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.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 20, 2020 - Enhanced Collaboration

What shall come of this strange time? What is its wider purpose?  If God truly exists, what is Its point in all this for us? Personally I see no reason to exclude the notion that divinity has a loving and benevolent hand in our current experience. My own leap of faith is that there is love and benevolence in all things, even when they seem at their worst. I choose to see benevolence here.

What are some of the things that we already notice to be changed about our culture from this virus? Virtual gatherings, for one. And that has some interesting merits. I’ve noticed on Sunday mornings that there are people who have moved away or whose schedules and families have become too busy to attend church, now joining us again virtually. They’re finding fulfillment in being part of the virtual community. We will now continue the practice once able to gather again.

This is of course not limited to church life. Humanity has been moving for some time toward greater work-at-home models, remote operations and methods of virtual collaboration. Even surgeries can be performed remotely now. Is the pandemic nudging us now toward utilizing that ability to even larger degrees once it’s over? Is there benevolence here?

One of the more noticeable trends of human social evolution is enhanced collaboration with one another. As a communal species, it’s natural for us to collaborate. But the scope of our collaboration has broadened significantly over time especially with the development of technology. The modern collaborative trend really begins, however, with the invention of the telegraph in 1832, not this pandemic. That was when communication in real time across great distances actually began. That’s the moment the world began to shrink. And it shrinks to this day.

For all its wonders, mass communication has done as much to reveal our faults as gather together to share positive information. Being able to communicate with others in real time has propelled us forward as a loving species when injustice can be reported immediately. But we disdain the knowledge that comes as well. Technology has provided a glaring look in the mirror, and we often don’t like what we see. We shield our eyes until no longer able to do so. It’s human.

In most Christian traditions, the ritual of communion is celebrated. Sometimes daily, sometimes monthly or bi-monthly. But most recognize the act as a symbol of enhanced and deliberate community. It is an expressed intention to collaborate with one another in faith. The ritual is a reenactment of the final occasion Jesus would sit and break bread with his disciples. At this meal, the group were, in essence, making a pact with one another. Through the ritual born that night, the disciples were given a tool of remembrance that would foster an ongoing collaboration among future Christians everywhere.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, some churches celebrate a traditional communion, but nearly all celebrate a special kind of communion on the final Sunday of each church year in June: a flower communion. The words of this ritual honor the wider collaboration of all life as a model for human sharing and working together to make a better world. The most important thought of the prayer is in its final words: “...may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world.”

Rituals like these comfort us when we’re afraid or when we forget that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Remember that. Take part in these little rites of community. They will ease your heart.

Virtual collaboration has been forced upon us right now. What will be the outcome of that? Will it make our world better or not? In my opinion, how can it not? How could it be possible that a situation which compels us to work together in unique and broad-spread ways not ultimately do its part toward leading us in the right direction? Is benevolence at work here? What does your faith tell you?

Some religious leaders have concluded publicly that the coronavirus is a punishment from God. Some even claim to know that it is society’s increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ community which has angered God to the point of sending us a modern plague. But if that were the case. if God really did dispense punishment for humanity’s sins, I’d think It would have done so over far more far more sinful actions than whom people choose to love. If a punishment is to be dealt, it would be for our most unloving acts, not our loving ones. They are mistaken. And their mistake only alienates them, pushing them further from God’s hope of our one great human collaboration to be.

This is the opposite of the intent of religion. And they are doing it wrong. They’re cutting themselves off from the blessing of collaboration by isolating themselves in silos of fear and backward ideology. May we pray for all those who are afraid. But our global community is not waiting for them. They are being left behind. Pray for them.

In sending love to those who cannot work together we serve the purpose of enhancing our own ability to do so. Our love makes us more fully present to be there in service to our neighbor, to work together, and resolve the problems which humanity now faces. Problems that can only be solved by the act of communion with all humanity, indeed all life. Be at peace. Our great collaboration is now inevitable.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 13, 2020 - Leaning on the Warm and Fuzzy

I struggled with my message this week. For both my congregations, this Sunday is the blessing of the animals. We’re doing it virtually, of course.

But my mind keeps circling back to the crises unfolding all around us. It felt awkward to speak of something as trite as the warm and fuzzy when our world is suffering so. 

Of course there are genuine things about our world’s animal life which deserve our respect, honor and attention. Time should always be set aside for something as significant to humanity as that. Domesticated animals are our human responsibility for creating them in the first place. They’ve been bred by us to seek our approval and validation for their hard work while also providing love, validation, and companionship to us. We have played God with these creatures. There are responsibilities to that.

Far too many humans have taken on the responsibility of pet caretakership only to fail at it horribly. So we honor those who take in our loving life forms who’ve been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Please support your local animal shelters. They are doing good work.

Humanity has grown up alongside domesticated animals from the beginning. There are records of animals bred to be workers and companions dating back thousands of years. Selectively bred to enhance our preferred characteristics. Such as friendliness, for one. 

I remember reading once about a domestication experiment of silver foxes in the 1950’s. Illegal to study genetics in Russia at that time, it was conducted under the guise of fur manufacture by geneticist Dimitri Belyaev. He observed that by selectively choosing the friendlier animals to mate and create potentially friendlier offspring, while leaving the hostile ones to become fur coats, after a few generations, their ears started to flop over and their sharp teeth began to round off. As they genetically perceived the safety and support in their environment, their defense mechanisms began to switch off. 

While some of Belyaev’s conclusions from that experiment have come under fire lately, what still emerges from it, to me, is that as a species evolves generation after generation under safer circumstances where their ability to relate with humans is prized, even their physical characteristics become friendlier over time. 

I find it very interesting to imagine that as circumstances favor an evolution toward friendliness, an animal’s bodily defense structures such as sharper teeth, keener ears, or deadlier claws, become more dormant within the genes until perhaps needed again in some future generation. But that genetic adaptability to circumstance and desire raises a flag to me about our own ability to relate with one another.

Because human beings are a domesticated species. We are domesticating ourselves right at this moment.

We have selectively bred ourselves through our choice of mate for security, procreative ability, and resourcefulness, of course, but also we tend to choose our partners for their relatability, creativity, intellect, and ingenuity. One could argue that we often choose our sexual partners based on how naturally compassionate or empathetic they are as well. In other words, how friendly they are. 

Are these traits being handed down in our genes? Is there any evidence that our physical bodies have altered over time to accommodate our species’ perception of whether or not we are safe or in danger? Perhaps our brain wiring has shifted to value friendliness differently? Has it altered as a result of the fact that even though we exist in a difficult moment, over the course of human history we have only become more peaceful and loving to one another? I know some will argue with that last point. But a little research will show that it’s statistically correct. 

We have increasingly begun to demand the equal rights of all life and all humans. Is that a product of our self-domestication? Are we choosing to be more loving even on a genetic level? We should ask ourselves this question: Are the current challenges we’re experiencing right now a result of there being less love on the planet or more? We wouldn’t be demanding equal rights if our hearts weren’t telling us more loudly every day that that is what Love is asking us to do. We should be more like dogs. Dogs don’t discriminate against each other. They sniff each other’s butts equally. 

Which makes the subject of a fluffy kitten purring on our lap all the more relevant right now. Remember when the shutdown from the pandemic started back in late March, the first thing to go was toilet paper and the second thing was all of the animals in the shelters. 

Humanity has begun to notice the plight of the animal world and their environments more and more over the past several decades. Videos of animals being cute or loving literally built the Internet. Does that say anything favorable about our overall capacity to love?

Of course my thoughts immediately jump now to the ubiquitous evil figure in spy movies cradling a voluptuous cat along his arm as he dispenses murder and mayhem. Evil people like pets, too. But does it speak to the possibility that a thread of compassion and humanity still exists within them? (Remember I’m a rabid optimist.)

That’s sidebar notwithstanding, what I’m considering here is that our companion animals specifically have grown up alongside humanity, true unwittingly, but that relationship still has its advantages. So long as we remember our place is to lovingly care for them in exchange for their loving service to us. This has the potential of being a sacred relationship. And we don’t always treat it as such.

Of course this all is a persuasive argument for veganism and a life without contribution from animals as food or clothing. There are many ways and levels of embodying the maximum to do no harm. Find what is right for you, and purchase your products from ethical sources always. Even for those who eat meat, we should be purchasing pasture raised and organically produced meat without hormones or steroids. Vegan or not, there is no excuse for mistreating our domesticated animals, or any life for that matter. Vote for those who understand this issue. Spend your dollars on the same.

For those of us who have house pets, cherish them. Give yourself permission to be comforted by them now. They are the companions of humanity and they exist in our lives for a reason. They perceive our fear, our sadness, and our despair. Allow them to put you at ease. They wish for nothing more.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 6, 2020 - Peace Shall Prevail

It’s almost hard to conceive the level of desperate unrest occurring among humanity right now. A great moan emanates from us collectively as if we are slowly ripping at the seams while witnessing it in real time. We feel powerless to stop it. The sky feels as if it’s falling.

As real as this crisis truly is, the sky is doing no such thing, of course. It’s firmly in place as always. Yet none of this trauma is in our imagination either. Sadly, the presence of truth is no guarantee of progress when doubt is sewn. Even fake news makes its indelible impression on reality. Our own individual perception of this time is absolutely genuine. You are having a real experience.

But there are lots of real things in this world.

Love is real, too. So is compassion. As optimistic as I may be, I must be frank as well. I absolutely do see more hatred today than when I was a child. Much more. 

But, am I seeing less love?  I’m not. Much more, actually. It honestly appears as if there is more love actively and creatively expressed in the world today than when I was a child. 

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the increased brazenness of hatred being expressed. I can only assume. But even as we see more hatred, people are increasingly using their creativity and ingenuity to solve world problems. Society wildly celebrates those who make achievements of human compassion. It does not celebrate the opposite.

Against the backdrop of increasing riots and dramatic protests, there are hints at real progress occurring within society on the issue of racism which are crucial to its success. In fancy talk: the subtle perpetuating mechanisms inside systemic racism and discrimination (meaning some of what makes racism continue to flourish generation after generation) are becoming disturbed from their normal function by, among other things, our choice to use better words to describe other people. 

That small but profound shift is having an enormous and lasting effect on society. Even while the louder conflict rages and much larger battles are being fought, it's the meeker action which is the often the true stimulus of change. The call for kinder words is viscerally upsetting to some people and the ripple effect has been profound as the blinders have come off one by one. There are natural consequences to this. Rage is one of them. On both sides. Small shifts in our society, such as the advent of politically correct language, not only gets under the skin of racism and discrimination of others in general, but exemplify the success of the earlier work within the civil rights movement which has already made a lasting impact. That’s what’s bringing up the rage on both sides: It's the new visibility of social progress some don’t want. Do not despair! Keep supporting the cause of equality in your own way. There are far more on the side of unity than not.

Ironically, our natural instinct to work together is often switched-off in dangerous times. For ideological safety, people shut down and insulate themselves with those who think the same as they. Cross-pollination of shared ideas becomes quarantined. Fear makes us clench rather than embrace. There are natural consequences to that. Only an attention to the source of that fear will heal it.

Even while recognizing the abundance of violence currently occurring, people the world over are genuinely trying harder to expand their awareness of social issues. This is visible everywhere. Even national ad campaigns have picked up on our increased inclination toward unity and collaboration. Gender equality as well. Have you seen the new laundry detergent ads with men in them? I have. That never used to happen. Is that the advertising media trying to brainwash men into doing laundry? Not likely. And nearly all commercials today show people of mixed or ambiguous race. Hmm. Are they trying to convince us to be more racially mixed? Not likely. 

This is the advertising industry responding to the actual statistical changes toward gender and racial equity which we have already administered into our society. They spend millions on demographic studies and polls trying to get to know us and what makes us tick. They are experts on how we are thinking about important issues both political as well as personal. They know us better than we know ourselves. Look toward advertising if you want to see where humanity really is in real time. Advertisers always want to show us our most current selves—as improved through the use of their product, true—but ourselves nonetheless.

Civil rights has not arrived at its destination, by far, but it is doing its job relentlessly. The struggle is all real. It is based on a genuine and reasonable rage which legitimately exists. Sometimes that rage has been expressed in peaceful ways with successful results. Sometimes it has been achieved with violence and unrest as well, let’s be honest. Both have pushed the needle forward. 

I advocate for peaceful resolution always. But I also subscribe to the belief that there is no such thing as a disproportionate reaction. It is always, always proportionate to something. Perhaps not the situation as it exists in isolation from the larger picture, but that rage is coming from somewhere. Seek it out and soothe it. It’s hard, and humbling, but it’s the only way.

Earlier this week, one of my dearest friends posted this profound solution: “When times are full of confusion, fear or anger, the question to ask ourselves is: What does love require of me?”

Hate is not a real thing. Only fear is. Look for the fear and do what you can about that. The hate will evaporate when the underlying fear heals. That is the weakness of all hatred: The wound. Soothe the wound. That’s what the teachings of Jesus, as well as many other spiritual dharmas, ask of us. Pray for your enemies. Send a psychic balm to their fear. Pray for their ease. Work against your fear and rage. Get under the skin of it. 

There’s some physics behind this idea as well. Though we don’t understand it, we have observed its effects enough to conclude it’s probably genuine. But it blows our minds so much we don’t know what to do with the information. We don’t know how to apply it to our lives. Remember, however, we don’t understand a lot of things we still manage to make great use of. 

In 1993, a group conducted a consciousness study experimenting with lowering the crime rate in Washington D.C. using only prayer and meditation over a series of weeks “without any verbal, social, political or physical interaction between the meditators and the local community. The positive impact would be made quietly and discreetly from the field of consciousness.

This sounds far-fetched. But the crime rate did in fact drop in the city by 23.3% during the summer-long study period; something the Chief of Police said would be possible only with 20” of snow. I encourage you to read the study for yourself. Cross verify the information. 

Within all this just mentioned, exists the thread of what to do to be of service to the solution. Meditate on peace. Encourage others to do the same. Pray for it in groups (virtually, for the time being, of course). Spread creative and ingenious ways to be of service to others. Be a balm to fear, in person as well as on the level of your consciousness. Don’t encourage violence, but dialogue. Insert yourself into the problem by hosing it down with empathy. Relieve yourself of judgement. You cannot walk a mile in their shoes. There will be things you just can’t be made to understand. Pray for understanding to occur anyway. You are a bell unto the Universe. Ring like the dickens.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 30, 2020 - Remember to Floss

Right now we all have our eyes on the future. And yet, at the same time, we are so focused on what’s going on right now, we forget (or don’t know how) to plan ahead. We have anxiety about it because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We don’t know what the “new normal” is going to be like. We don’t know what will emerge from this strange and fearful time. Our eyes may be looking ahead, frantically even, but they’re not seeing much. The view is too dim for us to even make out the edges of it. Our predictions are flimsy at best. 

But we crave to know what’s going to happen next. We feel a fair bit of anxiety when we don’t. We rely on people who forecast the future in all kinds of ways. Meteorologists tell us what they think the weather is going to be like. Political analysts tell us what they think is going to happen next in politics. Historians and sociologists tell us what they think will happen next in our society. All of these predictions are based on what has happened in the past.

This is called prognostication. It’s a fancy word that means to foretell the future. And people make a lot of money by studying the past so meticulously that they are given authority on predicting our future. But they are usually off, to one degree or another. Now even more so. Frustratingly, no one knows what’s going to happen next. 

This is utterly terrifying to many people. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we stop putting so much energy on trying to anticipate the moving target of our future and put it on making the most out of what’s happening here and now, the future will evolve on its own. Just like it always does. But the character of that future could evolve in ways which truly benefit us, if we shift our expectations a bit. Not lower them, just turn them a little bit in a different direction to make it a little easier.

There are several contemplative spiritual traditions that ask us to be mindful of our “attachments.” Many believe that attachment is the root of all suffering. I think there’s some value to that. However, it’s also important to remember that we are always attached to things, and people, outcomes, dreams. We humans are constantly desiring, imagining, or despairing. (Yes, we even attach ourselves to despair. Despair is more constant than hope. It never fails to come when called.)

So the advice of nonattachment can be misleading because we feel that we must become like robots who only respond to stimuli and answer questions yet never form attachments to any one or thing or idea. It makes us feel as if the advice of nonattachment is not to love. We give up on practicing nonattachment because it makes no sense to us. We feel like failures before we’ve even begun.

The trick is to first be okay with the fact that we are creatures of attachment. Become nonresistant to that. Attachment gives us meaning and value in our lives. We simply cannot give it up anymore than we could our hearts or livers. Our ability to form attachments is part of our humanity.

But, another, perhaps even more crucial part of our humanity is our free will. We have a choice about how we perceive things. We can choose our attachments far more than we realize. We can shift our thinking about the future, as well as more mindfully choose the parts of it to which we can safely attach ourselves. 

This may still sound a bit confusing. But think about it. What are you attached to? A sense of freedom or a particular new car that you think will be the only way to get the freedom you want? If you’re attached to the car, you’re more likely to be disappointed than if you’re attached to the idea of freedom in general. Instead of placing all your focus on achieving the new car at all costs, if you're attaching yourself to a sense of freedom, you may be open enough to discover the car was never going to manage it. It’s just a car. Freedom comes from within.

Let’s face it, the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet right now. It’s been happening for some time; long before the pandemic hit. This is just the latest in a string of world-changing events that we have experienced over the past several years. Sometimes I see old news clips from a few years ago (heck, from a few weeks ago!) which seem na├»ve now, already outdated. Where were the prognosticators then? Very little of what they predicted has happened in the way they imagined. Sometimes it’s close. But not enough to give us unilateral confidence.

Those who evolve for the better during this time will be those who place their attachments on different things. They place their attachments on the preparation for tomorrow. Not for doomsday, but for a golden age. They put their stock and value on emotional readiness, traditional knowledge, bodily preservation, inner strength, and compassion for others. These are the toolbox for the new normal to come.

And so I have a piece of advice for you. Floss. Yup. Floss every day. Put your attachment on what will best serve you in any future to come. Your smile. Your health. Your wellness. There’s prayer in this activity alone. There’s attachment to a future where your smile and health have value. 

And something even more important: Our children. Place your attachments on the readiness, knowledge, preservation, strength and compassion for our children. Trying to predict what will happen next, for their sake, will only pigeonhole them into a future they might not have created for themselves. Giving them anxiety through endless predictions of a future that will never come to pass in the ways we predict is not proper spiritual flossing. 

We must consciously attach ourselves to the right perspective. Love. The cultivation of critical thinking and imaginative thought. The development of creativity and innovation. Attach yourself to that. Attach yourself to flexibility and nimbleness. Attach yourself to inner balance. Teach our children the skill of standing on ground that constantly shifts beneath our feet. Teach them though your example how to attach themselves to peace. 

And remember to floss your teeth. All shall be well.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 23, 2020 - Breathe and Begin

Look up the word kenosis. First, comes up a Christian theological definition, and then second, a Kenotic Christological definition (which contradicts the first one), and then you’ll come to what would be, in my opinion, a more useful starting point: the Greek meaning of the word.

Kenosis means ‘to empty.’ In spiritual terms, it describes a process of inner allowing so profound, it asks the ego to step aside entirely and relent to the danger of becoming lost. For that’s exactly what the ego feels when faced with what it fears to be its own destruction. And it feels it as dramatically as that as well, destruction. The ego is very dramatic. And convincing.

This part of us, this ego, which makes hasty decisions based on emotional reactions, does not like to step aside. This part of always thinks it’s right because it has to. That is its survival mechanism. Surety. Immovability. And to whatever degree our ego has been harmed in the course of our lifetime determines just how confident and sure that ego must be in the correctness of its position. And at what cost.

Genuine honor and dignity can never be damaged or insulted. Only our ego tells us that we must avenge the insults we’ve received. Actual honor never needs to lower itself in such a way. Remember that when considering your grudges. Let them go. Let them empty from within you.

In Christian theology, the word kenosis refers to the belief that Jesus let his humanity step aside to allow the nature of God to fully enter. Admittedly, there are many variations to how this concept is perceived in various Christian traditions, so allow some room here for flexibility. But suffice it to say that kenosis in Christianity means the act of Christ’s self-emptying so that something greater than his human self could be subsumed into him.

This is an elegant thought. And there’s a fair amount of spiritual logic to the metaphor as well. You’ll find the thread of this idea in nearly all world scripture. Which, of course, always gets my attention. It advises us that our first step is not about what choice or task or journey we should take next, but to simply empty ourselves in preparation for the unknown to come. It tells us to not worry just yet about what comes next. After the emptying, we’ll understand it better.

Because what’s to come next cannot be seen unprepared. It can’t be discerned through a lens of how we see and do things right now. Who we are today, and recently, will be gone. We can only see the light in this new part of the spectrum once we’ve allowed the scales to fall from our eyes. It’s revealed in the process of allowing ourselves the existential risk of simply existing in a vacuum for a moment. Let go of trying to control this future. It’s changing too quickly to even try. Be at peace about this. And breathe.

It’s a scary thing, actually, depending on how big the chip is you’re carrying around on your shoulder. But just like the moment when you let a friend off your shoulders whom you’ve been carrying around on your back at a pool party, the lightness of your true weight is suddenly very noticeable. You’ll be okay. And so will your friend.

The first step of all mindful thinking, practices, debates, or mitzvahs, is the breath. The breath is the first of all things. It is the first hopeful step Dorothy takes onto the yellow brick road. Taking a breath before beginning something changes it from a mindless activity to a mindful one, all on its own. Even taking out the trash takes on a different character when we breathe first before doing it.

Just one, sizable breath. Nothing more. You don’t have to sit and close your eyes and start alternately squeezing your nostrils (although that is a great breathing exercise). Just keep it simple. One good breath, a medium-to-slow exhale, and proceed with whatever you’re about to do. No one even has to realize you’re doing it.

The Hebrew word ruach refers to the spiritual concepts of spirit, mind, breath, and wind. It is the part of God released across the waters prior to the creation of light. The ruach was the divine breath which formed our reality from the void. It is was what entered the vacuum of kenosis. Mythologically speaking, sacred breath was the beginning of all existence.

Buddhism places the breath so centrally in all of its actions that it’s indistinguishable from all of the teachings. The breath is literally everywhere. Symbiotic and ubiquitous. Focusing on the breath as an activity allows for the past and the future to fall away so that we only engage―even if temporarily―with just the present moment. That’s when healing occurs in the body. Entering this parabolic arc of emotional gravity slows down the aging process. That’s when the damage we do to ourselves everyday begins reversing itself ever so slightly. Just from the breath.

So what hints are there in this for us? How do we get some peace and quiet in our heads? It’s the starting point which matters. It’s how you choose to begin. Because it’s often the constellation under which something is born that determines its fate most. Breathe first. Let that be what sets the tone for all else. The answers will come.

You know, the ego never notices the breath. The ego doesn’t think to put up its defenses or justifications or arguments just from us breathing. Breath slips in under the radar of its warning systems. Since we breathe all day and night the ego is largely deaf to it. Good. Use that. Don’t judge your ego for existing, by the way, just work around it. Breathe. Let it go that our egos sometimes embarrass us or make us say regretful things. Make amends when necessary. Be at peace about it.

When we breathe, we systematically uncouple our fight or flight systems. As necessary as they are under the right circumstances, we don’t need them all the time. And every minute you spend not pumping cortisol and adrenaline throughout your body is a minute you are actually healing it. Better than that, you are allowing it to heal itself. Our bodies are constantly working toward achieving a peaceful balance. All we have to do is stop hindering the process. So breathe.

Breathing and meditating is the very first thing you should do when coming down with something. So much of your immune system hinges on your stress levels. And there are more studies showing how mindful breathing and meditation improves the immune system than there are studies showing the effectiveness of vitamin C against a common cold.

We can become our own largest obstacles when facing a crisis. Take a step to ignore the problem for the moment and empty yourself for a split second. Take a breath. Let the exhale represent the flooding out of all worry, concern or shame. Purposefully let those inner rooms remain empty, but without closing the doors.

You never know what inspiration will slip in just before the ego realizes what’s up and the gate closes again. I am the same way with vegetables. I have to eat them first, and quickly, before my brain realizes how much I don’t like them. But some of that nutrition gets in there anyway. How much opportunity does the Universe really need to show you what It would have you know? Even a fraction of a second might do.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 16, 2020 - An Observed Thing Never Doesn’t Change

One of my favorite things to talk about is attention. It’s a highly underrated life practice, paying attention. It’s mindfulness, by another word. Being aware of one’s own experience.

It doesn’t end with that. Because the things which get our notice have a tendency to change, once we’ve noticed them. Realize there is a hopeful thought in that fact alone. Add it to the math that there is more love in the world than hate and what is revealed is an obvious trajectory that humanity steadily improves itself over time through the act of attention. Even if two steps forward usually means suffering through one step back, the overall movement is forward.

As far as the math goes, love is prevailing. It just doesn’t make as big a show of itself as fear does. Love doesn’t pique our sense of outrage. Don’t be mistaken about how much love and attention and compassion and creativity and collaboration it takes to endure a pandemic. With so many of us on the planet, love is the reason our species even still exists. Take comfort in that, if you can.

So here it must be pointed out that we are paying very special attention to a number of things right now which will undoubtedly reap the benefits of our heightened notice. There are systems on our planet which are in need of change. And it is not for me to conclude what systems need to change or in what ways. I have my opinions, however, that healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry will probably get the special attention they deserve. I think systems of government are under a very particular kind of scrutiny right now. I think we are noticing all of the fear which has been percolating beneath the surface of our society for so many decades. These things need our attention. And they’re getting it.

Humanity at-large is getting a little bit of a reboot right now. The pandemic has focused our attention on things which have been neglected. That is a good thing. The positive aftershocks of this tragic time will be felt for decades to come.

That’s largely due to the physics of attention. The physics of attention are themselves an even more fascinating aspect of the entire mindful practice of simply noticing things. Because on the atomic level, we are able to prove that particles behave differently when we are looking at them. But here’s the real shocker our linear brains can’t seem to comprehend: Even when we record them using an electronic device with no one actually watching, they still behave differently. Just as if they’re being watched live. Like they know they’re being recorded.

It makes me deeply curious about what effect our attention has on our lives, and our obstacles. Especially when considered through the lens of future historians. Quantum physics explains it very technically that our heightened attention collapses a waveform from a series of potentials into specific outcomes which align with the observer’s expectations. Does that mean we have more power to effect positive change than we recognize, simply through our act of chosen observation?

When we are paying special attention to an issue, it typically gains wider attention when there is something about it which inspires us to feel better, or to want to feel better. Attention is an emotional experience. We gravitate toward the online content designed to ease our fears, or assuage our anger over injustice. Or alert us to it.

This is why fear is rampant on the Internet. Conspiracy theories abound out of a desire to feel better, to feel safer, by being in the know. By being ready. By not having been made a fool of. No one wants to feel like that. It’s easy to see how excessive fear or anxiety can drive us to attend to things which are in alignment with them. Our anxieties continuously seek validation. Pay attention to something different. And pray for those who are afraid.

We share loving stories for the same reason, though, to feel better. We share them to feel safer by fostering a sense of belonging. All we all want is just to feel better. Fortunately, good thoughts are more powerful than negative ones. It takes fewer of them to create balance.

So if our attention goes where our emotional state drives us, and follows a predictable path, what is our role in the creation of our future? Not just that of the world, but our own individual lives? How about just getting through a day? Notice what you're noticing. Notice your emotions. Notice the emotions of other people. Send hope and love to others. Collapse their waveforms from a series of unknown potentials into something safe and concrete.

That’s what quantum physics is literally telling us occurs on the atomic level. What impact might that have on our consciousness? What impact might it have on the field which surrounds us?

There’s a beautiful line in Proverbs which invites us to make our ears attentive to wisdom and incline our hearts toward understanding. It teaches that if we call out for insight and raise our voice for understanding, if we seek it like silver and search for it as hidden treasures, we will understand and find the knowledge of God.

I love the beauty and poetry of the way the advice and encouragement is given. It counsels us on what to notice most. It is teaching us to deliberately choose the things to which we attend, and defines their category: Love. It leads us to believe that there is something to be gained by attending to wisdom and love. It is not instructing us toward any action other than to notice and seek.

For now, take some comfort if you can in the category of things which are getting our attention right now. Think of what’s occurring in your own home at this moment and how your particular attention could transform your experience. Are you properly attending to things which deserve your gratitude?

What is being noticed by the world right now? Look for where the attention is going, for that’s what will change next. Quite possibly for the better.