Friday, December 25, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 26, 2020 - Be More Selfish Next Year

There is a long held belief that sacrifice is the pathway to all accomplishments ranging from high school diplomas to eternal salvation. These are the types of things which are accomplished through sacrifice. In the sense that the word is being used here, meaning that sometimes they gave up parties they really, really wanted to go to because they had an exam the next day, yes, they are making a sacrifice. Probably, hopefully, many of them. That type of basic sacrifice is easy to point out. Naming those sacrifices which merit eternal salvation, however, are well above my celestial security clearance.

We give a lot of weight to the act of sacrifice. It is seen as the path itself, unfortunately, not just a way of thinking about the experiences along it. That does us a disservice.

I often wonder who I’m really doing things for, to be honest. I make a practice of it, actually. It’s a very useful exercise. The stark truth is that we always and only do things for ourselves. That may not seem true on the surface, but the real motivating factor of any action we take is how it will benefit us in terms of the love we wish to show or staying out of trouble or getting brownie points or feeding our sometimes addiction to receiving validation from others. We sacrifice of ourselves most for the benefit of love. We, as the hopeful recipients of that love, sacrifice of ourselves to receive it every day. Sometimes for good, sometimes not so much.

The distinction I’m possibly sluggish to make here is that some sacrifices are ultimately not in service to our highest goals. Some sacrifices make it worse. Some destroy the very things we think we are sacrificing ourselves to preserve. So the question comes again: Who are you doing it for?

This question is an arrow marker toward a way of thinking about the subject of your sacrifices. It will not give you an answer to the question: Are my sacrifices sacrificing me? Not immediately, anyway. But it will begin to illuminate your own view of it. It will create a picture over time, every time you’re brave enough to ask it of yourself: Who am I doing this for? Ask it of every single action you take from brushing your teeth to caring for your elderly grandmother. Make sure it’s a good answer.

The answers will almost always be mundane. But do you brush your teeth so that people won’t smell your bad breath or do you brush them so that you are always in possession of healthy teeth? The answer could be both, but what’s the real percentage of each? You can tell by what you do on your day off when there’s no one around to smell your breath.

We fear that if we ask these things we will be considered selfish. Good. I love that word. In fact, being more selfish is my favorite New Year's resolution. I make it all the time. And every year I get more selfish. At least in the way I mean it. It comes down to the same methodology as that of airplane safety, really.

But first, a little refresher on the history of the word selfish.

The word selfish has a definition that does not match its structure. It’s origins speak of that, and in their own way, contribute to the unsustainable societal meme that sacrifice is the path to salvation. Not a path, the path.

The word selfish was coined in 1640 by an archbishop for his own use to describe, in the most repugnant terms, the events of his day. To him there was no word sufficiently hostile to describe the unworthiness of human nature as he witnessed it. So he created one.

The concept of ‘self’ up until that time was thought of very differently. Even the ancient Greek and Hebrew had no words for it in the way that combined body, mind and soul. Self referred to our physical bodies only, not the entirety of our being. That archbishop, I suspect, began something ultimately benevolent in his dark attempt to group a person’s soul with the actions of their physical body. He helped to create the notion of recognizing our self-identity as being more than just our physicality.

When we do things for ourselves we are being literally self-ish, meaning we do them with an awareness of self. That is neither good nor bad on its own. It’s when we serve ourselves to the exclusion or harm of others which typifies the standard usage of the word selfish, but that’s the archbishop’s inelegant definition. And it’s now getting in the way of our continuing growth as a society. We aren't being selfish enough in the truest sense of the word and we’re being held back by the pervasiveness of old, outdated ways of thinking.

Sacrifice is not the path. It is a tool we carry with us on our journey upon the path. Alongside it are character, faithfulness, empathy, wit and compassion, among others to be sure. Sacrifice has its proper place and value. It should not be misused.

The question returns: Who are you doing it for? Because we might still do much of what we are already doing in life. Helping your elderly grandmother is often something we must do, but what’s the fuel in your tank? Is it a good fuel? Does it fill you or drain you? Is it real nutrition or junk food? Think deeply about this. It is the underpinning methodology of every action you take. It is so deeply entrenched in who we are that it impacts our nervous system, our immunity, our sleep, even our diet.

If an airplane for some reason depressurizes in flight, oxygen masks will automatically drop down from above each seat. During the pre-flight safety instructions we are told by the flight attendants that in the event the masks should come down we are to put on our own masks first before helping others with theirs. This is not considered selfish. One cannot help others if they are not able to breathe properly. Take a deep breath now. That is a selfish act. Do more of them.

When we are more careful about the effectiveness of our sacrifices, we are behaving in greater consonance with our highest goals. Thinking this way might help us to remember once in a while that we need to ask for help with caring for our elderly grandmother on occasions we might otherwise have just shouldered through it. We too often maintain an unsustainable sacrifice, even if it means that the rest we habitually lose from neglecting our need for rest, over and over, makes us vulnerable to the flu that winter which kept us from being able to help our grandmother at all for over two weeks, but not before giving it to her. This is a hypothetical example, but we know this story.

It might mean insisting that your child make at least token savings for their own college education rather than paying for it outright. Having some skin in the game is better for you and them both. They still get an education, but more. That’s the kind of selfish I’m talking about.

It’s when we are self-less that we always get ourselves into trouble. Breathe.

Being more selfish is compassion without burnout or harm. Being more selfish is empowerment of others rather than enabling them. In the words of a local social entrepreneur whom I admire named Ginny White, it’s a hand up, not a hand out. It does not mean giving up being a good neighbor. It’s just remembering that the philosophy to do no harm means to ourselves as well.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 19, 2020 - Joy to the World, Please

I can’t think of anything I’d like more for Christmas than joy for this world, who has been through so much of late. This saddened and wicked world, full of disease and dis-ease, both. Wounds of the heart so deep even the light cannot penetrate them. Sorrows resting quietly inside and unknown. Likely to be taken to the grave, still unspoken.

And yet…

I have so much hope for this world. A world who want for nothing more than to just be together. To be held with the intent that their sorrows be eased, no matter if it’s possible through the act of embrace or not. Embrace anyway. If the weight cannot be lifted, it is better to be lightened.

I firmly believe that’s who we are. We are that better side of ourselves who tends to trust, and to heal. Our wounds are not us. Our politics are not us. We caused them, but we are not them. We are something else entirely. We are light, having a darkened experience.

If you read between the cracks in the news, you can see it. There is progress and love everywhere. It’s hidden amidst the boulders of conflict. But their size is an illusion. Look away from them. If you filter out the hate on your Facebook and Twitter feeds, and remember that social media is for entertainment purposes only, it suddenly becomes so much clearer what to do. Turn the other cheek. Turn away from it.

Should we know about the darkness? Yes. Ignorance is not bliss. But should we live in it? Never. Should we pray for its peace and ease? Always. Our hearts are eased a bit when we pray for those who hate us or wish us harm. It changes us chemically from within. Every ounce of weight lifted is one less carried. You’ll get much farther.

What would you be willing to do to feel better? We go through quite a lot to try. Think of the pills we take and the booze we drink and the games we play just to experience an approximation of what we imagine feeling good must be like. It seems as if we are chasing our imaginations; a daydream of what ease and comfort and satisfaction must feel like. If only we knew for sure.

There are those who feel ease, however. They feel it genuinely and most of their days are spent in a state of hopeful anticipation of what’s to come. They look forward to life. They, unlike many of us, have managed to crack the code and feel peace even amid the tumult. Are they fools or are we?

The weeks leading up to Christmas are called Advent for the Christian world. It is intended as a season of giddy expectation. Though most of us, including those who actively celebrate Christmas, often forget entirely the purpose of the weeks leading up to it. We encumber ourselves with layers of stress and obligation. But we are meant to revive ourselves during this time and remember that the winter will eventually end, both symbolically as well as literally. We are meant to consume cheer as though it could be spooned from a heaping plate on a buffet table.

This is a particularly challenging year for good cheer. But that doesn’t mean we need it any less. Yet the ways by which we attempt to approximate the good tidings we are supposed to know are all different now. We have a choice between gathering unsafely, and thereby unlovingly by default, or fighting the desire to gather and missing our friends and loved ones so keenly. It seems we can’t win.

But human ingenuity reigns supreme always. We never fail to come up with innovative and creative solutions to our most profound problems. Even healthier is when we live in a state of expectation for their eventual resolution. This is where healing lives.

When we alter our thoughts to include anticipation and hope and even gingerly venture in the direction of joy, things have a natural tendency to shift for us. It works in inexplicable ways to our human brain, though many attempt to explain it. Some theorize metaphysically, some scientifically. Each doing their best to explain why it is that when we change our thoughts we change our life.

As the new year approaches, putting the more religiously-originated holidays aside for a moment, we most of us see an opportunity for a clean slate. Will you? This year has been a genuine tragedy for us all. Even those who didn’t lose their jobs or who managed to avoid getting sick or lose a loved one to the virus, still had to contend with either the reality of its existence in the world or shoulder the enormous burden of ignoring it. All of humanity has experienced something together, even if in our own ways. That has a tendency to change things for the better. So long as that’s what we choose.

Do you believe in wishes? Maybe you should try. But also, when you do make that wish, remember it's a contract. Your end of the bargain is to never let go of what you’ve wished for. Your task is to maintain hope that what you’ve ordered is on its way, and only your patience and determination to believe shall outlast its journey. Never give up.

I hereby place a purchase order for joy as my gift to the world. It might not arrive on time for Christmas, but it’s coming. I believe that with every fibre of my being. Joy is coming. It may, in fact likely will, look far different than what we expect. It may appear as though it's a sweater, which at the time we ordered it, were so sure would fit us perfectly just as we are. But no. This is not a garment that can fit or not fit, nor can it be returned. Once here, joy will align with us as we will rise to align with it. Our form will shift to accommodate the shape and size of joy just fine. Fear not.

Do what you can to instill a sense of ease and purpose for this unusual time. Heal the sick, grieve those lost, and then live our lives in dedication to them. Let this tragedy compel our hearts into loving more, forgiving more and seeking ways to not just restore or retain our old relationships, but make new ones entirely as well. Expand your circle, even if only by a few people. Your life will change.

But first, as this year comes to a close, remember that you are the center of the Universe. What occurs within you radiates outward in ever-widening circles of whatever it is you’re transmitting. Let it be joy. We need it badly.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Hopeful Thinking, Saturday, December 12, 2020 - Whose Feelings Are Whose?

Rightly or wrongly, I have always thought of myself as a bit of an empath. It’s a loaded term, really. It can give impressions of every claim from the psychic to the emotional. I am somewhere toward the latter on the spectrum. 

It’s hard to tell sometimes whether my emotional experiences are those of others or of myself. Assuming it’s a little of both, I try to be mindful of the percentage. It’s preferable that the majority of my emotional experience originates from within myself. I’m better equipped to help others if I’m not taking on their feelings but just listening to them. 

To sit with someone in their grief should not be the same as grieving. That’s not to say we don’t grieve alongside our friends. A healthy version of grieving alongside one’s friend is a prayer to the Universe for their ease. May their grief be eased. Amen. It has a different character to it than taking on the grief of others. 

Back in the early 90s when I moved to New York City I remember feeling waves of despair. It wasn’t about moving away from home, though I did have a slight bit of homesickness. My sense of adventure was far more demanding than any desire to return home just yet. But I couldn’t help feeling as if it were better to just give up even though I’d hardly gotten started. That didn’t sound like me at all. 

Walking the streets of New York especially, I could feel the despair of the city. I didn’t realize that at first. At first I thought there was something wrong with me. I don’t even know what caused my sudden realization, but one day walking near Bryant Park it suddenly occurred to me that the feelings I was experiencing were not my own.

I don’t know where the idea came from, but I absolutely knew it to be true. I felt immediately better. And slowly, I learned how to distinguish other people's emotions from my own. It resulted in a greater curiosity and empathy for others. Essentially, it made me more brave. It made me more compassionate and less judgemental. It felt like a window into the hearts of other people. Not specific individuals, but the aggregate sea of humanity that exists in Manhattan. I felt for them.

I attribute that vast sea to the reason why I was able to figure it out. Manhattan has such a dense and emotionally seismic population. The range of emotions is off the chart and thickly concentrated. Frankly, it was easier to discern it from my own because it was so powerful and distinct. It made the boundary clearer than in other places I have lived or visited. The minute I realized where this newly-visible boundary lay I simply felt better. No great awakening other than just feeling better.

Over time I began to realize the implications of seeing the line. Once I saw the demarcation point between my own heart and that of others it changed me forever. Just realizing there was a line at all changed me. 

I still struggle with taking on the emotions of other people, but now I see it. That’s the difference. It’s like wearing special glasses whose task it is to filter in new things which had always been there but were previously blinded from my knowing. Those glasses are in my toolbox. And sometimes I forget them there. It is a life practice to remember to put them on.

Do you wonder what your percentage is? Do you wonder how much of your emotional experience originates from within you and how much is being transmitted by others? We all are walking radio towers transmitting vibration and electromagnetism. We exhibit a field around us. And while we may understand virtually nothing of it, we know that it exists. That alone has implications. Just what is going in and out of your field?

Out of a desire for nothing more than to simply feel better, assuming one always has room to improve upon that, be curious about your percentage. If you are brave, be radically curious about it. Be forensic. Ask the question aloud to yourself. Pray to see the difference between your emotions and those of others. Pray to see the line.

Acknowledge that you are a sovereign entity, designed with benevolence and purpose. Our weakness is often merely strength in excess. Our ability to see into and feel the hearts of others is a superpower we just need more practice in using. I’m here to tell you you have the power. I encourage the exploration of spiritual life practices in order for you to begin using it. 

Empathy is a wonderful gift, treasure it wildly. But especially now, during these trying and emotional times of our human civilization which we will in time overcome, learning to discern the difference between our emotions and others will give you the focus you need to spend time healing the wounds on your own heart without confusing them for something more profound than they are. Whatever size the troubles on your own heart may be, they are smaller than that combined with the sorrows of others.

Today I heard from my mechanic that the repair I needed was going to cost a lot less than I thought. I guess I shouldn’t have worried so much about it. I’m glad I finally took the time to have it looked at. It seems a much more manageable problem to me now. 

Notice your emotions objectively. Stand back from them and acknowledge them. That will be the first step toward getting under the hood of it and finally determining the difference between the repairs you actually need from the smoke that’s coming into your car from the truck in front of you. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, August 29, 2020 - “Don’t Look a Gift Judas in the Mouth”

What is it about villains? Why are we so attracted to them? We know there are lots of actors who love to play villains. Writers love to intricately craft their darker characters, while most of their heroes are only two-dimensional. What is the origin of our relationship with villains? Why are there those whom we love to hate?

Many psychologists believe that we are attracted to villains because they represent our desire for freedom and lack of authority. But those ideas go against other notions of psychology which claim that while we often resent authority, we actually rely on it every day for our continuing existence. We have a love-hate relationship with authority, just like we do with our villains.

Some believe that villains are necessary in order to facilitate good heroes and heroines. As a literary tool, villains are what gives our heroes something to do. Our heroes would be nothing without them, they claim.

But I wonder if there is another idea at play. Because quite often the villains in our stories serve as catalysts for positive change and growth. We tell ourselves that type of story more often than any other. The formula is basic. Life exists as a status quo, which means to say that it functions but not necessarily all that well, only to have the apple cart upset by an outside source with a dastardly agenda, then to be successfully rallied against by a unified community. In the end, the defeated villain slinks off once its purpose has been served, leaving behind a greater unity in its wake.

It sounds kind of like a virus that leaves behind immunity after the healing. We might have preferred to never have been sick at all, but we know for a fact we are stronger because of it.

Are we at all attracted to the villains because we, on some level understand and perhaps even appreciate, the capacity of the change they are about to inspire in us? It’s OK to have a love-hate relationship with change, but we still ask for it nonetheless. Might we look at the catalyst differently?

An ancient document from the third century entitled “The Gospel of Judas“ was found in Egypt in the 1970’s but not protected or translated for another thirty years. The National Geographic Society published a translation in 2006.

For those of you who don’t know or remember, Judas was the infamous disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin priests, setting in motion the events that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. As the traditional Biblical version tells us, Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and later hanged himself with guilt. Throughout the centuries the name Judas has been synonymous with betrayal, evil, and shame. But the ancient yet newly discovered Gospel of Judas tells the story a very different way.

For the record, I am not here to authenticate the Gospel of Judas. I am not going to attempt to validate the text as either truth or fiction. Like the Bible, it is whatever it is, provable or not. These are texts which we may look to for inspiration or food for thought. They are historical reports and open to interpretation as your own faith dictates.

I have chosen to discuss this text because it turns on its ear the long-held notion that Judas was evil for what he did. We can too easily dismiss him for being evil and then fail to see ourselves in him. The Gospel of Judas makes the suggestion that Judas was, in fact, Jesus’s favorite disciple and the only one with whom he shared the real truth about the purpose of life and humanity.

In the text, Jesus tells Judas about the creation of Adam. He tells him about the Cosmos, Chaos, the Underworld and those who rule it. He teaches him about the creation of Humanity and the destruction of the wicked. He also tells him of the crucifixion to come, and the greater necessity of it.

So when it came time, according to the story, Jesus instructed Judas to betray him, that he might bring about a greater purpose through his actions. He told Judas that he would be hated for his act of betrayal and that he too would suffer. But also that he would exceed all of them. Because Judas would sacrifice the physical body which clothed him.

Conversely, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Judas was acting on his own selfish behalf in turning Jesus over to the authorities. They claim it to be an act of greed and resentment. They claim Satan had entered him. But the Gnostic Gospel of Judas tells a story about a favored disciple who reluctantly accepts the role of betrayer at his master’s request.

You may believe what you will about it. The point here is not the truth or lack of truth in the story. It’s the suggestion that things may not always be as clear cut as they seem.

So what might we do with this story? I lift it up for one reason: I ask it to examine for us the disparity between our understanding of hardship and the blessings of challenge and disappointment. Christian culture has reviled Judas for two thousand years while it has also acknowledged its belief that it was all part of a big cosmic plan. It contradicts itself in its choice to vilify Judas when according to all stories Judas is the one who put God’s plan in motion. With or without the Gospel of Judas, shouldn’t we wonder why we are vilifying him for being the catalyst to something that the Bible itself claims to be a good and necessary thing?

Like a lot of people, I am tempted to resent the deeper challenges of my life as well as those who supposedly “caused” them. I am tempted to be angry for what happened and to blame all those who made it happen.

We live in a society that sues first and asks questions later. We imprison people based on a sense of revenge and call it justice rather than make an assumption that things happen for reasons which need looking at. Sometimes those reasons are because we have let a problem get out of hand rather than deal with it. Everyone is still responsible for their own actions, but we push mental illness under the rug and then shout foul when someone acts out in that untreated, uncared for state. And there are other times it’s through no known fault of our own that bad things happen, but we then live in a space of anger, hostility, and vengeance. What will that get us?

If you are a person who believes in the Will of God, or that things happen for a reason, or that some good might very well come from difficulty if only we can choose to see it that way, then Judas the Betrayer should become something more.

What are the Judas moments in your life? Who are the Judases in your life? When something challenging happens to you, how do you react to it? Who or what is your authority? Is God your authority? Love? Justice? The Bible? Who or what tells you how to react to life’s challenges?

Because I have a suggestion about that. Let love be your authority. Hold your solutions to life challenges up to a yardstick of love and see how they measure up. Hold a challenge in your lap and love it and see what love tells you to do with it. Don’t punch it, don’t reject it, don’t strangle it; caress it, and see what happens.

Consider that life itself might be a trick question. Be open to the possibility that if life’s challenges have served you well, even if on only one single occasion, it might just happen again. When you despair and don’t know where to turn, give thanks for the solution that is already out there somewhere waiting for you to discover it like soulmate you just haven’t met yet. That solution is out there walking the earth, knowing the sun and the air, waiting to meet you.

Be open to thinking differently about the world and what has made it the way that it is. Be open to what it may yet become because of the challenges it has seen. And be open to what it might be that saves us all from ourselves.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, July 18, 2020 - The Physics of Compassion

About what or whom do you feel compassionate? Compassion literally means to “
co-suffer,” which sounds a lot like empathy, when you think about it. Different from empathy, however, though still closely related, compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of another. Empathy is the ability to perceiveBy and sometimes even feel another’s suffering. But where empathy feels, compassion acts. It must.

One important facet of compassion is in how it differs from the concept known as altruism. Altruism as a concept is a bit of a fabrication, actually, of 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte. He was looking to create a word that could serve as a good opposite to the word egoism, which is itself a word to describe those who only think of themselves. But the opposite of thinking only of oneself can’t be about thinking of everyone but oneself. Because there‘s actually never a time when we don’t think of ourselves. We’re always aware of how we fit into a situation and how we will either be benefited or harmed. Even when we’re doing something for someone else. And we’re constantly striving to feel good. That is our permanent inner directive, feeling good. When we do good deeds, we feel good. That’s a benefit. And it’s one which can’t be discounted.

When M. Comte created the concept of altruism he was mistaken. His concept does not exist. Not that goodness doesn’t exist, but I mean to say altruism, as it’s creator intended it and as it’s defined, does not. And his word has only served to muddy the waters and make compassionate action seem even harder to accomplish because it mistakenly gives us the impression that we’re not supposed to benefit in any way, even to feel good. We are to be selfless. That’s the advice. That’s the standard being set with regard to serving others. That bar is not just too high, it’s a fantasy.

And knowing that, knowing that a false ideal has been placed into our moral universe, we can let it go. Because we matter in the equation of our service to others. If we are to co-suffer we should also have earned the right to be co-inspired, co-joyful, and co-relieved by helping another. That is the only way compassion functions. Compassion is a co-experience with a personal benefit we can’t separate from the whole. Good! By the philosopher’s ideal, any time you take pleasure from helping another person, you’re no longer being an altruist. Which amounts to a judgment against you feeling good. “He’s not really an altruist, he liked it.“

Let’s release that. Even if you don’t consciously think that way, it is in there. This idea is written into the mission statements of thousands of nonprofits and community service organizations. Because even though we don’t realize it, that unrealistic human aspiration subtly impacts our ability to be of genuine service to the world. And whether or not you’re a religious person makes no difference to whether or not you’re influenced by the larger society who tells you that you should only give without wanting and serve without needing. I think there’s a backlash to that. I fear it only has the ability to infect a culture with the belief that since they can’t live up to these lofty ideals they might as well grab what they can for themselves regardless of how it might impact others. For what’s the point in caring about others if we’re not allowed to care about ourselves? Why, don’t we count?

The fact is, we do. We count very much. The sacred advice they’re alluding to in their desire to accomplish selfless good in the world is a caution to make sure that what you do for your own state of goodness should never impinge upon the state of goodness of another. But as well, the actions you take to feel good can also, if not careful, follow the old aphoristic idea that ‘weakness is merely strength in excess.’ We can do so much of a good thing that it becomes harmful to us. That’s true for everything from potato chips to philanthropy. That’s where the advice to be selfless comes from: Our fear that if we give permission to feel good, no real good will come of it. We will just overdo it and mess it up. But that’s a lie. Even if a well-intentioned one. Don’t buy it.

Because science has now repeatedly shown us that doing good for others is extremely beneficial to our selves. There are endless scientific studies showing evidence of the health benefits of compassionate action such as reducing the risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus nerve, it makes us more resilient to stress and strengthens our immune systems, it increases our ability to socialize, and countries who make it a habit to help their most vulnerable are statistically proven to be the happiest. Shouldn’t that matter? It would almost seem that some have concluded God’s only happy when we aren’t. Does that make sense?

Still, we should check our motivations. It’s always important to know why we are doing something and for whom we are doing it. Because sometimes we’re playing at compassion and using it as a smokescreen (even from ourselves) to support behavior that harms us. When we put others before ourselves, harm occurs. When we put ourselves before others, harm occurs. When we make ourselves equal to others, compassion occurs.

I think one of the most astonishing observations I found in my research on this topic was in the tactics shown to cultivate compassion in ourselves and others. We can actually make more compassion in the world by modeling it. Because compassionate action is a learned behavior. And research shows it’s contagious. Did you know that if you tap your finger at the same time as a stranger it increases compassionate behavior in ourselves? How does that happen? I don’t know how they proved it, but it aligns with the other things we’ve learned about engaging in group activities and how they impact our mental state. Doing things with and for others changes us in profound and positive ways.

And though we can’t see or taste compassion, and we definitely don’t understand it, we can still use it. We can’t see the wind, but we can see the leaves moving within it. We can use our observation of the leaves to conclude that there is power moving them. A force we might choose to participate in ourselves. We can take what we learn from the leaves and then build a sail for our boat. The leaves show us that the wind has physics. Even if we don’t always understand it.

Through science we can see that compassion, too, has physics. It has replicable outcomes and predictable opportunities for taking the best advantage of what compassion has to offer as a life practice. We may not fully understand this wind, but we can allow it to be at our back, guiding our forward movement to occur with greater ease and purpose. We can take the oars out of the water for a while and just allow the momentum of the wind to carry us where it wishes us to go. Be free within it.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Practicing Life - Saturday, July 11, 2020 - Accomplishing Forgiveness

Whose bright idea was it to forgive and forget? It’s been an idiom of the english language for over 600 years, yet is it really good advice? I ask because when we’re being recommended to forgive, forget seems to be the very next word we all think of.

Yet, I think forgetting is only in the best interest of the person who has done the wrong in the first place. I’m sure they’d love for you to forget what they did. I’m guessing it was a guilty party who first invented the phrase to get themselves off the hook. Not so fast. Remembering is accountability. For instance, we should definitely remember US Confederate history. That’s not the same thing as honoring it. We have special places for things we want to make sure we don’t forget. They’re not the same places we put things we wish to honor. We will have to forgive our past in order to come to terms with it. But we won’t accomplish it by forgetting. Some history just needs its proper place and context.

Just as there’s a difference between remembering and honoring, there’s a difference between forgetting and forgiving. Forgiving is about letting go of the anger, resentment, and hurt we experience as a result of someone else’s actions and no longer allowing those emotions to have power over us. It’s not letting them off the hook. It’s about letting go of the poisonous after-effects of our experience. They no longer serve a purpose except to hold us back. 

Our continued emotional hold on our pain only helps them keep winning every time our hurt is remembered afresh. As long as we don’t forgive, their knife is still in the wound, doing its damage. Only they don’t have to do anything except to go on with their lives. We’re the ones now holding the knife in place. You can take it out now. 

It’s time to heal. Which can’t happen fully if we forget about what hurt us in the first place. We can’t learn from our trials if we forget about them. Remembering while forgiving is the key, as well as the hardest thing of all to do.

It’s easy to maintain forgiveness when we’ve forgotten the hurt. Sadly, that’s how history repeats itself when we brush our past under the carpet. But we can separate the two. We can work through and heal the emotional pain while retaining the historical fact. This is the basis of all trauma therapy. 

It’s understandable to say something like, “Well, I’ll never forgive them for what they did as long as I live.” Forgiving is not condoning. You can forgive someone whom you still plan to prosecute. But it will be easier to create solutions that will actually change things for the better, rather than just perpetuating the old cycles of vengeance. This is the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice. One just punishes, the other wants to know why it happened and take steps to heal the original wound so it never happens again. One silences a bell to the universe, the other rings it.

We don’t forgive for the purpose of allowzing the wrongdoing an opportunity to repeat itself. Sometimes that means forgiving someone strictly for our own sake, but not continuing the relationship, because trust is gone. Forgiving doesn’t always mean getting together again. Sometimes it’s just closure. 

Forgiveness itself is not something we just do once in a while, it’s a life practice. It stems from the practice of nonresistance. For as you may remember, non-resistance is a platform of allowing that gives us permission to see those who have trespassed against us in a more human light. Non-resistance is a preparation for forgiveness. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I,’ we forgivingly might say when realizing that, had the shoe been on the other foot, we might’ve done the same thing.

When someone’s harmed us, either deliberately or accidentally, we undergo a chemical and emotional stress protocol in our bodies. Depending on whether or not the person who harmed us is remorseful, and has perhaps validated our experience with genuine apology, we’re able to achieve a sense of peace about what’s happened and can move on.

But this doesn’t typically happen. Especially with more serious offenses. It isn’t often we get the kind of validation and remorse we truly need from those who’ve harmed us. We usually have to forgive those who aren’t actually asking for our forgiveness and who probably have no interest in validating our negative experience with them. 

Our inner peace isn’t handed to us on a silver platter, we have to work for it. That’s where life practices come in. Dharmas. They guide us toward right actions we might otherwise only be able to manage under the most perfect circumstances. And life is rarely, if ever, perfect. We need tools. We need practice.

Notice the difference between anger and rage. Anger is motivating, sometimes even productive. Rage is only destructive. If you feel rage, even rightfully so, it means the situation has moved you into a state of reduced effectiveness toward your goal. You’ve allowed it to go too far. Take steps to correct it. 

As an exercise toward this, try to see the humanity in your opponent and be allowing of the existence of their fear. Pray for them. This will offset the balance in your brain chemistry and downshift your rage back to a more effective, and less personally damaging, regular old anger. Your actions will reflect your higher presence of mind and they may even affect how your opponent responds. Is consciousness at work here, too? What do you think?

The practice of forgiveness on a daily basis for ourselves as well as others begins, as all things do, in small ways. Notice your feelings. Don’t judge them, just notice them. Passively observe them as if you had a mini stenographer sitting on your shoulder taking notes. See if you notice a pattern in the types of things which upset you most. If you see a pattern, there may be something in you which is being triggered by things having nothing to do with the present situation. Be curious about them.

Make sure you understand your triggers and not let them negatively impact the present. Sometimes we’re more hostile than we mean, or than the moment required. Was our outburst all for the person who just upset us? Or was some of the excess leftovers from the past? That’s when the rubber really hits the road in the life practice of forgiveness. We have to open up the cans of worms we’ve been avoiding. There’s always a stack of old things waiting to be let go. Chip away at the pile one thing at a time. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it goes, once you start.

Notice what you do when you get mad. This is so important. If you’re a person who brags about how no one wants to get on your bad side, or if you take pride in holding onto grudges, you may have some work to do in this area. If you believe that no one can be trusted, and that you trust no one as a matter of principle, you definitely have some forgiveness work to do. And it won’t be easy. But it will change your life. Start small. Avoid revenge at all costs, even if it means swallowing your pride. Don’t worry, you won’t choke on it.

Choose to see the dignity and humanity in those who’ve hurt you and treat them as such. They will still be accountable for their own actions, but you will no longer be a victim of theirs.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Practicing Life - Saturday, July 4, 2020 - The Impact of Consciousness

Life is complicated. Right now we face so many challenges. Our perceived ability to control our world continues to slip through our fingers every day. But we are still designed for joy and for community. And we are agile enough to survive this. We’re incredibly creative and adaptable. And though we sometimes use that adaptability and agility to further dig ourselves into a hole, we, for the most part, usually take two steps forward for every one step back. The long game is to our advantage. Have courage. 

Perhaps, it would be worthwhile to consider that there is more to us than what we appear. The greater consciousness of humanity—meaning what the majority of us are thinking or praying about at any one given time—has been shown to play a part in how things unfold. Including the ways which appear to be beyond our ability to intervene. Mysteriousness. Is consciousness at work in places we don’t readily assume? Does our consciousness affect things? Things like the planet, perhaps? We’re made of the exact same materials. Just how deeply does our divine spark reach? Just what might we be able to affect by all of us collectively directing our conscious thought toward the same idea? 

While several different faiths have a similar idea to this, in Christianity, Jesus is quoted as saying, “When two or more gather in my name, I am in the midst of them.” It’s an interesting statement. And I’ve heard a few interpretations for it, including its usage in prayerful conflict mediation or to align its references to the Old Testament law recommending two to three witnesses in conflict resolution. Interesting to me that both of these explanations involve the repairing of relationship. 

But there is perhaps a more esoteric thought to have about why it might be that if at least two or more gather together in the spirit of the same idea, surprising things can occur. It may be for the same reason that it’s good Old Testament advice to have 2 to 3 witnesses on hand when trying to resolve conflict. They’re not just there to witness, they are there to add their consciousness to the proceedings. 

In 1993, a national group of trained meditators created an experiment with the intention to decrease the crime rate in Washington DC. They predicted they’d be able to reduce it by over 20% and prepared to catalog the data empirically. Before the project began, the Chief of Police said the only thing that would create a 20% drop in crime would be 20 inches of snow. The study occurred in summer of that year, but it didn’t snow. The crime rate began to drop immediately after the project began and continued to steadily drop until the end of it. Crime went down 23.3% below the time series prediction for that period of the year. Look that experiment up for yourself. Was consciousness there? If so, what does it imply about our capacity to affect physical reality on the level of our consciousness? What did those meditators affect and how? 

This points to an idea that when a group of people choose to direct their thoughts toward a particular idea or reality or solution, stuff happens. Just how much is our consciousness capable of doing? 

Let’s then consider for a moment what consciousness itself might be. The primary definition of the word consciousness says only that it’s about our awareness of our own surroundings. That we know a tree is over there and a house is over there and we know are standing in between them is, by definition, “consciousness.” The origins for the word ‘conscious,’ though, are about special knowledge, really. Holders of a secret. And also an inner awareness of self, not just our surrounding environment. In the late 16th century, though, the word ‘conscious’ came to mean an awareness of our own personal wrongdoing. In other words, self-conscious. It meant shame. 

But we can also use the word consciousness to describe the part of ourselves which is larger than our physical bodies. The part of ourselves which is plugged into the divine. The part which is permanent and eternal and, true to the contemporary definition, utterly aware of its surroundings and its place within the universe. The part which is aware and self-aware but leaves the shame part to us humans. Shame is one of many classrooms of the human experience. It’s appropriateness lies in the overcoming of it. 

Back to consciousness, though. Does our consciousness have physics? In other words, are there rules to it? If we were smart enough, could we measure it? Could we invent a device to see consciousness? If we did, what would we conclude from empirically proving our consciousness exists? What might it change and us and how we more deliberately use consciousness as a tool of advancement?

I believe that when two or more gather in the name of something greater than themselves, magic happens. I think when a certain saturation point of our individual minds gather together around a single thought, the thought itself can hear it. On the quantum physics level, it seems that when we gather we have a greater capacity to collapse a waveform around a particular potential into the reality we ultimately experience. I think I sounded very fancy there. 

But that’s the quantum physics way of saying that our expectations are often realized on the quantum level where our thought is provable to affect reality. You can look that up too. I think whatever it is that makes that happen we could safely refer to as consciousness. 

It could be thought of as a magic wand, of a sort. One that we’re not particularly sure how it works, or just how much power it has. And for which we probably should get a little bit of education. But it’s a power nonetheless. And one that we own for ourselves to do with as we wish. Make an assumption that how you feel and the thoughts you project manage to accomplish something beyond your understanding. Create communities of those who wish to conduct their thoughts in the same direction with you for mutual benefit. May your divine spark, along with the divine sparks of others, together light a fire storm of compassion and resolution for our world. Amen.