Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 19, 2018 - Nothing is Inconvenient to God

Is there a plan for all this? Is this normal? Is the seemingly-tumultuous state of our world a typical part of the learning curve of an ultimately civilized planet? If we could look at the histories of civilizations on other planets far more advanced than we, would we see a similar pattern?
If we could read about another world in a book, would we see the birth of agriculture in their history, and with it, war? Would we see a deep pattern of atrocities against one another over territory and resources slowly ebbing over generations? What about race? Could it be that race is part of this long lesson in how to get along? Are we alone in this or is there really a plan?
We are faced with contrast every day. Preferences, dislikes, affections, revulsions. Fighting and loving, both. We see war in the exact same space as compassion. Where one kills, another heals. Because love is more real than war. Where disaster strikes, relief increasingly comes. When relief does not come for them, we cry out in rage on their behalf. We always empathize with humanity once we have seen them. Once we see ourselves in them. We share our stories with one another for this very reason. Might that tradition be contributing to our future peace one moral story at a time?
What inspires that intent? Which part of us cries “injustice!” when someone else suffers? Does this happen more now than a hundred years ago? A thousand years ago? Is this part of the plan, too? Is this the increasing volume of our Jiminy Cricket? Is conscience the divine spark? The part of us which remembers exactly who—and whose—we are? Could it be that the spark is real and we as a species increase our awareness of it incrementally over time through our better actions? Does mercy snowball?
The term “mercy” is an interesting one. It implies the withholding of suffering or punishment otherwise deserved. In religion it refers to a God which has the right to punish us, but through Its so-called mercy chooses to withhold that punishment.
There’s a fancy word called anthropomorphisation which means taking something non-human and giving it human characteristics, human thoughts and human biases. An entirely unfair practice. But it’s the reason we attribute the concept of mercy to God. In reality it’s really humans who have the power of mercy. God has no need of mercy. It already understands and loves us anyway. Only humans have the capacity to choose to withhold suffering and punishment from others which our unchecked rage believes is just. Our spark tells us mercy is called for, even when our fists are still clenched. That exact moment is the crux, the intersection of spirit and biology, the devil and angel on our shoulder whispering competing thoughts into our ears. The moment of truth.
Each time one of us makes a correct and merciful choice, something happens. A ripple. A bell in the universe. A fairy gets its wings. However you choose to think about the effect which occurs as a result of something positive you caused. Let that thought germinate in you. Turn up the volume in your divine spark. Allow it to have the greater voice. Ring the bell more loudly and more often.
We believe God must be disappointed by what It sees has become of Its creation. We believe we know when God hates someone or is willing to punish us for all eternity. Because we anthropomorphize God, because we insist that God must think as we do, we fear we have been a disappointment. Because we are disappointed in ourselves. The irony is it’s love which informs that disappointment. Inside we already know better and because of that we don’t like what we see.
How could humanity be a disappointment to the God in which we have taught ourselves to believe? There is so much love in the world. Love is the reason we are fighting so profoundly right now. The battle of good vs. evil rages as we speak. The difference is in the reasons for the uprisings worldwide compared to only a century ago. The voice crying out today is over injustice, inequality, undeserved hostility and tyranny. Only love can both recognize and give voice to that contrast. A doomed world has no such voice.
Notice what we are fighting about in this generation. It is the natural reaction of a people who have begun to recognize their inherent worth and dignity. Their divine spark. We are not an inconvenience to God’s plan for humanity. We may very well be right on track.
If God is all we have described It to be, It would know exactly where we are on the learning curve and what we have yet to see. It would know the difference between real and fake news. It would not be looking at us with disgust, even through our atrocities. It would know that we, over time, are increasingly hearing the divine voice from within each of us. God would have more faith in us than we of It. Fear not.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 12, 2018 - What Could You Get Rid Of?

It’s obvious that we have too much stuff. Stuff oozes from every nook and cranny of our homes, our offices, our dumpsters, our recycling bins. We especially love packaging. It’s practically half of the experience. Packaging has the unsavory job of attracting you strongly enough to purchase what’s inside only to be itself discarded. So remember, our stuff comes in stuff, meaning almost everything you buy is actually two things. At least.
Which is interesting to consider when we make that an allegory to the inside as well as the out. What stuff could you get rid of? What literal emotional pollution are you holding onto? What trauma still haunts you? What breakups, breakdowns, failures or disappointments still whisper at you to shy away from excessive joy because happiness is untrustworthy? How’s that going for you?
First you need to know what stuff you have. And that is the crux of the matter. We rarely know how much we carry along with us. We have gotten used to the weight on our heart. The feeling of being wounded. The odd comfort level we have with our distrust. All so we don’t have to deal with it. Counseling is a good idea, by the way. Notice your resistance and act in spite of it.
In the meantime, whether in counseling to face the historical or not, think about tomorrow conceptually rather than linearly. Meaning don’t assume that counseling is the first or only step to understanding oneself and the baggage we carry. Thinking in linear terms means that we feel we can control the outcome by adhering to a checklist we tick off one item at a time. Conceptual thinking about a problem recognizes that there are many pathways up the mountain, we should choose several at once, all require the correct frame of mind.
The problem with recycling is that it is still in the “intention” phase. We are trying to get ourselves to change our habits and better serve the earth for our own sakes. For decades we have been struggling to do this. Is it working? Probably. Possibly. But what I’m really wondering is: Might our intention to cope with our ever-growing pile of stuff be the ultimate reason the real solution, the real coping skill will eventually manifest? The real solution will probably look very different to our current recycling methods.
Might our intention-to-solve be the strongest component toward achieving any solution? I think this is perhaps where failure contributes. Failures occur while trying to live up to an intention. They refine it. They gently strike into the metal a more even gleam. Failure improves the quality of our intentions. But there’s packaging which comes with that. Baggage. What has become of it? What still pollutes your thoughts? Have you kept the things you have learned from failure but not properly disposed of the packaging? That’s the activity of trauma. And it’s holding you back.
Sometimes, when we have a problem it’s best to step away a bit and look at it from another angle. That’s an act which allows for conceptual thinking. Out of the line of fire from trauma. What don’t we see because we are too stuck in our lists? What problems, both inner and outer, bait and trouble us because we aren’t recognizing that it’s our intention which drives the ship?
If you can make a leap of faith, trust the non-linear path and power of intent. What do you intend to happen? What is your intention in any given situation? Have you stated it to yourself? There’s a reason verbal affirmation is encouraged by religion. Take the hint. Speak your intention aloud to yourself. Speak it regularly and wonder what the implications of that intention will be. What will you begin to notice around you? What will you be on the enhanced look out for now that you know what you intend?
This is the key to our baggage. The leftover packaging. We must first intend to recognize it. The key to our society’s addiction to stuff is first intending to unlock it. And then we must be patient and steadfast while the intention germinates. While the solution develops within the rarified atmosphere of our desire for it. We must be accepting of failure and grateful for what it shows us. We must continue to press the button and remain faithful that our actions are the equivalent of prayer. They utilize the same mechanism and speak to the same Source, whatever that may be.
While you engage with the Whirlwind, do something small. Simple physical acts which represent the bigger, lesser-understood picture of your intention to get rid of stuff. Recycle. Clean out the attic. Get a reusable water bottle. Hang up your coat. Demonstrate your intention in simple, meaningful ways. Ways that may not appear to make a difference. That’s not the point at all. It won’t save the world, or you, in the way you think. It will be much better.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 5, 2018 - Think Better of Others

It takes practice to use our powers of assumption for good. We assume the negative. By and large, people are not mean. People are hurt.
There are reasons we’re more comfortable assuming the negative. For one, misery never lets us down. It’s reliable and predictable. Its loyalty quickly fills the vacuum left by departing happiness.
Second, we never feel the need to be prepared for the best. We feel we are always ready for good. And since we are advised to only hope for the best, yet be prepared for the worst, we use our energy on preparation. But how much of it do we spend on hope? How much airtime do you give to constructive fantasy and wonder? Without it life becomes a cycle of expecting and preparing for the worst, receiving it, and then patting our backs for the wise predictions we made.
We love to assume. Perhaps it is better to say we are instinctively compelled to assume. We are wired to evaluate data in order to draw conclusions. It’s a survival instinct. But our biological wiring can get us into trouble. It can lead us into the temptation to draw assumptions based on fear rather than something more creative.
There is a preponderance of spiritual and philosophical logic from myriad cultures and traditions which all suggest that what we think, we are. What we believe, we perceive. What we have today is result of what we were thinking yesterday. Every text from the Bible to the Mahabharata to the works of Socrates engages us to use our gifts of manifestation. They all teach us that we are constantly using our powers of asking and receiving; use them wisely.
It feels as if it’s an idea being whispered into the ear of humanity all at once, for a purpose. Listen to it. It is saying: You are magnificent. Do something more constructive with it.
Around the dinner table last night we were talking about ego. The existence of the ego is biological. It is an indicator of our species’ communal nature. We, like it or not, care what other people think. We evaluate (literally examine the value of) ourselves in reference to the rest of the human tribe. We compare, compete and cross-analyze humanity because it is how all communal species survive.
Ego is also either a seed or a timebomb. It depends upon how careful the words and actions are around us as children. Words of support and empowerment foster the good seed of our ego. The one where we seek and receive affirmation through positive action. Words of discouragement early in life can germinate the ego into a craving for recognition—at any cost.
When we engage with people, what are we most likely to assume from them? What motives do we assign to their actions? We feel safe in saying that someone said this or did that because they are a jerk, because they hate so-and-so, because they are evil. But those are not reasons. They are cop-outs. We too easily fill in the gaps of our knowledge with the negative.
Every extreme human response, each so-called disproportionate reaction, is proportional to something. We never know the full story. What does it hurt to fill in the gaps with something that encourages a sense of compassion in you? What does it hurt to assume the guy tailgating you really has to go to the bathroom?
There’s a reason in favor of this. It makes your life easier. And it tends to draw better outcomes in our wider lives because we manifest what we project.
It’s a lot of work to maintain hostile motives for every action we don’t understand. It’s easy to be manipulated by fear. Between fear and hope, fear is the only one actively trying to persuade us. It talks the loudest. Hope is confident of its place, its ego is in check. Fear is always trying to maintain ground, using its creativity for conquest. Hope has no agenda but to wait for us to figure it out.
Assume a divine spark exists in all of us. It is only covered from view by layers of varying transparency and thickness. The spark is easier to see in some, but it exists in all. Remember that. And use your instinctive powers of creative assumption to compassionately wonder why someone behaves as they do. Perhaps there is a better way of engaging it.
If you have to assume something, assume that a win/win solution always exists. If you aren’t seeing it yet, love it more. Use your powers for good. The answer will come to you.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 28, 2018 - Determining Your “You”

Thank you for everything. It’s a simple prayer. One that cannot be expressed in simpler terms, actually. Thank you. Thank you for everything. For life. For even stress. For love and heartache both. Thank you.
Now let’s define who “you” is.
I can’t. At least not for you. You have to decide who the “you” is in that prayer. You are the only member of your faith. It will never be any other way. You are the leader of your own thoughts and beliefs. Even when you think you have been instructed, you will still have opinions about what and by whom. You may be a fully devoted Catholic, for instance, and yet will always maintain your own views about the doctrine. Blind faith is actually a misleading sentiment. No faith is blind. We can’t simply shut off our opinions. More so now than ever in history, in fact.
So, who is your “you?”
I prefer to assume that what people refer to as “God” is the literal connection between all life. The interdependent web of all existence.
I believe that God is the web Itself.
If we are all connected—even if we don’t understand the mechanics of that connection —who we are is a part of that web. Perhaps the connection between us is the sum total of who we really are: spiritual beings having a human experience.
I realize that sounds very heady and transcendental. But I mean it in the most practical of ways. Perhaps God feels like one of us because It is all of us. A grand mainframe with a circuit for each.
To me, this is why things work out better when we collaborate; it’s natural to us. We are connected in the truest sense, so when we exhibit that connection here on earth in ways that are relational and in support of community, everything just works better. On earth as it is in heaven. As above, so below.
When our contemporary religious practices first emerged through a succession of spiritual masters beginning around 2,500 years ago, those practices were entirely relational in nature. Relationship with the self, with history and tradition, with the community and one another, and relationship with God.
If we are all truly connected on a level we cannot see, what occurs along that connection? Collaboration is the only thing which comes to mind. Communication. Deliberation. Evaluation, perhaps intuitively misinterpreted as judgement. What does happen behind the green curtain? Whatever It is, that’s what I choose to call “God.” That is the ‘you’ whom I address.
Returning then to our prayer, thank you for everything, the “you” is subjective. It is your call. It is your choice. It can refer to the traditional God, if that is your preference. Or “you” may refer to the winds or the earth. “You” may even refer entirely to the self. Pray at least to your own ears, they are listening. And if there’s anything else listening, if there truly is a connection between us all, you would be the most direct route to the greater ear and heart of all existence.
The purpose of the prayer is to experience gratitude through having something upon which to direct it. Though some may disagree, It doesn’t matter to where that gratitude is directed, but that it is directed somewhere. Verbalizing gratitude, experiencing the value of the words ‘thank you’ and meaning them, is the whole point. We anthropomorphize God because Its easier to talk to that way.
Your personal definition of what “you” means is important to determine. Everyone should know, and not be afraid of questioning, their own personal viewpoint about the nature of the ultimate reality. What do you believe? This question is clearer for those who are comfortably religious. For the rest, it is important to note that it is not a question about religion. It is about knowing, and having spent some time thinking about what you believe is the truth. Direct your gratitude to that.
If we are to be thankful for life and for this world as a part of our daily practice, we must also be thankful for its potential to solve the problems we face. Our creativity is not limited to warfare and destruction. I am thankful for that.
It is said that God exists in the face of our neighbor. I believe this is true. And if the network of all reality is also true, then the face of my neighbor isn’t just a conduit to God, but the only conduit at all.
In my book, I believe the “you” is you.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 21, 2018 - The Level of Friendship

On what level of our psyche does friendship occur? What part of us is doing the feeling when we have a friend? Is it an area of our cerebral cortex? Is it in the air between us? Is it an entirely chemical reaction in the body? Where are the literal threads of my friendships and to what in me are they anchored?
I think most of us are comfortable with the notion that friendship is a real thing. Not imaginary. To be clear, I’m not speaking of the friends themselves. I’m speaking of the connection between them. That connection between you and your closest friend exists whether or not you are together. Across the globe from one another the friendship is no less strong. No less real.
Do we form these kinds of connections online as well as in “real life?” I would have to say yes. And we regularly form them with people we’ve never met. My mother had a penpal in Australia as a child. They wrote to each other for years. Decades later they finally met in person. Were they not friends until that point? Bonds between people strengthen with awareness and attention. Those are processes of the mind not the body.
What kind of connections do we have with people we’ve never physically met? Could we really deny that we have them? Is it possible for us to declare any form of friendship illegitimate? The fact that one can “friend“ someone on the Internet requires making a request. We may decline or accept it. But is that person now a “friend?” Aren’t they? We use the word. Does the word make it so? Wonder why the word ‘friend’ was chosen for the action of connecting with others online. Assume good. There’s something to it.
I think we somehow feel more comfortable in creating different categories, or levels, of friendship in our lives. We use words like ‘acquaintance’ or ‘colleague’ to differentiate between people whose company we actively enjoy and those with whom we occasionally interact, generally without conflict. But absence of conflict is not the definition of friend any more than is diplomacy. Many friends argue and many enemies smile at one another. What is a friend, really?
That is not my question to answer.
Where friendship actually occurs is the question I ask. Friendship is not tangible, yet we can feel it. Where is it being felt? The heart, one could say. And it’s probably true. We know physical connection, skin-to-skin contact, even from a handshake, boosts serotonin levels in the brain and makes us feel good. We “miss” people we are used to being around. Physical proximity does have physical advantages. But that does not make a friendship either. Is the heart a consciousness or a radio receiver? What if it’s both?
In this technological age, we are forced to redefine our concepts of neighbor, of friend. Scripture has tried to teach us that the word ‘neighbor’ both is and is not a metaphor. This planet is one, single neighborhood. We are all one tribe. Everyone is your neighbor. Especially now.
It’s okay to have thousands of friends. It’s okay to recognize that a connection links us all. The threads of friendship which exist between us were already there, long before any potential friend captures our attention and awareness. Connecting with them on the earth plane only serves to remind us of the celestial bond we always had. The literal connection between us was not created, it always was.
The interdependent web of all existence is the literal fabric of our friendships in the truest sense. Pull one thread and all are moved. That is the level of friendship. Do not seek to diminish it by declaring one form superior to another. There are only greater and lesser degrees of awareness, not friendship.
Be grateful for the vast quantity of friendships you have which are still unknown to you. For they are fully real.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 14, 2018 - The Secret to Life

There is one great overarching message which all mythology and religion tells us. It is repeated over and over. Story after story, it is drilled into us. God(s) want us to be grateful. They want our praise, our devotion. They expect total obedience and lengthy worship. At least, that’s how we have interpreted it.
The haphazard character of humanity is so often ascribed to divinity. We love to believe that God feels the way we feel. That God is only interested in being praised for the benefit of an ego. Greek mythology is especially good at making the divine in their stories behave like spoiled children. Worse actually, self-absorbed teenagers.
We historically sculpt the divine into a jealous reflection of ourselves. We know how we like to be praised. We know how good it feels to have a job well done recognized by people we respect. Some of us are obsessed with praise for unhealthy reasons and behave badly, even vengefully, when they don’t get what they need. We assume the same of heaven. We don’t realize that we are still telling those old misinterpretations about the nature of worship, and even sacrifice. We have outgrown our old understandings about the reasons for praise.
It’s to be expected, actually. I assume it’s part of the divine process of embedding gratitude into the culture of humanity over dozens of centuries. First, make it compulsory, then systems develop, over time it becomes habit, eventually we begin to notice the benefits, and finally we are evolved enough to do it on purpose and with full understanding. Isn’t that how every school lesson is learned? I know that’s exactly how I learned multiplication.
If there is a God, wouldn’t It know that humans learn in this linear way? Wouldn’t It present the lesson of gratitude to humanity in a way that we would slowly, but completely, enshroud it into our daily customs and rituals? Spiritual logic would observe that God nudges humanity rather than forces it. As all good parenting does.
Praise is about the experience of gratitude. It’s like the old milk campaign, it does a body good. There are mysterious comforts to the practice of gratitude as well as literal, physiological benefits. When we are all at optimum, both emotionally and physically, what else might our society be capable of? What higher levels of thought await us once we get out of our own way?
When agriculture was first invented, and we didn’t need to spend all and every day using our creativity to gather food, we had brain space leftover for higher levels of creative output. Of course we first used that creativity for warfare. But that’s what adolescents do. Eventually they grow up and higher forms of innovation begin to creep in. Both social and technological. Statistics show that warfare is actually slowly going out of business over time. Wonder why that is.
Today we have the luxury of examining gratitude and spiritual praise to see with hindsight the purpose and benefit of living a life saturated with thanksgiving. Are we finally mature enough as a society to see beyond the history of our rituals and find what they’ve really been trying to teach us for thousands of years? Is it gratitude which finally reveals itself to be the secret to life?
I’ve seen enough sociological and psychological research over the years to convince me there is a special relationship between humans and gratitude. There’s certainly no mistaking it is a central component to all spiritual practice. Plus, it actually feels good. So what do those three facts encourage in you?
It’s hard to feel grateful for things we don’t understand. Things which hurt us or frustrate us. That’s what the practices are all about. Forgiveness, hospitality, nonresistance, empowerment and compassion. These are the platforms which support the existence of gratitude. They enhance our capacity for gratefulness in times when we don’t understand our world. They help us assume that goodness is in the cracks. And goodness then becomes the seed we water.
Be thankful for everything. Literally. Say, ‘thank you for everything.’ Mean it. Find a place inside of you which can spend time dwelling on a belief that all shall be, and in fact truly is, well. Do it every day. Face stress with gratitude. Directly confront misery with it. Use gratitude as a weapon—perhaps the only weapon—against fear itself. I have a deep suspicion it will not only rewire the actual circuitry of your brain over time, but all parts of your reality as you know it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 7, 2018 - The Job Description

Sadly, as this column publishes, I will be burying my father. He was a good man who served his country and taught me a lot. And while there are of course many sadnesses, there are also joys to be remembered. Stories. Jokes. Friends who cherished him. I look forward to shaking their hands.
Of all the stories my dad told me, one in particular stands out.
In the 1970’s my father and his brother moved our families from Fitchburg and Lunenburg nearly 1,500 miles south to Miami, Florida. They had purchased an oil company franchise and each drove gas trucks at night filling up the tanks of post office vehicles. My mother did the bookkeeping and cared for three mostly well-behaved very young children.
My father’s job was extremely hard work. Very physically demanding. Racing around truck yards, lugging heavy gas lines from tank to tank, and climbing in and out of his truck cab hundreds of times a night. All racing against the clock before the mail carriers needed to make their appointed rounds. If gloom of night didn’t matter to mail carriers, it didn’t matter to the gas guys who filled their trucks either.
My father actually was a mail carrier here in Fitchburg when I was born. I’ve seen a picture of him in his uniform with a heavy mail bag slung across his shoulder and a big apple-cheeked grin. I wonder if he’d ever given thought to who prepared his truck for him long before his day began each predawn morning. I wonder what he thought about it when he became the one doing it for others.
Between Naples, Florida and Ft. Lauderdale there’s an infamous stretch of highway. It’s official name is Interstate 75, but is more popularly known as Alligator Alley. Part of my dad’s gas route took him along this dangerous 80-mile road bisecting the swampy marshlands of the Everglades.
Tourists who plan to make the trek are cautioned to be sure their gas tanks are filled, snacks and water are packed, emergency kits are checked, and above all, don’t drive it at night. Not only can the long, straight road mesmerize a tired driver and send them spiraling off into the swamp, but even the locked interior of a pulled-over, broken down car is no safe place to wait till morning. Critters of all kinds can nuzzle up to the engine block for warmth and find their way inside. Don’t bother going outside to answer nature’s call. You may not live to tell about it.
One night, my father came upon a car in just that state. The blinker was on. In his panic he had reflexively flipped his signal as he exited the lane. Car slightly at an angle to the road. Gently rolling to a stop with not even enough gas to bring the car parallel to the shoulder. I can picture it slowing; the gritty sound of tires rolling onto the sandy edge of the pavement. Engine sputtering to a stop, and then, no sound at all but nervous breathing, the clink-clink of the blinker, and the terrifying thrum of volumes of life just outside the window.
And then, perhaps after a likely prayer for deliverance, headlights approaching, the sound of a truck. And not just any truck. My dad’s truck. A truck that just happened to be filled with gas.
I have so many times throughout my life imagined that night. I’ve wondered what was actually said between them (my father never remembered the conversation). What the man was thinking in the moments before he knew he was being rescued. I wondered how he thought about his problem as the solution was literally driving straight toward him. My savior dad to the rescue.
I always imagined that the man thanked him profusely. Probably offered money. But if he did, I bet it was refused.
The one thing I’ve consistently envisioned is their departure. I can imagine the stranded man saying thank you again as they shake hands. They start to head to their own vehicles, but just before they disappear inside, the man asks my father his name.
“Dan Darcangelo,” my father would have said.
“That’s an interesting name. What does it mean?”
“It means ‘of the archangel’ in Italian.”
I wonder what the stranded fellow would have though of his prayer for deliverance being answered by a man named archangel suddenly showing up in the middle of the Everglades at night in his own gas truck. I wonder if his jaw left an imprint in the pavement. I wonder what became of his faith.
Ever since first hearing that story, I understood who I was and the purpose of the name my dad gave me. It tells me who I am. It’s not about being a literal angel, of course. But it is about deliberately choosing that as my life’s job description.
For whom are we angels? For whom do we show up exactly when needed? Exactly when called?
My dad was no angel. But perhaps that’s not exactly true. Perhaps we just don’t know what angels really are. Perhaps they’re exactly like a guy in a gas truck.