Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Joy of Being Ignored

"Vast Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Now in my later years of life, I have come to realize that, like many people, I spent the first half of my life walking around with an invisible sign hanging from my neck that read: pay attention to me!

As I little child I thought of myself as the center of the universe. Then, over my years a student I wanted my teachers to recognize me for my great accomplishments so that I would advance in my education. Later, as a college professor I wanted everyone to value my competence and excellence as a teacher and as an ordained priest I did my best so that that others would pay attention to my many gifts as an accomplished preacher and administrator so that I could build my career and move up the ladder of success as my life life progressed. Thankfully, all that has changed now in my second half of life

In this season of early springtime, the evenings here in the desert where we live are especially stunning. The air is cool and the skies at night seem to be brighter than ever. Last evening as I went outdoors and gazed in wonder at the clear-bight nighttime cosmos, it struck me that in my later years I have been given the gift of being able to remove the heavy burden of that “pay attention” sign - it has been a refreshing spiritual relief for me.  I also realized that living out here in the desert has been a great help in allowing me to do so.

When I look up into the stunning splendor of nighttime skies or when I hike out into the vast, silent horizons of the desert wilderness I always feel so small and tiny standing in the midst of such great enormity; and yet paradoxically, I also feel so tenderly connected to it all.  Yes, living here has given me a sense of belonging to the universe, an intimate connection to the beautiful, totally wild and uncontrollable world of nature - it has also helped me realize how relatively unimportant “I” am in the larger scope of things.

One of my desert wisdom books explains why this happens:

Deserts confront us with a vast horizontal edge,
a horizon of emptiness into which we find ourselves absorbed and lost.
The desert is intrinsically hostile to the ego,
threatening to swallow it up in its endless expanse of nothingness.

The ancient 4th century Christian monastics known as The Desert Mothers and Fathers left the cities where they had once lived and moved out to live in little mountain caves in the vast desert wilderness of Egypt and Syria. They did this in order to grow in wisdom and to learn how to be more faithful followers of Jesus. In their various writings they would often say that the greatest gift given to them in their desert life was what they referred to as The Gift of Indifference.

In the desert they leaned that, while they were valued and significant, no one of them was especially important. In fact, the great spiritual joy they found in their life in the desert was to learn that, as individuals, they were essentially ignored.  Each person was simply part of the vastness of it all, embraced by an all-abiding Holy Presence but never the singular focus of attention.  The desert is “intrinsically hostile to the ego” and when the ego doesn’t thrive, the true self can blossom.

But of course you don’t have to live in a desert to appreciate the value of this “gift of indifference.”  In fact this gift may lie at the very heart of everyone’s spiritual journey.

My book about desert wisdom puts it this way:

So often people presume themselves to be at the center of everyone else’s attention,
performing for an audience that isn’t even there.
Their chief loss in the process is missing
the gift of blessed indifference that was being offered to them all along.
We are saved, in the end, by the things that ignore us.

I have spent way too much time and energy in my life weighed down by the burden of that “pay attention to me” sign, always imagining what other people were thinking about me and then acting accordingly. The narcissist in me had convinced myself that “I” was important enough for others to be constantly paying attention to what I did. But the truth is that, for the most part, most of the people I know or have ever known hardly, if ever, spent much of their time thinking about me at all.

The realization that “I” am being ignored is such a joy to me. “We are saved, in the end, by the things that ignore us.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight

"Walking a Labyrinth"
 -Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Over the past few years I have felt a growing attraction to the practice of walking in a “labyrinth” as a prayer and meditation tool. Nowadays labyrinths have become quite popular and are often employed as a spiritual practice in both Eastern and Western traditions. You can often find labyrinths on the floors of churches or temples and even in the public squares of towns and cities.

A labyrinth is actually a very ancient symbol for the spiritual journey, a symbol for the path into the core of one’s deepest center.  A labyrinth is designed as a series of circular and spiral paths that look something like a maze and when you walk into a labyrinth you sometimes feel as if you are walking in circles because there is no direct path to the center.  Sometimes it also feels as if you have come to a dead-end on the path, but there are no dead-ends because each ending always opens to a different path until ultimately you arrive at the center. Walking on a labyrinth provides a  wonderful, visceral experience of the direction of any “way” of wisdom.

While I find myself very attracted to walking a labyrinth, I haven’t done so in quite some time because I haven’t been able to find any labyrinths out here where we now live. But something happened a few days ago that changed all that.   

I was out hiking in the wilderness area just outside our house, walking along a very familiar and well-worn trail, when suddenly I noticed a tiny, little, almost-invisible path veering off the trail and so I decided to follow it to see where it may lead. To my great surprise it led me to a wonderfully constructed, very elaborate labyrinth designed out of rocks and stones in a wide open space on the desert floor just outside our house. I had passed by that area hundreds of times while hiking along the well-worn, familiar trail but I never before noticed the labyrinth. It was hidden in plain sight and in order to discover it I had to walk off-trail and follow a “road less traveled”  – what a wonderful and poignant spiritual lesson.

I am reminded of a little Zen-like saying I keep on my desk:

Everything you are looking for is already right here.
You are usually elsewhere.

This was the spiritual lesson I learned in my discovery of the labyrinth that I was looking for in my life out here. There was one in my own back yard but I didn’t expect it to be there and and my journey along the safe and all-too familiar path prevented me from seeing it.

As I see it, my labyrinth discovery is a lesson for any single one of us on any sort of spiritual  journey.  We all get up in the morning and expect the same old routine to repeat itself over and over again in day-after-ordinary-day as we walk along the beaten-path of our lives. Our minds are filled with our well-worn ideas and glib certainties about what we will find in the ordinary world in which we live; and yet, there is hidden treasure and extraordinary beauty just waiting to be discovered in the everyday places of life - at work at school in the market, at a restaurant, in Starbucks and in our own back yards. When we are willing to veer off the certitude of the beaten path, and with uncluttered minds and and open hearts pay attention to every present moment, it is amazing what wonderful surprises may come our way.

I have been back to the wilderness labyrinth several times now, in fact just yesterday my wife and I walked the labyrinth and as we did so we noted that we were the only one’s there.  We could see all sorts of people out walking on the designated trails but no one paid any attention to the hidden treasure of that labyrinth hiding in plain sight. Now that I know it’s there it’s way easier to find and my guess is that the labyrinth will now become an important tool in my spiritual practice.

I am reminded of a line from a Robert Frost poem:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Taking that less traveled path does indeed make all the difference, all the difference in the world.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Craving and Desire

"Who Could Ask for Anything More?"
 - springtime in the wilderness -

In his newly-published book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari observes that contemporary people (especially in so-called advanced societies) are almost obsessed with achieving a sense of happiness and well-being in their personal lives. He also notes that, even though there have been tremendous technological, medical and sociological advances over the past years, people today still report that they are unhappy.

People who live in societies like America or Japan or Europe generally have enough food to eat, they don’t die in the streets from uncontrolled diseases and they enjoy many if not most of the “creature comforts” life has to offer;  and yet, the suicide rates in these countries is far greater than in poorer nations and it has grown exponentially over the past decades as many people report that they are dissatisfied with their lives.

In his book, Harari suggests that “expectation” is the reason so many of us who are so obsessed with happiness essentially remain unhappy - the more we achieve, the more we expect to achieve. He observes

We become satisfied when reality matches our expectations
The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon.
Dramatic improvements in conditions
such as humankind has experienced in recent decades
translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment.

It just took a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful.
How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?

Long ago the Buddha taught that “craving” and “desire” were poisonous to spiritual health and the causes of human suffering and pain. He said:

From craving is born grief.
From craving is born fear.

Desire is the cause of suffering.
When you stop desiring you stop suffering.

Perhaps we all need to heed this ancient wisdom now more than ever in our own contemporary times. When we always “crave” the bigger, better and the newer, the better car, the newer iPhone, the bigger house, the better job, more agreeable neighbors, when we are always desirous of something more, we will inevitably miss the joy of what is

As I see it, when we give up our need to be better than others, when we surrender our need for greater power and more control, when we let go of clinging to our rigid ideas and glib assurances and simply make ourselves available to the experiences of life in service to one another, only then are we ready for happiness to enter into our lives.

A while back I came across something the Dalai Lama once said – a wise and profound observation about why so many people aren’t “happy” nowadays:  

Human beings sacrifice their health in order to make money.
Then they sacrifice money to recuperate their health.
And then they are so anxious about the future
that they do not enjoy the present.
They live as if they are never going to die
and then die having never really lived.