughly translates to mean: “I bow down to my Inner Self, the Self of all.”  The same radiant light within me is the same light within each of us.  It is merely the layer after layer of samskara that prevents us from seeing it.

To illustrate this point: imagine a big bowl of cookie dough.  This represents pure cosmic awareness; the dough is God.  Well, a chef comes along and breaks up the dough into little balls.  And the balls start to forget that they are actually all the same dough; they identify as being differentiated.  And the chef then dips some in chocolate chips, totally covering their surfaces and hiding the dough beneath.  He dips others in sprinkles.  Maybe a few fall in the trash and get covered in garbage.  Now, the balls think “I am chocolate” or “I am rainbows” or “I am rubbish.”  But, really, they are ALL still cookie dough; they’ve just forgotten their true selves.

It’s common adage to hear spiritual masters say: “You don’t need to become enlightened, you already are.  You just need to remember.”  In order to do so, we must meditate.  Through the process of sitting in meditation every single day, we actually buff out those samskaras, those dents.  We expand outwards, recreating that inner openness that has been constricted by time and experiences.  By cultivating a daily practice, we become more free, happy, and alive.  While my earlier attempts to become happy and confident through positive thinking failed, I soon began to find the happiness and joy I sought by letting go of identifying my thoughts as being “me.”  I continue to learn that I am so much more.  I am God.  I am Consciousness.  I am Bliss.

This is why my home is filled with artwork and photos of enlightened yogis, gurus, great saints, and Tibetan and Indian deities.  Each depiction is a connection to a being who has realized total and complete identification of their cosmic selves.  And when we gaze lovingly at them, they can inspire that same state within us.   It’s why it’s so important to seek out these beings and have them in our lives.  The space within us resonates with the vaster space inside of them and begins to grow.  We begin to feel the same expansiveness that they have attained.  And soon it’s no longer “Kaelan from Chicago,” but “I am light.  I am joy.  I am truth.”  I am bliss. And so are you.

Namaste (the divine in me bows to the divine in you.  Inside we are all one).

Art and Words by: Kaelan Strouse

Buddha photo by: Michael Fawcett

Why We Need to Choose our Surroundings Consciously

A few months ago I moved from Chicago, Illinois to sunny Los Angeles.  I left the gloom of winter with its perpetually frozen sidewalks for the warm and welcoming air of southern California.  It is the home of television, web, and cinema industries – as well as fake breasts, fluffy dogs, and reflective sunglasses.  Seven sports cars on every street corner.  Bikinis as an appropriate fashion choice while shopping at the mall. Men and women with jewelry on each finger.  My senses have been overwhelmed by the garish and the glamorous clashing together – the beautiful and the bizarre playing equally, side by side.

Over these few months, I have noticed myself acclimating to these unusual sights. I remember an instance when I first arrived in LA and went to sign up for a gym membership.  The young woman who assisted me had inflated her lips with collagen to such a size that I wanted to ask if I could borrow them for my nephew’s swimming lessons.  My grandmother’s pin cushion would have looked more demure on her face than those puffy pink lips.  In addition, her fabricated eyelashes extended so far down her face that they brushed the tops of her cheekbones.  I was surprised she didn’t require a construction crane to leverage her eyelids apart.

But that was just my first day in Los Angeles.  Last week, I came across the same membership advisor, and to my total shock I found her face inline with what I now perceive as “natural.”  It no longer seemed exaggerated to me – even though I’m certain the lips and eyelashes were of the same proportions.  My perception of what is “normal” has changed by being indoctrinated into a culture where what is excessive elsewhere is merely commonplace.  What would be considered a monstrosity in the Midwest seems elegant in LA.

And this change in perception frightens me.  Within such a short period of time, my spectrum of what is acceptable has shifted.  And while this type of shift has been very positive at other times in my life (such as learning to see my sexuality as a gift and blessing), I am pretty confident that I do not want to adopt the appreciation of excess that is so prevalent here.  I do not want to think that “more” and “bigger” is “better,” or that outer façades are the most important attributes of a human being.  I want to see a person with facial characteristics blown up past anything nature would have provided as being comical. I don’t want to loose my ability to discern the exaggerated from the sincere.

When I reflect on what attributes I would like my surroundings to encourage, the following come to mind: empathy, simplicity in living, compassion, sincerity, truthfulness, creativity, and seeing the innate perfection already existing in all living beings.  And I am not sure that this La La Land culture cares about all these qualities – nay, even some of them.  The question then becomes whether I should endure here and fight against the dominant culture, or seek a home elsewhere.  If I stay, I realize that it will require cultivating a strong support network of individuals that harmonize with my vision of the world and remind me what is truly important for real happiness and wellbeing. I don’t want the way that the majority of Angelenos see the world to become my prevailing vantage.

“I sincerely wish to cultivate a life where I see myself as already perfect, and that true attractiveness comes from my inner light shining brightly outwards.”

Throughout history there have been examples of men and women who have stood against hate, bias, anger, and public disapproval, and endured.  They became beacons of hope for people to emulate. But is that the best way to build a life (since it’s certainly not the easiest)?  Would those people have chosen to weather those storms had they been able to go elsewhere? Do I want to become a lighthouse, rising above the salty waves and winds that attempt to pull me back into the deep of superficiality? Wouldn’t I be better suited in a culture that cherishes the same values as I?

Several decades ago, a great meditation master named Swami Muktananda talked about this very topic.  He called it “paying attention to the company you keep.”  In many of his books, he discussed how we will rise or fall to the general level of the individuals surrounding us.  For the past seven years of my life, I lived in a yogic ashram.  I was surrounded by a community of spiritual aspirants.  Every day we meditated, chanted, cooked healthy food, did selfless service.  Everyone was interested in growing and cultivating their best selves.  The people that surrounded me had qualities I aspired to attain.  Furthermore, I had wonderful family, childhood friends, artistic collaborators, and an amazing partner nearby to help raise my level.  I yearned to be the mean of the wonderful people surrounding me.

Since coming to LA, I have been entirely on my own. There has been practically no one here with whom I interact with on a regular basis.  So does that mean that I am now the average of the few people I see with any regularity – such as the grocery clerk at Whole Foods, or the neighbor that’s bitter and resentful of everyone?  Certainly, I am still in regular contact with my loved ones from back home, but they aren’t physically here with me.  And that provides a unique challenge for identifying my actual peer group.

A more recent figure that has similarly stressed the importance of our surroundings is Warren Buffett; he calls this practice “Marrying Up.” Mr. Buffett articulates this as choosing a spouse that is more amazing than yourself, and inspires you so completely that you begin to pick up their best qualities.  He argues to choose the same for one’s most intimate circle of friends.  I do feel tremendously blessed that I have “married up” in terms of my partner and my closest friendships. I have some truly fantastic people in my life.  But these fools aren’t here with me.  And, frankly, FaceTime isn’t quite the same as a real life interaction.

So what’s a yokel to do?  Shall I stay here and “batten down the hatches” for a spell, enduring the toxic waters?  Or do I find a more amicable culture in which to reside?  If I stay, then I certainly need friends, family, and my partner here with me, as well as finding locals that mesh with my priorities and worldview.  I am scared, though, that I will travel further down this abyss of superficiality and decide months from now that such practices as injecting human growth hormone or melatonin II as being acceptable life choices because is so permissible here – and it plays upon my insecurities of being too skinny and pale.  I sincerely wish to cultivate a life where I see myself as already perfect, and that true attractiveness comes from my inner light shining brightly outwards.

I suppose it comes down to this: our surroundings have a profound effect on us.  What matters most is that we become conscious of what those influences are so we can choose to flow with them, or fortify against them.  We all have blessed areas of our lives: people or institutions that remind us of our innate worth, beauty, intelligence, and god-like spark.  We all also have areas in our lives that encourage our deepest fears and tensions to multiply.  As an actor I am in an industry that can sometimes highlight these constricted and dark areas of my psyche; but the art form also has the capacity to bring light, joy, laughter, enlightenment to many individuals.  Ultimately, it doesn’t so much matter where we are, so long as we are using our lives to make ourselves better than we were yesterday and make the world a better place.  It’s all a journey – and we might as well enjoy the surroundings.  For the vistas will change before we even notice them passing.

Namaste (The enlightened part of me bows to the enlightened part of you – inside we are one.)

 

Art and words by:  Kaelan Strouse