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.

“Forgiveness is Another Word for Letting Go”

I don’t have a specific reason for writing about forgiveness, but when I recently read Matthew Fox’s quote (in the title, above), it seemed like a good topic to take on for Letting-Go Lent.

Forgiveness can be easy or it can be nearly impossible. You can forgive your brother for taking your coat, but can you forgive him for taking your fiancée? You can forgive your mother for forgetting your birthday, but can you forgive her for forgetting to praise you your whole life long?

Unfortunately, whether the anger and resentment is about something small or life-shattering, it fills up your soul, like a gas, the same way. And it has the power to poison your spirit, whether the emotion can be justified or not. It doesn’t matter whether you have a perfect right to be angry and hold a lifelong grudge. You are the one who ultimately suffers.

A woman I knew was talking once about a person who had wronged her. She said that she had forgiven this person. “I’ll forgive” she said with emphasis on every word, “but I’ll never forget.” That got me thinking about the phrase “forgive and forget.” It’s hard enough to forgive, but to forget—is it divine, or is it just plain dumb to forget that you were wronged?

My initial thought about this friend of mine was that she couldn’t have really forgiven. She may have gone through the motions, but if she really couldn’t forget, did she forgive? Even the guys on the Sopranos, not really prone to forgiving, often pardon offenses by saying “fuggedaboudit!” Then, of course, the pardonee turns around and promptly gets whacked.

“The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”

So said the Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas S. Szasz.   Maybe, in fact, forgetting is a form of denial. Perhaps the key is in what happens when the act re-enters your consciousness in the remembering. Does it enter a neutral space in your mind? Or is it tainted with dregs of resentment? Or has the emotion been transformed in a useful way? So, in the remembering, maybe the experience can help us learn to take difficult and painful feelings and flip them over into deepened understanding and insight about ourselves and those who have wronged us. And then we transcend the painful experience and learn from it.

The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the energy of hate, of anger, of fear. We forget that in us there are other kinds of energy that can manifest also. If we know how to practice, we can bring back the energy of insight, of love, and of hope in order to embrace the energy of fear, of despair and of anger.”–Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions  Thich Nhat Hanh

In A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson talks about how living in the present can help release resentment and make forgiveness possible.

“At a certain point we forgive because we decide to forgive. Healing occurs in the present, not the past. We are not held back by the love we didn’t receive in the past, but by the love we’re not extending in the present. Either God has the power to renew our lives, or He doesn’t. Could God be looking at any of us and saying, ‘I’d love to give you a joyful life, but your mother was so terrible, my hands are tied’?… We can grow from any experience… Forgiveness remains the only path that leads us out of hell. Whether we’re forgiving our parents, someone else, or ourselves, the laws of mind remain the same: as we love, we shall be released from pain, and as we deny love, we shall remain in pain.”

I had another friend whose husband had done significant harm to her and her family as an alcoholic. He eventually found recovery and they stayed married, but my friend was having a hard time letting go of anger for wrongs done in years past. In her mind, her feelings about her husband were like a big empty room in her head. The floor of the room was littered with crumbling, dying leaves, like fallen autumn leaves. One day she was visualizing that room in her head, and all of a sudden, without any conscious effort on her part, a breeze blew through the room and swooshed all the leaves out. And the room was clean and bare. And she realized she had finally forgiven.

As Marianne Williamson said in the quote above, forgiveness is really for us, not the forgiven. Lack of forgiveness is separation. Forgiveness is unity. And when we don’t forgive, who is being shut out? Aren’t we shutting ourselves out? Why do that to ourselves?

Sometimes it’s difficult to forgive others unless we forgive ourselves first. Is it intentional that in the Lord’s prayer we ask God to forgive us first?  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  When you’re imagining the leaf-strewn room in your head—do you need to cleanse and forgive yourself? If so, think about what fallen leaves in your life are cluttering your soul, and swoosh them out the door.

Action Item for Today:  Right now I am thinking of a person who did my mother harm 30 years ago. While I have never dwelled on resentment and let it affect my life, I have never actually consciously let that go either. So, today, 30 years later, I am taking the opportunity to say to this person, “I forgive you. I pray for your happiness and well-being. You are God’s child, as are we all, born in the light of His love. And so can I do any less than to love you, too?”

Join me in thinking of an act or of someone that you need to forgive—yourself or someone else or even God. Whatever the hurt is, today, let it go. Release it, and fill the interior space with love and be free.

Richard Foster’s 10-Fold Path to Simplicity

Richard Foster is a Quaker minister and mystic, whose Celebration of Discipline is a classic in the books about spirituality. He writes frequently on the topic of simplicity, and in fact, has an entire book on the topic called Freedom of Simplicity. He believes that simplicity starts as an interior exercise, manifested later in outward practices.

To spur me on in my Lenten quest to let go, I turned today to one of my favorite chapters in Celebration of Discipline, which is called, appropriately, “Simplicity.” Here is an excerpted and abridged version of his 10 ways to achieve outward simplicity. I encourage you to get or borrow a copy of his book and read the chapter in its entirety, and to pay particular attention to his thoughts on inward simplicity, which I am not going to discuss in this post, even though that means I’m putting the cart before the horse to some degree.

  1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Cars should be bought for their utility, not their prestige. Consider your clothes. Most people have no need for more clothes. They buy more not because they need clothes, but because they want to keep up with the fashions. Hang the fashions!
  2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you. Learn to distinguish between a real psychological need, like cheerful surroundings, and an addiction. Any of the media that you find you cannot do without, get rid of. If money has a grip on your heart, give some away and feel the inner release. 
  3. Develop a habit of giving things away. If you find that you are becoming attached to some possession, consider giving it to someone who needs it. De-accumulate! Masses of things that are not needed complicate life. They must be sorted and stored and dusted and resorted and restored ad nauseum.
  4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry. Most gadgets are built to break down and wear out and so complicate our lives rather than enhance them. Usually gadgets are an unnecessary drain on the energy resources of the world. Environmental responsibility alone should keep us from buying the majority of the gadgets produced today.
  5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Owning things is an obsession in our culture. If we own it, we feel we can control it; and if we can control it, we feel it will give us more pleasure. The idea is an illusion. Enjoy the beach without feeling you have to buy a piece of it. 
  6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation. Get close to the earth. Walk whenever you can. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the texture of grass and leaves. Smell the flowers. Marvel in the rich colors everywhere. 
  7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. They are a trap and only deepen your bondage. Certainly prudence, as well as simplicity, demands that we use extreme caution before incurring debt. 
  8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech. ‘Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil.’ (Matt. 5:37) If you consent to do a task, do it. Avoid flattery and half-truths. Make honesty and integrity the distinguishing characteristics of your speech. 
  9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others. Do we sip our coffee and eat our bananas at the expense of exploiting Latin American peasants? In a world of limited resources, does our lust for wealth mean the poverty of others? Should be buy products that are made by forcing people into dull assembly-line jobs? Do we enjoy hierarchical relationships in the company or factory that keep others under us? Do we oppress our children or spouse because we feel certain tasks are beneath us? 
  10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God. It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good things. Job, position, status, family, friends, security—these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention.

Angels Dragging Wheelies: Letting Go of Emotional Attachments

God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.— Meister Eckhart

Let’s just say that no one can be happy unless they can detach. Our attachments make us miserable.  That’s the hypothesis.  That’s a cornerstone of Buddhism.  That’s the point behind Jesus’s telling the young rich man that if he wanted to follow him, he would have to sell everything first.

Many people take that famous Gospel passage to mean that everyone must become an ascetic and give up all they own to follow Jesus.   I’m not a theologian, but I don’t think that’s what it means at all.  The point of that story was that the man turned away UNHAPPY.  He was attached to his stuff.  He wanted to follow Jesus, but he couldn’t see himself releasing the emotional hold he had on his belongings.  Jesus was applying an attach-o-meter to the young man’s spiritual readiness to follow him.

My attach-o-meter rings the bell with some things—old letters from friends and relatives, my John Derian plates, several of my books, my dog’s ashes, the home in which I’ve raised my kids.

Unfortunately they don’t even make an attach-o-meter with enough wattage to register my attachments to people in my life—especially my husband and my children.  Does that make me a good mother, a good wife? 


This image by the indie rock group The Detachment Kit is a wonderful illustration of the bond we often have with others

This image by the indie rock group The Detachment Kit is a wonderful illustration of the bond we often have with others

Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello might say, perhaps not.  What makes prideful ownership of a car any different than prideful ownership of a person?  Isn’t that even worse?   It is so counterintuitive to us, as human beings to realize that we don’t have any personal claim on any individual, even if we’ve been faithfully married for decades; even if we gave birth to those individuals.  But we constantly act as if we do.  Most of us act like emotional Siamese twins when it comes to people we love.


The only way to let go of unhealthy attachments of our relationships is through understanding, according to de Mello in the chapter on Detachment in his wonderful little book Awareness:  The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. 

We’ve been so blinded by everything that we have not discovered the basic truth that attachments hurt rather than help relationships.  I remember how frightened I was to say to an intimate friend of mine, ‘I really don’t need you.  I can be perfectly happy without you.  And by telling you this, I find I can enjoy your company thoroughly—no more anxieties, no more jealousies, no more possessiveness, no more clinging.  It’s a delight to be with you when I am enjoying you on a nonclinging basis.  You’re free, so am I.’  But to many of you I’m sure this is like talking a foreign language.–de Mello, Awareness, p.139


When we attach ourselves to things, people, and concepts maybe it’s out of fear–fear that without these self-imposed bonds we will be less loveable, less secure, less happy.   Maybe we’re like the old Egyptian kings who were so identified with their possessions that they were buried with them.  Is that who we really want to be?  Do we want to be identified by our possessions?  Or would we rather be free?   I picture a scenario where two friends are killed in a car crash.  The two new angels go winging themselves up to heaven—but one looks as if he/she were headed toward some Newark Airport of the sky–weighed down with backpack, wheelie, and laptop bag—and yelling to their unencumbered fellow angel, “Hey, wait up!” 

We also tend to attach ourselves to concepts through ideological labels.  We are Republican, American, Presybterian.  We wear T-shirts that say “Kiss Me–I’m Irish.”   We don’t just work to help the environment, we are “environementalists.”  It’s not that we just stopped eating meat, we are “vegetarians.”  It makes us feel good to identify with people and causes we admire, maybe because of a hard-wired need for people to belong.  Anthropologically, it was probably an important survival skill back in prehistoric times.  But it is self-limiting now. Putting ourselves in a neat box to make it easy for people to categorize us literally boxes us in.


So to create the kind of understanding that de Mello says will lead to true detachment, perhaps we simply examine ourselves.   See what face we would put on if Jesus told us to go and sell our possessions.  Or see how hard it is to hold back if our children or spouse does something that we feel we have to save them from.  Or if, in joining an organization, see if we lose the forest for the trees in the comfort of living out one point of view.  

And think about what the trade-off would be if we relinquish things, or need to control others, or our precious ideas?   Maybe the trade-off is a kind of death to oneself as talked about by Jesus and mystics of every religion.  A losing of ourselves that opens us up to unity and a release from fear. 

Like Tim Robbins’ hole in the wall behind the Raquel Welsh poster in the movie “Shawshank Redemption”—maybe we find the trade-off is a hidden portal that leads to freedom from a prison that we have built around ourselves with the bricks of our attachments; the illusions of our needs.