Monday, September 23, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 28, 2019 – Checking the Carrots

What emphasis do you give pleasure in your life? Do you feel guilty about pleasure? A distrust of pleasure is deeply ingrained in our human culture, thanks in large part to the exercise of religion.

You’ll note, I am not pointing a finger at the religion itself but the exercise of it. What I’m commenting on here are the actions a religious person takes as a result of their interpretation of what their religion insists of them in thought or deed. It’s not the faith, it’s the follower. Be extremely cautious of those who cannot, or will not, practice what they preach when it comes to their faith. They make unfortunate ambassadors.

Though many people are not a part of any religion at all, it doesn’t matter. The distrust of pleasure is so entangled with our wider secular human culture it affects us all. We are all subject to the societal meme that pleasure is somehow evil, or intrinsically sinful, or at best, a distraction from “real life.”

The same could be said for junk food. Not so much for vegetables, though. Metaphorically, vegetables are pleasure, junk food is degenerative hedonism by comparison. Be sure to strike a healthy balance in all things.

There are other ways of sabotaging our joy. I personally don’t feel guilty about pleasure, but I do feel afraid sometimes when things are too good. Instead of spending time enjoying the here and now, I am ruminating on what will happen should I ever lose it. How much I value something determines the level of my anxiety. I’m working on it.

So why do we have such distrustful relationships with pleasure? I think the above are compounded by the fact that we always imagine greater amounts of pleasure are only achieved by collecting even greater amounts of stuff, love, money, whatever. We forget that sometimes being quieter gives us more to listen to. Spending less gives us more to share. Owning less gives us less to maintain. That sounds very pleasurable, indeed.

There’s an important rule to the practice of pleasure, however. It must cause no harm. Be sure that carrot you think you’re eating isn’t a Dorito.

While this may be a very basic way of looking at it, I prefer to view all human action as something which has the capacity to ring an imaginary bell in the fabric of the universe. Not every activity rings the bell. I am defining it here as any act which brings pleasure, joy, or satisfaction to ourselves or someone else. The hammer of the bell is the joy itself.

In my mind, sustained joy or pleasure, and yes, even sensual pleasure, rings continuously a vibration throughout the entire universe which effects some unknown—but positive—growth or transformation in corners and dimensions of the universe about which we do not have the capacity to even imagine. The profoundness of the vibration we send out is equal to the profoundness of joy or pleasure we are experiencing at that moment.

I think that is the closest to God we ever get as humans. Which may perhaps be why the leaders of religion have historically feared it so much. As middlemen, they want to keep their job.

But they know not what they fear. Genuine pleasure is both responsible and faithful. ‘An it harme none, so mote it be,’ the old wiccan rede rightly states. The Buddha would concur. So would Jesus. Be responsible and compassionate about your pleasure and it will ring the loudest bell imaginable.

We are beginning to see the early signs of maturity in our human culture, believe it or not. Think of the volume of the conversation regarding the conservation of this planet as compared to thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago. Think of the human accomplishments which have been achieved in that same time. Think of the civil rights issues we have chosen to face as well as the many we never even realized were there. Until now. What shall tomorrow bring? Of course you may counter my observations with negative ones, but even they cannot diminish the forward motion of what we have achieved.

Have a look at our overall intentions. Everywhere, you see evidence of our systematic tweaking of the system toward the right side of history, despite all efforts to prevent it.

That’s great news regarding the respect of pleasure in our society. It’s time to recognize pleasure for what it is: A tool that requires a little bit of maturity to use correctly.

But to do that we first must let go of our ingrained distrust of pleasure and satisfaction. There was a time when that amount of circumspection was useful. But we are ready to take the training wheels off. We are ready to begin to understand the meaning of ecstasy. We are ready to create more of it in the world.

Seek ecstasy. Use your creativity and imagination to cultivate that enhanced level of joy while also causing no harm whatsoever. Don’t expect to find it in substances, thinking that it’s harming no one. Because it’s likely harming you, and you count, too. Try to find it in other ways.

Most important of all, remember that pleasure can occur within even a single, mindful breath. The key is not to seek out pleasure as much as be open to it. Find pleasure in the seat you are sitting in right now. It is there. The act of noticing it rings the bell.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 21, 2019 - The Company We Keep

What do you really think about who you are? Do you think there is more “who” to you than what you see in the mirror? Do you believe you have a soul? Do you believe you have an electromagnetic field around you? Do you believe in auras? Think about these for a moment. Take an inventory of what you believe about the full nature of your reality. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

So what do you believe? There is no wrong answer. Mostly because it’s not possible to know the answer—at least with any real assurance. But your answer does have implications.

Some believe that we have a soul but that it is limited in volume to the shape and size of our physical bodies. Meaning that there is no more of us than what is contained in this little vessel until the time of our passing at which point, it leaves.

Some believe that we are infinite, and that if we were to measure it in linear terms, only a small portion of the totality of ourselves is “contained” in our physical body. There is more to us than us.

Some believe there is nothing at all to us but our biology and that we simply return to the dust from whence we came.

My job as a minister is not tell you what to think or what you should believe. It is to help you discover what you already believe, either consciously or unconsciously. Because what you believe determines the life you live.

Though some will disagree, it is my opinion that we do not choose our beliefs. In a sense, they choose us. Our beliefs are largely involuntary. They come to us through processes mostly beyond our understanding but which always involve our emotions. When things make us feel good, we have a tendency to believe in them.

When we feel a sense of belonging, we have a tendency to subscribe to the beliefs of those who give us that sense of belonging. Sometimes when we hear something, it rings a satisfying bell of truth in us. We instinctively believe it. We believe in goosebumps. We believe in superstition. We believe what we are told if the way we are told it is either strategic and manipulative or reassuring and comfortable. We believe what we are persuaded to believe.

Of course this sounds horribly dystopian. It sounds as though we have no control over our belief systems. And that we are victims of anyone who chooses to pluck our strings the right way. But that is untrue. At least mostly.

We don’t necessarily have control over our emotions, but we have control over how we process our environments. We have control over whether or not we choose to remain calm or wreak havoc. We have a choice about our self-esteem. As an example, poor self-esteem attracts poor friends who subscribe to the beliefs of those with troubled ideologies. Strong self-esteem knows trouble when it sees it and chooses to spend its time with people who have more loving ways. Our belief systems arise from the company we keep. And that is something over which we very much have control.

Do you notice it when you have a good day? Can you look back on the past two weeks and count how many good days you had? Or can you only count the bad days? Which one of them got more of your attention? We should know exactly how many good days we have in a week and be consciously thankful for them. Don’t forget to notice them. Put a little sticker on your calendar for every good day you have.

That altered vigilance to spend more time noticing the good than tallying up the bad amounts to us ultimately having more control over our own belief systems. Because we believe what we see, in the end. We either believe what makes us feel good or that which reinforces the negativity we’ve been shown in the past. Again, it comes down to the company we keep.

And now that we understand a little bit better about why we should be mindful of our beliefs, what do you believe about who you really are? Is the real you eternal? Are you a spiritual being having a human experience? Perhaps you have seen nothing that could support such a belief. It’s OK.

But know where you stand. Because where are you stand has implications for how you engage with life. The problem becomes when we don’t know what we believe, because sometimes our subconscious beliefs poison our life experience without our awareness.

Wonder about the nature of your true self. Wonder about the implications of that belief on your life. Are your beliefs serving you? Is there room for you to question what you’ve been told?

Any faith system or religious belief worth its salt is not at all afraid of questions, comparison or debate. If your questions about religion are dismissed, question the beliefs of the person you’re asking. They shouldn’t be afraid of answering you. They especially shouldn’t be afraid of your exposure to other ideas. All good ideas reinforce one another by nature. They make excellent company.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 14, 2019 - Embracing Pandemonium

Let it go. You’re holding on too tightly. Life is a riddle for which the answer is so obvious it seems like bad advice.

The hardest principle of all spiritual practice is non-resistance. It’s the one which seems the most counterintuitive. We maintain a belief that if we stop resisting, all the bad stuff will happen. If we stop holding back these waters, they will destroy us. Try turning your umbrella the right side up. You’re trapping too much water with it the other way around.

The irony is, the only successfully provable societal model we’ve ever had is nonresistance. That’s the only model for which we have any evidence in favor of the argument. When we let go, things work out better. Always.

Of course there are examples toward which people can point and say, “See? If people hadn’t fought back against tyranny (or whatever) that good thing wouldn’t have happened. The bad would have won.“ But it makes me wonder if resistance was really the component which brought about the good result. It makes me wonder if resistance perhaps actually slowed the process down, maybe even injured it a bit. Good things still do happen in spite of our resistant stances. But are we driving with our emergency brake on?

We can imagine that once we choose to do battle with an enemy, that enemy will use its creativity to defend itself. It will design thicker armor, it will design bigger weapons, to which we must respond in kind. That is the basic model and result of resistance.

But what if you first considered the nature of your enemy? What if you decided to love your enemy? That’s not the same thing as agreeing with them, or condoning what they do. It’s a decision to see them as human. A human who is probably just as afraid as you are. Just as curious. Just as desirous of not only surviving but thriving. What if you turned your curiosity toward them? What would they then do with the creativity they would otherwise have used to defend themselves against you? Would they be a little bit more receptive to understanding your point of view? What might be the result of that?

What else might we be able to include in the category of “enemy?“ As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that my enemy could be many things, including an idea I don’t understand, a car engine I don’t personally know how to fix, or even a place I’ve never been to before. What is my attitude toward these? Are they my enemy? Will they do battle with me, or welcome me? Will I be peaceful or angst-ridden as I am deciding how to engage with them?

I do my best to be non-resistant to the fact that I don’t know a thing about my car. My solution? I trust my friend Jimmy the mechanic. We went to high school together. He gives me the freedom to be non-resistant to my car and its problems. He gives me permission to love my car as it is, dents and all. Which is a good thing. Because if one more light comes up on my dashboard, you’ll be able to see it from space.

The $64,000 question is this: How do we become non-resistant to things about which we are truly afraid? I wish I could tell you exactly. But it’s different for all of us. It hinges on the nature of our own personal fears. Each of us have fears which are slightly nuanced by our own experience. The job of marketing data collection tests each of these to see which are the most prevalent among us and then manipulates us by plucking them like strings. Don’t let your fears turn you into someone else’s marionette.

They say the best defense is a good offense. Good offense is smart offense. Well thought out. Taking the time to understand one’s so-called enemy. Get in their head. It’s a power that can go both ways. Use it for good. Get in their head with love and they just might do the same.

Being deliberately non-resistant as a life practice means giving something the opportunity to simply be itself and hose it down with love rather than hate. Hate doesn’t like to be silenced. It always comes out in other ways. Silencing someone’s fear and anguish will only make you less safe from them. Not more.

The problems we see in the world today are largely a result of our having silenced people’s hate rather than listened to it. It’s understandable. Who wants to listen to hate? But we should’ve listened more honestly to their anguish and done our best to soften it rather than silence it. All that accomplished was a temporary sense that the problems had gone away. But we all know they didn’t. They were waiting to be heard. And now they are. But at what cost?

Every problem has a solution to which non-resistance would be an excellent servant. Let it go. Let your fear and hatred go. There are worse things in life than pandemonium. Chaos has an order to it which we are not capable of seeing. You will be okay. The answers will come to you. I promise.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 7, 2019 - You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I work pretty hard to live within the boundaries of my principles. It’s a thing for me. I’m not always good at it, of course. But I definitely do my best. I see the overall benefits of that effort all the time.

But I don’t see them every time. In fact, if I kept a record of it, I’m sure I only see the benefits less than half the time. Or perhaps that’s just a skewed impression of reality. Sometimes it feels as if living within my principles kicks me in the butt more than it hugs me.

But it’s not about the physical math. There is no scoreboard for this. Because failure and success, honesty and deceit, fulfillment and dissatisfaction are not opposite sides of a coin, they are different fruits from different trees. You’ll note: Both provide nourishment. Or can rot if left unharvested on the branch.

Living by the Golden Rule is not a promise that you will be treated as you treat others. There are no guarantees built into that tidy spiritual maxim. There is no quid pro quo. The benefits of living by that ethos are more indirect than that. And far more fulfilling.

Don’t make the goal of living according to a life of principals be that you are suddenly handed a perfect life. Don’t be lured by that. You might just get what you ask for, God forbid. Lots of people have a perfect life. Their ability to be happy has nothing to do with it.

Doing the right thing is more about you than anyone else. Others will benefit from it, of course. And those benefits will reflect back upon you in their own ways and times. Being mindful about what occurs within you when you do the right thing (meaning being aware of the real reason behind why you’re doing it) will directly impact your ability to receive that returned blessing.

Make a point of nourishing yourself through the act of doing the right thing. Choose to feel good at the point of doing it. Place no expectations on the return of your investment. Be nice just for the sake of being nice even in the face of those who are not-so-nice.

The impact that this mindful practice makes within you will engender an inner peace which will be far more receptive when that blessing returns to you threefold. What good is wearing a blindfold when throwing a boomerang? Since you don’t know where the benefit will come to you, you must be open to it. Your view must be 360°.

Some threads of Christian theology state that it is not good works themselves which get you into heaven, but your faith which accomplishes it. I feel I can hear residuals of the spiritual intuition which resulted in that theology. But it perhaps has been misunderstood.

There are three ways to do a good deed. The first is because you have been told you should. The second is because you should fear the consequences otherwise. The third is because it benefits everyone, including ourselves.

When put like that, I know which one I would choose. But it requires the relaxation of our ego. It’s surprising that such an impactful thing is represented by a word with only three letters.

Our ego, or rather the portion of it which feels need for retribution and revenge, does us no favors. It is a relatively powerless thing of its own, but our personal traumas prop it up so strongly it may as well be a giant within us. It becomes entangled with our sense of safety and therefore gains a strength bordering on supervillain. Thankfully it’s all a lie and can blow away like a feather with your breath. You just have to make the choice to breathe.

[Again, so simple a word for so complex an act, breathing. But try it sometime. I’ve lately taken to the practice of twelve deep breaths every time I’m angry, or stressed, or afraid, or anxious. I especially do it when I am beginning a project around the house and keep stubbing my toe or hammering my thumb.]

Doing the right thing is a life practice which takes practice, and good coping skills. But I can personally vouch for it. It doesn’t require a belief in God, but you might find one in the process. It doesn’t prove the existence of divine messages sent to earth for its benefit. It doesn’t disprove it either. But good advice is still good advice.

Be mindful when doing the right thing. Let it be for the benefit of your heart on purpose. Don’t do the right thing because you fear going to hell, or simply because you have been told you must. Or because you expect that others will always treat you the same. Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you because you know that it rings a bell within the universe whose sound is heard in places of which you know nothing.