Saturday, December 28, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 28, 2019 - Not All Who Wander Are Lost

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

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 21, 2019 - The Application of Grace

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.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 14, 2019 - Cultivating Patience

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

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 7, 2019 - Playing with Time

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.