Thursday, August 31, 2017

Mindlessness

"Everything Counts"

Last evening it was too hot to go outdoors, so I decided to watch a little TV and I was struck by how “mindless’ most of the programs seemed to be. The sitcoms weren’t even mildly funny to me and the endless barrage of relatively plot-less medical and police shows made daytime soap-operas seem like serious drama. I wondered if maybe these shows were not really designed to provide viewers with biting comedy or engaging, thought-provoking drama, maybe they were designed to be mindless distractions that allow people to escape from the busy day of their normal lives? Maybe they were designed to be an escape vehicle, a way to hide from all the news of a catastrophic flood devastating Houston, to forget about threats of nuclear missiles in North Korea, to avoid all the worries about work or relationships or finances?

Observing all those mindless distractions on TV last night, I also thought about how many people nowadays seem to be turning to all sorts of other distractions to escape from the stress or the fear or the boredom of their everyday lives.

I recall an article in the New York Times that reported some recent research about the average attention span for most people in today’s culture.  Attention span was defined as the amount of concentrated time on a task before become distracted. The article suggested that nowadays, the average attention span is at an alarmingly low eight seconds for the average person.

The article observed:

We can no longer wait in a grocery store line, or linger for a traffic light,
or even pause long enough to let a bagel pop from the toaster,
without reflexively reaching for a smartphone

This observation really rings true for me. I always find it odd to go into a place like Starbucks (or even a restaurant) and see groups of people sitting together and looking at their smartphones. Often times there is little or no talking with companions at the same table, just checking emails, texting, tweeting or browsing the web, everyone retreating into their “own little worlds,” oblivious to what is going on in the present in the moment.

The problem with all this mindless distraction is that it robs us of the richness life has to offer when we really pay attention to each and every moment of our everyday routine.  

As I think about it, some of the most tender and wonderful insights in my life have come to me in the times and places where I was most tempted to being mindless.

When I am in Starbucks, instead of browsing the social media on my smartphone, I often try to focus my awareness to the present moment and I have inevitably found some greater wisdom revealed to me. I have noticed the innocent smile of a small child that brought great joy to me, I have been aware of an older couple holding hands as they talked about their grandkids and I had a powerful sense of the enduring bond of love.

When I sit in the “waiting room” of a doctor’s office, instead of “burying my head” in a magazine, I often try to pay attention in the moment and once again the “moment” is almost always a source of revelation to me.  I once noticed the exceptional kindness of a receptionist who eased the anxiety of a nervous patient, at another time, tears came to my eyes when I witnessed the loving care of a wife who was gently comforting her frail husband. These were all wonderful, tender moments that deepened my own humanity, moments I would have missed if I allowed myself to be distracted and to drift into mindlessness.   

I recall one of my favorite passages from an essay in one of my Buddhist magazine.

When you pay attention to your everyday life
You will discover something truly wonderful.
Our regular, old, pointless lives are actually incredibly beautiful –
amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly, mercilessly joyful!

The essay concluded with this wise and insightful advice:

Don’t miss anything.
Pay attention to everything.
Everything counts.
Everyone counts.
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you.

Today, instead of giving into all the many distractions so readily available in our everyday routine and instead of paying attention to something new every eight seconds, we might all do well to pay closer attention to all that each moment has to offer us and therein discover something “truly wonderful.”  

Monday, August 28, 2017

Hurricane Compassion

"Intertwined"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Hurricane Harvey has been one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the coast of the United States. Thousands of people have suffered from its catastrophic effects - businesses, hospitals, homes and property have been destroyed and damaged, many people have been injured, many have lost their livelihoods and some have lost their lives.

After church yesterday, I overheard a conversation in which one person said to another, “I feel kinda bad for those poor people in Texas.” The other person responded, “Yeah it’s too bad, but we can be thankful that we live out here. It may be hot, but at least we are dry.” Somehow, that comment really caught me “off guard,” it seemed like such a tepid and maybe even a selfish response to such a devastating catastrophe, especially since the comment was made right after a church service.

That comment yesterday made me wonder how many people who don’t live in Texas may be feeling “kinda sorry” for the people who were hit by the hurricane but are thankful that they weren’t affected by it?

Today as I watched the horrific pictures of all those many people suffering in Texas, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems by John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

Because we are all interconnected with one another, because we are all “involved in all humankind,” the suffering of the people in Texas is “my” suffering, it is “our” suffering, regardless of where we may live. An awareness of this truth elicits a sense of deep compassion.

When it comes to “spirituality,” the word compassion is used a lot nowadays. In fact, it’s almost impossible to read a book or article about religion or spirituality without somehow coming across that word, compassion. The great teachers like Jesus or Buddha were icons of compassion. The core teaching of most major world religions is compassion and everyone in almost every tradition is told that compassion must be the guiding principle for walking on the spiritual path. The problem is that, at times, when people use the word compassion, it is often used far differently from what genuine compassion is really all about.

Compassion is sometimes defined as sympathy, as pity, feeling sorry for someone who may be in pain (feeling sorry for people affected by a devastating hurricane). At other times, the practice of compassion means just being “nice” to others.  I actually think genuine compassion goes far deeper than feeling sorry for someone or “being nice” to others.

In order to get at what “compassion” might really mean, I look at the many Gospel accounts in which Jesus is described as “having compassion” for various people. He has compassion for sick people and sad people, he has compassion for rich people and poor people, he has compassion for the crowds of lonely people wandering through life without direction.

In the Christian scriptures,  the word for “compassion” has a far richer meaning than the English word. The Greek word for “compassion” is “splaxna,” which comes from the word for “entrails” or “bowels” – the deepest core of a person. And so,  compassion is a deep, profound, “gut level” love that flows from the very innermost core of one’s being – a far cry from feeling “kinda” sorry or being nice to someone.

Author and poet, Chris Wiman offers this beautiful insight into what compassion is really all about:

Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves.

Today, as I look at all those devastating pictures of so many thousands of people who have been “broken” by a Texas hurricane, their “suffering flares in my nerves.” Their suffering is my suffering and I don’t feel sorry for them. I suffer with them.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Living Simply

"Beauty"
- Zion National Park -


I was “on vacation” last week, spending time with my family, exploring Zion National Park in Utah. Although a TV was available, we never turned it on and I hardly even glimpsed at the news or the social media; instead we spent most of our time resting under shade trees, engaging in long and leisurely conversations, sharing meals together and, of course, hiking the many canyon trails of that stunningly beautiful landscape.

When we returned home a few days ago I turned on the TV with its 700 available channels and then “fired up” my computer, “unmuted” my smartphone and started reading emails, browsing the media, checking my calendar, planning for an upcoming meeting and returning phone calls. I was suddenly struck by the fact that, even though I live out in a desert, my everyday life is way too cluttered and overly complex. I thought about the beautifully “simple” life we had all lived while on vacation last week and I wondered if the “busyness” of my ordinary routine may indeed be robbing me of joy and draining me of a deeper peace?

It’s no accident that the wisdom of almost every single world-wide spiritual tradition calls for the practice of simplicity in living every day. The Buddha called his disciples to live simply and so did Jesus who walked though fields of wildflowers and told his disciples to live as simply as the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. Perhaps the ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu, sums best sums up this wisdom when he teaches:

Manifest plainness
Embrace simplicity
Reduce selfishness
Have few desires

As I think about it, teachings like this are so contrary to our own complex, cluttered, “dog-eat-dog” world that they they almost sound like a foreign language. In fact, the very word, “simple” carries an awful lot of negative baggage in today’s popular culture. Often times, when it comes to technology, simple things are seen to be inferior to more sophisticated gadgetry (the more channels on your TV, the better.)  We also think of simple people as those who are less educated and less sophisticated and we relegate them to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Another problem with the use of that word simplicity in popular culture is that many assume that the practice of simplicity teaches that, on a spiritual path, we should all live in dire poverty, “sell all we have and give it to the poor.” I actually think that the spiritual wisdom about leading a simple life doesn’t demand a life of poverty, but rather it teaches us that we can live “more fully” with “less.”

Apart from not having a lot of unnecessary clutter in our bank accounts, accumulating useless clutter in our closets or spending all our time on our computers, smartphones, or TV sets, the wisdom of simplicity teaches us to “unclutter” our minds and our hearts.  It teaches us to clear away obsessions over what we did in the past, to free ourselves from the grip of constantly planning for the future and to live simply in the present, open to all the possibilities each day has to offer. This is what living simply is ultimately all about.

The priest and author, Richard Rohr, puts it this way:


When you live simply
you are free to enjoy what life has to offer
but you never let enjoyment become your master.
Every day you practice non-addiction and letting go.


Leonardo Da Vinci once said:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.