Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Discipline of Dying

"Desert Sunset"

Everywhere I look nowadays I see images of death - graveyards and skeletons, ghouls and ghosts,  obviously It’s almost Halloween.  While Halloween is usually seen as a fun time for a fall festival and for kids to “trick or Treat, on a deeper level, this is also a season for looking directly at death and dying without pretending that death doesn’t exist.

Except for Halloween, many people are not only afraid of death, they are even afraid of talking about or thinking about their ultimate death. And yet, interestingly enough, monks, sages and teachers of most of the world-wide spiritual traditions actively and intentionally look at “death” every day of their lives. Rather than serving as a warning of an ultimate end, death is seen as an icon of how to live this life here and now. In fact,  the “contemplation of one’s death” is prized as an essential discipline to be practiced every day on the spiritual journey.

Most Buddhist monks engage in a “corpse meditation.” Gazing upon images of skeletons and dead bodies, they imagine that the body before them is their own dead body in the not-too distant future. In a similar fashion, Benedictine monks of the Christian tradition are taught to keep the image of their own death always before them as they live their ordinary lives and engage in their everyday work and prayer.

While this emphasis upon the “contemplation of death” may seem odd and macabre to many people in a society in which the idea of death is avoided at all costs (except perhaps at Halloween), monks and sages understand that “death” is the ultimate spiritual state and learning how to die is perhaps the perfect icon for vital living in this life.

I just read an article by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who explains why the active “contemplation of death” is so important for any spiritual practice.

Steindl-Rast says”

We are born as individuals and we become persons, laboriously so.
We become persons through our relationships with others, and
interrelationship is what defines you as a person.

In very real sense, the core of the spiritual life is the practice of moving from being a separated individual into becoming an authentic person. On a spiritual path we give up our ego-dominated desire to control who we are and what we desire in life and we surrender ourselves over to our “true nature” – interrelationship.

Death is the ultimate giving up of the individual ego and an ultimate surrender to a cosmic relationship with everything and everyone that ever was, is, or yet will be. In death we become a complete person. And so, in a very real sense the entire spiritual life is all about learning how to die and that’s why the “contemplation of our death” is so essential for our life.

Every time we give up and give away our selfish needs, every time we give our self away for the welfare others, every time we fall in love, we are learning how to die and practicing the discipline of dying.   

Far from being something to fear or avoid, death and dying is the icon of how to live a life that’s full.

I am reminded of something author and spiritual guide, Eckhart Tolle, once said:

Death is the stripping away of all that is not authentically you.
The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’
and find there is no death.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Spiritual Epidemic

"Do Not Be Anxious"

The columnist, David Brooks, just published a fascinating if not disconcerting op-ed piece in this morning’s New York Times in which he talked about the Epidemic of Worry that seems to be sweeping throughout this nation in these weeks before the upcoming presidential election.

According to a recent study published by the American Psychological Association, more than half of the entire population of this country is feeling significant degrees of stress and anxiety in these pre-election weeks.  Many citizens believe that, if their candidate of choice is not elected, the entire society will fall down a slippery slope into a pit of chaos and destruction. Many people are more than a little concerned over this election, they are really worried -  a worry that has become a national epidemic.

In this morning’s article, Mr. Brooks offers an important insight into the nature of “worrying” in general.  Worries often stem from something very specific (a worry that arises from a particular act of terrorism, a worry about an upcoming election); but a specific “worry” has a way of morphing onto a perpetual state of anxiety that underlies everything people do and say in the everyday routine of life. This pervasive, underlying anxiety is corrosive and destructive to living a life of peace and joy.

Brooks observes:

Worry alters the atmosphere of the mind,
it shrinks your awareness of the present
and your ability to enjoy what’s around you right now.
It cycles possible bad futures around in your head
and forces you to live in dreadful future scenarios,
90 percent of which will never come true.
Pretty soon you are seeing the world through a dirty windshield.
Worry dims every sunrise and amplifies mistrust.

The way I see it, the goal of any spiritual path is to help us embrace each present moment in which we can indeed “enjoy what is around us here and now.” Since worry prevents us from doing this, it is indeed a deadly spiritual poison that infects our system and destroys and decays our souls.

It seems to me that when a sweeping epidemic like an influenza is identified, the entire culture rallies all its resources to stop it from spreading, to cure it and inoculate against it. Since “worry”  is a spiritual epidemic corroding our personal lives and infecting the life of the entire nation,  it seems to me that we all need to raise our consciousness about how much we may worry, rally our resources against it, and do our best to let it go.

The Buddha taught that “clinging” to anything (ideas, possessions, fears, anxieties or worries) is spiritually destructive and that the way to deeper peace is to “let go” of our tight grip on life. Jesus taught something very similar as he walked through a field of flowers with his disciples who were consumed with their problem and worries about their futures, and told them:

Do not worry so much about your life…
See how the flowers in the field grow,
they do not labor and yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory
was not clothed as one of these.
So do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.

The other day I came across one of Mark’s Twain’s famous quips. In these weeks before an anxiety-producing election, maybe we would all do well to read this from time to time:

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles,
but most of them have never happened.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Everything Counts

"Another Ordinary Day"
- desert sunrise -

I’ve noticed that a lot of people lately seem to be lamenting over the stress of this ugly presidential election and wishing it would soon be over. Yesterday someone told me that November 8 (Election Day) couldn’t come fast enough for him – I totally understand.

While this does seem to be a season of “greater than usual” anxiety, it also seems to me that many people nowadays always live in some state of perpetual anxiety. When Monday morning comes along lots of people get up to go work or school and even before the day begins they can’t wait for it to be over – five more days and it will be the weekend again.

Some current research into work attitudes in America has suggested that, when it comes to their everyday jobs, up to 70% of the people today “hate what they do.”  Many people in all walks of life are on the road to burnout.

As an average week begins lots of people will come to work, go to school or begin their normal activities feeling depressed, fatigued, and tired, sometimes dreading the week yet to come. My guess is that these “depleting” feelings are exacerbated in these times of more-than-usual stress such as we are now experiencing in this election season.  

I suppose there are lots of reasons why people might “hate what they do” or feel bored with or anxious and depressed by their everyday lives. Many say that the work they do is “tedious and unrewarding.” They find themselves in jobs that are very demanding or demeaning and yet this demanding work is hardly appreciated and it seems to make little or no impact on the bigger picture of life.

It may be that many people find their ordinary routine lives so unrewarding because they have “bought into” the popular myth that every one of us is always supposed to be doing big, world-changing things with our lives and if we aren’t doing this we are frittering away our valuable time. People graduate from school and they are told that now they are supposed to go out there with their big dreams and big plans and change the world; and then when they land a job and live their ordinary lives it’s all nowhere near as wonderful or grandiose as they imagined it might be.

I am reminded of the story of a Zen master who would gather his students every morning before breakfast and give them a little “pep talk” as they began their day. We might imagine that he would try to motivate them to use the day to achieve great and noble spiritual heights; instead every day he would tell his students:

Today, work at being ordinary.
Now go put on your robes, eat your food and pass the time.

As I see it, this is good advice for all of us to follow.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples:

Do not do what you hate.

Some may hear these words and imagine that Jesus is advising his followers to stop what they are doing if they hate what they do and go do something else. I actually think Jesus is saying: Stay with what you are doing and learn how to love it, stay in the moment and learn how to embrace it.

Because we may imagine that we should always be doing something big, bold and adventurous with our lives, we may always find ourselves continually planning for that bigger project and that better job because where we presently are seems so ordinary.  But instead of looking for the bigger and the better, maybe the goal is to learn how to love what we do, to embrace whatever comes our way in every moment of every day.

When we are always engaged in looking for something more because we are so depressed or anxious about what already is, we may easily lose sight of what is already staring us in the face: life in all its fullness.

Buddhist author and teacher, Susan Murphy, puts it this way:

Don’s miss anything
everything counts, everyone counts.
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you.

In this season of heightened anxiety, as a new work-week begins, I am going to do my best to stay in the present rather than wishing it was already all over. I have discovered that when I can stay focused and pay attention in those times when I “just can’t wait for it to be over,” I find the greatest joy and deepest truth.