BLESSINGS for Everyone!

I recently had a conversation with a friend.  She – unlike my parents who have said something like this to me for years – was finally able to get through to me an idea that I have never before been able to truly take in.

It’s about comparison.

She pointed out to me how much of my life I spend evaluating others – and by extension, myself.  This person is highly attractive – this person not so much.  This person is successful – this person is less than.  This person is talented – this person is a want-to-be.

And, more or less the same, to me too.

I’m attractive – or not.  I’m successful – or not.  I’m talented – or not.

And over the years, throughout my spiritual quest, I have managed to consciously manipulate this pattern so I believe: “Well, that person may be rich, but that doesn’t give them happiness.  That person may be homeless – but they could still be able to find contentment.  That person may have killer abs, but does that really make him sleep better at night in the arms of a person who loves him unendingly?”

I would and do remind myself that nothing in this world guarantees joy – and in the end, we will loose everything physical and tangible to age, decay, and time.

So I’d say: “Yeah – they’re hot… but so what?!”

But what my friend pointed so eloquently out to me is this:

I’m living in a contestant state of “better than.”  Even if I’m reminding myself that their gifts may be temporary and lacking deep satisfaction, I’m still evaluating.

This mindset is one of lack.  One of insufficiency.

There’s only so much beauty – and it’s a competition.  There’s only so much success – and it’s a competition. Or, even, there’s only so much enlightenment – and it’s also a competition.

Instead of just blessing them and feeling grateful for them, and myself, wherever they/we are.

When I see someone with many riches: I bless them.  When I see someone lacking: I bless them.

I bless everyone.  And love them.  And thank the heavens for their gifts.  Love them for what they have.

And let go of the last shards of envy I still carry with me.

It’s so easy to build up a self-perception by one’s many attributes.  To define one’s self by one’s successes and failures.  Best features and ugly distractors.

Instead of just being thankful.  Instead of just being grateful.  FOR EVERYTHING.

So this is my new goal:  Just be deeply grateful.

Celebrate others’ gifts because they’re worth celebrating.  Instead of measuring myself up to them, just say: Bless them.

Love them.

Send them light and happiness and joy from the heart of the universe.

I’m not sure this’ll be easy – but I think it’ll be heartily worthwhile.

I want to find this non-dualistic, this non-better-than outlook.

I want to embrace the beauty of all.  The grace of all.  The light in all.

It’s going to be a monumental mind-shift.  And I invite you to join me on this journey.  See if we can both reprogram our minds to just see what light there is in others.  And not decipher who burns the brighter.

To just let life be as it is – and give thanks.

This is my opportunity to grow.

Care to join?

Letting Go of Needing to Be Extraordinary

I remember in high school being quite taken with the not-quite-so-authentic-or-inspired lyrics of Avril Lavigne:

“I want to know that I

Have been to the extreme

So knock me off my feet

Come on now give it to me

Anything to make me feel alive

Is it enough to love?

Is it enough to breath?

Somebody rip my heart out

And leave me here to bleed

Is it enough to die?

Somebody save my life

I’d rather be anything but ordinary please”

Like I said, not entirely the most inspired bit of song writing ever penned to paper… but it encapsulated a desire that was beginning to pressurize in my chest; a desire to do great and extraordinary things in my life.

An excerpt taken from my daily journal around this same teenage-time reveals my own, modest ambitions towards achieving greatness:

Sept 16, 2002

Life Goals:

  • President of the United States
  • Prime Minister of Britain
  • Be knighted
  • Win at least two Academy Awards for Best Director an Actor
  • Win a Tony Award for Best Actor
  • Win a Nobel Peace Prize

…the list went on from there with at least fifteen more items of a similar nature.  Although I am relatively confident that my fourteen-year-old self was cognizant enough to realize that  A) Several of the items in that list would be tactically impossible due to different laws and regulations, such as nationality; B) Would take multiple life times to fulfill, if at all; and C) Would require substantially different skill-sets and life orientations – and yet, I am not so certain I was fully aware of the unfeasibility of such.

The craving within me to achieve something “Great” was profound beyond measure.  I recollect lying on a heap of crumpled comforter, on the floor of my parent’s master bedroom at sixteen, having my first-ever legitimate panic attack due to the fact that should have already attained something publicly noteworthy and profound in my already advancing years of age.

Long story short: I was a nut-job, hellbent for glory, and totally disconnected with any deep sense of self-worth.

I wanted the profoundly extra-ordinary to manifest in my life and convince me that I was merely good enough.

Sound like a current President we all have the misfortune to be currently acquainted with?

At that time in my life, I really did not have a lot going on to teach me my inherent worth.  I had few (if any) real friendships, I was scared of most everyone I encountered, I was bullied horrendously, I was totally disconnected from my sexuality, and so repressed that I considered myself “broken” because I could not feel what other normal teenagers felt.  I felt really worthless.

And I wanted something glorious beyond measure to tell me I had worth – because I could not find it in myself.

And so, going to college shortly thereafter, I decided to become a professional actor – because assuredly Hollywood and the thundering applause of a raucous crowed would give me that fulfillment.  And, if it wouldn’t be tangibly possible to attain all of those checkpoints on my high school to-do list, at least onscreen I could play a President, King, Physicist and Astronaut and achieve some feeling of that attainment.

Well, life, as she has a way of doing, has kicked me in the gut and pulled the rug out from underneath me, knocking me down, enough times since that point that I began to question that longing.  Why did I want to be a movie star?  What was I afraid of in starting to date other people (something I did not attempt until I was twenty-five years of age)?

Long story cut very short: I eventually started to develop sincere self worth.  I started to learn my “size.”  Learn to know what I had to genuinely offer and what was mere aggrandizement.  I started to genuinely connect to who I truly was, what I wanted, and what I had to give.

A large step in that process for me was discovering meditation.  I truly credit it for giving me my life back.  It taught me to start removing the layers of facade I had unintentionally fabricated, to uncover my truest self beneath.

And – it simultaneously connected me with the mystical – the ethereal – and the divine.

I moved into a meditation ashram right after college – where I learned that I was “special.”   I had unique karma to encounter this practice.  I was blessed.  And that I had a chance to go beyond what normal humans experienced – and live a life that was truly “extraordinary.”

Wait… Sound familiar?  … somehow I traded one dream of self-aggrandizement for another.

In hind sight, I do see there was a dangerous mentality to the tradition I entered.  A promise of specialness. A guarantee of life being more than normal humans (outside the practice) could understand.  And that gave me purpose and a feeling of divine grace.

And then, as all false-idols must, my sacred imaginings shattered to the ground.  The leaders that promised this mystical and otherworldly ideal were revealed to be more human than they presented themselves to be.

And I ended up parting ways from that tradition – heartbroken and distraught.  But still much more alive and authentically myself than I encountered it, thanks to the still-excellent teachings I received.

But in wake of that leaving, I once again have found that craving inside me to be “extraordinary” resurfacing.

Now, I no longer want to be a movie star, or famous, or a figure of social importance.  I actually now desire the simple things: a loving home, a gracious partner, good food, sturdy friendships.

IMG_0478

But there’s part of me that wants something so much more – something that I am now beginning to call a connection to the divine.  My experiences in the ashram started to illuminate some glimpses of that for me.

And if I am totally honest with myself – that longing for something more than what we associate “normal” to be – is indeed a spiritual longing.

A desire to return to a state of pure-bliss, pure-awareness, pure-truth that the ancient rishis and “seers” have articulated existing within each and every one of us.

That the longing for the “Extraordinary” is nothing more than a longing to return home – to my Soul.

Spiritual traditions across the globe have articulated that the Earth is just one place conscious beings reside – and that there are other places that we might be more akin to.  That we are “spirits having a physical experience.”

My question is now for myself: how can I truly appreciate and relish the ordinary – while striving for the extraordinary within me – and not through outer glorification?

How can I cultivate the magic, love, light, and prosperity I feel in glimpses in my meditation in the rest of my waking life?

How can I live a life fully empowered, aware, enheartened, and steadfast?

How can I live in truth?

These are my current questions.  Questions to which I am unsure there are solid answers.

What do you think?  Please share your insights and inspirations below!

Namaste,  Kaelan 🙂

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