Saturday, December 28, 2019
Who are we, really? As a species, I mean? What is genuinely natural to us? And what is learned? And what about us decides whether or not what we’ve learned is something we should apply?
While not all in the world are Christian, obviously, Christianity has a way of speaking quite loudly at this time of year. Especially in the west. Aided by the vast amounts of commercialism applicable to the celebration of the season, Christmas has taken on a level of prominence in our society that far exceeds its religious expression or its religious community. Everyone, it seems, is subject to the exposure of ideas about Christmas, like it or not.
Some limit their holiday time to general ideas about goodness, Santa Claus, gift-giving, mirth, and recognitions of the return of the light as the days begin to get longer. And that has great value. But there is a story in Christmas; even a story behind the story.
The man we now refer to as Jesus was not born 2,019 years ago last Wednesday. We don’t actually know exactly when, or if, he was born at all. All we have are the stories. But whether or not Jesus was a real person, or if the person who has been described actually existed in the way we’ve been told, doesn’t matter. Not really. That’s not the part which has the most value. It’s the stories we have chosen to share, generation after generation, for a purpose.
I believe that Jesus was a teacher. I believe that if we were to imagine what it would be like to ask him, based on what scripture tells us about him, about what scripture tells us he said and did, and the people with whom he chose to break bread, I think, most of all, he would hope that from his life we would learn something, something about ourselves. And that because of this learning, we would be moved to do something a little bit different than we might have before. For what gives a teacher satisfaction most but that?
And where did he learn what he taught? Some say he just knew it because he was It. I can’t tell you whether that’s true or not. But there definitely are people in the world who have what we might call deep spiritual intuition. Masters in waiting, with something both special and intrinsic to them which sees things on a deeper level. A sacred teaching waiting to occur. Waiting for the moment when the vertical line of intrinsic, eternal knowledge and the horizontal line of earthly human experience intersect to form a ministry.
What makes a mystic into a minister? What brings it out in them is what they’ve seen. Where they’ve been. Whom they’ve known, and held, and grieved, and healed, and said goodbye to. That’s what brings out the teaching, which may very well be intrinsically known, but it was human experience which gave it words. It is human suffering, human loss, which awakens a teaching.
From the first days of Jesus’ life we are told he was on the move. Already learning the sorrows of humankind firsthand. Already being awakened for the task to come.
Not for being a nomad, however, but a refugee running for his life. Not for wishing to see greener pastures, but safer ones. Not a can-go, but a must-go. Fleeing, not journeying. Not prepared. Not wanting to go. What is it like to be held in the arms of a terrified mother? What does her heartbeat sound like? What did that little boy learn starting right then?
We are supposed to learn from this story—as we are supposed to learn from all stories—the ideal way to be human. That’s what we are supposed to learn from what we have been told. That is the intrinsic purpose behind the sharing of our tales. That is the reason for the wandering and wondering both.
The family of Christ was not lost. Nor are we.
For there is great hope in the world. There are an abundance of wise words and loving guidance, and yes, maybe even flashes of the presence of God, which have found their way into our customs and laws, thought by thought, intention by intention, desire by desire, decade by century, seeping into the fabric of our future. Hope. Light. Compassion. A zeal to serve.
Don’t believe all that you are seeing. It is a real, but distorted view. Look deeper. The proof of our human expansion is there underneath the suffering. The proof of our ever-enlightning society is there between the lines.
That’s who we are. That is what is intrinsically human. We are ready to grow, even as we fear it. Stumbling, but receptive. Wanting, yet questioning. Wandering, but far from lost. Take heart.
Saturday, December 21, 2019
What does the word grace mean to you? It might conjure thoughts of something graceful, like a ballet dancer. Or it might be the prayer ritual of giving thanks before a meal. Perhaps it could be that your first thought about grace is a specifically religious one.
In some faith systems, grace refers only to the receipt of eternal salvation granted solely by God upon a person’s declaration of a specific belief. Say you believe and free grace is yours. But this definition strays from the word’s origins and ignores the power we each of us has to bestow it ourselves.
There is more, however, to the word grace. But in all cases, including those mentioned above, grace is joyful, happy, free and pleasurable. The Latin origin is gratus, meaning pleasing, thankful and it is conceptually related to kindness. When something is given to us for free it is sometimes referred to as being gratis, or free of charge. Gratis in Latin means ‘as a kindness.’
None of those word origins speak directly of a ballet dancer or a prayer. Or even of its relationship to God. Yet religion has given us an opportunity to look at the concept of grace in a particularly spiritual light. One that serves us quite nicely.
In all definitions, grace is something which is bestown. To clarify, grace is something good that’s given to us, or by us to someone else. Grace does not exist separately from its giver. It is a state of being between the bestower and the bestowed.
Some people religiously confuse grace with mercy. The difference between them is worth noting for it better highlights their contrasting purposes. Mercy is the compassionate withholding of suffering or punishment, deserved or otherwise. Grace is the conferring of glad benefit. Both can be accomplished by a human judge, legally speaking, or a heavenly one, theologically speaking. A court judge can go lightly on the convicted when deciding their punishment. He or she can also perform an adoption and legally make a new family. One is mercy, the other is grace.
As for mercy, while I don’t personally subscribe to the idea of a judgemental God, It has traditionally been described as such. God’s mercy is often made reference to in scripture. But what evidence do we really have that God is merciful? We have no idea the inner workings of the Universe enough to conclude that we are experiencing more or less punishment than we’d otherwise have coming to us. Or if we are ever “punished” at all. Perhaps there is a God, and perhaps It’s merciful. But we have zero ability to ascertain that for ourselves. It is a belief based entirely on one Old Testament interpretation that we are all inherently sinful and flawed and are therefore ever-worthy of punishment. Through that lens, every good we receive is a mercy from God, not a grace.
This is unfortunate, for it further ingrains in us the idea that we don’t even truly deserve the good we receive. Are we fully able to appreciate what we are mercifully given? Perhaps. But there’s a difference between receiving a hug and dodging a bullet. I’d wager the more accurate response to mercy is relief, not joy, happiness, freedom or pleasure. Relief is is a blessing, but not the same.
Grace, however, is something freely and lovingly given without condition. It is an act of pure love. It is, at its core, the active demonstration of forgiveness, hospitality, nonresistance, compassion, empowerment, and gratitude as a life practice. Grace is the exhibition of the relational dharma of the Christian teachings (and other similar traditions) from throughout human history.
When we display kindness, we are displaying grace. When we actively live by the teachings of the world’s most prolific spiritual masters we are embodying the attributes of grace. When we embody grace, I believe grace embodies us. A relationship is formed between us and grace itself. I believe that this is when grace becomes a thing of its own. A life force. A power that builds upon itself. I believe that kindness is grace personified. Personify it as often as you can.
We are called, in times such as these, to act according to the better angels of our nature. We are being demanded from within to reach across the divide and demonstrate grace, not mercy. Perhaps punishment is deserved by some. Met it out with grace rather than mercy. Though it may look the same. they are not. Mercy does not work to eradicate sorrow and fear, but grace does. Grace is restorative, whereas even a merciful punishment can still be retributive. Seek to restore peace to your enemy. That is what we have been taught. That is grace.
Posted by Wil Darcangelo, M.Div. at 9:51 AM
Saturday, December 14, 2019
Patience is an interesting practice. Of course, it takes practice. But it also takes patience with oneself while practicing it. The irony is evident.
But patience is, in reality, a practice of nonresistance and forgiveness, even hospitality. Because, when we think about who and what frustrates us, we have to acknowledge it’s typically because, right or wrong, our expectations are not being met. The practice being recommended here is not so much about altering our expectations, as reframing them.
Long before I met him, my husband Jamie used to suffer from low-grade road rage. He wouldn’t get out of the car and punch someone’s windshield, but he’d scream and yell (and likely gesticulate colorfully through the window) whenever someone would demonstrate less-than-stellar driver courtesy.
A thought was suggested to him that when these moments occur he think of himself in the guise of the old Imperial margarine campaign, trumpet fanfare calling as a crown magically appears on his head. (Because the margarine was so good, you’d feel like royalty, apparently.) Who did he think he was, the Emperor?
That thought had the effect of humbling him in a way that was tinged with self-deprecating humor rather than shame or humiliation. Whenever he’d encounter an opportunity to lose his cool on the road, he’d hear the trumpet fanfare in his head, and as he got better at it, laugh to himself and continue on. Neither blue word nor finger displayed.
Jamie credits that tactical thought with completely eradicating his road rage over time. I know I have never personally seen it.
The old aphorism which declares ‘patience is a virtue’ has some merit. A virtue is something hard won in the face of deep biological and often emotional obstacles. It is a gold star of chosen behavioral standards. A well-chosen moral practice. It’s difficult to do and so it’s worth recognizing as a mark of good character.
So how do we accomplish it? Patience is easy to say but difficult to manage. Breathing helps. But so does imagination.
How often do we lose our patience with something because we don’t have all the information? How many gaps are you filling in with information you don’t possess? Quite a bit I’d guess most of the time. We almost never know the real story behind why people do or things occur the way they do.
I know I make stupid mistakes in traffic all the time. Everybody does it. It’s good to be a defensive driver, because we are all human.
Sometimes people tailgate because they really have to go to the bathroom and they might not realize they’re tailgating. Some people just want you to move so they creep up really close to dominate you out of the way. There’s a Massachusetts term for these people I won’t use here.
But how can I know which guess about their motivation is right? The need to go to the bathroom or the need to push aside? I can certainly empathize with the former. So why not fill the gaps in my understanding with that? Might that not make me immediately a little bit more patient with them?
I would certainly hope someone would fill in the information that I’m a scatterbrained rather than selfish when I forget to flip on my turn signal until the last minute. I would hope that other drivers are as patient with me as I try to be about them.
Use your imagination to fill in the gaps with things that make you feel better about others, especially when it doesn’t matter what the actual truth is. Why someone’s tailgating me, in the end, is actually of no consequence.
But sometimes you find out. I know there have been plenty of times where I decided to make a better assumption about people‘s motives only to find out that their motives weren’t so pure. The strange thing is, because of my patience with them, sometimes their motives changed.
The same goes for circumstances having nothing to do with other people but just life. But be patient anyway. Take a stance of patience with the flow of your life. Allow a bit of grace into the reasoning of your world. I think the math would bear it out that we’d feel far better far more often if we stopped assuming the worst in others and allowed people a bit of grace.
While you’re at it, allow some for yourself.
Saturday, December 7, 2019
Albert Einstein concluded that time is relative. It’s easy to say but difficult to quite fully take in the implications of the idea. It means a few different things. Specific to Einstein‘s theory, it states that if you were to take a clock and bring it to different places on the planet, or the solar system, galaxy, or universe, it would move at a different speed relative to your present location. To you, it would appear the same in either place because time will be moving for you at the same speed as the clock itself. But if you could compare your clock with one in a different place within the universe, they would be moving at such different speeds as to be impossible to compare.
Another instance of time relativity is in the recognition that gravity also makes an impact on the speed of time. A clock at sea level, where gravity is slightly stronger than at higher altitudes, will move a fraction of millisecond faster than a clock on top of Mount Everest where gravity is slightly weaker. Imperceptible to humans, but not immeasurable.
Then there is the notion of time feeling like it’s moving slowly when you dislike something or fast when you’re loving it. We’ve all had days when we were so busy and productive that the day seemed to go by incredibly quick. It’s quitting time before you know it.
So the experience of time is not constant and it is impacted by a number of different factors. Some of which are not out of our control.
So what does this matter to you, or me? It means we can manipulate our experience of time on purpose. And to our benefit.
One summer I was dreading the end of my vacation before it had even begun. I was already projecting myself into the future disappointment I would experience. Instead of living in the space of anticipation, I had already jumped ahead to the space of longing. I moved forward in time—emotionally, in this case—to an imaginary time period potentially less enjoyable than the one I was literally in. Don’t lose an opportunity to be anticipating something positively. It’s good for your brain juices and helps makes time function differently.
I somehow realized the folly of my thinking and snapped out of it. I made a plan. I spent several chunks of the first actual day of my vacation meditating and praying for time to slow down. Please, may it drag forward, luxuriating in its own laziness. Amen. I vowed to the Universe that I would extract every last drop of enjoyment from my vacation, second by second, in a slow drip of pleasure and relaxation.
Those two weeks felt like an entire summer. I felt more rested at the end of that vacation than any I had ever experienced before. I realized I was onto something. Sometimes I go on vacation and forget to do this little practice. Remembering it as I’m packing to leave and then kicking myself for having wasted the opportunity to make it seem longer. And then going through the motions of forgiving myself, of course. But ultimately I shouldn’t have needed to. Especially if I have the power to control my own time.
Note: You cannot control the speed of time for others. Only yourself. And it does seem somewhat paradoxical to contemplate the idea that we have any real power over actual time by the power of our thoughts. But that is where we should remind ourselves of the key idea in this concept. It’s all relative.
If you are having an excellent day at work, and things are going smoothly for you, and time feels like it’s going faster, your coworker sitting at the desk right next-door to you could be having a miserable day and for him time feels like it’s dragging on horribly. That’s relativity. Relative to your coworker, your day is zipping along quite nicely. The clock on the wall still moves at the same speed, though. It has its own relative reality.
At this exceptionally busy time of year, make a choice to perceive time differently. Pray for time to slow down for you. Meditate on the idea of enjoying it all. Even if your body is physically rushing around, let your mind perceive it slowly.
It’s a little mental trick with big emotional and physical advantages. Just think about the stress on your body when you’re rushing around in a half-panic. What if you were still getting things done but not feeling the sense of stress? How much better is that for your body in the long term? How much better is it for your emotional state? Your sense of enjoyment? To say nothing of the impact it makes on those around you.
What if you regularly took an opportunity to take a deep breath and imagine the hands on the clock literally slowing down?
Savor life. Don’t wish it away. It will move past you in a blink. Gaining speed as you age until the decades start to go by at the speed of years. Grinding your body to a powder in the process with stress and disappointment that was never necessary, never part of the plan.
You are in charge of your perception of the world. Make exceptional use of it.
Saturday, November 30, 2019
It’s all about feeling good, really. Joy. Undiluted, full-strength, lo-and-behold, rapture. That’s what we are meant to know and experience. It is a sacred right to be happy.
But what do we do about that right? We first have to accept it as a right. Allow me to repeat it, then: You have a sacred right to be happy. So often we are taught by society to place our own desires and happiness in second place as compared to the needs of our loved ones, of the community, and of, well, the whole world, frankly. Everyone else comes first. How’s that going for you?
Before we get into how to be happier, let’s address why. Enhanced happiness not only improves the quality of your life, it improves the quality of the lives of all those around you. At the very least, it does no additional damage. Happiness is contagious and few are immune to it.
Plus, happiness is physically healthier.
A preponderance of scientific evidence has clearly illustrated the beneficial effects of serotonin and dopamine in the body. Dopamine, is particularly famous for its effect on the brain and cellular structures. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and motivation in particular and is the reason we often refer to recreational drugs as ’dope’ because their initial effect is to make us feel good; primarily through the increasing dopamine production in our brains. But beware of achieving good brain chemistry through artificial means. It has a tendency to shut off our brain’s natural ability to produce them and requires more drugs over time to achieve the same effect.
Dopamine is a little bit more complex than just acting as a pleasure chemical. Dopamine’s bigger job is as a motivator. It motivates us to repeat our behavior because of how good it feels. When we experience enhanced dopamine levels, we naturally want more of it. One of the bigger moments for this happy little chemical is during excitement and anticipation. Looking forward to something enhances dopamine.
Sometimes I’m so busy preparing for something that I forget to be excited about it. I forget to take the time to imagine and anticipate and look forward to the feelings I will have. But that is doing my body a disservice as well as getting only half of the joy I might otherwise experience during the event itself. My brain needs time to prepare for the festivities. It’s not really looking for a surprise party. It wants to be part of the planning.
In a sense, it’s like trying to hit a golf ball without a backswing. The backswing is what gives it its power almost entirely. The backswing is what prepares us and warms up the motor of our dopamine production so that as we enter into the experience itself, our brains are fully ready to be as happy as possible.
This is ideal, because not only will you experience greater amounts of happiness, that extra dopamine flooding your body is practically a cure-all. You want as much of it as possible and as naturally-occurring as you can manage. It heals your cellular structure, positively affects your kidneys, insulin production, your digestive system and mental health.
Being happy enhances dopamine production and enhanced dopamine production makes us happier. In this case, the horse walks beside the cart.
Which is good news, because it means you can approach your happiness and your health from whichever direction is easiest for you.
If you are already happy, keep at it. Recognize that to build even more upon that happiness will improve the quality of your life. But if you are less than happy, you can take actions that increase your dopamine levels deliberately, ultimately achieving the same result.
There are many ways to increase the volume of our positive brain juices. Gratitude is first among them. Do everything you can to find ways to be grateful. Especially in the midst of sadness or tragedy, reach for a better thought. When tragedy strikes, look for the helpers who always show up. Be grateful for them even while recognizing the realities of sorrow. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. In fact, finding reasons to be grateful, even amid tragedy, will benefit whatever challenges lay ahead in the recovery process. Get those dopamine levels as high as possible.
Your diet can greatly impact it as well. Eat more protein. Protein rich foods contain important amino acids that are crucial in the production of dopamine. It promotes deep thinking and improves our memory. Increased protein is likely the reason our distant ancestors developed larger brains. Think on that.
Eat less saturated fat, which inhibits dopamine production. Take probiotics which improve gut flora and certain bacteria that also produce dopamine.
Exercise can not only boost dopamine levels but our endorphin levels as well, which helps us move toward happiness even further. Additionally, sleep, music, meditation, and sunlight all do their part to enhance the optimum levels of good chemicals in our brain and body. These chemicals help our cells get rid of fat easier and retain fluids better, allowing them to function at their best.
Sometimes we don’t know where to turn when depression or anxiety overtake us. But we are not powerless to affect them. We are in the driver’s seat more than we realize. It is our choice to turn right or left. Take hold of the wheel.
Saturday, November 23, 2019
What does it take to be honest? I mean genuine, 100 percent, truth-telling honesty as a daily life practice. Do we recognize how often we are even slightly dishonest? One study found that 60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies. Women were more likely to lie in order to make someone else feel good, while men lied to make themselves look good.
That gender disparity aside, for there is far too much to unpack here in that alone, let’s consider what it would take to be completely honest for that 10-minute conversation. The short answer is: practice. Primarily, self-awareness is the key. We need lots of practice to be self-aware about what we say and why we say it.
In scripture it is said that it’s not what goes into someone’s mouth which defiles them, it’s what comes out of it. How often do we think we are doing the “right thing” by fibbing or bending the truth, even in the interest of sparing someone’s feelings? I would argue that sometimes it is the right thing to do, but it’s a slippery slope. It’s very easy to justify a “white lie” when it comes to getting a birthday present we’re not so in love with, or when your wife asks you if her pants make her look fat. Being kind is always the preferred action. Temper honesty with compassion. Fib about the pants and then go get a gym membership together.
But beware, that talent to justify our untruths can bleed over into areas where we lie because it’s easier to lie when the truth, while perhaps more difficult than fibbing, is better for the situation. There’s a difference between lying and deceiving, for instance. Though the distinction may be small, it is an ethical choice overall.
If someone asks you your opinion on something, chances are it’s best to give them your honest opinion. They have asked for it, after all. But again, kindness is preferable. Don’t just drop the truth on them without concern for how it will affect them. Find a way to be fully honest without devastating them, if possible.
Yet there are times when people need a good “come to Jesus” moment, as they say. These truths are more in line with an intervention than anything else. They represent a truth which, in the best interest of the person, must be told. A recognition of an addiction problem that has gone too far or a health crisis in the making. These are truths which should be diplomatic and carefully thought out, but unvarnished nonetheless. Your love is your honesty. Speak in love. Even if tough love is what’s being called for.
Typically, I’d advise beginning with oneself when starting a new life practice. But when it comes to honesty, it’s even harder to be honest with ourselves than it is with others. So self-honesty will have to take a back seat for a while as we practice it on other people first. But the good news is that once we start being truly honest with others, self-honesty will occur on its own. You might not like all that you discover, however. But it will be okay. You will get through it. Remain steadfast and it will change your life for the better in ways that you never dreamed.
Listen to the words you use when you talk. Do you exaggerate? Try to reign it in a bit. Do you fib to make others feel better? See if there are ways to make people feel good while also being honest. Do you stretch the truth to make yourself look good? Wonder why that is so. What’s so bad about being honest about our own shortcomings, weaknesses and vulnerabilities? Provided that it’s safe to do so, for some of the more unscrupulous may use it against you, why not just admit our truth?
The truth will set you free. But that freedom comes with responsibility. We have to decide how to be honest while also causing no harm. Truth is meant to empower, not destroy. No real decision can be made without understanding all the options as they truthfully exist. Arm others with truth even when it’s difficult. Otherwise, the relationship is built upon sand and will only last so long as the lie is perpetuated. Eventually something is going to hit the fan and it won’t be pretty.
It isn’t easy to do, but try anyway. Listen to yourself and be radically curious about why you say the things you say. Is it to make your life easier, or better? Easy isn’t always so good, but better at least represents progress. Shoot for that when shooting from the hip. It’s pretty radical to be honest these days, but it’s key to the most fulfilling life possible. And, in all honesty, you deserve that.
Saturday, November 16, 2019
It occurred to me, while watching a documentary about advanced mathematics recently, that there is a difference between something that has been created and something which has been revealed. Mathematicians think of mathematics as something which has always existed and is “discovered” over time rather than something which humanity has invented from scratch on its own. By what is that discovery encouraged?
Some world scripture is defined as having been “revealed”—by God, ostensibly—rather than written. This takes the authorship of the text out of human hands, which are considered transcribers rather than authors. In other words, a person may be putting pen to paper, but they claim the words are not theirs.
In modern spiritual terminology this would be referred to as channeling. Although some may take exception to the term, channeling is, by definition, what’s occurring when a person is claiming that they are transcribing ideas which do not come from them, but from something other than human, and through extra-sensory means which are not explainable. This is literally what scripture claims to be as well. They use the term revealed.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all conclude their texts to be divinely revealed. According to their own traditions, all but the Judaic laws were physically written down by human hand, even if dictated by something else. Mainstream Christians also conclude that the subsequent translations and editing processes were divinely inspired as well, allowing for the viewpoint that even deliberate attempts to alter the Bible away from God’s intent would either be thwarted or were part of the plan all along.
Mathematics is fascinating with regard to the universality of its language. Math is constant and is believed to have always existed. Mathematics is something which is and has been either discovered by, or revealed to, humanity over time, depending on your viewpoint.
Nikola Tesla believed, as Albert Einstein believed, as many of our most brilliant theoreticians, mathematicians, and scientists have believed that a large portion of their best work has simply come to them in a dream or an enhanced state of awareness. Oftentimes these discoveries occur simultaneously throughout the planet, but we learn only of those who said them out loud first. What could we infer from this?
I am a person of deep faith. I have faith that there are things going on behind the scenes, which are beyond our understanding, but are always in loving support of the progress of humanity. That is my faith. We are not alone, we are loved, and it’s all going to work out in the end. That is what I believe.
So when I think about discoveries in the areas of science or mathematics and read the words from humanity’s greatest scientific masters about how these “discoveries“ occurred, I am compelled by my faith to conclude they are part of a bigger plan. I can’t help it. I believe that an “energy” (for lack of a more generalized term), which most people refer to as God, is behind these discoveries, and as such, I find no shame in thinking them revelations. Why shouldn’t we?
For then we are, by that thought, given license to consider where else revelations are still being made without recognition, credit or awareness? I don’t think God has an ego in the way it has been described. I don’t think God is jealous or vengeful. Those are human failings which do God a disservice to ascribe to It. So we don’t always need to be aware of, and therefore proclaim, the source of our best and most loving ideas. Take the credit. If they are truly being so subtly whispered in our ear, assigning credit is obviously far secondary to the more important goal of their existence in the world. It’s better that good ideas just be out there.
So now the big question is: Does God whisper in your ear, too? My faith tells me yes. It’s a good idea to attempt to sit quietly and listen to it once in a while. Or to run with your gut instincts on something. Or to write down a good idea that suddenly comes to you while you’re in the shower. We’ve all had moments like this. What do we make of them? What do we do about them? Do we believe that revelations are only for other people? You are “other people” to someone else.
My faith tells me that the supply of water behind the tap is always there. It is our choice whether or not to turn the handle and let it flow. When in doubt, visualize just that. Visualize a faucet being turned on full and allowing a sink to fill with water glinting in a beam of sunlight from a window. Just enjoy that thought without expectation or wishes. It will flip a switch inside you. Something higher may deserve the credit for the ideas which will come, but you will still deserve the credit for being their messenger.
Saturday, November 9, 2019
Navigating life is a pain in the butt, frankly. It’s an unending series of rights and lefts. Constantly trying to figure out where to place your foot next so that you don’t step in anything revolting, then track it in the house and ruin the carpet. We often mean well but make mistakes anyway. We often hurt people to whom we are attempting to show our love. And worst of all we sometimes break things our intention was to repair.
Of course practicing forgiveness is the first good idea. Both for ourselves and others. It’s important to model forgiving behavior for those from whom we will likely be asking for it one day. Don’t just pay it forward, pay it in advance.
In the meantime, it’s best to practice finesse. The definition of the word finesse is a bit opaque. One definition I found states that it’s an “intricate and refined delicacy.” Not so clear. The word origins also add the word purity, however. And that’s a pretty good place to start.
Purity is a word that revolves largely around intent. The proverbial road to hell is not paved with good intentions as they say, it’s paved with apathy. Finesse cares about things and works toward achieving them. It has a mission to accomplish good even though it’s a skill which can, admittedly, be used both ways. The intention of the word is pure. I think the hint in there is suggesting that finesse is far more effective when used for good.
We often think of finesse in physical terms for things like exceptional skill in sports or even cooking. But more than anything else it matters for our relationships. It is a relational practice.
Finesse sometimes means turning the other cheek. It means listening honestly to people when they’re hurt and perhaps not using all their words carefully. It means always listening to their heart and only sometimes their mouth. Finesse often merits a sublimation of our ego but not our self worth. Sometimes, biting our tongue or focusing on what’s important requires us to take an extra deep breath and assume that calmness and patience will bring the best results in the end. Slow and steady wins the race. The turtle knew what it was talking about in its race with the hare. That turtle had game.
Finesse is the art of diplomacy. It is an attentional effort. It is a recognition of the “fine-ness” of the good behaviors which others sometimes model for us and choosing to build upon them for ourselves, as a life practice. That kind of positive action has a ripple effect. Be a lighthouse of it.
It’s a rather dramatic and sweeping word, finesse. It has a style to it even in the lettering. It has a mission. It wants to accomplish an objective with skill and deftness and grace. And it clearly wishes to be noticed for it.
It’s fun to do things with style when you can manage it.
Several years ago I was working with my afterschool kids setting up a zombie festival on a horribly rainy day near Halloween. As the start time approached, I was clipping stage lights to a ceiling pipe while standing on the nearly-upper rung of a 12’ tall ladder resting against the wall inside the venue where a concert was to be held.
When the base of the ladder suddenly began to slide away from the wall on the slippery floor I instinctively grabbed the end of the pipe only to realize it was the tail end of a sprinkler. The pipe broke about six feet back and the venue began to flood. But as the ladder fell to the floor I held fast to the end of the pipe and gently lowered myself to the ground like Mary Poppins sticking the landing. That was finesse.
Perhaps that’s not the best example. But if I had fallen and truly injured myself it would’ve made the evening far more complicated and dramatic. It certainly would’ve had a longer lasting negative impact on my life rather than end up just a funny story. That’s what finesse is supposed to accomplish: As much ease as we can muster under the circumstances.
The fire department came quickly enough and with a whole team of us on site squeegeeing out the water onto Main Street we got it taken care of so quickly the laminate flooring didn’t even have time to get wrecked. Of course I don’t take credit for that with my stylish landing, but it makes for a good story.
Allow for the possibility that all shall be well in the end if only we hold tight to our principles and practice them. Life is better if we can manage it. It’s easy to say though hard to do. But try it anyway and in whatever small ways you can manage. Learn how to choose your words carefully and and with empathy. Learn to listen honestly. Finesse takes practice just like for any athlete or chef. It is a deliberate building of our skill set toward the goal of navigating our lives with greater satisfaction and ease. Choose it for yourself.
Saturday, November 2, 2019
When I switch back and forth on my television from cable to another media device I have to press a button on the remote control which says “source.“ It switches the view of what I’m watching on the screen from the signal coming from the cable box, for instance, to a signal from the DVD player.
But if the DVD player isn’t turned on when I switch it, the screen will display nothing but the words, “No Signal.“ Meaning, I’m in the right place, but there’s nothing to see here.
Sometimes my brain is so busy that I can hardly get a word in edgewise. Things I’m worried about, things I’m happy about, things I know I have to get to, and things I’m glad I’m finished. It’s like watching a news cycle on six different media outlets all at the same time.
Nearly every time I see the words “No Signal“ on the television screen I take a deep breath and say, “Thank you.” Sometimes I can then go several seconds without letting anything enter my mind. Eventually, it all creeps back, of course. But do I feel better about the subjects of my rumination after a bit of non-thinking than I did a few seconds before? Actually, I do.
How much time in our lives do we give ourselves to unplug? To cut the signal? Do we ever?
I have a dear friend who appears to cherish the hyper-busyness of her mind. She claims to be powerless over it and so her coping skill is to just accept it, even brag about it a little. But I wonder if she isn’t merely tolerating it rather than truly accepting it. Being resigned to something isn’t the same as being allowing of it. It certainly isn’t the same thing as surfing it.
After a meeting recently, I took her to a path in the woods nearby for a quiet, 15-minute session of a Japanese meditation technique called shinrin yoku which translates to “forest bathing.” It’s a simple quieting of the mind about everything except the aspects of the forest itself. The forest becomes a proxy higher power for a short time, allowing for a brief respite from input. It won’t change us overnight. But it gets a foot in the door. Keep at it.
What harm can it do to shut off our various technologies for a little bit? I don’t like the idea that my electronic devices can determine the amount of dopamine and serotonin my brain produces. But that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s no better than being addicted to any other substance.
As a Gen X-er, I remember the time before Internet, before voicemail, and cell phones, even pagers. We didn’t expect immediate answers to everything. We didn’t require constant stimulation in this way. I don’t think humanity has biologically changed in that regard, even if it has become accustomed to the hyper-speed of life in this Information Age. It’s the difference between wanting something and truly needing it. We may want this hyper-speed and constant input, or have been convinced to believe we want it, but that doesn’t mean we need it. Remember that it’s mostly the media and media devices which tell us how much we need them. Perhaps we should consider the source.
What is your source? Where are you getting your information and how is it making you feel? Your source can be your own personal history and the ghosts of your memory just as easily as some outside media device. What informs your happiness, or lack of it? What informs your self-identity?
This is often why people who subscribe to a belief in a higher power tend to live longer. Because that higher power is, or becomes, one of their primary sources. That particular signal input has intrinsic value in that It connects us with something larger than ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be a deity. This is not about advocating a belief in the traditional view of God. This is about allowing for the ‘signal/no signal’ of a purer source to be a major stakeholder in our daily lives. That higher power can be many things so long as it is comforting to you, empowering, and instills a sense of purpose and worth. Your smart phone definitely does not qualify.
But a hiking club might. A social justice group might. A church might. Anything which expands upon your enrichment and inner peace qualifies as an appropriate higher power. If there is a God, It doesn’t care what you choose, so long as it be toward peace.
Too much input prevents us from being able to discern the most appropriate sources for ourselves. There’s too much digital chatter telling us what to believe, how to feel, whom to vote for. We either feel desperate to know or desperate to avoid knowing. Neither option brings us peace. Change your input to ‘no signal’ once in a while and just listen. You might be surprised to find the deepest parts of you are all too eager for you to hear them. Give them a chance.
Saturday, October 26, 2019
I had a conversation with a good friend recently. He’s not a religious person, by any stretch. He has been to my church a couple of times and has expressed an interest in the way I approach things. But that’s about as close to organized religion as he’s ever been comfortable with.
I have no issue with this, of course. It’s not my job to convert people to any particular religion. I prefer to help people assess what religion they already are. Because I truly believe everybody has a religion. Of one fashion or another.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize what religion we profess. And by use of the word ‘religion’ here, I mean to say that we all place our faith in something. It’s good to have an idea of what it is. But most of us subscribe to faith systems which we don’t even realize are in progress. We may go to church, we may profess a certain type of faith regarding the nature of God, or lack of It. But the philosophies and principles of those religions may not be what you, deep down, actually live by. It’s good to know if that’s true or not.
By the same token, it’s good to recognize when the way you live your life happens to already coincide with what all religion is trying to teach us.
How do you live your life? How do you govern your behavior? Are you judgemental? Notice about what. Notice when the particular behaviors of others tweak you. Wonder why that is so. When we are tweaked into judging others, there’s something important to be learned about ourselves. It hinges on the practice of whatever religion you have deliberately or inadvertently chosen. What is your faith?
Many of us live our lives by what we learn in the church of materialism, for example. We subscribe to the doctrine of gain-at-all-costs when a slight shift toward a respect for abundance might yield a greater return on your faith investment. It’s not that having “stuff” is bad, it’s when that “stuff” is used as the metric to define your own worth that your weakness is revealed to be a strength in excess. In other words, “stuff” is fun to have around. But don’t let it define you. Don’t let Stuff=Worth become your religion.
My friend owns and lives in an old granite mill building by a river that was converted into multiple apartments many years ago. He was telling me about the slight cultural shift he’s noticed in the building.
A while back, he put a bench and tables by the river’s edge and noticed the tenants increasingly gathering there together in ways they hadn’t before. He found it meaningful. He attributed an overall neighborly shift in the building, which occurred over time, to choices like that and others which have a tendency to bring people together.
There are other aspects of my friend’s character which reveal a deep generosity and a love for other people. These qualities are natural to him. He has told me they were definitely not learned in the home. They are simply intrinsic to him.
It occurred to me that this was how he expressed his faith. With or without a conscious belief in God or Its nature, nor the rules for good behavior that we are meant to memorize and follow, my friend was good because it is fulfilling for him to be good in these ways.
That’s not to say he doesn’t revel in his streak of curmudgeon. He loves to occasionally feign a grumpy exterior. But the goodness of his heart is unmistakable and there should be more people like him. People who are unapologetic about the goodness they perform and need no higher guidance to tell them how or when to perform it. It has just become natural to them. That’s a good religion.
After talking about it for a while, he described the overall philosophy simply as this: “Serenity is the measure.” It’s what motivated the bench and tables by the river. Serenity. It’s what motivates even the smallest of actions in the management of his building in favor of friendliness among the tenants. Peace. It’s what motivates his desire to be of service to the elderly across the street, even when he can’t quite figure out how. Inner satisfaction. Serenity is the measure.
Serenity is his religion. The inner doctrine he has written in favor of that outcome helps him make choices about how to be in relationship with the world. Serenity is his dharma, his rulebook.
That’s not to say he is any more or less perfect than the rest of us. I have highlighted his halo and wings here for a moment, but the rest of him is just as human. He struggles just as much with the implications of his faith as the rest of us.
But we should recognize the goodness we perform in the world and ask ourselves what motivates it. If we do good to simply feel good, that serenity is our measure. If we do good so that we won’t feel guilty, or so that we can make someone else happy, or so that we can prove something to someone, it won’t make you feel very good. It’s swimming upstream and will wear you out over time.
Let serenity be your measure. Seek a deep inner satisfaction in the goodness you perform. If you are part of an organized religion, notice the places in which it says to do just that and look for more of the same. If you have no religion at all and seek none, it’s OK. The same still applies. Notice your goodness and do more for the sake of it. Let that be your religion. Let it be well with your soul. That is the goal of any faith.