Friday, September 24, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 25, 2021 - Active Forgiveness

Beginning occasionally two years before, but then with a great deal more frequency during the pandemic, I’ve been making and handpainting 7’ x 11’ canvas banners which I suspend from the columns of both my churches from their positions at the head of each town square. It’s my little community service attempt at instilling a bit of inspiration and hope. I’ve painted 40 of them so far. 

The current banner opines, “Be at peace. Zen you can do anything.” Yes it’s trite and unapologetically cute. It also very nearly over-simplifies Zen Buddhism. But perhaps that’s the point of Buddhism in the first place. If you choose the right words, you can say an awful lot with very few letters. That will not quite be so in this column, but it’s still good advice. 

The banner I am painting over the next few days will read, “A pound of opinions is not worth an ounce of knowledge.“

Everything I ever write in this space is just my opinion. And it really should be taken for that. All spiritual and theological statements are opinions. It is my opinion that this is universally true. 

So it is with that humility in mind that I approach the subject of forgiveness. And not just any run-of-the-mill basic forgiveness. I’m talking about an active practice of forgiveness. Something that requires a little bit of effort and intentionality. Scalable for small moments but also with enough layers and dimensions that it could provide the basis for a lifetime of study and reflection. Forgiveness is a multi-dimensional experience. 

Much of the burden we carry in life is because we are still holding onto old pain. Much of our present day worries are founded upon both major and micro-traumas from the past. I still notice a reactive fear of fire inherited through my mother who—as a child—witnessed a forest fire in my hometown many decades ago. Could this be an inherited lack of forgiveness on some level?

That might seem like a stretch. But these things do generationally compound with one another. Our parents’ lack of forgiveness can become our own. It’s definitely true that many of our fears are actually a lack of trust. We might be afraid of fire because we don’t trust fire. Or we might be afraid of being alone in the house because we don’t trust that we’re safe. 

Our ability to trust informs almost every aspect of our daily lives. Even to the point of trusting that the kind of milk we want will probably be available at the grocery store. Because we trust in its likelihood, we are willing to get in the car, drive to the grocery store, even during a pandemic. If we showed up a few times in a row and the kind of milk we wanted wasn’t there, the store would have, essentially, betrayed our trust, and we’d go buy our favorite milk elsewhere. 

Obviously that’s a low-stakes version of trust. But it illustrates the point that violations of our trust always have consequences. And those consequences can be multi-generational. So don’t discount the possibility that you may be loaded with unresolved resentments that originate from times before you were even born. Although of course not over milk. 

Adding to those inherited trust issues, which even if they are only small, still contribute to the overall weight on your shoulders, are small and large traumas which have occurred during your own life. This cumulative damage is difficult to identify because most of the events which cause our overall feelings today don’t appear to be things which should bother us still; or perhaps even bothered us in the first place. Events like being pushed on the playground, or your best friend missing your birthday party, or losing a beloved aunt, these each represent a small betrayal of trust. Trust in your classmate, trust in your best friend, trust in God. We brush ourselves off and move on, but some of that dust remains. 

These moments have a tendency to dim our light. To what degree is dependent entirely on two factors: The nature and scope of past hurts, and our willingness to get under the skin of them. 

When our trust is betrayed, forgiveness becomes one of the possible coping options. 

If you do not feel optimal in your life, meaning if you are not content, if you are not resilient when faced with challenging situations, if you feel unfulfilled, it’s quite possible that an active practice of forgiveness could undermine some of the foundations of the things which prevent you from moving toward that which would give you the most joy in life. 

But remember, that’s just my opinion.

And so I ask you not to invest your trust in what I say, but in perhaps your own ability to become more comfortable in your own skin, and better equipped to face this challenging lifetime with resiliency. Believe me, I need it too.

Considering the possibility that an active practice of forgiveness would be useful for literally anyone, assuming we all have thousands of these small hurts within us that may very well be skewing our perceptions, what does an “active” practice look like?

First, I’ll start off by saying that it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can simply be a matter of choosing to pay attention to things about which we maintain a lack of trust and can perhaps force ourselves a little bit to be curious about their origins. It’s not an “active“ practice by definition, but it is angling our antenna in the right direction. And even incremental progress is valuable.

But an active practice of forgiveness is deliberately purposeful. It’s something you choose to do on a regular basis. Yoga is an active practice, for example. You have to choose to go to class and make the time in your life to do it, because you have an expectation of benefit. Or you have to choose to unroll your mat in your living room as a solitary practitioner. Something I’m definitely not disciplined enough to manage. Active practices require a bit of effort to really witness the benefit. 

I’m terrible at journaling, but for those who like it, journaling about every single thing you don’t trust, with an intention to be curious about why, is an excellent first step. You’ll be astonished to think about all the things where you’ve had a trust of one kind or another violated. 

Many of these things will disappear simply by looking at them. They’ve just been hovering in the background waiting to be relieved of service. As soon as we look them in the face, by acknowledging they exist no matter how small, and writing them down, they are often released. That’s not true for all of what bothers us, but it’s a good way of wiping out a swath of it. 

Read everything you can on the subject of forgiveness. They won’t all be good, but forgive those who give bad advice. That’s a trust issue too. Forgive us in advance. 

It’s important to remember that real forgiveness is the opposite of forgetting. Real forgiveness removes the emotional power behind an event and renders it into nothing more than a historical fact. The fact remains to continue to teach us, but it does not trigger us emotionally anymore. Like making peace with your ex husband. Many of the formerly-married are great friends. They have not forgotten that one another exists. They haven’t forgotten that which separated them. But they have formed something new in its place. Finding ways of doing that on purpose is definitely part of an active practice of forgiveness. 

But it doesn’t always mean making friends. Sometimes we have to forgive people from whom we do not feel safe simply because, even from a distance, their actions still poison us. From a safe distance, we should be able to take away their power and relegate them to a historical fact.

One trick I’ve learned about active forgiveness is thinking about every positive thing I can about the person who hurt me. If we were close at one time, we doubtless have good memories. I let those memories remain good. I let the valuable still have value. I believe this has the ability to change our brain chemistry

I have appreciation for much of what those whom I struggle to forgive have brought into my life that was positive. When I dwell on that sense of appreciation, it takes away the power behind hurt. It doesn’t change the facts, it just changes my feelings. 

The mystic in me likes to think of this as an energetic exchange that has the capacity to ameliorate tension from a distance. I like to think of it a bit like a magic wand soothing the connection of uncomfortable history between us. This, by the way, is the idea behind why we should pray for our enemies. Wishing well upon one’s enemies alters us chemically and quite possibly, energetically. What benefit may come from that alteration? There’s only one way to find out. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 18, 2021 - The Exit Ramp

When stuck in a cycle of rumination, how do we find an exit ramp? Sometimes I get really stuck in my thoughts. I, like many people, have a tendency to trap myself in little emotional spin cycles that feel as long to end as if I were standing in front of the washing machine willing it to finish spinning already. 

Knowing that I’m not alone, I ask the question on behalf of us all: How the heck do we manage to just chill out once in a while instead of letting things get to us? Where is the peace? And why isn't it available on demand?

Those of us who make a point to study spiritual practices have a tendency to get even more frustrated with ourselves, thinking we should be better at this kind of thing than we are. But added perspective doesn’t always mean added results. 

It’s a source of frustration for me because when something gets under my skin, I have a tendency to talk to myself a lot. I continually refine my arguments against the person who miffed me. Out loud. I do it for several sentences before I realize I’m doing it and I’ve always wondered just how many people out there have seen me talking to myself. 

The advent of speakerphone technology in cars has made this somewhat less of a concern. Hopefully, it makes me appear as if I’m having an actual conversation with a real person. Unfortunately, I’m not always in my car when I’m doing it. 

If I’m going to be dispensing advice here on how to achieve an exit ramp, I have to recognize that I’m asking this advice for myself as well. And that it will be just as difficult for me to follow as anyone else. But humans are always meta-aspirational, even without merit or precedent. Hope springs eternal.

The first bit of armchair advice that pops into my head is that if we want to change our feelings, we need to change our thoughts. Which of course is very easy to say at this moment when I’m not actively making mashed potatoes in my head. But I have a suspicion that the advice is true nonetheless.

I’m sure there are all kinds of suggestions about how to constantly remind ourselves that we are responsible for the thoughts we’re having. From yellow sticky paper to strings on fingers, and even apps on our phones, there are myriad ways of tapping ourselves a reminder. I wouldn’t know if they actually work, because even though I’ve recommended them, even in this very column, I’ve never successfully managed to do it myself. 

Is good advice still good advice even if we who shell it are bad at following it? Every medical professional I know is very challenged when being asked to follow the same medical advice for themselves that they give to others. Religious professionals are no different.

Another idea which comes to me is about building resilience in the first place. And this I manage to actually do on occasion. I go to the woods. I find other ways to spend time alone and recharge. I have always liked my reflective time, so it’s easy for me to not forget it. 

But clearly, building resilience isn’t quite enough or else I wouldn’t ruminate so much, right? I suppose I can hear an answer that says, “But how do you know it wouldn’t be worse if not for your time spent in nature?” Since that’s impossible to know, I will optimistically assume it to be the case.

I’m quite scientifically certain, however, that regular exercise also builds emotional resiliency. It’s that I don’t appear to be emotionally certain which makes exercise a struggle. The science is there, but it’s not always good at motivating me.

My husband has an excellent tactic that has actually changed how his brain is wired around a subject. 

He used to have pronounced road rage. Not to the point of physical altercation, but definitely on the level of screaming and colorful gesticulations. 

A therapist one suggested to him that he humble and ground himself away from his reflexive rage thinking by subtly asking himself “who do you think you are anyway?” At that point, he flashes back to the old Imperial Margarine commercials from decades ago where just tasting their product would make you feel like a crowned emperor. The thought of a crown popping onto his head and scepter into his hand along with the little trumpet fanfare which accompanied it would make him laugh. It changed his mind, literally. 

He never feels road rage now. He found an exit ramp. And now that I think about it, I realize his exit ramp also built resiliency at the same time.

So it’s definitely possible. Some have managed to crack the code. Jamie can’t be the only one. 

I think it’s interesting that the secret might be in the fact that his mental trick helped more permanently rewire his brain at the same time as it calmed down the immediate reaction. Are there other exit ramps out there for us that manage to do these both at the same time? Is that the real way out?

My time spent forest-bathing definitely builds resilience. But am I not taking advantage of the possibility that I could use the forest as a way of reducing my knee-jerk reactions and hours-long ruminations over hurt feelings as well?

Perhaps the forest works better if I not just observe it, but memorize it? Maybe I can store it for later when I can’t manage to derail my mind from something. I’m going to try it tomorrow. I might let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, consider finding little mental tricks that accomplish both the building of resilience (meaning actually rewire your brain through regular new ways of thinking) and calming ourselves down at the same time. 

If anything, spend more time thinking. Let thoughts just come to you. Put your phone down. Shut the TV off. We often prefer they remain on so that we don’t have to listen to our thoughts. But as Confucius said, “If you do not change the direction in which you are going, you will end up where you are headed.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 11, 2021 - Does It Matter?

One of my favorite characters in all of literature is the Bishop from Victor Hugo‘s 1862 novel Les Miserables. Also referred to as Monseigneur Bienvenu (meaning, welcome), Bishop Charles Myriel was suddenly elevated from parish priest to his high clerical rank by Napoleon himself after paying him a complement in passing. Having originally learned the basic story of Les Miserables as a stage musical in the 1980’s, I discovered the Bishop in more detail once I read the book upon which the musical was based. 

In the musical, Les Miserables, the Bishop plays a minor but still crucially benevolent role. It was presented in the stage production rather like backstory exposition rather than the fundamental ingredient to the entire novel’s raison d’ĂȘtre; its literal reason for existing. All of the moral choices made in the entire novel by its lead character, Jean Valjean, are based upon his singular night’s exchanges between himself and Bishop Myriel. 

In short summary, out of desperation, Valjean steals some silver from the Bishop, only to be returned in chains by the police. The Bishop fibs to the police that it wasn’t stolen, he gave the silver to the man, but scolded Valjean that he forgot to take the candlesticks too. After the police leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to use the money to become an honest man.

This single generous act, even setting aside the countless other generosities which Victor Hugo uses at length to paint the character of this man for his readers, demonstrates every single one of the principles that Jesus taught, but which nearly all of us find impossible to live up to. 

On that single act, I base my life and actions to this day. I don’t mean that as a point of bragging, but as a notification of my sincere attempt to live up to these ideas for living in relationship with one another. 

I needed to see someone behave as the Bishop did—outside of scripture—to understand how to put the teachings into active practice. Why might that be? I had certainly already been exposed to Christian teachings, why hadn’t I yet clearly recognized how to embody them? The fictional person of the Bishop clarified the teachings for me in a way that attending church had not yet managed. 

Monseigneur Bienvenu’s actions were based on the teachings of Jesus, but for all we know Jesus based his teachings on other ideas and traditions as well. For instance, many have recognized the similar character of the teachings of Christ with those of the Buddha, who preceded Jesus by 500 years. Some have postulated that Christ’s missing years were spent in India learning these very traditions. 

Were the parables Jesus told his followers true stories? I wouldn’t think so. But they were used by Jesus as literary devices to demonstrate how to be in good relationship with one another. Were they devices of Jesus’ conceiving? Or had he heard them from someone else and recognized their value in sharing them?

So if one were to ask the daring question: Did Jesus really exist? my reply would be: Does it matter? I mean, sure, within most Christian traditions his actual existence appears to be of great importance, namely for the purpose of reconciling God to all of humanity—and its vast quantities of sin. 

But how can we calculate the hereafter with any certainty? Especially since God doesn’t appear to talk about it all that much. Most of what God teaches people in Scripture, whether via Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, is about how to relate with one another. It’s a subtle bit of advice not to spend all of our time considering the vertical, when our present existence occurs entirely on the horizontal. Scripture is about the human experience. Not really the divine.

Humans always tell narratives in order to teach one another. More often than not those stories are fictional. Their characters are made up out of thin air to demonstrate a point. Do they really need to have literally existed in order for us to find value in them? And what of those individuals whose stories are based in truth, but have since taken on new layers? Are the layers irrelevant? Or has the historical individual become a scaffold for telling an even greater story?

Personally, I believe that Jesus was an actual person who walked this earth. I believe this despite the fact that only one primary historian refers to him, and that was sixty years after the fact. I consider it a leap of faith, but one that is not required in order to practice the things Jesus is reported to have taught. Forgiveness is a good teaching whether or not you believe the teacher was real. That’s what makes them worth their salt.

Furthermore, even if there was a host of archaeological and historical evidence that he actually did exist, we know for a fact that some translations have misrepresented the original teachings to degrees we cannot fathom. History is factually murky. Should we use all of our energy trying to see in the dark? Not likely.

The only fact we have is, that as of this moment, the Bible is in print. There is no evidence to suggest it is in its original form. All we have is what we’ve been given. Even as recently as the 20th century, critical changes in the methods of translation were still occurring. They are probably occurring right now. Which version of the Bible is true if so many of them word things differently? Again the question becomes: Does it matter?

By and large, it does not. Which means we are able to use our gifts of critical thinking and discernment to determine a historical text’s value for ourselves. We can look at a piece of scriptural advice with our own minds to determine if it has value for us. We don’t know anything about the editorial chain of those who have handed it down to us, we only can explore what we have in our hands right now.

If God “wrote” the Bible, as many traditional Christians claim, it must be that God is authoring these constant changes in real time. Which then begs the question: Is that all according to plan?

Regardless of your position on the existence of God, or the divinity of Jesus, the teachings still have value in them. As do those characters who were fictionally devised to live up to them. Take the time to have a look at the words yourself, or listen to some hopeful thinking about it now and then. There are pathways of ease and comfort to be found. 

Thanks be for the writers, for the fiction creators, and those who pull truth out of thin air. If it be in favor of love, a truth lies therein. 

In closing, it's worth noting that my favorite line in the book, at least as regards the tradition of writing about people, is this of Victor Hugo’s: “We do not claim that the portrait herewith presented is probable; we confine ourselves to stating that it resembles the original.”

Good food for thought. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 4, 2021 - What Choice Have We But Optimism?

What choice have we but optimism? Truly, in the end, there is literally nothing else for us but to seek out ways toward which, at a minimum, at least our basic survival seems possible. This is instinctive for us.

Of course there are other options. Pessimism. Obstinacy. Fear. But those things are not self-sustaining; nor are they naturally-occurring. They require we bolster them artificially, through the misuse of power and authority. Through an avid campaign of persuasion against our natural instincts. There are those who would prefer we continue to exist in a little bit of fear. That is the way of the world. 

Well, clearly not all of it.

Still, there is tremendous beauty, and even elegance, in the design of these challenging human classrooms. When we step back a bit from how difficult it feels to be in it, we see an arc of progress that occurs especially because of having gone through it. Is that benevolence? Diversity almost always refines us. If we could manage to believe that our struggles contained within them a hint of the Divine, a wink from Spirit that says, “even in this I am with you,” could we allow our hearts to be at ease just a bit? Worrying accomplishes even less than nothing. 

I find the distinction between hope and optimism meaningful. Hope is an idea about something we truly want, but can’t imagine a way it might be possible. We hope for a million dollars to fall from the sky into our laps. 

Optimism is buying a lottery ticket. Optimism is hope mingled with an at least semi-believable pathway toward what we want. Hope becomes optimism when we use our creativity to guess at genuine ways, however improbable, that our desires might become true.

Buying a lottery ticket, as opposed to hoping a bag of money falls from the sky, however remote a chance it might be to win, we know someone typically does win it. Which means it could be you. Which means, in your mind, there’s a genuine, miniscule possibility you might become rich. That’s optimism. 

Pessimism is a belief that good rarely occurs, and when it does, it probably won’t be anywhere near you. Pessimism is a fear of rejection, really. Even for agnostics, it’s hard not to feel a sense that the Universe is betraying us sometimes. Many of us often feel stranded by God. Rejected. Pessimism is resonant with rejection. 

However, pessimism is still a worthy classroom of its own. Living within it often teaches us many things in the long run. But it is a long run to get there. A sad, winding road with turns that often threaten or fool us back two steps for every forward one we make. If only we didn’t learn so much from grief.

But optimism is natural. Optimism is what propels our species forward. Suppose a pessimist and an optimist walk into a bar, each with a desire to get lucky. The irony is, the pessimist is showing his optimistic streak in doing so. A true pessimist never bothers to go to the bar in the first place. Going to a bar always reveals a belief that joy might be possible. 

Of course many of us look for love in the wrong places. But that doesn’t diminish our desire for, and belief that, love might be possible. That’s optimism. 

The advice here is to have faith. It is the inserting of the “unknown variable” into the list of possible ways in which our desires might be realized. Hope plus faith equals optimism. It’s not the only equation of optimism, but this one means you think that some unexpected thing is just waiting to occur in your favor. That’s potent. That’s the viewpoint that allows for unlimited possibilities.

Do optimistic people live longer? We sure do. 10-15% longer, in fact. Even those with chronic illness.

Why do you think this is? It comes down to basic body chemistry. Negative thinking creates a more constant drip of fight or flight hormones throughout the body. These hormones are very useful in short bursts, but deteriorate our cellular structure like acid when present for too long or too often. Does that sound like a person who lives longer? Or better?

How does one shift more toward optimism? It’s easy to say, “Just change your thoughts and be more optimistic!“ But we all know that’s much easier said than done. It takes practice. Not just practice, but life practices. Dharmas. It takes community to accomplish.

That’s essentially the function and purpose of church. Of course organized religion is certainly not the only way to achieve it. But a deliberate shift toward optimism does typically require the support of others. We need others to share their ideas with us about it. And we need room to share our ideas with others.

We need to hear about examples where maintaining optimism proved to have been the best option. We need to add synaptic pathways to our brains that reinforce the idea that good can and does occur. Every time we think an optimistic thought those pathways become strengthened.

But spiritual community in support of greater optimism needs also a place to let go of the past. We need space to grieve–communally–the parts of us onto which we held so firmly for so long. The parts of us that were wrong for us, un-self-loving, resentful of the past. We have to let go of the parts of ourselves which were wounded into thinking that less good happens in the world than bad. Thank you for your service. Hail and farewell.

What’s left over is an exposure of the parts of ourselves which always believed anything is possible. Those parts never went away. They were never beaten out of existence. They were merely covered by other, more artificial ideas. These were not natural to you. And so they were never destined to last. Release them. Reveal your natural sense of future promise. 

There are many dharmic pathways and organized life practices in the world where there exist teachings that can help us. Some are religions. Like Christianity, or Islam. Some are not religions in the classic sense but present themselves rather as organized guidance. Like Buddhism and Hinduism. Some are born of the earth and resonate with the change of seasons and agriculture. 

Each of them provides instruction on how to be at ease. Each has the potential to offer a sense of belonging and community, which aids our desire for peaceful inner change. 

Find a way for yourself. Find others who struggle as you do to retain a belief that all shall be well. We become part of the solution when this occurs. We become a wind at the back of progress. The shift occurs naturally within us, and once done, cannot so easily be forgotten. 

If you can manage to believe only one thing, believe that you are meant to experience joy. You are designed for the purpose of loving and being loved. You were created with beautiful and benevolent intent. Tap into it.