Friday, March 25, 2011

Sunday night's Faculty Resident's Dinner - For AU Community









Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How do you pray?

I have recently offered, one day each week, to share a “morning time of quiet and reflection” with Anderson Hall residents. (None have yet accepted this 7:00 - 7:30 offer, which I believe provides more insight regarding diurnal vs. nocturnal rhythms of student life, than student spirituality). However for me, prayer is mostly a personal and private matter.

On the other hand, there have been two occasions, one recently and one several years ago, in the context of discussing meditation and spirituality, when friends have posed a question in almost the same words: “how do you pray?” In response to the more recent questioning, I have had a leading to share a few elements of my daily practice. This morning, I am choosing to follow that leading.

My practice began as a serious, albeit scattered, imperfect commitment (which it remains) when I read my friend Elizabeth Neeld’s small book, A Spiritual Primer: A Guide to Quiet Time and Prayer. Among other readings that have helped along the way are George Fox’s Journal, the Gospels in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the Psalms in the Old Testament; my colleague Akbar Ahmad’s, Discovering Islam; The Dhammapada or Way of Enlightenment (an early teaching of the Lord Buddha); the Analects by Confucius, the The Tao Chi Ching by Lao Tse; Louis Fisher’s The Essential Ghandi and Richard Bach’s Johnathan Livingston Seagull. Most recently, my reading has emphasized teachings of the Dalai Llama, including How to Practice: Guide to a Meaningful Life and, presently, Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Llama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings.

Though this sounds like what professors often do when students pose a question: they respond with a course syllabus - my practice has not been primarily about reading, it has been about practice. It has evolved over a period of five years or so and continues to evolve. I neither offer it as a model, exemplifying some virtue, nor apologize for its shortcomings, about which I am conscious every day. It has made a difference in my life. My purpose here is simply to describe, as I did in responding to my two friends, for whatever value that description may provide.

Practice begins with a recitation of a Mantra from the Heart Sutra, an early teaching of the Lord Buddha, which is an exhortation to seek “enlightenment” in a disciplined way. Recitation of the Mantra is a regular part of Tibetan Buddhist practice and I recite it in the language used by Tibetan Buddhist monks. This is followed by an exercise in which I focus on my breathing (“breathing in” and “breathing out.”) When the Lord Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, seeking enlightenment, it is said that focus on breathing was an important part of his practice. Next comes a meditation on the eight stages of dying - again a practice of the Dalai Lama - which he repeats eight times each day. Even though my schedule is far less demanding that his, I only manage twice each day - early morning and before going to bed. Next comes another Dalai Lama teaching, a prayer about “seeking enlightenment for the sake of all beings” through “the collection of merit from my giving, morality, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.” This is repeated three times. Occasionally, I remember to clap three times at the end of these recitations. Mostly I forget, unfortunately, at least so far.

Next comes what is known as “the St. Francis Prayer” which may be known to many Christians and is addressed to the Christian God. It begins, “Oh Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon....” and concludes “let me seek not so much to be understood as to understand, to be consoled as to console, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving we receive, pardoning that we are pardoned, in the death of self that we are born to eternal life." Next comes a recitation of what Christians know as The Lords Prayer, taught by the Lord Jesus as part of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” the Lord Jesus teaches us not to pray in public, but to “go into our closet” when we pray. (I has occurred to me that some will view this posting as a violation of that teaching. I did consider this before acceding to the strong leading, coming to me over many days, that I should write it.)

Finally I pray for specific people. I began to include this in my practice after becoming conscious of the fact that sometimes, when a religious person was enduring a trial, I would say as a comfort “I will pray for you,” however I rarely did so. The "prayers" part of my practice sought to remedy this. In praying for specific people, I don’t ask for anything in particular, rather I simply try to visualize them and “hold them in the light” (a idea from Quaker practice). At the moment I am praying for some cancer sufferers that I know personally, for some specific members of the American University community and for soe community members with whom I work in Singapore. I pray for my grandchildren, my stepchild and children as well as those close to them, my wife and former wife, my siblings, including those presently or formerly close to them. I pray for my parents and grandparents; for members of my extended family; to show compassion to evil doers in the world; for all human beings and for all sentient beings.

My evening practice incorporates some of the above, but I am still too undisciplined and usually too tired for more than a very few recitations and prayers. Perhaps, in time, I will do better.

I hope this public response to my two friends’ queries may be of value to someone; or at least that it will do no harm.

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Monday, March 07, 2011

Introducing my students to a Washington Post reporter

Towards the end of last semester, a Washington Post reporter contacted AU’s Public Relations Office about meeting a class of international relations students to provide information for an article she was writing. A PR staff member contacted me and I suggested the reporter join students in my undergraduate “International Development” class for our end-of-semester dinner, held in my Anderson Hall faculty resident’s apartment. When she agreed, I thought it would be helpful to introduce her to this special group of School of International Service students and the distinctive culture we created during our semester together. Here is what I wrote:

I thought it might be helpful for Janna (the reporter) to also know a bit about our class members. The course is 300 level, primarily juniors and seniors, but with several sophomores who have been very engaged and effective participants. Like other students in the School of International Service, many have international experience. One student is from Haiti, another form the Virgin Islands, another from India, another from Jordan. Four spent a Semester Abroad in China. One lived and worked for an extended period in a Nairobi slum.

The subject matter of the course is “International Development” which could be roughly translated as “initiatives, programs and policies to end poverty in the poor countries of the global south, but also including Washington DC and other US cities”. As an Honors Supplement one student is doing a film on homeless people who work with the DC weekly newspaper “Street Sense.” We will be viewing it Monday night. Another has done anthropological field research on the lives of four single poor women who live in DC.

Class sessions involved lots of sharing and discussion. Students were asked to write five “reaction papers” during the semester (an idea I borrowed from a colleague at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy where I was in residence as a Visiting Professor last spring). In these papers, they were asked to reflect on class readings from the vantage point of their own values and personal experiences. Many of these, which we discussed in class each week, were moving and evocative.

What I have found inspiring about this class is the degree of affection and mutual respect with which we have come to regard each other. Contrary to the image some hold of AU as Washington’s “liberal” university, class members’ political views range across the entire spectrum from “Right” to “Left”. For example, some strongly oppose military involvement in development projects. Another hopes to make a difference in development pursuing a career as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. (My own background, incidentally, includes five years of active duty service as an officer in the United States Navy.) But whatever views are held and expressed, they are listened to fully and with respect. This class provides a model of civil discourse from which members of the US Congress could learn much.

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Sources of Happiness

One of my favorite inspirational sources has become the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Johnathan Sachs. As with so many inspirational sources, I first learned of him via an “On Being” (formerly "Speaking of Faith") podcast. The podcast reproduced a dialogue that also included His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Reverend Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori (of the US Episcopal Church) and a leading Islamic Scholar, Professor Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University in Washington DC. The topic of the mid-October 2010 public dialogue, held in Atlanta Georgia, was “Pursuing Happiness.”

I was washing dishes after breakfast and made what may have been incomplete notes of Rabbi Sachs’ remarks, but the essence was this: “In my view,” he said, “there are three sources of happiness: (1) doing good for others; (2) having a network of relationships with which one shares a sense of community; and (3) a sense that one’s life makes a difference.

“What is surprising,” Rabbi Sachs concluded, “is how different these sources are from the hundreds - perhaps thousands - of advertising messages we hear and see each day about the sources of happiness.”

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Viewing America’s health care system microcosmically - a ‘good news’ vignette

A few months ago I switched my health care insurance from a “one stop” Health Maintenance Organization, Kaiser Permanente, to “Care First” a more traditional insurance provider. Care First offered greater flexibility, which I needed, but the switch was not made without trepidation. Friends who were Care First clients warned of opaque, legalistic documentation, difficult-to-negotiate procedures and bureaucratic, indifferent staff. These warnings were amply confirmed. Staff members of the outstanding internist I located and the fine surgeon that he recommended informed me, when I made my first inquiries, that problems with Care First had lead them to disaffiliate as “preferred providers.” One had a poster communicating this information prominently displayed for viewing by potential clients. Waiting-room anecdotes advised me never to trust information from Care First customer service staff received over the phone - to insist on written communications, via email, for anything of importance and, even then, to be prepared for interminably protracted negotiations in which I would be treated as an adversary.

But once I accepted the reality that dealing with Care First would require all the skills I had learned as scion of a family of lawyers, plus years of negotiating experience with developing-nation and academic bureaucracies, things began to improve. Yes, health care would be more expensive and battles with my “insurers” would have to be fought. But I have discovered health care professionals - from modestly compensated office and hospital staff to physicians - who genuinely care about serving patients in a manner that is only skilled and efficient but compassionate.

My experience with Washington DC’s Sibley Hospital, completing an in-and-out abdominal surgical procedure provides the case in point that has motivated me to write. Once my surgical appointment had been made - and my surgeon’s organization (Foxhall Surgical Associates) would make another good news vignette - I received two follow up calls from hospital staff just as promised. The voicemail message from the appointments nurse was among the most cheerful and courteous I have ever received - I told her so. When I arrived at the hospital I was immediately impressed with the efficient congeniality of staff members greeting me and pride they expressed in Sibley. Everyone with whom I met seemed to have been employed there for twenty years or more.

Waiting times at each stage of a fairly complex check-in process, with many documents to sign, were brief. There was no sullenness or resentment when I asked to read documents before I signed them. When I called attention to a small inaccuracy, the response was immediate, forthcoming and apologetic. Staff members wore name tags, with first and last names prominently displayed in easily read block letters. They seemed pleased when I introduced myself, asked their names and used them in our interactions. When I asked how long they had worked at Sibley all seemed to have time to share a professional experience and a bit of personal information. When an emergency delayed my procedure, a nurse provided an immediate explanation and asked what she could do to ease my waiting. In my six-plus hours at Sibley, meeting with numerous staff - professional and non professional - every single one communicated congeniality, professionalism, efficiency, pride on their work and pride and their organization.

In leading two very different programs at American University, each for a decade, I always emphasized the importance of generating “Good Karma.” I defined this has the ability to have every individual who has any interaction with our organizations come away feeling good about the organizations and themselves. Good Karma, I always emphasized, accumulates (Buddhists believe this) and is infectious. Good Karma, I believe is the most important leadership/management principle that should guide customer service organizations. In hospitals, when customers (patients) often feel at their most vulnerable and disempowered, communicating Good Karma is particularly important and, sadly, all too rarely encountered. The good news vignette I have experienced - and shared - suggests that Sibley Hospital’s leader/managers have discovered the secret of delivering efficient, high-quality health care that embodies Good Karma. It is a secret that should be shared, They have my deep gratitude - and my deep respect

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