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Ask Jeff – Wednesdays at noon PST!

Learn about Jeff Stilwell on his “About” page.

Discover Jeff’s books, including his magnum opus, Here and Now: A Whimsical Take on God, on his “Works” page.

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Who Am I?

Who am I?

After my morning burn – one of those hellacious four-minute iron-man workouts – I usually sit and meditate a few moments.

Not too long ago, I was meditating on the following mantra…

I am Hui Neng and I think my thoughts.

Hui Neng is the sixth – also largely considered the greatest – patriarch of Chan Buddhism. Which makes him as about as accessible as Yoda.

In fact, we know relatively little about this seventh century Chinese sage. Most of what we do know is hagiography – only legends of him pounding rice as a servant for years, his illiteracy, his crafting of a poem that revealed his wisdom to the world, his flight from other students of Buddhism who wished to kill him (say, what?) out of jealousy, his disappearance for decades, his reappearance at a monastery in southeast China where he was quickly recruited to become a teacher, and his death there decades later, including the mummification of his body, which persists today.

Indeed, we wouldn’t know about this gentle and thoughtful soul at all were it not for a celebrity monk at court a few hundred years later who “discovered” the forgotten sage and promoted his works so that the monk could bask in reflected glory. Much like Paul used Jesus, Moses used Abraham, countless popes have used Peter and countless Muslim clerics have used Muhammed.

Fair enough. Why would I be meditating on being some guy who lived and taught thirteen centuries ago?

Well, as part of re-embracing my thoughts – expressed in Here and Now – after running from them for years, I needed to select a model to help me get into the mindset. Hui Neng has been a hero for the last decade or more, mostly because of the quality of his thought, so he was a convenient choice.

If that is jarring to hear, consider an alternative. When I was in seminary, we were attending one of the most highly esteemed churches of the Pacific Northwest. The minister, who became my mentor, was wildly popular. Indeed, he was regarded as a modern-day wisdom figure, a mystic, a sage. He was almost worshipped as a living saint. Yet, when alone with me, he would take off the mask and freely reveal to me that much of what I and others so fervently admired and exalted was false. It was empty posturing.

Was my mentor exhausted with the pretense? Maybe. I shall never know the true reason. Needless to say, I left the environment as quickly as I could and never returned. Moreover, that lesson of the dangers of pretending to a wisdom you have not truly earned was well learned. I utterly refuse to make his mistake.

Instead, I prefer to simply be me. Thus, when I needed a shoulder to lean on, I unapologetically  turned to one of my heroes.

Until one day, to my surprise, my meditation changed all on its own to the following mantra…

I am Jeff Stilwell and I think my thoughts.

That’s who I am.

Who are you?

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What Does Fulfillment Look Life?

Ask Jeff: Philosopher Jeff Stilwell explains what fulfillment looks like.

In this week’s episode of Ask Jeff MalcolmP writes in: You’re always talking about fulfillment. What does that look like?

Sometimes it is best to begin answering this kind of question by explaining what something is not.

Fulfillment is not an energy drink, easily consumed with a pop of the top. Nor is it a silver bullet – or, in today’s psychological parlance, a magic pill. It is not a product that you can order and have shipped to you by Amazon. It is not a tool that you can borrow from a friend for a weekend and return later. It is not even an enlightenment that you can learn at the foot of a master or earn by going tens of thousands of dollars into debt while getting a few letters after your name.

Nor is it a one-size-fits-all answer to the universal problem of emptiness.

Fulfillment is unique to each of us. Precisely, fulfillment is eminently satisfying to you and probably not many others.

Take my definition of fulfillment.

I want to spend the next decades explaining to others my ideas that We Create God (and not the other way around) and, therefore, We Create Heaven (in this lifetime or not at all), thus, we had best get the most out of this one life that we possibly can.

If achieving that goal extends to being able to someday found a rescue ranch for farm animals – particularly horses headed for the glue factory, pigs and cows for the slaughterhouse – and hanging out from time to time in the art scenes of Montmartre and Shanghai, all the better.

But that’s me.

What is your idea of fulfillment?

Continuing with the exploration of what fulfillment does not look like – it is not what your family members, particularly your parents or siblings want for you. They do not – as much as they might think they do – get to choose for you. Indeed, they have their own lives to lead, their own fulfillment to discover, and they had best get at it.

(Soft note: We are all human. The fear of losing someone we dearly love to some unforeseen change is quite real, wholly unsettling, if not terrifying, and best handled with a great deal of gentle understanding and patience.)

Nor is fulfillment some kind of dastardly snake oil that fools you, leading you down the road to utter devastation – for the simple reason that your search for fulfillment provides you with almost daily feedback about whether your search is the right path for you.

For example, I once ran for Congress. Why? Well, that’s a long story, mostly having to do with my desire to be useful and my late mother’s adamant ambition for me. What my wife and I all too quickly noticed, however, after embarking on that particular adventure was that every step further down the road made us both progressively less comfortable and even less happy. It was not a good fit. I clearly lack the ruthless bone that political leaders find so handy. Nor do I succeed pretending that I’m hearing a stale joke for the very first time. These qualities, I quickly learned, are crucial in that line of work.

No. Fulfillment is not a trip to Crazyville. It is your life. Your needs. Your desires. It will make sense to you most steps of the way, or you will quickly abandon your aim and set about selecting another to pursue. That’s the way it works. Try it.

Nor, finally, is fulfillment easily achieved. It took me half a lifetime just to figure out what mine looks like. I have yet to climb that peak.

How long will it take you to figure out yours?

However long, it’s time to take that first step.

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Who Is Thrashin’ Jack?

AnnL asks Jeff the above question in this week’s Ask Jeff. Here is his response…

Ask Jeff: Philosopher Jeff Stilwell explains who Thrashin' Jack.

Thrashin’ Jack is my go to guy.  Adorable, cheerful, daring, whimsical. Also impulsive and impetuous, Thrashin’ Jack is always getting himself into trouble. If he is my alter ego in any way, it would have to be expressed via this last characteristic.

In the months – nay, years, I realize now – in the runup to writing Here and Now, Thrashin’ Jack came to mind as the adventurer who would carouse the pages of my work, making light of ideas that came across as heavy, finding simplicity amidst the complex, and poking holes in any windbags of pompous arrogance that all too often seem to show up in writings about spirituality.

Fair enough. But why a skateboarder?

Believe it or not, skateboarding strikes me as an international symbol, one of the first. I realized that when I was living in Taiwan. I was sitting in an average office one day – everything Chinese inside just as there was everything Chinese outside. Except for one thing.  I looked out the window and saw a boy crashing his skateboard in the parking lot. I burst out laughing, wondering what the hell a skateboard was doing in China.

It immediately sparked the memory of my own flirtation with thrashing at our local Cathedral of Christ the King – built on what passed for a hill – in my hometown. All the thrashers (ie skateboarders) used to gather on the south side of the cathedral to practice our ollies, pop shove its and other thrashing moves. It was our skatepark, a decade before anyone thought up the term.

Of course, being that my family always struggled for money, I had brought with me a very old, wide, wood, and (key) heavy skateboard that I think I had dug up at St. Vincent de Paul’s or some other second hand store. The other kids, however, sported new, flashy, narrow, plastic and (key) very light skateboards. They even had these really cool decals on their boards. I felt so out of place.

Needless to say, in that heartwarming way that children have, they quickly laughed me into utter humiliation. As I recall, I never went back.

Even so, I never forgot my fascination with thrashing.

Thus, decades later, when I was casting about for a cartoon character to express myself artistically, Thrashin’ Jack was born.

Now, those aspiring to become illustrators might be surprised to learn that I am largely self-taught.  Indeed, my eighth grade art class taught me not to draw – both because of the teacher’s evident disinterest in the subject and Sandy, the truly enthralling girl sitting next to me. No, the first drawing in earnest of my life came from, unsurprisingly, a challenge of Manya’s. I had followed her to Java with an engagement ring in my pocket that she did not know about, but which made things a bit, well, tense between us. One day, in exasperation, she handed me a sketchpad saying, “The town is surrounded by temples. Choose one and draw what you see.” I did.

Years later, for lack of anything else to do after experiencing a rather severe disappointment in theatre, I again took up illustration. My comics were carried for a while in a local paper. Inevitably, I made a number of truly awful rookie mistakes. My character was named Bosatsu – the Japanese term for bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint (huh?) – his t-shirt had the Hindu character Om on it – sometimes I used Chinese characters for Taoist concepts in the comics – all the while blithely expecting my Pacific Northwest audience to somehow enjoy such details. (They didn’t.)

Nevertheless, it was a start. All in all, one can readily see that Bosatsu bears a striking resemblance to Thrashin’ Jack.

Who is Thrashin' Jack - here is an earlier incarnation when I called him "Bosatsu."

Over time, I learned to listen to my readers more. I kept my core concepts, but I made them much more approachable.

For example, the Om symbol gave way to a planet with a moon encircling it, or maybe it is a stylized Saturn with a simple ring. Does it matter? I learned that it truly doesn’t, as readers get the point, anyway, that it celebrates something beyond our pale blue dot.

His eyes, ears, and shoes got a lot cuter. His helmet grew rounder, therefore, more pleasing to the eye. His erstwhile companions, a cat and a bird, gave way to a far more rambunctious ginger tabby named Lotus (inspired by our athletic troublemaker at home). I created my own font, called ThrashinJack, of course. (Email me if you’d like a copy to install on your computer.)

Even his skateboard changed. Gone was the pompous Yin Yang symbol – expressing an essential duality to the universe – replaced with a simple ice cream cone. Yes, there is a melting drop on it, of course, noting the brevity of time. But the message was far less complex – in essence, don’t waste this lifetime since it’s all you get.

In short, Thrashin’ Jack was a lot more fun.

(For example, what flavor ice cream do you suppose it is? Well, it’s your favorite, of course. If you ask mine, I go back and forth between mint chocolate chip and rocky road. Ice cream cognoscenti take for granted that mint chocolate chip, originally named Mint Royale, was invented by a culinary student and presented to the royals during Princess Anne’s wedding in the 70s – and that Rocky Road is a child of the Great Depression, marketed a nickel at a time as an escape from the economic difficulties of that era. Yes, those who take their ice cream seriously know this. Others just adore eating it.)

Who is Thrashin' Jack? An adorable skateboarding adventurer invented by philosopher Jeff Stilwell

And it is that fun at the heart of Thrashin’ Jack that makes such an ideal companion for me as I plumb the deep concepts of my mind, my soul, and present them to the world. Hopefully in a whimsical manner. I hope you agree.

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How We Got Here

I wrote Here and Now several years ago. It was the culmination of decades of thought.

The first step occurred when I was ten and I went looking for God. My family was steeped in problems – sexual abuse, violence, alcoholism – and in primary school fashion, I decided that I needed help. Big help. The biggest help I could imagine was God. In Sunday school, we were taught that God was everywhere. So, following the logic, I searched for him on the section of my hometown that I knew best. I went looking for God on my paper route.

I did not find God there.

I did, however, meet some incredible wisdom figures such as a local priest and my scoutmaster. Nevertheless, as helpful as they were in their own, very different, ways, they were no replacement for God.

I kept searching. I felt kooky doing it, thus I never talked about it. But I kept at it.

Years later, meeting Manya in Asia – and experiencing fascinating talks on our dates that stretched for hours – sitting on the steps of a palatial National Symphony Hall at midnight, for example, discussing, say, the women of the Bible – I learned from her reactions to my search that perhaps I wasn’t such a kook, after all.

Indeed, as our own relationship stretched years in the making, she began teasing me. She said that she expected me to someday write a great work of religio-historical significance. She always said this with a teasing twinkle in her eye at the same time as the lovely timbre of her voice communicated serious intent.

All those years of watching me dig deeply into the great faith traditions of humanity inspired her.  All those years of watching me spelunk the caverns of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, even (to a lesser extent) Judaism and Islam. All those years of watching my questions, and answers, increase in complexity – and, ultimately, simplicity.

But to write a great work of religio-historical significance? What business does a hayseed from a broken home in northern Wisconsin have presuming to play in such prestigious fields? To tackle the questions of ultimate meaning: Who is God? Who are we? Are we in relationship? If not, what then?

Nevertheless – as I am certain you’ve noticed from time to time – the love of another can drive us to climb the highest of peaks.  No matter what the rest of the world may think.

Finally, I did. I wrote Here and Now. And it was surprisingly easy for me. (Apparently, all those torturously slow decades of chewing on a subject yields results, in time.)

One of my first artistic decisions – given the complexity of the material – was to take a tool from Jesus’ kit. He used simple parables to communicate his intricate ideas. Moreover, we live in the Visual Age now. So, I taught myself to draw comics, then created a plucky cartoon character named Thrashin’ Jack who adventured through the pages accompanied by Lotus, his precocious ginger tabby. It was a winning combo. Early readers adored Thrashin’ Jack. They even loved that his skateboard featured a melting ice cream cone, to express the brevity of time.

All in all, the work was deemed a success.

And then the storm clouds rolled in.

We created a foundation to help people find fulfillment. It stood to reason. Given that we created God – and not the other way around – what do we do with our lives? We find the fullest expression of meaning that we can with the time we have. Then, too, given that we are, each, unique, fulfillment looks vastly different to each one of us.

So far, so good.

But, how to figure out what fulfillment looks like, given that we are unique? I designed the concept of small groups meeting regularly, supporting each other, to help each participant figure that out. The groups had a process of asking, of listening, of thinking, of encouraging, and of checking back to see how things worked out.

They proved an utter failure.

We learned through the process that people love the idea of searching for their own fulfillment – for about three weeks. After that, reality kicks in. Talking about the changes they realize they need to make to find that fulfillment is one thing. Doing it? At that point – movies, songs, trips, love affairs, vodka – anything diverting suddenly grows so much more appealing.

We are humans, after all.

In the meantime, Manya and I went back to the drawing board. I was meant for this somehow, right?

To inspire everyone still involved, I decided on a spectacle. I would hike 750 miles from Stevens Pass in Washington across four states to end at Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. At the geyser, I would dare God to strike me down with lightning.

Chutzpah, right? Some were really quite upset at the whole business. Me? I wasn’t worried in the slightest about getting smacked with lightning.

No. Of far more immediate concern was the practical question of whether I could whip my middle-aged body into shape enough to carry well over a hundred pounds on my back for twenty-five to thirty miles a day uphill and down. Shoot, the first day we purchased the legendary hiking boots, I scraped the backs of my heels off walking just two miles!

Nevertheless, through training over time, the miles began to increase in number. I remember hiking to the Ballard Locks and back – eight miles – was a big day for me. I remember hiking the Burke Gilman Trail to Lake Washington and back – another big day. Eventually, I settled on a training route that stretched twelve and a half miles. There was a humble park bench, faded with age, at the end point. I would sit there after reaching it, resting, contemplating the twelve and a half miles that remained going back. There was even a LFH (ie Last Fucking Hill) on the training route that used to make me whimper in pain.

Did I mention that there was no following car? This was a solitary hike. Thus, Manya assembled a logistics team that planned out drop points to which they could ship me ramen and instant oatmeal (the lightest foods we could think of). She also assembled a media team, who reached out to local outlets along the way for coverage.

The day came – my 48th birthday – and I was off. The next forty days and nights would feature extremes of heat, including broken records for soaring temperatures in Washington which threw me into heat stroke, freezing rains in the foothills of the Rockies that numbed my fingers into frustrating helplessness and my thoughts into states of insensibility. Of course, the worst moments occurred when I was entirely alone with help miles away and no way of reaching out for it. There were injuries that put me down, delaying the hike, times when the map proved wrong and I ran out of water with hours to go. Yet, such challenges hardened my will. There truly was no other choice.

As I rang up milestone successes, however, the media exposure proved a bust. The reporters might think I was interesting, their editors did not. The honest ones explained their viewers would go nuts – or worse – if they covered some fool daring God to strike him with lightning. This vast spectacle designed to go viral passed largely in silence.

Then, too, their fear got Manya down. The locals may have God in plenty in the Rockies. They also have guns. Or, as she finally put it when I was nearing Yellowstone, “God and lightning is one thing. Some crazy taking pot shots at you is another.”

In the end, I yielded. At the geyser, instead of daring God to do anything, I made a speech about how I wanted a world without war (which was true). And that was that. The spectacle ended a failure.

Deeply disappointed, I walked away from what I was meant to be. Was I afraid? Was I using the early failures as an excuse not to try? It’s likely.

Years passed. I worked on various projects. Writing shorter pieces, flirting with social media though I knew I wasn’t snarky enough. I wrote a beautiful novel about the first Blatina President – that struggles to find a publisher though I believe it will. I even ran for Congress, which ended badly as we learned I lack that ruthless bone so highly prized in our leaders.

One day Manya lost patience and wiped the board clean.

“We weren’t ready last time,” she said. “Now we are.”

She was right.

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