Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Tyranny of the To-Do List

"Wonder in the Morning"
- Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House -

In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, a “Baby-Boomer” suggested that many people in his “aging” generation have finally learned how to abandon their addiction to an all-encompassing “to-do list” that has held so many in its tyrannical grip for most of their lives. Since I am one of those aging “Baby-Boomers,” this observation struck me as being particularly true.  

The Times’ article went on to suggest that the need to accomplish specific goals on a daily and on a life-long basis may be a particularly “American” obsession:

Maybe it goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But happiness is the only word that doesn’t stand alone.
It must be pursued.
It may not be clear what happiness is, but you better get hold of it
and it’s your fault if you somehow can’t nab it yourself.
The essential American word is not happiness, it’s pursuit.

This observation makes such great sense to me because all my life I’ve been pursuing happiness. Almost every day of my life was governed by some sort of “to-do” list, a list of tasks that had to be accomplished by evening’s end, always followed by a new list when the next day arrived. As I think about it, my “to do” list was never confined to the goals I had set for a particular day, my to-do list was my life-long ambitions, my career goals, the bigger and better job I hoped to land, more money I wanted to earn, the better house, nicer car, newer gadgets, the next vacation.  

I have only now come to realize that there is a big difference between pursuing happiness and experiencing happiness and more often than not the pursuit of happiness gets in the way of actually being happy.

As I see it, there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing a career or enjoying the pleasures of life. You don’t have to walk around aimlessly or dress in rags and live in a hovel to find happiness in life; but the secret to the experience of genuine happiness lies in the ability to not cling so tightly to this life. Genuine happiness comes when we surrender the need to control everything (and everyone) in accordance with our own agenda, genuine happiness lies not in the pursuit of happiness but in the ability to “let go” of it all and to enjoy the wonder that life has to offer.

I have come to embrace the wisdom of the Buddhist teaching about renunciation as a pathway to happiness: we come to experience happiness by letting go of our tight grip on anything in this life, even freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the to-do list.

Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, puts it this way:

Letting go gives us freedom
and freedom is the only condition for happiness.
If in our heart we still cling to anything-
Anger, anxiety, possessions, strongly held ideas,
we cannot be free and therefore we cannot be happy.

In the later years of his life, the renowned Christian monk and author, Thomas Merton, wrote this in his journal:

When ambition ends, happiness begins.

At this point in my life, I find great wisdom in these words.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Practice of Unbridled Hospitality

"Open to Everyone"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Moderate temperatures and always-sunny days make the desert an almost perfect place for a spring vacation. This usually-tranquil region almost triples in population with the many visitors and tourists who come here at this time of year.

This is also our “festival season,” and so, this weekend an additional 125,000 (mostly younger) people have descended upon a patch of desert not far from our house to listen to music and dance in the desert at the world-famous International Coachella Music Festival. Every hotel, rental property and campground is fully booked, our quiet little desert “town square” has been transformed into an urban metropolis, supermarkets are packed and every available table is taken at every restaurant in the area.

Yesterday, while I was trying to find a place to park my car to do some grocery shopping, I caught myself wishing that all those “strangers” who had come to town invading my peace and quiet, would go back home, back to where they came from. I suddenly realized that I had become an old curmudgeon; but more than that, I also wondered if my negative attitude about strangers and foreigners was also indicative of the atmosphere that seems to pervade so much of our popular culture nowadays - a serious roadblock on any spiritual path. 

The presence of so many strangers and “outsiders” in town has caused me to do some serious reflection about the importance of practicing hospitality on any spiritual journey.

When most people hear the word, “hospitality” they most likely think about setting a nice table or making sure there is plenty of food and drink for guests; but, “hospitality” goes far beyond good social etiquette.

I recently read about a custom that was common practice among ancient Christian communities in the 1st and 2nd centuries. In those days every Christian household would always have a “stranger’s bed” available in their homes, an extra bed or sleeping mat was always “made up” and set aside for any weary stranger who might happen to show up at their door seeking a cool drink and a place to rest.

Those ancient Christians believed that their practice of open-ended hospitality was a way of following in the footsteps of Jesus who lived a life of “radical hospitality.”  No one who ever came to Jesus was ever turned away, they were always welcomed into his life, embraced with an open heart and open arms. He welcomed good religious people along with public sinners. He ate meals with his fellow citizens and also broke bread with foreigners, strangers and pagans. He embraced the strong and healthy along with the sick, weak and hungry.

Those first Christians believed that as “Followers of Jesus’ Way” they were also called to practice this same kind of "unbridled hospitality” and that’s why they always had a “stranger’s bed” set up in their households.

I am reminded of a little story found in the writings of the ancient 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers.  As the story goes some travelers had stopped to seek advice from a wise old desert monk who warmly welcomed his unexpected visitors and spent the day with them.  Before they left, the visitors apologized for imposing on the old monk’s hospitality:

Forgive us brother, we have prevented you from your daily work
and kept you from your prayers and meditation.
The brother answered:
‘my daily work is to open my doors and to welcome you with open arms.’

As I see it, the importance of practicing an "unbridled hospitality” lies at the heart of any spiritual journey and this practice is perhaps more important than ever nowadays in our own culture of individualism and autonomy.  We live behind locked doors, within enclosed gates and we talk about building big walls to keep out foreigners and strangers. There is a tendency in this culture to exclude any who are different and to fear those who seem out-of-the-ordinary. So now more than ever we may all need to set up a “stranger’s bed” in our hearts and minds and maybe even in our homes.

The Sufi poet, Rumi, put it this way:

The human being is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
Be grateful for whoever comes and invite them in.

After standing in a long line yesterday, my wife and I finally got a table at a local restaurant where we ate our lunch. The energy and enthusiasm in that place filled with all those many  “strangers” and “outsiders’ was electric and life-giving – a great gift.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Gift of Doubt

"Shrouded in Mystery"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I just came across a sermon posted online in which a pastor told his congregation that, when they experience “doubts” about their beliefs, they should push them aside and “pray for the gift of faith.”  I’m not sure I agree with that pastor. In fact, in my experience, without “doubt” there can be no faith, doubt is the threshold for entering into a deeper faith. In many ways, “doubt” is a gift on a spiritual journey and instead of fearing or rejecting doubts, people of faith might do well to embrace this gift.  

The Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once observed;

Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
It is a necessary element of faith.

I actually take this a step further. For me, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty and from my point of view, there are way too many people nowadays who are absolutely certain about what they believe or are just as absolutely certain about what they don’t believe. In fact, certainty is the enemy of any deeper wisdom and greater truth because when you are certain of the truth you are no longer living in the realm of mystery and surprises, and “God” is a Great Mystery always filled with surprises. Likewise, when you are so certain that there is no truth you put up a barrier to the experience of transcendence and cut yourself off from the Great Mystery.

I recall an article published a while back in the New York Times by Philosophy Professor, William Irwin, who wisely observed that “God” is never the final, given answer; rather “God” is always an initial question to be explored over and over again by believers as well as non-believers alike. He said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me,
both those who believe and those who do not believe.
Those who are certain really never listen to the other side of conversations
and are all too ready to impose their views.
It is impossible to be certain about God.

Professor Irwin suggested that, in all “God” conversations, atheists, agnostics, humanists and people of various faith traditions should try to be less strident and rigid, always willing to embrace and encourage doubt when it comes to what it is that they believe or what they don’t believe:

When it comes to God,
rather than seeking the surety of an answer,
we would all do well to collectively celebrate
 the uncertainty of the question.

I am also reminded of something the poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, once told a young student who came to him seeking advice:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart,
and try to love the questions themselves.

For me, this one little line beautifully expresses what a spiritual quest is all about.  We dive into the ocean of the Mystery we call “God” and together we learn to explore the questions that arise unresolved in our hearts.  “We try to love the questions.”

It seems to me that maybe we might all do well to “pray for the gift of doubt.”