Monday, August 31, 2015

Killing Time

"A Day in the Desert"
- abundant riches -

Every time another Monday “rolls around” I reflect on how often I hear people complain about the beginning of a new work-week, lamenting over how boring their mundane life is. They have boring jobs or go to boring classes, or their ordinary tasks around the house like shopping or cleaning are so incredibly boring or, now that they are retired, they are just so bored that they don’t know what to do with themselves.  

For the most part, when people get bored they often find themselves “killing time” as they wait for something better or more exciting to do.  Bored at work, or bored at home or school sometimes people “kill time” by watching TV or playing computer games, texting a friend, maybe aimlessly browsing the web.

I think that the phrase “killing time” is perhaps some of the saddest words I ever hear. The time we “kill” is such a precious gift, such abundant riches to be aimlessly “frittered away.”

We don’t often hear that phrase, “frittering away” nowadays, but I think it so aptly expresses how so many of us spend time in an ordinary day.  Another word for “frittering” is “squandering,” we fritter something away when we use it wastefully.

A young student of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once came to his mentor to seek advice about how to rise above the dullness of his everyday boring existence.  Rilke advised his student that every single human being is, in fact, a poet. Each and every one of us has the power and the potential to be a “creator” of new life in the most ordinary circumstances of everyday life:

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself.
Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.
You are a creator and to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.

Rilke’s advice to this young man conjures up images for me of the Biblical creation poem found in the Book of Genesis: In the beginning, the “Spirit of God” hovers over the “abyss” from which the Creator calls forth life.  God calls forth light from the darkness and out of the swirling chaos God calls forth oceans and rivers, rocks and trees, plants and animals and human beings.  Creation is an act of “calling forth.” 

Poets are “creators” who call forth the beauty and the richness inherently swirling in the chaos of existence - and we are all poets, we are all creators who are able to call forth the riches of the moment rather than frittering away and killing the time given to us.

I am reminded of something Zen master and Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh once said about the joy, energy and new life he “calls forth” out of the most ordinary everyday tasks of routine life that, on the surface, might be considered to be very boring indeed. He talks about being “mindful” in the simple task of washing the dishes:

I clean this teapot with the kind of attention that I would have
were I giving the Baby Buddha or the Baby Jesus a bath.

If I find myself getting “kinda bored” today, I will not blame life I will blame myself for not being enough of a poet to  “call forth the riches” of the moment.

Today I will try to pay closer attention to my mundane, ordinary life and instead of killing time, I will create new life out of the time given to me.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

LISTEN: Trying Too Hard

Just what is it we have to do in order to make God happen ? Dr. Paul asks this question from an episode from season one of Desert Wisdom.

"Desert Wisdom" Season One, is now available on iTunesStitcher and at

Like us on Facebook, Follow Paul on Twitter

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Blaming Others

- in my meditation garden -

The U.S. presidential elections are more than a year away and yet full-blown campaign rhetoric already permeates the media almost every single day. In fact, I have come to the point where I can barely pick up a paper, turn on the news, or click onto Facebook without feeling that I cannot possibly listen to one more speech or view one more post about whose fault it is that the country is in such “deep trouble,” as Republicans blame Democrats for an immigration crisis or weakness in the economy and Democrats say, “No, it’s your fault.”  

Yesterday, as I heard the tail-end of some speech about whose fault it was 10 years ago when New Orleans was so devastated during Hurricane Katrina, it struck me that, besides being unproductive, playing the “blame game” is actually a deeply destructive spiritual impediment, a roadblock on any path to deeper wisdom and greater truth.

It’s interesting to me that, across a wide spectrum, the wisdom teachers of the great religious traditions have all warned against the “slippery slope” of searching out and judging the faults of others while failing to see the faults in one’s own self.

Jesus taught:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye,
but do not notice the log in your own eye?
Or how can you say to your neighbor,
‘Friend let me take the speck out of your eye,’
when you do not see the log in your own eye?
You hypocrite,
first take the log out of your own eye,
and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

The Buddha taught a similar wisdom:

The faults of others are easier to see than your own faults;
the faults of others are easily seen, for they are like chaff,
but one’s own faults are hard to see.

And in the Holy Quran, the Prophet Mohammed likewise teaches:  

Glad tidings to the person more concerned about his own faults
than bothering about the faults of others.

In some sense it is always much easier and far more comfortable to see the faults of others, heaping blame on them for the difficulties of life: “We are ‘going to hell in a hand basket’ because of what he did when he was president;” “I can never get anything accomplished at work because my colleagues are so incompetent;” “We wouldn’t have a problem in this relationship if my spouse (or girlfriend or boyfriend) was willing to spend more time with me.”

And yet, as I think about my own experiences I am well aware that, whenever I have resorted to playing the “blame game” in my life, I almost inevitably have done so from the vantage point of my own ego. In fact almost every single time I have found a fault in another person that fault is almost always something about myself that I don’t like but I am afraid or unwilling to admit or take responsibility for.

When I judge others for their faults I am usually speaking with the voice of my own self- centered ego. It somehow makes “me” feel better if I can look at and judge the faults of someone else without having to look at my own life, somehow doing this seems to protect “me” from my failures; and yet it is only when I am vulnerable enough to look into the eyes of my own imperfections that the ego starts to break apart.

You can never walk the way of wisdom with an isolated ego, protected and in tact -  that’s why all the great teachers warn against judging the faults of others without looking at yourself.

 Since I will no doubt be forced to endure at least another year of the inevitable “blame game” rhetoric of presidential politics, I think I may use this as an opportunity for practicing a spiritual discipline on my part. When I hear people talking about the speck in the eyes of others, I will take the time to see if I can discover the log in my own eye.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Discipline of Failure

"Imperfectly Beautiful" 
- along a wilderness trail -

A recent article in the newspaper offered this very interesting and insightful piece of advice to parents across the country who are signing their kids up for "back-to school" programs and activities at this time of year:

Whether your kid loves Little League football or soccer, gymnastic or swimming,
always ask the program organizers this one question:
'Which kids get awards?'
If the answer is, 'everybody gets a trophy,'
find another program.

At first this may seem like an odd piece of advice, especially in an age where building a child's self-esteem" is so highly prized; and of course no child should ever be made to feel if he or she is discounted and has no value. On the other hand,  when everybody gets a trophy, nobody ever experiences failure and so when these kids do inevitably run into difficulty in life, they are unable to handle it.

The fact is that in real life we all need to fail in order to thrive. Learning how to negotiate your way through life is like learning how to ride a bike - you never find your balance unless you have fallen off it.

I am very fond of the wisdom contained in this one line from priest and author, Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward:

You learn how to recover from falling by falling.

This is never more true than when it is applied to the spiritual journey.

Like many if not most people I was always taught that the spiritual path is a "journey of perfection." God was often portrayed as the super-parent, the demanding "Father" who constantly expected right behavior and right thought in all I said and did. The rules were clear, there were commandants, laws and obligations, and I was expected to be an obedient son and do what I was told to do. When I made mistakes, disobeyed the rules and "fell into sin," I was a failure and a disappointment. 

Interestingly enough many people still continue to hold this attitude today, clinging to the belief that you need to be perfect to walk a spiritual path. This is why many religious people feel that they are "hypocrites" by professing to be religious or spiritual. They are well aware of their own flaws and acquainted with their demons and yet they place themselves in religious circles where "supposedly" only the angels dwell. 

As a matter of fact I know plenty of people who keep away from religion or avoid a spiritual path because they don't think they can "make the cut." They have too many sins, too many secret failures and hidden warts in their lives to dwell among the company of the "righteous" ones. 

But of course this idea of "spiritual perfection" is a myth - no human being is or is even capable of always being "perfect." Human beings are an interesting mix of shadows and light, beauty and beast. We sometimes are guided by our better angles, sometimes our darker sides- our angels and our demons always dwell side by side as we make our way on the path of life.

This makes me think of another line of Richard Rohr's bits of wisdom:

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong then by doing right.

The older I get, the more wisdom I find in this observation. 

When I recognize my failures when I see myself as being angry or judgmental, sometimes lazy or apathetic, and when I can embrace that part of me, I come to a knowledge that I am not a "cast-away" because of my faults - the all-embracing power of LOVE ("God") enfolds every part of me, the beauty as well as the beast. 

I also realize that when I sometimes fall off the spiritual bike, when I am selfish or cruel or perhaps too busy to feed my spiritual side with prayer or contemplation, I miss being on the bike. I can't learn to ride that bike unless I fall off it from time to time. I learn how to recover from falling by falling.

As I think about it, a healthy spiritual life necessarily embraces a discipline of failure. In fact, every human being needs to fail from time to time - maybe we give out too many trophies.  

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Losing Your Life Before You Die

"A Moment" 
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday morning, just after the sun had come up over a sleepy little lakeside village outside Roanoke Virginia, a local news reporter was conducting a very mundane and lighthearted TV interview about late-summer tourism. Everything was going exactly according to plan and then “in a flash” everything changed. A crazed gunman came out of the shadows, shooting down the young reporter and her camera person, killing both of them instantly.

Throughout the day yesterday the media was “reeling” over that brutal attack and the unexpected death of two vital, beautiful young people so full of potential  - their lives and their careers suddenly ending before they even had a chance to begin.

Some have said that the death of those two young people was a perfect example of how unfair life is, they had so much life yet to live, so much to give and they were “cut down in their prime - some even blamed God for letting this happen. 

As I see it, the incident yesterday had nothing to do with fairness or unfairness, it simply is a reminder to us all about the nature of what life “is.” There is no past and a future never comes for any of us, all any of us ever has is “now.” Yesterday provided me with yet another “wake up call” about the importance of embracing the moment on my path of life. 

Eckhart Tolle puts it this way:

There never was a time when your life was not now and there never will be.
Nothing ever happened in the past, it happened in the now.
Nothing will ever happen in the future, it will happen in the now.

The wisdom of this seems so obvious and yet it is a lesson that very few people seem to be able to embrace in today’s culture of “great expectation” as we bask in the remembrance of past accomplishment and strategize for success in a future that will never come.

There is a wisdom saying attributed to the Buddha:

You only lose what you cling to

I actually know plenty of people who have already lost their lives and they aren’t even dead yet, for most of my life I was one of these people.  I was always preparing for that next big move in life- the next step up the career ladder, the better job and the bigger house, so much energy living in a future that would never happen.

I also know people who are well into their seventies who spend most of their days clinging to remembrances of the success of the “good old days” or living in a memory of regrets over the failures of the “bad old days." And sometimes these same "older" people spend much of their later years preparing for a future legacy to be left behind, squirreling away their money or worrying about what people will think about them when they’re gone – “what will they inscribe on my tombstone?”

And amidst all these past remembrances and future machinations so many people lose their lives. Their life gets frittered away because they have missed the “moment,” and  life only happens in the moment.

Yes indeed I know plenty of people who have lost their lives who aren’t even dead yet – I just don’t want to be one of them

I came across something Anne Lamont said in an often-quoted commencement speech she once gave to young graduates in the prime of their lives as they were preparing to embark on their careers.  In light of what happened to those beautiful young people who yesterday tragically and suddenly “lost their lives,” these words take on a renewed sense of wisdom for me:

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day and you are 65 or 75
and you never got your memoir or novel written,
or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years
because your thighs were too jiggly;
or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people pleasing
that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?

It’s going to break your heart, don’t let that happen to you!

As I sit in my garden and watch yet another breathtaking desert sunrise, I am keenly aware of this moment.  Life is happening “now,” so I open my arms and embrace what comes to me, doing my best not to cling to anything so that I don’t lose my life before I die.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

For Whom the Bells Tolls

"A Field Beyond"
- desert wilderness -

I have come to the point where I pretty much “tune out” the hate-filled, spiteful, and malicious rhetoric Donald Trump seems to dish out on a daily basis nowadays. The only thing about it that still continues to trouble me is the fact that so many people are apparently “buying into” and even supporting what he has to say.

In a news conference yesterday Trump kicked out a prominent and respected Latino reporter, telling the man to “go back to Univision,” which was a euphemistic way of telling the man to “go back to Mexico.” In a very real sense this has become the core message embraced by a rather significant portion of the populations of this country: “Immigrants, foreigners, people who don’t look like or think like the people in my own little patch of the world don’t belong here - go back to where you came from!” 

As I watched that disgusting display of exclusion played out at the news conference yesterday, I looked out my front door and it struck me that, while I happen to be an American citizen living in California, the place where I live was actually Mexico just a few generations ago before becoming part of the “good old U.S.A.” 

In the 19th century some “wheeling and dealing” went on, and with the stroke of a pen the land in which I am standing was suddenly no longer Mexico--it was now America.

This reminds me of all the borders of those supposedly well-established countries in the Middle East that we hear so much abut today. Before the First World War, the whole region was the “Ottoman Empire,” a vast borderless territory populated by bands of tribal people. After a war was fought, deals were made, treaties were signed, and new borders were established, carving up the area into artificially constructed countries, given names like Syria, Iraq, Iran.

In a very real sense all borders are artificial and all nations are little more than “human constructs.”

Today I have been thinking about John Donne’s classic 17 century English Poem:

No man is an island entire of itself.
 Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

We all live on a very small and ever shrinking planet and we “are” a web of interconnection. We all belong to one another, and there are no strangers from foreign lands. What happens to any one of us happens to us all.

When I saw Donald Trump and his supporters eject that reporter at the news conference yesterday, telling the man to “go back to Mexico,” I had a visceral feeling that I was the one being thrown out of that room, I was the one being told that I didn’t belong and that I should go back to where I came from. In fact I am that reporter who was thrown out of that room, so are you and so are we all. Ask not for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for thee.

This morning I looked out into the wide open “wilderness field” just across from where I live and I thought about another line of poetry once written by the great Sufi mystic, Rumi.

Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

I pray that we may all be able to meet one another out on that field beyond ideas, words and artificial borders - that place where a phrase like “each other” just doesn’t make any sense.