Saturday, May 25, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 25, 2019 - The Way Forward

We have a lot of thoughts about the word “way.” In religious terms, it refers to a deliberately chosen life path, or religion. In spiritual discussions, it can mean the way of your soul’s (and theoretically, God’s) deepest intent for you. We use the former to help keep us on the latter.

Thank you for my way. Thank you for the way before me and the way I have come. Thank you for signs. I am grateful for taking the time to read them.

This is how I frame my prayers when I don’t know exactly what it is I’m praying for, other than to simply feel better. This is how I ask God to show me what I’m supposed to be seeing.

All of us have and will experience hardship in our lives. What is your emotional fitness in preparation for them? Our emotional fitness determines our ability to cope with grief and sorrow when it inevitably comes. How we feel about things now will determine the way we choose to heal ourselves later, or if we choose to find healing at all. Feeling better helps us find our way.

This is why personal joy and happiness matters so much. We are a much greater service to the planet by finding our own inner comfort. But we are expected to be a secondary consideration. Society tells us we’re only supposed to think of others and remain selfless. But there’s a flaw in the terminology of self-less. Because while its ideals are noble, its words are misleading and have borne false teachings. The word selfless is an oxymoron. There is no circumstance in which the self is not considered. We will always be a part of any equation. Forgetting to include ourselves is a deep inner declaration of worthlessness. Without even realizing it we make it part of the foundation of our house.

Which brings me back to the word way. What is your way? Knowing that what’s intended for you is just as important as what’s intended for everybody else, can you identify yours? What would your higher self have to say about the way meant for your life, your life’s path? Are you on it right now? We all occasionally stray from our intended path. It feels terribly uncomfortable whenever we do it. Prolonged discomfort is sadly unhealthy. Seek to avoid it.

Think about what “your way“ might be. Did you make some agreement for this life before you were born? Did you make a promise about where you’d go or whom you’d love? Did you covenant to leave the world a more loving place than you found it? Consider what your soul’s intention might be. Are you doing anything against it?

Finding our own path and knowing for certain we are on it is a Herculean task. We always doubt. Yet it must be possible to work toward aligning with it. How much do we resist our own intended path, our own desires, thinking they will infringe upon the paths of others? We don’t need to abandon the ones we love in order to understand our own way. Do not be afraid. Coming to terms with our path typically helps us find comfort with where that path has led us. Being true to yourself might not be as hard as you fear.

The prayer I say to myself is, “Thank you for my way.“ Whether I understand it or not, I am grateful for the idea that there is an intention for me. I am grateful for the intention itself. I don’t have to clearly know where it is or what it is in order to be grateful for that it is. I believe that type of thinking attracts a deeper understanding of what we are each truly meant for in this life.

The secret in the prayer, “thank you for my way,”  is that it’s not trying to define what that way is. It is non-resistant by its own wording. That’s an important component of efficient prayer and personal growth: a lack of expectations of the ways they are to be achieved. When we wish to participate in forces we may trust but do not understand, it’s best to frame our meditations around how we want to feel. It’s easier that way. Emotions are the only things about which we have some control or imagination.

Can you find a way to be grateful for exactly where you are and what you are experiencing? Can you be glad for your way? Use your imagination to conceive that some good might one day come from our traumatic experiences. Step forward in time and sink into the gratitude of that whenever possible. You won’t realize it in the moment, but you’ll be cultivating a garden from that manure. And amid that garden, a little pathway shall form.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 18, 2019 - What Are We Praying For?

Praying gets a bad rap. Especially since it’s a fairly effective tool when used properly. For many, however, prayer is so deeply tied to negative feelings about organized religion. Hurt, rejection, judgement, compulsory words recited as punishment. These feelings become entangled with the word prayer and work against it.

But the word itself is neutral from all that drama. It innocently floats above the goings-on unaware. It cannot be blamed for anything. It’s just a word.

The word means simply, to ask. It is distinct from the practice of meditation in that prayer is an act of reaching out toward a Something we perceive to be outside of ourselves. It is a deliberate connection-making. Meditation is another part of the process in that it reaches inward, preparing the being within for the task of reaching out. Meditation calms the fervent physical body so that we are better able to define for ourselves the focus of our prayer. Quiet waters are clearer.

All of us have to decide what it is, outside of ourselves, which receives the prayer we make. It can be a god you describe for your own purposes. It can be the Great Central Source. It can be the God of Abraham. It can be your front lawn. It can be the great invisible web itself which connects us all. The concept of a “Higher Power” is not about height, it’s about frequency. Seek the highest frequency available to you and orient your prayer toward that. Belief in a literal God is not specifically required.

Even the old school traditional idea of God allows “him” to be so vast as to not at all be bothered by the direction we orient our worship, so long as it be toward unity. Unity is the goal of all faiths. Which means it’s not the “to whom” part that matters most. It’s the act of asking itself which plugs us into whatever the Ultimate Reality may be. We don’t have to understand it to belong to the process.

Let go of defining God. Especially for others. Even better, let go of the definitions which have been imposed upon you. There’s a reason for the rule against idolatry. It’s good advice, really. Because a statue of God is only one single view of the divine, from only a three-dimensional angle, of conclusions drawn during a single moment, forever locked as a concrete definition. Hardly adequate. Don’t buy it. Definitions of God are just old, dusty idols from someone else’s altar. Pray to none of them.

When we pray on behalf of someone else it’s tempting to ask God to heal them, or to save them, or help them. And while I do not believe these types of prayers go unheard, they may not be the most spiritually efficient way to frame our desire. I have a gut feeling that how we frame our acts of prayer matters. It’s not the same as something we can do right or wrong; there’s no “wrong” way to pray. It’s more about the degree of effectiveness when we do it. It’s about accounting for our biases and narrow fields of vision when it comes to deciding, and therefore praying for, what we think is “best” for a given situation. We frequently don’t know what’s best. And we feel like our prayers don’t matter because they aren’t answered in the way we expect.

Don’t be overly specific. We don’t know what we don’t know. For those who believe there is a divine plan in the works, don’t let your prayers work against it. They won’t get very far. Your desire will be heard, but will not be fulfilled. If God has a plan, it will likely not be thwarted. Pray in favor of the unknown divine plan, whatever it may be.

When we pray for someone else we can hardly know what’s really at stake. When in doubt—which will always be more often than not—consider simply sending love to a person you wish to be healed or relieved. Consider your prayer to be a blessing for them, amplified by your conscious connection with whatever Higher Power you pray to. Imagine the inner strength they already possess expanding into its highest form, relieving them of a measure of suffering, but not altering their path. Imagine your love literally flowing into them like water, which always finds its way.

Pray for yourself as well, of course. But don’t let your expectations get in the way of it. Buddhism teaches us the practice of nonattachment. The concept can sometimes give off the understandably confusing impression that we are expected to exist without desire. But we can be attached to a positive outcome without attaching ourselves to the way that outcome will be achieved. Don’t define for the Universe how best to fulfill your desires. We might very well miss our limousine while looking for the bus we have asked for.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sunday Message: Expressions of My Mother

Throughout my life, my brother and sister and I have marveled at the extensive list of peculiar expressions our mother has used. They are traditional for our family in many ways. Always using the same expressions for the same situations over and over. They became a staple of our lives. They didn’t rise to the level of wise aphorisms or even pithy quotes. They were just things to say.

For instance, every time we came home from an excursion to the grocery store or from the mall, as we arrived in the driveway, she would exclaim, “Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig!” For no reason in particular. Just something to say in the moment. But I virtually never pull into my driveway without at least thinking it. Sometimes, when I’m alone in my car, I actually say it out loud. It always sounds funny in my own voice. It should be hers, really.

I loved this little ritual. It felt homey and safe. Familiar. The repetition made it all the more so. Home was safe in my family. As I’ve come to learn more about the world over the decades since, I’ve appreciated the safety of our childhood home even more. That phrase, “Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig” stays with me.

Frequently, my mother expresses herself in self-deprecating ways, little put-downs meant to help remain humble, I suppose, but possibly to call out deficiency before anyone else has the chance to do it. Among them were, “I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler” and “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” These talents-lacking were all the more noticeable due to the artistic abilities of my father, brother and myself. My sister, I think, inherited my mother’s crooked ruler and leaky tune bucket. But definitely inherited her humor.

But what was sweet about these statements were that they were always used as a way to exclaim her pride in our creative talents in the form of a comparison to her lack of them. She always took such pride in our abilities even when they didn’t directly come from her.

For me, my pride in being an artist comes from hers for me. I recognize her pride for my own art and it gives me courage to proceed when I’m afraid of failure, or worse, artistic irrelevance. I need not fear about the opinions of the world. My sense of self was already established long before the world’s critical eyes laid hold of me. Those short bits of self-deprecation on her part fostered a confidence over time I would need very much in my adult life. I may have inherited my creative abilities from my father, but my mother taught me to appreciate them.

Some of my mother’s expressions have to do with numbers. One in particular is the number 47. Somehow, anytime she needs a funny number to express in a sentence, it’s always 47. “I opened the trunk of my car and there were 47 bags of groceries in there!” “I must have lugged 47 old pocketbooks to the Salvation Army today.” I don’t know what so special about the number 47. Perhaps it just sounds funny to her. But when 47 won’t do, because an even greater level of numerical value is called for it’s always “skatey-8.” And if called upon to describe someone’s or her own utter confusion, it’s always “eight ways to Sunday.”

Oh, and she never tells us we smell good. She prefers to tell us that we stink pretty. I’ve wondered where that comes from. It sounds like something my grandfather would have said. But I have often said it to Lavender after she douses herself with one of her favorite perfumes. “You sure do stink pretty.” I can’t help myself.  I’ve accidentally used it on strangers without thinking. Saying, “You sure do stink pretty” to a total stranger has never gotten a response that I would call grateful.

Many of her expressions are indirect ways of dispensing advice to keep the craziness of life in perspective. She’ll say, “That’s six of one, half a dozen of the other” to claim that it’s all the same. If you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, that old boring expression will rarely do when having “one foot in quicksand and the other on a banana peel” provides a much more entertaining visual. Reminding us that not all which gleams is gold, we are advised, “That and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee.” It took me years to figure out that one.

I learned the old expression “If I had my druthers” from her. I often wondered what a druther was until I realized it was a joke contraction of the words, ‘I’d rather.’ Druther is so much more compelling. If she really finds something interesting she says, “Well, magazine that!” I always thought she was saying, “That’s so interesting you should put it in a magazine.” But I was overthinking it. It was another play on words representing, “Well, imagine that!” To magazine something is much more charming.  Even if it doesn’t ultimately describe the act of periodical publishing.

She had her own replacement curse words as well, “Judas Priest!” she’d exclaim. Or “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Which is funny to me considering she doesn’t have a religious bone in her body. I almost wish we had a genealogical chart outlining the origins of some of these expressions. I wonder how they came to be in her repertoire.

She could caution us against the evils of the world, or just the irony of her own statements by remarking, “Yeah, and if you believe that, I’ve got some swampland in Florida I’ll sell you.” Strangely enough, I think of this phrase every single time my inner alarm goes off that an obvious lie is being told. I can picture some salesman in a plaid leisure suit extolling the virtues of owning your very own piece of the Everglades as a great place to raise children.

As she gets on in age, a new statement has creeped in on a regular basis. It’s not funny on its own, but definitely so in the repetition. She’ll frequently start off by saying, “I don’t know if I’ve told you this before...” The answer is often yes, but we like to hear it anyway.

“What’s that got to do with the price of peanut butter?” she still likes to say. She may in fact, be thinking it about this very sermon. And perhaps she’s right. She typically is. But I assert that it has at least the value of peanut butter, maybe even a little jelly as well. Because these little expressions have become a canon of wisdom, of humor, of caution and of humility. They have enhanced the value of the relationship she has with her children. All of us are as peculiar as she is in our own individual ways. I’m certain she was raising us to be just that.

There’s one other verbal expression she uses almost every single time she talks to one of us. It’s, “I’m so proud of you.” She has never let us forget how loved we are or how proud she is of who we’ve become and the things we have made in this world. Never underestimate how much power a parent has to raise us up or put us down. It’s a sword that cuts both ways. I’m glad to have been programmed with her pride.

Motherhood appears to be less about the harvest than it is about the planting. These seed thoughts, just meant as funny things to say on the occasions which merit their use, are loaded with love and hope for us. A love and hope we are attempting to share with our own children now that my brother and sister and I are all parents ourselves.

It is of course impossible to be with your children twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, protecting them from all potential harm which may befall them. The best thing a good parent can do is to equip them for the life they will eventually be in charge of all by themselves with nothing but the memory of imparted wisdom to guide them. Those are the seeds. Remember to plant them well. Not just for your own children, but for everyone. Share the wisdom you have received from your mother widely. Even if it’s just a silly expression said when pulling into the driveway. Or bragging about your kids. Or cautioning them about the often disingenuous world they will eventually inhabit. Or infusing them with enough love to carry them throughout their lives.

There’s one more expression she has shared with us, more than any other. It is her traditional goodbye for all of her three children, their spouses and her five grandchildren. She never fails to do it. It has no words at all of its own, but it does have an introduction. “Here’s your wave,” she’ll say, and then raises her hand in the symbol of ‘I love you,’ wiggling her pinky finger to make it special.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 11, 2019 - The Great American Pastime

It would seem to be baked into the fabric of American discourse to express our dissatisfaction constantly. Is complaint a useful part of our culture? What does it indicate about us? Why do we lean toward negativity as a preferred method of expression? Is that “just the way things are?” Why do most hockey enthusiast conclude fighting is a “part of the game?” How can that be? It doesn’t score any points. Certainly not with me.

Protest is a crucially important facet of our culture. We have trained ourselves to recognize things which require either improvement or reckoning and we speak up about it. It is the backbone of our democracy. And, in principle, it is a very good thing. But like all good things, one can have too much of it.

It typically goes right up my spine to listen to people complain. And it’s helpful here to note the difference between protest and complaint. I have no problem with protest. Complaining, however, rarely encourages a positive outcome. Yet that is the expressed mission of a protest. Not so for complaint. While I can be in support of protest, listening to people endlessly complain does not motivate me to help discover a solution for them.

There are various types of complainers. Among the list are venters, sympathy seekers and chronic complainers. Each has its own inner emotional issues which are attempting to find a solution through the act of verbalizing their dissatisfaction. We all do it. But check your motives. As well, be certain your complaints are being heard by those in a position to do something constructive with them.

How often do we complain to people who are in no position to solve the problem? Do they deserve to be subjected to us? And what do we do about the complaints we have properly directed yet still find no solution? Do we give up or do we keep bringing our protest higher?

The bottom line is self respect. How much do we each possess? If one has enough self-respect, they are strong enough to speak truth to power while remaining both focused and tenacious. They refuse to allow their emotions to dictate their actions.

Without sufficient self-respect, we’re simply not strong enough to complain to the proper sources. We become too passively aggressive in our methods. We avoid the specific confrontations necessary to ultimately find our peace. We subject our friends and loved ones to endless diatribes for the purpose of either soliciting emotional support or winning a contest of woes. The most miserable wins. But still everyone loses.

Complaining is bad for your brain. It erodes your hippocampus and reinforces thought patterns which only serve to further highlight the failures around us rather than the solutions. What color is your highlighter? And what do you highlight with it?

Do your best not to encourage the constant complaining of others anymore than we should subject others to our own complaints. It’s good to be one who listens. It’s good to have a friend to talk to. But are you asking them for the same advice or complaining about the same problem over and over? That’s torture in my book.

The spiritual principle of non-resistance is to recognize that the only thing over which we have any control is our own emotional state. Many would disagree, of course. But in the way I mean it, they are wrong. We are responsible for our own joy and the recovery from our own sorrow. We are not supposed to be reinforcing negativity in our hearts and minds. We are designed to be clever enough to rise above them. We are created to exist in community with others for the purpose of together raising the water in the harbor so that all the boats go up.

Have compassion for those who complain excessively and gently encourage them to seek solutions rather than merely new adjectives for the same old problems. In the process of encouraging others to find solutions for themselves you will likely discover some of your own. Listen to yourself with gentleness and ponder if the words you speak are polluting your heart with anger or filling it with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. It is largely in how we approach an issue which determines our relationship to it.

Seek peace amid the complaints of others. Find a peaceful island for yourself and pray for those who only know one way. They are trapped in a quagmire of their own making. Do not feel that you must subject yourself to their negativity, but also hold no animosity for them. Love them from a distance if you must. But love them just the same. And while you’re at it, love yourself.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 4, 2019 - The Power to Bless

In preparing the opening words for a wedding recently, I happened upon a thought about blessing. I would say to those assembled, “If we had the power to bless this couple with all of the fruits of our knowledge and all that we’ve learned about love, we would. So the news is good, then. For we can.”

I have thought about the power to bless for a long time. Who is entitled to it? How do they obtain it? Who decides they have earned it? Those three questions have no objective answers. My only conclusion is that it must be either all of us have the power to bless, or none of us does. And since I am an optimist, my faith tells me it is all of us.

But what is the power to bless? What is a blessing? When the Pope, for instance, blesses an object, what about it is being changed? For the record, I definitely believe something about it has changed, but what? Is it in the molecules? The subatomic level? Or is it in the 99.9% of empty space inside each atom? My assumption is, in some way, it must be all of it.

Though many in the scientific community disagree with his research methods, Japanese author Masaru Emoto makes some surprising claims about water and our ability to affect its molecular structure with thoughts, intentions and music. Might be true? It aligns with much of what we know from spiritual teachings that what we think we become. We are mostly water after all. Do our cells hear our words? Do they feel our intent? Do they mold themselves to our expectations? Many believe, including myself, that the answer is yes.

What is the expectation of a blessing? What are we attempting to confer when we bless someone or something? I contend we are wishing for their wellness and happiness and usefulness and the epiphany of magic. We are saying a prayer that all those who come into contact with that which has been blessed be blessed themselves. We are hoping to instill a small measure of the goodness of our souls into the very fiber of an object, or a person, or a marriage.

But where within the now-blessed does that blessing reside thereafter? I can’t answer that question. It is not for my human brain to comprehend. I shall have to be satisfied by it remaining a mystery.

However, I do not need to know how the steam engine works in order to ride the train. I can take comfort and benefit from the idea of all by itself. And I do believe we have the power to bless. I do believe there is something of us that activates, transmits and regularly communicates on a level of which I have no awareness. Yet I have no proof. At least none with which to convince you.

But I shall move through my life with the belief that what comes from our hearts and minds has power. I will forever hold that we are more than we appear. I will treat others with the respect I would like to treat myself because I believe there is no difference. Assume you have the power to grant a blessing on anything you choose to receive its benefit. If it is grateful for your blessing, all the better. But even if not, the gift is no less grand.