Newsletter – February 2013






“If I had my life to live over again, I would ask that not a thing be changed, but that my eyes be opened wider.”



February Greetings, Dear Friends…

Some 30 years ago I remember writing a piece I called “You Are Where you Put Yourself.” The title was a play on the popular 60’s and 70’s phrase “You Are What You Eat.” I’ve looked and looked for my original piece but can’t find it anywhere, so it seems it’s time to reconsider and update my understanding of both these phrases.

According to Phrasefinder “You Are What You Eat” has a long history, dating back until at least 1826 when “…The phrase got a new lease of life in the 1960s hippy era. The food of choice of the champions of this notion was macrobiotic wholefood and the phrase was adopted by them as a slogan for healthy eating…”

As for “You Are Where You Put Yourself,” I could find no record for this phrase Sat all. But this by no means implies the concept doesn’t have history in lots of different areas. Parents have been forever concerned about whom their children associate with and in which environments. Activists of all stripes have attempted to control others’ access to a mind-boggling range of activities and groups – races, religions, genders, political parties, militaries, weapons, dancing, films, books and on and on – even including personal thoughts. One might well reach the conclusion that humankind is obsessed with where others of their species “put themselves.”

As I immersed myself in the field of psychology, especially “Humanistic” or “Third Force” psychology, it became clear that worrying about where other people put themselves was not going to improve my life. What was essential for my well-being was being very concerned and very particular about where I put myself. Of course, this also means paying very close attention to where others would try to put me and diligently working to ensure my choices and not theirs determine the environments and experiences which would and do shape me into who I would and will become.

By the time I wrote that first piece in the early 80’s, I’d had enough life experience to know I’d allowed family, peer and social pressures to put me in a great many environments that were totally unsuitable. These range from my early indoctrination by the Catholic Church on through attempting to become a physical “tough guy” (ala John Wayne, James Dean, Marlon Brando and the Marine Corps) and then an intellectually “tough guy” (Yale, Ayn Rand, graduate studies and teaching). Next came trying to be an “emotionally tough guy” with an early 70’s move to The Bay Area and encounter groups, life-style experimentation and running a drug abuse counselor training program.

There are funny, and agonizing, stories to be told about all these choices, but they’re for another time. What did turn out to be very useful was my inability to remain very long in painful and unsuitable, for me, situations; my psychological disturbance kept forcing me to leave environments that were inappropriate and flee to others that looked more promising. While these abrupt switches were very clumsy and hurtful to many good people, they did take me into and out of enough environments for me to learn which were good for me – and which weren’t.

By the end of the 70’s I finally accepted I was a teacher-performer who was driven to keep discovering more about how we humans actually worked and how to use that wisdom to be good to ourselves and others. Thirty years later I’m still learning, but how much easier, more enjoyable and effective the process has become as I’ve surrendered to the truth of my place in this infinite Oneness!

One of the understandings that has been most helpful recently is to see more clearly how my different stages and ages – infancy, childhood, puberty, adolescence, youth, adulthood and now elder – have required continually changing surroundings. This is especially evident now as I now spend most of my time in the solitude  of “my monastery” while Donna spends ten hours a day five plus days a week at the work she loves. We share three quiet hours together in the evenings, and that’s plenty of  of interaction for this old man. I’m sure my “elder introversion” would shock many friends who knew me during my adolescence, youth and adult performing stages! Donna does point how much time I spend in email communication and on the Internet, but that’s not the same as the face-to-face that was for so long so important to me.

I wish I could have understood this phase of life when my dad lived with us in his last years, but I couldn’t. I kept trying to get him to “do things,” like take an interest in the roses I planted for him (clearly for me, in truth) and to walk up to the book store or go to the café for a cup of coffee. His life seemed so empty to me then, and only now do I understand how much like him I have become – and how much I enjoy this “empty” life.

Is it possible to share experiences with those who’ve not had them yet?

How else can the wisdom we gain through the joys and struggles of our experience support the personal, cultural and species evolution so essential now?

How can my children, seeing me withdrawn into my “monastery” understand I feel as vital – and more aware of life – than I ever have in the past?

And, if they don’t, how can they look to me to help them as they and their children move through their lives?

Important questions, I believe, particularly for cultures that no longer respect elders and the wisdom they share. What a difference there is between the Maori of New Zealand who revere their elders and America’s dismissal of “Boomers” as a horde of narcissists about to send the country into bankruptcy! While the stereotyping of Boomers may be extreme and immature, it will still prevent most from using elders’ wisdom to help us all.

How will we change this negative image so we elders can better serve our loved ones and our communities?

And why should we oldsters be the ones to adjust after all we’ve been through?

A quick story. When son Matt was two and stubborn, he and I would often have altercations. I would say, “Stop it, Matt!” and he would keep doing whatever was upsetting me. These encounters predictably ended with my squeezing his little arms as I firmly sat him in his room “until he could behave!”

Sick of my escalating these situations to nuclear confrontation, Mama Nancy said to me, “Bill, you’re forty-four and Matthew’s two – who do you think has the maturity to make the adjustment needed her?” Then I remembered all the times she had handled the same difficulty, not by resisting Matt’s negativity, but by simply redirecting and channeling his energy into other more positive ways of being.

So how can we elders help our younger companions channel destructive energies into more creative and sustainable ways of being?

Like Mama Nancy’s comment to me, the articles that follow offer hints that might help us do this – and, as a misplaced American, I am painfully aware of how badly our leaders and country need help…

2. PASSIVITY is from humorist, minister and jazz musician Howard Hanger. Here he offers a much needed adjustment to our western way of thinking about “inactivity”; it certainly fits the life old FW is enjoying so much these days…

3. ALL DHARMA AGREES AT ONE POINT and Pema Chodron’s simple and profound summary of where this can take us is compelling: “We become part of a people who have cultivated their bravery throughout history, people who, against enormous odds, have stayed open to great difficulties and painful situations and transformed them into the path of awakening…”

4. GRATEFULNESS AS THE FOUNDATION OF PRACTICE by Rabbi Shefa Gold describes my last few year’s experience perfectly: “I learned that gratefulness is not a feeling; it’s a practice…”

5. OUR PERSONALITIES ARE CONSTANTLY CHANGING, EVEN IF WE THINK THEY’RE NOT by Laura Blue and John Cloud offers pretty solid evidence for how we are changing even if we think we’re not – and this stimulates thinking about what we might still become…

6. AGING AS A NATURAL MONASTERY is Jane Marie Thibault’s deeply honest sharing of how she has changed her vision of “mystical elders” – and that Father William is not the only monk living in his own monastery…

Much love, FW




“Do you have the patience to wait till the mud settles and the water is clear?”  – Tao Te Ching

Around these parts, passivity doesn’t really have a good name. I mean, come on – would you want your daughter to marry one? Being passive is not what gets high marks in our cultural curriculum grade book. Being passive never walks away with the Oscars in the Human Qualities Competition. Passivity is often considered worthless, insignificant, useless. In our active-go-go-go western (so-called) civilization, if you’re only passive, then you’re frequently regarded as just taking up space.

In this neck of the woods, you’re supposed to be active. Not just active; but pro-active. Upbeat, constructive, helpful, encouraging. Come on, Mr. Passive! Get a little gumption. Set a little fire in your britches. Do something, for God’s sake.

In a crazy way, however, passivity can be one of the most proactive stances you might take. Passivity does not mean dead, lifeless or comatose. Nor is passivity even necessarily numb, unfeeling or anesthetized. Taking a passive stance can cause a lot of things to happen. A case could be made that without passivity, there truly could be no real action.

To be passive may mean less of a don’t-care attitude and more of a confidence in the process. Less of a cold and callous approach to life and more of a quiet dignity. “You need not leave the room,” wrote that kooky Kafka fellow, “just sit quietly and the world will roll itself at your feet.”




The point at which they agree is to let go of holding on to yourself. That’s the way of becoming at home in the world. Ego is not sin. Ego is not something you get rid of. Ego is something you come to know – that you befriend by not acting out or repressing all the feelings that you feel.

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your way. You’d like to have a little peace: you’d lie to have a little happiness, you know, just “gimme a break!”

But the more you think that way, the more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside your room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door. You become touchier, more fearful, more irritable than ever. The more you just try to get it your way, the less you feel at home.

To begin to develop compassion for yourself and others, you have to unlock the door. You don’t open it yet, because you have to work with your fear that somebody you don’t like might come in. Then as you begin to relax and befriend those feelings, you begin to open it. Sure enough, in come the music and the smells that you don’t like. Sure enough, someone puts a foot in and tells you you should have a different religion or vote for someone you don’t like or give money that you don’t want to give. Now you begin to relate with those feelings. You develop some compassion, connecting with the soft spot.

It helps to realize that the Nelson Mandelas and Mother Teresas of the world also know how it feels to be in a small room with the windows and the doors closed. They also know anger and jealousy and loneliness. They’re people who made friends with themselves and therefore made friends with the world. They’re people who developed the bravery to be able to relate to the shaky, tender, fearful feelings in their own hearts and therefore are no longer afraid of those feelings when they are triggered by the outside world.

When you begin to practice in this way, you’re so honest about what you’re feeling that it begins to create a feeling of understanding other people as well… We become part of a people who have cultivated their bravery throughout history, people who, against enormous odds, have stayed open to great difficulties and painful situations and transformed them into the path of awakening. We WILL fall flat on our faces again and again, we WILL continue to feel inadequate, and we can use these experiences to wake up, just as they did. The lojong teachings give us the means to connect with the power of our lineage, the lineage of gentle warriorship…

All the teachings and all the practices are about just one thing; if the way that we protect ourselves is strong, then suffering is really strong too. If the ego or the cocoon gets lighter, then suffering is lighter as well. Ego is like a really fat person trying to get through a narrow door. If there’s lots of ego, then we’re always getting squeezed and poked and irritated by everything that comes along. When something comes along that doesn’t squeeze and poke and irritate us, we grasp onto it for dear life and want it to last forever. Then we suffer more as a result of holding on to ourselves.

One might think that we’re talking about ego as enemy, ego as original sin. But this is a very different approach, a much softer approach. Rather than original SIN, there’s original SOFT SPOT. The messy stuff that we see in ourselves and that we perceive in the world as violence and cruelty and fear is not the result of some basic badness but of the fact that we have such a tender, vulnerable, warm heart of Bodhicitta, which we instinctively protect so that nothing will touch it.




By waking up in gratefulness, we set the tone for the day; we step in to a particular groove; we open our eyes in search of both the obvious and the hidden blessings that God has set before us.

When I made a commitment to dive deep into the liturgy instead of skimming along the surface, I decided to enter through one phrase at a time. I opened the siddur (prayer book) to the very first words, words that are meant to be prayed even before getting out of bed in the morning:

Modah Ani L’fanecha.

Modah Ani – I gratefully acknowledge
L’fanecha – You… or literally, To Your Face … and the word face in Hebrew is plural, so even more literally … Your Faces.

This is the formula for awakening. The very first thought as I emerge from sleep: “When I open my eyes, I will see Your many Faces, God. You wear the mask of this world. I am so grateful to be able to recognize You. Today I promise not to be fooled by your elaborate and imaginative disguise. I will see and acknowledge You everywhere and in everyone.”

In Hebrew, the word for Jew, Yehudi, comes from this same root of Modah. The Jewish people might be called The Grateful Ones. Judaism might be called The Path of Gratefulness. By waking up in gratefulness, we set the tone for the day; we step in to a particular groove; we open our eyes in search of both the obvious and the hidden blessings that God has set before us.

Many years ago I was in a state of terrible despair. I was suffering in overwhelming physical and emotional pain. I couldn’t stop crying. My teacher, Paul, looked at me dispassionately and instructed me simply to, “Say, thank you.” I looked at him with astonishment and incredulity, wondering if I had heard him correctly. I was furious. Because I trusted Paul, I didn’t follow my first impulse, which was to hit him in the face and stomp away in rage.

Instead I went home and began saying, “thank you.” At first my “thank you” was shaped by the sharp angry edge of sarcasm. “Thanks a lot! Thanks a f***ing lot!” But as I kept thanking, the edge in my voice began to soften. The tone of my “thank you” kept changing. It took me a few hours, but I finally found my way to gratefulness. And in the miracle of gratefulness, I experienced a glimmer of hope and the seeds of a new life.

I learned that gratefulness is not a feeling; it’s a practice.

Gratefulness opens me up to receive the flow of blessing AND connects me with the source of that flow. Gratefulness opens up the possibility of profound and transforming relationship with the gift of Creation and Incarnation.

     That one small thank you, addressed to a tree,
     opened the door to an encounter that
     changed my life by showing me
     what prayer can accomplish…


From “The Magic of Hebrew Chant: Healing the Spirit, Transforming the Mind, Deepening Love,” by Rabbi Shefa Gold, 2013. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT,




It’s rare that scientific journals explicitly engage philosophical conundrums, but a paper in this week’s Science magazine begins with the question “Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?” At age 18, that skull-and-crossbones tattoo seems like an unimpeachably cool idea; at 28, it’s mortifying. You meet the man of your dreams at 25—except that your dreams have become so different by 35 that you end up divorced.

“Even at 68, people think, ‘Ugh. I’m not the person I was at 58. But I’m sure I’ll be this way at 78,’” says one of the Science study authors, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness.

An obvious answer to the question is that people mature—that “change is inevitable,” as Disraeli said, that “change is constant.” But after examining the responses of more than 19,000 people gathered over four months in 2011 and 2012, the researchers—Gilbert, Jordi Quoidbach, of the National Fund for Scientific Research in Belgium, and University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson—discovered that even though most people acknowledge that their lives have changed over the past decade, they don’t believe change is constant. Against all evidence, most people seem to believe that who they are now is pretty much who they will be forever…





An increasing number of my days are spent encouraging and accompanying adults on their spiritual journeys. When I was first invited to engage in spiritual “companioning” and counseling with elders, I had a traditional paradigm of spiritual growth in mind. I had been trained experientially and cognitively from an early age in Carmelite spirituality, specifically through studying the works of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and my own experience of Carmelite spiritual direction. Later I added Benedictine and Ignatian concepts and James Fowler’s theories of stages of faith development. I was oriented to a linear approach to developmental stages of faith and spiritual growth and was rather dogmatic in my thinking that the spiritual life “should” be a lifelong process of increasing awareness and experience of the transcendent within and without, culminating in a specific, ongoing sense of union with God in later life. Colleagues joked that I was trying to “make mystics out of out people” and I retorted with, “Why not? Can you think of anything more exciting to look forward to?”

With that thought in mind I began and intense search for elderly mystics. I wanted to see how mysticism “played out” in later life. I was sure I would find many models among aged monks, nuns, and devout lay people of all faiths. I wanted to hear the stories of their inner experiences and understand the influences on and patterns of their development.

What I found was at first very disappointing. Not one person told of experiencing those phenomena described in the classic literature on mysticism, such as the sense of luminousness, a deeper sense of reality and meaning, a feeling of “oneness” with God or reality. In addition, most of the people I interviewed did not seem to be able to relate to the words I used. For example, the question, “have you ever had what you felt was an experience of God’s nearness?” met, more often than not, with blank stares. I could not understand these responses and the seeming lack of “mystical” signs and symptoms in people for whom the spiritual had played a large and significant part in their lives. In addition, there seemed to be a concreteness to their spirituality that even seemed “anti-mystical,” if there were such a thing. What had happened to these people—had they not grown into the later stages of mystical development as described in the literature? Were there no elderly mystics? Was mysticism an obsolete concept in the final years of the 20th century?

Disappointed, I went back for a second look, this time throwing away my preconceived notions of what constituted “mysticism” in later life—or any other time of life. What I found was far more refreshing that visions and ecstasies and profound, isolated experiences of union with God. What I discovered were people who had ceased reflecting on themselves and even on God, but who definitely had the Zen-like ability to enter into an experience of the immediate moment. For these people, all of life was present to them in what the late theologian Karl Rahner termed “everyday mysticism.” For these people, late life had become a kind of “natural monastery,” where all the changes that the young rail against and describe as losses and diminishments had become opportunities to clear away the obstacles to experiencing and appreciating each moment with its own special beauty and/or pain. It was as if life had been stripped down to its barest essentials, so that the real could shine through and be appreciated, even if the real involved pain and suffering.

One of the primary reasons that young people choose to live in monasteries—even in this day and age—is to act on a desire to strip their lives of as many external obstacles to God as possible. Their lives are deliberately physically circumscribed, with emphasis on minimizing rather than maximizing outer experience. To do this, hey practice forms of self-denial that include simplification of lifestyle and relinquishment of ownership of (and concern for) may things. This is thought to free them from hectic, everyday harassments so they can contemplate and experience transcendent reality that shines through natural things, simplicity of lifestyle, deep presence to one another, solitude and quiet.

In a very real sense the experience of old age, especially frail elderhood, is an experience of living monastically. Solitary life in one’s own home or common life in a nursing home is an experience of winnowing, of paring down to the barest essentials. One 90-year old woman shared her life with me in these words:

   “I really don’t think about God very much any more, even though I used to. In the past my spiritual life was very complicated, and a distinct compartment of my life as a whole. I was always wondering if I were pleasing God, always concerned that I wasn’t doing God’s will “just right,” always thinking that I was not quite good enough. As I look back on it now, I realize that what was important to me was how I was performing for God. The emphasis was really always on me and what I was doing, even though I thought it was on God.

   “Now, in my very old age, I’ve given up all of that performing stuff—probably because I don’t have the energy for it any longer. I can’t do much any more and I can’t even think much, either; I forget a great deal. Now all I can do is look out at my little world—my house and cats and my dog and the people who bathe me and bring me food and the sky and everything, and I just spend my time loving them. I just look at it all and I love it. Even though my eyesight is bad, in my mind’s eye I see everything. It is all so very beautiful, even the bad things somehow get washed in the beauty of everything. I am so grateful for it all, grateful for all of my life, even the little things like—please excuse me—being able to have a bowel movement. Am I neglecting God because I don’t think about him much anymore? I don’t think so. Somehow, I feel that my looking and loving is enough for God—that that’s all God ever really wanted from me in the first place, to love what he gave me. Don’t you think so?









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