We Are The Boss

no masters only you the master is you
wonderful no?

—Ikkyū (trans by Stephen Berg)

The past two weeks we’ve been learning life lessons from Zen poet and monk Ikkyū. Two weeks ago we learned we are happy. Last week we learned we are the truth. This week Ikkyū let’s us know we are the boss. We are the boss of us. No one else is.

Today’s poem is simple. Ikkyū first tells us there are no masters, only us. Last week we were told to put aside the books of the masters because we are the truth — not them, nor their books. Today we see that there are in actuality no masters. Let me repeat that. There are no masters. Only me. Only you.

There is no authority. There’s only me. Only you. There’s no teacher. Only me. Only you.

As Zen master Tetto Giko put it:

The truth is never taken from another.
One carries it always by oneself.

There is no truth outside of us. Katsu! (The traditional cry when one achieves enlightenment.) That’s why there are no masters, because in truth there’s nothing to teach. There are people who think they are masters. But they can’t teach you or me anything, because the truth is already inside us. You and I are the masters. No one made us masters. We’ve always been masters. We just never realized we were. And that’s why we let others be the masters.

We aren’t free because we are always looking for some authority to tell us something, or give us permission. We aren’t free because we don’t realize we are the authority we’re looking for. We’re the master we’re searching for.  We are the one to tell us something, to give us permission. We are our own authorities.

Rainer Maria Rilke told the young poet in his first letter to him that we must look deep inside ourselves for the answer. If I want to know if I’m a poet, or a writer, I must find the answer within. No one outside of myself can tell me if I am or not. And that goes with anything, not just writing.

Any authority figure only has authority because we give it to him or her. And it doesn’t matter who that authority figure is. Granted, it may be expedient for me to grant someone temporary authority. But if I grant someone full and complete authority over me, I’ve just made myself a slave.

Ikkyū is telling us we’re the master. Not the slave. We are free. We don’t have to be anyone’s slave: mentally or physically. We don’t have to be in bondage to priests, or ministers, or gurus. We don’t have to be in bondage to governments, or employers. We don’t have to be in bondage to parents, or spouses. We are free. We are the masters.

But with freedom, with being a master, also comes responsibility. And it may be expedient to not always exercise our freedom, to be the master.

Advent is the celebration of God coming to his people to be in them in the New Covenant. In effect, the New Testament writers are saying the same thing as Ikkyū. There are no masters, because I am the master.

If God is for us, who can be against us? And since God is in us, then we ourselves are surely the masters. Truth is in us. Authority is in us. Power is in us.

And that’s why Ikkyū tells us “wonderful no?” Of course it’s wonderful. I’m free from the masters. You’re free from the masters. Because there are no masters. You and I are the masters of ourselves.

May this holiday season be a time of enlightenment for you.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, remember — you’re the boss!

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We’re A Razor

forget what the masters wrote truth’s a razor
each instant sitting here you and I being here

—Ikkyū (trans by Stephen Berg)

Last week Ikkyū told us we are already happy. We don’t experience that happiness because our minds are focused on a whole lot of crap. Stop focusing on the crap—that which has no value in our lives—and we’ll be happy.

This week, with a little help from our Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, we’re taking a look at truth.

Ikkyū detested the conventional. He thrived in an environment that was free, stripped of authority. That was probably why he left the monastery and frequented the tavern and brothel. Life was more honest there.

Forget the Masters! Their dry, dusty tomes contain no truth— for truth’s a razor.

What does Ikkyū mean “truth’s a razor”? Let’s start with, first of all, the razor. Ikkyū is talking about a good old-fashioned straight razor. Basically a knife. A razor is very, very sharp. Razor-sharp is as sharp as it gets. Truth cuts.

Those dusty old tomes of the Masters cut nothing. They make good doorstops or paperweights. They’re dull and thick and perfunctory. The razor cuts. It can cut those old books into scrap paper.

But the razor’s edge can also divide. And it does so with an exceedingly fine line. Truth separates. It forms two camps. However, in Ikkyū’s mind these are not equally valid camps. And this can be seen when the razor is put to work shaving. It cuts away the facial hair. Truth is discerning. It cuts off that which is false. In a sense, that which is not me.

Which brings us to the second line. What are we to make of what Ikkyū is saying here? I think the best way to understand Berg’s rendition is to understand he’s using enjambment.

Let’s re-cast the poem this way:

forget what the masters wrote:
truth’s a razor, each instant sitting here—
you and I being here

In other words, we are the razor. We are the truth. You and I, together, cut off the dead crap of the authority figures. They are not the truth. We are. Which makes us the real masters.

Advent celebrates Immanuel—God with us. But that’s only half the story. Because the whole point of the New Covenant that Immanuel brought with him, was that the law would no longer be an external master—it would be written on our hearts.

That’s something to think about. Forget the masters. Forget the rule makers. You and I being here, we are the razor. We are the truth.

That’s why Ikkyū left the monastery after nine days of being abbot. It was all crap. He told the monks if they wanted to find him, he’d be in the tavern and the brothel. Where the real people were. Where the razors were. Where the truth was. And still is.

Comments are always welcome, and, until the next time, do some truth cutting!

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You’re Happy

self other right wrong wasting your life arguing
you’re happy really you are happy

—Ikkyū (trans. by Stephen Berg)

Ikkyū (1394-1481) was an eccentric Japanese Buddhist monk. He’s one of my favorite poets. His poems are direct, poignant, and laden with wisdom. He was very much an individualist and legends about him abound.

Today, I’m going to do a brief meditation on the above poem. I think it appropriate for Advent season, which began this past Sunday. After all, it’s difficult to have peace on earth if there’s conflict — especially conflict within us.

Let’s begin by looking at the second line of Berg’s rendering, which has a bit of ambiguity to it. The line could read:

You’re happy. Really. You are happy.


You’re happy, really. You are happy.


You’re happy. Really, you are happy.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter how we read the line — because Ikkyū’s point is that we are already happy. Happiness is our natural state.

If that’s the case, then why are so many of us not happy? The answer is found in the first line.

Self-Other. Us-Them. The old tribal mentality of “we are right and everyone else is wrong”. Why is everyone else wrong? Because they are not one of us. They are “them”. And “them” is bad. “Them” challenge us. The others are a threat because they think they are right and we are wrong. Of course, we know they are wrong. Because we must be right. If we aren’t, what is our reason to be?

Ikkyū moves from the self-other dichotomy to the right-wrong dichotomy, which is the natural outcome of self-other thinking, which I noted above.

When we feel we must always cast things into the right or wrong mold, it is then that we have problems. And the biggest problem is conflict. Conflict without and conflict within.

In the third part of the line, Ikkyū bluntly tells us that we are wasting our lives in arguing.

Why is this happening to us? Because we’ve set up these dichotomies, these artificial constructs that lead to arguing and fighting and no happiness. How many friendships end over a fight about something that is actually not important? How many marriages break up because the spouses are constantly arguing over who is right and who is wrong? Too many.

We can look at Ikkyū’s poem this way:

Unhappiness = self other right wrong arguing

Happiness = You

In other words, we, in and of ourselves, are happy. Happiness is our natural state. Happiness, though, disappears when we set up us-them dynamics, because they lead to arguing and arguing leads to unhappiness.

This is why we are advised to cultivate an attitude of inclusiveness. “And the second commandment is like unto it: treat your neighbor as yourself.”

When we treat others as we ourselves want to be treated, the self-other distinction breaks down. Right and wrong breakdown. We cease wasting our lives in arguing — and we come back to our natural state: happiness.

One day, when I was still working, I tried an experiment. I went to the office and smiled at everyone, wished them good morning, and was exceptionally pleasant. I listen to their complaints, told them things could be much worse, and pointed out the sun was still shining. I treated everyone that morning and successive mornings as I wanted them to treat me.

Sure, I got a few looks. But I also noticed I was much happier throughout the day and that I continued to treat others in a very positive manner. Positiveness flowed from the initial act of being positive. And for a little while at least I even saw some of my sour-faced coworkers smile.

If we set aside that which causes conflict, the ego (self) and the other (them), then we eliminate the cause of arguing and are free to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. And when we do that, then we might see a little bit of peace on earth.

We can only control ourselves. But if we actually do that, control ourselves, we’ll find life to be pretty doggone wonderful.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, be a rivulet of peace.

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Buying Online

As far as I’m concerned, the brick-and-mortar store is a dinosaur waiting to become extinct. I have been a mail order shopper since I was a kid. There’s just something magical about getting packages in the mail. And with the advent of the internet, my mail order shopping — now called online shopping — has dramatically increased.

I regularly buy the following online: books, music, clothes, shoes, paper, pencils, pens, ink, tea, special food items, cat food, cat litter, soap, razor blades, vitamins, toothbrushes, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.

My wife buys most of her art supplies online, as well as toys for her grandkids.

Shopping online is my kind of heaven and I can’t wait for the day when I can do all of my grocery shopping online.

Being a reader — and a book buyer — my decision to buy online is of importance to brick-and-mortar bookstores and traditional publishers, both the corporate giants and the small press. Why? Because 63% of traditionally published adult fiction was bought online in the US in 2016. And the trend isn’t reversing. (Data from authorearnings.com)

That means trouble for physical bookstores which is where traditional publishing has for over a century done business. It also spells trouble for traditional publishing companies because their traditional sales outlets are disappearing.

Many of you are aware of the Amazon-Hachette fracas. As physical bookstores disappear and more and more print books are sold online, the online stores — we’re really talking Amazon here — are going to have more and more clout. And while Hachette got more or less its way this time, I doubt Amazon will be so nice in the future.

But that’s not all, traditional publishing is tied to the physical book. Yet last year in the US, 70% of fiction sales were digital. That’s ebooks and audiobooks. And when we add in that 42% of all adult fiction was non-traditionally published in 2016, the way the book business has done business is fast becoming a thing of the past. (Data from authorearnings.com)

Non-traditional publishing consists of indie author/publishers and Amazon. Yes, Amazon. The mega-giant is setting itself up as a publisher. To date, Amazon has 17 imprints. They regularly recruit authors to publish through them and offer those authors, generally speaking, contracts which are far less draconian than those of traditional publishers. It truly is time to beware the beast.

Why do I buy online? Because it’s easy, and I like getting packages in the mail. I have, quite literally, the entire world from which to choose whatever I want to buy. Can’t quite say that when I go to the local shopping mall. Plus I have to drive there.

I am, though, concerned about my online shopping. Mainly because it feeds the mega-giant Amazon. The Zon makes online shopping so easy, it’s difficult not to buy from them. It takes a conscious effort to not buy from the Zon. And I have to admit, I’m rather lazy about exerting that effort.

Recently I did buy a pair of jeans from The Duluth Trading Company. Excellent service and product, by the way. And I bought a pair from Lands’ End. Again, excellent service and the product was very good. Zappos is another fine online store.

I buy pens and ink from small online retailers such as Jet Pens. chewy.com is an excellent online source of pet food and supplies.

Nevertheless, the Zon is the 800 pound gorilla on the block and it takes much diligence to avoid the beast. And quite honestly, there are times when I’m just too lazy.

For indie authors, I think we already know where the future lies. It lies in ebooks and audiobooks. Print books aren’t necessarily a thing of the past, but as we baby boomers die off and generations take over who grew up in a digital world — the paper book will become a specialty item. Akin to handmade paper, or handmade wooden kitchen utensils, or custom made shirts.

The only real question facing indie authors is how much clout are we going to give Amazon? Are we going to invest our futures to the Zon? Or are we going to support competing enterprises, such as Apple, Kobo, or Scribd, or Findaway Voices (an ACX alternative, available through Draft2Digital).

Because if we indies tie ourselves to Amazon’s shirttail, then we have to go where they go — and what happens when they stick it to us, as the traditional publishers did so very many, many decades ago? Then where will we go?

A very difficult decision. Very difficult.

As an online buyer, I need to ensure that I don’t help create a monopoly that will in the end bite me. I must diversify my purchases. So fellow online buyers, lets not feed the Zon. Let’s put it on a diet.

As indie authors, let’s seriously consider a publishing world where the only distributor is Amazon. I know that isn’t a nightmare I’m willing to have.

Comments are always welcome! And, until next time, happy reading!

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A Reader’s and Writer’s Life

I love to read. Give me a book any day. I’ll take it over TV, movies, and video games. Nothing can replace my imagination. TV, movies, and video games give me someone else’s imagination which may be truly fabulous, but it isn’t mine. With my imagination, I can interact with a book’s author in a way that’s impossible through other media.

My love of reading goes back to the beginning of my life. My mother was not a good reader, by her own admission. But she did think reading was important. She read to me before I could read and once I could read on my own, she did not stint on the books I could have.

And I had all manner of books: novels, books on science and technology, the World Book Encyclopedia, books on archeology and history and ships and the sea.

To this day, my choice of reading material is still broad. I read novels and short stories in a wide range of genres. Books of history and biography. Poetry. Philosophy. Science and technology, mostly online. Cookbooks. Travelogues. Art.

Currently I’m reading Zeppelin: The Story of Lighter-Than-Air Craft by Ernst Lehmann, who was an important figure in the history of the airship. But that’s not all I’m reading. Also on the pile of works in progress are 2 short story collections, a book on criminology, and one on the famous Route 66. And as if that wasn’t enough, also on the pile is a post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe novel. And the occasional letter from my favorite philosopher, Seneca, might just start my day.

I almost always have a book with me. And the reason I so love my iPad is because at present it contains over 600 books and that’s a lot of books! And I can carry them all with me wherever I go. What a wonderful age we live in!

Most readers don’t have so many books going at once and that’s certainly okay. Everyone needs to read at the pace which is comfortable for them. Just as long as people read. Lots of people.

I think my love of reading played in to my desire to be a writer. Why not create the books I so loved to read? Pretty much ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. And now I am!

Being a multi-genre reader pretty much dictated I’d be a multi-genre writer. I write what I like to read. I read private detective novels and I write them. I read post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophes and I write them. I enjoy dieselpunk and I write it. I like a good psychological or supernatural horror story, and I write those too.

But that’s not all that I like. So sometime down the road, if I live long enough, I intend to add space opera, historical novels, fantasy, poetry collections, and philosophy to the mix.

Isaac Asimov wrote over 500 books on all but one of the major Dewey Decimal System divisions. I’ve always thought that to be a wonderful accomplishment. Something I’d like to do myself. After all, variety is the spice of life!

The reading life and the writing life are the best of lives, in my opinion. Only the imagination is the limit and the imagination is limitless.

Comments are always welcome and, until next time, happy reading!

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The 8-Fold Path: What is Silence?

We know what sound is, both pleasant and unpleasant. What, though, is this silence I’ve been talking about? What do I mean by experiencing silence?

There are two aspects to silence. One is freedom from the external noise we all must contend with. The ever pervasive deluge of sound pounding on our ears and even on our bodies.

The other is inner silence. Wait! There’s sound within us? The short answer is yes. The long answer and what we can do about it I’ll come to in a moment.

Our Outer World

Noise pollution is rampant in our urban and suburban worlds. And we add to this noise voluntarily. The TV. Our phones. The chimes our computers make and the noise from many websites we may visit. The radio. People we associate with. Music.

External to us is wanted and unwanted sound.

The other side of the coin is silence. This may be absolute silence, the complete absence of sound, or it may be the silence of nature. I can hear you say, “Wait a minute! Nature is silent? There are all manner of sounds in the park and in the woods.” And you are right. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

Absolute silence is not easy to obtain in our modern world. A soundproof room is one way to go about it. And that is a very nice experience.

On my retreats, the cabins, hermitages, were soundproof. They were built so tightly, the retreat management advised that one should open the windows, at least a couple of them, an inch or two, in order to let fresh air in. This was especially needed if you burned candles, or used the gas light, or gas burner.

Yet even with a couple windows slightly open, I heard no external sound. There was freedom from noise, unless I made it.

Experiencing a soundproof room in a natural setting is something I think everyone should experience. It is totally awesome.

The other perhaps more easily obtainable way to achieve absolute silence is to use earplugs. I can hear you say, “What?” Yes, earplugs. There is a reason health officials recommend ear protection when you use loud noise producing tools or are in a noisy environment. Noise destroys your hearing.

When I want, or need, to reduce or even eliminate outside noise I pop in a pair of disposable earplugs. There are many different brands that reduce noise by varying decibel levels. I happen to use Hearos. The ones with a noise reduction rating of 33, which means the noise coming into your ear is reduced by 33 decibels.

I found NRR 33 earplugs highly effective at virtually eliminating noise in the office, at home, and on airplanes. What you get is silence. There are also noise isolating headphones, which for a higher price eliminate even more noise.

Natural Sound

Nature is replete with sound. Or at least can be. Crickets and cicadas on a summer evening. The crows or mourning doves can produce quite a racket. One I don’t find soothing.

But there are plenty of natural sounds that are very soothing. The wind stirring dried leaves in the autumn. The rain. A waterfall. There are, though, times when the natural world is silent. Winter is the best time to experience that or in a very isolated location like Chaco Canyon, for instance.

I’ve experienced rural winter silence. Absolutely no sound. It is spectacularly awesome and supremely peace inducing. A former co-worker said the same about her time at Chaco Canyon. The place is so remote there are times of absolute silence that will take your breath away.

Natural sounds are not bad. In fact, they are usually very good due to their soothing effect on us. Let’s face it. Our world has advanced. Our bodies have not. We’ve had very little physically significant change in over several hundred thousand years.

That’s why our world and it’s noise is so stressful. The primitive part of our brain, the part that runs all of our automatic systems, still thinks we are in the jungle, or the forest, or the savanna. And it reacts accordingly to all outside stimuli.

Even with a high degree of self-control, we still feel the effects of the “snake brain’s” autopilot responses to our world. One reason so many of us suffer from stress, anxiety, or those sleepless nights.

The sounds of nature can soothe away those feelings. And so can earplugs by eliminating the sounds that stress us.

Our Inner World

We have noisy minds. We are constantly thinking, complaining, getting even, planning our next meal, contemplating what to buy, and the list goes on. Every meditation technique is designed to still the mind. To get it to stop thinking. To stop planning. To stop worrying.

Our minds, the front part of our brains, are designed to solve problems. If our mind doesn’t have a problem to solve, it will create one. Our mind doesn’t want to be empty. It doesn’t want nothing to do.

In meditation, we basically redirect our mind to focus on something other than problem solving — real or imagined.

There are many ways to meditate. A walk in the woods or the park, where you focus on the natural world, is an excellent way to redirect the mind. To get it out of problem-solving mode.

Sitting and focusing on your breathing is another tried and true method.

My favorite is to sit and let thoughts just wander through my mind. I watch them enter and leave, as it were, not focusing on any particular one. If I sit long enough, the thoughts cease. It’s as if my mind has gotten tired of trying to interest me in a problem. That’s when my mind becomes truly silent.

Additional Thoughts

It does us little good to shut out the noise coming from outside of us, if our minds take up the slack and run rampant with inner noise. That inner noise can produce stress and anxiety just like outer noise.

The 8-Fold Path helps us to deal with both kinds of noise.

Next week, I’ll talk about where and when we can practice silence. I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it is.

Until then, unleash your inner quiet and enjoy the stillness.

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The new year is five days away. Many of us look back over the year and reminisce about the events in our lives. The good and bad. The things hoped for that did and did not happen. We might be filled with regret, we might be filled with joy, but one thing is for certain: everything in the past 360 days is past. It’s gone. Only memories remain.

2016 was for me a good year. Writing and publishing went well. I sold a few books and gave some away. I started learning marketing, so I have hope I might sell more books in the future. I’m another year older and not deeper in debt — and that’s very good. And I’m loving retirement. Yes, 2016 was a very good year. Perfect? Nah. But it was a good year. I’m breathing air and not dirt, I’m in reasonably good health; there’s a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food on the table. There is nothing I can legitimately complain about.

One of my joys, year in and year out, is that my wife, Raihana Dewji, paints what I think are wonderful, wonderful paintings. So I thought I would post a few of her recent paintings to close out this year’s blog posts.

The snow and cold are upon us in Minnesota; however, nothing can fetter the imagination. My wife hates the snow and cold. So her paintbrush creates a different world. One in which Winter is not coming. The snow might be blowing outside, but inside summer rules. I hope you enjoy these pictures as much as I do.






As always, comments are welcome and until next time, happy new year, and happy reading!

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Two Year Anniversary

This month I celebrate two years being an independent author/publisher. Since November 2014, I’ve published 11 novels, 2 novellas, 2 collections of shorter works, and 6 short stories. Plus one flash fic was published by One for a Thousand ezine. I’ve had over 220 downloads of my books and stories and have made a wee bit over $500. Certainly not bestseller status nor am I making a king’s ransom.

However, I am published and I am selling books. If I’d gone the traditional route, I very well could still be looking for an agent. And most likely would be, as traditional publishers accept less than 300 new fiction authors each year. If one thinks the competition is stiff being an indie author/publisher, at least we’re competing for sales — not the “privilege” of being allowed entrance to the “club”.

So I’d have to say that my numbers are pretty decent. Especially considering I’ve done little advertising. And another thing to consider is that a mere 15 years ago, viable self-publishing on a large scale didn’t even exist. Thank you to Amazon and their Kindle and Apple and their iPad for making all this possible. Today we truly have desktop publishing.

However, as one can also see, if anyone is thinking self-publishing is the path to riches, think again. I know of indie authors who sell one or two copies a month. A lot of work for very small returns. As with any self-employment venture, it takes time, hard work, money, and patience before you begin to see a return. One writer recently told me it takes 5 to 7 years before a self-employment venture takes off — if it’s going to take off. Given that, I have 3 to 5 years of work ahead of me.

Aside from publishing books, I’ve spent the past year boning up on marketing. I had a bit of marketing in an economics class in high school some 50 years ago. Needless to say, I don’t remember much. I sunk over $600 into Mark Dawson’s Facebook Advertising for Authors course and I learned a lot. I think the course was worth the money. I’ve also taken numerous free courses and read a few books.

What I’ve realized is an indie author/publisher is a business. A self-employed business. A self-employed direct marketing business. Therefore I must think like a self-employed direct marketing businessman. Not as an artist. Otherwise, I don’t stand much of a chance of succeeding. And I certainly don’t want to not succeed. At the very least, I hope to recoup my initial costs and be able to break even on the ongoing costs. Sure I’d like more, but I’ll be satisfied to at least break even.

What does the next year hold? I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. Certainly more writing and publishing.

Early in the new year, I’ll bring out the seventh volume in The Rocheport Saga. I’m also hard at work on the next Justinia Wright novel. In addition I have two adventures for Lady Dru I’m champing at the bit to get written. Plus I have a partially written time travel adventure I’d like to finish. That’s on the fiction side.

Over the past year I’ve been thinking about non-fiction. My sister racks up at least 10 sales a month on her art therapy book without fail. And she does absolutely no advertising. Statistically (data from AuthorEarnings.com) non-fiction is the second largest category after romance for book sales. Very old advice from back in the day before the internet said non-fiction was the way to go if one wanted steady income to put food on the table, pay the rent, and buy clothes. Apparently that advice is still valid.

So I’ve been thinking about writing some non-fiction. What would I write about? That is a good question. For many years now I’ve been fascinated by the concept of simple living and how groups and individuals have gone about simplifying their lives. I’m also very much interested in silence and solitude, both as a spiritual exercise and one to simply bring tranquility to one’s daily life. And ever since high school I’ve admired Stoic philosophy. Stoicism not only touches on simple living and inner tranquility, but I believe holds the key for how we in the 21st century can best realize our potential. I think Stoicism is a far better practice for we Westerners than the eastern philosophies and faiths.

If I decide to go the non-fiction route, I’ll probably write on what I’ve noted above. Self-help books related to silence and solitude, simple living, and Stoicism for the 21st century. Stay tuned!

The past two years have been fun, a bit frustrating, an educational experience, and very rewarding. There is nothing that can beat being your own person, in control of your own destiny.

Mark Dawson started publishing a year before I did. He now pulls in seven figures. That’s a lot of cash. He’s worked hard and invested a LOT of money in his self-publishing enterprise. So the rewards are out there, if one is willing to work at it.

I’m also going to work on the business end. Because that’s what Dawson did. He wrote books and advertised the heck out of them. But first he built up his mailing list. So that is my next step. Grow my mailing list from the 21 it’s currently at to… Well, as high as I can. Two, three, four, ten, twenty, thirty thousand. However high it gets.

Write and publish books — keep the product coming, build the mailing list, and market. That’s what’s in store for me for next year.

And I’m very excited about it!

As always, I look forward to your comments! Until next time, happy reading!

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It’s a Wonderful Life

No, I’m not talking today about the 1946 film directed by Frank Capra. I’m talking about life. About why life is worth living. Which, by the way, is the theme of the movie. We are going to spend a little bit of time today chatting about philosophy. I know, I know. Philosophy. Boring. Bear with me and see how eminently practical philosophy is.

We all have one, you know. A philosophy, that is. We may not be able to articulate its tenets, but how we live our lives tells others what those tenets are. Even if they can’t enumerate specifics either, they know exactly what drives us and what we value.

What we value and what motivates us is in fact our personal philosophy. And if we can’t utter it with our lips, we certainly do so by our actions.

I’ve been interested in philosophy for nearly 50 years, ever since high school, and the one philosopher I continually come back to is the ancient Roman Stoic, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger.

Seneca was a fascinating individual in his own right. A man often at odds with his own school of thought. A man who was eminently guilty of not following his own advice.

However, where Seneca, in my opinion, redeemed himself was in his old age. There, in his last years, stripped of power, position, and wealth, Seneca embraced his philosophy and wrote the best advice one person could ever hope to give to another. His Letters to Lucilius are short and pithy and cover a wide range of topics. They are very readable and enjoyable today — almost 2000 years after they were written.

What in particular do I like about Seneca? I’d have to say it is his very practical and realistic approach to life. His advice is reasonable and not freighted with pietistic or moralistic sentiment. It is pre-Christian and fits well with those of us living in a post-Christian age. Ironically enough, early Christian morality and ethics were based on Stoic principles.

As an example, let’s take a look at Seneca’s opinion about wealth. According to our philosopher, there is nothing wrong with having money. Even lots of money. The problem comes, according to Seneca, when we try to cling to our money. The solution, he offers, is to live as if we didn’t have any money. In other words, to live a simple life. By so doing our lives won’t be cluttered with the problems one encounters when one has lots of money.

Seneca himself learned this lesson the hard way. At the highpoint of his career he was one of two tutors to the very young Nero. He had tremendous power and was one of the wealthiest men history has ever known. Bill Gates’ wealth would have been casual spending money to Seneca. When Nero became of age and Seneca realized what the Emperor was truly like, our philosopher gave his money to the young man and retired from public life. Seneca went from being in control of the vast Roman Empire to being a humble patrician farmer.

From Seneca, I learned to value life for its own sake. Not for what I have, because tomorrow everything I have might be taken away from me — as it was for Seneca. The small things and the intangible things give value to life. Things like friendship and contentment. And those are found within a person, not without.

No one has friends who is not first a friend to himself or herself. I cannot love another, unless I first love me. I must, first and foremost, love myself and be friends with myself. Only then, am I capable of truly loving and befriending others.

Contentment does not come from without. It comes from within. If I am satisfied with who I am, then I will be satisfied with what I have. And I will be content.

The human being is a reasoning animal, Seneca wrote. And when reason has been brought to perfection in the soul, we fulfill the good for which nature designed us. We live then according to our nature, as reasonable beings. If we are out of control, if we lack contentment, is we lack love for ourselves, then we are imperfect beings and do not live reasonable lives. We are not living, Seneca would say, according to nature.

The goal of philosophy is to bring us to a state of mind where we live according to that for which we were designed. That is, lives marked by reasonable thoughts and behaviors.

This is a wonderful life if we live according to our nature, according to reason. If we are balanced and content, everything within us and around us will be wonderful.

That is philosophy. And why I find it such a wonderful, non-judgmental guide to life. The good life. The wonderful life.

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In Praise of Ear Plugs

Many of us love or wish for solitude. Usually we think we have to go somewhere to get it. I’ve gone on week long silence and solitude retreats in order to get the solitude I often crave. A week of peace and quiet and time alone.

Unfortunately, many of us can’t afford to take a week off and a weekend often doesn’t cut it. It just isn’t long enough for us to completely decompress from our work a day worlds. We are just starting to relax and — bam! — we have to go back to the grind.

When I was working for the man, I noticed it took me two or three days when on vacation or a retreat to shake off the anxiety and cares of work. At the end of those two or three days, if I was only gone for a weekend, I’d have to head back and couldn’t enjoy the quiet and solitude. It’s like smelling the steak and getting ready to take a bite, only to have the plate whisked away.

One day, many years ago now, I was looking for information on the internet and ran across a blog article extolling the virtues of ear plugs. Like me, the blogger was sensitive to noise. Living in the city, he was constantly inundated with sound.

Where I live in suburbia, I am next to a very busy county road. In the summer, with the windows open, the traffic noise is deafening. Add planes from the county airport a few miles away and there are times I cannot hear the TV or the music I’m playing. Add to the mix my tinnitus and I’m never without noise. I very much empathized with that blogger.

His solution was to start using ear plugs. I said to myself, “Why not?” A casual reading of reviews led me to the “Hearos” brand. In short, they are a magic wand.

Before I retired, I had the supreme luxury of working from home most of the time. On occasion, though, I had to go in to the office. What I realized was the office is a very noisy place. There was constant talking and often it was very loud. Out came the ear plugs and I had instant silence. Save for my tinnitus, of course. Instantly, I was filled with a sense of peace. The experience was truly amazing, awesome, and mind blowing.

In addition to not hearing the sounds around me, I felt I was alone in my cube and no one else was around. I got both silence and a feeling of solitude from those little ear plugs, which was very good for my mood. I felt more positive, less irritated, and could focus more on my work.

I am a big fan now of ear plugs. An instant silence and solitude retreat. If you live with others, and they are around when you need a break, simply tell them you are taking a half-hour break (or even fifteen minutes). Pop in the ear plugs and close the door on the room. Put a sticky note on the door to remind the forgetful. “Do Not Disturb”. You can always add “Am Praying” or “Am Meditating” or “Listening to the Sounds of Silence”.

Silence and solitude make our lives better. Earplugs and a closed door can make an everyday difference in your life. Try it! You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain!

Do you use ear plugs? Tell us your story!

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