Monday, January 27, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 25, 2020 - The Center of Attention

One of my favorite movie scenes is a short bit in the 1958 film “Auntie Mame” when Mame Dennis, played by Rosalind Russell, is working as a temp phone operator for the law firm of Widdecombe, Gutterman, Applewhite, Bibberman and Black. A tongue-twister, to be sure, for any receptionist. She makes a mess of it, of course. Hilarity ensues, 1950’s style.

But the intention of that kind of job is to make connections between one side of a conversation and another so that communication occurs. A synthesis of two ideas merges to become one, continuous, multidimensional thought.

That’s what happens when a connection is made in our brains as well. Two near but separate regions become connected over a single idea. As a result, a physical, literal piece of tiny human tissue, visible only with an advanced microscope, forms in the brain. Like a phone operator taking a wire from one side of a switchboard and plugging it into the other. Connection complete.

These threads are tenuous at first, but definitely real. They can be strengthened over time by merely thinking about the same idea as often as possible. That dedicated synapse becomes stronger and more prominent the longer and more diverse the conversation across it becomes.

This power works both ways, however. Brain tissue does not evaluate the quality or potential harmfulness of your thoughts, it just thinks them. It will create and strengthen whatever synapses you tell it to. Negative thinking builds circuitry the same as positive thinking does.

There’s advice in that. Be careful what you attend to. It boils down to what you are noticing. Noticing better things creates emotionally healthier circuitry. But it also affects the subjects of your observation. That’s a power as well.

There is a theory in physics called the Observer Effect. I would postulate that it has gone beyond the theoretical into the factual realm. But I am no scientist. The theory suggests that when we observe something it inevitably changes. Sometimes these changes are practical and understandable such as when we go down into the deepest parts of the ocean to observe the life down there and must use bright lights in order to accomplish it. That light is unnatural to the environment and placing it there will inevitably create slight changes in the conditions of the environment they are exploring. The rarely-disturbed life forms down there will behave differently around a foreign object, even fish that are blind and cannot sense light. The mere presence of a foreign body making foreign sounds and emitting foreign smells and tastes into the water will inevitably alter our ability to experience the environment as if it were undisturbed. It is impossible to know what an unobserved subject behaves like.

The phenomenon is not limited to scientific observation. It is a fractal of our reality which occurs in every aspect of our lives and world. We must satisfy ourselves with the fact that our attention alone makes unalterable changes to our environments, and to our brains as well.

Paying attention to something—noticing it—completes a brain circuit. It either builds or strengthens synapses around the subject of our attention. When something is placed—either by us or someone else—into the center of our attention, things occur.

What are you paying attention to? And what are the effects of that attention?

Even in the world of quantum physics we know that observation and expectations affect outcomes at the atomic level. The famed double-slit experiment, which you may research on your own, demonstrates as much. Since we are made of atoms, might it be true that our expectations and observations alter outcomes as well?

How is it that simply by noticing something it changes? I don’t know. But I know it’s happening nonetheless. I believe in the conclusions of the double-slit experiment. Attention changes outcomes. If we assume that is a natural and perhaps universal occurrence, where else is it occurring? And what if we attended to things on purpose, knowing that our attention alone has significance? What if we stopped attending to things which no longer serve us? What if we turned our cheek from them? What if we chose to build our brain wiring as intentionally as if coding a computer algorithm? Are there truly effects on both the viewer as well as the viewed? Yes.

I had a great professor in seminary. She literally pointed our attention to the act of attention itself. I enrolled in her class on the subject of attention because I felt it would serve as a valuable perspective on my ADHD. I wasn’t sure what it had to do with theology, but I was open to the experience.

I was wrong about the impact it might make on my brain’s attentional deficits, but I learned a great deal about the power of the spotlight, the microscope, and the focus of prayer and love.

When applying all these ideas together it suggests we have an ability within us to concentrate loving energy on any subject or idea we choose. As well, we are affected by the things we observe and in what frame of mind we observe them.

As an article of faith, accept the fact that you are an instrument of magic. You have only but to look at something and it shall grow or wither. Your brain will do the same. And while it may take determination and faith to use the power wisely, your presence and attention shall nonetheless move mountains. Mark my words.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 18, 2020 - A Bumper Sticker’s Worth of Wisdom

It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s for the serious. But also, not. It’s for the questioning. And the doubting. As well, it truly is for those who feel comfortable hovering only around the edges, and listening.

For the record, this is an attempt at persuading you to consider yourself in spiritual community with others. That can take many forms. But it is not solitary. Church is a group activity. Some may feel that walking in the woods is their “church.“ And to include trees in your personal “congregation” is a kind and compassionate thought. But it is not church. Church is human, exclusively.

The word “church” comes from the Greek ecclesia, whose original use meant literally “to call out.” The word eventually became a term meaning “a gathering of people.” Combined, in my view, it means a gathering of people who call out. Toward what, is the question. That part is an individual choice.

Before we proceed any further, allow me to clarify that I use the word church broadly here. For not all gatherings of spiritual seekers are in, or might call themselves, a “church.” Different faiths have different names for their places of gathering. And it’s academic in any regard, because the word church does not describe the building, but the people inside it. We slightly misuse the word when using it to refer to the building itself. A church is people. There’s a reason for that.

For a moment let’s talk about the worship experience. Every single church of every single denomination or tradition will express itself differently. Even traditions which are prescribed to proceed in a very specific and traditional way have their variance. So it’s impossible to conclude that there is any one correct way.

There is one thing all religious services of any faith have in common, however. It is “the arc.”

The arc refers to the experience of the congregant while in the worship or ceremonial or ritual experience. It is like any storytelling method, be it a book, tv, or theatre. It has a beginning, a middle, a climax, and an end. Church is meant to take you on a journey by first preparing you, then helping to clear and settle your mind, then we intone with others around us through music and prayer to further align our heartbeats, we often make a small sacrifice at some point, and, if all has been well prepared and thought out, we commune as we receive the message together. That is step one.

Step two is the careful practicing of what we learned and experienced during worship. Because it is, after all, about gaining tools for peaceful living. And since we are a communal species, that means it’s primarily about peaceful living among others.

Traditional church life gives a lot of opportunities for figuring out how to practice in real life what we’ve learned in the church service. And it’s a relatively safe space, or at least it’s meant to be. It’s a space of low stakes. It’s not your job. It’s not your outside life. It’s not your outside circle of friends. The stakes are relatively higher out there.

But inside a church community, through committee work, projects, social outreach, etc., we learn, in somewhat remedial fashion, how to engage with other people. We systematically learn how to be in relationship. Committees are where we practice what has been preached.

But it is not only other people with whom we are in relationship, and what we learn covers that as well. There are four types of relationships: with others, with the planet, with a higher power, and with ourselves. Each of these relational types are the study of focus for any religious or spiritual gathering. Make good use of it.

Around the age of 30, I decided to start attending church again. I didn’t think there would be anything there for me. But I was deeply spiritual and I somehow felt drawn to going back and spending time with the church community I grew up with as a child. Preparing myself that I was probably not in exact theological alignment with the things that might be said from the pulpit at that church, I decided to listen for the bumper sticker.

I believe there is a purpose to all things. And so I believed there was a purpose to my sitting there in my old family church. I concluded that there would be at least a bumper sticker’s worth of wisdom that was meant for me to hear that morning. And I listened for it.

As a result, I always heard something of value. It helped get me over my initial discomfort with the idea of being a “churchgoer.” It gave me space and time to see myself in relation to others, spiritually. It ended up being more comforting than I imagined. It ended up triggering my willingness to be vulnerable to these people.

I started getting involved in church life. Organizing events, teaching Sunday school, becoming a deacon, even working as the church secretary for six months as a fill-in. I wasn’t sure what I was getting out of it for a while. But as time went on, and even more so now as I look back, I realize it set me on a path that has brought me peace today. It has brought me my identity and prepared me for who I was always supposed to be.

In my case, I became a minister. But I don’t think it’s limited to that. I think it’s meant to help all of us find out who we were always supposed to be through the systematic practice of the teachings.

It’s a challenge, of course. Because people are a challenge. Being in relationship with others takes practice and guidance. Learning to love our enemies, for instance, or forgiving ourselves, does not come simply on demand. It takes practice. But the benefits are never-ending. No matter in which faith idea or religious thought you believe, you will be better for the exploration alone.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 11, 2020 - Coping with Grief

What is the ideal way to cope with grief? We typically do and say all sorts of things when we grieve which are out of character for us typically. We might pick fights we don’t mean to, take actions which are not in our best interest, or end up alienating those whom we need most.

Then there are those who withdraw entirely. Refusing to speak about or even think of the source of their grief. They shut down and function at bare minimum. Closing out others and, ultimately, only prolonging their suffering. 

So much advice in our society refers to the notion of taking a protective stance when dealing with unpleasantness, “negative energies,“ etc. We feel that we can’t deal with the emotions of grief so we attempt to shut them down or build walls to protect ourselves from them. Yet protection from grief is both impossible and futile. 

What we seek is peace. We think that what we want is to have things return to the way they were before, even while knowing it’s impossible to accomplish. There is never any going back. Not really. Even an attempt to return to the way things were before is either imbued with history which cannot be erased, or is simply not physically possible, and therefore out of our control. Recognize that a significant portion of your grief is about lack of control. Release that if you can. You have enough to deal with already. Try to have peace with the fact that you can’t control what’s going on around you or even control the grief you feel. Admit you are powerless and relent.

You see, grief is not a real thing unto its own. It is not a demon with an agenda. It is a word we use to describe the feelings associated with the necessary recalibration of our reality when a change occurs. Our brains adapt easily to new situations, but not quickly. And it can physically hurt while that recalibration occurs. There is no need to deny it. The pain is real. 

The best thing to do is to simply allow it to be. To sit with it and honor it. Honor the grief and pain. Don’t welcome it or expand upon it so much as mindfully recognize it exists and serves a function in your life. Ask your grief to be a blessing. Ask it to set you upon a new path of joy and fulfillment. Give the change and shift within you time and space to do it’s best work. Don’t resist it, welcome it.

That is not to say that you wished to make this change at this time. It is not an honoring of the loss, it’s a respect for the fertile ground upon which you now stand. Give thanks for the garden which comes from that manure. Allow looking back to become an act of looking forward.

This is an exercise of a life practice to have faith that things are not always as they appear. This is an exercise of remembering that you are loved and good can come from all sadness if we are on the lookout for it. Good will eventually come from your grief if you acknowledge that good is eventually possible. 

Spend your energy while grieving on the giving of thanks for what the past has brought you and for what the future may yet hold. It will seem scary. It will feel as though you are deluding yourself to imagine a time when your heart will feel lighter. But eventually, your heart will do just that. It’s okay to admit it.

When sadness overwhelms you, sit down, close your eyes, and give thanks. Breathe deeply and mindfully. Don’t resist the sadness. Allow it to wash over and through you. Let it soak into your skin and become one with you. Allow it to become a new swirl of color in your aura. Give it permission to exist. Resisting it will only prolong it, but honoring it will allow it to do its job as quickly as possible. Grief is busy. It’s not looking to stick around. 

These are, essentially, mind tricks. They are deliberate ways of allowing your brain’s synaptic wiring to make its best effort at recalibrating itself for your new reality as smoothly as humanly possible. Give it a chance to do that without polluting its purpose with needless guilt or repression of feelings.

So often we subconsciously feel that we must grieve to a certain degree in order to prove our love for whom or what has just left us. It is untrue. You have nothing to prove, your love is already known, and to attempt it is just wasting time which might otherwise be spent healing and growing. 

If there is a cosmic purpose to drastic life change, I believe it somehow configures in with growth and love. That is the little angel on my shoulder speaking. Somehow, grief and loss appear to be appropriate to the engine of love on this planet. We accomplish so much in the name of things and people past. Our history propels us forward always. But only in direct proportion to our allowing of it. 

Give into your grief and thank it for its presence. Be allowing. Recognize that this too shall pass. And when the time is just right, bid it hail and farewell. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 4, 2020 - What’s Wrong with Faith?

What’s wrong with faith? Actually, nothing. And it makes you live longer. So why not?

The fact is, nearly all of us believe in things we can’t see. And, believe it or not, what we believe about the unseen contributes greatly to our state of mind. Most of us believe in some version of a “higher power,“ but many, such as myself, cannot, or choose not, to speculate on what that power might be. That’s fine. That’s agnosticism. In my way of thinking, agnosticism is the most humble form of belief in a higher power.

We don’t need to conclude the nature of the Creative Source in order to exhibit some degree of faith that It exists, in whatever form It takes. It is as It is.

To make note of it here, I do not gender God when describing It. I refer to God as the capital-I It. This is an attempt at humility. How can I know what form God takes? How could I ascribe the wonderful and beautiful and even the sometimes negative attributes of either the male or female gender to Something so much larger than the banal duality of humanity?

In one sense that could seem a disrespect, but by un-gendering God it make it easier to maintain a holy question mark over life. It helps me to relax a bit about what’s going on behind the scenes. Referring to God using the pronoun It leverages a greater amount of comfort over maintaining a sacred ignorance over things I could not possibly comprehend. I choose to have peace (whenever humanly possible) over things which are out of my control because I believe that we are not alone and that What Accompanies Us is 100% on our side. That is my faith.

It is proven that people live longer when they think this way. Wonder why that is so.

No one can force you to believe anything, for the record. They can only force you to listen to them, not heed them. Keep your wits about you, but remain curious. Be open.

The most important assumption I make about faith is that we are all wrong. Everyone of us. None of us has it right. Which makes me think we aren’t meant to. It makes me think that there is something important in the fact that faith is entirely inconclusive to humanity. It puts me at ease in the same way as walking into a math test knowing for a fact that no one has figured out the lesson yet and everyone is going to get a D. The bell curve gives me peace. If tested on the true nature of God we would all be lucky to get a D. Whew.

Boil away from the fluid in your brain the images of an enthroned, white, muscular, bearded, Zeus-like figure whom we have been told is God. That is not God. That is a role which some of us have needed God to play in order to place our faith in It. But we don’t need that anymore. In fact, it’s now holding us back.

Consider being comfortable with an absence of knowing what it is that connects us all one to another. Consider that we are all connected in some way and just leave it at that. Consider concluding that the connection Itself is what people refer to as “God.” It doesn’t matter what form that connection takes in your imagination. Whether you think it to be invisible or visible, electromagnetic or by dark matter. The method you imagine by which we are connected is irrelevant as compared to ponding the thought that some kind connection exists. For many that is a huge leap of faith. For others, it feels completely natural.

Our connection with one another can be abused as well as uplifted. Keep a loving eye on any definitive conclusions people are willing to draw about the nature of God. Step quietly away from those which are unloving or claim God to be vengeful against your “sinful” nature. Making fear a part of your faith will not bring you comfort. It may control some of your behavior, but it’s an empty gesture. It’s not the same thing as being changed from within by love.

Find a way to put your heart at ease. I struggle with it too. And even though I’m not always successful at keeping my heart free of worry, every second I spend in a state of grace heals me in ways of which I will never be consciously aware. That, too, is my faith. Here’s to hoping.