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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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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