Saturday, November 18, 2017

No Hope for a Better Yesterday

"Sunrise and Olive Branches"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I am celebrating a birthday and I am of an age where I can no longer put a candle on the cake for every year I have lived unless I want to create a fire hazard.  When I look back over the years of my life, I sometimes wonder if there is anything I would have done differently?  For the most part, I do not live with any regrets but as I think about it, there is a part of me that I wish I could “do over again.” Looking back, I would cling to life less tenaciously and try to control my life less rigidly. Perhaps this is the one great wisdom I take with me into my later years.

In the past I would often imagine that my life was “something I possessed,” my life was something I needed to cultivate for “maximum results.”  Far too often I would find myself plotting and strategizing for better leverage - the better job, the next move, the nicer house, the higher rung up the ladder of success.

It all makes me think of one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes:

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success
only to find, once they reach the top,
that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

I have come to the point in my life where I no longer have even the slightest concern about that ladder of success; but as I look back at my years, I can’t help but wonder what it is that I may have missed in life because I was always looking for more, bigger and better.

The Buddha taught:

You can only lose what you cling to.

I find great wisdom in this teaching. I think I probably lost a lot because I gripped onto my life so tenaciously.

My guess is that I often missed seeing the joy of my children’s laughter, the tender embrace of my spouse, I overlooked the kindness of a friend or missed experiencing the joy of a morning sunrise, all because I was to busy trying to control the next step along the way.

I have since come to know that the fullness of life reveals itself only in the present moment and this is now the deepest wisdom I have to offer.

As I celebrate my birthday, I know that “today, like every day, is always a new beginning, a new opportunity to live fully, embracing life as it comes.  None of us ever “possesses” our life, we simply “participate” in it. As our life flows on we all belong to one another, all of us held together in that awesome, abiding power of universal Love known as “God” – who could ask for anything more?

The comedian Lily Tomlin once humorously quipped:

Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.

That’s what I want to do for the rest of my remaining years - I want to forgive much more and cling far less.

The Buddha also taught:

In the end these things matter most
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?

These are the questions that steer the compass of my life for the journey that remains.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Notice New Things

"New Every Morning"

I just listened to Krista Tippett’s NPR radio show, On Being. She was interviewing the well-known social psychologist, Ellen Langer, who is sometimes referred to as the mother of mindfulness. While the word mindfulness is very popular throughout western culture nowadays, forty years ago no one in this country would have hardly even heard the word or known what it meant; and yet, in the late 1970’s Dr. Langer was conducting some “cutting edge” research into the science of mindfulness and mindlessness.

Nowadays the word, mindfulness carries a religious or spiritual connotation, often associated with the practice of Buddhist meditation or other eastern “yoga” practices. In our own day, some churches, schools, and even corporations offer their constituents a wide range of mindfulness training by teaching people how to meditate. These courses offer techniques for calming and counting breaths, they teach various mediation postures and offer instruction in a variety of “yoga” positions - all of which will hopefully lead a person to being more mindful (aware and awake in the present moment) not just while meditating but in the living of one’s everyday life.  

In her radio interview, Dr. Langer explains that her research has never focused on any forms of eastern “meditation” and she offers this very concise, simple and accessible definition of what mindfulness is all about and why it matters:

Mindfulness is the very simple process of
actively noticing new things.
When you actively notice new things,
that puts you in the present, sensitive to context.
As you notice new things, it’s engaging, and
 after lots of research, we’ve learned that this process
 is literally (not figuratively) enlivening.

I think that many people may be somewhat afraid of practices like “meditation” thinking that this is something monks and priests do. Some others may avoid “meditating,” thinking that this is a practice that is associated with esoteric eastern religions. Others may imagine that, in their busy schedules, they just don’t have enough time to set apart 20 minutes every morning or evening to quietly meditate; but everyone can engage in the simple (yet difficult) task of noticing new things in their everyday routine of life,.

Many people are “stuck in a rut” in their everyday living. They see the same old people in the same old places and do the same old things day in and day out, expecting there is nothing new about anyone or anything; and yet everything and everyone is constantly changing and the way in which we have come to to understand the world is hardly a clear picture of what “is.” There is always something new to notice in every single moment of every single day.

Dr. Langer suggests that when you make a deliberate effort to notice something new about old familiar people and places you find yourself drawn into the present moment and the present is always a source of revelation. In the present you see everything and everyone in a different light and it’s “enlivening.”

All week long I’ve been trying to notice something new in my everyday life. I have seen the light of love glimmering in the eyes of my wife, I’ve noticed the kindness of the barista at our local Starbucks, and I’ve noticed that the late-autumn sky is a different color than it is during the summer. The world is so very full of so many wonderful surprises, all waiting to be noticed.

Buddhist teacher and author, Susan Murphy, wisely teaches

Don’t miss anything.
Everything counts, everyone counts.
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Oil in My Lamp

"Showing Up"
 -hummingbird in the garden -

The other day I came across a pretty well-known parable in the Christian Bible – the tale of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. The parable draws upon an established wedding custom back in Jesus’ day. According to this tradition, bridesmaids would gather together and wait for the unannounced arrival of the bridegroom.  When the groom showed up,  he would collect the bridesmaids and take them to the wedding feast.

In this particular parable there are ten bridesmaids who are waiting throughout the night for the arrival of the groom - five bridesmaids are wise and five are foolish. The wise bridesmaids kept awake and alert throughout the night, making sure there was plenty of oil in their lamps as they sat waiting for the bridegroom; but the five foolish bridesmaids fell asleep and the oil in their lamps ran out.  So they left the house and went out searching for for more oil, and while they were away, the groom appeared and gathered the five wise bridesmaids, leaving behind the absent foolish ones.

Interestingly enough, the moral of the story is: "Keep awake and always be ready because you never know when the groom (“God”) may show up;"  but over time this parable has been distorted. The symbol of “keeping oil in the lamp” has often been associated with the “search for wisdom,” “the quest for enlightenment;’” but, in fact, the search for enlightenment is not really a “quest” at all. The search for wisdom is actually a condition of being ready, awake and alert, because “wisdom” shows up at the most unexpected times.  

When I was out walking yesterday, I thought about this wonderful parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  Lots of people come out to the desert to find “God,” to seek deeper truth, greater wisdom, the meaning of life. They come out into the wilderness for various sorts of spiritual retreats - they sometimes come here to be alone, often to spend time in solitude, prayer and meditation.  More often than not, people come here armed with books and journals, they say all sorts of prayers and they fill their minds with ideas about how they will conduct their soul-searching quest. Looking for God is hard work and serious business.

But the lesson of the desert is that you rarely find wisdom by looking for it -  you go into a desert and wait for wisdom to come to you.

Almost every morning I go out into my meditation garden for a daily period of quiet time. I intentionally place my chair so that it is positioned directly facing a hummingbird feeder hanging in our garden.  When I first sit down, the hummingbirds are nowhere to be seen as they wait in the bushes and trees until I am sitting quietly. But if I wait patiently,  it’s almost inevitable that within a few minutes I will hear the flutter of wings as the tiny birds and other assorted creatures make their way to the feeder and the fountain – a source of endless entertainment for me.

As I sit and wait for those hummingbirds to show up every morning, I am regularly reminded of something the Quaker teacher and author, Parker Palmer, once observed:

The human soul is essentially shy – just like a wild animal,
it will flee from the crowd and seek safety in the underbrush.
If we want to see a wild animal we know that the last thing we should do
is to go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.
But if we walk quietly into the wilderness and sit at the base of a tree,
breathing with the earth and fading into our surroundings,
the wild creature we seek will eventually show up.

Lots of people today are engaged in some sort of soul-searching journey, a spiritual quest for meaning and truth, a serious and concerted effort to find “God” in their lives and more often than not people think of their “spiritual quest” as some sort of “Hide and Seek” game in which “God” is hiding and the soul is seeking.  Maybe the opposite is true - on a spiritual quest, “God” is the one who is doing the seeking and all we need do is to be ready when "God" shows up.

I am reminded of a wonderful Zen saying:

When you look for the ‘way,’ you become far from it.
When you seek the ‘way’ you turn away from it all the more.

Today I want to be sure there is plenty of oil in the lamp of my life as I sit and watch and wait in the wilderness throughout the dark hours of night. With oil in my lamp I want to always stay awake and be alert so that whenever wisdom appears or love flashes in the everyday moments of my everyday life, I will be ready to accept the invitation to come to the banquet.