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SPIRITUAL NOTES TO MYSELF

Hugh Prather, whom the New York Times has called “an American Kahil Gibran”, wrote a book with the title of today’s blog.  In it, are anecdotes, observations, and  spiritual wisdom that Prather has collected and absorbed for himself in over 30 years as minister, lecturer, and counselor.

You may have notebooks or quotes on your memo board that speak poignantly to your heart.  Or perhaps, they are there in way as a reminder for spiritual or emotional hopes you have…the person you would like to be at your best.

Also, there are literally thousands (probably more like millions) of books on meditation, prayer, affirmation, every religion since the dawn of time, and spirituality…practices, techniques, and thoughts.

I have more than a few of them myself.  I also keep several notebooks full with quotes, ideas, and prayers that inspire, teach, or bring comfort to me.

However, I tack a few up on my cork board beside my writing desk for several months at a time.  After absorbing their wisdom, I rotate in fresh ones . Here’s what’s up there right now:

“I will not die an unlived life.  I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.  I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.  I choose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.”  – Dawna Markova   

“For things that you believe in, pray like a preacher but fight like the Devil”.

“If we hold resentments toward the people who let us down, we’ll be exhausted.  It’s better to focus on the ones who have been there for us”.

The content of two fortune cookies are pinned up there: “Everybody feels lucky for having you as a friend” AND “We are made to persist.  That’s how we find out who we are”.

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”- Edith Wharton

A note that my beloved Dad (who tragically died too young) had written me many years ago:

 “In case you’re depressed today and feeling lonely: You are pretty!  You are smart!  You are vivacious! You have a warm smile!  You have an interesting personality!  You are a little wacky!  Five out of six ain’t bad, Love, Dad xxx” 

These thoughts make me laugh, give me a spiritual shot in the arm, and keep me reaching towards my Higher Self, the one God wants for me.

These are fitting thoughts as my little/big chicks fly the summer coop: one off to another year of college in Rhode Island, one on a year’s adventure, first in Paris and then to Senegal, and the “baby”, 6’1″, driving a car, writing his own music, towering over me, teasing me, “his little mama”.  

In closing, a gem from Mr. Prather: “Our children can see us.  They can’t see God.  Our function is not to describe God’s love or to talk endlessly about it, but to reflect it so that it can be seen.” 

 

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HERE’S YOUR HAT-WHAT’S YOUR HURRY?

There was a hit country and western song some years back with this refrain:

I’m in a hurry to get things done/Well, I rush and rush until life’s no fun/All I really gotta do is live and die/But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why

It seems the popularity of that song could have been the fact that so many people in Western culture (Americans, in particular) can relate to its message.  The “rat race”, the “to do” list, and the attending “road rage” are shared and common images in our culture.  Knowing that others are as out of sorts as we are makes us feel that we are not alone, right? 

In addition, if that’s the way it is, maybe we should just learn to grin and bear it  After all, removing ourselves from the status quo, changing, is scary and a discipline and hard work.  The truth is the “quick, get me a band-aid” balm that we all want so badly in order to continue on our own well-worn path, with its arteries of impulses and ingrained habits, creates such lasting infections of mind, body, and soul that the journey back to any semblance of wholeness becomes treacherous indeed.

We do not need a specialist to tell us that this manner of living is not healthy.  But the questions remains:  what do we do?  There remains a chasm between knowing something is out of whack and doing something about it.  For me, God bridges that ravine.  Developing a relationship with the God of my understanding has given me the wide perspective of eternity and a comfort that I am being cradled in God’s ever and ever presence.  God is the breath that I take and closer than that.  With this knowledge, I can challenge that clamor of my days with the breadth of my life.

Like all relationships, this takes commitment, time, and attention.  The fruit of blending the rushed routine of our everyday self with the person who we are, way down deep, is a kind of spiritual maturity that does not jump at every tugging.  Of course, in order to find a slower cadence in the flurry of daily activities requires us to stop at intervals throughout the day.  In my experience, without time for prayer and meditation, true inner peace cannot be sustained in any meaningful way. 

Once an ongoing sense of the Presence of God has been established in the subtleties that encompass and extend well beyond the epiphany moments of our lives, the roominess of eternity can get good and cozy in our souls.  The erratic pace kept up in averting the eyes from death, is like the proverbial ghost in the closet.  He frightens us less and less, as we come to know him more and more. 

From the lazy river of a timeless spirit, our cup overflows.  We can promote peace, bring mercy, and be comforted.  We can then wholeheartedly ask that “Thy will be done.”  As Howard Thurman states, “the will of God is native to my spirit.  It is the fundamental character of me.  It is the foundation of my mental, physical, and spiritual structure.  It is what I find when I am most myself.  It is what I find when I get down to the deepest things in me.  It is what is revealed when all the superficial things are sloughed off and I am essentially laid bare.”  Then, and only then, can Thy will be done.

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The Anatomy of a Grudge

Sometimes it feels like we need a crowbar to pry out and break apart some of our deepest held resentments. The anatomy of a grudge begins as anger and hurt that sometimes weeps silently, and other times oozes wrecklessly like steamy black pitched tar, obstructing our clean air, suffocating the surfaces of our heart. And when that tar hardens, our soul freezes in a way, locked in stone. We go out about daily routines, we may even experience happy moments, but we are not truly spiritually whole.  It’s different than times of sadness or even when our tempers temporarily flare…we are stuck.       

Yet there always is a choice.  We can stay huddled under our covers (literally or metaphorically speaking), holding tight to our misery, our self-righteousness, we can wear it as our heavy armour.  And indeed, it is.  Our protective gear of fear.  I’m reminded of a song by Simon & Garfunkel, “I am a rock, I am an island…and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

But neither do they grow.  The anatomy of a grudge is that it is built to shrink those that it inhabits. It’s only method of expanding is to poison future generations with the worn out feelings of bitterness, of being done wrong. The only way that crowbar is going to give way is by loosening your iron will, by the sweat of your earnest prayers.  Asking to forgive, asking for forgiveness.  Expanding your notions of compassion, to include those who have injured you most completely, even yourself.

OK, but how do we do that?  After all, this blog is Spirituality for the Practical.  Some helpful suggestions include journaling your feelings.  Writing a letter to the person(s) that you hold the resentments towards, but only for yourself.  You can throw it away or burn it, releasing what had been stuck.  Using prayer (asking for God’s help) and guided meditation are time honored methods for engaging the process of putting the past behind you.  You can share your burden with a family member, friend, professional counselor, or spiritual advisor.   

The benefits of this process are related in a Mayo Clinic article, dated Dec. 8, 2007, entitled “Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness”.  The list is significant: healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological well-being, less stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, and less risk of alcohol and substance abuse.

Jesus too points to the practical benefits of forgiveness.  In Matthew 5: 25-26, He says: “Settle with your opponent quickly while on your way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown in prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”  If you don’t deal with disagreements and arguments close to when they occur, they tend to fester. While revenge may then seem like a logical next move, in the end, you are the one who pays.

Ask and you will receive.  Keep knocking on that door, trusting that sooner or later, you will be answered, either out of love or the peskiness of persistence.  No matter…clinging resentment can be unglued.  Molten madness can be unearthed.  We don’t notice that our inner life is changing at first.  And then the tiniest opening, some of the suffocating blackness chips away.  There is light down below!  The crowbar falls, we are tired with the toil of love.

Book of the Day: The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie               

Quote from the Book of the Day: “It’s okay to be angry, but it isn’t healthy to be resentful.  Regardless of what we learned as children, no matter what we saw role-modeled, we can learn to deal with our anger in ways that are healthy for us and for those around us.  We can have our angry feelings.  We can connect with them, own them, feel them, express them, release them, and be done with them.  We can learn to listen to what anger is telling us about what we want and need in order to take care of ourselves.”

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Mindfulness…Just Do It

Last fall, I took a refresher course, attending an eight week mindfulness workshop at the First Parish Church in Concord, MA.  About 20 years ago, I had completed a similar course and for several years after that was somewhat of a devotee.  To say that practicing mindfulness is life changing would be true, to the degree that I actually practice its tenets, that I show up each day with myself/for myself for a half hour or so.  While daily prayer and meditation are the unequivocal spiritual powerhouses, necessities to deepen our soul and to share the best of who we are with others, I still like to take a day or two or three off sometimes.  Hence the need for a tune up and a reminder to begin again…and again…and again.

Why do we struggle so with those things we know are better than good for us? We humans just seem to have a penchant for desiring the shinier, easier, faster approach in any given moment instead.  Prayer is simply not glitzy and meditation does not usually provide immediate results.  The same holds true for exercise or a healthy diet or raising a child.  So can you hear the voice?  You know the one, “I think I’ll have a cup of tea and cookies instead this afternoon.  After all, that’s relaxing too.” Or, “Suzy just called and I hadn’t talked to Suzy in so long, and you know, by the time I got around to meditating, it was time to make dinner.”

Every perennial dieter knows the slippery slope when a day or two of indulgence leads into weeks or even months of a return to bad habits. The same goes for prayer. Do you ever save praying for bedtime and fall asleep in the middle of it or before you get started? I present it like this, because I am a gal with varied interests. I am not a plodder. I do not like the same breakfast food every morning. But like every one of us, I am also a dichotomy.  While I adore novelty, I need routine.

I work out 5-6 times a week (mostly running and some light weight training) and have since I was a freshman in college.  I must admit that I feel more than a bit off kilter without it.  Also, I am fiercely loyal, loving the enduring quality of old friends, and looking  forward to our long standing weekly lunches. In fact, a major part of my spiritual journey has been learning to let go, having had the tendency (very much a mixed blessing) to hold on and hope in relationships until hit with an anvil of mammoth proportions.    

So mindfulness brings balance to these occasionally oppositional impulses, knowing when to let go, when to persevere, harmonizing my desire for variety and my need for certainty.  

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I would dutifully find a chair or mat each day and allow my thoughts to drift on by, like words on a series of passing clouds.  I wrestled with monkey mind, the term which simply refers to the mind’s tendency to jump from one thought to the next…the on-going to-do list, last night’s argument with your significant other, where to go on winter vacation, can we afford to go on winter vacation, yada yada yada. The attending emotions to these thoughts gradually loosened their hold on me over time.

Clarity would be granted (not for long stretches of time, mind you, and not the imagined perfect bliss), but a quiet soul sigh. I used to tell my kids when they were little that you don’t get clean, strong teeth if you only brush your teeth 3 or 4 times a week, you need to do it every day.  Spiritual health holds to the same principle of consistency just as physical health does. Half hearted attempts avail us either nothing or only partial benefits.  A reasonable consistency, mind you, is the hallmark of all positive life shifts.  Notice I say reasonable.  Those of us prone to impulsivity or compulsion (me) also tend to be pendulum swingers.  Just do it, routinely but flexibly. And don’t worry, no matter how you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

Book Pick of the Day: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Quote from the Book of the Day: “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 lets forth a cry which 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 minute of life.”

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Does It Matter What You Call Yourself?

The short answer to that question is no.

Today’s inspiration comes from two magazine articles.  One was a thought provoking piece by Jon Meacham in the April 13th, 2009 issue of Newsweek, entitled “The End of Christian America” and the other was published recently in the January 26th, 2010 issue of The Christian Century with the heading “More people are praying, but religious ties are fraying”. Statistics cited in Newsweek were as follows :

-The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, from 8 to 15%.

-The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76%.

-The number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990, from 1 million to 3.6 million.  Meacham adds, “That is double the number of say, Episcopalians in the United States.” 

These numbers reflect a bending towards a spirituality that is a result of personal and personal soul searching, people looking to develop an inner life that is both meaningful AND practical. Christianity is unequivocally included in the mix, but not unexplored, unquestioned Christianity.  These trends validate what I have experienced over the years with those who form a wide swath of religious affiliations and spiritual practices.  While the idea of “taking what you like and leaving the rest” is an anathema* to many of my colleagues in theology, the notion of freedom is primal to the American psyche.  It permeates our daily living, in ways both conscious and unconscious.  And, at the end of the day, if you don’t buy into some religious idea, no matter how many times you repeat it at church, at some level you’re still not convinced.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  Practicing within a specific faith tradition, being steeped in it, does bring rich gifts that mere dabblers will never enjoy.  I also deeply believe in the need for a faith community that both supports and challenges you on your shared journeys.   However, we need to find people where they are, not where we are.  If one’s job is to help grow a soul (and that is my occupation, present company included) that means listening to hear where people find comfort or courage or meaning.  People want their faith to make sense.  Whether you are a member of a mainstream religious denomination or are an unchurched atheist, taking care of your spiritual health needs to have some pragmatic benefits just like taking care of your physical health does. And that would include using a holistic, even eclectic approach to the care of one’s inner life.

And that is demonstrated in the data listed in The Christian Century, “The number of  Americans who are praying is increasing at the same time that more of them say they have no formal religious affiliation, according to a major polling organization.” While adults who practice daily prayer has risen from 52 to 59%, those who never attend a religious service has also risen from 13 to 22%, an increase of 9%.  Omar McRoberts, a University of Chicago sociologist and researcher, states, “This represents an apparent shift in patterns of spiritual practice and identity away from the familiar institutions.  We are witnessing a decoupling of ‘spirituality’ from ‘religion’. I think we can expect to see yet more novel versions of religiosity appear, in response to changes in spirituality.”

What does all of this mean for the individual and for the community, in the best sense?  It means an opening, it means hope for interfaith dialogue and a loosening of prejudices and opportunites for conversations between the believer, the agnostic, and the atheist.  Where does each of them find spiritual sustenance?  What seems to work and what doesn’t?  It means that those who are Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish, may also incorporate Buddhist meditation techniques in their daily routines.  It means that the atheist may be able to read the Bible with a little less skeptism and a little more curiosity.  It reflects a softening and a turning away from the harsh rhetoric of so many of our so-called spiritual leaders.  And, finally, it allows for expanding notions of what constitutes the Gospel, the good news.

*anathema-Latin for ‘doomed offering’, it presently means a formal church ban, usually including excommunication.

Book of the Day: Thirst by Mary Oliver

Quote from the Book of the Day (actually a poem):
When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees/especially the willows and the honey locust/equally the beech, the oaks and the pines/they give off such hints of gladness.  I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself/in which I have goodness, and discernment/and never hurry through the world/but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.”/The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say/”and you too have come/into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled/with light, and to shine.”

Tomorrow’s post: “Putting the Joy Back in Jihad”

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