Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mindful Hiking

Last week, I made my annual pilgrimage to Acadia National Park in Maine. I did four different hikes on this three day trip and each was amazing in its own way. What I love about Acadia is the dramatic vistas of ocean, mountain and forest. You can enjoy the thunderous collisions of waves against rock and also enjoy the quiet solitude of hiking through dense forest. The photo above is from the Acadia National Park website.

Hiking is one of my spiritual practices. By hiking in places of natural beauty, my soul is refreshed and renewed. However, a certain kind of awareness called "mindfulness" enhances the spiritual benefits of hiking (and other forms of activity, too). Mindfulness is being fully present in the present moment.

The key to hiking being a soulful experience is the attitude with which we do it. There are several ways to hike. A hike can be a race against other hikers where the goal is to finish as quickly as possible. A hike can become a time trial where the goal is to do your best time over a specific distance. A hike can also be done purely for exercise—to burn calories. A hike can also be done for spiritual nourishment.

When I hike mindfully, I am more aware of the natural beauty surrounding me. I notice the pattern of sunlight on the ground that filters through the branches of trees. I breathe in the musty forest air, rich with aromas of earth: decaying leaves, pine needles and evergreen cones. I look at the sky above the canopy of tree tops and marvel at the varying hues of blue and the puffy white clouds floating effortlessly. When hiking with this kind of awareness, I feel connected to the aliveness around me and feel more alert and alive within.

When it comes to spiritual practices, it's not so much what we do, but how we go about doing it. When we do something mindfully, we connect ourselves with what is holy, sacred and divine.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The World Will End On _____

The media hoopla over Harold Camping's prediction that the world would end this past Saturday was both sad and silly. It's sad because there were people who totally bought into this date and quit their jobs, stopped paying bills and even sold their homes. It's silly because nobody can know when, how or if the world will end.

However, contemplating the end of the world is a human fascination. Biblical writers portrayed the world's end using apocalyptic poetry. To take these visions and images literally is to be guilty of a "misplaced literalism." When we try to describe the indescribable we are forced to use the symbolic language of metaphor. And, metaphors are open to a variety of interpretations.

Even though I believe that speculation about when or how the world will end is an exercise in futility, there is value in reflecting on the future. We all live toward some vision of the future. Is our vision one of hope or doom? How we view the future can make a great deal of difference in the present as it gives the present urgency and direction.

When it comes to the future, it's important to know what we can and can't control. We can control our own actions and how we take care of the earth we have been entrusted to care for as God's stewards. However, there is so much we can't control (i.e. the weather, natural disasters, astrological catastrophes).

I believe that Christianity presents a hopeful vision of the future. The world doesn't end in darkness and destruction, but is transformed into light and new life. Easter tells us that death is not the final word about us, but that resurrection and new life transform death.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Perma-nent Well-Being

I came across a new acronym while reading a New York Times article this morning: "Perma," which stands for: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. It was coined by Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of "positive psychology."

Dr. Seligman, who wrote "Authentic Happiness" in 2002, has since discovered that the concept of "happiness" is too limiting. He now is focusing on "well-being" or "flourishing." These words better capture the breadth of a fulfilling life. Well-being isn't tied to a particular feeling or mood (as happiness often is) but is "a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment," he writes.

I am in full agreement with Dr. Seligman. Happiness is a byproduct of being engaged in healthy relationships and doing meaningful work. We also need to be able to contribute to the good of others. While happiness is self-centered, well-being focuses more on making a positive difference in the lives of others.

For a full and fulfilling life, we not only need to be well, we also need to do good. When our life contains the five elements represented by "perma" the result is well-being. Even though this view doesn't mention spirituality, it is implied. Spirituality is a critical component of a well-lived life. The "tripod of spirituality" (humility, compassion and gratitude) I mentioned in my previous blog is important in well-being.

We were created by a Creator for a full and rich life that cannot be characterized by happiness alone. We were created for relationship, meaning, purpose and to serve a cause greater than self.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tripod of Spirituality

I'm in the last 2 weeks of my two World Religion courses. We've worked our way through Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's a lot to cover in a single semester.

At the end of the course, I ask my students, "What do these world religions have in common?" I get a wide range of answers: a commitment to peace, an ethical code, the Golden Rule and more.

My own view is that there are three spiritual values that can be found in all of the above religions. These are: compassion, humility and gratitude. I call these values, the "tripod" of spiritual life because they uphold and support it.

Compassion is the ability to not only empathize with another's pain, but to act in a compassionate way. Humility is the ability to see yourself as you truly are and to recognize your commonality with humanity. Gratitude is the ability to see all of life as a gift and to give thanks for this multitude of gifts.

It's impossible for me to comprehend a healthy spiritual life that lacks any of these values. Obviously, we can't perfectly embody these values. However, when it comes to the spiritual life, progress trumps perfection. To strive to internalize and to live by compassion, humility and gratitude is to live the best possible life. As the Dalai Lama once said, "The purpose of religion to make us better people."