If You Like Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, With a Dash of Bill Hicks…

…you will certainly enjoy Anthony de Mello.

Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist.   If his being Catholic leads you to believe that perhaps his view of faith might be different from yours, look further.  He didn’t preach dogma, he preached awareness, which was actually the title of one of his most famous books:  Awareness:  The Perils and Opportunities of Reality.

Reading him is like reading a little Eckhart Tolle (dying to the ego and disidentifying with thoughts), a little Byron Katie (accepting what is) and even Meister Eckhart (detachment). Overall, he embodies the wisdom of the sages and saints throughout time.

His approach is a little different–he’s part Aesop, part Joseph Campbell, part Bill Hicks--making his points with parables, fables and jokes (admittedly his jokes were a little cleaner than those of Bill Hicks).  His reading style is very easy, because many of the books he has “authored” are simply transcripts of seminars he gave to increasingly expanding audiences, up until he died prematurely at the age of 56.

There are some conspiracy theories about his death–he, like Thomas Merton, died an untimely death just when their popularity could be construed as a threat to the strict teachings of the Church.  Both Merton and de Mello melded Buddhism with Christian faith.  De Mello also often drew in teachings of the Bagavad Gita and other sacred teachings of his native India.  I don’t personally have any opinions as to the cause of his death:  as he himself would say, who cares?  But I only mention it because it shows how he, like many spiritual leaders who are most interested in the truth, defied fitting into a box based on ideology or religious precepts.

I read Awareness some time ago, and loved it then.  I don’t know why, but I was compelled to go back and read a little more–I guess as part of my New Year’s resolution to increase my mindfulness.

So, you know how when you go to Amazon, they say, “If you enjoyed THAT book, you might enjoy THIS book”?  Well, if you enjoy Eckhart Tolle quotes, you might enjoy this de Mello quote:

As you identify less and less with the “me”, you will be more at ease with everybody and with everything. Do you know why? Because you are no longer afraid of being hurt or not liked. You no longer desire to impress anyone. Can you imagine the relief when you don’t have to impress anybody anymore? Oh, what a relief. Happiness at last!

If you like Byron Katie quotes, you might enjoy this de Mello quote:

Suffering points out that there is falsehood somewhere. Suffering occurs when you clash with reality. When your illusions clash with reality when your falsehoods clash with the truth, then you have suffering. Otherwise there is no suffering.

And if you like Bill Hicks, you might enjoy this bit of de Mello stand-up:

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1.2.11

I was really slow on the uptake, but it only occurred to me yesterday that this New Year was 1.1.11.  I’m not into numerology, but that just seems like a message hitting you between the eyes–a message similar to the old 60s poster:  Today is the first day of the rest of your life!

So, it seems like a good time to break my “blogger’s block” and get back in the saddle of posting.  I needed a word fast, as evidenced in some of my previous posts, and now that I’ve granted that to myself, I can proceed.

1.2.11 seems as good a time to post as 1.1.11.  It tells me, “come on!  You’re not going to miss this opportunity to live in this day as clearly and purposefully as a year that starts out 1.1.11, are you?”

‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”  Macbeth hit the nail on the head with that one.  Being in my sixth decade and approaching my seventh, I can bear witness to how time tends to roll downhill gathering speed.

To quell the avalanche of time, I have only one resolution:  To practice mindfulness as diligently as I can. Think about any resolution you’ve ever made, and ask yourself, if you had simply been mindful, could you have achieved it?  Have you ever tried to start a diet on New Year’s?  If you practice mindfulness when you choose your food, you can do it.  Have you ever tried to get your finances in order?  If you practice mindfulness as you make spending choices, you can do it.  Have you ever vowed to reconnect with loved ones?  If you practice mindfulness and recognize how important your connections are, you will put down the busy work and make some calls or write some emails.

My favorite play of all time, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is Our Town, because of the last scene where Emily dies very young but is given the chance to pick a day to return to.  What she learns in that heart-rending visit is that everyone, herself, her father, her mother, were sleepwalking through the time of their lives.   In anquish, she simply cannot bear witness to this, so she asks the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave:

I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another…I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. (III.45-9)

And then she asks the question:  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it– every, every minute?”

The Stage Manager replies, “Saints and poets, they do some.”

Well, I’m not a poet, and I’m definitely not a saint, but I do want to realize life.  Today, 1.2.11, I vow to look at the cup as I pour my morning coffee.  I vow to concentrate on the bites I put in my mouth.  When my husband talks to me, I vow to listen with my heart.

Someone shared this with me today:  Yesterday is History, Tomorrow a Mystery, Today is a Gift, Thats why it’s called the Present.  A good daily reminder.

By the way, here is a picture of the day that I witnessed about an hour ago, looking at the creek behind my house.

Happy New Minute.

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 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.

Up the Down Staircase to Happiness

updownThere was a popular book by Bel Kaufman in the 60s, followed by the movie with Sandy Dennis, called Up the Down Staircase–about a new, struggling teacher who made the mistake of climbing the staircase in the school that was used for “down” traffic in order to go up.  She found herself, struggling, pushing against the tide of students pressing down on her as she fought her way to the top.

It was a great metaphor for a self-imposed struggle to getting somewhere, unaware that you are headed in the wrong direction–persisting in the struggle instead of simply finding the right path.   Instead of “going with the flow” you fight it and wind up further from your destination.

There is an article in Time Magazine this week called “Yes I Suck:  The Power of Negative Thinking,” and it highlights a study just published in the journal Psychological Science which says trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are.

The study’s authors, Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick, begin with a common-sense proposition: when people hear something they don’t believe, they are not only often skeptical but adhere even more strongly to their original position…

And so we constantly argue with ourselves. Many of us are reluctant to revise our self-judgment, especially for the better. In 1994, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. If you try to tell your dim friend that he has the potential of an Einstein, he won’t think he’s any smarter; he will probably just disbelieve your contradictory theory, hew more closely to his own self-assessment and, in the end, feel even dumber. In one fascinating 1990s experiment demonstrating this effect — called cognitive dissonance in official terms — a team including psychologist Joel Cooper of Princeton asked participants to write hard-hearted essays opposing funding for the disabled. When these participants were later told they were compassionate, they felt even worse about what they had written.
Wood, Lee and Perunovic conclude that unfavorable thoughts about ourselves intrude very easily, especially among those of us with low self-esteem — so easily and so persistently that even when a positive alternative is presented, it just underlines how awful we believe we are.
The paper provides support for newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.

When it comes to seeking happiness, steering your focus on finding happiness or self-worth to the exclusion of activities that will actually make you happier or feel better about yourself is a case of going up the down staircase.   Forcing the issue by constantly affirming to yourself, like Stuart Smalley, that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” may actually sentence you to never-ending struggle to get to the top of the happiness staircase.

Wise people have told us, in many different ways, that the minute we stop focusing on ourselves, the struggles stop and the door to happiness appears.  All the theories about ego-consciousness points to this (read Eckhart Tolle).   Tolstoy told us this in the parable of the Emporer’s Three Questions.  All the wisdom of the saints tells us this.  That famous peace prayer attributed to St. Francis tells us that in order to get, we don’t strive to get, we give.   In finding love, we don’t demand it, we simply perform acts of love towards others.   We don’t beg others to understand us, we listen to them and we seek to understand them.

In one of my favorite Dick and Jane stories from my grammar school reader, a dad gives his son and his daughter their own gardens, and tells them it is theirs to tend.  Each of them starts with the same number of seeds, and soon both gardens are blooming.  The boy starts giving his flowers away–to the elderly neighbor next door, to his teacher, to a sick friend.  The girl refuses to cut off her beautiful blooms, preferring to keep the beauty to herself.

If you are a gardener, you can guess the end of the story–the boy’s garden flourished because when you cut one bloom, you get two back.  On the other hand, within a few weeks, the girl’s garden had spent its blooms and sat there, lifeless and sparse.

I subscribe to Self-improvement ebooks, and they recently sent me an article on “The Secret of Abounding Happiness.”  The recipe, in short:

As you rise above the sorded self; as you break, one after another, the chains that bind you, you will realize the joy of giving, as distinguished from the misery of grasping–giving of your substance; giving of your intellect; giving of the love and light that are growing within you.  You will then understand that it is indeed ‘more blessed to give than to receive.’

Lose yourself in the welfare of others; forget yourself in all that you do; this is the secret of abounding happiness.”

So instead of running to your therapist, run to your local food bank and volunteer.  Instead of buying stuff you don’t need to make you happy, give away stuff you don’t need.  Instead of looking down into the depths of your own unhappiness, get off that DOWN staircase, find the UP one and ascend with ease.

Madison

 

The cottage

Me, sitting on the steps of the cottage

“If I died and found myself at Madison, I’d know that I’d made it to heaven.”

That’s what I said in my early 20s, speaking of the spot on the Connecticut shore where I had spent my childhood summers.   My mother sent me there to stay with two great-aunts and my grandmother for a few weeks every summer from the time I was about five .  She had spent her summers there, too, so she must have wanted me to have that special experience.  The cottage had been built by my greatuncle and greataunt in 1910.  It was a true cottage, with no insulation, and no heat.  The framing was exposed on the inside, and it had a rustic stone fireplace and Arts and Crafts-style windows.  It was a regal, cedar-shingled 4 bedroom home, sitting back from the beach road, atop a slight incline, where the beach breezes swooped on up and kept the place much cooler than the waterfront cottages across the street.

It was a safe haven.  My own mother had her hands full with four young kids and my alcoholic father.  Life at home was pretty chaotic, and I never knew what each day would bring.  Would I be able to have friends over, or would Dad be drunk?  Would Dad show me how to oil paint the way he did so well, or would he slur insults from the dark corner of the living room?

But at Madison, nothing ever changed.  The “bowl-o-beauty” rose paperweight sat on the same corner of the living room table year after year.  It didn’t move.  The kitchen beams were lined with linaments and oils that had probably been ordered from the Sears catalog in the 1920s.   My aunt could be relied upon to tell the same stories every year–stories about her marriage to her beloved Edwin that always ended with a chuckle.  All her stories had happy endings.  The only story that didn’t have a happy ending was the one she never told–about her son, John, who died of pneumonia when he was three, after it had taken her nine painful years to conceive.  I only knew about John from the sepia photograph of the small boy with the bowl cut and crisp white shirt on her dressing table.

 

Aunt Florence, knitting.  She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

Aunt Florence, knitting. She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

The daily routine was… well, routine.  And at that time, I hated it.  I’ve grown to appreciate the luxury of rising at the same time every day, spending the better part of the morning preparing breakfast, served on a six-piece place setting of Victorian rose china.  Then performing the clean-up.   Then taking the trip “up town” to buy groceries and produce.  Then going right into lunch–a large midday meal.  Then again the clean-up.  Then, and ONLY then, did I get to meet my friends at the beach.  That routine probably saved me from skin cancer, because I never got to the beach before 2 p.m., and of the few things that frustrated me about Madison, that was #1.  

 

Oh, I could say so much more about Madison, but it wouldn’t be interesting to anyone who hadn’t lived it.   It sounds mundane to hear about my evening walks down to the stone pier with a book or a camera or drawing pad with which to watch the sun go down.   It’s not too thrilling to hear about the afternoons which, when they were not spent at the beach, were spent learning how to sew on Aunt Florence’s old black Singer, or stretched across my bed, reading, while raindrops pitter-patted in a magnified way because of the lack of insulation in the ceiling.  Or who would care about the delight of blueberries and cream with sugar sprinkled on top, or slices of summer-ripe cantaloupe.  Or the aroma of salt-laced timber, or enamel pans filled with Ivory Snow and Aunt Florence’s soft, silky slips.

It all seems other-wordly, but at Madison, I was not completely isolated from the world.  When I was young, I was given the privilege of watching As the World Turns with the great-aunts, although they didn’t 100% approve because of the “risque” story lines.  At 17, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon–the same moon that was reflecting in the waters off the Connecticut coast right outside our door.  In 1973, the “Summer of Judgement,” Aunt Florence and I sat glued to the Watergate hearings. 

Sometimes I become obsessed with Madison.  I wish I could go back.  I suspect my memories are hopelessly romantic, and thus, perhaps skewed.   I tend to dream about it when my own life becomes chaos-infested and unsure, and I remember that safe haven and want to go back.  

Yet, I’m not sure I’d want to go back, because the Bowl-o-Beauty would no longer be there, nor the pink Victorian china.   And Aunt Florence’s presence would only be there in ghost-like form.  I’m not the same anymore, either, nor should I be.  But perhaps I can bring a little bit of Madison to my life today–a little of the routine, the simple joys, the beauty.   I can find the Aunt Florence within–calm, and orderly, and cheerful.  If I can do that, then I can create that little bit of heaven, right here, right now.

Minimizing Mental Clutter: Being Busy, Zen-style

 

Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

I never know which is more cluttered–my physical environment or my mental one.    It’s like the old “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question.   Do I feel mentally fragmented because all around me is stuff, or is the stuff there because I haven’t been able to focus?

In wondering this today, I recalled a terrific online article I read years ago, and despaired of finding it today, but, wonder of wonders–I actually found it again!   So, click on the title and read the whole thing, because it’s worth it if you relate to feeling like there’s too much to do.   It’s called “Being Busy” by Zoketsu Norman Fischer and it’s a zen take on handling tasks as they come.

The other day, someone asked me how I was managing with all the busy stuff I am involved with. Was it getting to be too much? Well no, it can’t really get to be too much because there are only so many hours in the day and days in the week, and all the time I am only doing what I am doing–no more and no less. Whatever I can do, I can do, and whatever I can’t do, I can’t do.

So I don’t do it. Maybe I’ll do it later. But maybe that later won’t come. Right now, I am doing what I can do, and that’s all that I can do. Whether my list of things to do is long or short, in fact it’s just the same. I am doing what I am doing the best I can do it.

I remember how upset years ago I was when I found out we were having twins. I had for such a long time lived a very simple life–just a suitcase in my car and I was off. Now I had a wife and twins were on the way. It was a source of great anxiety for me until I realized that in the end it wasn’t so different. Before, I’d put one suitcase in the car and was off. Now, I’d do essentially the same thing: Put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car…however many there were, it was always just one suitcase. So it was more in a way, but if I looked at it in another way, it was just one thing. A kind of mental yoga. But it worked quite well and it still does.

So there may be a long list of things to do, but really there is just one thing on the list at any time. If you think of it like that, the whole world looks different and you can stay quite calm. Maybe everything will get done eventually and maybe not. You can always have hope. What more does anyone ever have than this anyway?”

I like the way he calls this exercise “mental yoga” because it really is.  It’s very hard for me to slow it down and not mentally jump to two or three other things on my list while I’m doing another.  The cause for this behavior may be anxiety (“how am I going to get all this done?”); or run-of-the-mill worry (“I can’t forget the phone call at 2:00.”) or avoidance (“Ugh, this report is so tedious.  Isn’t there something more interesting I could do right now?”).  In any case, my mind is scrambling like a sprinter at the block imagining herself crossing the finish line before the shot is fired.    How can I slow myself down?  How can I stay in the moment?

Sometimes simple images really help, and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has provided me with one that I try to think about when I’m feeling the need to focus.

In his book Peace Is Every Step, there’s a chapter “Nourishing Awareness in Each Moment.”  In it, he describes a moment–just a moment–that sticks with me.  

One cold, winter evening I returned home from a walk in the hills, and I found that all the doors and windows in my hermitage had blown open.  When I had left earlier, I hadn’t secured them, and a cold wind had blown through the house, opened the windows, and scattered the papers from my desk all over the room.  Immediately, I closed the doors and windows, lit a lamp, picked up the papers, and arranged them neatly on my desk.  Then I started a fire in the fireplace, and soon the crackling logs brought warmth back in the room.”

I love that paragraph!  I think of myself in the same situation.  If it had been me, perhaps I would have been out because the dog needed to go urgently–otherwise, who would have time to go for a walk?  So, I’d have come in, taken the dog off the leash and rushed back into my office to finish up the report that was probably due in a half hour.  Imagine my frustration to see the pages of my report all over the room!  I’d curse, and run around grabbing them, trying to get the pages right.  The dog, reacting to my heightened energy, would be playing tug-of-war with the stray sheets wrinkled up in my hand, and I’d be yelling for her to let them go.  I’d shew the dog out of the room, curse some more and wonder how I was going to make up for the lost few minutes, oblivious to the half-empty coffee mugs, piles of folders, open day-timer, and overflowing waste paper basket surrounding me.

Wow, so Thich Nhat Hahn shows me a different way to approach the same situation, using mindfulness, and concentrating on one small moment at a time.   He describes another image from a different chapter, “Not Two,” in the same book:

Each day I helped translate about thirty applications.  The way I did it was to look at the picture of the child.  I did not read the application.  I just took time to look at the picture of the child.  Usually after only thirty or forty seconds, I became one with the child.  Then I would pick up the pen and translate the words from the application onto another sheet.  Afterwards I realized that it was not me who had translated the application; it was the child and me, who had become one.  Looking at his or her face, I felt inspired, and I became the child and he or she became me, and together we did the translation.  It is very natural.  You don’t have to practice a lot of meditation to be able to do that.  You just look, allowing yourself to be, and you lose yourself in the child and the child in you.

In those last sentences, maybe we can substitute the word “work” for “child”–because often our work is our child–talents that we grow and nurture.  Like a child, it deserves our undivided attention.  Like a child, it is part of us.  The inspiration that is there in the middle of slow, tedious, relentless tasks can be found simply by paying attention.  I love how Thich Nhat Hanh describes his every motion:  “I would look at the child.”  “I would pick up the pen.”  “I would then translate the words.”  “I arranged the papers neatly on my desk.”  “I started a fire in the fireplace”  His work is not a slurry of activity, it is a chain of individual moments of engaged work, elevated to an act of meditation.

What does Tax Day have to do with Voluntary Simplicity?

successful-manI missed posting yesterday because of two converging deadlines–one at work and one imposed on me by Uncle Sam.  True to form as a world-class procrastinator, although I had diligently prepared my taxes on QuickBooks and had begun the filling out of TurboTax screens, I still had a couple of hours of work ahead of me yesterday.  I finally pushed the button at 10:37 p.m.–fulfilling my annual requirement as a citizen in the nick of time.

Unfortunately I owed money this year–I started a consultant business in May but didn’t set enough aside along the way to cover my tax liability. 

Thinking about how nice it would be to not have to write out that check, I started thinking about the many people ahead of me who opted out of paying taxes as an act of Civil Disobedience, such as Thoreau.

Other more contemporary folks have conscientiously (and legally) opted out of paying taxes to make a statement about intolerable social conditions, such as homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing and the environmentalist Jim Merkel.   They did it by choosing a life of voluntary simplicity.  So voluntary simplicity can be many things:  a way of life, a political statement, a spiritual journey, an antiwar protest, an act of solidarity among our poorer brothers and sisters, or a pact with the earth to protect and defend it.

The term “voluntary simplicity” is attributed to Richard Gregg, a Quaker who wrote a little pamphlet called “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” in 1936.   The pamphlet is published by Pendle Hill and can be downloaded for free here.   In it, Gregg describes what it is:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. For example, the men who tried to climb Mount Everest concentrated their thoughts and energies on the planning of that expedition for several years, and in the actual attempt discarded every ounce of equipment not surely needed for that one purpose.

Not surprisingly, his description ties in perfectly with the path to simplicity outlined half a century later by his fellow Quaker, Richard Foster the book Celebration of Discipline.

In addition to Richard Foster’s classic, another classic was born in the 80s–the book Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. Although he was inspired by Gregg’s writings, Elgin’s orientation to his own book on the topic is little more focused on the cultural and the collective vs. the more individual approach, while at the same time challenging us to accept our personal responsibility for the state of the world.   This book became THE definitive work for the volunatary simplicity movement of the post-Vietnam era.

I met Duane Elgin last year when he spoke at The Open Center in New York City.  The topic was “The World at the Tipping Point:  A Big Picture View of Our Future”–a program that he takes on the road.  It was quite positive and optimistic, and I was thrilled to get a chance to be a part of this pretty interactive discussion.    It was inspiring to hear his take on the future, which is filled with hope for the human race.  While he stresses that it is the individual choices we make which will prod the world into a transitional, transformative epoch, these choices have to start from a place that we may not even know exists for us:

To act voluntarily requires not only that we be conscious of the choices before us (the outer world) but also that we be conscious of ourselves as we select among those choices (the inner world).  We must be conscious of both choices and chooser if we are to act voluntarily.  Put differently, to act voluntarily is to act in a self-determining manner.  But who is the “self” making the determinations of behavior? … The point is that the more precise and sustained is our conscious knowing of ourselves, the more voluntary or choiceful can be our participation in life… The more conscious we are of our passage through life, the more skillfully we can act, and the more harmonious can be the relationship between our inner experience and our outer expression.

So, if you are really looking for a way to legally reduce your tax liability to the Federal Government next year, one way to do it is to adopt a life of voluntary simplicity–deliberately choosing what will feed your purpose in life, and discarding all the rest.  That may be the best tax shelter there is.

“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 of Distractions, Worries and Projection: What Thich Nhat Hanh and Thornton Wilder Have in Common

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

I changed my calendar yesterday from February to March. That makes me almost two weeks late. The irony was that my calendar is a Thich Nhat Hanh calendar. This Zen Buddhist monk is a master of mindfulness, and I can’t think of anything more UNmindful than letting almost two weeks escape me without realizing it.

There is a foolproof way to let all your worries go—and at the same time become alive to the beauty and wonder around you—and that is to practice mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh writes extensively about it and how to practice it in many of his books, but his seminal work on this topic is Miracle of Mindfulness.

Read this book if you are interested in:

  • Learning how to begin a practice in living mindfully
  • Learning exercises in mindfulness
  • Learning basic breathing techniques
  • Reading stories and little parables, such as a wonderful one by Tolstoy, that enlighten us as to why we should be mindful of every moment

One of my favorite quotes:

Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves. Consider, for example: a magician who cuts his body into many parts and places each part in a different region—hands in the south, arms in the east, legs in the north, and then by some miraculous power reassembles whole every part of his body. Mindfulness is like that—it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each moment of our life.  Miracle of Mindfulness, p.14

Now, what do Thich Nhat Hanh and Thornton Wilder have in common?

Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder

This Thich Nhat Hanh/Thornton Wilder connection came to me when I saw that there is a new production of Our Town, the classic play by Wilder, in Manhattan. From what I’ve read, it is a must-see. Then again, this is my favorite play. Nevertheless, it got a great review from The New York Times, and from what I read, its approach is very relevant and true to the play’s meaning, and so I plan to see it.

Our Town is set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in the 1930s, and it tracks the lives of two families, in particular two of the children, through the major milestones of a person’s young life—adolescence, dating, marriage, and ultimately, death. Emily, one of those children, dies in childbirth but is granted permission to pick one day in her past to return to. She picks her 16th birthday, but as she moves through the motions of that day it becomes stunningly clear to her all that she had taken for granted. She realizes that when she was alive, she had been sleepwalking; now that she was dead she was truly alive–knowing that she had squandered her only chance to simply notice….. everything. And everything now seems very much worth noticing. When her day expires, with despair and sadness she bids farewell to her short life in a monologue that is probably one of the most poignant that I’ve ever seen.  I would quote it, but don’t want to be a spoiler, especially since it really must be viewed in context.

To me, I have always thought that Our Town makes tragic heroes out of most of us, because we are all just growing up and getting through and growing old in a settings very much like the play’s. Whether we live in a small town or large town or whether our community is provincial or metropolitan, or we are living in the 1940s, or a new millennium most of us share with Emily a tendency to charge ahead in our lives blind to the very essence of the stuff that our lives are made of, which is, simply, one moment at a time.

So, right now, be mindful. Stop for 60 seconds to just sit and take everything in. Or, you can continue doing what you’re doing, but do it completely aware of your actions and your thoughts as they occur. Slow down. Pay attention. Appreciate. If you can do that, congratulations. You have just participated fully in one minute of your life.