Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Thanks Means Saying Yes to Life

"Blue Skies and Cool Breezes"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

As the Thanksgiving holiday comes around this year, I find that I am especially thankful. Our entire family is here with us (including our grand babies from back east), everyone seems to be doing well, we are all in good health and on top if it all, the weather here in the desert at this time of year is about as beautiful as anywhere in the country – my list of reasons to be thankful goes on and on.

Most people “give thanks” for the “good stuff” that comes along in life. As they sit around a holiday table this year, many will identify why they are thankful, giving a nod to all that may have gone well during the year -  good health, a nice family, a good job, a nice house, money in the bank, a good grade on the paper.  The fact is, however, that much of this very impermanent and imperfect life doesn’t always turn out all that well and often doesn’t come anywhere near to our hoped-for plans. Over this past year, people got sick or had an accident, a house burnt down, a relationship ruptured, a job was lost. How do you give thanks for this?

Furthermore, while the events of everyday life may not be all that “bad” for most of us, our routine lives may be somewhat boring - doing the laundry or the grocery shopping or sitting all day at a computer at work are hardly the kinds of things people think about when Thanksgiving comes around and they recount the reasons for which they are especially thankful

And yet, if we look at “thanksgiving” through a different lens, we can all be “thankful” for everything at all times. As I see it, giving thanks is more about embracing life as it happens rather than putting a seal of approval on events that turned out the way we wanted them to happen.

I think St. Paul gives some pretty good advice in one of his epistles when he says:

Be thankful in all the circumstances of life.

The truth is that very little if anything in life is under our control. Most of the time life simply happens, it comes to us, and very often it happens far differently than we might have wanted or expected. If “giving thanks” means being grateful for those good (or exciting) things that happen according to our plan, it’s no wonder that we might have a hard time being thankful for those times when we hit a dry place in life or when our everyday ordinary routine is somewhat boring. 

As I see it, even sickness, loss, grief and pain have a way of making me more vulnerable and open to others – our dry places are often the most fruitful. Furthermore, when I open my mind and heart to life as it comes to me, I am always surprised at what can happen and nothing is boring or routine.  The simple act of sitting quietly in my garden on an early-winter morning in the desert turns into an awesome experience of mystery and transcendence and the smile of a baby sitting at the table turns into the face of God.

We all have plenty of reasons for giving thanks. We can be thankful in all circumstances of life.

Eckhart Tolle put it this way:

Always say yes to the present moment.
Say yes to life and see how suddenly it starts working for you 
rather than against you.

Giving thanks means saying “yes” to life.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

No Hope for a Better Yesterday

"Sunrise and Olive Branches"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I am celebrating a birthday and I am of an age where I can no longer put a candle on the cake for every year I have lived unless I want to create a fire hazard.  When I look back over the years of my life, I sometimes wonder if there is anything I would have done differently?  For the most part, I do not live with any regrets but as I think about it, there is a part of me that I wish I could “do over again.” Looking back, I would cling to life less tenaciously and try to control my life less rigidly. Perhaps this is the one great wisdom I take with me into my later years.

In the past I would often imagine that my life was “something I possessed,” my life was something I needed to cultivate for “maximum results.”  Far too often I would find myself plotting and strategizing for better leverage - the better job, the next move, the nicer house, the higher rung up the ladder of success.

It all makes me think of one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes:

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success
only to find, once they reach the top,
that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

I have come to the point in my life where I no longer have even the slightest concern about that ladder of success; but as I look back at my years, I can’t help but wonder what it is that I may have missed in life because I was always looking for more, bigger and better.

The Buddha taught:

You can only lose what you cling to.

I find great wisdom in this teaching. I think I probably lost a lot because I gripped onto my life so tenaciously.

My guess is that I often missed seeing the joy of my children’s laughter, the tender embrace of my spouse, I overlooked the kindness of a friend or missed experiencing the joy of a morning sunrise, all because I was to busy trying to control the next step along the way.

I have since come to know that the fullness of life reveals itself only in the present moment and this is now the deepest wisdom I have to offer.

As I celebrate my birthday, I know that “today, like every day, is always a new beginning, a new opportunity to live fully, embracing life as it comes.  None of us ever “possesses” our life, we simply “participate” in it. As our life flows on we all belong to one another, all of us held together in that awesome, abiding power of universal Love known as “God” – who could ask for anything more?

The comedian Lily Tomlin once humorously quipped:

Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.

That’s what I want to do for the rest of my remaining years - I want to forgive much more and cling far less.

The Buddha also taught:

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

These are the questions that steer the compass of my life for the journey that remains.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Notice New Things

"New Every Morning"

I just listened to Krista Tippett’s NPR radio show, On Being. She was interviewing the well-known social psychologist, Ellen Langer, who is sometimes referred to as the mother of mindfulness. While the word mindfulness is very popular throughout western culture nowadays, forty years ago no one in this country would have hardly even heard the word or known what it meant; and yet, in the late 1970’s Dr. Langer was conducting some “cutting edge” research into the science of mindfulness and mindlessness.

Nowadays the word, mindfulness carries a religious or spiritual connotation, often associated with the practice of Buddhist meditation or other eastern “yoga” practices. In our own day, some churches, schools, and even corporations offer their constituents a wide range of mindfulness training by teaching people how to meditate. These courses offer techniques for calming and counting breaths, they teach various mediation postures and offer instruction in a variety of “yoga” positions - all of which will hopefully lead a person to being more mindful (aware and awake in the present moment) not just while meditating but in the living of one’s everyday life.  

In her radio interview, Dr. Langer explains that her research has never focused on any forms of eastern “meditation” and she offers this very concise, simple and accessible definition of what mindfulness is all about and why it matters:

Mindfulness is the very simple process of
actively noticing new things.
When you actively notice new things,
that puts you in the present, sensitive to context.
As you notice new things, it’s engaging, and
 after lots of research, we’ve learned that this process
 is literally (not figuratively) enlivening.

I think that many people may be somewhat afraid of practices like “meditation” thinking that this is something monks and priests do. Some others may avoid “meditating,” thinking that this is a practice that is associated with esoteric eastern religions. Others may imagine that, in their busy schedules, they just don’t have enough time to set apart 20 minutes every morning or evening to quietly meditate; but everyone can engage in the simple (yet difficult) task of noticing new things in their everyday routine of life,.

Many people are “stuck in a rut” in their everyday living. They see the same old people in the same old places and do the same old things day in and day out, expecting there is nothing new about anyone or anything; and yet everything and everyone is constantly changing and the way in which we have come to to understand the world is hardly a clear picture of what “is.” There is always something new to notice in every single moment of every single day.

Dr. Langer suggests that when you make a deliberate effort to notice something new about old familiar people and places you find yourself drawn into the present moment and the present is always a source of revelation. In the present you see everything and everyone in a different light and it’s “enlivening.”

All week long I’ve been trying to notice something new in my everyday life. I have seen the light of love glimmering in the eyes of my wife, I’ve noticed the kindness of the barista at our local Starbucks, and I’ve noticed that the late-autumn sky is a different color than it is during the summer. The world is so very full of so many wonderful surprises, all waiting to be noticed.

Buddhist teacher and author, Susan Murphy, wisely teaches

Don’t miss anything.
Everything counts, everyone counts.
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you