Embrace the Return

Embrace the return

On any particular day, if you looked at the minutes of my mind on a bar chart, you would be startled.

Much of the day, my mind is absorbed with meandering thoughts about tasks, details, to-do lists, whether to check email (again), and other minutia. When I stop to look, I see that a lot of my thoughts are a list of worries, real and imagined. My worry list creates a background radiation of low-grade anxiety that colors my day.

I don’t spend much time in the present.

I have moments of recognition when I pull my attention out of the chattering thought-stream and remember the larger context – remember that I started the day with an intention to remain conscious and open, or that my list of tasks is not as important as my state of being, or simply that I am connected to Spirit.

My attention oscillates back and forth throughout the day between attending to details and expanding into the larger context. We could call these two states worry mind and big mind. When I look at the daily bar chart of time spent in both, I can easily become aghast, but judging it as wrong is a mistake (it would just give my worry mind something new to worry about). My worry mind is only doing what it has been trained to do. I can train it to do something different, but not by scolding.

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Life Is Not a Problem to Be Hacked

Like everyone, I want things to be easy. There’s no need to make life hard if there’s a smarter way to do things.

I’m always looking for tips, like Hints from Heloise:  freeing a sticky zipper with a graphite pencil, or putting newspaper at the bottom of a trash bag to collect the drippings (do people still use pencils, or newspapers, or read Hints from Heloise?)

But modern life has made things so convenient, we’ve come to expect that every frustration must have a secret tip that would sweep it away. We’ve been trained to expect our lives to be frictionless, an expectation that magnifies each irritation as a surprising anomaly. So many things are so easy, we have become addicted to convenience, despite the fact that life is often inherently inconvenient.

A whole industry has dedicated itself to providing life hacks, those quick and easy steps that let us jump the line over the daily toils of living. Don’t want to eat healthy and move your body? Take this supplement that burns belly fat. Don’t want to discipline your spending habits? Download this easy plan for growing rich.

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Spiritual Practice Is an Exercise in Surrender

Spiritual practice is an exercise in surrender

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Viktor Frankl

I want to grow.

I want to progress on my path of spiritual development. I want to be a better person. I want to connect more deeply with Spirit. And I want to prove that I am up to the challenge, that I am worthy of such noble goals.

But I have a nagging feeling that something about my desire is getting in the way. My effort has a quality of striving, an overreaching that feels out of balance.

Through my life experience, I’ve trained myself to pursue my goals with perseverance. I see something I want, I make a plan, and I take actions that move me toward my goal. When things get tough, I don’t stop, I push harder. And for many aspects of my life, this works. I am able to get the things I want and I feel good.

But spiritual growth doesn’t work like that because it’s not about achieving something I don’t have. It doesn’t make me worthy. It isn’t what connects me to Spirit. It reveals what is already present:  my inherent goodness, my radiant beauty, my ever-drenching immersion with the Cosmos.

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The Honesty I’ve Learned From Grief

Family photo,  circa 1960 - me, my father, grandfather and great-grandfather

My father is drifting away, a slow dissolve into dementia that will take months or years. I find myself grieving in several ways.

I am grieving the loss of my father as an intelligent, capable man. A math and physics major, he worked 38 years for the same company as a quality engineer, constantly finding and fixing problems. He taught me how to work with wood and build furniture. He could fix any plumbing or electrical problems around the house. It’s hard to watch a man whose mind was so strong and active struggle to hold a spoon and feed himself.

Coming into his room on any particular morning, I don’t know if he will recognize me, and it is wrenching to know that the days he does are dwindling. Seeing my father drift this way is like watching a flowing river empty out onto a large plateau, meandering into a web of broken streams, petering out, coming to rest in a marshy lowland.

There is another layer of loss I am grieving, and that is the relationship I had hoped I could have with him but never did. Dad was an introverted thinker. I was a hyperactive fidgeter. He, a cognitive processor; me, a swirl of passion and emotion. When I was fearful and sought reassurance, he would look for the problem that needed fixed. I wanted relational, he offered rational.

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Wise Words – The Simple Road of Kindness

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

George Eliot

It may be as simple as this. We’ve made it harder than it has to be.

We’ve spent the span of human existence tussling with the basic dilemma of humanity: how do we stand in relationship with the wonderment of this living cosmos and our fellow beings in a world where we also feel threat and danger? In the past, we sought guidance in misguided corners with a checkered history of success. We fostered argument and violence, forgetting the underlying reason we are here.

Maybe there is a day in the future when we will arrive at the crux of the matter:

when all the philosophies, doctrines, and treatises have been cataloged and shelved;

when the hierarchies and reformations have made all their arguments and counterpoints;

when the zealous believers of every stripe have finished shouting their convictions at each other and exhausted their passion for certitude;

maybe then, after all the building up and tearing down, our common wisdom will distill into a note so clear it rings the inner chambers of our hearts, a light so pure we cannot help but turn our heads and stare.

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From Unity to Separation to Unity

The spiritual journey goes from unity to separation to unity

I want to let the false narratives, the tired stories I’ve told myself about myself, to fall away. I want to touch my true nature, the core that holds my inherent goodness and connects me to the Cosmos, and let it shine.

That’s what the spiritual journey does. And when it hits the sweet spot, it takes me to a mountaintop where I can see farther and feel deeper. I am changed for having walked the miles below.

But if it’s so good, why is this journey so hard? If my spiritual desire is so strong, why am I constantly knocked off the path by the problems, challenges, and distractions of daily life?

Maybe it’s because the spiritual journey is embedded in the physical journey. Maybe we don’t walk the path to escape the woes of the physical world, maybe the physical and the spiritual are woven into the path together, interdependent vehicles that enhance each other so that our walking takes us naturally from unity, through separation, and back to unity.

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The Promise of Practice

The Proven Value of Contemplative Practice

My day is full. And so is my mind.

I’m occupied with tasks, activities, frustrations, conversations, appointments, phone calls, and all the thoughts, feelings, speculations, and memories that come along for the ride. I handle these with a normal, everyday level of awareness that seems to do just fine. But the pressured pace of skimming from item to item can leave me feeling scattered and brittle.  

A contemplative practice offers me a chance to step off the hamster wheel, reflect, and build capacities that reconnect me to the depth of who I am and what I care about.

There are proven benefits to slowing down and learning to direct and sustain my attention. The list of enduring traits linked to a regular meditation practice include lower blood pressure, decreased inflammation, a healthier immune response, optimized telomere function (which slows aging), a stronger ability to focus, less reactivity, reduced anxiety and depression, more empathy for others, and an increased sense of well-being. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson review this remarkable body of research in their book, “Altered States, Altered Traits.”

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Always Forgetting, Always Remembering

Maybe the world ends when I do.

(Go with me on this thought experiment.) Maybe it all evaporates at the instant of my death, the sun and all her sister stars spread across the eons snuffed out in a whisper.

Maybe my consciousness is the sum total of consciousness. All the events and people I have known or heard about, all history, literature, language, science, culture, were just props in my stageplay. Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, the Great War, quantum theory, Impressionism, migratory birds, interstate highways, ice cream cones, and all the rest were curated artifacts presented to me so I could craft this one life.  

And when my eyes close for the last time, the final curtain falls on everything. No more thoughts or fears, no symphonies or street crime, no conversations in coffee shops or late night bedrooms, no playing children, no morning sunlight. Maybe it was all a parade hung in the sky for this one small spark of light that was me.

Pause and consider for a moment; what is your reaction to this scenario? I have two thoughts.

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Faith Is the Bird That Feels the Light

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

Rabindranath Tagore

I feel the light, too. And I am sometimes confused by it.

The light I feel is good. It is goodness itself. I want to be immersed in this light, drenched, consumed. I want to open my chest and let it enter me, to unfold myself in its brilliance and fly or sink to wherever it is going.

I trust the light without knowing why. Without good reason, without proof, even though it makes no logical sense, even though I can’t be certain. But my trust is stronger than knowledge or reason or proof or logic or, most brittle of them all, certainty.

Living in the modern world, I have been taught to believe in the power of knowledge, reason, and logic, and to strive to make things certain. I acknowledge the value of these human capacities and I express abundant gratitude for the many benefits they bring to modern life:  electricity, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, chemotherapy, communication satellites, bridges that don’t fall down. And because my trust in the light is more intuitive than logical, more felt sense than geometric proof, I am sometimes confused that my trust is so strong.

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Living Life With an Open Window

I spend too much energy trying to curate my experience, as if I could choreograph my days to linger over the pleasures and hurry past the disappointments.

This is perfectly understandable. Our human tendency to shy away from discomfort and gravitate toward pleasure is universal. But blindly following this instinctual drive has a cost.

It lessens my contact with the world by building a shell between me and the throb and pulse of life. It decreases my sensitivity to the full reality of the objects, events and people that show up around me. It fosters a false belief that I can distance myself from what I don’t like and embrace only the sweetness of things.

Over time, it distorts my perception, stunting my perspective like a sapling bent by the wind. It programs my antennae to look for threats and predisposes me to judge each experience according to my preferences, directing me to approach or avoid.

There is a different way to be.

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