Wherever You Go There You Are

Continuing on our theme of mindfulness, our title today is taken from a book of the same name by ground breaking author and founder of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Center Clinic (1992), Jon Kabat-Zinn.  The book (long since dog-eared and worn by its continual use by me as an invaluable personal instruction manual), reflects “his major research interests which include mind/body interactions for healing, clinical application of mindfulness meditation for people with chronic pain and stress-related disorders, and the societal applications of mindfulness.”

We all at times change our circumstances, changing jobs, spouses, home locales, and some of it necessary. Likewise, it is the rare individual that doesn’t love to take a vacation.  Vacating your life for a while, whether for a week, a month, or even a long weekend, has a way of pushing the refresh button on our spirits.  We all log in so much information and activity every day and the amount we delete never seems to really clear our head of it all. 

Planning a trip is half the fun, cruising the internet for the best deals and unexpected finds, purchasing travel books and magazines on places you are getting ready to visit or are dreaming of going to some day hold future promises of enjoyment, instilling  joy in us  just in the thinking.  Shopping for the right attire and gear also occupy us happily. Even when are lives are currently rife with crisis or a season of grief, a holiday can bring a welcomed respite and the chance for perspective that can arise from being pulled from our everyday surroundings.

Concurrently, whatever problems you have, whatever inner turmoil, doesn’t necessarily or even likely cease just because you have gone somewhere other than your daily haunts or made significant life changes.  If you have been struggling with sadness, anger, anxiety, or resentments before you left or altered your lifestyle, chances are there will be moments while you are away that these emotions still arise.  You can keep changing a whole lot of outside circumstances and still feel like something is missing, like it will be better around the bend. But wherever you go, there you are.  As I have mentioned before, there are a million ways to escape our lives for a time, but they all have a way of catching up with us.      

So, what to do if we can’t take a vacation, or if the vacation didn’t take, or most vitally,  if we want to live our days in a way where we can experience moments like those we do on some of the more memorable, exceptional times away?

We need to learn the art of non-doing. As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “The flavor and joy of non-doing are difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress.  Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless.  The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete.   The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lies in knowing that something else surely will.”

We are not just doing nothing, but consciously noticing what’s going on right now. In Thoreau’s Walden, he explained it like this:

I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise to noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time…I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.”

It is the opposite of busyness.  While practically speaking, we need to get stuff done, can we carve out five minutes, or better yet, twenty minutes to just be?  Our efforts during our times of doing will be enhanced.   This is what Zinn calls the paradox of non-doing.  You do things of value when you don’t care about whether they will be worthy or not, but whether they act in concet with your efforts at non-doing and letting go of outcomes.  Then the ego and its tendency towards self aggrandizement are pushed aside, creativity and insight become natural byproducts. Your work gains a purity and satisfaction that has no puffed up identity attached to it.  It fulfills. 

So, if today finds you sitting with your daughter, don’t put in another load of laundry, don’t answer the phone (I know it’s calling and the impulse is to move), but  just be with your daughter, whether talking or in silence, be consciously present to this moment which will never come again in the exact same way. Choose to be here, right now, you are anyway.

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Mindfulness…Just Do It

Last fall, I took a refresher course, attending an eight week mindfulness workshop at the First Parish Church in Concord, MA.  About 20 years ago, I had completed a similar course and for several years after that was somewhat of a devotee.  To say that practicing mindfulness is life changing would be true, to the degree that I actually practice its tenets, that I show up each day with myself/for myself for a half hour or so.  While daily prayer and meditation are the unequivocal spiritual powerhouses, necessities to deepen our soul and to share the best of who we are with others, I still like to take a day or two or three off sometimes.  Hence the need for a tune up and a reminder to begin again…and again…and again.

Why do we struggle so with those things we know are better than good for us? We humans just seem to have a penchant for desiring the shinier, easier, faster approach in any given moment instead.  Prayer is simply not glitzy and meditation does not usually provide immediate results.  The same holds true for exercise or a healthy diet or raising a child.  So can you hear the voice?  You know the one, “I think I’ll have a cup of tea and cookies instead this afternoon.  After all, that’s relaxing too.” Or, “Suzy just called and I hadn’t talked to Suzy in so long, and you know, by the time I got around to meditating, it was time to make dinner.”

Every perennial dieter knows the slippery slope when a day or two of indulgence leads into weeks or even months of a return to bad habits. The same goes for prayer. Do you ever save praying for bedtime and fall asleep in the middle of it or before you get started? I present it like this, because I am a gal with varied interests. I am not a plodder. I do not like the same breakfast food every morning. But like every one of us, I am also a dichotomy.  While I adore novelty, I need routine.

I work out 5-6 times a week (mostly running and some light weight training) and have since I was a freshman in college.  I must admit that I feel more than a bit off kilter without it.  Also, I am fiercely loyal, loving the enduring quality of old friends, and looking  forward to our long standing weekly lunches. In fact, a major part of my spiritual journey has been learning to let go, having had the tendency (very much a mixed blessing) to hold on and hope in relationships until hit with an anvil of mammoth proportions.    

So mindfulness brings balance to these occasionally oppositional impulses, knowing when to let go, when to persevere, harmonizing my desire for variety and my need for certainty.  

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I would dutifully find a chair or mat each day and allow my thoughts to drift on by, like words on a series of passing clouds.  I wrestled with monkey mind, the term which simply refers to the mind’s tendency to jump from one thought to the next…the on-going to-do list, last night’s argument with your significant other, where to go on winter vacation, can we afford to go on winter vacation, yada yada yada. The attending emotions to these thoughts gradually loosened their hold on me over time.

Clarity would be granted (not for long stretches of time, mind you, and not the imagined perfect bliss), but a quiet soul sigh. I used to tell my kids when they were little that you don’t get clean, strong teeth if you only brush your teeth 3 or 4 times a week, you need to do it every day.  Spiritual health holds to the same principle of consistency just as physical health does. Half hearted attempts avail us either nothing or only partial benefits.  A reasonable consistency, mind you, is the hallmark of all positive life shifts.  Notice I say reasonable.  Those of us prone to impulsivity or compulsion (me) also tend to be pendulum swingers.  Just do it, routinely but flexibly. And don’t worry, no matter how you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

Book Pick of the Day: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Quote from the Book of the Day: “Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves.  Consider, for example: a magician who cuts his body into many parts and places each part in a different region-hands in the south, arms in the east, legs in the north, and then by some miraculous power lets forth a cry which reassembles whole every part of his body.  Mindfulness is like that-it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.”

Sacrifice Doesn’t Have To Be Grandma or a Live Chicken

Piggy backing on my last post, I was thinking about the word sacrifice, which always means a giving up in some way or the other, and how it has lost the better half of its meaning.  The word sacrifice-Latin sacrificium-means an offering to a deity or to something greater than one’s self, rendering the person(s), place or thing involved- sacred. The whole idea of sacrifice has become  antithetical to our current American culture of consumerism. It’s made even worse when fear mongering makes citizens actually frenzied with the idea that Grandma will be the first to be killed with the National Health Care bill.  OMG, the sacrifice will mean that our children and children’s children face certain bankruptcy. Whether it’s a government official or a family member asking us to make sacrifices, either  for a greater good that we won’t see until the future or for a temporary setback that’s here with us right now, we tend to squirm or bargain or unenthusiatically agree to it (knowing it’s the right form of action) and then shortly thereafter, kick and scream, taking to the streets with how unfair it is.  

And yet, a truly just society demands some sacrifices.  Our commitment to social justice, while deeply felt, can be very difficult to sustain.   This is particularly true in a society that has valued and prized individualism since its conception.  Unlike other cultures, where the community needs are primary (and this too can be problematic), our understanding of the self in relation to the community tends to focus on the community being there to help forward our own self realization and not the other way around.  I do believe, however, that we are currently in a phase of positive but disorienting transformation.

We can no longer avoid the growing sense of interdependence of the world’s population. Reality at its core, whether spiritual or physical, has a relational nature.  Nothing can be fully understood or experienced in isolation. When we ignore any kind of shared reference point, or the ability to see beyond the end of the nose on our face, we see the degeneration of public discourse.  Talk radio, FOX news, to name a few, have resorted to slander, inaccurate sound bites, and mean spiritedness to buoy up a world view that is not on the side of creation. In the wild current of cackling voices, we lose both content and the possibility of real understanding. While it may not be possible to agree on universal truths, this doesn’t mean there are no meaningful ideas or truths.

As Paul Raiser writes in Faith without Certainty, ” The truth is that we don’t first exist as individuals who then form social groups.  The group always comes first.  As individuals, our identities are always formed in relation to a particular social context. We are social beings through and through. Can we look at social justice work not simply as choice we make for ourselves or do not, but as a fundamental factor in the formation of our own identities?  We think we need to attend to our own well being to be able to help someone else, and this is only partially true. We can also be reminded that our own well being is deeply connected to the well being of others.”

For Christians, this is the season of Lent.  It is a time of consciously giving up those things that are superfluous to our lives.  It creates space for the sacred. One chooses to sacrifice, because the benefit to the mind and spirit is greater than if one did not.  It is not that the giving up of chocolate or alcohol is a chit to get to heaven.  Or that daily choosing to do a kind act without anyone knowing of it makes you a better person than your neighbor.  Rather it is by sacrifice, that we come closer to understanding and participating with the sacred.

Book of the Day: The Responsible Self by H. Richard Niebuhr  

Quote from the Book of the Day: “It has often been remarked that the great decisions which give a society its specific character are functions of emergency situations in which a community has had to meet a challenge.  Yet the decision on which the future depends and whence the new law issues is a decision made in response to action upon the society, and this action is guided by interpretation of what is going on.” (Ed. note: Our forebears had to determine what was happening during the Civil War (End of Slavery and the importance of union), how to address the ills of the Depression (The New Deal and the Welfare State), and what was the response to be to the First Two World Wars (a final move away from isolationism), all of these decisions made our country change in ways no one could foresee, and today’s decisions are no different.)

National Health Care and The Good Samaritan

If we remove the millenia of fine print of the literature of the world’s great religions (much of it wonderful, some of it confusing, and lots of it needing to be put into its historic context and away from its literal interpretations), we can condense their message down to two simple but not easy imperatives, to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, which includes being grateful for all of creation and appreciative of its wonders- and to treat your neighbor as yourself. Agnostics and atheists, while not inclined to use the word God, too share our awe of the natural world and its blessings and feel the same sense of moral and social calling to improve the plight of the less fortunate.

It’s one of the very best impulses of being human, to reach out to those in need of help. Certainly the other human tendency, which we have seen at work tirelessly over the last year of health care debates, is fear.  If we have to give money to cover those who cannot afford it, we’ll have less, perhaps we will have to sacrifice and perhaps the sacrifice will be too great for us.  Then comes the idea that most of “these people” are just wanting a hand out, “never worked a day in the life” and unfortunately, there are many out there (friends of mine) who believe this. 

Even while the statistics do not bear them out.  A  study done in 2000 by the Progressive Policy Institute stated that 2.1% of the population was on welfare at that time. Today, in 2009, that number is 11.3%.  This number is a clear indication of our recession and our economy.  Looking at the 2000 percentage, if there is work, people will do it.  This notion of being taken for a ride by “those on the dole” really comes down to a fear based outlook on life and not one of  faith.

It is certainly not tied to any of our spiritual values or a sense of community or service.  As an example, last year, the Christian Science Monitor ran an item on foreign correspondent Walter Rodgers.  He had spent several decades in countries that have national health insurance.  Once his family was involved in a car accident in Great Britain and his son spent six weeks in a hospital with a badly broken leg.  Although Rodgers wasn’t actually living in the country at the time, all the bills were paid by the British National Insurance System.  The hospital charged him only$35.- for a crutch his son needed to hobble aboard a plane. 

This is charity that extends beyond the border of you and your immediate circle of loved ones.  This is the altruism that makes for a kinder, gentler world.  The kind of Kingdom here on earth that many go to church to proclaim, but don’t see the irony between their proclamations and their deeds. In the gospel of Luke, there is a passage which states, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” We here, in the United States, have been given so much.  In that, lies responsibility.  Responsibility to our neighbors and our fellow citizens. 

I often hear that expression “There but for the grace of God, go I” for a number of reasons and situations.  I myself have thought it, while walking by a homeless woman in the city, obviously in the throes of mental illness.  None of us are immune.  The story of the health care given to a guest of Great Britain, reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  If you saw a person struck by a car stuck in a ditch at the side of the road, would you ask: “Are you an American or just visiting, are you an illegal immigrant, do you have health coverage?”  Or would you just want to help?  We should let compassion and human values be our guide. To be truly proud to be a citizen of the United States of America, we need to know that The United States is actually acting on the words of liberty and justice for all.

Book of the Day: Any Bible, “Gospel of Luke”, Chapter 10, verses 25-37

Going over to a man left beaten on the side of the road by bandits, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, “Take care of this man.  If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.” Jesus said that this Samaritan was truly a neighbor to this man, for he was the one who showed him mercy.

An Addendum: Spiritual Food

After my March 21st musings, I happened to be reading the March 9th issue of The Christian Century and just thought you might find this item interesting and apropos as even our popular culture is effected by religious practices.

Pretzels, Welch’s grape juice and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches each have a religious connection.  Pretzels were the invention of a 7th century Italian monk as an incentive for children to memorize scripture (the shape reminscent of a child with his arms folded in prayer). Welch’s grape juice was developed by a 19th century dentist because he thought fermented wine was inappropriate for communion.  McDonald’s created the Filet-O-Fish sandwich at the request of a franchise in Cincinnati who noticed that Friday sales were down in that largely Catholic city (mentalfloss.com).

Apple Pie Can Be Spiritual

Visiting the grocery store this time of year, one can’t help but notice the boxes of matzos (unleavened crackers) that line the shelves of end aisles, a reminder to Jew and non-Jew alike that Passover has arrived.  Most of us know that this “bread” made without yeast is a reminder of the haste with which the Israelites had to flee from Egypt during the Exodus. They simply did not have time to wait for the yeast to rise to bake bread for the journey. 

And then, I was thinking, about how much food is not only directly tied to our religious traditions, but our own particular family celebrations, and our culture’s collective memory. When you come to think of it, food has not only the ability to sustain us physically, but to feed our spiritual selves as well.   

My family of origin has been in the Northeast since the mid nineteenth century… a loud, slightly off kilter band of intelligent, fun loving but devout Irish Catholics whose gatherings always included “spirits” of some kind or another, and lots of hearty, but not so heart friendly FOOD!  Salad, until recently, was an exotic afterthought. 

We’re talking roast beef, oven roasted potatoes that brown a bit on the sides, buttered green beans, buttered carrots, actually sticks of butter in just about everything we ate.  Apple pie, cinnamon rolls, and profiteroles (with homemade fudge sauce) just about every Sunday.  My Granny always “did” dessert.  In fact, she was so well known for her perfection in the art of pie crustery, I actually asked for one of her pies during my epic first childbirth….little did I know that was not going to be such a great idea!

How I loved to sit with my mind and soul pleasantly lulled with that warm and fuzzy afterglow of feasting and listen to my uncles argue about football or religion or tell outrageously politically incorrect jokes. Or if my cousins insisted, I would slink my body down to the paneled basement where there was ping pong and privacy from the adults.  Sunday was not so much a day of rest for our family, but a way for the generations to be together in the profound way that only sharing a meal provides.  

Listening to the stories of my friends and their Italian aunties who brought their own Lemoncello or women who watched their Nana lay out the phyllo sheets for her Baklava, I always hear affection, wistfulness, and a sense of  connection.  Likewise, I feel that sense of togetherness in our larger community in our national celebration of Thanksgiving.  While households may differ on the menu, there is comfort and a sense of identity amidst the turkey and gravy, the stuffing and pumpkin pie. 

I would love to hear from you and a memory of a meal or a food that just makes you go “ahhh.”

You know, it may be one that gives you a sense of communion with those around you, like my Granny’s Sunday dinners.  Or, it could be that first cup of coffee that you look forward to each morning, a daily ritual signaling the start of a new day.

Book of the Day (forgot to add as I was traveling): Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

                                                                           Quote from the Book of the Day: “Teenagers like sweets best of all, and that year I discovered the secret of every experienced cook: desserts are a cheap trick.  People love them even when they’re bad.  And so I began to bake, appreciating the alchemy that can turn flour, water, chocolate, and butter into devil’s food cake and make it disappear in a flash…Boys, in particular, seemed to like it.”

Hot Season

There are times when the sun is shining and there are grateful breezes, yet the soul is suffering a hot season.  A sticky, humid sadness rises relentlessly to the surface and the human instinct is to turn away.  Even for me, one who has been preaching about holding and accepting the whole catastrophe of life for a long time now, whether it be the cool peace of good fortune or the disorienting blows of inevitable loss and change, I too am often caught by surprise. 

How prepared are any of us when a loved one dies, a child gets sick, a relationship ends, or we face our own mortality? Would anyone ever want to enter willingly into these spiritual deserts?  At first, our psyche gives us the anesthetic of denial.  Running is usually involved in this, either literally or figuratively, and can include drinking, eating, shopping, sleeping, or any other number of means of escape. The sense of needing to flee is intense.  But all matter of not looking at reality, no matter how effective, are temporary salves,  just shock absorbers.  Sooner or later, we need to become ready, to the best of our ability, to sit with those feelings that seem too hot to hold. 

This is the well-worn course to weather difficult times. Some Buddhists call this “relaxing with what is”, allowing pain, grief, and sadness an open vessel (us) to have their way sort of speak.  We learn to inquire into those emotions, describing what they feel like in the body, in a detached a way as possible.  Feeling our feelings, but not judging them. Allowing space for all sorts of internal experiences to be here, now.  I mean they’re here anyhow. If tears come, let them. Panic arises, we stay with it… spiritual warriors present to the storm.  Not trying to do away with any of it, not forcing our pain to pass quickly. We can continue to attempt to skip the process, but areas of our lives which we avoid have an uncanny way of repeating themselves in different guises until we learn.  We are beginning to discover a way to walk barefoot on the burning sand paths of our life’s journey.

 I say beginning, because each new day, every present moment is a chance to practice.  We may still run to our chosen addictions, from time to time, but we are more aware of what we are doing.  We are more able to be comfortable in our discomfort, to allow for ambiguity without immediately seeking resolution.   

Book of the Day When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron 

Quote from The Book of the Day: “When we have reminders of death, we panic. It isn’t just that we cut our finger, blood begins to flow, and we put on a Band-Aid.  We add something extra-our style.  Some of us just sit there stoically and bleed all over our clothes. Some of us get hysterical; we don’t just get a Band-Aid, we call the ambulance and go to the hospital.  Some of us put on designer Band-Aids.  But whatever our style is, it’s not simple.  It’s not bare bones.”

“Can’t we just return to the bare bones?  Can’t we just come back?  That’s the beginning of the beginning… Come back to square one, just the minimum bare bones.  Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time- that is the basic message.”