Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Your World Your Way


I recently signed up for a Yahoo group and the first thing that greeted me were the words “your world, your way” in large print. I was a bit taken aback because the statement was so inherently “me” oriented. My first thought was this is a recipe for suffering. And my second thought was there are many such statements that encourage this me-mine state of mind in our media today.

 

The truth is we are all connected, each person to every other person to every living being on the planet and beyond. To imagine that one can have a separate world that centers on one’s self and on fulfilling one’s desires leads only to disappointment and ultimately to suffering, even if this world consists of a tiny portion of the internet like a Yahoo group. Seeking fulfillment from others is simply selfish and selfishness leads to suffering, not because it is inherently evil or bad but because what one is really seeking is not out there. It is within one’s self. This may or may not be your experience but I simply ask you to hold it in your thought as a possibility and see where it leads you.

 

I’m sure though you have had the experience that others do not understand you. This can be a really lousy feeling. You have sought confirmation outside of yourself and not found it. Each one of us has their own perspective; their own point of view which never seems to totally coincide with anyone else’s. It’s just a fact. Instead of trying to get people to agree with you. Try listening instead, not because it’s a “good” thing to do but because it can bring relief from the feeling of aloneness we often suffer from. Below are a few lines from what is known as The Prayer of Saint Francis. 

 

Lord grant that I seek to understand, rather than to be understood…

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

 

This sums up what I’ve been saying from another perspective. Think about a time when you have really listened to another, really heard what they had to say. Was there not a feeling of closeness that flowed from this? Was there not a moment of bonding? Even if you don’t agree with another a closeness flows from fully understanding. Doesn’t this moment feel better than all the moments you have spent trying to get another to try to understand you?  Wouldn’t your life be happier being filled with moments like these? It is in this moment you have forgotten yourself and found connection. Your world is no longer dominated by the tyranny of “me and mine”. Spaciousness has entered in; the circle has been drawn wider to include another. What a relief from your world, your way!

State of Emergency


A friend of mine from New Jersey where hurricane Sandy made landfall remarked in an email that many people in New York and New Jersey were relieved when their governors declared a state of emergency and the reason for their relief was that they couldn’t go to work. This statement caused me to reflect that maybe the state of emergency was not only external but an internal state of mind. How many of us would be disappointed at not being able to go to work? Maybe we are living in a chronic state of emergency and need to have a hurricane once in a while in order to take a day to chill out. Plus there’s nothing to do when the electricity is out. What is life with no TV, stereo, radio, no movies, no internet, no phone after your battery runs out? Pulling the plug on entertainment led to one twitter comment about “dying of boredom”.

 

The good thing about “dying of boredom” is you don’t really die. You might be uncomfortable as you detox from constant stimulation. You might find out what it means to really live, to embrace life fully. You might start talking to the people you are with instead of those on the other end of the cell phone. You might start an inner dialogue and spend some time with yourself. You might find beauty in darkness as the sky suddenly fills with stars. You might even find you’re not in a state of emergency any more.

 

Chronic stimulation of the senses leads to a dulling of the senses and input needs to be more extreme, louder, and faster in order to make an impression. This desensitivity is a real loss. It takes time to regain the ability to feel the gentle flow of life. Thirty five years ago I took an extended trip in Asia and upon returning to the USA I had culture shock. The first night I cried because the sounds of motors were so loud and it was only the refrigerator and air conditioner. These are background noises that usually don’t register in consciousness. Regaining sensitivity is stepping into the fullness of life: hearing the softest of sounds, seeing the most subtle of tonal and color differences, tasting the vibrancy of food, smelling fleeting scents, the brush of the faintest breeze upon your cheek. With these your finger is close to the pulse of life.

 

It is with the awareness of the most subtle things that we are closer to God. “The small still voice” is not a metaphor. It is small. It is still and yet it is a voice. Though it may not come it words, it may come in a heartfelt knowing “This is truly best for me”. Let quietness and gentleness inform you. Let stillness be your guide.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road


There is a saying that there are no atheists in fox holes. This may or may not be true but it is certain when a life is on the line people tend to start examining or re-examining spirituality more seriously. In general when people face a serious long term illness or impending death they begin to question God, seek renewal of their faith or at the very least begin to question the priorities in their life. It is here that the rubber meets the road in spirituality. This is when a real spiritual dialogue can open up, or failing that a despair sets in.

 

This was the case for Job in the Book of Job in the Bible. He was easily able to handle losing all his possessions “Naked I came into the world; naked I will leave it”. However when he lost his health he began to question God. He felt like he was being punished for some sin but he could remember doing anything wrong. Fortunately for Job he opened a dialogue with God and got clear direction along with some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible.

 

In the Buddhist tradition there is the story of a mother who brings her dead child to Buddha and asks for him to bring the child back to life. He says she must find a certain spice from a household that has never experienced death. The frantic mother goes from house to house and is always met by a story of some family member who has died, the favorite auntie, the beloved daughter in childbed, the young son and so on. She listens to these stories and her broken heart goes out to these people. She begins to understand the universality of death and suffering and returns to the Buddha no longer centered in her own grief and ready to receive teachings. This young mother successfully navigated the spiritual crisis where the rubber meets the road.

 

Sooner or later we all must face this same situation in whatever form it presents itself to us. Sometimes we must face it repeatedly and in the end we must face the death of our own body. How can we meet this inevitability with grace? It takes a lot of self -examination and the ability to take one’s self out of the center of one’s life.  To take the first steps toward this goal consider the joy of helping others as a spiritual practice. It can be any sort of help to any sort of person as long as your concern is for them first. It is in this way you are freed from your own nagging thought patterns if only for a moment. See what it feels like!

 

Another practice is to contemplate your own aging and death. Often this subject is too scary to think about but it’s really necessary to get over that. You will have to face it sooner or later so why not start now?  It can help you face your own death and the death of others with equanimity and the degree of suffering you will experience in all aspects of life will decrease markedly with this practice. In my own life I combined these two practices by caring for the terminally ill, chronically ill and elderly. I can say from personal experience this spiritual practice has brought a freedom from fear and a joy to my life that is irreplaceable.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Let it Begin With Me


On a recent Sunday at our church, Pastor Cherie chose two readings from the Bible, (The Message translation) one from James the other from Mark. It was a very fruitful service and I came away contemplating how these two passages related to each other.

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves.  - James 4:1-3

Yes, deep inside ourselves we find it’s my way or the highway. Isn’t that the way it goes with us? It is “obvious” my way is best and everyone else should follow it. To learn to question yourself on this is a great quality; to learn to live and let live a greater quality still; to learn to serve others is the best.

33 They came to Capernaum. When he (Jesus) was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?”34 The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.35 He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”   -Mark 9:33-35

Take last place in order to be first. What can this mean? In terms of ordinary living this makes no sense. Were we not taught in school the virtues of competition? Is competition not the bedrock of a free market society? This young Rabbi Jesus is a real radical. But he is talking about one’s own happiness, the kingdom of heaven. And what is this about being a servant? What can that mean? A servant places their own interests second to the person they are serving. What benefit is there to putting your own interests last? It is quite simply freedom from the tyranny of our own egos. Egos consistently create disharmony in our minds. They are always questing for something more, or better. They are never satisfied. And they are always comparing you to others so that you come out looking worse off. When you truly focus your attention on someone else’s interests, bingo, the ego is stilled and you are left in peace. So being a servant of all has nothing to do with gaining brownie points to be holier than someone else. Oh no, that sort of thinking is a recipe for misery. It’s just another way of putting yourself first while pretending to be last. When you truly focus all your attention on what another needs you benefit beyond your wildest dreams. Generally wildest dreams do not include peace of mind, but once you have it you realize you wanted nothing else. Everything else the ego was driving you toward was just a poor substitute for peace of mind. Herein lies the blessing of becoming the servant of all.

Lastly, what about these appalling wars and quarrels? Well if everyone were putting each other’s interests first quarrels and wars would rapidly evaporate. We cannot do this for anyone else but we can do it for ourselves. So why not say “Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me”.

Gift of Being Stuck in Traffic


I am the gift of Being for you.

You are the gift of Being for me.

Nothing is given and nothing received

The gift of Being is everywhere free.

 

“Nothing is given and nothing received” means there is no gain or loss by being yourself, yet being yourself is a gift to the world and the world is a gift to you. It is free and you are free.

 

The gift of being with yourself is probably the most difficult to let happen. Let’s return to being stuck in traffic, almost immediately thoughts of dissatisfaction with being where you are arise. The desire to be at your destination can be almost overwhelming. Getting frustrated at not being able to get there now? Worried at being late? Pissed at wasting time? The real waste of time is letting these thoughts dominate the mind. So just sit with it. In fact being stuck in traffic there’s nothing else you can do. Instead of grabbing the cell phone or turning on the radio try being with yourself. What would that be like? For a lot of people the idea is horrifying. Our opinions of ourselves are usually so low that anxiety is generated at the thought of spending time alone with one’s self. The whole purpose of life’s distractions is to avoid just such a catastrophe. The whole purpose of other people is to persuade them that we are better than we really think we are, to prop ourselves up with a false image. But this false image is just a cover over the first false image, the one of absolute inadequacy.

 

But none of this is true. The real you is wonderful beyond words, if only you could find yourself behind all these false self-images, if you could see yourself the way God sees you. Be still and listen to the Love song God sings to you about the blessings that flow between you, of your perfect purity and the sanctity of who you are. That is the point of sitting still in traffic, the point of not grabbing the cell phone or turning on the radio. This is how the false story lines of likes and dislikes, good and bad, opinions and judgments are undone. Just sitting still. Just listening to them. Just asking “Is this true?” The real you is neither good nor bad. You are beyond the play of all opposites. The real you is totally at ease, relaxed in a sense of peace and stillness and joy beyond measure.

 

“Out beyond all ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing

There is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

The world is too full to talk about

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”

Doesn’t make any sense”

                                                -Mevlana Jeladdin Rumi  

 

What a gift it is to be stuck in traffic. How many opportunities like this do we have in our lives? We are so busy getting things done that there’s no time to sit still. But here we are stuck in traffic and there’s nothing else to do.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Out of Time


It was but a moment that thundered into Eternity

It was but an instant hurled out of Time

An instant of Self-knowing

An instant of the deepest Peace

An instant of complete stillness

You have touched it

In the moment before sleep

In the pause between thoughts

In the rush of profound joy

Or the hush of deepest shock

 

What this poem attempts to describe is an experience we all have had but which may have been so subtle or fleeting our awareness barely picked it up and our memory may have forgotten. It is the experience of the connection to the source of all being, the source of life itself. This experience is available to us at all times. The reason we don’t notice it is the self-talk, the chatter in our heads drowns it out. It is this experience of deep stillness that meditators seek. It is this experience that those who practice deeply in prayer seek. It is unknown to so many people because they simply have never been made aware of its possibility in their lives. So much of our education, our cultural conditioning actually trains us out of being in a state of mind that is receptive to this experience.

 

With it comes a relaxation so deep that it is impossible to describe in terms of daily life. You may wonder how is it possible for me to ever experience such a thing. The answer is very simple, so simple in fact that it is not easy. Our minds love complexity and constantly wallow in it, spinning out story after story. The answer is simply to forget yourself. Forget who you think you are. All the complexity, all the stories all the drama in our lives is what holds together our self-image. A self-image needs constant maintenance precisely because it is false. The truth of who you are is very simple. It has been with you always. It is with you now shinning forth in the ground of your being. This experience is being obscured by streams of thoughts. Take each thought one at a time and ask yourself: Is this true? Just keep asking for every thought. Obviously this is not a practice one can do in the hurly burly of life, at least not in the beginning. It takes some practice. To start sit with your morning tea or coffee and ask for those few minutes: Is this thought true? You need not even find an answer, just keep asking. At the very least it will slow the thought stream down which is a good thing. You can practice again as you lie in bed just before you fall asleep.  To conclude I offer this final poem from my own experience to give you inspiration in the practice. 

 

When I Fell

 

When I fell

Into

The space

Between thoughts

I lost

Myself

 

Time stopped then

And

I tasted

Eternity

And wanted

Nothing else

 

 

Rev. Laura West, Minister-at-large First Christian Church, Ukiah CA

                                                      140 North Spring St  www.fccofukiah.org/

 

 

The Spirituality of Little Things


Stress is pervasive in our society. There are so many little things to get accomplished in any given day, and sometimes big things. The key to de-stressing one’s life is to be present while you are doing any given activity, to be fully there, not in the past, not in the future, just there. If you can manage to do this, the activity flows freely in the absence of stray thoughts. It’s actually these stray thoughts that create friction, mistakes, absentmindedness and stress. Be here now, wherever you happen to be.

 

The following is a poem I wrote about something that really happened to me. I felt like praying but for some reason I got up and did the dishes instead. And then later wrote a poem about the experience.

 

I Did the Dishes

 

I did the dishes

Instead of praying

I almost lost it

The prayer that is

And then I remembered

It was about the spirituality

Of little things

Howdy do!

It’s the how not the do

It’s the how do you do

A welcoming of little things

Enjoying the moment of doing

Even if the prayer

Goes down the drain

With the dishwater

Because doing the dishes

Was the prayer

 

It’s the how not the do. In other words it’s how you do something that matters not what you are doing. In this sense praying and doing the dishes can be the same experience of flowing freely along in life, an effortless Being. When we think of prayer so often we think of prayers of petition, asking for the stuff we want. But that is not the only form of prayer. There is also prayer of gratitude and prayer of embracing what is, embracing Life fully. This indeed is a truly wonderful prayer. It gives you everything you ever truly wanted in an instant and is available to you at any time. It blesses your life continually. If you are enjoying the summer breeze and singing of birds and then notice your nosey neighbor. Ooops! You’ve fallen out of life’s embrace, out of a state of Grace. Try embracing her too in kindness and gratitude, if only with your thought or with your eyes. If you can’t do it, well OK. But notice within yourself the contraction, the tightening of muscles in your face, throat, neck…wherever it might be occurring. Then realize you have just invited stress into your life. Non-acceptance is a form of self-hurting. At root it is non-acceptance of your own self. If you stop and look at this one day you will be able to give it up. It’s not a matter of being nice to others, of following the golden rule. It’s a matter of truly loving yourself, then all else follows from that. That is why the rule is called golden. If you feel kindly toward yourself then you will spontaneously feel kindly towards others. All those pesky people at work, in the family or in other cars won’t seem so pesky any more. It’s like magic!

 

You can start practicing when you are alone, next time you are doing the dishes, folding the laundry, mowing the lawn or whatever little thing that needs to get done, try being fully present, try embracing Life. And see what happens!

 

Rev. Laura West, Minister-at-large First Christian Church, Ukiah CA

                                                      140 North Spring St  www.fccofukiah.org/