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.

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Simple Home, Beautiful Home, Part II: Stripping of your life

The 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 our lives must be stripped,”:

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

If I had a chart that showed the times of my life at its most frenetic, and overlaid it with a chart that showed the times of my life when my house was the least welcoming and the most cluttered, they would line up nicely.   It’s hard, if not impossible, to maintain peace at home, when your life is out of control.

A study, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers was recently released and highly publicized in the news.  It showed that despite great strides in the women’s movement, women are actually unhappier today overall.  Why would that be?  We have spent the last thirty years bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan.  Does that mean we have time to eat it?

Perhaps a correlation could be made in a book about another paradox, “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, which makes the case that too many options does not create feelings of well-being; on the contrary, too much choice winds up being overload for our psyches.  So, the myriad of options that opened up for women in the last few decades has actually left us wondering, “What now?” in a way that is disconcerting and confusing.  And for society in general, we are simply overwhelmed.

Thoreau tells us to strip down our lives, which can be taken to mean, choose!  “Let your affairs be of two or three, not of a hundred,” he wrote.  Choose your value system, choose your day, choose your desires, and leave the rest alone.   Richard Foster, in his book “The Freedom of Simplicity” tells us that the first step is the most important:  “First seek God’s kingdom.”  Seems easy, but what does that mean?

Maybe we can learn from the choices made by some of the more spiritually evolved.   St. Francis sold everything in order rebuild the church.  That was how he sought God’s kingdom.   In one of my posts, “Decluttering, Purging, and Peace Pilgrim,” I talked about the woman who made her life’s work walking across the country time and again for peace.  That was how she sought God’s kingdom.    I was lucky enough last week to see the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh at the Beacon Theatre.  He has made it his life’s work to teach people to be compassionate through mindfulness.  That is how he sought God’s kingdom.  I’ll bet that none of these people have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether to buy the LG flat screen TV or the Samsung; whether they should go to Cancun or Paris on vacation; whether they should stay in their marriage or leave.  If you’ve ever owned a good SLR camera, when you focus on something through the viewfinder, the rest blurs out of sight.  I imagine that’s what seeking God’s kingdom is like.

I’m not sure how to begin the life stripping-down process, but here’s a little brainstorming:

  • Let go:  of stuff, of worry, of anxiety, of things you can’t control.
  • Stop being a people-pleaser:  Say no once in a while.
  • Be happy with what you have:  Cut the coveting.
  • Don’t go it alone:  Ask for help, hired or otherwise, to share your burden.
  • Recognize that’s it’s impossible to have it all.  What are you trading off for your life?
  • Be easy on yourself.

Finally, the other night, Thich Nhat Hanh told the sell-out crowd that the kingdom of God is right here.

My dining room table today

My dining room table today

Right now.  Right now you can only be in one place.  Right now you can only do one thing.  Right now you can only think one thought. Be present right here, right now in this beautiful moment and you have found the kingdom of God.

For me, that’s where the stripping down starts.

Let It Be and Know that I am God

IMG_0891Paul McCartney has begun his 2009 US tour.  I saw him on his tour here in 2005–the $750 seats were a gift I gave to my child within.  Or, the absolutely crazy Beatlemaniacal teenage girl within.  I was 12 when I first heard of the Beatles.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was playing on the radio as my friend’s mother drove us to school.  “That’s the Beatles,” my friend Joannie said.  “Who are the Beatles?” I asked.  She looked at me as if I had just asked her who President Kennedy was.  “You’ve NEVER heard of THE BEATLES???”  she asked.  She did have an advantage over me.  She had four older, very cool, sisters from whom she learned everything you needed to know to be as cool as they were.  They knew everything in that department, as far as I could tell.

In any case, I’m happy that I recall the very moment I heard their name, and their sound, because nothing was the same for me after that.  

My fave Beatle was Paul, and my fave Paul song became “Let it Be.”  Still is.  I still find such solace in the message and the music, with the title mantra encouraging us to not worry.  It will all work out.  So says someone from beyond who reassures us gently.  

Coincidentally, I was thinking of the topic of simply “being” for my blog post this week, and then I recalled that Paul McCartney was probably singing the perfect theme song for a post like this somewhere that very night to a sell-out crowd.  

***

I ordered a book this week from Amazon by the famed contemplative, Bernadette Roberts.  Her books on the path to no-self are classic, and I was very interested in what she had to say.  When the book arrived, I opened it, and thought to myself, “Oh, heck, this book is filled with WORDS!”  As if I expected anything different.    And it really wasn’t a thought at all, it was a feeling that while I was drawn to the idea of moving towards unity with God and ultimately the experience of no-self, just words weren’t going to get me there.

I’m looking to learn, and hopefully to grow, but suddenly I’m tired of the traditional ways of learning.  Analyzing, synthesizing, rationalizing, justifying… been there done that.  What should I do now?  

What I feel compelled to do is to just be still and listen.  Be still and let go.   Let it all just be.  After reading the likes of Thomas Merton and Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa of Avila and St. Theresa of Lisieux,  Richard Foster and Richard Rohr, to use Bernadette Roberts’ phrase, I’ve grown weary of learning “above the neck.”  Now I feel a need for my learning to be “below the neck.”    There will be an answer.  Let it be.

My pastor had a really interesting way to close a sermon on the Biblical injunction, Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10), and I use it frequently in meditation.  It goes like this:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

Enough said.

Letting Go of our Comfort Zone (What if Jesus had read What Color is Your Parachute?)

 

The life of Salvadore Dali also represented a life of contradiction.

The life of Salvadore Dali also represented a life of contradiction.

Today is Good Friday, and I wanted to write something to honor that, so I looked around and found a good question to explore that grew out of insights by two specific authors.  And the question is, in this world where fulfillment is found in Following Our Bliss, Doing What We Love So Money Can Follow, and Finding Our Passion, how do we reconcile the fact that there are countless spiritual leaders who actually wound up doing something completely foreign to the talents and interests they started with?  

Here are just a couple of examples that I can think of, and there are more to follow in quotes I will provide:

Albert Schweitzer:  He was trained as a classical musician and a theologian.  He was a huge success at both, with a great future ahead of him. But at the age of 30 he walked away and became a doctor in equatorial Africa.

Moses:  Had a great political position all lined up with the Pharoah.  He could have worked for his people “on the inside” using his charisma and intelligence and drive.  But he walked away and faced all manner of hardship to see his people out of Egypt to the promised land.

St. Francis:  He was a lover of beauty and fine things, having been brought up in wealth.   But he rejected his wealth and the approval of his parents to take care of lepers and live off the land.

It makes me think of the word we commonly use interchangeably with vocation, and that is “calling.”   But when we are looking for our life’s purpose it is we who are looking for something that will please us, suit our talents, fulfill our needs.  We seek out career counselors to this end, we promote our achievements, we imagine ourselves in one career or another and think about what kind of recognition we will earn as a result.   How can we answer a call when we’re so busy talking to ourselves?

The two authors that have inspired me today are both of a contemplative tradition:  Evelyn Underhill and Richard Rohr.   In their writings, they both bring out the same point:  that sometimes we are the first to be surprised at how God decides to use us, but if we are interested in God’s purpose for us, maybe we should step back and just listen for a while.  Then, when we have listened, we must get up and act.

That growth [into the spiritual life] and that response may seem to us like a movement, a journey, in which by various unexpected and often unattracive paths, we are drawn almost in spite of ourselves–not as a result of our own over-anxious struggles–to the real end of our being, the place where we are ordained to be…

There are countless ways in which this may happen:  sometimes under conditions which seem to the world like the very frustration of life, or progress, or growth.  Thus… the lover of beauty is sent to serve in a slum, the lover of stillness is kept on the run all day, .. and in these apparent frustrations the life of the spirit emerges, and grows…

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles.  He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar…St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops…St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his hermitage on the Farne, but he did not often get there….In all these a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life.  Yet, in all we recognize not frustration, but the very highest of all types of achievement.” — Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life

In his book Simplicity, Richard Rohr takes the same insight and challenges us with it:

First you have to learn:  what does it mean to be in Christ, or not to be in Christ?   You see this psychologically in every person who grows in his or her faith:  the more you become sure of your own center, the more you can also open your boundaries.  Otherwise you’ll spend your whole life defending those boundaries….

The change we seek has to be very concrete, very immediate and very practical.  Otherwise it’s just an intellectual thing.  For most of us, this means turning to people who are different from us.  This is the only thing that can liberate us from our egocentric attitude.  Maybe it means that as younger men and women we go to the elderly, or maybe as healthy persons we go to the physically and mentally handicapped, or if we’re homophobic we work in an AIDS hospital.  But we all have to set out into a world in which we’re not number 1, where others whom we meet are not just an expanded version of ourselves.”  Richard Rohr, Simplicity

In other words, to grow in my spiritual journey, to take up my individual cross, it seems that I must let go of my comfort zone; let go of my past accomplishments which are so easy to rest on; and I must let go of my ego.  I admit, I have not succeeded in doing that by a long shot.  So, today, on Good Friday, I will try to open myself, and to join Christ in Gethsemane and pray to the Father, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

Note:  Another excellent book that I used to meditate on this topic was Leading Lives That Matter:  What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass.

Letting Go of the Need to Talk: Dealing with Word Pollution

 

Words, words, words–I’m so sick of wordschp_magpoetry2
I hear words all day through, first from him now
from you
Is that all you blighters can do?
                                  “Show Me” from My Fair Lady

Emporer Joseph II:  Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect. 
Mozart:  Which few did you have in mind, Majesty? 
                                   From the movie Amadeus

I haven’t heard of the term word pollution, but I think there’s a language smog in our culture that we seriously have to address.   

Think about it:

  • You wake up in the morning to 24-hour news shows–either Fox, or CNN, or maybe you watch international news such as the BBC.  
  • You pick up your paper at the door and read another 40 pages of words.
  • You go for your morning jog and listen to an audiobook.
  • You get in the car and turn on the radio–and hear news, or banter, or call-ins, or NPR political analysis.
  • At work, you have to keep up in your profession so you spend the first half hour scanning print and on-line trade news.
  • You go to three meetings and talk.  You listen.   You take notes.
  • You go back to your desk and read 20 emails and respond to half of them.  
  • You take 15 phone calls.
  • On the way home you stop at Barnes & Noble for a book to read on the plane for your next business trip and you’re faced with a choice of thousands of titles.
  • You eat dinner watching Bill O’Reilly, or Keith Olberman, or Greta Van Sustern or any other of the hundreds of news commentators, reporters, and pundits.
  • You work on your blog.  You contribute some of the 71,810,645 words WordPress.com is boasting on that day.  
  • You go to bed and pick a novel from your nightstand to wind down.
  • And then you can’t get to sleep because of the words swimming in your head.

When–WHEN–do we have time to actually do anything?

Or more importantly, when do we make time to just be?

I have reached my saturation point with words.  I feel like the fountain I have in my office, overflowing with the sound of words, the look of words on the page, the words turning around in my mind, the choices of which words to read and which to ignore and which to recycle and which to file and which to delete and which to respond to and which will make me a better person and which will make me smarter and which will make me mad.

I have been trying to think about how to address word pollution in my life, and how to pull myself off, like a suction cup, from the reliance on the constant presence of words.    I think I’ve hit bottom.  

So here’s the first step:  We admitted that we were powerless to live our lives wordlessly.  

The test:  Give up words for just one hour.  Give up thinking in words, reading words, listening to words, writing words.  Just try it.  I did.  It’s not easy.  It leaves a void.

So, in that void, be still.

Breathe.

Breathe again.  Deeply.

Meditate.  Wordlessly.   

Now.

Shh.

 

 

 

 

 


“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.

Letting Go: 3 Ways to Just Have Fun

I know Lent is a somber time, but let’s lighten up.

Tomorrow is my birthday, so instead of trying to think of what “letting go” I should write about for my Letting-Go-Lent, I think the theme for today should be just plain Letting Go!  As in, letting our inhibitions go a little bit, not being so uptight and worried, and just having fun.   Given the current economic times, I think we need that.

So here are my top three ways to have fun—all of them free:

1)  Hang out with funny people

I’m lucky because I married one, and gave birth to four more.  They know they’re funny, too–when my son was about six he asked me, “Mom, if you never had any kids, how would you ever laugh?”

There has to be a reason when Cosmo reports on “What Qualities Do you Like in a Man?” sense of humor trumps flat abs every time.  A sense of humor can brighten your perspective in life and take the edge off of serious situations.  When people with this marvelous gift enter a room, the air gets lighter.  These people can bring out a smile in others just by being within 10 feet of them. 

And, and as my son so aptly pointed out, they make you laugh!  There is nothing more fun than laughing—even when it hurts because you are holding onto your side and you think you’re going to pass out because you can no longer breathe.   An extra benefit:  if you hang out with funny people for a while, you can reference funny moments later and reprise them, chuckles and all …  and thus the laughter is recycled.  Talk about emotional sustainability!

If you have funny people in your life, you don’t need many other diversions.   So, get yourself a few funny people to be friends with.   How can you gauge a person’s sense of humor?  He/she will probably:

  • Appear vulnerable, and may express it with modest self-depreciation.
  • Connect with you in some intangible way, letting you know that you are not alone in your insecurities and failings. This is the talent that Diana had over Charles.  This is what won an Emmy for Larry David’s HBO show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
  • Will have a talent for observation.  Funny people notice everything, and can communicate their observations brilliantly in words and actions.
  • Be very intelligent.  True comic genius IS genius in itself.  

So look for funny people in places where people don’t mind sharing who they really are.   These folks are the glue that hold the rest of us together—reminding us that life is too short to be taken too seriously, and that laughing at ourselves can be an exercise in self-care.

And if you are a funny person, keep up the good work!

2)  Get moving for the fun of it

I’m not talking about training for a marathon, or doing 20 reps of arms curls.  I’m talking moving for the FUN of it.   Here’s what to do, and if you have a dog or a child you are so lucky—they give you license to really let loose.

  • Try to race with your dog and win.
  • Add a dance playlist to your iPod and dance with a child.
  • Go to the park with a child and swing alongside them.  Slide down the slide with them.  See-saw with them.

If there are no dogs or little ones within arm’s reach:

  • Get your bike out of the garage and take it for a spin.
  • Take a dance class (I’m not as crazy about this idea because there’s no spontaneity to signing up for a class, and “class” smacks of something too serious).
  • Speaking of spontaneity, be spontaneous.  Go out for the mail and notice it’s a nice day—just keep walking!   Hear a great Chuck Berry tune on the radio—start Twisting!

3)   Sing

If you feel like singing, sing. Tra-la-la your cares away
There’s something about giving out with a song
Makes you belong
Helps you to find a peace-of-mindful day

–“If You Feel Like Singing, Sing”  Lyrics, Mack Gordon/Music, Harry Warren 

Everyone loves to sing.  It’s just fun.  We sing in the shower, in the car, to the radio.  There’s just something so freeing about singing!

Before there was karaoke, there was the Party Piece.   One of the traditions that I married into when I married my Scottish husband was this wonderful element of every party. Each person learns a party piece—it can be a song, or a poem, or a magic trick—anything that can serve to entertain.  You bring your party piece to every party—so you never have to learn a new one—and if you go party with the same group, everyone knows each others’ party pieces.   My mother-in-law’s party piece is “There’s a Wee Hoose ‘Mang the Heather.”  My son’s party piece is “Danny Boy.”  My party piece is “Over the Rainbow.” My husband gives a very moving performance of the Kipling poem, “Gunga Din.”  

So, what you do is this:  As the party moves into the evening, people gather round, and everyone, in turn, does their party piece.  No one judges, because no one wants to be judged when their turn comes up.   At the same time, if someone doesn’t want to sing, they are not forced to.   It’s pretty free form, and supportive.  No where else can you stand up in front of a group of people, have your voice crack like a china plate left on a hot burner, and get loud cheers and applause when your piece is done. 

If you have no parties coming up, add a playlist to your iPod of songs that are fun to sing along to—old show tunes, patriotic standards, Queen classics like “We Are the Champions” and crank it up in your car on your way to or from work.   Just belt it out!

A warning:  Watch it at the traffic lights.  One time, I was stopped at a red light, seriously emoting to my own rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me”—the torch song from the musical Oliver–when I looked in the side-view mirror of the truck in front of me, and saw the reflection of the driver watching me with a smile that said that I had just made his day.  Of course, when he saw how embarrassed I was he broke into an outright laugh.  But I was only about 18 at the time.  If that happened tomorrow, I’d take a bow and go right on singing.  

That’s because tomorrow’s my birthday, and now that I’m 57, I’ve learned that I can have as much fun as I want—and I don’t care who’s watching.   

 

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.

Lent of Letting Go: Getting Older

How can you tell you’re getting older? 

When the flight attendant asks you, “And what are YOU having, young lady?”  (Don’t they know how utterly patronizing that is?)

When your younger colleague is amazed that you were able to do the Powerpoint presentation yourself without his/her help.

When you answer the age question on surveys, your age bracket is the last on the list.

That’s what happened to me today—I did a telephone survey to save $3 on my next purchase at PetSmart (which in itself is probably a sign of aging), and the first question was about age.  They started at “18 and younger” and then “19-24” and then “25-34”—at which point I realized the brief telephone survey was going to be a lot longer for me.  Finally the recording got to “56 and older” and while I consoled myself that at least I just squeaked into that age bracket, I was a little disappointed that that WAS the last bracket.  So, demographically, the survey people figured that the people from 18 to 24 are a lot different than the people from 24 to 35 but that everyone over 55 could probably either all be lumped together attitudinally, or simply weren’t important enough as a group to be further broken down.

I’d like to say that only superficial people concern themselves with aging, but in fact, I don’t know anyone personally who is rushing into it enthusiastically.  The best you can do is accept it and work with it.   Andrew Weil, the MD/alternative healer, tells you that you can prevent cancer by eating right, but if you’re 65 you better walk instead of running to keep your knees from crumbling.  Deepak Chopra tries to talk you into defeating entropy by changing cellular behavior at a quantum level (and thereby presenting the intellectual equivalent of a shill game).

There are lots of different fears about aging:

  • Chronic disease
  • Loss of independence
  • Loss of muscle mass and strength
  • Evaporation of our memory bank (watching Jeopardy having all the answers on the tip of your tongue—how frustrating!)
  • Loss of our looks, our hair, our waistline, our sex appeal

While the latter is a universal concern for both sexes, it definitely has a stronger poignancy for women.  Biologically, our job is over when we can no longer reproduce, and all the social markers that flag this reality hit us, no matter how sophisticated we are, how brilliantly we contribute to society, or how attractive and well dressed we are. 

Valerie Monroe, Beauty Director for O Magazine, talks about this “Mrs. Cellophane” syndrome in her article “What It Feels Like to Stop Getting Noticed,” in the March issue:

A few months ago, I spent an afternoon helping out an art dealer friend at a print fair.  At a table in front of his display, I sat on one side of him while his assistant sat on the other; we greeted prospective buyers as they walked by.  ‘Hi, there!’ I would say with warmth and (what I thought was) a touch of modest charm when I saw one coming.  Time and again, from the men, I got a limp, dismissive ‘hi’ in response, occasionally a nod.  It wasn’t the Whistlers or the Chagalls that were diverting the art lovers’ attention; it was my friend’s lovely assistant.  She wasn’t flashy or glamorous; but she had a smooth, milky, 20-something complexion and the sweet, expectant, wide-eyed look of youth.  Thirty years ago, I might have been her….. That afternoon, I felt as if I had been stripped of all color and was the only gray-and-white figure in a richly tinted painting.  I was Marion Kerby, one of the ghosts in Topper, all dressed up and nowhere to…be seen.  

To me the letting go of aging is about not trying so hard to—as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song says–hold a moonbeam in your hand, or in this case, the sunbeam of youth.  I’ve read articles about people who are consuming only 1100 calories a day so that they can live to be over 100.  Calorie restriction is a valid scientific theory based on studies with calorie-restricted mice, who live far longer and with fewer degenerative diseases than mice who are fed normally.

I’ve always wondered, what if someone were dedicated to eating half their normal calorie intake for the sole purpose of living longer, and after they’ve done that for a decade or two they stepped out in front of a bus and bam!  They’re gone at 58 or 68—far short of their goal.  Would their dying thoughts be, “Wow, all those calories that went uneaten for nothing!”  Would their final regret be, not, “I should have spent more time with my family,” but “I should have spent more time at Ruth’s Chris Steak House”? 

Living simply and mindfully and letting go of aging is to focus on our lives today—not as they were in 1964 nor how they might be in 2052.   Letting go of our younger selves with skin as tight as a newly stretched canvas gives us more time to exercise and appreciate our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, as Sister Rose Irma used to call our soul’s physical vessel.   Letting go of our younger selves with collagen intact gives us more time to appreciate others.  Letting go of our younger selves who could run a marathon in six hours means we have time to explore our passions with redoubled effort.  Letting go of our younger selves gives us our today selves, and those are the only selves we have, like it or not.

Maturity, our parish priest once said in a sermon, is the evolution from being self-conscious to being others-conscious.   So perhaps the letting go is about, at last, maturing.   What would be worse than being old, but not mature?  That would be like having the box that the antique diamond ring came in, but the ring itself is missing.  So we can dignify our aging selves by shifting our focus outside ourselves and by concentrating on what we can do for those around us, for those we love and for those we haven’t had the opportunity to love yet, for the wider world, for our sick planet, for the good of all.

Lent of Letting Go: Goodbye 401k

“Money: it’s just a means of exchange,” my great uncle used to tell my great aunt, when she was worried about family financies.  But then again, he was a judge in Connecticut’s Supreme Court and lived in a very stately home on Wolcott Hill Road in Wethersfield.  Many others might have a different idea.

I remember when my college philosophy of crisis teacher, during a lecture on global poverty, referenced Lennon’s iconic “Imagine” when she said, “Imagine no possessions…. It’s easy if you’re rich.” 

In other words, money is not just money.  Possessions are not just possessions.  Money is not just a means of exchange.   But I still find comfort in repeating Uncle Edwin’s philosophy about money to myself when there’s not enough of it. 

Starting off this Letting Go Lent with a Bang

Today was the letting go of my 401k balance.  I won’t go into the details of why I had to withdraw all my funds because I’m also trying to let go of self-indulgence, but I can assure you, it was not a gesture or a statement or simply a good topic for this blog.  I have found myself in a situation in which this is the best option for me right now.

In making that call to Fidelity, I had to really detach myself from a lot of negative feelings:

  • I had to let go of fear of lack;
  • I had to let go of grief for all the hard work that went into saving that money;
  • I had to let go of insecure feelings about my own identity and value system;
  • I had to let go of sadness that I may not be able to help my family as much as I would like;
  • I had to let go of anger; and
  • I had to let go of the feeling that I had done something bad or stupid or imprudent that put me in this place.

But those negative feelings are not helpful–especially when the feelings are born of fear, ego identification, and shifting of blame. On the phone with Fidelity, I made some kind of a self-pitying statement to the rep along the lines of, “$25,000 doesn’t go very far these days. “ To which he replied, “Well, that’s more than a lot of people make in a year.”  He shut my mouth.

I love the following quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The way to misuse our possessions is to use them as an insurance against the morrow.  Anxiety is always directed to the morrow, whereas goods are in the strictest sense meant to be used only for today.  By trying to ensure for the next day we are only creating uncertainty today.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.  The only way to win assurance is by leaving tomorrow entirely in the hands of God and by receiving from him all we need for today.  If instead of receiving God’s gifts for today we worry about tomorrow we find ourselves helpless victims of infinite anxiety.    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  “The Simplicity of the Carefree Life”

I love it because it’s a radical thought.  The idea of not saving for tomorrow flies in the face of wisdom all the way down to Aesop.   But I think he is saying, not that we should not save, but that we should not concern ourselves, nor or be obsessed with worrying about money and hoarding it for the future. 

There is a wonderful article by Peter Singer that was published in the New York Times September 5, 1999 which poses a lot of moral and ethical questions about how much we should save or spend vs. use to better the lives of others.  I won’t get into that discussion here, but here is the link.  The point that is relevant to this issue is, how much do we each think is enough in our banks, in our 401k’s, in our Money Market Funds?  Investment brokers will scare us with calculators that make us feel like if we’re not millionaires by the time we’re 65 we better start saving refrigerator boxes and scout locations under the nearest bridge.  But how much do we need?  And how much should we worry about it?  And how much should we simply put those thoughts away, and go out and enjoy the abundance of God’s blessings in our lives?

 

So, now that I am back at the starting gate with 0 balance in my 401k, I can detach from fear of tomorrow and replace those feelings with gratitude instead:

I am grateful I have this money to begin with.  It’s really God’s anyway.

I am grateful that I have talents and skills that will allow me to rebuild a retirement savings plan, if that is what I choose to do.

I am grateful that now that the retirement fund horserace is over for the season, when it starts up again I can choose to be more charitable with future earnings.

I am grateful that I can constantly remind myself how blessed I am in, not only bodily needs, but in having the ability to share love with my family and friends. 

If I start feeling ungrateful, or resentful, or fearful, it is up to me to recall how much I really have, and I have the power to detach myself from those feelings of lack and want.

Detachment is so important because it allows us to live in the moment, in which there are always great blessings to be reaped.