Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mindfulness at a Stop Light

A repost from July 2014.

"Present Moment Wonderful Moment"
-my meditation garden-

There is a little coffee table in my office on which I keep a Buddhist-style "gong"- a "bell of mindfulness," to be struck with a mallet as a signal for beginning a period of quiet meditation. The sound of the bell resonates throughout the room calling me to clear my mind and pay attention to the present moment.

The other day I was reminded of the fact that a period of daily meditation is certainly a great way to begin the day, but the morning meditation is also a "practice" for living mindfully throughout the rest of the day in the ordinary routine of daily life.

While I am getting better at embracing the moment and living in the "now" in many aspects of my everyday life, the one area where I fail miserably is when I get into a car. I am a very impatient driver and my impatience is particularly manifested when I have to stop at a red light and wait for it to turn green.

For some reason or other there seems to be an awful lot of stop lights on the streets of the various residential communities out here where I live. I never remember there being this many "red lights" in any of the other places where I have lived (not even in a city as big as Los Angeles). Out here in the desert communities you can barely go a few blocks without having to stop and wait as a light turns red.

The other day as I waited at a stop light for what seemed to be an unbearably long period of time, I found myself muttering under my breath, squirming and complaining, itching to "lay on the gas," when I suddenly realized how far away my stressful impatience was taking me from living mindfully in the moment.

As I reflected on my "stop light" impatience, I was immediately reminded of something I had read a few years ago in the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Present Moment Wonderful Moment. Master Hanh talks about learning how to "embrace the moment" while driving a car - specifically suggesting that a "red light"can be as much of a bell of mindfulness as a meditation gong:

When we see a red light or a stop sign we can smile at it and thank it because it is helping us return to the present moment. The red light is a bell of mindfulness. We may have thought of it as an enemy preventing us from achieving our goal. But now we know the red light is a friend helping us to resist rushing and calling us to return to the present moment where we can meet life with joy and peace.

The other day, as I re-read this teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh, I felt as if he were speaking to me directly. So I decided I would embrace a new discipline and turn those many dreaded stop lights in my community into helpful "bells of mindfulness."

As the light turns red, I stop and wait, aware of my breath, and instead of grumbling I utter some phrases I have memorized, also suggested by Master Hanh

In - Out - Deep - Slow;
Calm - Ease - Smile - Release;
Present Moment - Wonderful Moment

Waiting at a stop light is not all that different from sitting in my meditation garden in the morning.

Lots of people tell me that they don't have time to quietly meditate or pray every day but almost everyone has to stop and wait at red lights.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Taking a Vacation

"A Way in the Wilderness"

For almost three years now I have published an almost-daily article on this blog, often offering advice about the importance of regular and intentional “Sabbath time” on a spiritual journey - resting and pausing is equally important to actively exploring a way of wisdom on any spiritual path. So, over the next few weeks I am go take a “page out of my own book,” and listen to my own advice.

Beginning tomorrow, my wife and I will be traveling out into a very different kind of wilderness from that of the desert where we live as we make our way up into Alaska on a cruise and land tour. We have never before been there so it should be quite an adventure.

I want to let all my “faithful” blog readers know that I will not be writing a daily article during my Alaska adventure. When possible I may try to write an occasional post but I am not exactly sure what the internet connection will be where we are traveling, and beside that, I want this to be a time for resting and pausing on my own journey.

I have asked my friend Justin, who is also my social media advisor, to occasionally publish some of my past articles from previous years. Since summertime is a season for reruns, I thought this would be appropriate.  I hope you will all look for what Justin chooses to publish over the next few weeks.

I am very grateful for all my faithful readers over these past years and months and I look forward to continuing the journey with you when I return in early August as we make our way together through the beautiful wilderness of life.

I am reminded of something Wendell Berry once said:

Sabbath observance invites us to stop.
It invites us to rest.
It invites us to delight in beauty and abundance.
Sabbath observance asks us to notice that while we rest,
the world continues without our help.

It’s off to Alaska!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Flags at Half Staff

"Long Winding Road"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday as I drove past the “City Hall” of our local desert community I realized that the flags out in front of the building were flying at half staff and I was struck with the realization that they had been flying that way for a long time now – maybe months.  In fact, I was ashamed to admit that I wasn’t quite sure who those half-staff flags were remembering? Was it the police killed in Baton Rouge or maybe Dallas or was it the victims of terrorism in Nice France? Those flags had become an all too-familiar sight and I had become so used to them that they hardly even raise my consciousness anymore when I see them.

As I drove past those familiar flags of mourning, I called to mind the story of the “exodus” found in the Hebrew Bible, the well-known story about the Jewish People who had been freed from slavery in the land of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land; but before they could reach this new land they had to travel through an endless and uncharted desert wilderness, a journey that lasted forty years.  This journey was not easy, the terrain was dry and rocky, the sun was hot, there were no clearly marked roads and the only way they could possibly reach their destination was to trust God for guidance and to take good care of one another along the way.

While people nowadays may be acquainted with this rather well-known story, there is one very important part of this tale that is often overlooked.

According to the exodus account, there were a whole bunch of the freed Hebrew slaves who decided that the journey in the wilderness was just too much of an adventure, the travel was too rough, the way ahead was too ambiguous, there were way too many questions and not enough answers and so many decided to pack up their families and go back to the servitude of slavery in Egypt.

Oddly enough they decided to return to their place of suffering, they went back and allowed the humiliating yoke of slavery to once again be placed upon them because at least they knew where their next meal was coming from and this was familiar territory.

Like all stories in the scriptures, the tale of freed slaves returning to “familiar suffering” may well be a story about our common human condition, a story about how we may prefer to cling to our suffering rather than walk a path of freedom.

This reminds me of something the Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote:

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.

I thought about all this yesterday when I drove past those half-staff flags that have become such a familiar sight, so commonplace over the past months. Flags at half-staff remind me every day of racial violence, mass shootings and terrorism and maybe I am just willing to live with these reminders rather than to become more sensitive to the pain of others or to change my life to make this world a more compassionate place?

The story of freed slaves going back to back to embrace lives of familiar suffering may actually be a story about getting used to flags always flying at half staff.

I am reminded again of one my favorite teachings from priest and author, Anthony DeMello, who puts it this way:

As we walk a spiritual path it’s not that we fear the unknown.
What we really fear is the loss of the known.
Many people don’t want to wake up, they don’t want to be happy
because they are afraid of happiness.

It seems to me that this might be a good time for any one of us to ask ourselves that “wilderness question:” Are willing to adventurously walk into unfamiliar territory of new and abundant life or will we rather choose to cling to the pain and stay in the safe territory of slavery and bondage?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Constant Noise

"The Sounds of Silence"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

A few days ago I walked into my house and sat at my computer to check my email. To my horror I discovered that the internet was “down,” our cable was also “out.” So, I immediately called the cable company only to discover that there was a serious equipment problem in the system and we might be without cable and internet for as long as 48 hours.

When I heard this “horrifying news” I went into a “panic mode.” How will I get the latest “breaking news” on all the many stories happening in the country and the world without CNN? On top of that, the various newspapers I rely on every day are all digital, and what about the various social media I go to every day and of course the constant flow of email? I also realized that my daily blog articles are posted via the internet – 48 hours of without any of it,  how will I survive it all?  I thought that maybe I would have to head out to the local coffee shop in the hope that the internet there might be working?

After resigning myself to the “total technology ban” that had been imposed on me in my house, something rather remarkable happened. I became vividly aware of the sound of abiding and prevailing silence and it was all so very soothing and healing.

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.

The other day as I basked in the powerful sounds of silence abiding throughout our house, it struck me that, even though I live in a relatively quiet place like a desert, there is still an awful lot of noise in my everyday life. In fact, I live my life immersed in a sea of information, my senses are assaulted with the constant noise of an ever-abiding technology and that’s why I was, at first, so ludicrously upset and nervous when it all went away.

I recently read an article about how much time most people devote to checking email and browsing social media in an average day. From the moment they wake up, before even getting out of bed, people check their media devices, at work or in school and on vacation, while shopping in a store, eating at a restaurant, even in the bathroom, people are always checking emails and browsing the web, and for many folks it’s the very last thing they do before going to sleep at night

When I sat in “internet silence” the other day I realized that I spend way more time than necessary with all my own technologies of constant noise -  my smart phone is always sounding off little “bells” and “beeps” reminding me that I have new text message or a new email or that someone has “liked” something I wrote on Facebook.

Most of us are immersed in a sea of so much constant noise that we rarely if ever know what it actually feels like to live with the absence of all those sounds; and yet,  when the noise is eliminated, only then can we can really hear the most powerful sound of all: the sound of utter silence where you begin to hear the deepest kind of calling in yourself.

Silence doesn’t automatically happen in today’s busy world, and unless the internet goes down or the cable goes out I realize that I need to make it happen more often. From time to time I need to establish silence by intentionally unplugging and disengaging from all that information and constant noise.

It seems to me that any one of us can make some time to deliberately “drop out” and unplug.”   We all can press a button to mute the smart phone and turn off all the multiple electronic devices that hold sway over so much of our lives. We can step away from Facebook, Twitter, or CNN reports. We can walk away from the desk at work even for a few brief moments, go outside, take a walk, find a quiet corner somewhere, take a few deep breaths and listen for the powerful and healing sounds of silence in our lives.

The Buddha taught:

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.

As it turns out my internet and cable all came back sooner than expected the other day and in about 3 hours my smartphone started beeping and I was again drowning in a sea of information, bombarded with constant noise. I thought that it would have been nice if it stayed off just a little longer.