Friday, February 28, 2014

Keep Focused

"Stormy Weather"
-clouds gather in the desert skies-

Normally I begin my day by sitting quietly in my garden, watching the sun rise over the eastern mountains. I often post pictures of the bright blue skies or the glorious flowering desert bushes gleaming in the sunlight. But not today. 

Today it's dismal, dark and gloomy outside. It's raining - claps of thunder echoing in the mountains. It's supposed to rain all weekend long. 

As I sit inside, I look out at the the garden and watch the rain fall from gloomy overcast skies.  Everything looks so different from what I am used to every day.  I've been spoiled living in this desert. I'm not used to the damp chill and the dismal gray skies. It all makes me want to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head - close the doors of this Desert Retreat House and wait for the storm to pass.  

After all, you can easily find beauty in clear blue skies and brightly colored flowers blooming on a wilderness path, but how can you find beauty in the gloom? 

And herein lies the lesson of the day.

My spiritual ancestors, the early 4th century desert monastics left the cities and moved to the fringes of the church. They lived in caves and huts in the middle of the desert wilderness, committed to being more faithful followers of Jesus - on a spiritual journey to find deep peace and greater meaning in life.

There is one word that pretty much characterized the spiritual discipline practiced by those ancient Christian monastics.  That one word (a Greek word): "prosoche." It literally translates as "pay attention." Sometimes this word is translated as "be mindful." Maybe an even better translation is, "Be engaged in the long and arduous process of always being focused, continually aware in the moment, no matter what comes along."

Prosoche: When you are alone praying or meditating, keep your focus. When you are working in the fields, keep your focus. When you are sharing meals with the community of your fellow monks or when you are welcoming guests, keep focused. When you feel strong and healthy, keep focused. When the heat of a desert day bakes you to the bone or when your body is burning up with fever, keep focused. When the morning sun is brilliant and the stars of night blind you with their blazing light, and when the skies turn black with clouds, thunder rolls, rain is pelting the earth and mud is sliding off the mountains, keep focused. 

As I sit and look out at the gloomy grey skies and the falling rain, I think about my desert spiritual ancestors, and I commit myself, like them, to engage in that continual process of "Prosoche"- paying attention to everything that comes my way.

In fact, I have a sure and certain belief that sometimes, the greatest beauty in life can be found in the deepest gloom. The brightest of light often swirls around in the most dismal clouds that inevitably come our way.  

The rain has formed puddles of water in my garden. The birds are gathering around those puddles and  sipping up some welcome refreshment in the dry desert heat. I also notice that the hibiscus flowers have opened up glistening with life as they are engulfed by pouring rain.  As I keep my focus on the gray gloomy skies, they don't seem so dismal after all. They are filled with mystery and wonder as they dance in the darkened skies and whisk across the desert valley. The sound of the falling rain is a symphony of harmony and the claps of thunder echoing across the canyons inspire me to awe and wonder. 

I am so glad I didn't close the blinds and go back to bed when I saw that it was gray and rainy outside; but instead, I keep my focus in the stormy weather. The beauty is astounding - HolyPresence always abiding everywhere in all things. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014


"Glowing Mountains"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday the mountain behind my house turned into gold. 

Every once in a while the setting sun will hit the Eastern mountains behind my house at just the right angle so that they will literally look like they are glowing - hills of gold. Whenever that happens (and actually it happens quite often), I find myself mesmerized by it all. I go out into my garden and gaze at the mountain behind my house, and something always happens in me. The glowing gold mountain becomes a magnet - drawing me out of my ego. The mountain turns into a doorway inviting me into the experience of transcendence - connecting me to an awesome power that is far greater than my own tiny, paltry individual self.

I've been thinking about my experience of the glowing gold mountain. It's no wonder to me that the Bible is full of stories about mountains that glow. 

In the Hebrew scriptures, Moses is in the desert and he climbs to the top of a mountain where he experiences the awesome power of Holy Divine Presence.  The story depicts "God" as a flaming desert bush. When Moses gets near the bush, he becomes engulfed in the light and his face glows in the brilliance. On top of the mountain Moses experiences "transcendence." 

The Gospels of the Christian Testament tell of a time when Jesus took some of his disciples out into the wilderness where they all climbed up to the top of a mountain and Jesus is "transfigured." He glows with the presence of divinity, and like Moses on the mountain, the disciples who are next to him become engulfed in the same brilliant light and they also glow in the brilliance.  On top of the mountain Jesus and his disciples enter into an experience of "transcendence."

When people read these "glowing mountain" stories they ether think that the stories are ridiculous fairy tales of magical events that never took place, or they think that the stories really did happen but they only happened to exceptionally holy people back long ago. All of which misses the point.

Glowing mountain stories are not meant to be history. They aren't documentaries. They are poetry- incredibly powerful metaphors that try to "get at" the inexplicable mystery of the experience of "transcendence: - the experience of being drawn out of the individual self and connected to a power that is greater than the ego. 

Glowing mountain stories are all about the experience of the "Holy" in real everyday life -  an experience that is accessible to each and every human being on the planet.

As I sit here this morning and think about that mountain behind my house that turns into gold every day, I realize that almost every day of my life I go up on a mountaintop and glow. Sometimes I climb up real high and glow intensely. Sometimes my climb is just a few feet and the light is just a spark. But nonetheless, almost everyday I climb a mountain and glow.

I sit in my garden in absolute silence in those moments just before the break of day dawns and watch a hummingbird and I glow in the presence of the holy. I walk a desert trail in springtime and take a picture of a budding flower growing wild in the sand and I'm on the mountaintop.  I walk out into the wilderness in the dark of night engulfed by the brilliance of a moon and an array of stars in the sky so bright that it seems like day, and I'm on the glowing mountain.  Guests visit our home or we go to dinner with friends, sharing our stories as we eat and laugh together and everyone is glowing.  I see the face of an innocent child at a store who smiles and waves to me, melting my heart, and the store is turned into a mountaintop and I glow in the light of Holy Presence.  

Every day, in some form or other, I am drawn out of my own ego and pulled up into an experience, a power that is greater than "me." I am pulled into "transcendence." 

The sun has come up over the mountains and has taken command over the desert sky. I sit here basking in its brilliance. 

I've been to the mountaintop.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Carpe Diem"

"Evening Shadows"

Yesterday afternoon, I was entering a local supermarket just as a family with two young boys were leaving for their car. At first I was quite taken back because the one child was a "spitting image" of my own eldest son back when he was a boy that age. So I did a "double take" as that family passed me by,  and obviously the little boy saw me looking at him because he smiled and gave me a little wave.

That smile and that little wave really got to me because my eldest son is now married and today he turns 33. 

When I saw that little boy passing me by at the supermarket doors, my mind was instantly flooded with memory and emotion. My son's life sort of flashed before me - the day he was born, school, college graduation, the day he was married. 

But more than anything else, I thought to myself, "How is it possible that time could have passed by so quickly?"  It seemed like only yesterday that our son was that little boy at a supermarket with his parents. Today he is 33 years old.

This morning I am reflecting on "time" - the passage of time, the use of time. 

In a very real sense, "time" is quite relative in terms of how slow or how fast it seems to pass. I can sit in the waiting room of a doctor's office and 15 minutes feels like an eternity. I can sit in a theater enjoying a great movie and two hours passes in an instant. 

I have also discovered that now, in my later years of life, I experience the passage of time in radically different ways than when I was younger.

As a boy I remember sitting in a classroom and thinking the hours of the day would never end. Then there was college, grad school, ordination, marriage, and career - It felt like we had all the time in the world to raise our family, get established, plan careers. 

Then one day it was as if someone turned on some sort of cosmic switch, and all of a sudden "time" started to pass by at "breakneck speed." Out here in the desert my wife and I often find ourselves saying to one anther, "can you believe a week has already gone by?" "Where did the time go?" 

So maybe that's one of the lessons of my later years- the older you get the more swiftly fly the years.

In my later years I have also come to another significant learning about "time."  There is no such thing as having "all the time in the world?  When I was younger, I lived with a feeling that I had plenty of time (maybe even an unlimited amount of time) to live my life. I now know, deep in my heart, that this swiftly passing time does indeed come to an end. We only have a limited amount of time and it runs out for all of us. 

In my reflections this morning I have little use for "nostalgia" -fondly remembering what life was like back when that now 33-year old man was a little boy. And there is no place in my life for "regret" or feelings of "what might  have been." I refuse to ask questions like, "Did I spend too much time on my career and not enough with my family?" -thoughts like that are useless. They are a waste of precious time. 

Instead, as I reflect on "time" this morning, an old Latin phrase comes to mind: 

Carpe Diem!
Seize the Day!

Every moment of every passing day is a gift to be enjoyed, relished and cherished - without regret of the past, without focus on the future. I "seize the day" as I enjoy the people I love and who love me. I "seize the day" as I bask in the glory of this desert morning. 

A little brightly colored yellow butterfly is flitting about in my garden.  I watch as it perches on the bright red bougainvilleas. It is so beautiful that I want to scoop it up and hold it in my hands -maybe put it in a scrapbook, pinned down as a memory of this moment. But if I did that, I would destroy the beauty, so I just sit back and relish it.

I would like to sit here and watch it all day long. But it quickly flies away. 

Carpe Diem!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Even Greater Than Love

-a flower opens in the heat of a desert day-

Yesterday I had a very difficult conversation with a good friend who was feeling pretty low because someone he trusted a great deal "threw him under the bus." The betrayal of trust was extremely disheartening and a source of intense pain for him. 

Yesterday's conversation got me to thinking about the nature of "trust" among us human beings.  I came across a quote from the 17th century Scottish poet, George McDonald:

To be trusted is an even greater compliment than to be loved

The more I think about it, I actually do believe that "trust" is much more powerful than "love." 

In a famous line from his play, "All's Well That Ends Well," Shakespeare writes: 

Love all, trust few, do wrong to no one

In my life I have loved a lot of people. I haven't always liked the people I have loved (I haven't always had positive or tender feelings for them); but whenever I have acted on their behalf, when I have done good for another, I have "loved" them. 

However, I think "The Bard" offers great insight into human nature when he advises to "love all" but  "trust few."

As I think about it, in my life there are only a few people I have actually, really and truly "trusted." Trust demands so much vulnerability.

When you really trust another human being, you open up your heart to them, believing that you can rely on them to uphold you, to be there for you come what may. When you make yourself vulnerable, you take a risk that you will not be crushed, that you will never be "thrown under the bus" if the person you trusted no longer has use for you. 

There have been many people who I could basically "count on" in my life's journey - people I deemed  unlikely to do me wrong. But there have been only a few people I dared to trust- unabashedly, wholeheartedly trust. 

When we can trust another, we find our deepest joy.  Conversely when trust is breached or betrayed, we feel our deepest pain. Trust is greater than love.

As I sit in my garden once again at the beginning of a new day, I look at a tender little flower that has become so vulnerable by opening up, wide-open to the heat and light of the dawning desert day. 

As I gaze at that one little, tender, and "oh-so-vulnerable" flower, I see such a powerful icon of what "trust" is really all about. 

I have often been asked if I believe in God, but I am always careful in my response because what I want to say is, "No I don't believe in God - I trust God." I don't hold onto church defined "beliefs," required doctrines and dogmas about who "God" is or what God is all about. 

Instead, I trust in the Higher Power, the transcendent universal Holy Presence abiding among all that "is" out here in the desert on the beginning of this new day. Like that flower in my garden, I surrender my heart to the transcendence. I make myself totally, unabashedly vulnerable, knowing that this Divine Presence will never abandon the creation nor ever crush this open-hearted soul.

I am utterly grateful for the people in my life in whom I have placed my trust- people who have never let me down.  I am excruciatingly thankful for the "God" in whom we live and move and have our being -in whom I have placed all my trust. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Under a Big Tent

-Festival in the Desert-

If I drive east, I can be in Arizona in less than two hours. So, it's been quite troubling to read about what's been going on in my neighboring state, whose legislature recently passed a bill sanctioning discrimination against Gay and Lesbian people on the basis of religious belief. 

It's bad enough that any legislature would authorize discrimination of any sort, but it is outrageous that they should cite "religious belief" as the excuse for encouraging people to exercise their prejudices. Furthermore, my guess is that in a State like Arizona for the most part, "Christianity" will likely be the  "religious belief" people will cite as a basis for their discrimination - and this makes it even more outrageous and all the more reprehensible. 

Purportedly, Christians are "followers of Jesus"- people who model their lives after the life and teaching of Jesus Christ- Jesus, the one who never, ever discriminated against anyone.

In the eyes of Jesus, no one was an outcast. The doors of his life were always wide open to everyone. He welcomed saints and sinners, the healthy and the sick, rich and poor, young and old, stranger and friend -  teaching his followers to set a "place of dignity" at the the table of life for every human being. 

But  now in a state only a few hours from me, "Christian" believers will be granted permission to "refuse service," encouraged to close the doors and keep people out, all on the basis of their supposed religious beliefs. This is so antithetical to the very core and mission of Jesus' teaching as to be mind-boggling to me.

Yesterday my wife and I attended a "Greek Festival" sponsored by a local Greek Orthodox church in one of the neighboring desert communities. The festival was held under an immense open air tent that had no entranceway- open on all sides.  

When I first laid eyes on the tent, I was immediately reminded of a story about a "big tent" found in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures.  

Abraham (the Patriarch of the 3 major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) was a nomad who lived in a tent in the middle of a desert. According to legend, Abraham always kept all four sides of his tent open so that he could see friends or strangers passing by and offer hospitality to them. One day three strangers passed by. He went out and welcomed them to sit under the tent and to feast at his table. It turns out that the strangers were actually angels in disguise- messengers from God. 

Yesterday when I saw the big tent without any sides, I thought to myself "this is an icon of the origin of all "religious belief" - a big wide open tent without sides under which every passer by is always welcome to come, sit and enjoy the feast.   

Yesterday,  people from all over the Coachella Valley came to that Greek festival.  There were hundreds of people sitting next to one another at long rows of tables. People sat next to friends and next to strangers  - all at a place of equal dignity under a big wide-open tent, feasting on incredibly delicious home-cooked Greek food, lots of laughter, plenty of music, even some dancing going on. 

As I looked around the tent, I noticed that a group of Asian people were sitting next to us. At the table behind us were a large group of Gay men who had come to enjoy the feast. At other tables under that big tent there were Latinos and African Americans. We were people of all shapes, all sizes, all ages, all colors, creeds, beliefs, sexual orientations- such a beautiful panoply of the glorious rainbow of life -and all this in the middle of a desert, and on the grounds of a church. 

We were in the desert sitting under "Abraham's tent," and everyone was at the feast. 

What a magnificent icon of what "religious belief"is really all about.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Polluting the Air

"Pristine Desert Skies"

Yesterday, I was horrified to read a recent remark made about the President of the United States. The rock guitarist, Ted Nugent called Mr. Obama "a subhuman mongrel." The comment was so vile that even Nugent's fellow right-wingers called him out for it, and ultimately a (sort of) apology was issued.

When I first read these repulsive words uttered against the president of this country, my reaction was visceral. These words literally produced a "sick feeling" some place deep inside me- like that time when I saw someone throw a trash bag from his car out onto the desert trail. Witnessing that act of intentional pollution literally made me feel "sick." 

This morning I've been reflecting on the effect words have on us. 

I actually believe that words have way more power than we may imagine. We think of words as symbols that need to be mentally decoded in order to have any effect to make sense. I actually think that all words (even those words we don't understand) have an energy to them - an energy that can carry a mighty punch.

A few years ago, I took great interest in a Japanese study about the "physical" effect of words. Photographs were taken of water molecules from a local lake that had been frozen into ice crystals. The same water was then blessed by a Zen Buddhist monk and also frozen into ice crystals. 

Amazingly enough the words of harmony and blessing spoken by the monk over that water literally and physically changed the water. 

Pictures of the crystals that were not blessed had a limp and collapsed structure with black holes and a yellowish edge. Pictures of the blessed water crystals exhibited pristine diamond-like characteristics - sparkling and gleaming. 

I was absolutely fascinated by this study. It reinforced what I have been thinking all along. The words we use are "energy." They have power to create and they have power to destroy.

I think of how many times I have heard people say things like, "Her harsh words really hit me hard. I felt like I was being punched in the gut." I think about words used by bullies, so powerful that they have pushed victims into committing suicide. Words have power to destroy. 

I also think about words that create and give new life- words of encouragement spoken in times of trouble or in the face of defeat that pack a powerful punch -energizing deflated spirits.

I can't tell you how many times I have spoken a few words of hope and comfort at a hospital bedside or at a graveside service; and regardless of what was actually said, just speaking those words had a visceral effect - a physical effect eliciting a new sense of hope and energy. Words have power to create. 

When I read those vile words calling the president a "subhuman mongrel," I felt as if the crisp, clean desert air where I live with its pristine blue skies had actually been polluted- not figuratively but literally polluted. And in fact, it had.    

As I sit here in my morning reflection, I am vividly reminded of the responsibility each of us has for the kind of words we use. Our words are very powerful. They can destroy, sicken, kill and pollute, or they can create life and elicit hope and give birth to beauty. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Blinded by Anticipation

"A Burst of Color"

Yesterday was one of those "picture perfect" desert days.  The moderate temperatures, no humidity and crystal clear sunlit skies made it impossible to do anything but go outside and enjoy the splendor of it all. 

In the afternoon hours, I decided to take my camera and "hit the wilderness trails," anticipating that the lengthening shadows and the bright sun would offer me opportunities for some fantastic pictures of the desert as it starts to blossom into spring. 

As I walked the trails, I was on a quest, looking for that perfect picture, the one everyone would see and say, "wow, what a beautiful shot." I kept looking but I was kind of disappointed -the shadows were not as pronounced as I thought they might be and the trail I was on was one that I walk almost every day - very familiar, nothing special, certainly not the stuff of the beautiful picture I was anticipating.

And then suddenly,  I "literally" ran into the branches of a little desert tree along the trail. It's branches hit me in the face and stopped me in my tracks. The branches were green and gold, sparkling in the sunlight as they stood in glorious contrast against the backdrop of brown-red stone of the mountains in the distance.

 A "moment of beauty" had literally reached out to me and struck me right between the eyes.

And in that instant, I had one of those "flashes of insight" that I get once in a while living out here. 

I keep talking about living in the present - being awake in the moment.  In fact I practice a discipline of mindful meditation on a daily basis as I sit silently in my garden with an uncluttered mind and open heart intentionally awake to the "now."

Yesterday when "beauty" reached out and "stopped me in my tracks," I suddenly realized that, apart from those 15 minutes of morning mindfulness, it's incredibly hard for me to live my everyday life in the moment. After all, throughout my entire life I was continually nourished on a steady diet of "anticipation." 

All my life I have been "getting ready" for something or other -getting ready to graduate, getting ready to be ordained, getting ready for a family, getting ready for career moves. 

The focus of my "everyday life" was that of anticipating what was yet to come.  As a priest, I would spend my days preparing for festivals like Christmas or Easter, and then anticipate upcoming vacations. Then there were those endless sessions of making long-range plans for church growth, and of course those weekly staff meetings to set the agenda for the week to come.

I would wake up every day and the first thoughts that came to mind were anticipatory of the day to come - the day's appointments, the upcoming schedule.

So, it's no surprise to me that I should now have such a hard time living my everyday life "in the moment."

My life in the desert affords me such a holy opportunity to live more mindfully. My life is now more calm and quiet. But, my task now is to learn how to tame that compulsion to always be gazing into the future, anticipating what may happen, and to learn instead how to be awake to what is happening in the present. 

Indeed it is always and only "in the moment" that the greatest beauty is revealed to any of us.

As I look out into the mountains this morning, I recall a simple yet utterly profound wisdom taught by my spiritual ancestors- those 4th century Desert Mother and Fathers. 

A young monk approached his teacher eagerly anticipating his future life as a monk. The young monk asked his teacher what he should do in order to become more spiritually awake. Should he pray more often, more regularly? Should he fast or perhaps work harder? The old "Abba" simply told his young charge:

Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything

I walked out onto the trail yesterday looking for that perfect picture, disappointed that it wasn't there.  I was blinded by anticipation.  However the universe taught me a lesson, and beauty reached out and stopped me in my tracks. 

If I sit in my cell, my cell will teach me everything. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reckless Love

"Untamed Beauty"
-along a wilderness trail-

From time to time I engage in conversations (usually online) with folks who had once been religious but now no longer identify with any sort of religious institution. I had such a conversation yesterday with a very nice man who told me that going to church made him feel "reduced and restricted." It made him feel "small" and he wanted to live a life that felt "big."

At one level I totally understood what this man was saying to me. Many (if not most) people think of the scriptures of their religion as a book of laws that govern everything people say, or do, or think. God is depicted as a sometimes-angry judge expecting compliance with the prescribed codes of conduct -  obedience reaps reward, disobedience gets you punished.

So I can easily understand how someone might abandon a religious institution because it provided little more than a "God" who is petty and vindictive. I can understand why someone would abandon a religion of laws that seem designed to force people into living submissive lives. I understand why my online friend might have felt "reduced, restricted and small" in his experience with a religious institution. 

Yesterday, after my online conversation with my formerly religious friend, I came upon one of the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Luke:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to anyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods do not ask for them again.

The Buddha teaches a very similar wisdom:

Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating but by love; this is an eternal truth. Overcome anger by love. Overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving.

I read these passages, and think to myself, "Wait a minute, these are crazy words!" 

We may imagine that scriptures teach us to love one another -  to be merciful and forgiving. But, after all, this love, mercy, and forgiveness have their limits - don't they?

Loving my friends and family?  - that's a good idea. Maybe caring for the sick and the poor? - yes, as long as they don't take too much away from my own time or resources. Embracing and welcoming a stranger or someone who is different? - well, ok, as long as they aren't too strange or too different.   Forgiving someone who has hurt me? Yes I can do that, as long as they apologize and repent (after all I am the injured party).

But forgive an enemy -no questions asked? Bless those who injure me?  If someone steals from me don't try to get it back and give them even more?  Overcome anger by love? That's crazy, reckless, even dangerous. 

And so it is.

While religions of various stripes may depict "God" to be small, petty and vindictive, and while religions may force people to submit to a life within carefully defined limits, I open and read from the Gospel of Luke or I read this teaching of the Buddha and I see anything but restriction and reduction. 

I hear these words and I encounter an untamed "God." I encounter a wild "Holy Presence,"- reckless love with absolutely no limits and restrictions.  And I am invited to live my own life in a way that reflects that kind of wild, crazy, and even dangerous "reckless love."  

 I hardly feel small, I feel immense. I am pulled out of my ego and scattered out into the cosmos. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Practice of Equanimity

"Buddha in the Garden"

At the store yesterday I heard a shopper say to the cashier, "I am so stressed out," and without batting an eye, the cashier responded, "Aren't we all?"

When I got home from the store yesterday, I put the word "stress" into a Google search - over one million responses were instantly returned. Imagine that, there are over a million online sites I can access to read about the causes of stress, the symptoms of stress, the ways to cope with stress. 

Interestingly enough, people today are not only anxious and stressed out in the places and at the times when you might expect stress to be manifested - before a big exam, when the work report is due, when a relationship is tearing apart, when finances are tight. But people today also find themselves in a state of anxiety even when they are on vacation, or when they are spending time with their families, or when they are at church. 

 As I think abut it, it seems as if stress and anxiety have infected the culture in epic proportions.

While the word "equanimity" is not used all that often in popular culture, it is a concept that is frequently found in the Buddhist literature. In fact "the practice of equanimity" lies at the heart of the teaching of the Buddha. 

In an age when stress has become such a dominant force, I believe we would all do well to learn something about the "practice of equanimity." I recently came across this definition:

Equanimity is the taming of excesses of thought and emotion

Buddhists often use the term "monkey mind" to describe anxiety, restlessness, being easily distracted.  Like a monkey who can't ever sit still, quickly and chaotically jumping from place to place without a pause, people who are restless or stressed out suffer from "monkey mind." 

A "monkey mind" is always filled up with constant ideas, strategies and plans about how to control everyday living. In a "monkey mind" emotions rage- anger, fear, doubt, despair, obsessive attachment to another - they pull a person from place to place chaotically and without a pause. 

Maybe "monkey mind" is a better way of describing that national epidemic of stress and anxiety that so inflicts our culture nowadays.

 The way to cope with "monkey mind" is to "practice equanimity" - to trade "monkey mind" for "mindfulness." 

When I sit in my garden for my daily period of mindful meditation, I am essentially practicing the discipline of equanimity. I clear my cluttered mind of all my ideas, all my plans, all my goals and aspirations. I open my heart to whatever comes my way, no matter how wonderful or how terrible it all may be, realizing that I can control none of it, only embrace it, because "it is what it is." 

In mindful awareness I am indeed "taming excesses of thought and emotion" - I am practicing equanimity. And, of course my "practice of equanimity" in my garden meditation is practice for the way I try to live life every day.

As I sit in the silence of yet another beautiful desert day, the thought comes to me that the wisdom of Jesus is much like the wisdom of the Buddha. Jesus also taught his disciples to practice equanimity:

So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 
But seek first the Presence of God.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.
Each day has enough trouble of its own.

With a clear mind and open heart I breathe it all in - what a glorious day. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


-At the Desert Retreat House-

Last evening I thought I would turn on my TV set to see if there might be something I'd like to watch.  We have satellite reception here - 700 channels catering to every imaginable entertainment desire and taste along with thousands of "On Demand" movies. In fact, there were so many choices that I didn't even feel like scrolling through all the possibilities - action, adventure, drama, comedy, cooking, game shows, sports, 24 hour news? I thought maybe I'd just read a book instead. 

As I sat in front of the TV last night, a very amusing memory came into my mind. I don't want to sound like I am "the old man from the mountain," but when I was a young child, TV was just making its debut. Our family purchased the very first TV set in our neighborhood. The thing was that, even after we had the set, the networks hadn't yet started broadcasting and so for several months the only available signal was a "test pattern." 

I can still vividly recall all our neighbors coming over to our house and all of us sitting around and watching that "test pattern," marveling at the CBS logo on our little black-and-white screen, anticipating the glories that were soon to come.

It seems to me that almost everything about today's world has become so cluttered, so complex and so complicated that is becomes more and more difficult to find joy in the simple things in life.  The problem is that the deepest peace is found in the deepest simplicity.

This morning as I sit out here in the desert garden, I think about my spiritual ancestors - the Fourth century Desert Mothers and Fathers who left behind all the trappings of church and society and moved out into the desert to be in community with one another. 

They lived the simplest of lives in the desert caves that served as their homes. They owned nothing.  They lived off the land, and yet they found such profound  joy in the simplicity of their common life living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, bound in love for one another, extending that love in radical hospitality toward all who would come their way.

I think also of those early followers of the Buddha - the rich and the famous who abandoned their palaces, gave away their wealth, dressed in rags, and begged for their daily bread. They lived a life of profound simplicity, and this simplicity was their gift. 

They had nothing to distract  them  - no desire to cling to things, no need to show how important any one was. Their simplicity allowed them to be single-minded, to simply be present, awake, mindful in the moment - ever present to the beauty manifested in all being. 

As I reflect on my own life, I think about just how complex and cluttered it had all become. Before moving out into the desert, we had accumulated so many things, that before we moved, we had to hire a truck to take away all the stuff that we didn't need. 

Over the years I had managed to orchestrate a very complex life- career goals, positions of authority,  a mind filled with ideas, systems, concepts, doctrine, lots of plans and and lots of carefully concocted strategies. 

In my move out here, I let most of it go. My life has become much more simple over this past year, and in the simplicity I am finding freedom. In the deepest simplicity we do indeed find the deepest peace.

The ancient Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, taught a very simple yet utterly profound wisdom for encountering the deep peace life has to offer:

Manifest plainness,
Embrace simplicity,
Reduce selfishness,
Have few desires

A stunning little hummingbird is at my garden feeder. His movements are so graceful - the sounds he makes are poetic. He moves from the feeder to the fountain, then swirls around my head as if he is dancing for me. I could sit and watch him all day long. 

I really don't need 700 TV stations and thousands of downloadable movies. 


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ordinary Living

-At the Desert Retreat House-

When I woke up this morning the very first thought to enter my mind was, "nothing special going on today - just an ordinary day." 

Over the past few days there has been all sorts of activity here in my desert community and in my own home.

Since it was a long-weekend, many tourists came to visit - all sorts of folks hiking along the wilderness trails. Then there was the "art festival" (also crowded with tourists),  and  the weekly "Farmer's Market" in the local town square. The President of the United States was also here in the desert these past few days for some official meetings and "golf" with friends. 

And on top of all that, my wife and I had the privilege of hosting a guest at our home over the past couple days - great conversations, activities and meals together, so filled with energy. 

But today, all that is past. It's all quieted down, and back to the everyday routine of ordinary living. There's nothing special going on today.  In fact, I have a feeling that lots of people may be feeling this way on an ordinary Tuesday morning after a "long weekend."  - back to work, school, shop, cook, eat, sleep - the "daily grind."  

When I went out into my garden for my regular morning mediation, I was suddenly struck with a moment of clarity and with a bold realization that, in a very real sense, there is no such thing as an "ordinary" day with nothing special going on.

Every day I sit in the exact same spot in my garden and do exactly the same thing-I sit in silence.  And every ordinary day is always filled with wonder and every moment is always somehow new and fresh and filled with surprises if I am awake and alert enough to embrace them. 

The pristine air today is scented with the hope of blossoming flowers. As the sun rises gloriously in the East, I look over the Western mountains and see the moon going down in the crystal clear blue morning sky. The hummingbirds swirl around me and the fountain gurgles.  In the distant background I can hear the sounds of gardeners trimming a tree and workmen renovating a nearby house. My neighbors are taking their trash cans to the road - and it all sounds like beautiful music to me. 

It is the symphony of everyday routine in ordinary life - and there is absolutely nothing ordinary about it at all.

As I sit here I recite a mantra- a wisdom teaching of the Buddha.

Meditate. Live purely.  Quiet the mind.
Do your work with mastery.

I take this wisdom to heart as I begin my everyday routine on this day where there is nothing special going on.  

I open my heart and I breathe it all in as I embrace the abundant potential and extraordinary possibilities of all that will be revealed to me on this ordinary, everyday Tuesday at the Desert Retreat House.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness

"In the Moment"

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"- according to the United States' Declaration of Independence, these are the three basic "unalienable rights" of every human being. 

This morning, I've been thinking abut these three "rights," and it seems to me that of all three, the one that is most abused and most misunderstood is the "right" of all human beings to pursue happiness.

After all, how do people (especially in this culture) go about finding happiness in life? And what does it really mean to be happy?

Lots of people think that happiness is achieved by amassing as many "creature comforts" as possible - a bank account full of cash, a closet full of designer clothes, a house full of fine furniture and a sports car in the garage will surely bring happiness. Some might say that this is the "American Dream."

And how do people go about "pursing happiness?" They work hard for it. This is also the "American Way" - if you work "endlessly hard," you will be able to achieve whatever you want in life, you can find happiness. 

I have nothing against "creature comforts," but I certainly don't think they bring us "happiness." I know plenty of very miserable people who live in mansions filled with stuff. 

I also know for certain that spending all your time and energy and "working really hard" to build up your "empire" in life will not bring you happiness at all. 

Yesterday I was sitting in a local coffee shop that I regularly frequent. The place was packed (lots of tourists in the desert at this time of year) - a folk singer was playing his guitar and providing some very mellow entertainment. But somehow the atmosphere in that room was not all that calm for me.

As I looked around, I noticed that many people were almost frantically pecking away at a smart phone or an iPad or a laptop- writing and answering emails, looking at work reports and writing memos, surfing the web.  I thought to myself I wonder if these folks are in "pursuit of happiness." 

I had this urge to stand up on a table and make a speech: "Hey folks, it's Sunday morning here. Most of you are on vacation, enjoy the people around you.  Listen to the music.  This desert is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The sun is shining, a gentle breeze is blowing and it's 78 degrees. So,  put away the laptops and enjoy the moment" (I didn't actually make this speech, but I wanted to). 

When I got home I turned on the local NPR station to listen to the "TED Talks Radio Hour," and I started grinning from ear to ear because the entire hour was devoted to "Finding Happiness." 

One particular talk seemed exceptionally relevant to me, especially in light of having just come back from the rather frenetic experience at the coffee shop. 

A Harvard scientist was reporting on his extensive research  into what makes people happy and what makes them unhappy. In essence he concluded that people are most "happy" when they focus their minds in the present.  People are happiest when they do one thing at a time and focus their full attention on being "in the moment."

When people let their minds wander, thinking about the past or expending their energy in plotting and strategizing and preparing for the future, or when they spend their time multi-tasking, they are the least happy. 

As I  listened to that TED talk yesterday, I couldn't help but think about that coffee house full of people on vacation anxiously pecking away at electronic devices oblivious of the people around them, ignoring the mellow sounds of a guitar and a soft desert breeze.

Every morning, I "practice" a discipline of mindfulness in my meditation garden - focusing my mind to be totally available to each unfolding moment.  I like the word "practice" because my morning "practice" of mindfulness in my desert garden is good "practice" for living my everyday life during the rest of the day. 

Every morning, as I sit silent in the moment, aware and attuned to whatever comes my way, I am in  "pursuit of happiness." 

In fact, as I think about it, my morning time of mindful awareness is probably the time of day when I really am most "happy." 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Soul Searching

"Red Sky in the Morning"
-Sunday at the Break of Day-

It's one of those magical moments in the desert as the day breaks on this Sunday morning. Everything is bathed in red and orange. The air is perfectly still. The silence profound.  It all seems so ethereal, so other-worldly.

As I sit in my meditation garden in the mystical light of the breaking day, I think about all those millions of people from all over the world who will be going to some church or other on this Sunday in order to pursue and connect with something beyond their own individual selves.  

I live in the desert of the Coachella Valley in Southern California. Taking the Interstate, you can travel from one end of the valley to the other in less than an hour.  Yet even in this relatively limited space there are "literally" hundreds of "Houses of Worship" of every imaginable kind and of every imaginable affiliation- churches, several synagogues, temples, a few mosques. 

There is also another interesting (and growing) phenomenon here in this valley.  Just as you can find "Houses of Worship" almost everywhere, you can also find a wide variety of "spirituality centers" that have no connection to or affiliation with any formal religious organization. 

There are  "Enlightenment Centers," "Zen Retreat Houses," and numerous "Yoga Meditation Centers" scattered throughout the valley. In addition to all the "centers," there are large numbers of "spirituality gatherings" held every week in private homes or school auditoriums -gatherings of people who meditate together, have conversations and fellowship in order to pursue and connect with something beyond their own individual selves- something "transcendent."

There is also a large "spiritual but not religious "Metaphysical Retreat Center" located up in the "Joshua Tree" region of the desert.  It has been here for many years- a large facility with several buildings all open to the public for meeting, assemblies, concerts and individual or group retreats, 

 I have been to the "Metaphysical Retreat Center" several times. It's a stunningly beautiful place, a place of great tranquility. There are little Buddha chapels located throughout the grounds. The bookstore sells all sorts of crystals, stones, yoga mats, books and "New Age" music to help people become more spiritually aware. But there are no "religious" items to be found anywhere in that bookstore - no Bibles, no crosses, no "religious" iconography of any kind whatsoever.  

A while back I conducted a religious retreat for a group of "Christian Men" at that retreat center, and I was told that in all the many years since the center has been opened, never once was it used by a Christian group. Upon inquiring as to the reason for this, the Center Director made an interesting comment, "I think we are probably all afraid of one another."  I think she's probably right.

Spiritual people are afraid of the religious types who go to a church on Sunday. They are afraid that the religious people will not honor or respect the value or validity of their non-religious spirituality, or given the chance, they will try to propagandize and convert them.  And in many ways they have a reason to be afraid of this.

I've gone to church on a Sunday morning for almost all my life- most of the time in an official leadership capacity as an ordained priest. There was a time in my life when I would have scoffed at crystals, stones, mantras and yoga mats - all that "New Age" spirituality that has no substance to it. There is indeed a certain arrogance among religious people who believe that they have some sort of inside track to the divine.

I have also discovered that many of the non-traditional "spiritual but not religious" folks unfairly judge religious church-goers.  They maintain that going to church and saying prayers and singing hymns and listening to sermons on a Sunday morning is little more than external ritual aimed at appeasing a superman God up in the sky. So, If you are "religious" you aren't really on a true spiritual path. 

As I sit here on this mystical Sunday morning, here in a desert dotted with a myriad of traditional religious institutions alongside the many non-religious "spiritually centers," I think that now may be  time for us all to be less judgmental and less afraid of one another. 

There is something in the human condition that calls us, every one of us, into "soul-searching."

Believers, nonbelievers, religious people, non-religious people - all human beings are seekers of transcendence.  Some place deep inside of us all is that desire to pursue and connect with that which is beyond our individual selves. 

So I sit here on this mystical, magical, ethereal, other-worldly moment in my mediation garden, and I honor all the many soul-searching paths people all around me will walk this day as they pursue transcendence in their lives.

I pray that we might all learn from one another and help each along on our way through the wilderness. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Discipline of Serenity

-At the Desert Retreat House-

I was going through one of my desk drawers yesterday when I came across a little plaque on which was printed the well-known "serenity prayer."

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I found it interesting that I stuck this prayer at the bottom of a desk drawer instead of putting it on my desk or hanging it on my wall.  I think I did this because I never actually liked that prayer. It also struck me that I probably didn't like it because I never really understood it.

Whenever I conjured up the idea of "serenity" I would get this mental image of some guy with his feet on his desk, "whistling a happy tune" as the world was falling apart and crumbling down all around him. I would imagine that "accepting the things you cannot change" implied that "misery is inevitable," since there isn't much you can do about it, just grit your teeth, accept it -"Don't worry, be happy."  

I have since come to understand that "serenity" has nothing to do with accepting the inevitable miseries of life. I have also come to realize that "serenity" is far more than a "peaceful easy feeling" like the kind you might get on a quiet evening as the sun goes down and the first stars appear. 

In fact, "serenity" is not a feeling at all - it is a spiritual discipline.

Actually I think I came to understand this "serenity prayer" when I began to learn some of the  Buddhist wisdom teaching. 

The Buddha taught:

When we free ourselves from desire,
we will know serenity and freedom.

I think another word for "desire" is "control."

People fool themselves into thinking that they can control the outcomes of what happens in their lives. But for the most part, none of us has little, if any, "control" over outcomes in everyday living - good things happen, bad things happen.  Or, as my Buddhist friends tell me: "it is what it is." 

I practice the "discipline of serenity" when I am able to be mindfully present, awake and aware to the revelations of every unfolding present moment. 

As I sit once again in my garden this morning, an idea came to me that perhaps another way of "getting at: the meaning of serenity is to think about "being grounded."  In fact, I very much like that image of "being grounded." I imagine the chaos and the energy of the flow of an electrical current. When I go to plug in a lamp, I don't get electrocuted because the outlet is grounded. 

So it is with the practice of serenity. The world is a flow of chaos, but when I am "grounded" in the present moment, unafraid, embracing come what may without a desire to control anything, then I am not destroyed by it, but I am energized by it. 

Yes, there are plenty of things in my life that I can change. 

I can change the way I eat or drink or how often I exercise.  I can change the way I care for the environment.  I can change the way I treat other people.

 I can change a lot, but I can "control" nothing. 

And when I understand this, I know "serenity and freedom."

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tender Hearts

"Spring is in the Air"
-cacti blooming in my garden-

Yesterday as I sat in the "waiting room" at my doctor's office, I looked up at the elderly couple sitting across from me.  They both appeared to be quite frail. Their faces were lined with age -  probably in their 80's or early 90's.  The man needed the assistance of a "walker" to get around.  However, the thing I most noticed about that couple wasn't their frailty or their age. What caught my attention was that as they sat together, they were holding hands. 

I couldn't help but stare and smile witnessing that scene of such gentle affection.  The woman saw me looking at them, and she returned my smile saying, "we've been married for 64 years and can you believe it, we still hold hands."  At that, we all had a good chuckle, and then their names were called to  see the doctor. 

As they got up from their seats, they were a little wobbly, but hand-in-hand, they helped each other through the doors. Suddenly my eyes filled up with tears at the privilege of having been allowed to witness such an exquisitely beautiful scene of tender affection - and all this just before Valentine's Day.

I'm often a bit cynical and rather jaundiced when it comes to celebrating Valentine's Day - all the chocolate hearts, cards and flowers and candle-lit dinners are sometimes a bit too commercialized for my tastes.   

But yesterday that frail elderly couple "holding hands" in a waiting room softened up my stoney heart, making me think that maybe, from time to time we all need a Valentine's Day to help remind us of the importance of tenderness and affection as we make our journey through the wilderness of life.

As I sit in my garden on this Valentine's Day, I think about that word, "tenderness." It's not a word I hear a lot anymore. Maybe it sounds too "soft" in a culture that prides itself on being hard, and strong, rugged and individualistic. 

But the truth is that when we get inside the defensive walls we all put up as protection against the "slings and arrows" of everyday life, and when we scrape away the outer crustiness of hard and stoney hearts, there is a tender heart in each one of us. 

We are all gentle spirits who can only "make it"  through the wilderness of life by holding hands together -  helping one another to "get through the doors." 

As I sit in my garden on this Valentine's Day, I look at a pot filled with desert cacti. It's springtime here - perhaps the most beautiful season of all out here in the wilderness with the crystal clear, pristine skies, gentle breezes and moderate temperatures. 

Everything is starting to go into bloom - bushes on the desert floor are turning green. Everywhere you look, wildflowers are springing up and the trees along the wilderness trails are just beginning to bud. 

And, oh yes, the cacti are beginning to bloom - my favorites in the desert Springtime.  

Cacti are harsh, prickly, spiky and pretty ugly on the surface. If you touch them you can receive a painful sting and sometimes even be poisoned.  But beneath the surface, the cacti are the most beautiful of all. In the Springtime, tenderly beautiful flowers blossom out of that hard prickly exterior.  In the Springtime, the cacti show you who they really are. 

As I sit in my garden on this Valentine's Day, I bask in the beauty of the budding cacti. I want to be like them. A man with a tender heart willing to let it  bloom.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

No Windows, No Walls

"I am the Flower"
-in my meditation garden-

Yesterday in my photography class I showed my fellow students a small little picture I took of one single hibiscus flower in my meditation garden.

My instructor went wild over it. He loved the photograph. The picture elicited all sorts of protracted responses from my fellow students. And, for me, that one simple photograph afforded an opportunity for me to spend some time reflecting on just exactly what it was about that picture that elected those responses among us. 

I am a "Westerner." I have grown up in and have been fashioned by an American-Western culture that is essentially quite mechanistic and dualistic: "Body-soul," "mind-matter," "subject-object" - all discrete parts that work together in accordance with programmed specifications.

The basic assumption of the culture in which I was formed is that "I" exist as a separate individual with a mind inside my body, and that there is a real objective world apart from me. My mind is something like a window that opens out to that objective world existing out there.  I can study that world, manipulate and control that world,  talk about it, even take pictures of it. 

The very way in which my "Western" language is structured feeds into this mechanistic and dualistic worldview. As a boy, I clearly remember "diagramming"  sentences in English class -  looking for the "subject, the "verb" and the "object,"  individual subjects acting upon a world of objects. So it is that  "I take a picture of a flower." 

Over the years I have come to seriously question the commonly accepted dualistic worldview into which I was born.  I have come to adopt a much more "Buddhist, "  Eastern philosophy that doesn't see a world of individualized subjects apart from and acting upon discrete objects out there.

As I see it,  all being "is" a dynamic complex flow of relationship.  Photographer and flower are not separate entities. My mind is not a window looking at a flower out there, whose picture I take.   Photographer and flower are "beings-in-relationship," always unfolding into something new as the universe flows on in inexplicable mystery.  

Chuang Tzu, sometimes referred to as the "Father of Taoism" once said:

The Universe and I came into being together, and I and everything therein, are One.

There is also this story about a dream Chuang Tzu once had:

One night, Chuang Tzu dreamed of being a butterfly - a happy butterfly, unaware of being Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he awoke, drowsily, Chuang Tzu again.  And he could not tell whether it was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu.

As I sit in my garden this morning, I  think about my experience in my photography class yesterday - all of us sitting around amazed at the beauty of a little picture of a single flower.

I realize that yesterday, we were't separate persons with mind-windows looking out at a picture of a real-world flower. As we sat before that photograph, we had entered into a "relationship" with it. We were all "participating"  in it,  and that participation wasn't simple or little at all - it was grand and wonderful, beautiful, complex and mysterious.

I am gazing again at that photograph this morning.  I look at that flower and realize that we are dancing together.

I look at the flower, and indeed,  I am unsure if I am the flower or the flower is me.

I think of something Rumi (the great Sufi mystic poet) once wrote:

They say there is a window from one heart to another,
but how can there be a window where no wall remains?

It's amazing what you can learn from one simple picture of one simple flower. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

An Empty Cup

"Open to the Possible"
-dawning of a new desert day-

Yesterday I wrote a post about practicing a "discipline of emptiness" - freeing my mind of my own ideas, answers and predispositions so as to allow myself to be filled up by greater power beyond my "self." 

After I posted my article yesterday, I almost immediately had an online response to what I had said,  and the dialogue that ensued demonstrated to me that I have much work to do on practicing a "discipline of emptiness." 

When I first read the response to my post yesterday, it appeared to me that the responder hadn't really read what I had to say (at least not carefully enough).  His comments made no sense to me and I told him so, to which he angrily shot back that he had read my thoughts very carefully, and it was me who wasn't understanding what it was that he was saying.

Anyhow, it went back and forth like this for about 20 minutes or so until I was suddenly struck by the reality that neither of us was paying all that much attention to what the other person was saying- we were both so filled up with our own ideas that we made little or no room for the ideas of someone else. 

It all concluded very amiably, both of us agreeing that we had something to learn from one another and both of us feeling somewhat amused and entertained that we could be so closed-minded with one another in a discussion about how to be emptied of "self" in order to be filled with "other." 

After my online conversation yesterday, I immediately looked up one of my favorite Zen stories, vowing to tell it once again in today's post as a reminder of the hard work necessary in being empty enough to be filled up.

A Zen Master lived on a high mountain in a little hut. One day a well-respected and highly educated professor made an arduous journey up the mountain in order to visit the master, hoping that the wise master might teach him something of the meaning of life.

Having arrived at his destination the professor called to the master who opened the doors to his hut and graciously welcomed him in. 

They sat together and the professor proclaimed, "I have made an arduous journey to get here and I am seeking your wisdom about the meaning of life." 

The old master then paused and said "Come let us have some tea together."

As the old man prepared the tea,  the accomplished professor bragged about all the books he had read, and all the lectures he had given about the meaning of life.  The professor went on to boast about his extensive education as he listed all the advanced degrees he had achieved.

As the professor rambled on, the wise old master simply placed a cup in the professor's hand and began to pour the tea,  but the professor was so busy talking about himself and expostulating about all he knew that he didn't even notice that, even after his cup had been filled with tea, the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the side of the cup and onto the floor.

"What are you doing?" cried the professor as the tea burned his hands, "Can't you see that the cup is full?" 

"Just so" said the wise old master. "You have come from a long distance seeking something from me, but there is nothing I can give you because your cup is already full. Go and empty your cup, then come back to me and we shall talk."

I needed to tell myself this story once again as I begin this new day filled with endless possibilities.  I will never be able to be filled up with those possibilities unless the cup of my life is empty.