Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Restless and Anxious

"Peace, Be Still"

In order to get to most stores, restaurants or businesses in the region where we live everyone is forced to travel on one major highway that is peppered with a variety of “annoying” stop signs and signal lights - for some reason or other, one of these stop lights is programmed for an exceptionally long wait.

Yesterday I waited in a line of traffic stopped at that particularly long signal-light and I noticed that everyone waiting there with me seemed a lot more “antsy” than usual. Most people (myself included) usually feel rather impatient when forced to stop at that light,  but yesterday I noticed a particularly pronounced sense of restlessness. It felt like we were all “race cars” waiting for the gun to go off to start the competition. People were revving  their engines and the traffic was slowly inching forward anticipating the green light. One person decided that he wasn't going to wait any longer so he “ran the light” and almost caused an accident.

I’ve been reflecting on all the restlessness at that stop light yesterday and determined that that it was probably a powerful icon about life nowadays especially in these post-election weeks and during this busy “holiday” time of the year. Everywhere I look it seems like there is a “more-than-usual" sense of restlessness and anxiety,  everyone anxious to make the next move, to get to the next destination, to accomplish the next task.

 The celebrated Buddhist author and teacher, Pema Chodron, once observed:

Human beings have an inherent restlessness.
We often want to get up and leave
and yet this feeling of restlessness
can teach us an important lesson about what it means to be human.
We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience.

As I sat at the stop-light stuck in that traffic yesterday, I wondered if our restlessness might have been more than feeling inconvenienced as we were forced to wait, maybe our restlessness was emblematic of an inherent human resistance to the nakedness of the present – somehow being “in the present” makes us feel too vulnerable, too exposed, perhaps too “out of control.”  And yet, it is precisely this experience of the present moment that lies at the very core of the spiritual journey. It is only when I can train myself to “stay, wait and settle down” in the moment that I am able to experience greater truth and deeper wisdom - the revelation each moment has to offer.

 I also remember something Buddhist author and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said:

When we see a red light or a stop sign
we can thank it because it is helping us to return to the present moment.
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,
calling us into the present where we can meet life with joy and peace.

For me,  this Advent season is clearly calling me to greater “mindfulness” in my everyday life. So I have decided to “welcome” the long wait at that annoying stop light as I go about my business every day.  The light is a “bell of mindfulness” for me,  a friend helping me to stop all the rush, to “stop and settle down,” to spend a minute breathing into the moment where I “can meet life with joy and peace.”

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Wake Up

"The Dawn is Breaking"

I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning. The house was still dark and it was cold out, so I pulled up the covers and tried to shut off the world that was beckoning me to wake up. I then suddenly realized that today was the beginning of the Advent season on the Christian calendar and while many may think that Advent is a season devoted to “getting ready” for Christmas, Advent is actually a season for waking up.

Now that Thanksgiving is over many people are already celebrating the “holiday season” at full force and many Christians hardly even observe Advent because, for them, Christmas  is already here. Yet, as I see it, we dare not neglect the message of Advent. This is one of the most important seasons of the year, not only for Christians but for anyone on any sort of path because the goal of the spiritual journey, regardless of the path, is always about “waking up from sleep.”

Author and spiritual guide, Anthony DeMello, put it this way:

Spirituality means waking up.
Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep.
They’re born asleep, they live asleep,
they die in their sleep without ever waking up.
They never understand the loveliness and the beauty
of this thing we call human existence.
Most people tell you that they want to get out of kindergarten,
but don’t believe them!
All they want to do is mend their broken toys.

I find a profound truth in this observation. Many of us make our way through our everyday lives snuggling under the covers of our own well-worn comfortable ideas while a whole, wide, beautiful world beckons us to wake up and enjoy the beauty of what it means to be alive. This is a season to throw away the old toys and finally get out of kindergarten.

As a Christian I have discovered that the Buddha is actually one of my best teachers when it comes to helping me understand what this Advent time is all about. Buddha sat under a tree and vowed to do nothing but just stay there alert in the moment until he discovered the true meaning of life. He sat there with no thoughts about where he wanted to go, where he had been, or what he was looking for, he just made himself available to the present moment and he woke up to the meaning of life.  He woke up and found himself aware and alert in the “now.”  He woke up from from the sleepy isolation of his own little ego hidden in his own little world, realizing that he belonged to everything and everyone in a wonderful web of relationship.

Advent is a time to sit under the proverbial tree and “without distraction” pay attention to our everyday life as as it happens. This is a season for watching sunrises and sunsets, it’s a season for paying attention to the bright stars of night and for being aware of all those people who enter into our daily lives, a season to turn off the cell phones when you have a meal and listen instead to the people at the table. This is not a season for getting ready for anything, it’s a season for practicing the discipline of being present to what “is.”

I am reminded of this wise and insightful observation about waking up that I once found in a Buddhist essay - a perfect meditation for the Advent season:

Whatever we are looking for is already right here.
We are usually elsewhere -  that’s the problem.

When we are awake and when we pay attention to our everyday life
we discover something truly wonderful -
our old regular pointless lives are actually incredibly joyful,
amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly,
joyful!

There is a beautiful Advent hymn in the Christian tradition that seems to apply to all people on all our many paths.  In these cold dark days of early-winter we all have the tendency to snuggle under our cozy life-covers, but the dawn is breaking and the morning is beckoning us:

Wake, awake the night is dying,
Awake ye children of the light!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Green Friday

"Everything Belongs"
 - Outside the Desert Retreat House -

For many Americans this day after Thanksgiving is “Black Friday,” the beginning of the holiday shopping season. Eager shoppers flock to local malls, loading up their carts with big-screen TVs, video games and electronic devices as they take advantage of the many so-called bargains and sales available.

In the region where we live the malls actually opened up last night just after the big turkey feast so that people could shop all night long. This morning I saw pictures of a local shopping center- folks were standing in line to get into it and the parking lot was so packed that there was room left to park your car. 

Interestingly enough, here in the State of California officials have proclaimed today as “Green Friday” and all the state parks are attracting visitors by offering free admission to over 100 magnificent landscapes replete with all the wonders of nature - wildlife of every ilk, flowers that bloom in the midst of winter, towering snow-capped mountains, desert vistas, beaches and views of the ocean.

As for me, I’ll take Green Friday over Black Friday any day.

I am reminded of something once written by scientist and ecologist, Thomas Berry:

Our ancient ancestors lived in a universe, in a cosmological order.
Today people no longer live in a universe,
we live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order.
We live in cities of concrete and steel, in a world of business and work,
highways and parking lots and shopping centers.
We no longer see the stars at night or the planets or the moon,
summer and winter are the same inside a mall.

I find great wisdom in this insight. Our so-called primitive ancestors lived in a world of nature, a world where everything was bigger than a tiny individual person.  Living in a world of nature everyone knew they belonged to everything and everyone else.

Priest and author, Richard Rohr, put it this way:

Simply by watching the sky, birds and trees,
the seasons darkness and night,
our ancient ancestors knew they belonged.
They lived in an inherently enchanted universe where everything belonged,
including themselves.

Today we live in a nation and a world that seems so fractured and so divided, everyone competes against everyone else and rampant consumerism seems to be the order of the day.  Maybe we have too many malls, too many crowded parking lots and too many “Black Fridays,” maybe we need a lot more “Green Fridays?” 

The poet William Kittredge aptly describes the spiritual lethargy that occurs when we we cut ourselves off from the natural world:  

We evolved in nature.
If you isolate human beings from the natural world for too long
we start getting nervous, crazy, unmoored,
driven to thoughtless and ambitions and easy cruelties

I wonder if we shouldn’t abolish Black Friday altogether and replace it with Green Friday every year on this day after Thanksgiving? 

You don’t have to live in a beautiful desert or be a resident of California and go to a park to celebrate Green Friday today. Just take a walk outside no matter where you live, breathe in the fresh air, take in the sunshine or feel the falling rain, listen to the birdsong, look at the trees, inhale the frosty winter air or pay attention to your feet as they crunch against the snow or the sand.  You can’t do any of that if you are stuck inside a mall.