Originally published February 2021 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org

The Greeks acknowledged love’s nuances with many names. This year my Valentine goes out to America, wishing for a wave of love to sweep over our land, an upswelling of pragma, the word the Greeks used for a love built on commitment, understanding, and long-term best interests. Like building a business, or a family. Or a country.

With lyrics that point out laughable looks, flawed figure, weak mouth, and questionable intelligence, the old song “My Funny Valentine” is a kind of backhanded compliment, ending with the admonition not to change. While it can be comforting to hear that imperfections are lovable, any attempt to avoid change flies in the face of reality.

So we might as well acknowledge that America cannot help but change. And that’s a good thing. Much as we may love our country, it started out with — and still has — enormous imperfections, the content and character of which have changed over the centuries. Today our challenge is to find common ground in the midst of ever more raucous contention. 

What can we learn by looking back in time? When disparate colonies only recently shed of British rule yoked themselves together, how did they manage their differences? It no doubt helped that they were all privileged white men, a homogeneity reflecting society’s norms about power back then. That, coupled with conviction that reasonable men could overcome differences to work for the common good, gave birth to a Constitution that sought to honor the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

As in a marriage of convenience, individual parties saw potential mutual benefit. The language is right there in the Preamble: in order to form a more perfect union and, among other goals, insure domestic tranquility. Like a prenuptial agreement enacted slightly after the fact, the Constitution considered what each party brought to the union. Factoring in the state of their states — no easy job — they aspired to write a social contract as binding as a marriage contract, which was considerably more binding then — socially if not legally — than it is today. 

It’s not surprising that the resulting document was full of compromises, checks, and balances; as always, parties favored their own positions and tried to protect their interests. What is surprising is that it has held up as well as it has, even if it did take a bloody separation to start the phrase “all men” on its slow process of expanding to acknowledge that those rights belong to not only white men, but also men of color, and eventually women too. 

It has been a long haul. Ladies Home Journal was first published less than twenty years after the Civil War ended. Many decades later when it arrived in our mailbox each month I grabbed it to read my favorite feature: “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Fascinated by glimpses of personal lives beyond my nuclear family, I pored over the articles in which a wife and husband each presented their perspectives before a marriage counselor weighed in with advice that, as I recall, generally suggested the wife accommodate her husband. 

Watching the storming of the Capitol last month, I found myself wondering, Can This Union Be Saved? It may be a categorial simplification but I think it holds some truth: those on the right think that those on the left have no appreciation for America, its virtues or the values it was founded on, while those on the left think the others want to return to an imaginary golden age that is really a code for restoring white supremacy. When some find little to admire in a country founded on theft of land and labor, and others condemn what they see as the abandonment of traditional values, it’s no wonder contempt runs rampant.  

The pandemic has increased our inclination to turn online and has thereby enhanced the echo chamber effect. We mostly seek out those who think like us. If we do go to sites that feature other views, it’s often just to throw flames, or shade, or simply confirm in our own minds how stupid and/or evil they are. Contempt.

And it turns out, from research observing couples and following them over time, contempt is the greatest single predictor of divorce. But science also offers some hope because, although we’re hardwired to like those who are most like us, neuroplasticity means we have the ability to recognize and override not only that inherent tendency, but also the conditioned responses we’ve picked up over time. 

We have to work hard to stretch enough to feel the humanity of those who don’t think like us. We have to recognize and renounce violent intentions, even if others proudly display guillotines or nooses at protests. If we were in a marriage that was in trouble, we might seek a counselor, or mediation, but in this case remediation needs to begin within each one of us. 

In his inaugural address, President Biden suggested we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. The way we open our souls, regardless of what we believe about the nature of the soul, is by meeting our everyday minds — the thoughts and emotions that we cultivate, often without even noticing. If we do, we discover that we have the ability to change. Consciously. Because if we do choose to stay together and make this union a more perfect one, we have to be willing to do the work to open our hearts to others. Even if we don’t agree with them.

So this valentine to America is really a valentine to all of us. For all our faults, past and present, America is still a beacon. We saw this in the world’s reaction to events last month. Will we live up to its promise? History has its eyes on us. Can pragma prevail?

Originally published December 2019 for AMT

Mr. Rogers is having a moment, as they say. When he was in his prime, my childhood was long past and my children not yet born, so I was only vaguely aware of who he was. To the extent I thought of him at all, I saw him as a nerdy figure, the epitome of uncool, a milquetoast male Pollyanna. I was blinded by these preconceptions for many years.

I only really woke to the true nature of Mr. Rogers last year. After watching something disturbing –  it could have been most anything, with so much to choose from, but whatever it was is now long forgotten – I didn’t want to end the night with those images in mind. So I looked for something else and stumbled on the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

After watching for a while, I began to feel anxious, expecting the inevitable clay feet to show up. But that turned out to be yet another preconception, and the documentary ended with me in tears, inspired by Fred Rogers’ odd wholesomeness and relentless display of decency. Then last week, I went to the movies for the first time in more than a year because I wanted to see Tom Hanks, an actor reputed to be quite decent himself, on the big screen as the man I’ve taken as a new hero.

I’m not alone. Though he’s been dead more than fifteen years, Mr. Rogers’ spirit is being resurrected these days by people tired of the hatred and hopelessness so fashionable in our culture now. Back when television was new, Fred Rogers saw a show for children in which adults smashed pies in each other’s faces. He thought that was sending the wrong message. Believing that television could be a force of goodness in the world, he dedicated his life to that vision and countless children, as well as quite a few adults, came to look at life, their feelings, and each other with a little more wisdom.

Last year at this time I wrote about the editor’s answer to Virginia, the little girl who wanted to know if Santa Claus was real. This year I read something that may top that perennially favorite response. It’s one of those internet stories the precise origin of which is impossible to determine, but it would be wonderful if its message went viral. I paraphrase:

A boy approached his father with determination, announcing that he’s old enough to know the truth about Santa Claus. After warning his son that you can’t unknow the truth, and hearing his son say he’s ready to handle it, the father says, “Yes, Santa is real. But he’s not a man in a red suit. You know all those presents you’ve gotten from Santa over the years? I bought those, and I didn’t care a bit about getting credit for it. Santa is an idea – and an ideal – of generosity without expecting anything in return, even gratitude. And now that you know that, you too have a responsibility to spread the spirit of Santa in the world.”

In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who, rather than preaching at him to be a better person, shuttle him through holidays past, present, and future, showing him the inevitable consequences of his hard-hearted, greedy habits. Scrooge wakes up, quite literally, to the error of his ways and becomes a force for good in the world. Fred Rogers, although he was an ordained minister, was a force for good not by preaching, but by talking. Slowly. Kindly. With respect for everything human. 

One of his main messages for children, a message that many adults need to hear these days, was the importance of acknowledging your feelings. You don’t have to be afraid of them, or hide them; whatever is mentionable can be manageable, he would say. Another favorite theme was that we are all special and fine just as we are. Among other good qualities, the values of curiosity, appreciation, and compassion were practiced more than preached in the neighborhood.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie was when Mr. Rogers’ wife admonished the reporter writing about her husband not to call him a saint. Again, I paraphrase, but of his relentless positive attitude and kindness, she said something like “He works at it. He practices.”

Which, of course, made me think of the practice of meditation. My favorite definition of meditation is that it is the continual act of making friends with yourself. You don’t have to change yourself or be in any way different, you just have to be willing to take the time and muster the intention to look at what’s there. Kindly. Gently. Honestly.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the regular half-hour program, ran for many years, but Fred Rogers made only one holiday special. In it, probably bearing in mind his many disparate viewers, he gave the holiday a made-up name, a nine-syllable nonsense word that the puppet, King Friday XIII, says can be translated as “what a difference one person can make.” And in it, Mr. Rogers, in the spirit of generosity without expecting anything in return, said this:

“I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to give you for Christmas. I’d really like to give you something that just fits your own wishes and needs the way these shoes just fit me. I suppose the thing I’d like most to be able to give you is hope. Hope that through your own doing and your own living with others, you’ll be able to find what best fits for you in this life…I, for one, wish you good memories of this holiday. And I hope you’ll be able to look for all the different ways that people have of showing that they love you.”

Psychologists generally agree that in order to truly love others, we must first love ourselves. Peace on earth starts with peace within. Consider giving yourself the gift of taking the time to meet your own mind. If enough of us do, future holidays may see the ghost of Santa Rogers smiling as goodness blesses us, every one. And that will be humanity having a moment!

Originally published November 2018 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org


With no family nearby, this year we’ll be spending Thanksgiving with friends, sharing the cooking. Our host will cook the turkey. I said I’d bring dressing and deviled eggs, and offered to make the gravy just before the meal. “Oh, would you?” My friend was pleased. “That’s always so tricky.” She’s not the first person I’ve heard say something like that. It started a train of thought that led me to contemplate grace.

Grace and gratitude share a Latin root, gratus, meaning pleasing. But in life we can count on some things being unpleasant. And every generation may think so, but these seem like such tumultuous times that I wonder how we might muster the civility to build a harmonious society.

Imagine if we could somehow catalyze a movement toward principled compromise. Toward respectful dialogue. Toward appreciating what we have in common. We might actually invoke a state of grace on the state of our nation. And even our world. That truly would be amazing grace and something to be thankful for indeed.

Pondering, I realize what grace and gravy have in common: a recipe can only take you so far. Even if you gather the right components and create the conditions conducive to your desired result, an excellent outcome will still depend on a little luck. Or magic. With that in mind, though I can’t offer a fool-proof recipe, here’s at least a partial ingredient list that might, if you’re persistent and lucky, invite grace to your table.


Grace before meals expresses gratitude, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, it expresses humility. It’s an acknowledgement of all that we can’t control, of appreciation for what we’ve been given, and of aspiration for what we would like to have. But modestly, gently; grace is not rude, crude, or overbearing. It’s humble and kind, it keeps its elbows off the table, it joins hands with its neighbor.

The more solidly we hold onto to our opinions and complaints, the harder it is for grace to find us. The ability to identify when we’re caught up — in self-importance and certainty that we’re right — arises from training our minds. To drop all of that calls for a surrender of our habitual patterns. Mindfulness practice helps us develop the ability to get out of our own way.


We all know the sarcastic expression — So happy you decided to grace us with your presence! — but some people really do bestow grace with their presence. I have a friend who unfailingly tries to find the best in people, even those with whom she disagrees. Her kindness is palpable. It elicits from others a willingness to be more open, to share who they are. This skill is especially valuable in contentious times because the more we share our aspirations and admit our fears, the more likely we are to discover how much we have in common.

Being open works both ways. It calls for mindful listening. Really listening. Not to the news channels that channel our opinions right back at us, but to our neighbors. Our co-workers. The people who fix our cars or ring up our purchases. We can cultivate the attitude that there’s no need to be constantly espousing our own point of view quite so vigorously. We can afford to actually pay attention to what others say. It also calls for care in what we say, speaking the truth as we see it, but without aggression. Mindful communication is key to creating community; a healthy community is one that accommodates differences. We can treat one another as if we realize that we’re all on the ride of our lives, common travelers on spaceship earth.


Grace loves to dance with grit, which is what it takes to make a difficult task look easy. Beautiful, even. At the ballet, we don’t look at the dancers and think about their aches and blisters; we don’t see years of hard work. We see a pin-point pirouette, the arc of an arabesque. Grit doesn’t step into grace’s spotlight, but you can count on it being behind the scenes.

Last November, in a post called “Gritty Gratitude,” I wrote about how to appreciate things that aren’t easy for us. It takes grit to be grateful for those who annoy or infuriate us. Some races from last week’s election are still uncertain but one thing is sure: nobody was happy with the outcome of all the races. If our favored candidates didn’t win, we may not feel like being civil. But demonizing or wishing away fellow citizens with whom we disagree merely fills our minds, our media, and our society with more turbulence.

So how can we summon the grit to meet with grace what doesn’t please us?


We can learn to come back. We can stop, for a moment, the constant chatter in our heads and drop into our bodies. We can feel what it feels like to be alive, right here, right now. Athletes display grace in action when they are in the zone; instead of being caught up in thinking about what they’re doing, they are fully immersed in the ongoing flow of the game.

People who exhibit grace under pressure, who set aside personal agendas and reactivity to respond skillfully in crisis, are always the greatest natural resource on the planet. And that is a resource that we have the power to renew. Resting in presence, we find a kind of clarity and the ability to act skillfully that arises from the final, and most essential, element inviting grace:


How in the world do we create space? First, we can try creating a little space in our own minds. Regular mindfulness practice can help, but even if we aren’t able to dedicate time and space to formal meditation practice, we can develop the intention to notice when we’re caught up reacting to things we don’t like. Then we can use that noticing as a cue to take a breath. Taking a conscious breath creates space.

Think about having a heated argument. If you keep blurting out whatever comes to mind, things tend to escalate. But if you take a moment and take a breath, you create space in which you might notice something. Maybe your anger is masking fear. And if you really look at the person you’re arguing with, you might see the possibility that their anger is also rooted in fear. At that point, acknowledging fear in the conversation could transform an argument into a moment of connection. Even if you agree to disagree.

Focusing on what unites rather than what divides us takes grace and more than a modicum of equanimity, qualities that are easier to come by when we aren’t caught up in habitual mental busyness. Underneath the perpetual and often turbulent bumper-to-bumper thinking that’s normal for most of us lies the space of wakeful presence. Mindfulness practice helps us experience that space. And space brings grace.

Whether we think of grace as a gift from God, the universe, or ourselves, we have to be open to receive it; if we’re full of ourselves, there’s no space for anything to come in. If, instead, we open to the space of our own wakeful presence, we just might find we’re the vehicles to be our own saving grace. As for making great gravy, good luck!

Originally published November 2019 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org.


One of the more provocative…and okay, sometimes annoying…slogans in the Buddhist teachings says, “Be grateful to everyone.” Even if we take it as something to aspire to rather than accomplish, it still raises the question, why? Why would I want to be grateful to the person spewing hatred on social media? Or the one yelling at his kid in the grocery store today? Or the woman who invited most of my friends to a party and left me out?

Upon reflection, I came up with three reasons. But first, let’s go a little further down the rabbit hole of unlikely gratitude. What if the slogan took one step more? Be grateful for everything? That could be especially challenging since we tend to divide so much of our experience into the categories of either blessings or afflictions. And why not? It seems obvious. A financial windfall is a blessing. Illness, like the bronchitis that was my companion for several weeks recently, is an affliction to be wished, willed, or medicated away. In this case, preferably in time to avoid interfering with already scheduled cataract surgery. 

Such a surgery could be considered both: a blessing offering potential benefits and an affliction requiring recuperation. Any surgery, however simple, stirs up anxiety; after all, somebody comprises the tiny percentage for whom things go wrong, and it could be you (or your loved one, as I found out not so long ago.) Still, whenever I mentioned cataract surgery, someone told me how easy it had been for them and what a miracle it was to see clearly again.

Such testimonials mitigated my anxiety. Though I decided to go for it, I wasn’t looking forward to it any more than I would a trip to the dentist. So imagine my surprise: it turned out to be entertaining! As any new parent knows, swaddling babies calms them; the operating room staff has adopted that principle. Bundled in sheets, my head cradled at a comfortable angle, the only slight irritation came from the tube in the vein on the back of my hand. Then something cool flowed there and it wasn’t irritating any more, the anesthesiologist having fulfilled his promise of something to take the edge off. Versed, I would later learn.

But back to the entertainment. First came the light show. The doctor said I would see lights, but not how compelling they would be. Bright, slightly shifty, one maintaining its round integrity while another slipped into eclipse mode and the third just hovered. Then this inner light show gained a soundtrack, rhythmic noise that gave way to tootles and moans, like woodwinds and reeds improvising instrumental scat. I asked what it was and the doctor said it was the machine that vacuums out the bits of cataract. I told her it sounded like progressive jazz. “I never heard that before,” she said. Of course, it could have been the Versed.

Relaxing more, I remembered how cataracts had crept up on me, the fuzziness and filtering largely unacknowledged until I found myself wishing for binoculars at Hamilton, unable to bring the actors’ faces into focus. Next signs on the interstate started taking longer to decipher. By the time I went for an eye exam, I wasn’t legal to drive at night in Florida. I got glasses and started learning about cataracts.

As we age, the lenses in our eyes become less flexible, less transparent, and thicker. Tissues break down and clump together, forming cataracts, cloudy filters obscuring clear vision. But thanks to the resourcefulness and skill of generations of researchers, inventors, and surgeons, these days a condition that once led to blindness can be corrected relatively easily.

What a great metaphor for the way our minds age. As we grow older, unless we know how to work with them, our minds too become less flexible. An overlay of preconceptions renders our perceptions less transparent. Our attitudes thicken. Beliefs and storylines clump together and color our experience, filtering and obscuring clarity about our world. Thankfully, this condition doesn’t require surgery. But it does take training in the operation of mindfulness. 

And it is in the operation that the metaphor breaks down. Because in surgery the cataract-thickened lens is shattered into pieces and vacuumed out, after which an artificial lens is inserted to restore the eye’s normal functioning. Without that technological addition, we would be left truly blind. 

But working with our minds, nothing need be gotten rid of and nothing need be added. As we learn to direct our attention to become aware of our thought process, we detect the habitual patterns indigenous to our own inner state, and our previously solid sense of who we are — replete with constant self-reference, ossified opinions, and automatic reactivity — starts coming unglued. 

But the pieces — our tendencies of thought, word, and deed — don’t need to be vacuumed out; instead, awareness of them renders them transparent, thus less likely to confuse us. And no artificial lens is needed because wakeful presence, our basic nature, the lens of awareness, is always clear. Though it may be temporarily obscured by our habitual patterns, thoughts do not adhere and thus can never stain it the way cataracts do the lens in our eye. Wakeful presence will inevitably emerge, just as the clear blue sky does when clouds dissolve.

Certain habits of mind tend to dispel inner clouds and invite wakeful presence to take its natural place in our lives. Gratitude is one such tendency. If you get in the habit of it, you’ll probably come up with even more but for now, consider at least these three reasons to be grateful to everyone and for everything: 

First, because you don’t know what’s coming next. I’m reminded of the Taoist story about the farmer whose neighbors, when his horse ran away, decried his bad luck. “Maybe, maybe not,” he said. The horse returned with several other wild horses, adding to his stock and prompting neighborly comments about his good luck. “Maybe, maybe not,” he said again. In trying to tame the wild horses, his son got a broken leg. Bad luck? You know what he said. Then the king’s recruiters came around to draft young men for the army but his son with the broken leg was spared. The moral being it’s hard to tell what’s good and what’s bad when you’re in the thick of it, so even if you don’t think you can be grateful, it’s at least wise to suspend judgement.

Second, because your energy affects the environment you inhabit and curiosity engenders more benefit than complaint. So even if you aren’t thankful right away, at least evince a little inquisitiveness about what lessons you might learn about yourself or the world if you were to take what’s happening as exactly what you need.

Third, because reality beats opinion every time and as long as you are alive and paying attention, you get to experience it. And that tendency we have to divide experience into blessings and afflictions is, in itself, a tenacious and pernicious affliction. Everything in life is worthy of being your path, if you change your attitude and relax as it is.

Oh yes. That last is another one of those annoying Buddhist slogans!

Originally published November 2017 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org


Two cashiers were working the front of the store. It wasn’t an organized “wait here for the next available” situation, but people were standing back queued up just the same, waiting for whichever cashier finished first. Taking my place at the end of the line, I waited and finally made it to the front. Eagerly eyeing the customer who’d finished paying as she put her change away, I was edging forward when a man strode up and plopped his six-pack on the counter in front of “my” clerk.

“Excuse me,” I said to him. “I was waiting here for the next cashier.”

“I know,” he said. Turning his back to me, he took out his wallet. The flood of feelings and thoughts that arose in me at that moment are probably best left undescribed, but I assure you they weren’t ignored. Irritation is excellent grist for insight’s mill.

This is good to remember now that the holiday season is upon us again. Last week across America people gathered and gave thanks. Before you know it we’ll be ringing in another new year. In between, tasty food, lively libations, congenial companionship, and general goodwill are the kind of things it’s easy to be grateful for, and being grateful is good for us. Science shows that an attitude of gratitude confers all sort of benefits.

But what about all that other stuff? The holiday hubbub, mandatory celebrations, traffic, rude people, and other aggravations can get under our skin and our first reaction isn’t usually gratitude. It takes work to learn how to appreciate things that trigger us, but it’s work worth the trouble. Because if you dismiss the idea of appreciating life’s aggravations as nuts, you miss out on a real source of wisdom, as well as a chance to leave future generations a saner world.

When we were children, Thanksgiving seemed uncomplicated. But if we pay attention, eventually we notice that what counts as a blessing depends on one’s perspective. There are more than seven billion unique perspectives on earth these days, and while these differing perspectives can create conflict, they can also create rich situations.

Consider the holidays: when family and friends congregate, conversations and competitions follow. Intertwined personal histories and expectations generate dramas. Then, as they say about movies, hilarity ensues. Except when it doesn’t. Because, whether we’re talking about relatives or nations, there’s nothing like history and expectations to create awkward situations, or worse.

Our reaction to conflict around the table may be to flee. Or to stick around and try to fix other people, like the uncle holding forth on politics we can’t stand, or the sister who won’t discipline her children. Giving thanks for the food on the table is easy; what’s harder to appreciate is the chronic complainer, or the chaos of competing chatter, or the person who manages always to be elsewhere at clean-up time.

But those challenges help make us aware of what we’re carrying within. Each of us has a kind of inner baggage consisting of tendencies of all sorts. Some of them help bring blessings into this world, and some of them…well, let’s just say that while they may generate heat, they rarely shed much light. But if we pay attention to our feelings instead of trying to get rid of whatever triggers them, it invites insight.

Trying to get rid of things that bother us is like wanting to cover the earth with leather because the ground hurts our feet. Staying present with irritation instead of jumping to react creates the space that allows a more nuanced perspective to arise. Then we can make a conscious choice about how to respond. It’s more like covering the soles of our feet with leather. What a great idea! And these metaphorical shoes, unlike ruby slippers that might transport us elsewhere, instead help keep our feet firmly on the ground, even when it’s rocky.

When we’re caught up in the heat of the moment and burning to do something – maybe even something we already know we’ll regret later – the attention we’ve cultivated makes it more likely that we’ll notice we’re on fire. Then we can apply a subtler version of the instructions kids are taught for what to do if they’re on fire: we can stop, drop, and roll. And we’re the only ones who’ll even know we’re doing it.

Stop. Instead of firing back at the object of our irritation, we can stop and pay attention. Just remembering to notice will cut reactivity’s momentum.


Drop. Then we can drop into the present and discern tendencies that recur when we’re triggered: how we feel in our bodies, what our thought patterns are, whether we’re remembering to breathe. Creating this momentary gap allows us to remember that we have a choice about how to inhabit this particular moment in time and space. The process, which may take only seconds, ideally ends with our asking ourselves “What will bring benefit now?”


Roll. Then we roll. And roll with it.

Because let’s face it: life – meaning circumstances and other people – will inevitably offer up everything from minor annoyances to heartbreaking tragedies. The times that try our souls are the ones that determine whether we’re what Thomas Paine called “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.” And at such times we can ask ourselves, Am I running around spreading flames of conflict? Am I trying to smooth out the road of life, one patch at a time? Or am I willing to take responsibility for unpacking my own inner baggage?

C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” When we pay attention to our inner experience, we don’t need to do so much shouting in the world around us. The things that push our buttons can launch us into the space of insight in which, with our minds clear and our hearts open, we can see what the situation needs.

Then, instead of reacting with annoyance, we can respond with whatever will help. Which is nice not only during the holidays, but in all seasons. And that’s something everyone can be grateful for. Even people who cut in the checkout line.