Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Downsizing as a Spiritual Discipline

"Simple Beauty"
- in my meditation garden -

Now that the weather is cooling down out here in the desert, I am devoting myself to a number of tasks that I put off doing during the hot days of summer.  Yesterday I decided to tackle “cleaning out the garage” and I was immediately reminded of our move out to the desert a few years ago.   

Over the course of our life together, my wife and I had accumulated an awful lot of “stuff.” Our rather large home in Los Angeles had plenty of storage stage space, a basement and a garage - all filled with the boxes and bundles containing the things of our life. When it came time to move out to a much smaller home here in the desert, we had to get rid of many of our things – our closets were overflowing with memorabilia (I don’t think we ever threw away even one of the papers our kids wrote while they were in school and we still had all their old drawings).  There were also boxes of kitchen stuff that we hadn’t used in years and would almost certainly never use again, boxes of old plaques and pictures, old clothes, furniture, old books.

I couldn’t believe that we had accumulated and were still so attached to so many things and while we moved some of those things with us to the desert, we also gave most of it away (or in some case threw it away).

At first it was indeed difficult to do all this downsizing -  after all something of our past was now vanishing, a vivid reminder that life doesn’t last forever.  And yet, at the same time this experience was also very liberating for me, it gave me a sense of making room for a fresh start.

Yesterday as I looked at my garage, so full of so many newly acquired boxes of “stuff”( I hardly have room to park the car),  I suddenly realized that I hadn’t yet learned the lesson about “acquiring too much stuff.”   How was it possible that we had manage to once again acquire so much over a relatively short period of time?  Obviously those things weren’t all that important to us or they wouldn’t have been relegated to storage in a garage.

It was a good “wake up call” for me to re-learn the important lesson that downsizing is indeed a spiritual discipline.

Throughout our lives we all acquire and accumulate all sorts of baggage - boxes full of our possessions, boxes full of our ideas, our plans, our ambitions, our glib certainties stored away carefully in our minds, boxes of anxieties and fears stored up in our spirits. We can either live with all the accumulated clutter or “let go of it,” and it is only when we are able to downsize, to “let it go,” that new and fresh possibilities present themselves.

The longer we cling to all the baggage the more we protect ourselves against the wonder of the fresh revelation available to us all in each and every moment of every single day. 

Buddhist 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 ambition or possessions,
we cannot be free.

Yesterday as I looked at the heaps of all the new stuff I had piled up and packed away, I was also reminded of a wisdom saying often attributed to the Buddha:

In the end these things matter most.
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?

It’s funny how boxes of accumulated “junk” can teach a spiritual lesson about the importance of letting it all go.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Poison of Fear

"Dawn in the Desert"

After church yesterday I had a rather lengthy conversation with a group of people who all agreed that they had come to the point where they now hesitate to look at their smartphones or turn on the radio or TV when they get up in the morning because they fear they will be confronted by some new catastrophe that happened overnight.

My guess is that lots of people live with an underlying sense of ongoing fear, always on-guard, waiting for some foreboding danger that may happen at any time. People fear the next incident of a “Las Vegas” type shooting, they fear nuclear arms escalation, perhaps they are afraid that another natural disaster like a hurricane may strike. Some people are afraid of getting on an airplane or going to the mall or even going to a restaurant because this might be the scene for the next terrorist attack.

The other day the New York Times published an interesting article about the devastating effects fear and anxiety can have upon the health and wellbeing of our ordinary, everyday living:

Fear pushes people to adopt a defensive posture in life.
When people feel anxious and fearful
they’re less open to diverse ideas and opinions
and less forgiving and tolerant of those they disagree with.
When people are afraid they cling to the certainty of the world they know
and avoid taking physical, emotional and intellectual risks.

When I think about today’s society so infected by defensiveness and divisiveness, so intolerant of those who are “different,”  I wonder if this is a direct result of the pervasive sense of fear that holds so many of us hostage every day.

Fear keeps us from living our everyday lives in joy and with peace. A sense of prevailing fear forces people to withdraw into isolation, into their own self-barricades, within the confines of guarded egos cut off from others - a sure way to poison the spirit and destroy the soul.

I am reminded of an article in one of my books of Buddhist essays. It provides a very helpful insight and offers an antidote to the fear-filled poison that seems to be so profoundly infecting so many of us.

There is no secure or unchanging ground
and we make ourselves safe only when we see and accept the truth that
 life is utterly spontaneous and impermanent.
When it is time to laugh, we laugh.
When it is time to weep, we weep.
We are cheated of nothing in life except that
 from which we withhold ourselves by egos narrow bounds.
These bounds were made to break if we ever hope to be whole again.

As I see it, lots of people fool themselves into thinking that life on this earth is never ending, stable and permanent and that we are able to control almost everything that happens; but the truth is that we can control almost nothing and everything in life is impermanent - a process of endless change. When we are able to live into this truth, fear loses its grip on us. 

Interestingly enough, there is no phrase that is used more often in the entire Bible than the words: Do not be afraid. The Bible never says that there are no problems and all the danger is gone; instead, the Bible constantly teaches:  Do not be afraid! The spirit of "God" abides among us in the midst of all the chaos and we have one another as companions on life’s journey. Love is the energy that rules the universe. Do not be afraid.

Today when I woke up, without hesitation I looked at my smart phone and turned on the news and then I went went outside. The sun was rising and a gentle breeze was blowing at the dawn of a beautiful day in the desert. So I opened my arms and I opened my heart, ready to embrace whatever comes my way.

I am not afraid.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Embracing Emptiness

"Abundant Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -


Now that the days are turning cooler, I am able to resume my daily walks out on the wilderness trails near our house. When we first moved here I was actually somewhat frightened when I would walk out into the desert because the space is so empty and so vast – it all made me feel so out of control. I also discovered that the farther I would venture out into the wilderness, the more silent everything became. In fact, at times the silence was so intense that it was too much for me to bear and I would find myself quickly retreating back to the safety of my house.  

Yesterday as I walked out into the desert, I realized that a shift has happened in me. I have now come to the point where I embrace the emptiness and welcome the profound silence.  The desert has become a very spiritual place for me - an icon of what a spiritual journey is all about.

In the English language (especially in Western culture) the word "emptiness" has a very negative connotation. An empty stomach, an empty bank account, an empty house, even an empty space on a wall conjure up images of a void that cries out to be filled. And so, the first response to emptiness is usually to do something about it, to fix the problem, to replace what is missing and fill up what has been emptied out.

As I think about it, our hunger for “God” is also a form of emptiness. The human heart longs for transcendence, we earnestly desire to be connected to that which is beyond our own tiny little self. At some core level when we feel “empty” we often set out on a spiritual journey, seeking to be filled up with greater wisdom and deeper truth. 

Yet, despite our constant attempts to fill up all the empty places in life, we often remain rather unsatisfied. A bank account may be overflowing, the refrigerator filled to the brim, a person can have every creature comfort ever desired and yet somehow it just not enough- something is still missing. 

Even our quest to fill up our hunger for "God" often goes unfulfilled regardless of what we may do. People may read volumes of theology books, memorize the scriptures, fill their minds with words and ideas, perhaps consult with a clergy person or a spiritual guru, but somehow the emptiness often remains unfulfilled. 

I have come to believe that maybe the very emptiness we experience in life may actually be the fullness that we seek.

I am reminded of the life of the celebrated mystic-monk, Thomas Merton, who throughout his life wrote volumes of books replete with an abundance of spiritual guidance. In the earlier days of his monastic career, Father Merton’s books overflowed with carefully crafted theological language, scripture quotes and references to church doctrine;  but the older he got and the more advanced on the spiritual path, he became less and less concerned with words and ideas. Toward the end of his life he would just go outside his little hermitage in the mountains and quietly sit, basking in the glory of a summer's day, listening to the sounds of the wind in the trees.

Although he was a Christian monk, Merton was highly influenced by a Buddhist wisdom that embraces "emptiness" rather than shrinking from it.  For the Buddhist, achieving the state of "emptiness" is a higher level of spiritual awareness. When your mind is clear of all ideas and the slate of all your explanations has been wiped clean, there is nothing left but emptiness. When you are empty you are wide open to the present moment, available to experience life as it is and not as you think it should be. Emptiness is the doorway to enlightenment, the awareness that everything and everyone belong to one another. 

One week before his untimely death in 1968, Thomas Merton was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, and as he gazed upon the many Buddha statues in the shrine, he had a moment of intense spiritual revelation.  It was the culminating point of his long and fruitful spiritual journey. 

Looking at those Buddha figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly,
jerked clean out of my habitual, half-tied vision of things,
and an inner clarity became obvious and evident to me--
everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.
I don't know when in my life I have ever had a such a sense of
 beauty and spiritual validity.

As I walk out on desert trails each day, I think about Merton’s experience in that Buddhist temple and it deeply resonates with me. The wilderness is such a perfect icon for the spiritual path precisely because it is so full of emptiness - so wild, untamed, unable to be controlled, understood or analyzed, so many spaces not filled in; and yet, when I am able to surrender to it all, willing to embrace the emptiness and listen to the thunderous silence. I always feel a connection beyond myself.  It is an experience of transcendence, an experience of the great Mystery we call “God.”

The "God" I seek is way beyond what I think "God" is. 

Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

Of course, you don’t have to live in a desert to embrace emptiness.