Internal Preparation for Lent: Living Deliberately

The sleeping loft in Innermost House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Post:  External Preparation for Lent:  Giving Deliberately

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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