Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I find that how I begin my day can have an out-of-proportion effect on how the rest of the day goes. A bad beginning too often leads to a bad middle and end. But does this necessarily have to be the case? I don't believe it does.
A few mornings ago, my day began in mild chaos. While my spouse was drying her hair, the power went off. I was awakened from a sound sleep by her urgent plea to go to basement to reset the circuit breaker so she wouldn't miss her train. Also, because of the power interruption, the wifi stopped working and she needed to send an email before she left. So I trudged upstairs to the modem and reset it.
All of the above occurred at 5:30 a.m. I was wide awake by the time these tasks were completed. It was too dark to go rowing, so I went to my basement and did a workout on the rowing machine. This hard workout somewhat redeemed the chaotic start. I was calmer and more centered afterward, especially after a hot shower and breakfast. The day went much better after this.
When a normal morning routine is interrupted, it can "ruin" the rest of the day if we let it. For me, the best way to begin a day is in silence as we awaken to the possibilities that await us. A quiet time is a great way to ease into the day and prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually for the tasks ahead. But, we aren't always in control of how our day begins, as my story above illustrates.
So what happens when your morning routine is interrupted? If possible, it's best to not empower the chaos to effect the rest of the day. If a beginning is negative, try to do something positive that will help you get back your emotional and spiritual stability. Just because we get knocked off-center doesn't mean we can't recenter.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Why does it take being deprived of something to make us appreciate it? I've been pondering this question lately. For example, I routinely get a good night's sleep, but when I have a bad night of sleeping, I suddenly become thankful for all those good nights. Another example. It's been raining in Connecticut for the past two days and I'm thinking back with gratitude about the string of sunny, warm days last week. Must gratitude depend on deprivation?
I recognize that that it is "human nature" to take the good things of life for granted. Yet, this is a part of my human nature I am striving to overcome. I want to be thankful for the multitude of gifts that are part of my daily routine: enough food to eat, a roof over my head, satisfying work, opportunities for recreation, good health, and a good night's sleep.
The key to cutting the tie between gratitude and deprivation is to work at being continually thankful for the routine gifts of life. This involves a shift of attitude and focus toward the goal of giving thanks throughout each day. Here are some practical suggestions. When you awake, lay in bed for a few minutes giving thanks for a full night's sleep. When you eat a meal, offer a silent or spoken grace for it. When you take a bath or shower, offer thanks for the gift of water. And the list goes on and on.
Naming the gifts we continually receive is a way of giving rise to gratitude without having to be deprived of something. Nothing good in life need be taken for grante
Monday, March 29, 2010
At the worship service I attended yesterday, there were two foci. First, we celebrated Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then, the mood of the service shifted as we heard the Passion story from Matthew's gospel. The palm cross on the right symbolizes the blending of Palm Sunday and the Passion story.
For many liturgical churches, the traditional Palm Sunday has become Passion/Palm Sunday. The reason? Very few persons attend Holy Thursday and Good Friday services. Therefore, many go from the great celebration of Palm Sunday to the greater celebration of Easter without engaging what happened during Holy Week. Namely, Jesus' Passion.
The word passion comes from the Latin passio which means "to suffer." Jesus certainly suffers on many levels after the Triumphal Entry. He suffers the betrayal, denial and desertion of his closest followers. He is arrested, suffers a trial that is a mockery of justice, is flogged and crucified. On the cross he is taunted and mocked. Passion is the right word for this series of painful events.
I don't believe that you can fully enter into the joy of Easter without having understood the tragedy of the Passion. These are intertwined and inseparable. You can't have a resurrection without a death. For this reason, I'm glad that Palm Sunday has become Passion/Palm Sunday.
Friday, March 26, 2010
The central symbol of Taoism is the yin-yang. In Western thought, we see good and evil, black and white, male and female as opposites. In the yin-yang, there are no sharp dichotomies. Rather, there is a sense of balance, flow and interrelationship.
The yin-yang teaches us that life is complex. While we may want to see things in clear, simple terms of black/white or good/evil, the truth is that both of these sets of "opposites" are present in us and, often, at the same time.
In the yin-yang there is a "both and" rather than an "either/or." I find this a helpful way of understanding reality and humanity. For example, there is a tendency in our highly polarized political process to demonize those who are on the "opposite" side. Each political party views the other as totally in the wrong. Yet, the reality is that each side has some good and bad, some truth and delusion.
Spiritually, the yin-yang can help us understand the complexity of our spiritual life. The spiritual realm is not separate from the physical world and vice versa. Spiritual and material are intertwined and interrelated. For a full and whole life we need both spiritual and material. Balance and flow are the nature of reality.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
At my chronic pain support group yesterday, we had a profound conversation about grieving. I attend this group regularly as a "spiritual advisor," but often find that I am the one who benefits, as happened yesterday.
Members of the group spoke eloquently about what they had to give up as a result of their pain. One man had to give up a charter boat business and was clearly grieving for that loss. Another person had to deal with the limitation of arthritis and giving up the competitive sports that she loved. Another woman spoke of losing her husband, son, and closest friend to death in a period of a few years.
Such losses are painful and can thrust us into unfamiliar territory where we feel lost and alone. These losses create the need to rebuild a new life and form new relationships. Pain is a limitation, but we can recreate a new life within the limitations it places upon us.
What was inspiring about these stories of loss and grief was the resilience of the sufferers. None of these persons were throwing in the towel or giving up. Rather, they were struggling to find a new way through unfamiliar territory. This discussion caused me to rethink how I will deal (and have dealt) with the losses that inevitably will come.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The reason this blog is on the later side today is that I'm in tax return hell. Every year around this time, I take everything from our tax drawer and sort it into piles on our dining room table. Then I begin the laborious process of gleaning the relevant information from these piles and adding up the totals for our return.
I have a love/hate relationship with this process. I don't like the sorting and adding, but I really don't mind filling in numbers on the tax forms. I think this is because dealing with numbers is so very different that how I spend most of my time. As a teacher and writer, my life is filled with words that I speak or write. Filling in numbers feels like a break from my word-dominated life.
Of course, the painful part of filling in numbers is that last number: amount owed to the U.S. Treasury. I take some small comfort in the saying, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization." That being said, civilization is expensive!
Is there anything spiritually fulfilling about doing taxes? Yes. Getting them done! Like any project that hangs over your head, it's a relief to complete it and know that you have an entire year until you have to do it again.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
We've all heard about the fear of failure. Did you know there is also a fear of success? Everyone assumes that people want success and happiness. Yet, there are persons who pursue paths that lead to pain and disappointment.
In today's New York Times an article, "Sabotaging Success, but to What End?" by Dr. Richard Friedman explores the reasons persons engage in self-defeating behavior. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, believes there is a "hidden psychological reward" in this kind of behavior. Basically, it allows a person to blame others for their disappointments and failures.
Self-defeating behavior also exists in the spiritual realm. The difference is that when we suffer failures here, we tend to blame God. We can believe that failures and disappointments are ways that God disciplines us for our unfaithfulness.
This view of God-as-disciplinarian goes against everything I believe about a loving God who can be fully trusted. God doesn't send failures to punish us or pain to get our attention. We bring these things upon ourselves by our own choices. We need to accept responsibility for our failures.
Even those negative things that happen to us accidentally are not God's doing. There is randomness in our world and we need to learn to accept it. The way to deal with self-defeating behavior is to (1) accept responsibility for our choices, (2) accept the randomness in creation. God wants us to enjoy abundant life, not to sabotage success.
Monday, March 22, 2010
I'm glad that the Health Care bill passed last night. Although it isn't perfect, it is a large step forward in making cost-effective health care available to everyone. My own preference would be medicare for everyone. But that doesn't seem possible at this moment, given the highly partisan divisions in congress.
I see several spiritual issues woven into health care. First, there is a close interrelationship between physical and spiritual health. That's why we need to take good care of our bodies by eating well and exercising regularly. Any spirituality that devalues physical health is misguided. Good health care focuses on both preventative care and sick care. Without access to good health care, we not only put our bodies at risk, but also our souls.
Secondly, there is a spiritual issue in the conflict between "what's best for me" and the greater good. Often, doing what's best for the many will result in sacrifices for the few. Paying more taxes to provide health care for 32 million more persons is a small sacrifice for the greater good.
Thirdly, even though spiritual health isn't an explicit part of health care, we need to include it. If we are paying attention to our spiritual health and doing those things that feed our souls, our overall health will improve. Because we are a unity of mind/body/soul the health of one aspect affects the others. Our health is a precious gift. Too often, we don't realize how precious until we lose it.
Friday, March 19, 2010
As the Spring equinox occurs at 1:32 p.m. EDT tomorrow, March 20, I thought a prayer on a Spring theme is appropriate. The prayer below is by Ted Loder.
It is spring, Lord,
and the land is coming up green again,
unfolding outside my well-drawn boundaries
and urgent schedules.
And there is the mystery and the smile of it.
The willows are dripping honey color into the rivers,
and the mother birds are busy in manger nests,
and I am learning again
that "for everything there is a season
and a time for every matter under heaven."
O Lord, you have sketched the lines of spring.
Be with me in my unfolding.
Be with me in my reaching
so I will touch and be touched,
this time, by a grace, a warmth, a light,
to unfold my life to a new beginning,
a fresh budding,
a spring within as well as around me.
O Lord, you have sketched the lines of spring.
Be with me in my reaching.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
After the powerful northeaster that hit Connecticut on Saturday we're enjoying a stretch of delightful weather: sunny and in the 60's. This feels like a reward for enduring a storm that knocked out power to thousands and resulted in six deaths.
I've been pondering the question of why it's so much easier to engage in spiritual practices in nice, calm weather. When it's sunny and pleasant, enjoying the outdoors and enjoying its beauty isn't difficult. However, storms are challenging for spirituality.
I think the issue is one of focus. In inclement weather, our focus is on things like getting to a safe place and yearning for our electricity to be restored. We're paying so much attention to the physical necessities of life, it's difficult to pay attention to the things that feed our souls.
Yet, there is something to be said for the "dark night of the soul"-- those times that challenge our resolve and test our faith. These are times when we have the opportunity to grow spiritually. Someone has said that character is shaped on the anvil of adversity.
Still, I enjoy the calmer, sunnier times. When the storms come, however, I want to see the soul-strengthening opportunities in them.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like waiting. I don’t believe I’m alone in our culture of “I want everything NOW.”
A few days ago, I got stuck in traffic on the Hutchison River Parkway. There must have been an accident of some kind ahead and, instead of being concerned about the health of the accident victims, I thought about how much this was inconveniencing me! I was worried about being late to teach my world religions class.
Here I was moving at 5 MPH with no end to the traffic in sight. I was frustrated and anxious that I might be stuck for a long time. Then I began to reflect on why I was so upset at being stuck in traffic. The answer hit me like a revelation from on high: I wasn’t in control.
Yet, once I recognized that, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get to my destination any faster I started to relax a little. My frustration and anxiety diminished. My heart rate went down and I shifted my thoughts to the lecture I was going to give when I arrived.
So much of our time is spent in waiting. We certainly wait when driving. There are stop signs, traffic lights and traffic jams. We wait in lines at the grocery store and hardware store. Doctor’s are so notorious for making us wait that they call their lobby’s “waiting rooms.”
In a way, we’re always waiting for something or someone. When I was in college, I read Samuel Beckett’s classic play, “Waiting for Godot.” It’s a two act play that takes place over two days. Two sets of characters are waiting for someone named Godot to arrive. Of course, Godot never comes. I think that one of the things Beckett was saying is that life involves perpetual waiting.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Another amazing place I explored during my weekend in California was Pinnacles National Monument. This is a place of granite monoliths and spires rising out of the earth in a chaotic manner. During my 7 mile hike through these unusual rock formations, wild flowers, and talus caves, I stopped every few minutes to take in the beauty of this place. The photo of some of the "pinnacles" is from the national park website.
Pinnacles was a huge volcano 20 million years ago. Split in half by the San Andreas fault, it has moved 200 miles north at the rate of 3 inches per year. Being there gave me a sense different sense of time. Geologic time moves at a glacial pace, except when volcanic eruptions or earthquakes occur. These geological phenomena cause dramatic changes in the shape and form of the earth.
Pinnacles is one of the areas in California where condors have been successfully reintroduced. I saw two of this majestic creatures floating effortlessly on the strong updrafts. These birds are so large as to seem prehistoric, somewhat like the mythical Roc. The condors I saw in Patagonia last year were larger, but not more amazing. Here, I got to get relatively close, only a few hundred feet away.
The earth is filled with places like Pinnacles, each singular and unique in its own way. Being in these places puts me in touch with the sacred dimension of life. My feelings are captured by the Psalmist: “O Lord, how manifold are your works!”
Monday, March 15, 2010
I was in Monterey, California this past weekend and was overwhelmed by the stunning beauty of Point Lobos Nature Reserve, a few miles south of Monterey. On a windy, rainy afternoon, I virtually had this gem to myself. The photo of Point Lobos is from its web site.
I hiked in ancient cypress groves, viewed sea lions lounging on a large rock, heard the violent pounding of the surf against the rocks, and saw ocean spray shooting up like a geyser from the collision of wave and shore. It was one of the most amazing coastal scenes I've ever seen.
This dramatic scenery evoked a deep sense of gratitude for the wondrous creation we have been given as a gift. I now understand what the term "tree hugger" means-- you can become so moved by the loveliness of these awesome cypress trees that you want to hug them!
Being in a place of such tremendous beauty feeds the soul. You just want to say "thank you" to its Creator and Source.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
A friend shared this parable with me yesterday. The authorship is anonymous.
An old Cherokee was teaching his young grandson one of life’s most important lessons. He told the young boy the following parable:
“There is a fight going on inside each of us. It is a terrible fight between two wolves,” he said.
“One wolf is evil. He is anger, rage, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego."
"The second wolf is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about this for a moment. Then he asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win this fight?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Yesterday, in my clergy Bible study group, we had a spirited discussion of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11b-32). It's one of my favorite parables because it is packed with truth. John Crossan called it "polyvalent," which means "having many layers of meaning."
As we discussed each of the characters in this parable-- younger son, elder son and father-- I understood something I hadn't seen before: each of these characters is "lost" in his own way and needs to find a way back "home."
The lostness of the younger son is obvious. He selfishly demands his inheritance and leaves home. He soon squanders his money ("prodigal" means "wasteful") and returns home to beg his father to take him back. He is lost because he has alienated himself from his father.
The lostness of the older son is also clear. He seethes in anger and resentment when his younger brother is warmly welcomed back by his father. He is hurt by his father throwing a welcome home party for his irresponsible brother. He refuses to go into the party, even when his father begs him to come and celebrate.
The lostness of the father is more subtle. His lostness consists in his sons being alienated from each other. He loves both of them deeply and cannot help but suffer at their estrangement. Like a good father, he doesn't intervene but shows them both extravagant grace and love.
If we look closely, I believe we can see ourselves in this parable in each of these characters. We all are lost in our own ways and long to find our way back home. The questions this parable leads me to ponder are: Where is home? How am I lost? How can I find my way back?
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Have you ever thought of exercise as a gift? Many of us, me included, view exercise as a daily chore to perform. It's a means to the end of controlling weight and becoming more healthy. It falls into the category of "shoulds" rather than "wants."
However, if we see exercise as drudgery, how many of us will do it regularly? In today's New York Times there is an article by Jane Brody titled, "To Keep Moving, Look Beyond the Physical." In this article she explores the non-physcial benefits of exercise.
Dr. Michelle Segar, a motivational psychologist, is quoted saying, "We've made exercise feel like a chore to most people, not like a gift we give ourselves." She advocates looking at the rewards of exercise: feeling better psychologically and spiritually.
When you exercise with others, there is a feeling of camaraderie and social fellowship. As I've said before, when I row with others, I work harder and show up more consistently. When we exercise daily, we reduce stress and sleep better. Also, studies have shown that exercise can help reduce anxiety and depression
There are spiritual benefits to exercise as well. For example, when we walk mindfully, walking becomes a form of meditation. I know many persons who have found a deep spiritual connection in activities the rest of us consider exercise: skiing, running, rowing and playing sports.
The greatest benefits of exercise come when we can enjoy it as a form of play. When exercise becomes play, it is fun and joyful. As play, exercise can nourish body, mind and spirit.
Monday, March 8, 2010
At long last, I'm back rowing on the water! After spending the past three months in the gym on a rowing machine, I had my first row in a quad this morning.
What a joy it was to, once again, enjoy the beauty of the sunrise and the sights, sounds and smells of Long Island Sound. I felt like a butterfly emerging out of its chrysalis or a bear coming out of hibernation. Rowing outdoors again was like a rebirth. The photo above is of two of my rowing buddies on the Sound.
However, it was because of the hours spent erging during the winter months that I was able to enjoy rowing. Without this winter conditioning, I would have been huffing and puffing for our 50 minute row, and end up exhausted afterwards.
I've found that for every week you don't exercise, it takes the same amount of time to get back to the same level of fitness. I believe this same concept applies to our spiritual fitness. When we are doing those things that nourish our souls in a disciplined, regular way, we put ourselves in a position to experience deep joy and gratitude when it comes.
Like a muscle, the soul becomes stronger and more resilient with exercise. The question we each need to answer for ourselves is: what "exercises" my soul?
Friday, March 5, 2010
We're now learning about Buddhism in my world religions course. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th century BCE, Buddhism was the result of his spiritual quest.
Siddhartha was born into a wealthy high caste Hindu family. His father, who wanted him to follow in his footsteps, protected Siddhartha from the realities of life. But one day, in a state of restless discontentment, he ventured out of the castle and saw four things: a dead person, a diseased person, a decrepit person and a monk with a shaved head.
After seeing these things, Siddhartha embarked on a six year quest to discover the truth about life. First, he launched into a ascetic life, but didn't find what he was looking for. Next, he studied with the great spiritual teachers of Hinduism, but still was unsatisfied. Then, through intense meditation, he looked deep within himself and found enlightenment.
The word "Buddha" means "enlightened one" and Siddhartha's enlightenment resulted in a religion that offers others a path to enlightenment. What is fascinating to me about this story is that he didn't find what he was looking for in the external world, but found it within himself.
There is a lesson here for those of us who are seeking spiritual truth. We need to look both inside and outside ourselves in our quest. I believe this is a "both/and" issue rather than "either/or." As Thomas Merton once said, "God speaks to us in three ways: in the words of scripture, in the voice of the stranger, and in our deepest selves."
Thursday, March 4, 2010
The message of the poem below by Mary Oliver is: Don't fear death; fear an unlived life. It's one of my favorites...
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's all over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement,
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The Buddha once said, "Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart give yourself to it." Lately, I've been pondering the question: How do we discover our calling, our life work? My answer is: listen to the voice of your deepest self, your soul.
The voice of the soul is not audible (except in the sense that we can “hear” thoughts and feelings) but can be heard nonetheless if we listen carefully to our inner self. There are several aspects to listening to this inner voice of our deepest self. First, we need to pay attention to our gifts. Everyone has one or more gifts— natural abilities, skills or capacities. For example, I believe that one of my gifts is that of putting thoughts into words and I am using this gift right now. What is your gift? If you don’t know, then ask someone who knows you well.
A second aspect of listening to your soul is to answer the question: What gives me joy? Enjoyment is what keeps work from being drudgery. Reflect on what you are doing when you feel happy. This will offer an important clue to solving the vocation mystery. Another related question to ask yourself is: What do I feel fulfilled doing? Discovering what brings you fulfillment and deep satisfaction is a way of listening to your soul.
Once you’ve identified your gifts and learned what gives you joy, the next step in soul-listening involves discovering your purpose and your passion. Our purpose is our reason for being. Purpose is an underlying force that provides the motivation to define our life goals. We organize our goals around our purpose. The purpose questions are: Why am I here? What am I living for? Answering these questions will put us in touch with what really matters to us and may lead us to find the work that makes a positive difference in our world.
While we often use the word “passion” to mean “intense enthusiasm,” its spiritual roots go much deeper. The Latin root of “passion” means “to suffer.” It’s no accident that the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is called the Passion Story. Therefore, the passion question is: What are you willing to die for? If purpose provides us with a direction or goal in life, then passion gives us the motivation and determination to pursue our purpose. As my friend, Dr. John Tamerin once said, “Passion creates the intensity to fuel our purpose.”
Asking yourself the above questions is a way of hearing the "voice" of your deepest self.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Is it possible to learn from the mistakes of the past? The late historian Barbara Tuchman struggled with this question in her book, The March of Folly. In this sweeping journey through history she looked at three wars: Trojan, American Revolution and Vietnam.
What she discovered was that the same mistakes were repeated by those in power. Her conclusion: "We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow." To Tuchman, human history is a tragic "march of folly." Freud called this urge to repeat mistakes, "the repetition compulsion."
I have a somewhat more hopeful estimate of the human capacity to learn from the past. I believe we are not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. However, if we are to break free from repeating past mistakes, we must become aware of them. Someone has said that those who aren't aware of the past are doomed to repeat it.
To honestly look at our mistakes and delve deeply into how and why we made them is a first step. The next step is to take positive action to deal with the issues at the root of our mistakes. This could take the form of a program of self-discipline, a 12 step group, or therapy. Spirituality can certainly help us change our life in positive ways. The values at the heart of spirituality-- honesty, compassion, self-discipline and gratitude-- can help us overcome the past.
Humans have been created with freedom. One of our great freedoms is to choose to break free of the power of the past. Freedom is like a muscle-- it must be exercised to become strong.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Along with millions of viewers, I watched the thrilling Olympic gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada. The game lived up to its sky high expectations and was decided in overtime (Canada won 3-2).
What I really appreciate about hockey is how, after the game, the players skate by each other and shake hands. After battling each other in a very physically demanding game, they demonstrate good sportsmanship. Even bitter rivals participate in this ritual of post-game handshaking.
Competition is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can bring out the best in us. Competition makes us work harder and try harder. However, the other "edge" of the competitive sword is that it creates a win-lose situation. To win and avoid losing, competitors sometimes violate the rules or even cheat. In this way competition brings out the worst in us.
When it comes to spirituality, competition must give way to cooperation. There is no competition for "most spiritual" or "most soulful." However, by forming relationships with other spiritual seekers, we can cooperate in the mutual goal of deepening our spiritual life.
The closest to "the competitive spirit" in spirituality is to be inspired by the spirituality of others. We imitate them, not as a way of competing with them, but as a way of growing in our own spiritual life. Spiritual greats inspire us to be more disciplined in our own life and provide an example for us to aspire to.