Releasing the obsession with possession is a me-hugging idea

churchill-giving-quote1Pope Francis’s latest tough-love sting was against people who are too wrapped up in consumerism, at the cost of our spiritual individual and collective lives.

We live in a world that is always more artificial, in a culture of ‘making,’ of ‘profit,’ where without realizing it, we exclude God from our horizon…
Often today, giving freely is not part of daily life, where everything can be bought and sold, where everything is calculated and measured — Pope Francis, March 5, 2014
Instead of keeping balance sheets in the heart, he tells us that the best way to give is to not expect anything in return.  This way, he said, people can free themselves “from the obsession of possession, from the fear of losing what we own, from the sadness of those who do not want to share their well-being with others.”

He tells us that the downside of not just having stuff, but loving our stuff, costs more than cash or credit because it’s taxed with our peace of mind.  Once you have stuff, you invite fear–fear of losing it, fear of having it taken.  We have to be on alert and vigilant.  Maybe even anxious.  Perhaps that’s why so many people think back nostalgically to times when they had nothing, but were happy.  I remember when my husband and I were just married, we had very little.  We were leaving for the day shortly after moving into our first place, and I asked him, “Shouldn’t we lock the door?”  To which he responded, “Nah, if a robber came in, he’d probably feel sorry for us and leave us a buck.”

I got no lock on the door
That’s no way to be
They can steal the rug from the floor
That’s OK with me
Cause the things that I prize
Like the stars in the skies
All are free!
–I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin, George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess

So excessive attachment to our stuff causes us to be fearful.  Pope Francis also talks about the sadness obsession with possession brings, because being preoccupied with our stuff cuts us off from others.  We become territorial.  We develop a “what’s mine is mine” mentality, and to protect what’s mine, like every toddler, we become little watchdogs to prevent others from getting too close.  It’s a zero-sum game.   If they get, I lose.

Well, actually, some say it’s not a zero-sum game.   When I share or when I give, I don’t lose.  I gain.  Who says so?  Well, the Bible for one, which instructs us to give our first one-tenth to God.  And what does that do?  It makes us prosper.  It makes US prosperous.  And this is not just a woo-woo idea by a New Age author or a biblical scholar.  George Clason says in the classic prosperity book, The Richest Man in Babylon.  Modern-day financial guru David Bach teaches the same in his blog:

This notion—that the more we give back to others, the more comes back to us—is not simply a religious doctrine; it is virtually a law of nature. If you are looking to attract more wealth and happiness into your life, the fastest way I know how is to give more.

He said it–it is a law of nature.  We are hard-wired to share.  It makes us feel good, and somehow a flow is generated by giving that acts like a boomerang–it all comes back to us with more.   Obsession with stuff=sad; Sharing=glad!    Plus, a side benefit of letting go of obsession with possession is that by buying less, you are minimizing the impact of all this stuff on our air, land, and water.

In short, sharing, giving, and anti-consumerism may sound like a tree-hugging idea, but it is really a me-hugging idea.

How do we know if we are obsessed with our stuff?   Good question.  Richard Foster, in his book Freedom of Simplicity, offers a simple way to find out.   He says to start by just giving something away.   Not that ugly shirt you got for Christmas.  Give away your favorite shirt.   Just for the fun of it.  Examine your feelings when you do.     Frankly, as for me, way too often when I think about releasing many of my own possessions I feel exactly like that young man in the New Testament that turned away sad after Jesus proposed to him that his possessions may be coming between him and his spiritual yearnings.   Like him, I’ve already flunked the entrance exam.

We have, for the past several decades, established the paradigm that progress is measured in GDP.  Outward upward mobility is more important than inward upward mobility.   But we are seeing that there is a hangover that comes with the addiction to stuff.  We are seeing many symptoms of a sick society, and it’s nothing a little more sharing, a little less hoarding couldn’t cure.

I remember a book I read in grammar school about a dad who gave his son and daughter each their own garden to tend.  Each child started with the same size plot of land and the same number of flower seeds.  Both gardens grew and flourished.   One day the boy decided to cut some flowers for his teacher; his sister didn’t want to deprive herself of the beautiful blooms she had cultivated.  One day the boy decided to cut some flowers for the elderly neighbor; again, the sister didn’t want to share the flowers–she was enjoying them too much.  The boy continued to cut his flowers and give them away; the girl continued to keep them for herself.

Anyone who knows anything about gardening knows exactly what happened.  The boys garden soon was prolific in its blooms–because every flower cut yielded at least two more.  The girl’s garden unfortunately just went to seed and languished.   The moral of the story if obvious.  Who had the prettiest garden now?

Some people, proponents of the gift economy like Charles Eisenstein, are suggesting that maybe we see that this story is not just a parable about a family garden–but perhaps the concepts are true on a global scale.  Perhaps we dismantle some of the economic dogmas that are proving to be counter-productive, such as the idea that hoarding money–when our brothers are in need and when our resources are being decimated–might bite us in the butt very soon.  Maybe we have to redefine progress on an individual level, and then scale that up to local and global models of economic development.

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.  –C.S. Lewis

Why aren’t there more footprints in the snow?

footprintIt snowed in the Northeast last weekend, as everyone knows.   We got a decent amount of snow, but not too much to handle.

I took Nessie out this evening for her walk, and I happened to notice that there was only one other set of footprints in the snow out in the park, back by the creek where we routinely take her.  Maybe they were a neighbor’s–more likely they were my husband’s from when he took Nessie out yesterday.

I live in a suburb with hundreds of homes surrounding this little suburban oasis of a park.  But, with all those homes, there were no other footprints in the snow.   I don’t get it.

The woods were beautiful this evening–smokey grey and looking not unlike a Japanese pen-and-ink drawing.  The snow-protected creek bubbled with clean, clear, cold water.   The duck entourage quacked while navigating their way down the waterway.  And I couldn’t believe that perhaps I was the only witness.

The walkway into the park had been cleared by the township.  Perhaps the other dog walkers took that less-soggy route.  What a shame that we’ve moved so far from natural life that we think we should only walk on the cleared tarmac, and that we must avoid wet crunch of the snow and the icy, crackling, canopy of the woods.

Not Just Any New Year: the 60th Anniversary of Peace Pilgrim’s first step

This is the way of peace:  Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.–Peace Pilgrim

60 years ago today, Peace Pilgrim stepped out to walk her walk and her talk of Peace.  I first learned of her in 1999, and was immediately drawn to her simplicity of purpose, and the joy in non-attachment she had.

She was a woman who walked well over 25,000 from coast to coast spreading her own rendition of the Golden Rule and living a life of peace and simplicity.  Her message is so basic and pure, uncluttered by religious dogma, nationalism, or any other –ism, I have become deeply inspired by it.  Love is The Thing.  Typically, so many things clutter up that message.  But she simply got rid of all those other things in her own life and was left with the Big Thing.

Here is an NPR article about her in honor of the 60th anniversary of her first step.

Here is the Friends of Peace Pilgrim Facebook page.

And here is the full text of Steps to Inner Peace.  I have several copies of this little booklet, which I try to give out when I can.  This is a short post, but I would rather you read her words directly.

Happy New Year, and may this year be a year of peace for all.

In order for the world to become peaceful, people must become more peaceful. Among mature people war would not be a problem – it would be impossible. In their immaturity people want, at the same time, peace and the things which make war. However, people can mature just as children grow up. Yes, our institutions and our leaders reflect our immaturity, but as we mature we will elect better leaders and set up better institutions. It always comes back to the thing so many of us wish to avoid: working to improve ourselves.– Peace Pilgrim

Internal Preparation for Lent: Living Deliberately

The sleeping loft in Innermost House

The prior blog posts about retirement may not seem to have much to do with Lent, but in a way, they are related.  They both have to do with withdrawing–in the case of retirement, you are withdrawing from the working world; in the case of Lent, you are  imitating Jesus’ withdrawal into 40 days in the desert. Both concepts are about preparation and readiness. Both concepts ask you to think about how you are living your life.

Every year I do something for Lent.  I find it to be a great spiritual discipline, and I always learn something about myself.  Even though learnings may be barely meaningful (hey, I really don’t mind coffee without sugar!), other learnings run deeper as we strain to listen with the ear of our heart, as I did last year when I lived for a few weeks in a beachside poustinia.

So, what to do this year?  I’ve given it a lot of thought, and this year I’ve been inspired by a few people who are represented in the following books or blogs:

See a connection there?  All have lived (or still live) close to the bone.   They all live or have lived below what the Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of the poverty line.   Yet, they call themselves rich in other ways.

Some people go that route to protest how we spend our taxes (like Jim Merkel and Dr. Jackie Benton). Some want to retire early, and so lived on a very small portion of their income (like Jacob Lund Fisker).  Some are in search of a deliberate life (like Thoreau, Diana Lorence, the Nearings). And every time I read their stories, their philosophies, and their experiences, I’m both inspired and jealous.

So, this Lent  I plan to take on some of the practices of the people above, recognizing that it’s impractical and overambitious to just jump into their lifestyle from my vantage point of a typical mortgage-owning, business-owning habitant of suburbia.    But I am going to try to inch closer to the mindset of those who have chosen this path.   Internally, I will practice detachment and mindfulness.

It is a crime against life to not be constantly aware of the natural blessings and challenges of life.  Yet we make it hard on ourselves to do that because of the layers of mental and spiritual clutter we’ve heaped on top.  It’s like going to a banquet table and the filet mignon is hidden under a pile of Cheez Doodles.  OK, I’m vegetarian, so that’s not the best analogy for me.  So, let’s say living mindlessly is like passing violinist Yo Yo Ma in a subway station on the way to work.   You can’t really hear the divine strains of music because of the screeching of the trains and the bustling of the crowds.   And you’re not even paying attention because you’re busy going somewhere else:  sadly, you walk right by. Anam Thubten’s book, No Self, No Problem, is one of my nightstand books, and this is his analogy:

If we want to create space in a room and we begin by bringing in a lot of things from outside of the room, it will not work out.  The room will become stuffed with junk.  So how are we going to create space?  We should begin by just getting rid of things.  We simply get rid of all the junk.  Get rid of all the things that are not necessary.  In the same way, to bring about contentment we need a consciousness that is like creating space.  It’s not about having more, accumulating more. Rather it is about letting go of this and that.  When we let go of everything we see that the space we wanted to create is already there.  In the same way, inner contentment is already there and that is true happiness.  There is no enlightenment other than that.

The only thing I would add here, from a Lenten perspective, letting go and creating space also puts us in readiness mode to transform and transcend suffering and sorrow; makes us more able to make sorrow redemptive; helps us see that we can love the sorrow as much as the joy because both are parts of living and being. So for me, Lent will be an effort to cut down on the meaningless and pay attention to the meaningful.   Be more detached from thoughts and possessions.  Be more mindful, awake and aware.  Instill daily practices to support that.

Next Post:  External Preparation for Lent:  Giving Deliberately

iPhone: How do I use thee? Let me count the ways

This post is a little out of character for me–my posts are all much about very low-tech subjects.  But since this blog is about being astonished and telling about it, I feel compelled to talk about one of the astonishing accomplishments of a person who accomplished his mission of “putting a dent in the universe.”

I, like so many others, have spent time over the past few weeks examining the achievements of Steve Jobs since he died in October.  So many friends of mine talked of actually having cried when he died–it was almost like when John Lennon died.  But Steve Jobs was not a rock star in the literal sense of the word.  In fact he was in many ways what the Occupy protesters are protesting:  the head of a huge corporation that made billions, and who knew instinctively how to make money (one case in point, talking Steve Wozniak into NOT giving away his early technological achievements back when they were both part of the Homebrew Computer Club).

What so many of us actually grieved for was the loss of the person who had such passion for his creations that he changed the lives of each one of us, and that sounds hyperbolic, but it is the truth.  I, for one, found out about his passing on my iPhone, and then used my MacBook to read the news in greater depth.  In a weird way I felt that this very fact connected us as if we were some kind of technological distant cousins.  Uncle Steve was gone.

The inspiration for this post was this:  I was at a job just last week in which a quick snapshot was called for of the notes that were up on the dry-erase board our team was using, so I reached for my iPhone, saying to my client, it seems these days if you a phone, you don’t need anything else.

So, that got me thinking about how true that actually was, based on how I use my iPhone:

  1. 6:00am:  I wake up early to work on a report, using my iPhone’s alarm.  I’ve chosen a soft, soothing ring, like “Harp” because I’m home and if I oversleep, no big deal.  But if I’m on the road and need to get up for an early meeting, it might be “Piano Riff” or “Xylophone”–much ruder, but much less likely for me to sleep over it.  No more calling the hotel desks for a wake-up call.
  2. 7:30am: I’ve worked on my report for an hour and half and now Nessie is looking to go for a walk.  I wonder if I need a hat, so I check the weather app–43 degrees. Iffy.  I grab the hat.
  3. 7:45am:  While I’m on the walk I see a turtle cross the path by the creek, so I take a picture with the camera, upload it to Facebook.  The rest of the time I listen to my iPod:  some music, and a daily Podcast by
  4. 7:50am:  Done with the walk, so I check my calendar to see what meetings I have.
  5. 7:55am:  I read the daily Liturgy of the Hours readings on my Universalis app
  6. 8:15am:  I catch up on my finances.  I check in with Mint and input transactions from the day before to my YouNeedABudget app.  Mint reminds me I have a bill to pay today.
  7. 8:45am:  After breakfast and 20 minutes of yoga I log my meal and excercise on my MyFitnessPal app.I really want to get that report done, so I use my TaskTimer app, which is like a stopwatch, which is great for me because I tend to get distracted very easily.  But when I use the TaskTimer, I know I’ve pledged myself to 45 minutes of straight work.  Amazing what you can get done in 45 minutes of concentrated work.
  8. 11:30am:  At lunchtime I’m meeting a friend for lunch at a restaurant I haven’t used before, so I can either use my map app, which came with the iPhone, or I can use the more GPS-like AT&T Navigator.  In this case, because I have to drive and there seem to be a lot of turns, I go with the AT&T Navigator.  On the way, I listen to my iPod.
  9. 12:05pm My friend is a little late, so I read some of my book on my Kindle app.  Surprisingly, it reads very well, considering the screen is so small.  I sync it with my Kindle purchases, and the bookmarks always are in sync.   Or I could play a little Tetris.
  10. 12:10pm Also while I’m waiting, I check my blog stats on my WordPress app.
  11. 12:30pm  At lunch my friend hasn’t seen my kids in a while, so I show her the photos on my phone.  We also talk about the hardships of traveling, so I pull up a really funny comic monologue on travel by comedian Brian Regan on YouTube.
  12. 1:10pm  After lunch, I check my email and voice mail in the car parking lot, and return a couple of urgent emails.  I can tell which ones to ignore–the ones that aren’t identified through my contacts.
  13. 2:00-5:00pm  The rest of the afternoon I spend at my computer doing assorted tasks, taking all my business calls on my iPhone.  Hardly ever use the landline.
  14. 5:30pm  I see a QR code for a magazine article I’m interested in, so I use the code scanner I’ve downloaded and get the article and a coupon to use on a shopping trip.  I save the article to Evernote.
  15. 6:00pm  On the dog’s evening walk, I check out movies on my Redbox app and reserve one for the evening.
  16. 7:00pm  After dinner, we check in with my son, using FaceTime.  (I actually hate FaceTime because I’ve seen myself on the reverse camera feature and it’s a pretty scary sight!  If they could only create an app with a gauze feature to soften those wrinkles).
  17. 10:00pm  And before bed, I want to say a rosary, but I can never remember those darned mysteries, so I pray using my Rosary app.  If only my grammar school principal, Sister Ellen Marie, could see me now!

So there it is:  17 ways to use the iPhone.  I could have added more, but that would have taken me to a different day, and I didn’t want to exaggerate the number of applications my iPhone has in a typical day.

I love it.   A clock, an alarm, a camera, an outdoor thermometer, a stopwatch, a navigator, a music player, a mail server, a breviary/rosary, an address book, a concierge, a filing cabinet, a TV, a movie screen, a motivational tool, a shopping assistant, a financial manager, AND, did I forget to mention, a full-featured telephone:  All this in one elegant pocket-sized package.

And that’s just the applications used in my tiny corner of the world.  Amazing.

How do you use the iPhone in YOUR world?

The Happy Hermit: Call it a retreat, a poustinia, or a Walden

I left home for six weeks, intentionally.  There are several reasons for this, but I’m not going to talk about those–I am going to talk about the experience.

My home-away-from-home is an off-season rental at the beach.  It’s chilly here, even though it’s early April.  It’s also quiet–vacationers won’t be here for another two or three months.  Only the die-hard beach-lovers remain, and the restaurants and gift shops that line the main street are open, but certainly just biding their time until the tourists hit.

Not many people take advantage of stepping back from their lives to examine them, yet I would highly recommend it.   As a mom and a wife and the owner of my own consultancy, I’ve lived nearly my whole life pulled and pushed by the urgent matters of the day.  I’ve tried to be available to the needs of those I love, and I certainly don’t regret it–I love that I have very special people who depend on me at times.

The last time I remember I had no such responsibilities was when I was in high school.  I went through high school like a kid in a candy shop.  I took art lessons, sewing lessons.  I acted in school plays and I cheered the football team.  I had caring friends, and I signed up for committee after committee.

As any grown-up will tell you, once you graduate from high school and college, and say “I do” and start having babies, the focus on you flies off like a hat in a tornado.  All of a sudden, it’s about your spouse, your children, your boss–an inevitability that’s not necessarily bad.  But if you are the kind of person that just becomes a sponge for the needs of others, you lose yourself, inevitably.

Then, if you’re like me, one day–decades later–you wonder who you are, actually.  You wonder if your actions still reflect your values.  It might manifest itself as a mid-life crisis for some, but for me, it’s about an inner pull to hold the conch up to the ear and listen to the heart.  At first all you hear is silence.  And that’s all you should hear.

I’ve been on one religious retreat.  I went with my husband for a few days at Weston Priory–a Benedictine monastery in Vermont.  They don’t have guided retreats or seminars.  Basically, they give you a room and a prayer schedule–they pray five times a day.  You join them for prayer, if you so choose, and also share their silent meals with them.  Then you go back to your room, where there is no TV, no traffic, no radio, no computer, no noise except for the noise in your mind that all of a sudden seems deafening in the absence of the distracting kind of noise.  My husband, an extrovert, admits that it was freaky to confront his own mind in this way.  I, an introvert, admit that, yes, it was freaky.  I thought I was used to solitude, but as it turns out, solitude is a relative term.  Just try sitting for hours in a room where the ringing in your ears is all you hear.

My goals on this sojourn to the beach were to reconnect with me.  To quiet myself down and listen to my Higher Power.  To maybe explore if my old creative ventures in sewing and art are worth salvaging.  To connect with others who will support my effort–like the nuns at Stella Maris who have many really cool events at their retreat house on the shore nearby.  I feel a little like Thoreau, and my goals for this experience are not dissimilar to his–even if I my methods were not quite as “Spartan-like”:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Catherine Doherty was a social activist and foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate, a pioneer of social justice and a prolific writer of hundreds of articles and books.  One of her best-known books is Poustinia.  A poustinia is a small, sparsely furnished cabin or room where one goes to pray and fast alone in the presence of God for 24 hours.  I haven’t done much fasting, but I’ve spent time praying and reflecting in this little sparsely furnished cottage, where I have just what I need, no more.

The good news about this poustinia concept is that according to Doherty, you don’t have to get away for six weeks like I did.  24 hours will do nicely.  So, I think when I go back home, I’ll make it a point to go to a poustinia from time to time–maybe once a season.   Because if I find myself on the rumble strip of my personal path, I want to be able to get back on the road before another couple of decades go by.

I think maybe poustinia was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit himself. Though I thought only of our staff, I guess the whole, wide world is hungry for God. For a place without noise. A silent place, for some solitude. Yes, the poustinias will grow in our land — all across its face, because there is within it a limit that man cannot cross. A limit to their ability to go without prayer. A limit to be without God. A limit to their ability to take noise. A limit to their ability to be always in a crowd. — Catherine Doherty

Spiritual Simplicity I: All-Acceptance

I have a Brita pitcher with the filter in the top.  When you run water through it, you can’t do it too quickly.  The top well fills up and then it slowly passes through the filter down to the pitcher.

I tend to fill up my brain with words too quickly and they spill over, uselessly, into the parts of my brain that throw the overload into the mental shredder.  Trying to better my life with nothing but words–words written by self-help authors, the Bible, popular meditations is like running the water full blast while the filter backs up and renders most of the words powerless.

When it comes to spiritual simplicity, the formula is probably one part words to five parts meditation.  The words need time to sift through the filter and drip, drip, drip into the pitcher of our spiritual cores, where they have been purified by our reflection to quench our spiritual thirst.

Last night I woke up in the  middle of the night.   I couldn’t fall back to sleep right away.  I don’t mind that, especially when the next day is a day off.  So I just went downstairs to get a cup of tea and play on the internet.

Having felt the spillover of words I’ve read recently and having sensed a great waste of potentially great ideas down the drain, I was resistant to continuing to try to fill the well.  So for the fun of it I googled “spiritual simplicity” which was what I felt I needed at the moment.    The google search uncovered a wonderful gem by a Buddhist contemplative, Reverand Master Daizui MacPhillamy.  Appropriately enough, it was a talk he had delivered in 2002 called “Spiritual Simplicity.”   It was just what I needed, and while I encourage downloading the pdf and reading it in its entirety, I’m going to try to cull it down a little and bring out the main points.  It will take a few blog posts to cover it.

The first point he makes is that spiritual simplicity is about accepting what is.  This finding was a synchronistic idea, as I recently read Byron Katie‘s Loving What Is.  The ideas are the same:  Not resisting what is is key to spiritual simplicity.  All-acceptance cuts out a lot of that mental clutter.  The monk quotes a poem written by Nyogen Sunsaki in 1946, following his release from  a Japanese internment camp in the US after World War II:

Like a snail, I carry my humble zendō with me.
It is not as small as it looks
For the boundless sky joins it
When I open a window.
If one has no idea of limitation,
He should enjoy real freedom.
A nameless monk may not have the New Year callers to visit him,
But the morning sun hangs above the slums.
It will be honorable enough to receive the golden light from the east.

Resistance to this all-acceptance of what simply IS comes in the form of wanting to make things happen. We want to control not just our lives, but sometimes the lives of others–those we know and sometimes those we don’t know, as in those with whom we have ideological differences.  Oddly, sometimes when we fail to control others, we even feel guilty about it.   Think of parents of adult children who still feel responsible for their lives.  Sometimes trying so hard to do what’s right, by trying to change people, actually leads to quite a bit of wrong.  At its extreme, the Monk says, it can lead to crimes against humanity.  The problem, he says, is:

When we try to force or manipulate or—I’m not quite sure of the word, a subtler word than those—influence others to view things in our way, why do we do that? Well, sometimes it comes from what we might call “hating what is wrong,” or not being able to stand what is wrong, and consequently really wishing to bring it to an end. Now where does that come from? Often, it comes from trying ever so hard to do what is right, what is good. And, although hating what is wrong may or may not be a familiar thing to you, simply trying very hard to do what is good is familiar. But spiritual simplicity is simpler than all that.

Sometimes resistance to acceptance is built on deeply ingrained fears that have been somehow hardwired into our brain from a young age.   I’ve heard that fear is a learned response that we acquire in childhood, which is why it is so hard to break with certain patterns.  With that, no matter how well you intellectually grasp a situation, your biology has you beat.  In that case, it takes a lot of work, a lot of commitment, to overcome the resistance to acceptance.  Your spirit is willing but your flesh is weak.   It requires just as much work to get your emotions out of that psychic rut as it does to drive your car out of a deep ditch.  I think once you know that you can get on with the work and not beat yourself up because you somehow can’t just muster up that good old laissez-faire.

What helps me see beyond my own fear of letting go is to recognize that I can’t see the whole elephant.  You can get all zen and learn to look at the suchness of things with no-mind, that’s great, but sometimes a person needs motivation.   A person needs to know why they should do the incredibly difficult work to overcome these primal fears and achieve all-acceptance.

And for me, that would be knowing that there is a reason for my walking this path.  I could endure suffering, and I could accept the unacceptable by recognizing that my little pea-brain simply is too limited to know what was to come of it.   “It’s God’s will” sounds like a cop-out to some people.   But for those with faith and all-acceptance, it means that we’re not on earth be in charge.  We’re on earth to work the divinity inside us moment by moment on the high wire of life and we’re not to look down.

Just as Paul McCartney sings in his masterpiece, “there will be an answer, let it be.”

Just as the Thirtieth Psalm says, “Weeping may endureth for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

Just as the Zen master Bankei said, quoted by Master MacPhillamy:

Abominating hell, longing for heaven, you make yourself suffer in a joyful world.  You think that good means hating what is bad.  What’s bad is the hating mind itself.  Good you say, means doing good.  Bad, indeed is the mind that says so.  Good and bad alike–roll them both into one ball, wrap it up in paper and toss it out.  Forget it all.  Notions of what one should be doing never existed from the start.  Fighting about what’s right, what’s wrong, that is the doing of the ‘I’.”

So we say fuggedaboutit; we say I accept it all–the good and the bad; we say whatever comes to us can wash over us because it comes from God and who are we to argue; we say I open my hands, dear God, and accept it all.

Home Sweet House: Voluntary Simplicity and Home Ownership

One of my favorite movies of all time is “House of Sand and Fog.”   To give credit to the author of the book upon which it was based, Andre Dubus III, I’m sure it’s a wonderful book, but I was introduced to this story through the movie, which starred Jennifer Connolly and Ben Kingsley.  Jennifer Connolly plays an alcoholic young woman, who, because she was simply irresponsible and not paying attention, lost her home to the bank.  Her father, whom she adored, had built that house, and it was all she had.  She had no family, no career, no relationships.

The person who bought her house was a military official who was ousted from Iran.   He was hoping to rebuild a life for himself, wife and teenage son.  The house appealed to him because, with the crow’s-nest type of deck he built on the roof of the house, he could see the ocean, which reminded him of the home he left behind on the Persian Gulf.

The meaning that this little wooden-framed home gave these two people was incredibly intense, and the drama and the plot of the story is driven by the memories and hopes of both the American girl and the displaced Iranian family.   It’s an incredible story.

It made me think of how important our homes are.  Not just the idea of “home” (where the heart is, so to speak), but the actual, physical, structure that serves as the setting of our life drama.  Most people want their own home.  The home might be a big one, a small one, a mobile one, or a multi-family one, but there’s something about the feeling that your home is YOUR castle.   It is an emblem of what you can do for your family in a very deeply-rooted sense.

While there are some simple-living people who abjur ownership of any kind, and who are happy to pay rent for the freedom it brings,  most have that primal yearning for a home of one’s own (which calls to mind another great movie with a similar theme:  A Home of Our Own with Kathy Bates).  Doesn’t  matter where you might be on the simplicity bandwagon.

I have been reading the works of Dorothy Day, that great American Catholic convert who is veering on beautification I believe.  She started out a socialist, thinking that politics were the way to class and socio-economic equality.  She came around to a belief in the power of the individual powered by Christian faith.  But even this one-time socialist and Christian activist took a windfall she got from the sale of a novel and bought a little cottage on the beach in Staten Island.

What is it that drives this need for the fistful of dirt that Scarlett O’Hara held up to the gods with a vow to “never be hungry again,” while her childhood home, Tara, glowed in the background?   The American Dream is built on the notion that each of us has the right to drive our stake in the ground, and protect it, with arms if necessary.

Yet, the property we own is really an illusion, in many ways.   Many families are certainly learning that now.  As they become upside down in their mortgages they  realize that they are still in their homes by the grace of Bank of America and their faith in their ability to continue paying the mortgage.   The Jews in Germany during the thirties and the bourgeoisie in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution learned that home ownership can be an illusion. There, the political climate shifted radically, and property deeds were suddenly not worth the paper they were written on.   And speaking of climate, just let a tornado rip through your town, or a a hurricane rip through the levees, and the home in which you may have lived your whole life will be a memory in a moment.

Home=security to most, and maybe that’s the draw to home ownership–even though it might be a false sense of security. Could you emotionally detach from your home if you had to?  If you were forced to leave, how would you react?  How hard would you fight for whatever it is that your home has come to mean?  At what cost?

Or maybe through a turn of events, or winds of change,  lies the lesson that the security we have built inside the four walls–the nest we call our own–is not what we think.   Maybe those walls–whether made of straw, wood, or brick–are as transient as sand and fog.  If we knew that to be true, how might we live our lives differently?

Infinite Riches in the Present Moment, on the Basketball Court and Elsewhere

The road sometimes seems endless, but deep looking at the magnificent sky can keep you in the moment

I haven’t had as much time to blog lately, because of work commitments.  A large part of my job is to go to different cities and interview people at 45-minute sessions.  These past few weeks I’ve had over 100 of these kinds of interviews to do.  Of course, I am so thankful for the work, which I love, but as you can imagine the interviews tend to get repetitive.

I used to get to about the 6th interview in the day and start counting ahead–“oh, good, only 4 more.”  But I have a different outlook now, because I’ve found a trick that works GREAT for pushing through when things start to get mundane.  When I’m on my 7th or 8th interview and I could be thinking about the glass of wine that I’ll be having in 3 hours, I focus completely on the person I’m speaking with.  I look deeply into their eyes and I hang on their every word.  In short, I put myself in the moment.    Doing so, I open myself up to chronic peak experiences.  And in truth, time ceases to exist.  There is no, “when will this day be over” or “can’t wait for that Cabernet!”  Those thoughts become irrelevant.

Wisdom along these lines recently passed through my hands by two very different people.  One was Norvene Vest, in her book, Desiring Life:  Benedict on Wisdom and the Good Life.   She refers to a quote by the contemplative writer de Caussade:  “the present moment holds infinite riches.”  I don’t know why, but that short phrase really stuck to me last week, and I found myself using it as a mantra of sorts.

The second person is the basketball player Michael Jordan.  I found this quote by him at the website Faith in the Workplace:

I’m trying to get in the proper frame of mind for another night in our 82-game regular season schedule. The key to being Mike during a game is to live in the exact moment of time. This means that I forget about whatever just happened prior to that moment, regardless of how I felt about it, regardless of whether what I did was perceived as good or bad. When I’m able to prepare myself, when I get in this “zone,” I have some of my most spectacular performances. Not only do I not remember anything that happened, I also don’t waste any energy thinking about what might happen in the future. When I play this way, at times I surprise myself with what I’m able to accomplish by staying focused in the moment.

So I look forward to my upcoming week of interviews, inspired by the words of Vest, deCaussade, and Jordan, ready to take the challenge of channeling the power of the present moment to enrich me and my work.

Now that it is 2010, I switched my calendar from my 2009 Thich Nhat Hanh calendar to the 2010 calendar that my son gave me for Christmas.  But before I threw out the old calendar, I pulled out one page–the page with the following:

Waking up this morning I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment

and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

Simple Home, Beautiful Home Part III: Keeping a home and a life

images-1The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.  Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation…”  –Henry David Thoreau

“…and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation.”

images-2The other day was a rainy one.  I had no particular urgent place to be, no particular desire to be anywhere else but home.  Cleaning the bathroom was on my to-do list and I started out in a usual cleaning pace, dashing around collecting the glass cleaner, the floor cleaner, the tub cleaner, the toilet cleaner and four different rags to use with them–sponge, paper towel, old terry towels, one small, one large. I yanked on my rubber gloves and went at with a vengeance.

Somewhere between the last sparkle on the pedestal sink and the first sweep of the floor, it occurred me that this was the kind of day that I could feasibly spend hours in the bathroom if I wanted to.  I didn’t have race through the chore to get anywhere, as I too often do.  I didn’t even have to race through it in order to get to something fun–what would that be, anyway?  A brain-dead hour in front of the TV?  A visit to the refrigerator to see if there’s any more Friendly’s Fudge Swirl?   I had already determined that this was going to be a slow, uncommitted day.

So, I slowed down, and committed myself to enjoying what I was doing at that moment.  After all, I had just gathered up the pile of dust and dog hair, and had begun swiping the grey-white tiles clean, and the result was beginning to delight me.    I was on my knees, hand-polishing the tiles in the small bathroom, and they were becoming almost mirror-like.  So I downshifted once more, enjoying the movement of the arc of my arm across the tile, the rhythm of my entire body against the immobile, cold floor, the emergence of the hand-wrought shine.

Housework for me is usually a necessary evil; and definitely not as necessary to me as it is to some.   Things have gone undone in my house far too often.  I think that part of the reason is that when the clutter meter starts to ding in my visual field, I mentally disconnect altogether, much like the circuit breaker in my house.  At that point, I simply don’t see what I should see.   At that point, cleaning becomes a low priority, as I involve myself in activities that are more alive in my brain.

But now I’m thinking that oddly enough, maybe Thoreau has something in common with Martha Stewart, or Alexandra Stoddard in his belief that the first step, the foundation of a beautiful home, should be the housekeeping.  Also, the living.  He says that if you are to build your home upon a rock you must keep it well, and you must live well.

In the book Sweeping Changes:  Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks, Gary Thorp described a zen master elevating a mundane task into a spiritual dance:

My first encounter with Zen cleaning was at Zen Center in San Francisco…After meditation and breakfast on Saturday mornings, we had a work period….My favorite part of the work period was observing the manner in which one of our teachers, Katagiri Roshi, tackled his jobs.  It was a joy to see, for example, the energy flowing through him as he applied paste wax to the zendo floor.  How could washing the floor be that important?    Yet, there hw as, devoting himself to this mundane task.  Next came the arduous, amost acrobatic act of polishing, which no one else seemed able to perform with quite the same grace and verve.  Bent over the polishing cloth, Katagiri Roshi would run from one end of the zendo to the other, pause briefly, and then run back.  The movement was graceful, natural, unaffected….’Zen is meditation and sweeping the garden.’

If housekeeping is what matters, it becomes essential.  If housekeeping is what matters, we can turn it into a prayer.  In doing so, rather than being a heinous interruption in our weekend, it can elevate our lives and turn those small acts into the rock, the cinderblock, the foundation of our simply beautiful homes.