Saturday, April 25, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - Thoughts Become Things

My daughter’s favorite expression is “thoughts become things.” It’s a quippy, simplified way of saying that thought precedes all action, but in ways which hint that more is occurring than the typical cause-and-effect scenario as we understand it. It has a bit of mysticism to it.

In the most basic and understandable way, first we think of something before we can do it. We mull it over in our heads, we contemplate. We envision. Typically, this envisioning process helps us work out a few kinks before we more fully invest in our ideas. A lot of times we think about things first so that we can get used to the idea of them.

Something I often find myself both talking and writing about is the physics of prayer. I’m always careful when using words like “prayer” because people have very strong feelings about the word. People feel conclusively that they know what it means to pray. Depending on your faith, or lack of it, you yourself already have a preconceived idea about the nature, practicality, usefulness, and even the reality of, prayer.

I’m asking you to go deeper than that. I’m asking you to go under the traditions and the words you’ve been taught to say and the stereotypes and the preconceived ideas about what’s occurring when we “pray.” Because the underlying thread is key.

I think it would be unfair to say that the prayer style of one religion works better than the prayer style of another. It would be unwise and un-humble to make assumptions about what God is listening to, or why. It would be equally arrogant to say that God speaks English but not Spanish and therefore English is somehow superior as regards prayer. That doesn’t feel like an idea with any merit, regardless of your belief in God. If God listens to us in all languages—should God exist or listen at all—then how can It not be listening to us in all forms of prayer?

So, if thoughts really do become things, what’s occurring within the physics of those thoughts? What are we transmitting? And when are we transmitting it? To whom are we transmitting it?

The answer to What are we transmitting? is: Everything we are thinking and doing. When are we transmitting it? All the time. In prayer, out of prayer, it’s all prayer. To Whom are we transmitting it? Your guess is as good as mine. As it should be.

Lavender‘s favorite expression doesn’t pass any judgments on the quality of our thoughts or the things which result from them. The axiom of “thoughts become things” merely claims that A plus B equals C. Its own faith is that all consequences are natural, logical and understandable.

That doesn’t mean we always like the consequences of our thoughts, but we must own them if we wish to evolve; if we wish to hone our skills at the thoughts we have closer toward the life we want.

What does a completely peaceful person look like? Do they get bothered by things? Probably. But how much? What would your day look like today if someone stood over you right now with a magic wand, waved it three times, said the magic words (and if you know what they are, please do tell the rest of us) and poof! you became a fully peaceful person?

If suddenly all of your ability to derive angst from a situation melted away, how would you then feel? What would be different about your day? How would you respond to someone cutting you off in traffic? How would you handle an argument with your spouse? Or might the argument never even occur in the first place?

When your inner thoughts shift toward peace and benevolence, what might shift in your outer world? What might change about the field which surrounds you and the nature of the energy inside it? We do have fields around us. Electromagnetic spheres which naturally occur as a result of the polarity in our bodies. It’s not metaphysics. It's observable. But that’s generally where our understanding ends.

We can only hypothesize about what’s occurring in our fields based on the scientific study of field theory, which is still in its relative infancy. But we can infer a few things. We can infer there’s information in our field. We can imagine that our thoughts impact the nature of the information. We know that when we’re having a bad day, it seems to continue relentlessly in an endless stream of bumped elbows and flat tires, adding insults to our injuries. Like a train going off the tracks one car at a time. We feel powerless to stop it.

It’s not that you had a thought, “Gee, I’d really love to have a bad day today.” Maintaining inner peace prevents you from concluding, after you’ve hit your not-so-funny bone just getting out of bed, that now your entire day is going to look like this. It’s all about the positive thought you’re choosing when it would be perfectly natural to have a negative one.

Look, I don’t understand the physics of field theory, or prayer. That’s way above my pay grade as a minister. And you don’t want me to conclude it on your behalf either. You are entitled to your own opinion about that. But I don’t have to understand how an airplane works in order to visit my friends.

I tend to give a piece of advice when people tell me they’re having a really bad day. I suggest to them that they spend five minutes thinking about three things which make them feel grateful. Just pick three things and set the timer on your phone if you must, and then ruminate for a bit on what it is about which you feel such gladness for them.

Consider their details and their blessings. See if you can think of things you hadn’t considered before. Deliberately run out of fingers and toes in counting them. And then resume your day. See if it alters the kind of experience you have. It just might. It works for me.

Based on the teachings of religious and spiritual traditions throughout human history, we might surmise that doing something like this, using the notion that thoughts genuinely do become things, has at least the ability to alter our perception of a day. Our faith may even give us the option of considering that we project a positive energy forward from us, somehow telekinetically altering circumstances which might have otherwise caused us harm. What do you believe?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 18, 2020 - Being the Non-Anxious Presence

It’s a points system really. Sometimes we are carrying around a lot of points against us. Sometimes we arrive into stressful situations carrying the baggage of one or more already stressful situations in our lives. How many points are you carrying around right now? 

We love to worry like it’s our job. We feel we’re being productive with our downtime if we are gnashing our brains over something. How many things are you worrying about right now? We justify that we are giving our concerns ample consideration and prayer if we maintain sufficient angst over them. 

I have news for you. That’s a lie our biology is telling us in order to preserve itself. Not that preserving our biology is a bad thing, of course. Our biology is essential to life. But, its base instincts do have their shortcomings in the modern world. 

Our brains are wired for immediate gratification, not future planning. It’s the difference between what’s called an immediate-return environment and a delayed-return environment. Our mammalian brains are wired to take shelter when it rains, not go to school, get a job, build a house. Hunter gatherers would hunt and gather when they got hungry for the food they would eat in the immediate. The advent of future planning is still very recent to us in evolutionary terms.

So, while we have developed the capacity to create advance plans using our new-fangled neocortexes, we still have the old knob and tube wiring back there as well, influencing the whole. Anxiety is logical, even if not ideal. It’s what we do about it that separates us from our ancient ancestors. 

Some people have the ability to walk into a room and alter the energy of the space by their presence alone. You might call that having an energetic talent, or a reputation for being an easy-going person that precedes them. Or they might be shrewd and calculating with what they say or do so as to avoid any unnecessary confrontation. Here’s a second piece of news for you. It’s all the same thing. 

We prefer to think that we leave our troubles at home when we go to work or school. It’s considered a mark of professionalism. We’d certainly rather that be the case, but we’re nowhere near as good at it as we like to think. Unfortunately, statements of leaving our troubles at home refer almost exclusively to keeping our mouths shut about them. But that doesn’t answer the state of our minds and hearts on the subjects of them. And those thoughts and feelings and brain chemicals and heart rate and blood pressure and concentration are what actually fulfill and inform your work, not your silent mouth. 

So, immediately disabuse yourself of the notion that you don’t walk around with all of your points on you at all times. They are always with you.

Knowing that, what would you like to do about the number of points you have? And what would you like to do about the number of points you accumulate? Finally, what would you like to do about the environments over which you have a little bit of influence? 

The answer is to seek to be the non-anxious presence. 

If you want to positively impact a system, a relationship, or an environment, simply be at peace within it. Use spiritual principles to find a path toward being accepting of things over which we have no control so that we have the greatest capacity for changing things for the better. It’s an excellent thing with which to occupy yourself while everyone else thinks the sky is falling.

Right now it’s a very windy day. As I write this, the power has gone out. Apparently a tree at the end of our block fell and knocked down a powerline. Eventually it will be back on. But I find I have to keep re-directing my thoughts back to the non-anxious presence I wish to be. Even for myself.

It is difficult. There’s no denying it. And it’s pointless to pretend that even the masters always had it under control. There are few spiritual masters in recorded history whose stories do not include them throwing a fit or two. A few of them have even been murderous. Don’t judge your insides by someone else’s outsides. Usually their insides aren’t that different from your own. You’re just not hearing about the full story. 

I used to lecture to students in a nursing program at a local community college on esoteric thinking in medicine. I asked them to conduct an imaginary scientific study. If we took a large group of study participants, all of them nurses, and had half of them go about their routines as normal. The other half we have take one deep, cleansing breath before entering every patient’s room. That’s it.

Over the course of an imaginary study year, which groups’ patients do we think would have better overall outcomes? 

Of course we’d have to actually conduct such a study to be certain. But we know enough in general to anticipate what the result might be. I’d guess that the nurses who mindfully breathed, even with only a single breath, before engaging with their patients would have a tendency to be more relaxed during their assessments. The patient would likely be more relaxed as well. What do you think the imagined outcome might be of that? To say nothing of what might be occurring on an energetic level about which we can only speculate.

This is a choice, as much as we like to pitiably think of ourselves as having no choice in anything. To be sure, we rarely have a choice in what befalls us, or our loved ones, or our communities. But we have all the choice in the world about what kind of influence we would like to have over them. 

Choose to be the non-anxious presence. Choose to infect your environments with ease and benevolence. Not only is it a good basic practice, but it’s really entertaining. Try walking into a room full of people who are losing their minds over some pointless drama without your batting a single eyelash. Cool and collected. It drives them nuts. Bring popcorn.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 11, 2020 - Beauty in the Brokenness

Tomorrow is Easter. A time for recognizing the phenomenon of resurrection. For not all that appears to be dead, truly is. Unless, of course, the particular kind of death of which we speak is less about the cessation of life than it is a death of the old self. The death of our former way of doing things. Is that life new?

Ultimately, rebirth is a word we use to describe something or someone that was once something else, but then, suddenly and forever, changed.

Oftentimes, the choice to make a change in our lives comes as a result of having experienced great hardship. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. We often turn to a hope in the existence of a higher power in times of extreme stress. But is that the only way to start over? Must we experience trauma in order to be reborn? Ot rebooted? And what does being “reborn” even mean?

At this time on the wheel of the year we witness the rebirth and resurrection of the land. Since every molecule of our bodies came from that same earth, we are completely resonant with all that it experiences. We are reborn along with the earth each spring, in a way. We have come through the hardships of winter ready to breathe fresh air and smell the processes of life emerging all around us. We cannot help but become drawn into it. The quickening of the earth is our quickening too.

There’s something valuable here. This season is not just an annual occurrence, it is an annual opportunity. And in the midst of the health crisis we now face, that opportunity is many times greater than usual.

Why do you think the resurrection story resonates with so many? Because it’s about hope. It’s a story of despair turned into triumph. Who doesn’t want some of that?

But we need not take the resurrection story literally in order for it to have value. That does not mean I think you should dispense with your belief if that’s your faith. I mean to say that any spiritual idea worth its salt should be able to stand on its own, regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the miraculous. The benefits of the idea of resurrection, whether symbolic or literal, are for everyone right now.

So, if we take it symbolically, there is plenty to notice about the story. A transformation of great importance takes place through the process of brokenness. Beauty and truth and blessing emerge. A new “lease on life,” as it were. A lasting and profound change occurs as a result of the worst experience imaginable.

The lesson here is to notice the hardships in your life and deliberately use them as opportunities for personal transformation. Jesus had very mixed feelings regarding the process of transformation he was about to undergo, even while he continued moving toward it. He prayed that the ordeal would pass him by, frightened of what may have been unknown to him. Regardless of your personal belief, Jesus was at least also human, after all. As are we.

I think the key here is mindfulness. It’s noticing the hardships in your life and finding ways to mature through the experience of them. It’s not about always knowing what to do next, or having any clue whatsoever about what part of you is really being transformed, or how. You don’t have to know all the answers before the test is even finished. You just have to pay attention.

You just have to be ready for it. Open to it. We have to choose a mindset for ourselves that allows us to even see, much less make use of, the unexpected benefit waiting right around the corner. You can’t anticipate it because you still don’t know what you will need before you get there. Sometimes, if not all the time, the line from point A to point B has many turns, most of them unexpected. All of them valuable. What will you do with your anxiety of not knowing? Let go of your need to control. It’s holding you back.

Right now we are experiencing a very particular kind of brokenness. One that none of us has ever really experienced before. It’s natural to have anxiety over the unknown. But do you want to live your life that way? Or would you prefer to make something beautiful of this experience, from which none of us can escape anyway, so we might as well grow a garden with it, right?

Rooted in the philosophies of Zen Buddhism, the ancient tradition of Japanese kintsugi is an art form which repairs broken pottery using lacquer brushed with gold as the glue to fit the pieces back together. It transforms that former brokenness into a beautiful record of the vessel’s imperfection, and is an excellent example of transfiguring damage into profound beauty. The golden cracks gleam with pride as the restored pottery shows off its life story without shame. There are no longer wounds here and the scars are glorious.

What can we make of all this? It mainly comes down to shame, I think. And pride. Here in the west we are so preoccupied with success, that all forms of failure—although a highly necessary part of any success story—are hidden from view, wasting the knowledge inside every mistake and wrong turn. Is that shame and pride really necessary? What if we adopted a deliberately opposite view of brokenness and failure? What if we chose to let go of our resentment and fear of change?

My faith tells me that this shift in attitude is what transforms us most profoundly. My faith encourages me to take a different view of suffering as a choice of my life practice. That I should not resent God for allowing suffering, but thank God for whatever good is inside the suffering. That we give thanks for whatever love is present, ready to unfold at our notice.

At this time, allow the Easter story to represent for you an opportunity to be transformed into something that does not shrink from its own history, that does not miss out on the fruit of this vine, but revels in what has become of it. You are the master of what God has given us. Take hold of your experience like the wheel of a ship and steer that rudder into a harbor you never expected.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 4, 2020 - All Shall Be Well

A thought regularly occurs to me that a cell often mutates to its advantage when forced by outside circumstances. If I understand it correctly, mutations occur when life is exposed to a drastic change of situation. Right down to the cellular level we adapt to adversity through the act of mutation. I’m sure it will please many fans of the Marvel Universe to know we are all to become mutants now.

They say a kick in the ass is good for the soul. Let’s see what attributes we can add to the complement of our souls right now.

The reason we go to church, the reason we follow spiritual teachings or good advice of any kind, is so that we know what to do when faced with a crisis. So that we know how to act. How to make our choices when fear is speaking much more loudly than normal.

In church, or while sitting and listening to spiritual teachers, while we are calm, and relaxed, we are methodically taught principles of ethical and humane standards of behavior so that we know exactly what to do—on instinct—when, as my mother says, “the defecation hits the rotary oscillator.” Life is where we practice what we have been taught.

A spiritual practice is training for moments like this. Are you scared? That is to be understood. What are you doing with your fear? How is it functioning in your life? It is definitely functioning in your life. It always does. But its authority ebbs and flows with what’s going on in your environment. How is fear functioning for you right now? What actions do you take that you can trace back to fear?

When you put hand sanitizer on, what are you thinking? When you are wiping down a surface or a door knob, what are you thinking right then? Check your thoughts. You can improve the quality of the circumstance and the actions you take by noticing what you think with regard to your fear.

The other day, a friend of mine from elementary school, whom I haven’t seen in years but know through social media, dropped off 10 handmade filtered surgical masks for me to give to my husband to share with his colleagues at the local clinic. I am so grateful for them and for her.

What were her thoughts as she made those masks? I can ask her. I probably will. But I can guess now that she wasn’t imbuing the fibers of those masks with fear. She was sewing them with love and prayer and good wishes. She was sewing them in hope that that mask-to-be under her fingers would be blessed enough to prevent someone from dying or getting sick at all. She was infusing the fibers of that material with prayer.

That’s what you should be doing with your fear. Finding something useful to do with it and counteract your concern with actions that rise to the level of prayer.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday. It’s a day commemorating when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, along with over 2 million other Jews, in anticipation of Passover.

A fragile political and economic situation threatened to imbalance itself in social upheaval at any point during the week before Passover. The Governor, Pontius Pilate normally didn’t come to Jerusalem at all except for moments when he had to remind them of his power and authority lest they should get to uppity.

But into that fragile system Jesus entered and proceeded to make the biggest stink imaginable in the most central location available before exactly those who stood the most to gain by his removal. Jesus martyred himself.

And if we believe him to be special, if we believe him to have had at least a special relationship with God, or if perhaps we simply believe that he was particularly enlightened and wise, one thing is certain: Jesus was shrewd. He understood what it takes to elicit a mutation in the system.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem he was setting in motion a chain of events with the intended eventual outcome to be peace on earth. And he walked as a lit match straight into a powderkeg on purpose. That is why we honor him. He had great courage to do what he did and in the way he did it. The ripple effect is still being felt and the teachings ring forward with it.

In my Fitchburg congregation we sing a short phrase of a Julian of Norwich quote, “All Shall Be Well.” If you were to ask Julian who said it to her, however, her answer would have been: Jesus. Shortly before becoming a cloistered anchorite in the 14th century, she was taken ill and nearly died. She experienced a series of visions. In one, Jesus answered her question to why so much sin exists in the world by saying that sin was appropriate and necessary for what’s to come. But he stressed the fact that everything would be OK. In the vision as he finished answering her he said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.“

What kind of moment are we experiencing here? Are we a cell about to mutate? Yes. Are we about to mutate to our advantage? Likely yes. But it is up to us just how far we go with it.

When I look between the lines of the teachings, and how they occurred, and the manner in which we have continued to share the stories of them, it leads me to believe that God does not create our suffering. God gives us the method to rise above it. In this sense God is neither the destruction nor the creation. We have been created to thrive. We have been gifted with teachings that help us to make bold and exceptional use of adversity to elevate ourselves & exhibit compassion.

We have a choice over how many martyrs it will take to mutate the system as it stands right now. We have enough knowledge and skill to stop this disease in its tracks. We have a choice about how our system changes from here.  

Tomorrow, as Christianity honors Jesus, we honor all those radicals and revolutionaries who instigate deep and lasting positive change, and who inspire new thought, and who motivate in us our inherent benevolence. Peace be upon them all. The system cannot recalibrate without them.