NOTICING

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the time you are just not noticing? For instance, you are driving to the grocery store or to work (both of which you have done a million times), and not remembering when you arrive how you got there.  Just traveling on auto pilot, or absorbed in a phone conversation, you have missed the ride. Perhaps you think, “I’ve done this trip so often I could do it in my sleep!” And guess what? In a very real way, you are!  Conscious but not truly awake. 090514a127_2780 (1)

Our daily tasks of necessary repetition and ritual, whether it brewing the coffee, throwing in another load of laundry, walking the dog, become so automatic that these activities become the things we do between the times we actually are doing something that we are fully engaged in and are aware of.  The unfortunate thing is, if we add up all of these moments each day, we are actually “checked out” for a solid portion of our life.

You may recall the internet sensation a few years ago, where participants were asked to watch for how many times three white shirted basketball players came onto a scene. A shocking fifty percent missed seeing a person in a gorilla suit sauntering in, pumping his chest.  Even when looking right at him!  This phenomenon, coined “inattentional blindness” has been demonstrated time and again.

In Smithsonian (Sept. 2012), psychologist Christopher Chabris and journalist Mark Strauss set up an experiment where participants were told to jog behind a man and record how many times he touched his hat. As they jogged, they ran by a staged fight where two men were savagely beating a third man.  In broad daylight, 45% missed the altercation entirely and at night, that number rose to 65%. trapeze artist

We become so focused on what we think we need to see or so confident of what we know is there that nothing has the ability to enter.

While anthropologists posit that there is indeed an upside for why we have this ability to filter attention–specifically the benefit of being able to disregard distractions while trying to focus on a task, it appears we have become too proficient.

The limitations of inattentional blindness are felt everywhere. Complicating this issue is the overloading distraction dumping at all times.  The myriad forms of instant communication continuously clamoring for our attention, leaving us breathless…and mind (less).

We feel the effects of our inattention in automobile accidents, addictions, rises in ADD/ADHD, and the rampant sense of isolation that occurs with the breakdown of intimacy and congeniality in all manners of relationships.  The lack of simple presence of attention leads to misunderstanding and disconnection, and this includes our relationships with ourselves.

But there is a way out, and it starts today, in the here and now.  The only time there is.  We can begin in this moment to begin to purposely notice.  We can purposely and voluntarily take mini breaks from our devices throughout the day.

We can pay attention to our breath and body as we enter our car on the way to the grocery store. We can take stock of our surroundings while driving.  We may discover a beautiful old home along the road that we never knew was there, all these years on this same path.  We could discover the cool breeze or warm sun on our face with our windows opened just a bit. Or we can simply marvel at how this car of ours gets us safely from one place to another .

In other words, there is nothing that is unworthy of our noticing.  All parts of our days can be enriched by our very presence.

photo_12481_20100214Gary Snyder, in his work The Practice of the Wild points powerfully to this:                                  

”All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality.  Reality-insight says…master the twenty- four hours.

Do it well, without self-pity.  It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning.

One move is not better than the other, each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition.

Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms.  Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick–don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.

Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path”- it is our path”.

 

 

 

 

FOLLOWING YOUR INTUITION

This summer, I went out to Northern California to attend a silent retreat for a week at the Spirit Rock Center.  There was a lot of guffawing from friends and family back East, about me being silent for a whole week.  I am a talker! A shamelessly fast talking flamboyant one at that….at times.  But I wanted to deepen my daily meditation practice, shake off the daily dust that was gumming up the works in my mind.  Image

Have you ever had that experience with records (yes, I’m dating myself), where something almost invisible to the naked eye gets caught in the grooves, the needle gets stuck, and you keep hearing the same few lines again and again?  Well, the daily little things of life were like those mites, stanching the flow of my inner voice, so I was only hearing it in bits and pieces. Hard to trust a voice with the annoying habit of repeating itself mid-sentence, with occasional volume amplification.

There were some persistent “gut feelings” I had been experiencing regarding major decisions on a particular work issue and the direction of a couple of close relationships. And it should be noted that I am an intuitive type, who has often acted on the sheer intensity of my perceptions. Still I wasn’t clear on how to respond.

In other words, I wasn’t sure if I could trust my intuition. I mean, what is intuition exactly?  Carl Jung said that intuition was “perception via the unconscious.”  He called it the right-brained ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning (left-brained activity).

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Checking one half of your brain at the door while making some of life’s most important decisions doesn’t seem, well, logical, right?

Well, not so fast. This is only partially correct.  They are different ways to know things and many kinds of knowledge. The knowing I was seeking was not why moths are attracted to light or why is it that my washing machine is shrinking everything lately, but self-knowledge and perhaps with that, wisdom.

All the great spiritual traditions, as well as the latest findings in the areas of neuroscience, have consistently demonstrated that awakenings or the ability to “see” clearly, occur during long periods of meditation and consistent daily meditation over a long period of time.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century Contemplative who sought to bridge Western and Eastern philosophies, said, “Without realizing it, life without (daily) meditation desensitizes us so that we can no longer perceive grace, listen to our inner voice, or receive intuition.”

After about day 3 into my retreat, sitting and walking and working in silence, my own innate capacity to glean right action was reawakened, reactivated. Through the task of ‘just’ being present in every moment (simple but not easy), clarity bubbled up naturally, without effort. The solutions I had struggled for meant great change and serious vulnerability for me. (Perhaps this was part of the reason for my reticence in looking deeply?)

This is what I “know.” We all have this intrinsic ability.  While we learn much about the world around us by others, this we discover experientially. Intuition is a combination of empirical data and a heightened sense of observation.  And while speculation and deduction have vital roles in many of our everyday decision making process, so does intuition.

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Abella Arthur said, “Intuition is like a slow motion machine that captures data instantaneously and hits you like a ton of bricks”. She called it, “Cutting through the thickness of surface reality.” It is the Sherlock Holmes approach to mindfulness. Others can share their opinions or guide us, and they can be valuable. Yet we do have the ability to know valid solutions to problems and decision-making. Our direct intuition will rarely fail us if we are tapping into a reservoir of experience combined with a conscious awareness. Trust yourself.

In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th BCE), “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”

SCIENCE AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

dreamstime_13267733It is human to crave certainty.  Especially as people find themselves feeling less and less safe in a world where senseless violence occurs randomly, indiscriminately. People seek out messages that promise salvation, that give unwavering answers to their ultimate questions of the whys and hows and meanings of life.  With underlying fear serving as a primary motivator, it is any wonder that many major faiths perceive any conflicting idea as a threat to their “proclaimed truth” that must be squelched?

And yet the world is an uncertain place.  Immature religion makes specific promises to those who follow blindly and there are many takers.  But a faith that believes that our current knowledge is not complete, but is continually being revealed, takes the greatest leap and reaps the greatest reward.   It is Religion that knows that Science is not at odds with its practice. Instead of a penchant for polarizing, splitting our thoughts into atoms of absolute truth or fervent absolutism, we can know that we all hold only partial truth and we all but “see in a mirror darkly”.  Instead of a world view that smacks of self-righteousness, forming our views of what is right and what is wrong on either the most rigid religious beliefs or the latest scientific discovery, we can find God in science and science in God.

Full MoonAmong the many discoveries made by the Hubble telescope in the last decade is that there is considerably “more” to the universe than scientists had previously believed.  I mean a lot more.  It is expanding.  And this expansion is happening at increasingly faster rates as time passes.  Twenty years ago, scientists posited that there were two galaxies for everyone alive. Now, that figure is closer to nine galaxies for each of us or about eighty billion galaxies total.  Each of these  galaxies harbors at least one hundred billion suns.  In our galaxy, the Milky way, there are four hundred billion suns-give or take 50 percent-or sixty-nine suns- for each person alive.planetearth

One more mind bender: according to the Hubble European Space Agency, cosmologists estimate that what we can “see” in our universe accounts for only about 15 to 20 percent of the “matter” that is actually out there.

These astronomical statistics affirm a spiritual sense of awe in the vastness and mystery in which we live, direct my daily personal concerns with a backdrop of perspective, and strengthens my firm belief in the perpetual power of creativity from the single cell organism to the complexity of several billion galaxies.

I don’t know about creating the universe in 6 days and resting on the 7th, literally speaking.  I do know that it has provided structure for thousands of years to millions of Jews and Christians, satisfying the human need to know how we began and ingeniously giving a rhythm to life.  When Darwin shook up this notion of our origins, what remained was still the hand of order and amazing adaption.

I have a dear friend who believes that the scientists today are the true theologians.  That those devoting their lives to finding out when life as we know it exactly began, that singular occurrence, and how it happened, they are trying to solve the mystery of why we are here, how we came to be here.  How come something, rather than nothing?

This is no dichotomy of science and religion, but a thinking, open-hearted spirituality. Both are true.  “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

 

 

The Gift of your Gaze: Do Not Turn Away

To those of you that have written over the past week asking me to respond to the horrific tragedy in Newtown, CT, I had no words. Today, all I can give you is what’s in my heart this morning.

It seems impossible to sing songs of Christmas cheer or hold unsullied the hope of new light coming in from the darkness when twenty babies and six of their caretakers are now incomprehensively taken from their families, their communities, from us.  We have all wept with them.  Nothing seems enough, nothing.  As a person whose work is ministerial, I have asked myself the question, “How does one console those who are beyond consoling?”  We can bring food, hold prayer services and vigils, raise money for good works to emerge, write notes.  These are all vital and give our bodies something to do to relieve their own sense of powerlessness. And then we can cry some more. What we can do for those beyond consoling is to be sad beyond comprehension, with them, as best we can; and not to turn away because it is too sad for us.                                                                           

I have thought over these last days that if somehow cosmically, we could, each of us, line up and take a day; to take a day to bear the grief for the mothers and fathers, so that perhaps for an infinitesimal moment or two, their heaviest of burdens could be lessened. They could have a few free breathes of blessed rest. To say and mean, wholeheartedly, let me bear your grief for today, I will stay in bed and rock with primal pain for your baby, I will remember their laugh, their disdain for broccoli, their dancing eyes, I would do that. Then tomorrow, my friend, my neighbor would. If only this could be so.

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Enough please with the current mantra, about being spiritual but not religious.  Enough. Religion means that which binds us together.  Being human binds us together. Being human IS religious.  What you suffer, I too suffer.  We are all on this planet, in this together.

This unspeakable crime speaks to me today of isolation.  Yes, in some ways, the internet, social media and 24 hour news cycles can and do help us in this regard.  They keep us connected when disasters, natural and human- made strike. We, in the broader community can quickly respond, and in some necessarily immediate ways.  In addition, email, texting, Skype, and the like enable us to communicate with friends, family, and acquaintances when we can’t get to see them in person.   

But nothing replaces real time human interaction.  Nothing. In close knit communities, we know lots and lots about other people’s business. Sometimes too much. Yet still in our overly activated culture, where we are driven to distraction at times, there is too much suffering in silence, in isolation.  Those that are continuing bullied by the “popular” kids , who then commit suicide.  Those who are feeling alienated, because of sexual orientation or that they “just don’t fit it”, or for a host of other reasons, they are considered the other. 

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We can change some of this through education and acceptance.  But nothing beats looking someone in the eyes and taking a moment to actually SEE THEM.  Nothing is better than a real visit to your neighbor to find out how her son in Oregon is feeling from his cancer treatments, to see her eye to eye.  This is when we begin to know and notice when things are not OK.  While we may not be able to heal a situation, maybe would catch a storm brewing, maybe.  Our places we have historically built community are shrinking, and we can change that.  Our perennial busy-ness leaves us forgetting to look up, to actually notice the person serving our food, or that our kid came home melancholy from school yesterday, we can change that.   

As to the issues of gun control and mental health that this tragedy has brought into our national consciousness:

Perhaps now our country will give more than lip service to the insane lack of gun control, with still no ban on automatic weapons, continuing paltry at best background checks on individuals who can purchase guns like getting milk at the grocery store.  Where powerful lobby groups, like the NRA, whose answer to the tragedy is more gunmen at schools to protect the children!  Really?! The second amendment of the United States Constitution, the right to bear arms, was written only a decade after the Revolutionary War ended, when the memory of soldiers walking into the sanctity of citizen’s homes without warrant, to take any of their possessions, including the honor of their women, was still fresh. The genius of our Constitution is that it was written is such a way that allows for us to amend the amendments…for the inevitable changes of a country evolving.

Mental Health- Perhaps now the woefully inadequate, overburdened and underfunded mental health system, with dedicated and overworked, caring professionals will be given the priority and attention it so desperately needs. Among the challenges to be tackled, so evident here, is to make sure we can keep safe (for as long as is needed) in hospitals and group homes, those who, because of severe psychosis and other serious disorders, are a danger to themselves and others.   

While we work, while we play, while we wait, we can do what we can.

We can look someone in the eyes today, the overworked cashier at the mall, the guy who pumped your gas, and say thank you, smile, look them in the eyes, and ask them how they are doing today… and mean it.    

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Nun Tuck's Almanac

10. Gospel– This word almost always refers to writings about the life of Jesus, more specifically, the canonical writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Its original meaning however is much more broad.  It literally means “good news”.  Now for many of us these writings of the New Testament are indeed good news.  Yet, for others, it could be the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the works of Maria Rainer Rilke or the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In other words, what is good news to you, that you use to build your life around.  What is your gospel?  

9. Heretic– The Roman Catholic church has, over the centuries, given this word a new definition.  Its current definition means those who hold unorthodox or controversial beliefs or opinions which differ from that of the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, in its original form, the word, from its Greek roots “hairetikos” to its Latin and…

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MORE PETER PAN PLEASE

In this summer of Batman and Spiderman, of taking down the bad guys while sporting a costume with coordinating tights; I’m putting in my two cents for Peter Pan.

No, it’s not his leafy green tunic and tights, his Robin Hood cap, or devil-may care attitude. If this were a fashion contest, Peter definitely would have been ‘voted off the island’.

He’s not even a super hero. 

But he can fly.  And the ability lies not in his costume or a molecular mutation in his DNA, but in the power of his imagination.  Peter Pan can fly because he believes he can.  And this power is not limited to him.  Beyond the magic of Neverland, in a REAL children’s nursery in London, he demonstrates to Wendy, John, and Michael Darling how they can fly. He teaches them to think “lovely, wonderful thoughts.”

This notion lies deeper than sheer willpower and the strength of positive thinking. What children so often have in abundance is unfettered faith combined with unencumbered creative impulses. They can hitch their wagon to a star, make castles out of sand, and a feast of bread and butter.

Peter Pan symbolizes this childlike wonder, its power and draw. Peter embodies, literally embodies, eternal youth. 

  

And it is not a world without peril.  Dangers lurk in many corners and take many forms. Peter and the Lost Boys are able to stave off many a doom by using their wits and imagination.  Evil is personified in the ever pursuing angry and vengeful Captain Hook. His long metal claw for an arm and his booming commands to “walk the plank” left me petrified as a kid.

 I can remember a recurring nightmare from which upon waking, I was certain that I still saw Captain Hook leering at me from the hallway in his full pirate regalia. It was even more frightening as I couldn’t get up and get past him to awaken my parents in their room to alert them, in case I were to be taken away, never to be seen or heard from again.    

Luckily, I grew out of that dream.

Of course, with the wisdom of years, we all come to know (hopefully), the limitations of never growing up. But Peter Pan reminds us to not give up our child’s eye in the process.  Children keep wide their vision of what’s possible, adventure can be found in a backyard and dreams can be solid fodder.  The darkness doesn’t overwhelm forever.  Peter Pan, unlike our favorite super heroes, it not a savior.  He is not rescuing us from the dark night.  He rather provides a way of seeing, a way to pierce through and around the darkness.           

Quote for the day: “I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” – Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17

AN ELYSIAN LIFE

There are moments in mid summer, with senses fully engaged, with nature profligate, that my heart lifts to heaven, being right here and right now.    

Having just trod the trails around Walden Pond with my eldest daughter, I felt a kindred spirit with that guest of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau, who said, “The summer, in some climates, makes possible to man some sort of Elysian Life.”

Elysium or the Elysian Fields was a glorious playing ground in the afterlife.  This special heaven, envisioned by the ancient Greeks, evolved through oral legend and was  mapped out specifically in poems and stories from Pindar to  Homer’s Odyssey

Pindar described it as a place with many shaded parks, where people could enjoy their favorite musical and athletic activities, without striving.  An Endless Summer.

Known to Homer, Elysium was located on the Islands of the Blessed, located at the far west of the end of the earth, those related to the gods or chosen by them, the heroic, and the righteous would live a happy and carefree life surrounded by nature, enjoying many of the things they enjoyed in their past life. No storms, bitter cold, or heavy toil.

Thoreau in Walden, pleads his case for simplicity and less striving for enjoying a bit of Elysium right where you are.  It is no coincidence that in the same passage he speaks of an Elysian life, he also points to the observation that  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them”.  

There are many who have said that he was an eccentric elitist, with a bachelor’s ability to philosophize and experiment.  But that would not be the whole story.  He knows that some that are reading his arguments are factory workers and those barely scraping by, and to these, he offers words of encouragement.

Rather his wrath, as it were, was saved for the middle and upper classes of Boston and Concord societies, who continue to need more and more luxuries and extravagances and in order to get them , have less and less time to enjoy the birds on the water in the early morning or the loveliness of the woods.  Essentially, he was the town prophet living on the outside of town, declaring the delusion of need. 

If possible, for perhaps a half hour or so even, you could step outside and walk or sit or notice.  You can be a master of industry in the morning. 

Quote for today: “I thank you God for this amazing day, the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” – e.e. cummings