About Ryan Shelton

While I'm currently married to a beautiful woman while teaching physics at Padua Academy, these descriptors fail to capture the totality of my adventurous life. I have hiked over 1700 miles, traveled to 5 continents, managed a bakery, started a meditation center, counseled troubled teens, attended Duke, UNC, and Harvard, protected forests as a wildland firefighter, volunteered thousands of hours with Americorps, rafted the Grand Canyon, SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef, and continues to find new adventures. I hope my writing encourages you to pursue your dreams and be the best version of yourself while supporting your communities to work together to solve the current challenges in our world.

Meditation Can Heal Student Minds and Help Adults Fix Societal Issues

Nine more students killed by a shooter. This time at Santa Fe High School in Texas. Things need to change and I’m not just talking about politics. Our minds are constantly being lured away from reality and soothed by artificial stimulants. We spend much of our free time attached to a device that allows us to escape our reality by diving into artificial stimulants so we can avoid feeling discomfort. The more time we spend consumed by virtual reality, the less time we’re attending to our personal reality, and the more we’re contributing to the escalating mental crisis in our country.

Our world has been changing rapidly, and most feel helpless when considering the complexity of its dysfunction. When confronted by impossible problems, it’s logical to choose to escape reality for something more comfortable, but this becomes the norm, it’s like throwing in the towel on our world, and I’m not ready to do that. Eight years ago I found a solution that has helped me look directly at the problems of our world without being overwhelmed, and to start unpacking and correcting issues in my own life. The solution came from the 2600 year old teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama.

Eight years ago, my healthy father was unexpectedly diagnosed with a stage 4 brain tumor and died 7 months later. Several weeks after the funeral, I attended a silent 10-day meditation retreat offered free to the public at centers all over the world. I knew nothing about meditation at the time, but this emersion course provided experiential education that was clear and profound. My world had been turned upside down, and I was being given clear incremental instructions on how to purify my mind. Step 1 – Establish your morality by make 5 commitments: Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie or use harsh words, don’t perform unwholesome sexual acts, and don’t use intoxicants. Step 2 – Quiet and concentrate your mind by focusing on the breath. Step 3 – Feel and accept the current sensations throughout your body and observe how these sensations change, knowing that there is a strong connection between physical sensations and mental health. In ten days, I learned that trying to force change or avoid truths in my mind only makes problems worse, but by simply observing without judgement, mental tensions start surfacing, unpacking, and evaporating. This purification process allowed me to feel a deeper connection to unconditional love in my life, and it has helped tens of thousands of people do the same.

This is not a quick fix and it’s not something you can simply purchase and passively integrate into your life. It is a slow and difficult process that requires you to feel and make peace with all of your mental and physical tensions. My tradition says that 2 hours of meditation a day is the right amount to stay connected to your mind. In American standards, this seems impossible, but if we’re entering a reality where students across our country are simply waiting for the day that a shooter will enter their school, maybe it’s time to try something new. Maybe all the hours we spend competing against one another in school and the workplace could be better utilized purifying our own minds and learning how to work together. Instead of allowing technology to up the ante in our rat race for success, maybe we can let technological advancement make life easier and create more free time so we can be more present in our lives and our relationships.

The mindfulness movement is spreading because a growing number of adults are desperately searching for solutions, and meditation works. One struggle I see is that many organizations are trying to use meditation as a tool to help people cope with the difficult realities of todays world rather than discovering that our current constructs are fundamentally flawed. Instead of adding meditation on top of our current dysfunctional systems, we should be using meditation to understand the fundamental flaws in our society so we can make appropriate changes. Siddhārtha Gautama didn’t teach meditation as a tool to cope with life. He taught a way of life that leads to peace, truth, and happiness based on his scientific understanding of the mind.

To be blunt, I’m not telling everyone to become Buddhist. After 8 years of studying and practicing meditation, I’m no closer to being Buddhist than when I started. Similar to Christianity, there are stories in the scriptures that don’t make sense to me, and I’m not interested in joining intellectual debates discussing why one sect is better than the next. We have enough division in our lives without squabbling over details that are beyond our own experiences. I’m simply sharing that meditation has helped me purify my mind so I can align my life more skillfully with peace, love, unity, compassion, truth, and optimism, and I think it can do the same for others.

Our society is heading in the wrong direction. Anger, fear, greed, and apathy are growing stronger in our world causing many people to feel that our future is doomed. I’m here to tell you that there is another way. Siddhārtha Gautama left the course manual sharing how to align our lives with love, and many experts from all walks of life are transmitting these same lessons today. As individuals, we can decide to follow these lessons and live a better life. If groups of individuals start adopting these core strategies, we can realign the foundation of our society. It won’t be easy, but I know we can do it, so why not try?

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Student Social Contract Following Parkland Shooting

Following the school shooting that killed 17 high school students in Parkland, FL, I wrote this social contract to offer support for my students in a confusing time. 263 students signed it. Our children want to come together to help build a better future. Let’s help them!

With this Social Contract, we will build the foundation for a positive future together:

While the Parkland shooting is frightening and devastating, I refuse to allow my life to be overpowered by fear, anger, or helplessness. I understand that there are many factors in this world that I cannot control, but I will not let these outside factors define what my life is about. When I am scared, I will reach out to friends, family, and other adults who can support me to borrow their courage to face my daily challenges with an open heart and open mind. When I am strong, I will provide support and friendship for anyone who needs it. When confronted by adversity, I will join hands with others in my community to face these difficulties together. When a community member offers an opposing opinion from my own, I will listen with an open mind, share based on my best understanding, and unite over the common goal of love. I know that we can build a healthy and inspiring future for our community if we work together. Every day, I will invest my energy into creating a positive future full of optimism, compassion, and innovation for the benefit of all people.

Relationships of Truth Not Perception

Nothing feels better than being accepted for who you are at the deepest levels of your truth. While it’s easy for anyone to appreciate our strengths, individuals who still accept and love us after understanding our darkest moments and witnessing our most hidden weakness are the people we acknowledge as our closest friends. As humans, social connections are pivotal to our happiness. We dress, talk, and act like the people around us because we want to fit in. We often straddle the line of being who we are and being who others want us to be without knowing which parts of us are which. It’s just as easy to get lost in abundant compliments as no compliments at all. We’re continuously searching for our authentic truth beneath the facade of superficiality we present to the world.

As I look out into this world, my stomach turns from the discrepancy between our perceived blissful surface reality and our ominous foundations we are secretly destroying. We pretend that our lives are full of joyful accomplishments while we sulk in our worries for the future. We’re afraid to say what we really feel because we don’t want to be ostracized from our social communities. We spend every waking hour trying to follow the script that was given to us without knowing how the story ends or what we’re trying to accomplish along the way. We’re afraid to question our true intentions because we doubt that people would still like us if they really knew who we were.

Well I have a secret for you: everyone is lonely sometimes, everyone has flaws, and we’re all different. True friends are the people who are willing to listen to your authentic truth and support you no matter what challenges you are facing in your life. These true friends are the ones you will still be in contact with you 5, 10, even 20 years down the road. Those friends who expect you to always be perfect will disappear from your life as soon as difficult struggles appear on your timeline. Struggles are not bad fortune. Struggles are opportunities to grow as an individual and to grow in your relationships. Every life is full of ups and downs. Don’t hide from your struggles, and don’t hide your struggles from your true friends. And when a friend approaches you to discuss a difficult topic, sit with them, hold them, and love them with your whole heart. If you can do that, I promise that they will be there for you when you need them down the road. There are many good people in this world. If one person lets you down, let it go and move on. Keep searching. Keep exploring. Keep living, no matter what.

We are facing many real challenges in our world today. Let’s stop pretending that they don’t exist. Instead, let’s use these challenges as opportunities to help our friendships grow to deeper levels. Let’s discuss the real struggles in our world openly and honestly, and maybe we will be able to overcome these obstacles together. We will make mistakes, and some people will call these mistakes failures, but who cares what they think? We know that the only way through this mess is forward so let’s go! Be real, be honest, and be loving, and let’s see if we can leave a positive mark on this world together.

Children Are Calling For Help – We Need To Hear Them

It’s time to stop pretending that everything is okay. We’re trying to find solutions to specific issues like teen suicide and school shooting, but when are we going to realize that these are simply symptoms of much deeper problems. Our problem isn’t that a small number of children are struggling to cope with life in today’s world. The problem is most children are struggling to cope with life, and for a few, the only solution they can see to escape the suffering is to kill themselves and others. For a child to take such an extreme action, they must have built up a tremendous amount of anger and fear over many years of their short lives, and we’re letting it happen.

I’m tired of people justifying horrible societal norms in the name of some virtuous agenda. If you are attacking another person, tearing down someone’s beliefs, or using your platform as justification to refuse to listen, you are adding to the problem. If you are so busy that you don’t have time to question the long term outcomes of your actions, you are adding to the problem. If you are unable to hear the children all across our country currently screaming for help, you are adding to the problem.

We need to stop. The way we’re currently living our lives is not working. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. We need to do better than choosing one side of a political debate and fighting for it. We need to realize that to make any improvements in this world, we need to work together on some common goals. Children across this country are screaming for help. Just because they don’t know the solutions to our problems doesn’t mean they can’t help us understand what the problems are.

Jesus Christ taught us how to bring love and compassion into moments of grief, division, and despair. He taught us how to come together for the betterment of the whole community. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t simply mean attending church every Sunday. Following Jesus requires that we develop the qualities he modelled for us within our own lives. He taught us that no matter how dark the world around us, love can guide us to the light. It’s time to reject the rules that are guiding us into darkness so we can come together and write new rules that will guide us into the light. Let us hear the children across this country that are screaming for our help, and come together to create a future we can all believe in.

Vipassana in real-life and work? Insight from a book “Charisma Myth”

Although many Vipassana mediators feel significant benefits from Vipassana practice, many Vipassana mediators, particularly newbie Vipassana meditators like me, often ask:  how do I integrate this Vipassana techniques into real life?

Believe it or not, an interesting book introduced me to applying Vipassana techniques in work and life a few years ago, before I knew Vipassana. This book is The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, written by Olivia Fox Cabane.

The author broke down charisma into three kinds of charisma: presence, warmth, power. These three types of charisma are composed of a set of concrete and specific behaviors. For building charisma, she advised that everyone might train themselves with these behaviors. When I look back now, many techniques she suggested are highly related to Vipassana meditation. In other words, Olivia Fox Cabane did an extraordinary job to integrate Vipassana meditation details into charismatic behaviors.

To train presence charisma, she advised us to meditate. In life, a quick practical tip is to sense your toe. Sensations from the toes can quickly reset yourself to the present moment. A Vipassana mediator can immediately recognize this is a Vipassana technique related to sensations.

To train warmth charisma, she advised us to practice metta and compassion to other people and to ourselves. For example, imagine the person you are interacting with as an angel with wings. Further to apply self-compassion to calibrate ourselves to the charismatic mode.

To train power charisma, although she did not directly used Vipassana, she mentioned people with power charisma don’t fidget. One part of Vipassana taught us “Anicca: everything is changing”; i.e. observation of sensation will make sensations go away. After practicing of observation of sensations, it is very helpful for us to keep an equanimous stance. For instance, if you feel an itch on your nose, because you know it will go away soon, you do not have to scratch it. Furthermore, the author advised us to handle uncomfortable things by focusing on observing sensations.

The whole book is a practical guide or a unique introduction to a Vipassana course. When I retrospect both the book and my experience with vipassana, I feel more promisie with Vipassana. Maybe charisma is a vision or path to connect Vipassana with our real life and work. Maybe for people who do not easily understand Vipassana meditation, charism is an overlook for Vipassana meditation.

p.s. When you see those people who practiced Vipassana for a long time, you can sense them from their behaviors: they project warmth through their eyes and bodies; they are present and engage when they are with you; they are composed and calm. Beyond those charisma components, they are also humble.

Geriatrics and Right Livelihood

This week, Ryan and I brainstormed about our family “mission statement.” I find that it’s helpful to be very clear on what my values and goals are and to re-visit them frequently, to help me stay focused on what’s truly important. This helps me avoid getting sidetracked by things that seem valuable on the surface, but don’t actually help me stay aligned with my core values and goals.

Sharing love and light with the world is at the core of how we want to live our lives, and career, or livelihood, is one key area in which we want to manifest this mission. What does this mean for me as a geriatrician? In an obvious sense, it’s very important to me to interact lovingly and compassionately not only with my patients and their families, but also with the myriad members of the geriatrics care team–it takes a village: nurses, nurse-practitioners, doctors, certified nursing assistants, family caregivers, clerical and support staff, social workers, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, dieticians, chaplains, recreational therapists, podiatrists, janitors, medical subspecialists, administrators and more.

But in a bigger picture sense, I think about the meaning of the Dhamma concept of “right livelihood.” Right livelihood is the fifth fold of the eight-fold path taught by the Buddha. I struggle sometimes to reconcile the numerous problems in American healthcare with right livelihood. Is contributing as a clinician to a dysfunctional system with misguided paradigms right livelihood? Or should I be throwing all of my energies into changing the system and its underlying assumptions? Trying to take on both is challenging.

A Google search turned up the following:

Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka said, “If the intention is to play a useful role in society in order to support oneself and to help others, then the work one does is right livelihood.”  [O’Brien, Barbara. “Right Livelihood: The Ethics of Earning a Living.” ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/right-livelihood-the-ethics-of-earning-a-living-450071.]

Considered from the perspective of intention, both paths are in line with right livelihood, and staying focused on clinical practice is an absolutely acceptable option–clinicians are needed, even in the broken system. However, as a clinician, it is not acceptable for me to be a complicit cog in this economically driven medical system.  I have a duty to find ways to be the kind of clinician I want to be, to practice medicine I believe in. There are formidable barriers and constraints to doing this, but that is the useful role I can play in society.

“Work diligently. Diligently. Work patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently. And you are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.” –Goenkaji

Dhamma Friends Ski Trip

This past weekend, we went on a ski trip with some friends in the Pocono Mountains, and it was so much fun!! Well, we didn’t end up skiing due to balmy temperatures and ongoing rain, but I’m still calling it a ski trip :).

There were 4 couples on the trip, including 5 serious meditators amongst 3 of the couples. It wasn’t conceived of as a “Dhamma” trip, per se, although the original basis of our friendship with two of the couples was through Dhamma, and we do still try to incorporate group sittings into our social plans when we can. Over the course of two days, we cooked, ate, talked, laughed, played board games, listened to music, played pool, cozied up around the fireplace, spent time in the hot tub, and even went for a 3 mile hike to a waterfall one morning before the rain came. Great bonding, for sure. A few of us had a conversation that eventually turned to Dhamma topics in the hot tub one night, and then decided to meditate together in the common area of our cabin before going to bed–joined by one non-meditator who expressed interest in quiet time, which was awesome–but other than that, Dhamma didn’t really get talked about much. Well, okay, there was one instance when we were discussing how early to get up the next morning for skiing/hiking, and someone made a quip about being the gong ringer, har har har….ahh, Dhamma humor :).

Even though we didn’t meditate together day and night, or spend a great deal of time talking explicitly about Dhamma in our lives, these kinds of experiences and friendships are so meaningful and valuable. There is a shared understanding that Dhamma is the foundation and compass in all of our lives, along with our lives being about so many other things beyond just Dhamma, and a shared goal of simply striving to live fulfilling and loving lives in a complex world.

“Continuity is the secret to success.” — Goenkaji