Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mustard Seeds

"Towering Trees"
- Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House -

Many people turn on the daily news and throw their hands up in frustration over the fact that they can do noting about all the pain and suffering. We see pictures of senseless shootings, we hear stories of terrorism and gun violence, we are barraged with endless reports of hateful, never ending political rhetoric and yet it seems as if there is nothing any of us can do about it - some people believe that all we can do is “pray.”

While I don’t think there is anything wrong with “praying” for the suffering of the world, I also believe that we can actually “do” something to heal the suffering and help bring about a world of deeper compassion and greater justice. In fact, every word we speak and every action we perform in our everyday lives either contributes to the suffering or heals it.

We make choices every day. We choose what we eat and drink, we chose how well we take care of our bodies or we choose to neglect them. We choose to sit quietly and meditate or we choose to be so constantly busy that we have no have no time for reflection. We choose to forgive an injury or we chose to lash out in anger. We choose to reconcile or we choose to hold grudges and we choose if and how to respond to an ugly comment in the social media.  In fact, even when we choose not to make a choice we are making choices - when we decide to ignore that homeless person asking for help on the sidewalk, we have made a choice.

We are, after all, an interconnected web of relationship, and so whatever we say or do not only effects our small circle but it inevitable resonates and reverberates far beyond our own individual selves. An act of kindness is infectious and so is a word of anger.

It is a great paradox to me that we can control very little if anything in our lives but we can influence almost everything. Our choices have the power to enhance our humanity and they have the power to diminish it.

I remember coming across an op-ed column a while back in the New York Times:

Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances in life
that, if explored, provide great meaning –everyday chances to be generous and kind.
Spiritual and emotional growth happens in microscopic increments.

The big decisions we make turn out to have much less impact on life as a whole
than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.

I find great wisdom in the observation. The spiritual journey is all about making decisions, it is a practice of a discipline of making good choices – little everyday seemingly insignificant choices that can change the world.

Jesus offered a piece of wisdom about little tiny mustard seeds that, when planted, become large trees:

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed 
that someone sowed in the field;
it is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown
 it becomes a towering tree.

The Buddha taught something fairly similar when he said:

Do not underestimate good.
Drop by drop the water pot is filled.
Likewise, one who is wise is filled with good,
gathering it little by little

Every act of kindness, mercy and forgiveness is a little mustard seed planted every day of our lives – little seeds that can grow into great trees. Every act of generosity is a little drop that gathers and eventually can fill the whole pot.

The philosopher and psychologist, William James, once said:

Act as if what you do makes a difference – it does.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Discipline of Vulnerability

"Desert Cactus"
- flowers and thorns -

Every evening, during the local news report I see the same TV commercial sponsored by “Perfect Smile Dentistry.” As the name suggests, a local “cosmetic dentist” promises to design a “perfect smile” for anyone who might take advantage of his services. The dentist shows “before and after” pictures of a patient - in one photo we see teeth that are crooked, jagged and covered in ugly stains and then in the next picture, the same patient sports a “perfect smile, glistening white and without any flaws whatsoever. All made possible thanks to the cosmetic magic of the miracle-worker dentist.  

Whenever I watch that TV ad, I am inevitably struck with how phony and fake that “perfect smile” looks.  I’m a big fan of good dental hygiene, but no one has teeth that white and so perfectly formed. In fact, that so-called “perfect smile” comes off as being somewhat ludicrous to me.

We live in a “culture of perfectionism.” We want the perfectly tailored gym-body, the perfectly coiffed hair, flawless skin and perfect teeth, the perfect job, the perfect family and the perfect house.

As I see it, this “culture of perfectionism” is perhaps no more clearly manifested than in the realm of religion and spirituality; but unfortunately, this need for perfection is perhaps the greatest pitfall anyone can fall into on any type of spiritual path.

Many people sit in a church and look up at stained glass pictures of great saints or perhaps they sit in a temple and gaze upon a statue of the Buddha in all his enlightened splendor and think that truly “spiritual” people are supposed to be just as perfect as all those holy saints and gurus. Many people believe that “God” expects them to live a “sinless” life and those who do not meet these high moral standards are unworthy believers who will ultimately be punished.

I know plenty of religious people who go to church and hide behind the expected perfect smile of a supposedly flawless life, too fearful or ashamed to embrace their “less than perfect” qualities, their doubts, mistakes, failures or their secret sins.

The problem is that, while we so highly prize flawlessness, when it comes to the human condition, “perfection” is an illusion and when you aspire to perfection on a spiritual journey, you inevitably fall under the sway of that illusion.

We are loving, compassionate and forgiving and we are also judgmental and spiteful, we have faith and we also have our inevitable doubts, we are hopeful and yet we despair, honest and yet we deceive, we live in the shadows and we live in the light.  Each and every one of us is a wonderful mix of light and darkness all rolled up together and paradoxically we need our shadows in order to walk in the light.

I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

As I think about it, the goal of any spiritual journey is not to achieve perfection but rather to practice a “discipline of vulnerability.”  When we embrace our weaknesses and imperfections rather than hide from them, when we trust enough to become vulnerable by letting down the protective walls of our ego and when we reach out to others for healing, we are on the spiritual path.

Oddly enough, love can enter our lives most abundantly when we are broken enough to allow love to enter in, and so our vulnerability and not our perfection is the prize virtue on a spiritual journey.

In the Christian Scriptures Saint Paul says:

In our weakness is our strength.

The author, Paul Coelho, says something very similar:

The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Words That Break Your Bones

"A Broken Vessel"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

When I was a young boy, a school bully decided he didn’t like me and so every morning he would get on the school bus, stop at where I was sitting and loudly proceed to barrage me with insults and threats. Eventually the bullying got to me and so I decided to report this to my mother who told me I should just ignore him. I also remember her quoting a phrase that I would often hear from time to time when I was a child:

Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.

As much as I tried to ignore that bully, I found that my daily encounter with him was doing more than making me fearful or depressed, it was making me physically ill. When I developed a skin rash and stomach problems, my parents eventually intervened and the bullying stopped - my rash cleared up and my stomach aches went away. I learned that the little childhood phrase about sticks and stones was actually a lie. Names can hurt as much as sticks and stones, in fact names can break your bones.

The other day I came across a fascinating article in the New York Times that explored how the words we use can actually inflict physical harm. In the article, When is Speech Violence? Psychology Professor, Lisa Feldman Barrett suggested:

Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system.
Words can make you sick, alter your brain,
kill neurons and even shorten your life.

Professor Feldman-Barrett went on to explain how “bullying” words cause stress and when stress is prolonged and becomes chronic, it causes physical distress. She also went on to explain how this phenomenon might be particularly relevant in the “antagonistic” culture of our own contemporary times:

What’s bad for your nervous system
are long stretches of simmering stress,
that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain.
In today’s political climate,
groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another.
It is a climate of rampant bullying in school and on the social media.
This culture of constant, casual brutality
is toxic to the body and we all suffer for it.

I can very much empathize with this sentiment. In fact, there are times when I refuse to turn on the news or browse through Facebook or Twitter. The constant barrage of insults and name-calling that originate from all sides of the political and social spectrum are, at times, just too much to bear. They make me feel ill, my stomach hurts and I’m afraid I’ll get a skin rash from all the poison.  

I’m not at all saying that we cannot or should not disagree with those who hold different opinions or ideologies from our own. In fact, rigorously debating and challenging an opponent can lead to greater mental, physical and spiritual health. I am saying that we need to learn how to disagree with dignity rather than resorting to wrestling in the mud - mudslinging always makes us sick.

There is an ancient Hebrew proverb found in the Bible:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

In our own day we would all do well to be careful about our words. Use the power of the tongue to bring about life rather than death.