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 naïve 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.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 9, 2020 - Hope Works Wonders

What is the function of hope? What does it do for us or to us? I feel pretty sure we take the concept for granted. And of course I had a general understanding of the reasons for maintaining a hopeful attitude as I began writing this message. But I started with the question: What is the function of hope? Because I didn’t know.

I wondered if it was the same thing as optimism, but by a different name. I googled: “the difference between optimism and hope.” I think you should do the same. In particular, read an article in Psychology Today by Dr. Utpal Dholaka.

I found hope and optimism are quite distinct from one another. There’s definitely something to be pondered in the dynamics of their very unique partnership, hope and optimism. They co-inform one another toward achievement. They each have only one operational directive and it is the same: Face forward.

Where they differ is in the nature of how each concept is perceived and used. Hope is the emotional state of believing in a desired outcome even knowing the odds are, or might be, against it. Optimism includes with it some degree of confidence that a plan will work out should all the pieces fall into place. It is with optimism that a plan, begun in hope, becomes more concrete. Still not a guarantee, but more possible. Optimism is fueled by hope. But it is also shown the way by it. Hope is the flashlight in the dark.

Hope is the attitude we employ when continuing to cheer on a football team which rarely wins. Hope gives us permission to not know how it could possibly happen in the way we want. It’s associated with religion in that hope makes an assumption that there is more occurring behind the than we are aware. It’s the question mark variable.

But from a state of hope―and possibly only from it―do we begin to sense and eventually notice possible pathways toward achieving a goal. Hope is what keeps the door open.

Perhaps it really is effective to think of it as turning on a flashlight in the dark. Especially in a space so much larger than the throw of your light, just light shining out into nothingness. Looking for something, a needle in a haystack, without any sense of direction, no clear pathway forward, just a desire and an unwillingness to believe against the impossible.

Without hope the flashlight just sits there. Not even turned on. And the possibilities which may exist somewhere in the dark will lie undiscovered. At least until things get so bad that only hope remains. That’s one thing we have always managed to count on. When things are at their worst, hope still remains.

We may not see it in ourselves until pressed. We might consider ourselves to be “realists.” Which, by the way, is seldom a word I hear used by people who actively go about manifesting their desires. Optimists do that.

Many of us have a challenging relationship with hope because we might naturally just have a dark view of life and humanity. Some take a view like that of Friedrich Nietsche who said, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”  Don’t be so emo.

I want to believe that hope is something we can choose for ourselves. And maybe that’s why people who believe in a higher power have a tendency to live longer lives. Not because “God is rewarding them for their faith.” But because faith just happens to be one of the ways to allow for the existence of a question mark in the equation of hope. Faith is one of the ways hope can exist simultaneously with a rational mind. But only one of them.

Hope can also be derived through a belief in chance, or superstition. Crossing your fingers, not shaving your beard or changing your socks until the playoffs are over, are clear demonstrations of hope which have nothing to do with a higher power as we usually define it. But the hope is still there. That hope keeps them coming back to the same stadium each year believing that the impossible may happen this time.

Which now makes me think that, yes, we can choose hope. Because there’s so many different ways by which we can imagine a variable we don’t yet have the ability to predict. It’s built into the phrases: “Anything can happen,” “It’s not over till it’s over,” and “ It’ll all be good in the end. If it’s not good, it’s not the end.” That last one is my favorite.

We do our best to train ourselves to think in this way. Recommendations of hope are visible practically anywhere you look. Little encouragements, even amid the blood and doom in our media, which help us to believe that there is an answer to the great question mark of our equation, if only we choose not to lose hope in its existence.

From only hope comes optimism. And optimism is how things are achieved in this world. So attend to your hope. Join with the collective hopes of humanity for a safer, more peaceful world. Align your hopes with the greater good and keep your eyes peeled for the pathways which will reveal themselves as a result of it.

Turn that flashlight on, no matter how dark it is. Everything will be okay. Above all things, I have hope.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 2, 2020 - Make an Earthquake of Your Presence

Make an earthquake of your presence. It's a phrase the Devil once shared with the Old Testament character Jōb. Not the mythological devil, nor the literary Jōb. Just me and my buddy Kevin. I was in a rock musical in Toronto back in the mid-90’s playing the role of Jōb in a show called Jōb and the Snake. Kevin played the Snake.

He told me that he believed it was a Quaker aphorism. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. So it’s a phrase not of my own making, perhaps, but it is an important philosophy I hold closely. I will quote it as “author and origin unknown” for the time being.

Think of it for a moment, though. Make an earthquake of your presence.

It makes me think of walking into a room and emitting a shockwave of good energy; physically imperceptible, but deeply healing and inspirational on the cellular level. I picture choosing brighter colors, taking deeper breaths, climbing higher hills, making bigger leaps of faith.

Make an earthquake of your presence.

Hugging more warmly, loving more deeply, singing more loudly, laughing... more. Having joy by causing it. Knowing abundance by sharing it. Understanding the way by living it.

Make an earthquake of your presence.

I think the idea makes an excellent mission statement. A job description. But now you have to consider whether or not you, as an individual, are possessing any power to share in the first place. Are you?

Think of it this way: Do your prayers matter? I would say they definitely do. Even if you don’t believe in the notion of a higher power, verbalizing your desires is part of the process of accomplishing them. Verbalizing positivity is like ringing a gong. The vibrations are felt first by the gong, and then by all within range of it.

Even if you think you are utterly powerless, I want you to pretend like you’re not. Fake it till you make it. I want you to have an idea in mind that you have a super power of positivity which is bigger than your own ability to actually be positive on a daily basis.  

Sometimes superheroes falter. In practically every story they second-guess themselves at least once. Even Jesus wondered at times if he was on the right path. The Buddha, too. They all have a moment of doubt, of questioning. They wonder if they are up to the task which faces them. Typically, there is a happy ending in the superhero stories we share most. Because that’s what we should believe about ourselves. That our power is always there, even when we doubt it.

We are meant to believe, at least as evidenced by the stories we constantly tell ourselves, that we are in possession of something special. Something which animates us in ways that appear to be different from other animals on the planet, even if we all do possess consciousness of one form or another.

Some force, or attribute, or secret ingredient distinctly separates us from other forms of life on earth. We are set apart, not above or below other forms of life, but noticeably distinct. Is this a power we can only use for harm, or to subjugate other life? Of course not. Just because some people use their specialness for greed does not mean that it can’t, or isn’t, being used for good. Look for it.

Acknowledge your divine spark, whatever you choose to believe of it. There is a specialness about us which we don’t have to pretend doesn’t exist. And if that specialness is bigger than we have imagined, if it’s more effective and resonant than we have been led to believe, then it might stand to reason our lives would be improved by tapping into it.

Now there’s the quandary. How do we do it? We don’t even know where the ignition to this car is. I’m sure many of us would gladly turn the key if only we knew where it was.

When trying to tackle a spiritual concern of this kind, look for the level at which no argument can be made. For instance, in Unitarian Universalism nearly all of us agree that we are connected in some way, that we are all one.

After that point, everybody has their own opinion about what “being one” generally means. Through the idea that we are all connected in some way, however, and that we must rely upon one another in order to thrive (which generally means not pooping where you eat, so to speak, and perhaps even growing a garden rather than building a wall), we generally perceive that doing things to enhance our oneness, to get closer to one another, and lift each other up, is probably a better way of using our time and talents.

So where do we all agree on the idea that we have power? It’s a good question. That’s the level at which we should contemplate this issue. We’re looking here for the point at which we all agree about our human specialness before diverging into our own opinions about the implications of it.

I think we might be able to agree that our thoughts matter. Just that. Just consider whether or not you agree with that one little statement that our thoughts matter. Perhaps, we can even agree to consider that positive thoughts tend to create more positive environments around us, even if only by increment. Let that thought sink in.

Now, wonder what the implications of that thought might be. If thinking positively can—even slightly—alter our experience, what might the cascade effect of that ongoing choice be over time?

I want you to design an imaginary superhero costume for yourself. I want you to stand in your imagination wearing it, fists on your hips, arms akimbo, head up, feet planted. A power pose of strength. Picture a low, thrumming sound emanating from your body in waves radiating outwardly. Picture the waves being absorbed by people, animals, surfaces and walls, trees, mountains. Do these things feel your presence? Do they hear your resonance? Might the tree know that you love it?

I actually hugged a tree at the beginning of this outbreak for comfort. I only felt silly for a moment, until a wave of peace overtook me. Did I receive peace from the tree? Did it receive peace from me? All I know for certain is that I felt better. I can only hope the tree felt it too.