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Monday, May 27, 2013

I Have to do What?!?

On the spiritual journey, positive thinking isn't nearly enough.  Positive thinking is a good place to start, but it's just that - a starting place.  The people who tell you to think positively and that everything will come your way have done precious little observing reality.

How many people do you know who wanted the right job, the right gig, the right partner, and had an incredibly positive attitude, and even worked hard - really hard - to make their dreams come true?  And the dream didn't come true?  Because it doesn't work that way, that you just hold an idea in your mind and it comes true. Life isn't like that.

Thinking positively helps.  And acting positively is even more important. And thinking and acting powerfully is even more important than that.  And even then, even with positive thoughts, words and actions, and even with powerful thoughts, words and actions, there's no guarantee that you'll get what you're hoping for.

Because the spiritual journey isn't about setting and reaching goals, about finding the right technique to ensure that the Universe or the gods, or whatever it is that you're trying to bend to your will, will bend the way you want.  The spiritual journey is about going deeper that your own limited vision of possibilities for your life, and seeing reality beyond what you want, or desire or have imagined.

The Law of Attraction says visualize something you want so clearly that you can't help but attract it to yourself.  But there are possibilities you may never have considered awaiting you, and if you can't see beyond your own desires, you will miss the truly amazing stuff.

Stop holding on to the details of your plans, of all the ways you're certain your life is supposed to unfold, and judging yourself on the basis of these ideas.  If you're serious about the spiritual journey, the first thing you learn to let go of is certainty, and you will find incredible grace in the fear and uncertainty and vulnerability.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Theory of Not Quite Everything

The Theory of Everything seeks to reconcile and connect various constructs of theoretical physics.  I understand the impetus to create connection across borders and boundaries where connection seems inevitable, even if not obvious.

I've been reading Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition, in which Rabbi Arthur Green seeks to reconcile the Theory of Evolution with Jewish theology.  It's a massive undertaking, though I can imagine the urge to reconcile the various competing ideas that fight for the right to be called true.  But I'm not sure that's really possible.  And even more so, I'm not sure it's necessary.

As Robert Pirsig wrote in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," "Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty thousand page menu, and no food."  In my experience, the answers are simple, not complex.  Human life, human thought, human endeavor is full of complexity, but most of our answers, most of our meaning, comes from great simplicity.

Real comfort doesn't typically come from the latest metaphysical manifestos, papers or treatises, but instead comes from the touch of a loved one, the embrace of those who know and love and accept us, the shared laughter of friends, the ancient connections of family.  When we suffer loss, we often need nothing more than companionable silence, and when we celebrate, we want to be with those who care the most.

A philosophy, an ideology, a theology won't begin to soothe the soul in either joy or sorrow, and it is in the places of joy and sorrow that we are all alike.  It is in joy and sorrow and ordinary experience that we are most alike, that our similarities transcend the complexities of over-thinking.  And I think it's in these places of ordinary human experience that we are designed to connect with G*d, where our humanity meets divinity and can be transformed.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Rhythms of Life

While the pace of life might have changed, the rhythms of life never do.  They are unchanged for thousands of years, from time immemorial, when our foremothers and forefathers began the traditions and customs and rituals that surround these rhythms, giving them meaning and purpose and context.

While we may despair of the institutions that have arisen around these traditions and customs, and while the meaning of these traditions and customs may seem buried beneath the weight of time and history, there are moments in the rhythm of life where nothing but ritual, nothing but tradition and custom and community can soothe the soul in just the way it needs.

The Jewish custom of Shiva around death offers so much comfort. Shiva is designed to acknowledge the special time that loss creates, and give it form and structure so that we know how to help and comfort when there is so little comfort to offer.  It is designed to soothe the grieving and to give those who are desperate to help a way to do so. 

It is designed to remind each of us that we don't, in fact, come into this world alone, and we don't leave alone either.  Part of the custom is that the body of the deceased is never left alone, but instead it is prayed over and watched over, and it is a sacred obligation to bury our dead with dignity and care.  And to allow the grieving to be alone with their loss, and then to be comforted in their loss. 

And there is a time limit on the grieving.  7 days, and then 30 days, and then 11 months maximum, and that's only for certain situations.  But not longer than that, because life is full of sorrow, but it is also full of joy, and we are not designed to stay in sorrow and miss the joy.  In fact, joy takes precedence over sorrow, because there will always be sorrow, but we must be sure to celebrate joy when it appears.

There is so much wisdom in these traditions, so much comfort and care woven into them.  Because when death occurs, there is a physiological reality, a shock to the mind, body and spirit, that requires ritual, a choreography of how we behave with each other, when we otherwise have no idea what to do.

The choreography can feel a little foreign if you're not used to it, but even if it feels a little foreign,  it's still comforting, and it puts you square in the middle of all of humanity who has also suffered devastating loss, and gone through the same grief, and needed the same comfort. It's a blessing to have someone explain what we do and how we do it and why we do it, when NOTHING is making sense otherwise. 

One of the greatest kinds of isolation in our very modern and fast-paced world is that we have to make our own meaning.  We have the freedom to do so, but we are not all equally good at creating customs and rituals and traditions that contain the depth of meaning we need when we need it most.  It's a lot to ask of  ourselves, to find common meaning and connection, and to have to figure out how to do this at the time of our greatest need.

I am happy to rest on the sands of time for the tried-and-true in my moment of need.  I am happy to have a community around me that moves to the rhythm of life, not just the pace of life, that understands that we need to mark time and transition and find significance in doing so.  It's one of the human essentials, to mark the passage of time, the rhythms of life, the moments of meaning, and give them their proper due.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's All About Relationship

We human beings, in our very flawed and ordinary humanity, have a capacity for relationship with G*d built into us, in the EXACT space of flawed and ordinary humanity.  Complexity, intellectual sophistication, and study are not prerequisites for experiencing that relationship.  The most simple-minded and unsophisticated of us are equally well designed to connect with the love and peace and comfort offered through relationship with G*d, and it is often in our over-complication of theological constructs that we distance ourselves from that relationship.

Overthink any relationship and the relationship suffers; it's not different in relationship with G*d.  The need to to reconcile competing truth claims about the nature of G*d deserves the attention it gets.   I'm just not sure if that's THE central consideration.  For example, while beliefs about love and marriage and partnership are significant, they're not what makes you actually fall in love and want to build a relationship.  They are connected, but they are not the same.  

You can believe all sorts of things about love, like you'll never fall in love or never want to get married, and then you meet someone who changes everything you believed.  Not because you have new information that changes your understanding, but because you have a new experience of love, and that experience is more powerful than a set of ideas.

In exploring the world through ideas, it is invariably the poets that speak truth to me more than the philosophers.  The philosophers offer a lot of information, ideas and approaches, but the poets reveal dimensions of truth and meaning and feeling.  I find that the philosophical approach connects me not to G*d, but to human ideas about G*d, which  is something different entirely. 

Meditative practice isn't about emptying the mind.  It is about refining our thoughts and feelings, and the frequency on which we operate, so that we can be open to receiving G*d's ongoing revelelation in our own lives.  Because it's in the place where ideas and experience meet that human life unfolds in its most meaningful way.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Face It

A contemplative approach is no substitute for taking action..  Sitting in meditation, calming the heart and mind, slowing thoughts and breath, and moving into a place of less reaction is absolutely great stuff.  It might be just exactly what you need at the moment you need it.

But if you're doing that instead of facing what must be faced, if you're trying to still your mind instead of having that difficult conversation or dealing with that situation, then you're mis-using the gift of spirituality.  The gift(s) around spirituality enable you to transform your internal landscape so that you're more effective in dealing with your circumstances and relationships, not to assist you in avoiding them.

As one of my favorite authors, Robert Pirsig, wrote, "The only Zen you find on the top of the mountain is the Zen you bring up there."  If you are retreating from a tricky situation, gird yourself with a peaceful state of mind and venture into that trickiness with your own purity and simplicity, maybe refusing to play along with the trickiness, but not refusing to engage where you need to engage.

Spiritual practice is about filling yourself with all the power available to the human soul, and going out and spreading it around, elevating and uplifting yourself first, and then everything in your path.  Use the right tool in the right way at the right time.  Face what you must face when you must face it.  

The power to face a situation isn't the only tool we have, but often the first one we abandon in the spiritual search. We confuse facing difficulty with creating strife or conflict.  But facing difficulty is simply having the courage to acknowledge what is in front of us with sincerity and honesty, and addressing it with respect and compassion.  

It doesn't have to be bigger or smaller than that.  No extra drama or minimizing the situation is required to mitigate what really is.  And when you do finally face what's been right in front of you all the time, even if you're clumsy or awkward in doing so, you will feel the full breeze of lightness float up in you, and the release of a heaviness that you are not well designed to carry.  And you can be sure that if you are ready to confront yourself, then you are ready for the rest of it too.  

Thursday, May 2, 2013


You know that feeling of getting stuck on a concern and going over and over and over it again and again in your mind? The way you imagine every possible scenario and outcome associated with it, hearing every conversation in your mind, playing out every fear to its awful conclusion?  And how upset and tired and unhappy you end up?  Over-thinking like this comes from fear and anxiety, but ultimately, it creates fear and anxiety.

When you're caught up in that sort of vicious cycle, of thinking and over-thinking, of using your imagination destructively, creating negative scenarios in your mind, you're feeding the habit of over-thinking, feeding anxiety and insecurity and uncertainty.  Which is so easy to do.  They have voracious appetites, and will feed off of whatever tidbit you give them.

And then they come back, demanding more and more, and, like the parasites they are, they start feeding off your happiness, destroying your contentment  and getting you to question everything you know.  Or think you know.  They feed off uncertainty, so if the only thing you are certain about is how potentially awful everything, including yourself, might be, then you're letting your imagination run wild, and feeding into the anxiety, which feeds into the uncertainty...

How to stop it?  First, recognize the pattern.  So much of over-thinking comes from nurturing the habit. And it's easy to do.  We think so hard about ways to protect ourselves so that we don't make mistakes or get hurt.  And if we've done this before, then we're doubly concerned with making sure we don't repeat mistakes.  So we look for patterns in ourselves, in others, in our circumstances, to give us clues and signs about how we're doing and how things are going.

But rarely is life so clear, so we question what the clues and signs mean, and wonder if they are clues and signs at all, and, if they're not, then what?  Then what do we use as a guidepost for our decisions and judgments when we already know we can't rely on ourselves? And, if you're tired or hungry or grumpy on top of all this over-thinking, then there's a good chance you're making bad decisions.

After you recognize the pattern, make sure you're not hungry or tired or grumpy.  If you are, eat or rest or go for a walk.  Get yourself back to a better place in an easy way.  And then, once you see the pattern, and realize you can't just blame it on a dip in your blood sugar, take that same energy you're using to spin around in circles about someone or something, and turn its spotlight full on you.

What is the fear or anxiety or uncertainty that's fueling this spinning around in circles?  You don't have to explore every psychological component, or discover the root of every feeling you have going back to childhood.  Just ask yourself what it's about, and have the courage to answer honestly.  Are you trying to protect yourself from getting hurt?  Are you distancing yourself from someone or something that you don't have the courage to face?  Are you distracting yourself from something requiring real action?

You know the right answer.  What matters is that you are honest.  Because when you are honest, when you admit and acknowledge what's at the heart of it, what's in your heart, there is a sudden peace and quiet internally.  There is an identification of reality and an acceptance of your own responsibility for the chaos you've created in your mind.  It doesn't mean you always know what to do or how to do it, or even when, but it frees you from tying yourself up in knots about the imaginary and illusory and immaterial and gets you to pay attention to you.

Sometimes you have to do this over and over, creating a new habit to replace the old one of over-thinking.  And that's okay  Because it takes time.  If you're trying to protect yourself from getting hurt, or over-thinking some scenario because the last time you experienced something like this, it turns out you were naive and too trusting and it ended badly, then you do need to protect yourself and take care of yourself, and watch out for your safety emotionally and spiritually and maybe financially or in whatever way you need.

But you don't have to rely on anxiety and crazy-making worry and over-thinking as your protection because there is no protection in worry and over-thinking.  You just have the illusion that you are doing something, but all you are doing is wearing yourself down, and the part of you that can think and judge well, the part that you really need to count on, is weaker from all the overwork and distraction.  And the part of you that needs comfort and care is having to pick up the slack, which it isn't designed to do.

You can handle the truth.  You can handle it at least as well as what you're spinning out in your mind.  And with the truth comes clarity, even if there's some pain too.  But with over-thinking, you have all the pain without the benefit of truth or clarity.  So instead of spending so much energy spinning around, spend just a little time asking yourself the really hard questions you're been avoiding and see what answers you get.  And then, take a deep breath, and keep moving forward.