Tuesday, January 31, 2017

My Religion is Kindness

 "A Single Flower"
- in my meditation garden -

A few evenings ago my wife called our cable company to dispute a charge on a recent bill. As they came to the end of their conversation, the cable company representative told my wife: “thank you for being so kind to me.”  

As I see it, that one little response was so full of meaning that I had to take a day or two just to think about it. In fact, my wife and I have had several discussions about that call to the cable company wondering what prompted that “service rep” to be so grateful to a customer as to feel the need to “thank her for her kindness?”  

My guess is that the person who answered that call probably spent her entire day listening to people complaining and yelling at her because the “stupid cable company had screwed up their bill.”   Furthermore, since the service rep had a foreign sounding name and spoke English that was highly accented, my further guess is that many people may have disrespected her because she didn’t sound “American enough.”  So I guess I’m not all that surprised that the woman from the cable company might have been so grateful to a caller who was “civil” with her that she would feel compelled to thank the customer for her kindness.

It all reminds me of one of my favorite “wisdom quotes” attributed to the Greek philosopher, Plato:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle

More often than not, whenever I talk about how we should treat one another as we walk a spiritual path, I usually use the word “love,” we are called to “love” neighbor as we love self. But the more I think about it, that word “love” is kind of slippery and abstract, it has many different meanings and is hard to pin down. It seems to me as if the word “kindness” may be a bit easier to grasp.

Interestingly enough, Buddhists rarely if ever talk about “love;” instead, they teach that compassion is the prized virtue on a spiritual path, and compassion is often translated as the practice of everyday kindness. Any word uttered or deed performed in order to promote the welfare and dignity of another, no matter how big or how small, is an act of kindness.

A simple word of thanks to the waiter who served a meal or to the cashier at the market, a word of encouragement to a co-worker who failed to get an expected promotion, taking a few moments to sit down with a child bewildered by a homework assignment,  calling the cable company and treating the person who answers the call with respect – these are all acts of everyday kindness, so simple and yet so profound.

The Buddha taught:

Drop by drop the water jug is filled.
Likewise the wise man, gathering it little by little,
fills himself with good.

A simple act of everyday kindness may be just a drop in a bucket, but it can change the world, making it a better place in which to live.

I am reminded of something the Dalai Lama once said:

My religion is kindness.

I think that kindness is my religion too.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Day of Rest

"Desert Oasis"

When Sunday comes around I am always transported to memories of my childhood days when Sunday was treated as a Day of Rest. Most stores were closed so you couldn’t go shopping, there was no internet, no one went to work on that day, some people went to church;  but for the most part, everyone just sat around and rested from the busyness of a week of work or school.

I recall many Sundays when, after church, we just sat around and basically “hung out” – sometimes we went watched TV or took a walk or a nap. We always gathered for an evening meal, but mostly we just “hung out.”

I wonder if nowadays people even know what it means to “do nothing” but rest for a spell. Many people work on Sundays and even if they don’t go to work they will likely spend the weekend at a home computer doing the work they couldn’t get to during the week. In our own times, many people use Sundays and weekends to catch up on tasks like household chores or shopping;  and of course every minute of available time is often spent checking smartphones or browsing the social media.

According to today’s standards I guess you might say that, “back in the day” Sundays were pretty boring; but in retrospect I always enjoyed that Day of Rest – that day of “hanging out and doing nothing.” There was something very restorative about it.

I am reminded of something I once read from Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise.

In music there are moments of 'rest,' of no sound.
If those spaces weren't there, it would be a mess.
Music without moments of silence would be chaotic and oppressive.
That space between notes is very, very powerful, very meaningful.
It is more eloquent than any sound,
The soundless can be more pleasant, more eloquent than any sound.

As I write this blog article I am listening to some classical music, so I decided to pay closer attention to the music of "no sounds," the importance of the rests and spaces, and I discovered that the music I was listening to was brimming with interpretive pauses and poignant rests. The entire piece had a whole new meaning because of the spaces. Without the pauses the piece would have indeed sounded chaotic and instead of eliciting a sense of serenity, it would have provoked anxiety.

In his book, Thich Nhat Hanh wasn't talking about music because he is a music critic but because he is a spiritual guide. The lesson we can learn about the importance of spaces in music is a lesson we can learn about the importance of making spaces on a spiritual path.

In some sense our lives do indeed flow on like a musical composition, and it seems to me that in this busy and chaotic world of everyday living there are few spaces in that music.
How easy it would be to punctuate the daily routine of everyday living with meaningful, mindful "no-sounds, " maybe a breathing space of a minute or so in the middle of sending out the endless emails and making the reports, just pause and rest from time to time, mindfully awake, a little rest in the music of life?   Or maybe what we all need to do is to commit to being more intentional about taking a “Day of Rest?”

The renowned Jazz composer-trumpeter, Miles Davis, once said this of his music:

The space you leave is as important as the sound you make.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Transcendent Beauty

"Snow in the Mountains"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Over the past few weeks we have been experiencing some very unusual weather for this desert region where we live – a series of winter storms swept through, soaking the area with an almost-constant rainfall for over a week. What I hadn’t realized was that the rain in the desert valley would fall as snow in the high surrounding mountains.

A few days ago after the sun came out I went outdoors to walk along a desert trail and when I looked up at the mountains,  the sight was so beautiful that it “took my breath away” - the towering stone mountains were all covered in a brilliant cap of fresh-fallen snow. As I stood on the sandy desert soil surrounded by palm trees, cacti, and sage bushes and looked up at the snow-capped mountains glistening in the bright blue skies, there were no words to express what I felt and all I could utter was “O God.”

I once read an article written by the poet Gregory Orr who suggested that another name for God is Beauty:

One of the terms we poets use in our considerable effort
to avoid religious or spiritual terminology is
Of course, no one can define the word or everybody defines it differently
and yet we believe in it.
Beauty is an article of faith among poets.
I think we try to sidestep religion
and ‘Beauty’ is a word we use to do that.

The more I think about it, I really like the word “Beauty” as another name for “God.” The other day, when I was struck by the Transcendent Beauty I witnessed upon seeing those holy mountains, it was indeed a powerful experience of “God.” As I think about it, in many ways I much prefer to think of “God” as “Beauty” rather than to imagine “God” as the “Man Upstairs,” the “Distant King” or the “Heavenly Father.”   

My guess is that the more “traditional” believer might object to the idea that “Beauty” is a name for “God” dismissing this as being far too “new age;” and yet as far back as the 4th century Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote a celebrated poem in which he referred to “God” as “Beauty ever ancient, Beauty ever new.”  So as I see it, when I experience “Transcendent Beauty” and call that experience “God,” I am well within the tradition handed down through the ages.

Of course you don’t need to live in a desert to encounter the kind of “Beauty” I witnessed as I gazed up at those snow-covered mountains.  Each and every one of us can encounter “Beauty” every day if we have the eyes to see it and the heart to embrace it.  “Beauty” might be revealed in the innocent look on a child’s face, in the gentle touch of a spouse or friend, in the crimson skies of a sunset or the hopeful hues of a breaking dawn, in the sparkling crystals of ice on the window pain on a winter’s day.  

The poet John O’Donohue once said:

The word for beautiful comes from the Greek word ‘to call.’
When we experience beauty we feel called.
The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us
and calls us forth from aloneness.
It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life.
Beauty elicits a sense of completion in us.

It seems to me as if “Beauty” does all this because Beauty is indeed another name for God.