Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Interconnectedness of Things

I've started teaching Taoism in my Religion 101 class. Founded by Lao Tzu in the 6th century BCE, it has a very esoteric understanding of reality. The word "Tao" means "way" or "path" and serves as a metaphor for the essence of life. The Yin/Yang above is the main symbol of Taoism. There are no sharp divisions in the yin/yang. Because the dark part includes some of the light and vice versa, it shows the interconnectedness of reality.

There is a Tao of the universe that serves as an underlying ordering and creative principle. Human beings also have a Tao within. Taoism attempts to bring our individual Tao's into alignment with the universal Tao.

The chief metaphor for the Tao is water. Water is gentle, yet powerful; it is soft, yet will eventually break down the hardest of stones. Here is a selection from Chapter 78 of the main scripture of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (The Way and its Power/Virtue).

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water:
yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard:
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Water also connects us to the world around us and to each other. A friend who swims in Long Island Sound regularly told me that, when he is swimming, he feels connected to all the oceans on earth.

Taoism asserts the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. I usually feel this connectedness while in a place of natural beauty. However, once we see the world through the lens of interconnectedness, every thing has value and purpose. And we are part of this value and purpose.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Sacredness of Nature

I've been watching with fascination the PBS series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. This 6 part series started on Sunday night and will continue throughout this week.

With amazing cinematography and excellent commentary, this film is a feast for the eyes and soul. Although I've been to many of the national parks in the West because of growing up in New Mexico, this film makes me feel as if I'm there again. The photo above of a storm over the Grand Canyon brings back memories of my several trips to this awesome place (by Craig Mellish, Florentine Films).

The star of the first two episodes was John Muir, a Scotsman who emigrated to the U.S. at age 31 and soon went to California to run a saw mill in Yosemite, CA. Yosemite transformed his life. He got in touch with the sacredness of nature. His description of a sunrise over the Yosemite Valley captures this sacredness.

"Our camp grove fills and thrills with the glorious light. Everything awakening, alert and joyful…every pulse beats high, every cell in life rejoices, the very rocks seem to thrill with life. The whole landscape glows with a human face in a glory of enthusiasm.” (Quoted in Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison, Vintage Books: 2005)

John Muir found a deep and abiding spiritual connection in nature. He literally wrote Psalms in praise of the Giant Sequoias when he first saw them (he wrote in a letter, “Do behold the King in his glory, King Sequoia! Behold! Behold! seems all I can say.”) He remains one of the great interpreters of the sacredness of the natural world, which also led to a prophet’s outrage over its destruction and exploitation. It was no surprise that when the Sierra Club was founded in 1892, Muir became its first president.

Muir's love of the natural world found a resonance with President Theodore Roosevelt. They spent three days camping together in Yosemite in 1903 and it led to including Yosemite Valley with Yosemite Highlands (the first National Park). The photo of them on the left was taken at Glacier Point (PBS website).

To see the world through the eyes of John Muir is to see the sacred glory of creation. Seeing the world in this way is to feel awe at the abiding beauty of nature and gratitude for the privilege of experiencing it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"I'm Hiiiik-ing in the Raaaain..."

After worshiping at my local United Methodist church on Sunday, I then worshiped in the cathedral of nature. This latter cathedral was Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, CT. The park is so named because it looks like a giant sleeping on his side. The photo on the left by Ken Gallager on Wikipedia is atop the giant's "chin."

My hike in Sleeping Giant was done in gentle, but steady, rain. Fortunately, I was prepared for the wet and brought rain gear, wore quick-drying wool socks, and used my trekking poles on the slippery trail.

While rain hiking has some obvious disadvantages, there are also advantages. First, I had the trail to myself and enjoyed a time of solitude only (pleasantly) interrupted by a doe and two fawns. Secondly, I enjoyed the sound of rain on the leaves and forest floor. Thirdly, I hiked much slower because of the slippery conditions.

Hiking in inclement weather has a way of focusing your attention. You watch the trail more closely so as to not slip on the numerous rocks and roots and take a fall. Because I was carefully watching my steps, I couldn't think of anything else while I was hiking.

Hiking in the rain forces a kind of mindfulness on you. You must focus on the present or you will fall. While fear is an enemy of mindfulness. being intensely focused is an aid. Focusing on the trail was akin to focusing on breathing in meditation.

While the spiritual nourishment of a hike in the rain is different from a hike in fair weather, it is enriching nonetheless. It's good to know that mindfulness is not dependent on the weather!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Quest for Home and "Amreeka"

On Wednesday evening, I saw "Amreeka," a debut film by director-writer Cherien Dabis about a single Palestinian mother and her teenage son emigrating to a small town in Illinois. The photo on the right is of Nasreen Faour (left) who plays Muna and Melkar Muallen who plays Fadi.

Part of the movie is set in Palestine and it was painful to watch Muna and Fadi negotiate daily military checkpoints to get to work and school. When Muna has the opportunity to move with her son to her brother's home in Illinois, she leaps at the chance.

However, adjusting to life in small town Illinois proves to be a daunting challenge. The year is 2003 and the U.S. has just invaded Iraq. Anyone of Arab descent is viewed with suspicion. Muna struggles to find a job and finally settles for work as a burger flipper at White Castle. Fadi is harassed at school and gets into fights.

My heart went out to this family caught between two worlds and searching for a true home. They neither have a home in Palestine nor yet in America.

On one level, their journey is a spiritual pilgrimage toward home. Yet, the journey is very difficult and many obstacles must be overcome. The final scene of the movie is one of hope: Muna, her son, her brother's family, and a new found American friend share a joyful dinner at an Arab restaurant.

This quest to discover one's true home is a deeply spiritual journey and one we all must take. Amreeka seems to be saying that home is not a place, but is ultimately located in relationships with those we love and trust.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Drive Like A Buddhist

When our seventeen-year-old sons got their “learners permit” they were allowed to drive with a parent in the car. Because I worked close to home, I became the parent designated for this frightening task. When riding with either of our sons, I was surprised at how upset they got when another driver didn’t do what they were “supposed to.” The category of “not driving as you’re supposed to” included: other drivers who didn’t signal before changing lanes; drivers who cut in front of us making my son slam on the brakes; drivers who drove too slow. Any unpredictable move on the part of another driver would cause my sons to scream at this “idiot” (and some even worse names were used).

At first I was stunned at the intense reaction these unpredictable drivers evoked in my sons. Surely, they hadn’t learned such behavior from me? Of course they had. Although I didn’t get as upset as my sons, I did express irritation and frustration toward other drivers who weren’t driving as they were “supposed to.” I knew that I had to first change my driving behavior and set a better example. But, even after I cleaned up my driving act, my sons still were prone to angry outbursts at other drivers.

So I came up with this advice, “Drive like a Buddhist.” This got the desired response, “What does that mean?” So I explained. Buddhists have two principles they use in their spiritual practice. The first is “detachment.” They try to look at everything that happens in their lives with a detached objectivity. By becoming detached, you become an observer of your own life; this serves to calm strong emotions. The second Buddhist principle relevant to driving is “non-reactivity.” This involves achieving emotional detachment from events. To be non-reactive is to view events that happen with a calm objectivity These two principles have earned Buddhism the epitaph of being a religion with a “cool head” (objectivity) and “warm heart” (compassion).

Actually, driving like a Buddhist does enable driving to have some spiritual benefits. Once you overcome your negative emotional reactions, you stop expending negative energy and pave the way for a soul-nourishing experience.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Virtue and Good Advice

I've started teaching Confucianism in my Religion 101 class. Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was born in 551 BCE into a China in the throes of anarchy. Wars between feudal lords were destroying the people and culture of China. The social philosophy he developed was the foundation of Chinese education for more than 2000 years. This image of Confucius is from

Confucianism, the religion that developed after his death in 479 BCE, is designed to instill key virtues in its adherents: benevolence, humility, maturity, appropriateness, and the arts of peace. Basically, he wanted to cultivate a "civilized" person who would love peace more than war.

The highest virtue of Confucianism is Jen or benevolence. The Chinese character for Jen is the combination of "human being" and "two." Confucius believed that we should see all persons as our brothers and sisters and treat them accordingly. Jen extends not only to other people, but also to the cosmos.

Virtues (and vices) are abiding patterns of behavior. They form our character. Although Confucianism doesn't have a formal concept of the soul, I think that "character" is a pretty good synonym. He wanted to create persons who were loving, humble, giving and conscious of the effect of their behavior on others and the world-- not a bad aim for any and all of us.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Detached Attachment"

I find it ironic that the technologies that link us to millions of others throughout the world also isolate us. Through the internet, we have vast amounts of information and instant communication at our fingertips. Yet, we are usually alone when we're online. The same is true of Blackberry's, cell phones and PDA's.

I discovered a term for this irony in today's New York Times column by David Brooks. His column praised recently deceased neoconservative Irving Kristol ("Three Cheers for Irving"). Brooks characterized Kristol's stance toward the world as "detached attachment."

Buddhism makes much of "detachment" in the service of meditation. If our minds are too busy with concerns and distractions, it is impossible to achieve the mindfulness needed to meditate.

What I like about "detached attachment" is the attachment part. It's easy to become detached by simply withdrawing from the world and its problems. The greater challenge is to become detached from these problems and still be engaged in dealing with them.

The late family systems psychologist Edwin Friedman said that the key to a well functioning family was to have a "non-anxious presence" as part of it. He said that the key word in this phrase is presence. It's easy to be non-anxious when we're absent; being present and non-anxious is the greater challenge.

What does all of this say about the spiritual life? Detachment and low anxiety are surely marks of someone who is spiritually centered and at peace. Yet, engagement and compassion are also marks of a spiritual life. The key is finding the right relationship between detachment and attachment.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lightning Is Still One of the Biggest Thrills of All

On a flight from Dallas to New York last night, I was privileged to witness a spectacular lightning storm. Fortunately, I had a window seat on the right side of the plane and had a perfect vantage point to witness this awesome display of nature's power and beauty. The photo above by Wiel Koekkock is of a storm over Heerlen, the Netherlands.

Just before sunset we crossed the Mississippi River and there were bright yellow and orange colors on the cumulonimbus thunderheads to the south. The contrast between the dark sky above and below caused these magnificent clouds to stand out as if they had been painted. The photo below by Bev Hadland (Essex, U.K) comes close to what I witnessed.

Bursts of lightning occurred every few seconds. Since I was at 35,000 feet, I had a rare viewpoint from which to enjoy nature's pyrotechnics. I was nearly even with the top of the cumulonimbus, which had the classic anvil shape.

This lightning storm was not only stunningly beautiful, it demonstrated the awesome power of nature. I felt as if I were witnessing something in another dimension-- a dimension where the chaotic forces of nature run wild and free. I heard on the news this morning that these storms caused extensive flooding throughout the southeast.

Watching this lightning storm out an airplane window was both humbling and thrilling. The raw power of nature showed me how small and weak I am. Yet, I felt blessed to have been able to take in this magnificent sight. Kierkegaard felt that this marriage of humility and pride could lift the soul to great heights. I couldn't agree more.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Soul Searching

An article from the Science section of The New York Times started me thinking about the soul in general and my soul in particular. The article by Cornelia Dean was titled, “Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force.”

Dean details the challenge that evolutionary scientists are bringing to the religious concept of humans having a soul. Some scientists point to evidence that moral reasoning (one of the soul’s central attributes) is a result of physical traits that have evolved over time. In other words, what we call a soul is really combination of brain synapses firing. As the brain evolves, so does the soul.

My question to this scientific challenge of the soul’s existence is, “What do you mean by ‘soul’?”

You can’t find much about the soul in the Old or New Testaments. In Hebrew thought, there was no concept of a soul separate from the body. In the New Testament, there’s a lot of talk about spirit, but almost nothing about soul.

The truth is that Greek philosophy introduced the concept of an immortal soul as separate from the body. Platonism regarded the soul as divine and indestructible. In this view, salvation is the soul’s liberation from the body, the source of evil.

Christianity, however, affirmed the goodness of the body. While Platonists hoped for immortality, Christians looked for the resurrection of the dead. As Christianity evolved, some theologians combined these two concepts and advocated a “resurrection of the soul.”

My own understanding of the soul is that it is our deep and abiding identity. “Soul” is the name we give to the center of our reasoning, will and emotions. I would consider “self” and “personality” as pretty good synonyms for soul.

I agree with C.S Lewis who said, "We don't have a soul; we are souls." Humans are an essential unity of body, mind and spirit/soul. These different terms are simply ways to talk about different aspects of the whole person.

The issue is not whether we have souls—for everyone is a self, a person—but how we are tending to the spiritual dimension of our selves. Our souls are fed by our relationship with the One who created us, a relationship characterized by grace and love. As humans created in God’s image, the soul is the name we give to our receptivity to what is Divine and Holy in life.

Want to find your soul? Just look in a mirror. The person you see there is you—a body, mind and soul—created and loved by God. So let us take good care of our soul because it is a gift from God.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Soulful Shopping

Yesterday I went grocery shopping-- something I do two or three times a week. This particular shopping excursion was a frustrating experience because both stores I went to didn't have the roast chicken I was seeking. I was told that I would have to wait at least 1/2 hour for them to be ready. However, I wasn't defeated by this delay; I found a cold roast chicken that could be reheated!

After leaving with my cold chicken, I wondered: Could grocery shopping have a spiritual dimension? At first glance, grocery shopping seems pretty boring. You walk up and down the aisles, looking for the items on your list. Then, you stand in a checkout line of varying length. If you’re in a hurry, grocery stores are places of delay and frustration.

I used to hate grocery shopping. I disliked it so much that Donna and I would make out a weekly menu and shopping list so I would only have to shop once a week. However, over the years I’ve learned to tolerate and even enjoy the experience.

One thing that helped change my attitude about grocery shopping is that I began to think about those I was shopping for. I thought about the members of my family whom I loved and would be eating this food over the next few days. Visualizing the end product of shopping can help you see it as an act of love.

Another thing that changed my attitude is that I slowed down. Instead of rushing through the aisles as quickly as I could (and often have to go back because I forgot something), I began to shop at a more leisurely pace. This allowed me to notice the multitude of products sold in a grocery store. What I began to understand is the abundance embodied in an American grocery store. I once heard a story about visitors from Russia marveling at the plethora of produce and products available at a U.S. grocery store. This abundance is something we take for granted.

Introducing love and gratitude into shopping can change the experience into something soul-nourishing. Do I always shop soulfully? Of course not. Do I think it is a worthy goal? Yes!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Great Expectations

Recently, I read a book by Eric Weiner titled, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Weiner, aptly pronounced “whiner,” measures levels of happiness in a wide variety places such as Iceland and India, Africa and America, Britain and Bhutan.

His list of happiest places is somewhat surprising. You'd think that warm places with nice beaches would be happiest. However, Iceland is number two on the list despite its cold climate and moderate standard of living. Denmark, another cold place, is also high on the list.

One reviewer observed that Weiner found that “a myriad of factors contribute to happiness: society, culture, community, relationships, belonging, trust, openness, creativity, action, flexibility, unpredictability, altruism, a healthy balance of comparative feelings, hedonism, but not too much, and money, but just a bit. And, yes, place--if it allows these things.”

Where did the United States rank? Somewhere in the middle of the list. We’re happier than residents of Moldova (the least happy place), but we’re not nearly as happy as those in Bhutan.

Why doesn’t the U.S. rank higher in happiness? One of the main factors in happiness is expectations. And that’s where the U.S. falters. Weiner found that we have the highest expectations of any culture in the world in terms of success, wealth, and opportunity. In fact, we have set the expectation bar so high, very few can clear it.

Much of our unhappiness can be laid at the feet of unfulfilled expectations. We want more out of life—and expect more—but we’re not getting it. High expectations taken to their extreme creates a kind of perfectionism. Perfectionists try their best to make life perfect and become frustrated and even enraged when they discover that life can’t be perfect.

One of the best pieces of advice I received about raising teenagers was: “Lower your expectations and raise your tolerance.” That advice could apply to other areas of life as well. If we had more realistic expectations of ourselves, of each other, and of Life itself, we would be happier.

Perhaps a healthy dose of gratitude and humility is what we need to reset our expectations. Being grateful for what we have and not always craving more leads to greater happiness. Being humble and honest about our gifts and abilities also lowers our expectations to the level of reality.

The spiritual path paved by Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse and others is one of gratitude and humility. I don’t know if there are really happy places, but I do believe we can find happiness in whatever place we are living. It all depends on how much (or how little) we expect.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conditional or Unconditional Love?

When it comes to parenting, which is better: conditional or unconditional love? This is the question raised by an article in today's New York Times by Alfie Kohn titled, "When a Parent's 'I Love You' Means 'Do As I Say' "

Kohn cites famous psychologist Carl Rogers as the father of unconditional love in parenting. Rogers felt that children need unconditional love so much that, if deprived of it by parents, they would seek it as adults through therapy.

There are many present-day advocates of conditional parental love: Dr. Laura, Dr. Phil, and Jo Frost (of "Supernanny" fame). They believe that children should behave according to their parent's wishes and that love/approval should be withheld if they don't. Praise, or withholding it, becomes a tool to shape childrens' behaviors.

To decide the case between unconditional or conditional love, Kohn cites a 2004 study of 100 college students. The study found that children who received conditional approval were more likely to do what their parents wanted, but often resented or disliked their parents. Another study of ninth graders concluded conditional parenting is often counterproductive.

I am an advocate of loving our children for who they are rather than for what they do. However, I find this difficult to put into practice. My definition of love is "acting in the best interests" of another person. When it comes to our children, we want the best for them. Yet, the question remains: how do we get them to want the best for themselves and act in their own best interests?

I cast my lot with unconditional parental love because of the dangers of withholding love. Children need to know they are loved no matter how badly they act. This doesn't mean we praise bad behavior, but that we criticize the action rather than the person. What do you think?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Purpose and Pain

On Saturday, I rowed in the first annual Hudson River Challenge, a 25 kilometer race from the George Washington Bridge to the Tappan Zee Bridge. See the previous blog for more details. We rowed in an "octuple," an eight person sculling shell (each person having 2 oars). The photo above by our coxswain, Alex, shows our octuple rowing up the Hudson in the rain and fog.

It took us a little over 2 hours of continual rowing to cover these 15+ miles. The longest I had ever rowed continuously before this was an hour and 15 minutes (on a rowing machine). So, it was a looooonnnnnggggg row! Our crew of four women and four men did themselves proud by finishing first in the "eights" category and fourth overall. We received a nice piece of driftwood for our first place finish.

The row took us by the Palisades Park in New Jersey, a stunning series of cliffs along the Hudson. I enjoyed these magnificent views by stealing a few glances as we were rowing. The photo on the right of the Palisades and Hudson River is from "Point Lookout," the highest point in the park, by Anthony Taranto, Jr.

However, this row wasn't all beautiful scenery nor was it easy paddling! About halfway through the race, I got a cramp in my left gluteus maximus (butt cheek), which made the last hour very painful. Since then I've had some time to reflect on dealing with pain.

How we cope with the pain that comes into our lives has a great deal to do whether we feel happy, content or fulfilled. If our pain eclipses everything else, then happiness seems elusive and even impossible. Yet, if we can face our pain head-on and deal with it, new possibilities for fulfillment can emerge.

One of the most dehumanizing aspects of pain and suffering is it can make us feel helpless and powerless. We can easily see ourselves as victims with little control or power to cope. I believe that a spiritual approach to dealing with pain can help us find power and purpose in our suffering.

A spiritual approach involves: (1) acknowledging that pain is an inevitable part of being alive, (2) facing our pain instead of running away from it, (3) learning the lessons that pain might be able to teach us, (4) discovering the inner strength to cope with pain, (5) being willing to journey with others in discovering power and even purpose in pain and suffering.

Regarding this last point, I journeyed with my fellow rowers, most of whom were also struggling with various pains. In a way, rowing in this grueling race created a fellowship of suffering and provided a close bond between us. We all rowed through our pain and finished the race. We were even able to do a communal pirate yell "Arrrrgh!" near the finish line.

The lessons I learned on Saturday were (1) that my pain didn't need to ruin the thrill of rowing on a beautiful river, and (2) that pain can be overcome by striving toward a goal-- the finish line in this case. The challenge is to apply these lessons to the wide variety of pains we will experience in life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Soul Competition

These past few weeks, I've been training to row in the "Hudson River Challenge," a 25 kilometer race (about 15 miles) from the George Washington Bridge to the Tappan Zee Bridge. This regatta commemorates the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's first voyage up this magnificent river.

One of the issues in playing sports is the role of competition. Does competing to win enhance or diminish the activity’s spiritual benefits? This is a difficult question because competition often brings out the best performance in us. When we’re competing against others, we are trying harder and giving more effort. Also, training for a competition motivates us to work hard.

For all the benefits of competition, there is a downside. When we’re competing, the focus is on beating other competitors and winning the contest. This necessarily sets up a “win/lose” situation. When we’re too focused on winning, the spiritual benefits of playing are diminished. Play becomes work. Competition can also undermine being mindful while playing a sport as the focus is outward rather than inward.

That being said, there are rare souls who can ignore other competitors and play their own game or run their race. When athletes are “in the zone," they are competing. Yet, it doesn’t seem that they are concerned with competitors; rather, they are totally focused on their own performances. Some have called this “playing the inner game.”

I’m not arguing that we should forego competitive sports if we want to feed our souls. Being aware of the risks, as well as the benefits, of playing competitively can help us mitigate those risks. Also, not every sporting event has to be soul nourishing. We might decide to have different goals when we’re competing than when we’re not. Bringing an inner focus to competitive playing makes a spiritual connection possible, but there is no guarantee.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Feasting or Fasting?

Which better feeds the active soul? Feasting or fasting? This kind of question was raised at a weekly clergy lectionary Bible study group I have attended the past three years. I was surprised at the liveliness of the discussion.

Some felt that fasting was an indispensable traditional spiritual discipline. They pointed to fasting's benefits. First, when you fast you are foregoing something you rely upon daily for nourishment and sustenance. This can remind you of your dependence upon God for “daily bread” as the Lord’s Prayer puts it. Also, feeling hunger can be a way of gaining empathy for those who are hungry in our world. Some who fast donate the money they would have spent on food to a food bank or other hunger relief organization.

Others in our group argued that feasting was more of a soul-nourishing experience. First, eating food gives us energy and strength to do our daily tasks, which can include helping others. When we are eating with gratitude, we are feeding both our souls and our bodies. Food, they argued, is to be enjoyed and celebrated. They pointed to the social benefits of a meal shared with good friends and family.

One interesting fact arose out of this discussion. Jesus feasted and fasted. He joined in celebratory feasts at weddings and Jewish festivals, but also withdrew into the wilderness for a time of fasting.

My view is that this is a “both and” issue rather than an “either or” issue. Both feasting and fasting can nourish our souls in their own way. Obviously, fasting is not going to occur as frequently as feasting. We must eat to live. But, fasting can remind us that we don’t live to eat.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Finding the Sacred in the Mundane

Too often, we think that to connect with the spiritual dimension we need to withdraw from our daily routines and go somewhere else to meditate or pray. Yet, I believe that the sacred dimension is woven into the fabric of daily life. I'd like to share a few quotes that echo this belief in everyday spirituality.

"We want life to have meaning, and want to be fulfilled, and it is hard to accept that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we would like to be. Our greatest spiritual blessings are likely to reveal themselves not in exotic settings but in every day tasks and trials...It is all for the glory of God, and how we preform these often dispiriting duties, from the changing of a baby's diaper to the bathing of an aged parent, reveals the kind of God we worship." - Kathleen Norris

"It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring...To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives Him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give Him glory, too. He is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean they should." -Gerard Manley Hopkins

"Christ is most abundantly present not during my hours of prayer... but rather in the midst of my daily occupations." - Terese of Lisieux

"We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for the daily gifts...How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?" -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So there you have it from the mouths of spiritual giants. If you can't discover the sacred within your daily life, then you probably won't find it by withdrawing from it. Everything we do, no matter how mundane, holds the possibility for experiencing the sacredness of life.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I'd Like To Hear From You...

If you are a regular or new reader of this blog, I'd like to hear your comments, suggestions and questions!

To comment on a blog entry, click on "comment" at the bottom of the blog post. You will need to choose a "User Profile" (a form of ID) to use in commenting, or you can comment anonymously. Signing up for a google account is the simplest way to sign in. This option is offered by clicking on the "Follow" icon that I'll explain next.

To become a follower of this blog, simply click on the "Follow" icon on the right margin. You will have to sign in using gmail, AIM, Yahoo, Netlog or OpenID. If you don't have any of these accounts, you can easily sign up for a free google account. You are given this option under "Follow." If you don't want to be a public follower, you can choose to follow privately. The advantages of being a follower is that you are notified whenever I post a new entry.

I'd like this blog to become a forum for discussing "active spirituality" and would love to know what feeds your soul. So, take the leap into the blogosphere! Who knows? This might lead to launching your own blog...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Power Boating and Sky Gazing

On Saturday, I enjoyed a spectacular day of power boating on Long Island Sound. Donna and I were invited on a good friend's boat to sail on a 44 mile round trip journey from Rowayton, CT to Port Jefferson, NY. The photo on the left shows the approximate size and type of boat we were on.

Here's a riddle. What's better than owning your own power boat? Answer: Having a friend who owns a power boat!

I spent much of the journey over and back sitting on the bow and enjoying the cooling wind and the scenery. I especially took in the sky and the large cumulus clouds on the horizon, made more dramatic because of the contrast with the deep blue water.

One of the types of meditation practiced by some Buddhists is called “sky gazing.” It involves lying on your back outside and looking up at the sky in a mindful state. There are two focuses in sky meditation. First, you focus on your breathing, just as you do in most any form of meditation. Secondly, you focus on the sky and visualize any distracting thoughts as floating up into the sky.

On Saturday, I practiced my own brand of sky meditation. Instead of focusing only on the sky, I gave my attention to the clouds. Clouds have always fascinated me, but only lately have I seen the spiritual possibilities in their contemplation.

Clouds are nature’s poetry. They drift across the sky, effortlessly floating on the upper level winds. They embody freedom and beauty. They are the most egalitarian of nature’s gifts—everyone who can look up can enjoy them.

So how does the soul benefit by contemplating clouds? The same way the soul benefits by contemplating a great work of art, or the vastness of an ocean, or the majesty of a mountain. Our souls are fed by beauty and nature offers us a nearly infinite smorgasbord.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cooking With Love

Can cooking be a spiritual experience? A friend in the restaurant business sent me an article from the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper titled, “Restaurants Nurture Stomachs and Souls.” The author of the article reviewed several restaurants in the Bay Area that incorporate spirituality into preparing and serving food. One quote really caught my eye:

"With every slice of ‘neatloaf’ [a vegetarian meatloaf] he serves at Ananda Fuara in San Francisco, Viddyut Balmer believes he is bringing love, peace and joy into the world. ‘Our very purpose is to offer joy in a simple way.’ "

The article goes on to describe other restaurants that attempt to feed the body and soul. The common thread running through these restaurants was that those preparing and serving the food understood what they were doing as a spiritual practice. Words like “mindfulness” and “love” were mentioned several times.

Can cooking food be a soul-nourishing experience? My answer is a resounding yes! The key to it being a spiritual experience is how we understand what we are doing. Since I have been the weekday cook in our family for many years, I have much personal experience to share.

For many years I viewed cooking as a necessary evil. I would get home around five and have about 30 minutes to relax (or play with our sons) before I needed to start preparing our evening meal. Because our sons needed to get to their homework immediately after dinner, we tried to eat right at 6:30 p.m. I cooked simple dishes: a main course, a vegetable and a salad. We had 8 basic meals we would rotate over a 2 week cycle with Fridays being “order out” night.

Perhaps because I felt rushed to meet the 6:30 deadline, or because I was tired from work, I found cooking to be drudgery and didn’t enjoy it. Then I happened to read “The Practice of God’s Presence” by Brother Lawrence, a 16th century monk. In his book he described how baking bread with love transforms it into a spiritual experience.

So I tried cooking with love. I thought about those I was cooking for and how much I loved them. This led to putting more effort into cooking. I started adding some variety into our meals (this was welcomed by everyone, including me). I solicited meal ideas from the family. I began to see cooking as an act of love.

I’m not putting myself on a pedestal because I don’t always cook with love. But, when I do, it changes the experience into something deeper and more satisfying.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Original Sin Or Original Blessing?

Many Christians believe that the flawed, selfish nature of our humanity is due to “Original Sin.” This doctrine, formulated by St. Augustine in the 4th century, contends that Adam’s sin was passed down to all humans. Therefore, sin is hereditary, universal, and inescapable.

I’m sorry to disagree with so great a theologian as Augustine. Before I tell you why, I want to say that I do agree with Augustine that sin (defined as being separated or alienated from God) is inescapable.

That humans have the capacity for evil is indisputable. History is rife with human terrorism, violence and the murder of innocents. Sin is not hard to find in human words and actions. However, I don’t believe sin’s inevitability has anything to do with Adam,Eve or any other person other than myself.

Humans are also capable of incredible acts of goodness and kindness. The same story in which Augustine saw Original Sin, also presents humans as created in the “image of God.” As those created in God’s image, we have Original Blessing.

It’s not naive to believe that humans have both the capacity for good and evil. We see evidence of both every day—in ourselves and in the wider human race. Yes, we are flawed, full of selfishness, laziness, rebelliousness and willfulness. But we are also loving, generous, helpful, compassionate and willing to sacrifice for others.

The main flaw in the doctrine of Original Sin is that it takes the responsibility for our choices away from us. In Genesis the great sin of Adam and Eve wasn’t eating the forbidden fruit (disobedience) but not taking responsibility for it. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.

It’s when we don’t take responsibility for our choices, good or bad, that we get into trouble. For nothing undermines a good relationship with God more than refusing to admit our sins. Once we take responsibility, we can accept the forgiveness God offers and move on.

God calls us to become the best persons we can be. God doesn’t expect perfection, but progress. As those made in God’s image, we have the freedom to choose the path we will follow. We are originally blessed!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Spiritual Refreshment in the Devil's Den

Yesterday, I took a 4 mile hike in Devil's Den Preserve in Weston, CT. I've been hiking there regularly for the past 5 years. The photo to the right shows a pond and stream, one of many in this lovely 1,700 acre preserve.

To the untrained eye, Devil’s Den is a singularly unspectacular place. It has no tall peaks or breath-taking vistas. It is mostly Connecticut deciduous forest with a few evergreens. It has streams and wetlands and one river, the west branch of the Saugatuck River, running along its western side. It has many rock outcroppings, the result of a glacier receding from Connecticut during the last Ice Age. By Rocky Mountain standards, these rock formations are not even foothills.

Yet, I find Devil’s Den to be a deeply spiritual place. For me it is a place of natural and unspoiled beauty-- a quintessential example of a Connecticut landscape. When I hike there, I leave refreshed and renewed. It is a soul feeding experience.

I’m keenly aware of the irony that one of the key places in my spiritual world is called Devil’s Den. I’m not really sure why it was so named, but I like the aura of danger and mystery implied in it. Perhaps it’s the chaotic rock formations and dead trees crisscrossing the forest that caused it’s namer to envision it as a place where the Devil hangs out. I only know that it is a place where I feel connected with the spiritual dimension of life.

On the sign at the entrance to Devil's Den "spiritual refreshment" is listed along with "hiking, nature trails, and cross-country skiing" as activities offered in this preserve. Everyone needs to discover a place they can go for spiritual refreshment. Everyone needs to find their own Devil's Den.