Monday, January 23, 2017

Establishing Silence

"Peace, Be Still"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Something happened to me this morning that really enhanced my awareness of the importance of silence in my life.

As a rule I get up just before dawn so that I can go outside and sit quietly as the sun rises in the desert skies. Thankfully, I live in this desert region where it’s always pretty quiet (especially at daybreak before most people have ventured out to start their day),  but this morning I suddenly realized that even when I’m quiet, I’m often not silent.

As I sit quietly at the break of day I often hear the smartphone in my pocket emitting various beeping or buzzing sounds, notifying me of of “breaking news" stories or informing me of incoming messages, mail or texts.  In the midst of the quiet I also hear the faint sound of the morning news on the public radio station coming from inside my house, I hear the sounds of my wife getting ready for work, the sounds of the dogs rustling around, sometimes car doors slamming in the background.

This morning I “accidentally”  left my smartphone inside and for some reason or other there  were no sounds coming from inside my house or from the neighborhood…that’s when I realized that, even though I may be quiet, I am rarely silent. I also realized how restorative and healing the silence was for me.

I think of something Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh,  once said about the sounds of silence:

Silence is often described as the absence of sound and yet
silence is a very powerful sound.
When you’ve been able to establish silence
you begin to hear the deepest kind of calling within yourself.

This morning as the sun rose in the red skies of a desert morning and as I basked in the powerful and healing sounds of a silence that went beyond quiet, it struck me that silence isn’t something that just happens. You have to establish silence, you have to intentionally mute all the noise, especially in a world that is always so full of chaos.

I think about how much noise and almost constant information continually bombards our senses almost every waking moment of our day.  From the moment we wake up until we go to sleep at night, regardless of where we are, we are always immersed in a sea of sound. We engage in conversations, attend meetings or peck away at a computer. Music is often playing as we browse through mail and texts and check out the newest posts on social media, and almost everywhere I go nowadays CNN or or FOX news seems to be droning on in the background reporting the latest crisis in today’s volatile political climate - 24 hours of constant noise and information filling the air and assaulting our senses.

For most of us, even when we try to sit quietly (which doesn’t happen very often) we are rarely silent and so we rob ourselves of that holy opportunity for healing and restoration that true silence affords us.  This morning, my heightened awareness of the importance of silence that goes beyond quiet motivated me to become much more intentional about establishing silence in my life on a regular basis every day.

It seems to me that any one of us can make some time to establish silence. We all can turn off radios and TVs and iTunes, press a button to mute the smart phone instead of endlessly checking out Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and all those endless messages that come at us every day. We can turn away from the desk at work or home or school and even if only for a few brief moments, go outside, take a walk, find a quiet corner somewhere, take a few deep breaths and establish silence, the powerful and healing sounds of silence.

The Buddha taught his disciples that they would only be able to find the deeper peace they sought by emptying and quieting their minds.

Tame the mind.
It rushes here and there swifter than the wind and more slippery than the water.
If you can arrest the flights of the mind,
happiness will ensue.

As I see it, this ancient wisdom has more relevance in our own times than ever before. So don’t just take the time to be quiet, make the time to be silent.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Moral Courage

- in my meditation garden- 

On this “Inauguration” weekend in the United States we are confronted with abundant evidence about just how much this country is divided. As a new president takes office hordes of people gather to offer their unqualified support while just as many if not more assemble in public places throughout the nation to march and protest the new administration - no doubt each “camp” believing that they are right and the other side is wrong.

I’ve been thinking about the divisions in our culture and have come to the conclusion that, apart from of any political affiliation or religious belief, there are some universal moral standards that define what is right and wrong good and bad,  and that we are all called to courageously uphold and promote those standards because we are “human beings.”

People often tend to avoid talking about morality because they associate moral conversation with religion. “Morals” are rules handed down by religious institutions who claim that these are the laws of God.  So of course, if you aren’t religious, you probably want nothing to do with conversations about morality.

Even apart from all the religious baggage associated with “morality,” the idea of publicly applied universal moral standards is also somewhat anathema to the sensibilities of contemporary people in this “postmodern era” in which many believe that we all have our own personal truth and we all set our own personal standards about what is right and what is wrong.

But as I see it, in an era of growing racism, bigotry and intolerance, in an era where “me-first” has become the motto of the day, we all need to re-engage one another in a vigorous moral dialogue, expanding our definition of “morality” beyond religious teachings as we explore those universal principles of “right and wrong” that apply to all of us.  

I very much agree with what the Dalai Lama had to say a few years back in his very insightful book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.  He makes a compelling argument for removing moral conversations beyond “religious institutions” and suggests that there are some pretty clear principles of universal “human” morality - upholding these standards has more to do with our survival as a species than with following religious dictates:

Fortunately there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence
in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields suggesting that,
even from the most rigorous scientific perspective,
unselfishness and concern for others are innate to our biological nature.
Interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of
concern, affection and warm-heartedness – or in a single word, compassion. 

Without compassion for one another we cannot and will not survive - compassion is the glue that holds us together and allows us to thrive. The practice of compassion is the universal moral compass that must serve to guide Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, Atheists and Agnostics, Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives. Without a sense of our interdependence and respect for one another’s dignity we are all on a slippery slope that ultimately leads us to the dead end of extinction. Now more than ever each of us, no matter who we are, must muster up every ounce of moral courage we have to fight for and uphold these standards before it’s too late.

The poet and environmentalist, Wendell Berry, once put it this way:

‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy
or for a panic in a burning nightclub,
appropriate for sharks or hogs pot perhaps a cascade of lemmings.
A society wishing to endure must speak the language of
care-taking, faith-keeping,
kindness and compassion,
neighborliness and peace. 

On this “Inauguration” weekend, many people all over this land (and all over the globe) will be fighting with one another, each sure that they have found “the” truth; but the only truth is love and the only moral standard that apples to us all is compassion and kindness. Indeed, any society wishing to endure must speak this language.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

We're Going to be OK

"Sunshine in the Storm Clouds-"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday I listened to President Obama’s “farewell press conference.” For a solid hour Mr. Obama was grilled about the chaos that seems to be infecting the spirit of American society- the rising tide of racism and violence, the despair felt by so many citizens, a nation deeply divided by culture wars and class distinctions. Will the new administration exacerbate the division?  One reporter even asked if democracy as we have come to know it is now coming to an end?

As the conference concluded I was struck by the president’s “hope-filled” final words, the last words most of us will likely hear from Barack Obama as President of the United States. He sounded like Martin Luther King Jr. as he talked about the long moral arc of the universe that bends toward justice and he professed his ultimate faith in the basic goodness of human beings, no matter how often this goodness is hidden or disguised. Mr. Obama concluded his remarks by saying:

At my core, I think we’re going to be ok.

I felt as if I were hearing words of truth.  I also believe that, in the end we are going to be ok. 

By saying this I hardly believe that, everything is going to be just fine, so just sit back, “don’t worry, be happy.”  In fact, I am pretty convinced that we are in for some pretty stormy weather as a nation and as a culture in the days ahead and that people of goodwill will be called upon to mightily resist the powers of hatred and darkness that would tear us apart. We will be called on to muster up our moral courage and champion the dignity of every human being. We will be called upon to boldly oppose the growing tide of racism and bigotry and stand against any person or institution that would exclude rather than include. 

But, at my core, I also believe that there is a “Spark of God” in every human heart, a spark of Love that cannot be extinguished no matter how hard we may try to snuff it out. So yes, I do believe that “we’re going to be ok.”

I am reminded of a line from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

In the end these three remain:
faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.

You can’t kill Love!  It always remains and ultimately Love wins the day.  

It’s raining in the desert where I live – pretty unusual weather for this part of the country. In fact over the next few days even more storms are predicted – some are supposed to be kind of bad. This morning, as I looked out my window at the dark clouds and the falling rain, an old Quaker hymn popped into my mind:

My life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the clear, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to the rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

I think we’re going to be OK.