Thursday, December 31, 2009
Today, at 2:13 p.m. EST a full moon will rise for the second time within the month of December. This astronomical event is called a "Blue Moon." It seems a fitting way to mark the end of a decade-- and what a decade it's been!
Do you remember the anxious start to the decade with the "Y2K" scare? We were worried that our computer-driven world would suffer distress because most computer clocks didn't automatically go from 1999 to 2000. Those fears turned out to be unfounded. However, the next year, on September 11, we had a real world-changing scare that has defined the rest of the decade.
Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, has called this past decade the "Zero Decade" because it seemed that so little progress has been made in the political and financial realms.
My question is: How do we measure progress? In the spiritual realm, this question is difficult to answer. For, how can the increase of love, hope, peace and joy be measured? These intangibles are probably the most important things in our lives, and have more to do with whether we are healthy and thriving. Yet, they are difficult to measure.
My hope is that the next decade will see a decrease in war and an increase in peace, an increase in reconciliation and a decrease in alienation, a decrease in selfishness and an increase in selflessness. I know this is a big, even unrealistic, hope, but hope by nature defies realism.
For me, a Blue Moon is a hopeful reminder that the universe has existed for billions of years and will continue to exist. Time marches forward into a new decade.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Have you had your midlife crisis yet? If not, here's an idea for you: make it a positive experience. A December 23 Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger titled, "Have A Nice Midlife Crisis," offers examples and suggestions on how to do this.
The term "midlife crisis" has come to describe a time of transition or turbulence between the ages of 35-53. The popular notion is that a midlife crisis involves "reckless, self-indulgent behavior, from infidelity to splurging on sports cars," according to Shellenbarger.
However, some younger baby boomers are having their midlife crisis in a new way: they are turning it into something positive. If they are fired from a job, they are pursuing the career they really want. One woman, described in the article, decided to pursue a life of community service and founded a nonprofit during her midlife crisis.
Here are some of Shellenbarger's suggestions: (1) Plan a step-by-step transition, (2) Integrate old passions, (3) Assert yourself, and (4) Honor your creative side.
I believe there can be a spiritual component to a midlife crisis. Because it is a time of change, even upheaval, there is an opportunity to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. As we struggle with questions of meaning and purpose, we are more open to spirituality.
Midlife is often a time when we change directions and become the persons we really want to be. It is also a time for discovering or rediscovering our calling, our vocation. To make midlife a positive experience, we need to be open and receptive to our deepest selves, our souls.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Christmas is quickly becoming a fading memory. If Christmas was a high moment for you, either spiritually or materially or both, feeling a letdown is natural. For some, the holiday period from Christmas through New Year's is a depressing time anyway.
For me the poet W.H. Auden captures the essence of the time after Christmas in his poem, "For the Time Being":
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory.
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
of Lent and Good Friday, which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience.
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
My question is: Does the return to our usual routine of work and chores need to be depressing? I think there is something positive and even comforting in returning to "normal" life. Can we enjoy the celebration of Christmas without it making everyday life seem dull and boring by comparison?
I believe we don't have to give in to the post-Christmas blues. How? By recognizing that life will always have its high moments and its low moments. Life will always be a mixture of joy and sadness and everything in between. Life is not lived mostly on mountaintops or in valleys, but on the everyday plains.
There is so much to affirm and enjoy about the routines of everyday life. It is here and now, on the Monday after Christmas, that the meaning and purpose of life can be found.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
For me, the light Jesus brought into the world is a universal Light. I like the "stained glass" metaphor for the relation between the world's religions. There is a single light shining through a stained glass window, but it gets refracted into different sizes, shapes and colors.
Christians find their Truth in the Light of Christ, but this same Light can be found in the Buddha, Lao Tze, Confucius, Abraham, Muhammad and many other spiritual leaders throughout history.
Here is a prayer from the United Methodist Book of Worship by John Sutter that captures this Light imagery.
Send, O God, into the darkness of this troubled world,
the light of your Son.
Let the star of your hope touch the minds of all people
with the bright beams of mercy and truth;
and so direct our steps that we may ever walk in the
way revealed to us,
as the shepherds of Bethlehem walked with joy
to the manger where he dwelled,
who now and ever reigns in our hearts,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
When you think of the word “play” what images come to mind? Children shouting gleefully in a game of playground tag? Swinging high into the air on a swing set? Shooting a basketball? Kicking a soccer ball? Enjoying a game of Bridge or Hearts or Spades? Throwing dice and moving your piece in a game of Monopoly? Gliding down a snow-covered slope on parabolic skis? Dancing the tango with your partner? Obviously, this list could go on and on.
Play is in the mind of the beholder. What counts as play to me may not seem like play at all to you. What makes an activity play? First, it should be fun and enjoyable. Play is the difference between walking and skipping. When play is separated from enjoyment, it can be drudgery or mere exercise. Another feature of play is that it involves movement of some kind. Even playing video games involves moving one’s thumbs. The Nintendo Wii video game system has games that involve imitating the movements of sports and dances, a kind of virtual play. At its best, play is exuberant, spontaneous and joyful.
The third definition of play in Webster’s College Dictionary is: “activity, often spontaneous, engaged in for recreation, often by children.” At the heart of play is recreation. Recreation is refreshing and renewing. The word “recreate” can also be expressed as “re-create.” When it comes to feeding the soul, recreation becomes re-creation.
The question to ask yourself when it comes to play that feeds the soul is: What do I do for recreation and relaxation? Answering this will offer clues to play’s soul-nourishing possibilities. Just as play is important for the mind and the body, it is also important for the soul.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
In this time of shopping, buying and wrapping presents to give, I'm thinking about a different kind of gift giving... human gifts.
What is a human gift? It is a gift of time and love. Some examples: a supportive email or phone call to a family member or friend in need, fixing a meal for someone close to you, shoveling the snow off the sidewalk of a neighbor, taking a walk with someone close to you.
These human gifts don't cost money. You don't have to shop for them. You don't need to wrap them. You just need to be creative in giving your time.
As a child I remember giving my Mom the "gift" of "ten lawn mowings without complaining." I think she appreciated this gift more than any store-bought gift.
Although I enjoy receiving store-bought gifts, it is what they represent that is more important: that someone took the time to think about what I would like and then took the time to get it.
There is something deeply spiritual about any act of giving. Yet, giving human gifts seems to nourish the soul in a richer way.
Monday, December 21, 2009
The huge storm that hit the Northeast dumped over 10 inches of snow where I live. So yesterday I went snowshoeing for the first time. I got the snowshoes last Christmas, but there wasn't enough snow to use them until now.
Snowshoeing is a blast! I went to Woodland Nature Preserve, strapped on my snowshoes and headed into the forest. One great thing about snowshoeing is that you don't have to worry about trails (if you're not where there are cliffs or crevasses). In fact, it's harder to walk on packed or uneven snow. So, trailblazing is a fun necessity.
I loved being able to make my own trail through the woods. I felt the heady joy of freedom to go wherever I pleased. Snow transforms a dull, brown landscape into one of white beauty.
Somehow, snow makes you feel like a child again. The spontaneity of trailblazing also has a childlike quality to it. Snowshoeing was like playing! I felt deep gratitude at being able to enjoy nature's gift of fresh snow.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
I recently saw the movie, "Invictus" directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. What a great movie! It was entertaining, inspiring and a joy to watch.
The movie title is based on the poem "Invictus" by English poet John Henley in 1875. Henley suffered from tuberculosis and the poem was written from his hospital bed. In the film, Nelson Mandela gives a copy of the poem to rugby captain, Francois Pienaar, as a way of inspiring him to lead his team to a World Cup championship.
Here's the text of the poem,
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Inspiring poetry and amazing film. Go see it!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
After complaining about our teenage sons' immaturity and irresponsibility, a friend gave me this wise advice, "When it comes to teenagers, you need to raise your tolerance and lower your expectations. Otherwise, you'll always be upset."
That's not such bad advice for the holiday season. Many of us have high expectations of holiday family gatherings. These too high expectations often go unfulfilled for a variety of reasons. Holiday stress strains already fragile relationships. Someone gets a cold or the flu. The gifts we expected aren't under the Christmas tree.
Because there is no such thing as a perfect family, the myth of the perfect holiday is also unrealistic. We are human and, therefore, have faults and flaws. We make mistakes. We say things we don't mean or speak too quickly when we're angry.
Having realistic expectations of the holidays can help. So can raising our tolerance of each other's idiosyncrasies and faults. Then, we are better able to "roll with the punches" and ride out difficult or trying holiday celebrations.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The importance of having a job was underlined by a front page article in today's New York Times titled, "Poll Reveals Depth and Trauma of Joblessness in U.S." This article explores the effects of joblessness on workers and their families. Here are some of the horrible effects and the percentage reporting them: emotional trauma (48%), trouble sleeping (55%), children's lives changing (56%), cutting back on medical care (54%), taking money from savings and retirement accounts (60%).
Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Losing a job means more than losing one's livelihood-- it also can mean a loss of meaning, purpose and sense of self-worth.
Work has a spiritual dimension as well. Good, honest work not only feeds the body, but also feeds the soul. Soulless work is doing something that is drudgery. Soulful work is doing something that is fulfilling, "work worth doing" as Roosevelt put it.
When you don't have a job, your work is to look for one. Conducting a successful job search is a full time job in itself. Finding a new job in this "jobless recovery" is very difficult. However, a job search is definitely "work worth doing."
One more idea on the spiritual dimension of work. Volunteering doesn't bring you a paycheck, but can be spiritually rewarding. A saying attributed to Winston Churchill confirms this, "You make a living by what you earn; you make a life by what you give." Giving our time and talents in the service of others can surely help us "make a life."
Monday, December 14, 2009
More than any other time of the year, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is a season for gift giving. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa fall within this period. All of these celebrations involve gifting.
One important component of active spirituality is giving. Although I recognize the dangers of commercialization of any holiday, I also believe that the effort of giving gifts can be soul enriching.
When you give a gift, you have taken the time to think of what would please the receiver. You have also either shopped or invested time in making the gift. And you have taken time to wrap and deliver the gift.
When you think about it, the true gift we give is the gift of our time. Time is our most valuable resource. We can't make any more of it--that's why it is so precious. When we give our time to something or someone, we are saying, "You are important to me."
Giving gifts can be an act of self-giving. When we get in touch with the love that motivates us to want to give and then take the time to carry out this thought, gift giving becomes a spiritual act. I will try to keep this in mind as I wait in long lines at the Post Office this week to mail several gifts!
Thursday, December 10, 2009
I'm in the midst of grading nearly 80 research papers of students in my two Religion 101 classes. The assignment is to write a 4-6 page paper on a topic in religion that interests the student. There is a huge variety of topics. Some examples: "The Great Schism of 1054," "Jim Jones-- The People's Temple," "Buddhist Symbolism," and "Scientology."
Reading and grading so many papers has its challenges. There is a variation in the quality of these papers. Some are a pleasure to read and others are difficult to get through (usually due to poor grammar and syntax). At times, I've humorously refered to this task as "Research Paper Grading Hell." When I finish, I will have read approximately 500 pages of papers-- equivalent to a good length novel.
What I try to bring to this task is fairness, curiosity and energy. I want to give each paper a fair reading and to appreciate the good qualities and wisdom in each. I'm also trying bring a measure of mindfulness as I read these papers.
Can grading research papers have a spiritual dimension? I believe it can. First, I am learning new things about the world's religions. A teacher is, first and foremost, a learner. Secondly, I am engaged in important work. Even though grading is one of my least favorite teaching tasks, I know it is important to the student and, therefore, give it my best. That being said, I'll be glad when I'm finished!
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
We're under a wind warning today in Southwestern Connecticut. Already, there have been gusts of 40+ MPH. Trees and limbs are falling. There are power outages. Wind is one of nature's most destructive forces.
It's interesting that the word "spirit" is often associated with wind in the New Testament. At Pentecost the disciples experience the coming of the Holy Spirit "like the rush of a violent wind." This is an analogy to describe the power with which the spirit comes.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (3:8) Since the Greek word for both spirit and wind is pneuma, wind is a double entendre.
If the spirit is like wind, then our challenge is to "catch" it. This means putting ourselves in a place or state of mind where the wind is likely to blow. For me, this place is most often in the beauty of nature. The wind/spirit blows there both literally and metaphorically. Where do you feel the wind/spirit? That's a good clue to where you need to spend some of your time each day.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I just finished reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It's a sprawling novel about building a cathedral in the 12th century. While it's not in the category of my all-time favorite, The Lord of the Rings, it is a very good read.
Even though building the cathedral is the theme that runs through the story, it is really about human relationships. Like any good novel, the well-drawn characters give the story its drama and suspense. There are kings, earls, peasants, builders, monks, bishops and knights who clash in both violent and peaceful ways. Follett is an excellent storyteller.
While I learned more about cathedral building than I ever knew existed, my imagination was engaged in the unfolding drama of how the various characters either aided or were obstacles to the building.
I saw the building of the cathedral as a metaphor for pursuing any long-term goal. To be successful, we need to have persistence, resilience and determination. This is also true of the spiritual life. A healthy spiritual life isn't built in a day or even a year. It takes time-- even a life time.
Monday, December 7, 2009
In Connecticut we received our first snowfall of the winter on Saturday. It wasn't a big storm-- just a few inches. However, it was very wet and stuck to the trees. On a Sunday hike in Sleeping Giant State Park I found myself in a winter wonderland.
When it is fresh, snow is one of the most beautiful of nature's gifts. Snow can transform a winter landscape from a dull and lifeless brown into a vibrant and brilliant white.
Hiking in the snow is also a great experience. The snow muffles the sound and you feel as if you're in a place of pure silence. The only sounds I could hear on my hike were those I made myself. Because the snow was soft even my footsteps were quiet.
Each season has it's own intrinsic beauty and winter's beauty is enhanced by snow. Since the soul is fed by beauty, winter is a bountiful feast! The key is to get out of the house and enjoy it.
Friday, December 4, 2009
The season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a time of waiting expectantly and hopefully for God's coming. The key to waiting hopefully is centered in our concept of time. In the New Testament, there are two Greek words for time. The first is “chronos” from which we derive our words chronology and chronometer. Chronos is “clock time.” It’s time that is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years.
The second Greek word for time is “kairos.” The best translation of kairos is “appropriate time” or “right time.” In some places in the Bible, it’s used to describe God’s timetable. One of the classic examples of kairos is in Ecclesiastes 3. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” The poem goes on to say that there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
Kairos can’t be measured by clocks. In kairos time, events unfold on their own schedule and can’t be rushed or slowed down.
Understanding time as kairos can help us in our waiting because it means that some things unfold on their own timetable and not on ours. While we measure things by chronos, so many things occur in kairos time. For instance the maturing of a person. There are “early bloomers” and “late bloomers” and you can’t rush a late bloomer. And there are others: the birth of baby happens when the baby is ready. A traffic jam unfolds on its own timetable. A spiritual awaking happens when we’re ready. There are so many things in life that must happen in their own time.
When we accept kairos time, waiting becomes easier. We wait knowing that we don’t control all of the events of our lives and when they happen.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
So we've learned that Tiger Woods isn't perfect. What a surprise! Is there anyone who thought he was? Yes, he's the best golfer in the world, arguably the best ever. Yet, even the best golfer can make bad moral choices.
I'm not interested in weighing in on whether Tiger's private life should be left private (it hasn't). My interest is: What can we learn from Tiger's situation?
First, we can learn that bad choices can humble even the most admired of celebrities. Those who put Tiger on a pedestal far above us mortals are disillusioned. But such disillusionment is a good thing because it helps us see that everyone is an imperfect human being. Illusions need to be stripped away so that we can see the truth about ourselves.
Secondly, Tiger teaches us that choices have consequences. We can't know all of the consequences of his bad choices, but we've already seen several of them. He has hurt his relationship with his wife, his fans, and (maybe) his children. He seems to have recognized this, which is good news because recognition is the beginning of the healing process.
Thirdly, I hope we can learn that, without forgiveness, human relationships cannot thrive. Forgiveness needs to happen on several levels. Over time, Tiger needs to receive the forgiveness of his wife, he needs to forgive himself and we need to forgive Tiger. All of this takes time and effort. Forgiveness is not easy nor instantaneous (except in the case of God's forgiveness).
There are surely more lessons to be learned from this, but this is a start. What do you think?
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
While rowing on this cold, crisp morning I was rewarded with an amazing sight. Just as the sun was rising in the east, a full moon was setting in the west. Although this isn't the first of these I've seen in my lifetime, this one was especially spectacular because of the very large full moon.
Like solar and lunar eclipses, such natural phenomena have an aura of mystery about them. Mysteries, by definition, cannot be explained-- they can only be marveled at.
These natural marvels remind us that there are things we cannot control. We can no more control the time of sunrise or moonset than we can control the temperature of the sun or the rotation speed of the earth.
It's good to be reminded that we can't control everything that happens (even though we exhaust ourselves trying). As it says in the serenity prayer, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot control."
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
In today's New York Times "Science Times" there is an excellent article by Tara Parker-Pope titled, "In Month of Giving, a Healthy Reward." She interviews Cami Walker, who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
When Ms. Walker was first diagnosed, she was devastated. She went to a holistic health educator and got a surprising prescription: give a gift each day for a month. She followed this advice and details her experience in a new book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life (Da Capo Press).
Ms. Walker gave gifts like making a supportive phone call and saving a piece of chocolate cake for her husband. She said, "Giving for 29 days is not suggested as a cure for anything. It's simply a coping mechanism and a simple tool you can use that can help you change your thinking about whatever is going on. If you change your thinking, you change your experience."
The article cites several studies that document the health benefits, physical and mental, of giving. It seems that volunteerism and altruism make for a healthier life. One benefit is that helping others takes the focus off a preoccupation with one's own problems and shifts it to others.
This paradox that giving benefits the giver more than the receiver is at the heart of Christianity, which teaches that giving one's life in love results in authentic life.
I'm going to try Ms. Walker "prescription" of giving a gift for 29 days. That should take me past Christmas. How about you?
Monday, November 30, 2009
In light of having recently celebrated Thanksgiving, I've been thinking about gratitude. How does it arise? When am I most grateful? Where does gratitude come from?
Gratitude is at the center of nearly every major religion. It is one of the two key duties in Islam (along with submission). In Taoism, gratitude is connected with humility. In Buddhism, gratitude is an important ingredient in compassion. In Christianity, gratitude is a key virtue. In Judaism, gratitude is at the heart of the concept of covenant.
Obviously, gratitude is at the heart of a spiritual life. So then why aren't we more grateful? I think part of the answer is that it is too easy to take things (and people) for granted. When something good happens, we often think "I deserve this," as if we are entitled to the gifts we receive. An entitlement mentality negates gratitude.
Where does gratitude come from? A wise sage whose name I can't remember once said, "Grace evokes gratitude like the voice evokes an echo." In other words, we are grateful when we get in touch with the fact that we are recipients of grace. Since grace, by definition, is unearned and undeserved, we cannot help but to be grateful when we receive it.
I am most grateful when I am most humble. When I become aware of the gifts of food, shelter, and companionship that have been bestowed upon me, and how little I deserve them, I become thankful. I once heard someone say that the most important prayer we can utter is two words: "Thank you!" Being able to say those two words and really mean them is to be grateful.
Friday, November 27, 2009
The Thanksgiving feast is now over and I'm looking forward to leftovers. Thanksgiving and Christmas have become times for overindulging one's appetites for food and drink. In the past, I've eaten too much delicious Thanksgiving food. This year, I tried my best to eat enough to be comfortably full and had modest success.
When the food is so good, it's hard to stop enjoying it. My tendency is to keep eating until I'm stuffed like a tick. However, too much of a good thing isn't good for body or soul.
Just as it's possible to overindulge one's bodily appetites, it's possible to overindulge one's soul. Take whatever feeds your soul and imagine doing that activity over and over. At first, it may be enjoyable. But, eventually, even the soul can suffer from overindulgence.
In Buddhism there is the concept of "the middle way," a spiritual path between extremes of excess and deficiency. In Confucianism, there is the "doctrine of the golden mean," which emphasizes balance and harmony in one's life.
Just as a balanced diet is good for the body, a balanced inner life nourishes the soul. Finding the right balance between being and doing, between activity and inactivity is one of the important challenges of a spiritual journey. Avoiding the extremes is a good beginning.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
The Thanksgiving prayer below is based on one by Ted Loder (Guerrilla's of Grace, LuraMedia, 1984). Enjoy!
how curious and what a confession
that we should set aside one day a year
and call it Thanksgiving.
I smile at the presumption,
and you you smile, too.
But the truth is, Holy Friend,
that my words can't carry all the praise
I want them to, or that they should,
no matter how many trips they make.
So this day, all is praise and thanks for
all my days.
I breathe and it is your breath that fills me.
I look and it is your light I which I see.
I move and it is your energy moving in me.
O think and the thoughts are but sparks
from the fire of your truth.
I love and the throb is your presence.
O Glorious One,
for this curious day,
for the impulses that have designated it,
for the gifts that grace it,
for the gladness that accompanies it,
I pause to praise and thank you
with this one more trip of words
which leaves too much uncarried,
but not unfelt, unlived, unloved.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
With Thanksgiving approaching, it's good to reflect on cooking. Studies show that the person who buys and cooks the food has the biggest influence on family eating habits. These “nutritional gatekeepers” influence more than 70% of the foods we consume (2006 Report in the Journal of the American Diabetic Association). If you are the nutritional gatekeeper in your family, cooking with love means cooking healthy.
Cornell researchers questioned 770 family cooks and identified five different types: “giving” cooks who specialize in comfort food, especially baked goods; “methodical” cooks who rely mostly on recipes; “competitive” cooks who focus less on health than on making an impressive dish; “healthy” cooks who use fresh vegetables and ingredients but don’t focus much on taste; “innovative” cooks who like to experiment with ingredients and cooking methods. It turns out that “innovative” cooks produce the healthiest and tastiest meals overall.
My point in sharing this information is to help you identify your cooking personality so you know where your biases are. Once you’re aware of your cooking type, then you can decide to move toward a healthier, more innovative style of cooking that will benefit those you cook for.
Becoming aware of your cooking type is a step toward mindfulness in cooking. When you’re cooking mindfully, you are aware of the ingredients you are using and their effect on those who eat the food you prepare. You are also aware of the movements of cooking: preparing and mixing the ingredients, selecting the pots or pans, cooking the ingredients to perfect doneness, and arranging the food on dishes or plates. Cooking is an act of creativity and it can both express and enhance our inner life. Healthy cooking not only feeds our bodies, but also feeds our souls.
Monday, November 23, 2009
After guest preaching at Pawling United Methodist Church yesterday, I enjoyed a hike in Pawling Nature Reserve. Since the Appalachian Trail runs through this 1,000 acre reserve, I hiked along this famous path. The most spectacular feature I saw was a large waterfall in Duell Hollow Brook. The photo on the left is from the Nature Conservancy website.
This is hunting season in this part of the world and I shared the reserve with a few deer hunters. Orange vests were provided at the trail head so that hunters can distinguish hikers from deer.
Even wearing my orange vest, I felt a sense of wary anxiety during the hike. Although the few rifle shots I heard sounded far away, it stoked my uneasiness. I decided to cut my hike short.
I must admit that the knowledge of deer hunting nearby diminished the spiritual dimension of the hike. Fear is a formidable enemy of mindfulness. When you're focused on the possibility, however remote, of meeting a stray bullet, it's difficult to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings. I plan to avoid hikes with hunters in the future!
Friday, November 20, 2009
Lately, Donna and I have been engaging in de-cluttering. After living in our house for ten years we've accumulated lots of stuff. Actually, we're going through stuff we moved with us from the previous house. For the past year, we've been sorting through this stuff stacked and packed in closets, attic, basement and garage. Some things we've thrown away and others we've given away.
What a great feeling it is to de-clutter! First, there's a glow of joy at having finally dealt with the accumulated mess. It's a good feeling when you can freely walk around in your attic or basement. Secondly, there's the joy of giving away things to those who can use them. Several local organizations, including churches and the Salvation Army, have been the beneficiaries of our de-cluttering.
I wonder if it's possible to de-clutter our hearts and minds? Certainly, dealing our emotional clutter (called "baggage") is a positive thing. In this case, de-cluttering means letting go of things that weigh us down or are destructive.
A de-cluttered mind is a clear mind able to focus. Meditation is one way we can clear our minds as the goal is a blank mind-- a mind free of distractions and disparate thoughts.
Obviously de-cluttering has multiple benefits. So, why don't I do it more often?
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Since I had the day off from teaching yesterday, I spent the day climbing Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills (4,180 feet). In the photo on the left by Scott Larsen, Slide Mountain is the tallest peak in the background.
This hike was a favorite of John Burroughs, a 19th century naturalist and nature writer. He was the John Muir of the Catskills and there is a plaque in his memory near the top of Slide. Here's what he wrote about the view from the summit:
"The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out. Every single object or point is dwarfed; the valley of the Hudson is only a wrinkle in the earth's surface. You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself, which stretches away on every hand so far beyond your ken."
I, too, had a sense of looking into eternity while on the summit of this heavily forested mountain. On a clear day, you can see 34 of the 35 peaks above 3,000 in the Catskill range, as well as the Hudson River valley far in the distance.
John Burroughs reminds me that the works of nature dwarf the works of humans. That's a humbling, yet uplifting, thought. When we become aware of how vast and endless is the universe, we recognize our own smallness and insignificance. Yet, as the Psalmist observed, we are each valued and loved by the Creator of all that is. Significance has been bestowed upon us as an act of grace.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Not that it matters much, but lately I’ve been bumping up against the word “matter.”
First, I came across this word in a sermon title of a colleague, “You Matter To God.” Next, I saw it in a New York Times review of a book titled, “Success Built To Last.” The first element of lasting success in work is, “What you do must matter deeply to you.” Then, looking for a book on my bookshelf I saw a book titled, “Faith Matters.”
Although the most common definition of “matter” is “what something is made of,” the meaning I’m concerned with is, “something of importance or significance.” When we say that something or someone matters to us, we are saying that they are important to us. And, if something matters deeply to us, then it is of great importance to us.
When I ask myself the question, “What really matters to me?” the answer comes quickly: my family. There is my immediate family of Donna, Brandon and Matthew, and my larger family, including parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. And there is also my extended family of friends and colleagues.
The people that matter most to me are the people with whom I share life and love. When we love someone, they immediately matter to us, which is to say that they become important to us.
In that marvelous fable, The Little Prince by St. Exupery, the fox who is the wisest of creatures says, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” I think what St. Exupery was telling us was that what matters most in life are not material things but invisible love.
If my colleague’s sermon title is right (and I believe it is), each of us matters to God. How much do we matter? Tremendously. Not only did God create us, giving us the gift of life, God provided a fruitful earth to nourish and sustain us.
Paul was astounded at how much we matter to God when he wrote, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” On the cross, we see how greatly we matter to God.
I believe the reason we matter so deeply to God is because we are God’s children. And, if we are God’s children, then we are brothers and sisters to each other. We are all part of the human family created out of love by God.
So then, let us show others that they matter to us in words and deeds. For showing love is a very important matter!
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
We've been enjoying spectacular weather this week in Connecticut. After a violent northeaster blew out to sea on Saturday, we've had a string of unusually warm and sunny days. This weather has enhanced my enjoyment of being outdoors to hike and row.
Fair weather is good for being outdoors, but I've been wondering how weather affects the soul. On the one hand, good weather enables more enjoyment of outdoor activities. On the other hand, fair weather enables us to stay in our comfort zone.
Spending too much time in our comfort zone may not be beneficial for the soul. Our souls often expand and grow by challenges that push us outside of our comfort zone. While foul weather is usually only an irritation, it can become a challenge-- especially when weather becomes dangerous or violent.
My goal is to appreciate all types of weather and to see the benefit in sun and rain, wind and calm, storm and fair weather. Foul weather enables us to appreciate fair weather. Foul weather also forces us indoors to engage in activities we might not otherwise do, such as reading, writing, meditating or cleaning. Since any activity can have a spiritual dimension, variety is good for the soul.
Monday, November 16, 2009
I participated in my first "contemporary" worship service on Sunday as the guest preacher for the Open Door service at New Milford (CT) United Methodist Church. The experience was strange (to me) and enjoyable.
The Open Door band (pictured above) played songs whose words were projected onto a large screen. They were talented musicians and the music was upbeat and uplifting. Although I didn't know any of the six songs they played, I was able to pick them up quickly.
One feature I really liked was a "visual prayer," a series of nature photos projected on the screen set to meditative music.
Although there was no liturgy for the service, there was an order of worship that included songs, prayers, an anthem, scripture, sermon and benediction.
Although I prefer a more traditional style of worship, I enjoyed this change of pace and style. I can see why youth and young adults are attracted to this worship style. As long as a service has integrity and purpose, I believe the "style" issue isn't critical. Just as our spirituality is individual, so are preferred styles of worship.
Friday, November 13, 2009
I just returned from three days at Mount St. Alphonsus, a retreat center in Esopus, NY. This magnificent building, pictured on the left, sits above the scenic Hudson River about a half hour south of Albany.
Although this is a wonderful setting for a spiritual retreat, my purpose for being there was to interview candidates for the United Methodist ministry. Because the interviews went from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., there was little time for exploring the 400 acres of green fields and old forests. The best I could do was take short walks around the building during breaks and after meals.
Even though I only had, at the most, a half hour for a walk, they nourished both body and soul. Taking a walk outside was a welcome break from the intensity of listening carefully to the candidates' answers.
These walks were mini-sabbaths, times of rest and renewal. They reminded me that when we don't have the time for a long time for spiritual renewal, we can still take short "retreats" during our day. Just because we can't do everything we would like isn't an excuse for doing nothing!
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Ogden Nash penned this brief poem:
Some pains are physical,
some pains are mental,
but the one that’s both is dental!
While we might smile at Nash’s witty words, pain is no laughing matter. November is “Pain Awareness Month.” It may seem strange to call for a greater awareness of pain since pain calls attention to itself so well. Too many of us suffer silently with our pain.
Most of us seek medical attention when our pain reaches the level of intolerance. Unfortunately for some, pain can become chronic. Chronic pain is an overwhelming issue for a vast number of persons in the United States. It is estimated that fifty million Americans live and suffer with chronic physical pain.
As the Nash poem reminds us, pain is not only physical. A large number of us suffer from emotional pain. However, in the case of emotional pain many persons don’t seek treatment because of the stigma associated with depression, grief, or bipolar disorder.
Pain is often the first sign that something is wrong and is nearly always viewed as a medical issue in need of medical treatment. There have been many advances in the treatment of physical and emotional pain. If these treatments alleviate, or reduce our pain to manageable levels, we are fortunate. But what happens when medical treatments don’t bring the relief we need and want?
One of the most dehumanizing aspects of pain is that it can cause us to feel helpless and powerless. We can easily see ourselves as victims with little control or power over our pain. Is there a way to find power and purpose in our suffering?
Because of a strong and proven mind/body connection, a spiritual approach could help when other treatments fail.
A spiritual approach involves: (1) acknowledging that pain is an inevitable part of being alive, (2) facing our pain rather than running from it, (3) learning the lessons pain can teach us, (4) discovering our inner strength to cope with pain, (5) being willing to journey with others in finding hope in the midst of pain.
How we cope with the pain that inevitably comes into our lives has so much to do with whether we feel happy, content and fulfilled. So let us suffer silently no more. If we have chronic pain of any kind, let us resolve to seek treatment.
While at Rowayton Beach in the late afternoon yesterday, I saw an amazing phenomenon. There was a faint rainbow almost completely encircling the sun! It was an inspiring sight and it lasted until just before sunset.
I did some research on this phenomenon and learned that these sun rainbows are called halos. The two very bright patches of this halo on either side of the sun are called "sun dogs." They are caused by the reflection of the sun on ice crystals and usually occur when there are high clouds. The sun dog photo above is by Jerry Walter from the wunderground.com website.
Although this was my first time to see such a sight, I learned that sun dogs are more common than rainbows. The reason I hadn't seen one before is that I just haven't looked up at the sky at the right time.
There are wondrous sights in this world if we have the eyes to see them. If we are to enjoy the world around (and above) us we need to open our eyes. This is true of so many areas of life. Openness and receptivity are great companions on life's journey.
Monday, November 9, 2009
As a child, I remember feeling wonder at all kinds of things: thunder, insects, a new toy, lightning, Christmas, chocolate. Children have a great capacity for wonder. Yet, as we grow into adulthood wonder diminishes.
I wonder (no pun intended) why? Maybe as our capacity for rational thinking increases, wonder decreases. Or, perhaps everything becomes so familiar and routine, we lose our ability to be surprised. "Been there, done that" kills wonder.
However, our capacity for wonder doesn't die. It becomes dormant and can be reawakened with practice. For instance, this morning I saw a glorious sunrise over Long Island Sound and felt wonder. The sky turned a deep red just before the sun peaked over the horizon and the sun itself was even redder. One of my fellow rowers commented, "This looks unreal."
Seeing our world through eyes of wonder and delight involves appreciating the beauty that surrounds us. At the heart of wonder is gratitude. When we are thankful for the daily gifts that surround us, we are more likely to experience wonder.
Friday, November 6, 2009
As a writer, I spend much of each day sitting by myself in front of my computer. Sometimes, I enjoy being alone and sometimes I don't. When we are alone there are two possibilities: we can feel lonely or we can enjoy solitude.
Loneliness and solitude are such different spiritual states that I consider them polar opposites. So,what's the difference? Loneliness is anxious and painful—it is a type of suffering of a wounded soul. Henri Nouwen wrote eloquently about the pain of loneliness, “[It is] that strange inner gnawing, that mental hunger, that unsettling unrest that makes us say, ‘I feel lonely.’ “
However, solitude is a contented aloneness. Solitude is peaceful and even joyful. Nouwen argued that a key movement of the spiritual life is from loneliness to solitude. Solitude is the “rest” that St. Augustine was pointing to when he wrote, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord."
Even though I associate solitude with certain places where I am alone, the most important solitude is an inner spiritual state that we can carry with us wherever we go. To cultivate this inner solitude I find it necessary to withdraw from the busyness of daily life from time to time. However, withdrawing by itself will not create solitude-- solitude is the byproduct of a soul at peace with itself.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Some of you have asked me about the Wendell Berry poem,"The Peace of Wild Things," I quoted from in yesterday's blog. Here's the full text of the poem.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
What a beautiful and lyrical way of articulating a way to feed our souls, especially when we despair about the future. Connecting with the natural world brings about inner peace and a sense of freedom from despair. I believe this peace and freedom is the result of knowing that we are part of a creation that is older, larger and grander than we are, a reminder that we come from the earth and will ultimately return to it.
By connecting with nature we become grounded and centered in the present moment and experience grace.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I found myself with 45 minutes of free time before I needed to leave to teach class yesterday. So I practiced what I've been preaching and took a "mini-sabbath." When you don't have time for a full-day sabbath, a mini-sabbath can suffice as a time of renewal and refreshment. The photo above is from http://www.freenaturepictures.com/pictures/sunlight-through-trees.php
My mini-sabbath was a hike in Westmoreland Sanctuary in Bedford Corners, NY. This 630 acre nature preserve contains tall forests, green meadows, rock ridges, lakes and streams. At the beginning of the trail was this poem on a plank nailed to a tree,
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer God's heart in a forest,
Than anywhere else on earth.
Although the verses above substitute "forest" for "garden" in the original poem by Dorothy Francis Gurney, I believe her intent is preserved because a forest is a type of garden.
I reflected on this poem as I hiked and experienced its truth. Walking through a forest of white pines, oaks, firs and tulip trees I felt close to its Creator. Even though I only had 40 minutes to hike, I left with renewed energy and a sense of peace. As Wendell Berry writes in his poem, "The Peace of Wild Things": "For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
An interview with Dr. Brian J. Drucker, an oncologist who recently received the "American Nobel Prize" for his work with cancer treatments, appeared in today's New York Times "Science Times."
Dr. Drucker's work concerns using new kinds of cancer drugs that "turn off" the genetic switch that controls cell growth. He discovered that the drug Gleevec could be used to treat people with chronic myeloid leukemia (C.M.L.).
The results of the Gleevec clinical trial were miraculous-- it was successful in 100% of the cases. "These once-dying patients were getting out of bed, dancing, going hiking, doing yoga. The drug was amazing," according to Dr. Drucker.
You might think that Dr. Drucker became wealthy as a result of his work. Not so. He had a choice between using an already-patented version of Gleevec or developing his own version. He chose the former, even though he didn't make a penny off it, because it was the quickest way to get treatment for his C.M.L. patients.
Drucker said of his choice, "You know, my patients were people who'd been told to 'get their affairs in order' because they were going to die soon. And now some of them play with grandchildren they'd thought they'd never live to see. That's worth more than money."
What an inspiring story! It's so good to know there are people in our world who put the welfare and health of others over enriching themselves. Thank you, Dr. Drucker!
Monday, November 2, 2009
On Saturday, I participated in the "Norwalk Row for the Cure" regatta. It was an enjoyable day of rowing, friendly competition and fund-raising for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, an organization that supports breast cancer research.
This was the rowing version of "Race for the Cure" events that have been held throughout the U.S. over the past decade. These events blend fitness, fund-raising and fun for a very important cause. Since the Row for the Cure was on Halloween, many rowers wore costumes. There were zombies, witches, fairies and aliens. This enhanced the fun atmosphere.
Although there is no publicly stated spiritual purpose in the Race for the Cure events, I believe they are implicitly spiritual. First, they bring people together around common values of compassion and empathy. Secondly, they aim at bringing about something that benefits humanity. Thirdly, they have a spirit of camaraderie and even fellowship as people rally around a common purpose. Finally, they encourage fitness.
I would encourage everyone to participate in these kind of events. You will leave feeling better about yourself, and about your fellow humans.
Friday, October 30, 2009
I recently had dinner at Recipe Restaurant on the Upper West side of Manhattan. This restaurant uses local ingredients and is part of the "Slow Food" movement. We all know what fast food is, but have you heard about “slow food”? According to www.slowfood.org: “Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.”
The Slow Food Movement embodies three basic principles. First, food should be good in the sense that it be from healthy plants and animals and taste delicious. Good food builds community and celebrates regional diversity. Secondly, food should be clean-- nutritious for humans and grown in ways that respect the environment. Finally, food should be fair—available to everyone and produced by workers who are treated fairly
There is much wisdom to be gleaned from Slow Food. For, one of the ways that food can feed our souls is to simply slow down our consumption of it.
There is a vast difference between dining and eating. When we dine, we pay attention to all aspects of a meal. We are conscious of the aesthetics of space we are in, how the table is set, the presentation of the food. Manners govern our dining behavior as we wait for the hosts to start eating before we begin. When dining, we make an effort to converse with those who are at table with us. Because we’re engaged in conversation, we eat more slowly and gratefully.
In many ways, what I’ve just described is eating with mindfulness. When we eat mindfully, we eat more slowly as we savor each bite. We are attentive to the aromas, the color and texture of the food and, of course, the taste. We pause between each bite and reflect upon its flavor.
When eating mindfully, we are also eating gratefully. A table grace is a wonderful way to begin a meal. To give thanks to the Source of all food and life seems appropriate. When eating in restaurants, a silent grace will help center you and make the meal a more soulful experience. This gratitude also includes those who grew the food, packaged it and prepared it.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Last night I enjoyed a dinner with two long-time good friends. We dined at a restaurant we've been going to for more than 20 years so everything was familiar and relaxed. The table conversation was lively with repartee, teasing and discussion about family, politics, and life.
Sharing food and conversation during a meal isn’t simply a social interaction. When we share a meal together, something deeper and richer occurs. At times, we realize that we aren’t only sharing food and words, we are sharing ourselves. This is how a meal becomes a soul-nourishing experience. As Henri Nouwen writes:
"The table, the food, the drinks, the words, the stories: Are they not the most intimate ways in which we not only express our desire to give our lives to each other, but also do this in actuality? I very much like the expression “breaking bread together” because the breaking and the giving are one."
A meal shared with close friends or a loving family is one of the great experiences of life. When we’re at table, we can be fully present for each other and live in the moment. Laughter is one sign that the meal is soul-nourishing. When we’re truly enjoying ourselves, we are connecting with others on a deeper level.
On the other hand, a meal where those at table are angry with one another or where there is unspoken tension is a soul-sapping experience. We’ve all experienced “painful silences” during a meal and it’s not pleasant. Even worse are meals where harsh words are exchanged.
I’ve experienced both kinds of meals and so have you. That’s why we do whatever we can to make our meals good experiences. Yet, despite our best efforts there will be unpleasant meals. When those occur, a good dose of detachment and non-reactivity can make such experiences at least tolerable. At its best, table fellowship feeds body, mind and soul.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Last night I saw the new Coen brothers movie, "A Serious Man." I'm a fan of their work, especially "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "No Country For Old Men."
This was a dark and difficult movie to watch. Loosely based on the story of Job, the main character, a professor named Larry Gopnik, suffers a series of disasters worthy of Job. Set in Minneapolis in 1967 it purports to be a farce about a middle-class Jewish family. However, I left the movie thinking, "I don't get it."
Yes, there are funny moments (a few) and painful moments (many), but there is not much depth and angst in Larry's suffering. Like Job, Larry consults "friends" in the form of two rabbis to shed some light on the question, "Why me?" but their answers are platitudinous and woefully inadequate.
Unlike Job, Larry refuses to lash out at those causing his suffering. The message of the movie (if it has one) might be: bad things happen to good people and good people don't fight back.
While I found the movie painful to watch, the issues it raises about the nature of innocent suffering are real and relevant. If you're looking for answers to the question "Why me?" you won't find it here. But if you're looking for the question to be raised in a painfully insufferable way, this is a movie for you.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
The gentle rain this morning has reminded me of the importance of water in daily life. We encounter water each day in the form of a bath, shower, or hand-washing. As a rower, I spend four mornings a week atop the water (but hopefully not in it!). Not only am I in or on water, I drink it. Without water, we cannot live.
Water is a powerful symbol in many religions. In Christianity, water is used ritually in baptism as a symbol of God's love. In Islam, water is used in ritual washing before prayer. Ritual washing is also part of Hinduism. In Taoism, water is the primary symbol of the Tao (or "Way").
The Tao Te Ching includes this verse about water:
"The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao." (Chapter 8)
Water is infinitely supple, yet incomparably strong. Over time, water is one of the most powerful forces, even more powerful than earthquakes. The Grand Canyon stands as a stunning testimony to the power of water in the form of the Colorado River to cut through even the hardest of rock.
Without water, life cannot continue. Because of its power to sustain life, water is a perfect symbol for divine grace. Yet, I take the water I drink, bathe in, and row upon for granted much of the time. Every time we touch, taste or see water is an opportunity to give thanks for this amazing gift.
Monday, October 26, 2009
This past weekend, I took two trips that involved about 10 hours of driving. On Saturday, my wife and I drove to the lovely village of Litchfield, CT to browse shops and have lunch. On Sunday, I drove to Saratoga Lake, NY for the Head of the Fish rowing regatta.
Both drives were through peak fall colors. The Sunday drive included the picturesque Taconic Parkway, a scenic road through forest and farmland. There were many "ohs" and "ahs" in praise of the scenery and I found these drives spiritually nourishing.
In addition to beautiful scenery, there is another reason why driving can be spiritually nourishing. When you're heading out of town on the open road, there is a sense of joyful freedom. There is both the relief of getting away from the stresses of daily life and the thrill of seeing new places and new sights. You feel as if you're embarking on a new adventure like the early explorers who set out into the American wilderness.
Driving can be either boring or exciting. Everything depends on the attitude we bring to this activity. I guess you could say this about almost every activity of life. However, I believe our attitude especially affects driving, whether we find it soul-feeding or soul-sapping. I think the key is whether we view driving as a means-to-an-end (i.e. getting to our destination asap) or whether we see it as an activity through which we can have a deeper connection with God’s creation.
I try to view driving in the latter way, although I don’t always discover a spiritual connection while driving. Like any activity, experiencing the spiritual dimension of driving takes practice. But, at its best, driving can be a spiritual adventure.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Right now, I'm waiting for a plumber to come and fix a shower faucet. I was given a two hour window and it's already passed. So, I wait...
When it comes to waiting, my attitude is, "I do not like it, Sam I Am!" Maybe it's because I'm part of an "I want it now!" culture. In our high tech world, so many things happen immediately. You can go between websites in nanoseconds; you can IM and text instantaneously; you flip a switch and a light comes on.
Upon reflection, I must reluctantly admit that my problem with waiting is probably due to an inflated sense of self-importance. Do humble people hate to wait? I can't imagine Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi looking at their watches (or sundials) and getting frustrated with some extra down time.
I'm not quite as impatient when waiting for someone I really want/need to see: a doctor, a dentist or a good friend. The psalmist wrote, "Wait upon the Lord." Yet, if the waiting time drags on past some unspecified internal deadline, I become frustrated or angry.
What if I used this waiting time to do something positive or creative? Like praying or thinking or reading or writing. In fact, I am writing this blog while I wait. That's progress!
How we deal with waiting is a dead giveaway of how important we believe we are. Learning to wait is an exercise in humility. Because so much of life is spent waiting, we (I) need to learn to wait patiently and creatively.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
My good friend, Dr. John Tamerin, recently gave a talk at the Fairfield (CT) Happiness Club titled, "Happiness: A Clinical Perspective Based on Being in Psychiatric Practice for 40 Years." The quotes below are from the introduction.
"First, you must realize that happiness is a gift. Most important, it is a gift which you can give to yourself, but it is a gift which needs to be refreshed on a regular basis. The kind of happiness that merely happens TO YOU will not last. Lasting Happiness requires effort.
"Every person who seeks my help as a doctor is in pain and everyone who sees me would like to be happy. Happiness, however, is more than the absence of pain. A wise Rabbi in Jerusalem addressed this issue when he asked me: 'What is the opposite of pleasure.?' I gave the predictable answer- 'Pain.' He said, 'No, the opposite of pleasure is comfort because if you insist on being comfortable you will never achieve pleasure (i.e. happiness) because happiness involves both effort and the willingness to confront discomfort and even pain in order to pursue true joy and meaning in your life.'
"His point and now mine is that to achieve happiness you must be willing to make an effort and to confront challenges and occasionally even demons. The path to happiness is not comfortable. Happiness does not just happen! It is not bestowed on any of us simply by being in the right place at the right time. That is merely good luck.
There is great wisdom in these words. Lasting happiness doesn't "just happen," but is a decision that involves effort and a willingness to risk pain and discomfort. Lasting happiness requires self-knowledge, gratitude and a welcoming attitude towards life. Lasting happiness is not based on the changeable circumstances of life, but on nourishing the inner self, the soul.
Nearly everyone says they want to be happy, but not everyone is willing to put forth the effort and to endure the pain that lasting happiness requires.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
For the past several weeks, our rowing workouts have been in the dark when we begin at 5:30 a.m. Today, with sunrise at 7:11 a.m., we started and ended in the dark (although it was a lighter predawn when we finished at 6:50).
There is an element of danger in rowing in the dark, mainly that of crashing. There are many obstacles to be avoided: rocks, buoys, docks and (especially) other boats. Although we have bow and stern lights on our boats, there are are multitude of lights that make it difficult to distinguish between an oncoming boat and a light on the shore.
Rowing in the dark requires trust. First, you need to trust the coach near you in a launch to tell you when you're steering off course. Secondly, you need to trust the person steering in the bow (in the case of a double or quad) or the coxswain (in the case of a four or eight) to not crash.
Rowing is a sport that teaches trust and reliance on others. Even when rowing in daylight, you must have faith in your crewmates (that they are rowing hard and well) for a boat to go fast.
The trust needed in rowing is a good analogy for life. To enjoy a full and fulfilled life, we must develop trust in those persons we are close to and rely upon. Sometimes, we need to be able to trust strangers (as in the case of flying on an airplane). For much of life is lived in the "dark" where we can't see the way ahead clearly.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Lately, my wife has been in a self-acknowledged nesting mode. Now that we are "empty nesters" she has been busy preparing our sons' former bedrooms for guests. This has involved much cleaning, culling, reorganizing and some redecorating. She receives great satisfaction from the results of these activities.
We usually associate nesting with women, but do men nest as well? Of course! An article I read in today's New York Times "Science Times" section brought home this point. In "At Home In Solitude As a Spirit Recovers," Dana Jennings describes his recovery from treatment for aggressive prostate cancer: surgery, radiation, and hormone therapy.
While Mr. Jennings body has recovered, his spirit has not. Therefore, he is nesting by taking pleasure "in the most gentle rhythms of daily life": taking long walks, meeting a friend for breakfast, getting a haircut. He has especially been enjoying some solitude.
When we experience a any kind of catastrophe-- physical, emotional or spiritual--nesting is so necessary. We need to do those things that help our inner selves, our souls, recover and heal. The healing of a soul is much like physical healing: it takes time, attention and self-care.
Nesting requires an awareness of what truly feeds, and heals, our souls. Such awareness takes time and effort to develop. But, once we know these things, the challenge is to do them. So, three cheers for nesting!
Monday, October 19, 2009
One of the great contributions of Judaism to religion is the Sabbath. The word Sabbath means "rest" and comes from the first chapter of Genesis where God rested on the seventh day of creation. The idea is that if God rested on the seventh day, so should we. The fourth of the Ten Commandments is to "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy."
The idea of an entire day of rest and renewal seems alien to our busy schedules. When confronted with "free" time, we want to fill it with doing something. There is always one more email to answer, one more phone call to return, one more errand to run and one more chore to accomplish. The idea of simply and quietly being is so out of place.
In his book Sabbath: Restoring the Rhythm of Rest, Wayne Muller contends, "Our relentless emphasis on success and productivity has become a form of violence. We have lost the necessary rhythm of life, the balance between effort and rest, doing and not doing. Constantly striving, we feel exhausted and deprived in the midst of abundance, longing for time with family and friend, longing for a moment to ourselves."
The tradition of observing a Sabbath offers a time for rest. Whatever our spiritual tradition, we can make some time in our schedules for reflection and renewal. It can be an hour, an afternoon, or even a walk. Taking such time off allows the essential goodness of creation to nourish our tired and depleted souls.
I have found that when I create some sabbath time in my day, things go better. I have more energy, am more alert, and enjoy what I'm doing more. How do your create sabbath time in your day?
Friday, October 16, 2009
My Religion 101 students yesterday seemed unengaged and depleted of energy. Maybe it was the depressing weather outside (cold and rainy) or maybe it was that "time of the semester" (midterm). Whatever it was, I wasn't going to ignore it.
So, I stirred things up by having the class divide into groups of 3 or 4 and come up with three answers to the question: "How can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be resolved?" Boy, did the energy (and noise) level increase! Suddenly, these unengaged students became involved in the activities of thinking and talking.
Nearly all of their answers to this question had already been attempted: get leaders from the two sides to negotiate, get the world community to bring pressure on both groups, use economic sanctions to bring about change. Both the "one state" and "two state" solutions were mentioned.
However, one group's answer was different. They said that all Israeli and Palestinian children should be required to take a Religion 101 type course to help each side understand and develop respect for the other's religion.
While using education to resolve this long-standing Middle East conflict might seem naive and idealistic, I think it's an idea worth trying. Educating children to have an appreciation and respect for the religion and culture of their "enemies" might work in the long run. At least it could prepare the way for negotiations.
If anyone has a better idea, I'd like to hear it.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
A recent Dutch study found that people living near parks, gardens and other green spaces have better health and lower anxiety than those living in urban "concrete jungles" far from green spaces. This study was based on the review of 345,000 medical records.
An October 14 Bloomberg News article by Kristen Hallam titled, "Living Near Green Lowers Anxiety, Depression Rates, Study Finds," reports that better health is likely due from access to fresher air and opportunities to exercise, relax and socialize.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, asserts, "The role of green space in the living environment for health should not be underestimated." The link between green spaces and health was strongest for children and persons with low incomes because they are less mobile and spend more time near home.
I always enjoy finding a scientific basis for one of my firmly held beliefs. Our souls are fed by being in places of natural beauty like parks, gardens and forests. Being out in God's creation is nourishing for body, mind and soul.
However, I wouldn't want to limit the benefits of being outdoors to the color green, for nearly all the colors of the spectrum are found in nature-- deep blue oceans, purple mountains, red and orange sunsets, white clouds, golden leaves, and brightly-colored flowers-- and these can be soul feeding as well.