Dec 6 2012

Thanksgiving Day – My favorite Holiday

Thanksgiving Day is my favorite holiday. It reminds be of something I have written about previously: Gratitude.

I had someone tell me once that they didn’t like Thanksgiving because it obliged them to believe in some higher being. Perhaps. Perhaps thanksgiving is really an opportunity to remember what has gone well, or been successful in our lives. We are certainly not responsible for all our success or victories. You may attribute this to God, god or fortune. Or it may be your parents, friend, or spouse had a hand in your latest “blessing”

I don’t tell people how to walk their spiritual path.  But I am clear that very little in our life is accomplished alone. So whether you are thanking god or your best friend, gratitude is a spiritual act that connects us to each other and reminds us that we are part of a larger group.

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Sep 2 2011

Minute Meditation – One baby step on discovering a Spiritual Path

I am like many of you: very busy. We can forget the things that are important to us. Sometimes this means forgetting to pursue our spiritual path. At these times t is important just to remind ourselves to take a step back and do something little, the equivalent of one step down our potential spiritual path. It may be that you are like me too busy or it may be that you are starting off and need something concrete but simple. This is an opportunity to try meditation without doing some heavy thing in a formal setting. Do this at home. I do it in my living room.

I do something I call the Minute Meditation. It usually take a little longer than a minute, but the idea is the same. It is a version of a zen meditation, not original to me at all. But I suspect most valuable spiritual ideas aren’t original but simply rediscovered.

Sit comfortably. I usually sit with my lower legs folded underneath my upper legs, with my body erect, eyes closed. I close my eyes because I often have little kids running around me and I find it less distracting to my practice not to see them. If you are naturally stiff like me, this will take some practice, but I find it to be a very comfortable and centering position to sit. Next I simply breath in. Breathing in as deep and slowly as I can. Focusing only on my breathing. Then, when I cannot breathe in any more, I breathe out, just as slowly and just as evenly as I inhaled. One full breath takes me about 20-25 seconds. I do this ten times, incorporating the counting as part of the concentration process. The object is to focus your mind completely on your breathing and counting and let go of all other thoughts. To quiet the mind.

Sounds easy, right. What could be easier than breathing in and out and counting to ten. Nothing.

It is really hard even for this short period not to have thoughts drift into your mind. To notice my kids laughing  or yelling or whatever other distractions you have. That is normal. When the distractions be they thought of work, the dog barking or your own discomfort with the posture, you recognize the distraction and let it go. Refocus on your breath. Continue with your breathing and counting. When more distractions come, say hello to them and let them go. And Breathe.

You can do this mediation anywhere. Any time. You don’t need a lot of time. You simply need to act.

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Aug 24 2011

If You Aren’t Running Fast Enough – Stop!

I am like many of you: very busy. We can forget the things that are important to us. Or if we get busy enough, even forget to pursue our spiritual path. This website has suffered from that problem, because I was running.  I have been running so fast that I didn’t notice that as fast as I was going I wasn’t on my spiritual road any more.

So I stopped. I stopped to find my way again. I wasn’t lost. Disoriented is a better term.

This isn’t a new realization, it happens from time to time.

There is a simple solution – stop! I know it is contra intuitive. We feel like we have to run every where, to get as much done in a day as possible. Not just at work but spirituality. I mean isn’t it better to do a full hour and a half ashtanga yoga session than ten minutes of a simple meditation? If you answered like me, the immediate answer was yes.

What had happened to me was I had lost perspective: if I couldn’t do the full yoga session, I didn’t do anything. The little things weren’t good enough. When I realized that was where I was at, I stopped.

I  can’t devote my life to finding spirituality but I still want to explore who I am. I am a spiritual without religion. Because I can’t do all I want  doesn’t mean I shouldn’t stop trying. Nor should you. Moving too fast was my reason. You may have another excuse. Just stopped believing in God, or dumped your religion.  Stop.

Maybe it isn’t that you have too much activity but that your mind is racing, mulling over so many things that you can’t seem to settle on anything. Stop!

This is what I did: something very simple. I started meditating again. Not for two hours, not even for ten minutes. But I started again because it works for me. I don’t even do it every day, but I do it. Because I stopped I could see I had drifted.  I don’t meditate very long but a few minutes down my spiritual path is  progress. I am on my road again. I will continue share my journey with you.

Please join me. If you are going too fast in your life, stop and comment, and say why you haven’t been pursuing your spiritual life, and what you can do to slow down.

There may be good reasons that you found yourself running, share them.

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Oct 27 2009

Transforming Anger – The Spiritual Thief

In looking back at my experience with fasting during the month of Ramadan the thing that I struggled with most was Anger. It is a nagging shrew who was constantly tickling that back of my neck with her hot breath.

Often I find that awareness of the problem I am facing helps transform the issue. And in the past this has helped, particularly in the fasting context where physiological processes are enhancing negative emotional states, like anger. I have reminded myself that transforming anger is one of the lures of fasting as a spiritual practice. But this time it didn’t work. Sometimes, you emerge from a spiritual exercise with a different than intended experience. That was my fasting experience. And I kept wondering why I was doing it at all. I mean what is it worth if all I do is get grouchy and upset.

I think I have my own answer. That is even after all these years of fasting, I still find it challenging. The fact of its difficulty reminds me that the goal is not to have an easy time while fasting. Perhaps this was the best fast I have had in years because it was so tough. Fasting was worth the pursuit even if I didn’t like the outcome is not a reason to give up the exercise. I will repeat it again.

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Aug 26 2009

Fasting, A Classic Spiritual Practice

Since it is the month of Ramadan in Islam, the month of fasting, I thought it was a good time to talk briefly about fasting. I am not a Muslim anymore. I have mostly rejected the tenets of Islam, however fasting is one that I return to again and again.

Fasting is one of the great spiritual practices. Why? Some might argue that it is masochistic to deny oneself food all day. You will be hungry, and uncomfortable. You could become light headed and get head aches. Yes, all of those things and more. That is part of why it can become so profound. We in the west are so pampered and privileged that few of us understand hunger, that gnawing affliction that a billion persons face every day.

Fasting is important because it reminds of the notion that our full bellies are better related to the place of our birth than how hard we work or what spiritual path, if any, we follow. Sharing the discomfort of hunger gives us a place to be empathetic to others plight. Empathy is often missing from this conversation. And if that was all fasting gave the practitioner then it would be enough.

But fasting is more. It helps us remind us to practice gratitude a subject I blogged last about.

Beyond this, Fasting helps focus your attention on a spiritual concern. It removes the distractions of the physical pleasures and can help focus your spiritual energy on a subject of meditation or concern that requires some clarity. Fasting is the best for this.

Finally, Fasting reduces your desires. We have unsustainable desires and wants. We bathe in narcissism and short term gratification. Self Denial is not in our vocabulary. Fasting helps reframe the internal debate away from the me to the us.

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Jun 3 2009

Giving Thanks, a New take on an Old Theme

At some point in my spiritual journey I abandoned bowing my head and giving thanks for the meal I was about to consume. The whole process seemed hopelessly out of date. Wasn’t it based on some simplistic version of God as an old benevolent guy with a beard? But somewhere along the same path (it is interesting to note that we can abandon and renew the same processes for different reasons) that I learned that giving thanks need not be directed at a vague concept of an anthropomorphic God. Gratitude is something very basic to our culture, to most cultures. We express gratitude to someone for doing us a service. We teach our children this idea when they are very little.

When I look at the plate before me, I am grateful that I have a full amount of food to eat. Millions of people don’t have that luxury today, and millions won’t tomorrow. I am thankful that I live in a comfortable house, where weather and temperature are not an enemy but an inconvenience.  My gratitude stems from my circumstance. Whether that means I am blessed or lucky is a conversation for another time. That my children are healthy and happy has less to do with a good work ethic and intelligence than circumstances of my birth. But I am still grateful. And ultimately gratitude is a practice. You practice removing yourself as the center of the universe in this practice. It is a reminder that when I eat, and my children eat, that this is not the only option for everyone. I am hoping that with time this gratitude will extend into other areas of my life. That in my gratitude for the very small things that I could easily take for granted, I will learn to appreciate the bigger events and people in my life. The practice of thankfulness will exercise the gratitude muscle.

I don’t practice gratitude every time I sit down to eat. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if I did.

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May 17 2009

Are you Awake?

I don’t mean awake physically. In many ways we are like the Keanu Reeves character in the film The Matrix . We live our lives, often happily, but still unaware that we are missing something. We might even feel that there is something beyond getting a Starbucks double shot latte or arriving late to work. Waking up is the first important step in a journey of transforming spirituality. Unlike the movie we don’t need to take a blue pill or a red pill. But we need to step outside ourselves for a moment. It is extremely difficult. Often we need a catalyst to accomplish this. Catalysts are important because they can move us past the normal and the comfortable to real insight. What can a catalyst be? A death in the family or traumatic event, great anger or joy might propel us past our usual experience of life.

I am not saying that it is impossible to wake up without a catalyst, just harder. The obvious way is to get outside of your normal environment or engage in activity that is not typical for you. But they have to be of the type that can change your perceptions. A couple of examples are a retreat and fasting. The first separates you from your every day experience, so is in a way like a self induced catalyst. Fasting is an important subject to explore at another time, but it too can focus your attention enough to propel you out your “normal.” When I first felt the moments of clarity, of wakefulness, it was always when I was outside my comfortable environment. In these moments you see with clarity what is important to you, what pursuits spiritual or physical you should follow.

In the case of finding yourself awake because of a catalyst, like a death, you can see your life, perhaps your behavior so differently than you ordinarily see it, that you wonder why you never saw life with such perception before. And in moments of wakefulness you have an opportunity. A powerful opportunity that comes with this clarity: transformation. Transformation is more than changing an activity, it is altering who we are. If change is scary for most people, transformation can be terrifying. It often means moving past things that don’t work in your life, but are extremely comfortable. This is why you need to wake up to transform your spirituality. If we keep wandering down a road where everything is comfortable it can be like walking throught a tunnel that is air conditioned in summer: we are comfortable but we see nothing. Being awake often means stepping out of the tunnel, out of  the air condidtioning and seeing the sunshine fall on flowers. It may be hot, but life is much more beautiful this way.

I will return to the topic of wakefulness another time. The important thing to remember is that when you are awake, you need to act. Do not wait until you are back in your regular enviroment to change. If you wake up and discover that some spiritual practice is amazing. Don’t promise yourself you will start a practice at some date in the future. Begin now. And I mean now.

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Apr 29 2009

The Smiling Meditation

In this article I haven’t yet jumped into the pool of effective spiritual practices. There are many. But I will dip my toe in the water with a simple meditation that I learned in the Excellent book Essential Spirituality.  I am going to suggest this meditation before I explain why I think meditation in its different forms is powerful and important spiritual  practice. I am doing this because not everything that works or is good, begins with the mind or our rational thought process. Maybe it can be explained by it later, but often we adopt things in life because it works. This is a meditation you can do anywhere. It is simple and satisfying.  This introduction takes longer than the meditation itself. It is like meditation lite.  For the skeptics (good for you), its success has its basis in our own human physiology. If you are inclined to dismiss the spiritual side of it, that is up to you. It will still feel good and be good for you!

How to do the Smiling Meditation

Ready? Wherever you are simple take a deep inhalation saying to yourself “This breathe I take is relaxing.  And as you begin to exhale smile and say to yourself, “This breathe makes me happy.” It should take a few seconds. Now, do it again.

It is important that you smile.

It is not important if you feel like smiling or not. What is important is that you smile and breathe. We have power in simple things. By smiling it tells our body we are happy, even if we are currently less than ecstatic. This is a simple act.

But involves taking action. This is not passive Spirituality, waiting for someone or something to do something to us. I will not tell you how you will feel, after doing this only a few times.

There are physiological reasons why this simple exercise done repeatedly will transform your mindset. But the fact that it can be explained scientifically does not negate either its power or spiritual impact. Finding spirituality without religion does not need to defy logic.

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Apr 14 2009

Love as a Transformative Experience Part 1

The recent Easter holiday reminded me what a revolutionary figure Jesus was. I will skip the theology and Christian doctrine that developed years later and focus on the voice of Jesus. And what Jesus spoke a lot about was a radical concept of Love. It was love on a whole new level.  A couple of thousand years later and  it is still a radical concept, often not practiced by the persons calling themselves Christians.

We are all familiar with our every day love: Love for our family and friends, the love we have for our spouses or children. But Jesus took it a step beyond. He asked us to imagine a world where where our Love transcended our experience. He challenged our understanding of what Love can be. He moved beyond the obvious, the easy, the ordinary. Jesus was a revolutionary. He wanted to overturn the simple and easy with a new concept. This transformative Love included a bunch of people that were not easy to love.  He included the despised, the outsiders, the shunned. He included the enemy.

I will leave aside for the moment, the feasibility of this in the short term. Certainly, he did not publish a self help book showing us in three easy steps how to love the meter maid who just gave you a ticket. Transformational Love is something for us to figure out. It if for the long term. It is a thing to practice. This love does not come natural to us. Loving the unloved seems contrary to logic. But is it?

Like all spiritual concepts Love is one we have to choose. Do we want to fold this into our spiritual practice or skip it until later. Or exclude it altogether. Each of us does this on our own explicitly or implicitly. What we all choose what we want to include. even if it is to include everything that the pastor said or nothing at all in religion are choices to include or exclude spiritual matters. I think that finding spirituality is a process and understanding Love whether radical or not is part of a transforming spirituality.

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Apr 6 2009

What we can learn from Skeptics and Atheists

I have recently read Christopher Hutchins’ book, God is Not Great.

It is worth a read. Mr. Hutchins undercuts his own, often insightful, arguments with his self important, condescending, and deliberately offensive tone. He clearly has genuine anger with religion.  The worse part is that I agree with him more than I disagree. Religion as a force in history has been a stooge in political struggles, an excuse for genocide, a vehicle for bigotry and hatred. Yet Mr Hutchins and I  draw very different conclusions, but  a little about this later.
The fundamental idea beneath Mr. Hutchins’ philosophy is a form of rational skepticism. Bravo. We could could use more of both.

When someone tells us something is true but it seems false, we should challenge it. When we read something that appears mistaken or misguided we should view the facts and analyze before rendering judgment. It does not matter whether if it is supposed to be divinely inspired. Any belief system left unchallenged is not worth believing in. It is only by questioning your beliefs or faith deeply, can you begin to plumb the depths of its meaning. And we should not be afraid to question our beliefs. The beliefs that we hold that cannot stand up inquiry, deserve a second look to toss in the mental spring cleaning heap.

Skepticism can also ask you to dump the dregs of a philosophy or religion. When someone tells you that the universe was created in seven days, you have two choices (three actually, but we will get to third choice another time). First, ignore all scientific evidence to the contrary and believe, because someone told you that is what you should do. Or, second, you can come to some other conclusion. That perhaps the creation story is a myth. And not meant be take literally in our time, with our scientific knowledge. Like all good myths it is meant to impart a story with useful ideas for the human species.. OR not. Maybe this particular myth is not useful to you, or insightful. Maybe it seems even juvenile to you. The point of myths, and all stories is for us to find a kind of resonance, an agreement, or description that helps make the seemly unmanageable and indeciferable experience we call life, more, well human. But if a story or myth doesn’t work. Don’t feel abliged to hold on to it. That is skepticism. Rejecting a myth because it is a myth  is not skepticism it is ignorance.

When our religion suggests that slavery is ordained by God, as was promulgated by Christian sects for hundreds of years, we should be skeptical. When our religion commands that justice is an eye for an eye, we should question whether we want to be left in the blind world that would result, to paraphrase Gandhi. There is much to be skeptical of in religion, new and old. Because something is new age does not make it more true than the old religions, just less well known.

Ultimately, I suggest we are not just rational beings. We are emotionally, intellectual and for some, spiritual beings. For Christopher Hutchins, the world is reduced to rationality and skepticism. What a limited view. Rationality is terrific for reasoning about the physical universe, but useless when enjoying a piece of art or watching a film. We do not use our “rational” mind to enjoy music or enjoy a good book. But this idea is for another post.

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