One question that has often come up in the many spiritual conversations I’ve been part of over the years is “What is the experience of God”? It’s a question that no one, even my friends in the monastery, can quite agree on. My basic answer is that I don’t either. However, I do have a few thoughts about it. More and more many people wonder if there even is a God. I don’t know that either with any certitude and I am always amazed at how offended some people get when I say that. I’m not saying there’s no God. I’m just saying that I don’t really know. Isn’t not knowing why people have faith? I think there are some experiences and feelings that we all have as human beings. Do you ever have a sense of longing but you are not sure what you are longing for? Do you ever feel empty or incomplete? Are you hungry for something beyond food but you are not sure what you hunger for? I believe these feelings, at their root, are spiritual. We are all desiring some kind of unity or oneness with someone or something. I do spend a fair amount of time meditating and practicing mindfulness. Sometimes when I am being silent and still, I do experience feelings of peace. There are also times when I experience what some people would call “warm, fuzzy feelings”. Occasionally I feel one with the universe. Are these feelings the experience of God? Again, I don’t know. They might just be pleasant feelings or my imagination. I guess all I can really say is that I have all the feelings I mentioned above. I don’t always know why I have them. Something or someone seems to be always calling me forward. Is the inner voice I hear God speaking to me or just me talking to myself? Again, I don’t know. I suppose someday I will find out or maybe I won’t.
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
“Your own self-realization is the greatest service you can render to the world”.
In my mind, self-realization is the same as what Abraham Maslow calls “Self-Actualization”. It is the pinnacle of what he calls the Hierarchy Of Needs. As you can see below, the achievement of one set of needs normally leads to the next level of needs. Except in the most exceptional of people you will not likely achieve self-realization or self-actualization if you are starving to death, living on the streets, lonely, and with no sense of self-esteem. Our most basic needs as human beings must be met if we are to achieve the higher levels of fulfillment. It is when we reach the self-actualization level of our personal growth that we discover what Thomas Merton and others call our “true self”. This is the self that achieves our full potential as a person and who has the most to give and offer to the world. This is the true goal for all of us. You may achieve other goals in life but they won’t be as important as achieving your full potential and recognizing your own gifts and talents. This is a life long journey. You won’t reach it by age twenty five. I am now sixty five and still striving for it.
The difference between grief and joy is what we do with them. Grief we push away. Joy we try to hold on to. When we refuse our grief, it stays. When we try to control our joy, it leaves. That’s the way these processes are.
-Ann Wilson Schaef
I have not experienced a lot of grief in my life. Yes, people have died in my life but for most of them it was their time and I was able to accept it. A big exception to this was the death of a dear friend a few years ago that was both sudden and unexpected. I am still grieving that loss. Of course, grief is about more than accepting and dealing with the deaths of people. There are many kinds of losses in our lives. It could be the end of a relationship or a job. In some ways I have lost my children because they are now adults with lives of their own. They are no longer the little boys who used to fight with me and beat me up in the middle of my living room floor. I have also lost my youth and must accept that I am not the man I was at age thirty. On a positive note I think I am a better man although one with considerably less physical abilities. I have been blessed to experience more joy in my life than sorrow. The temptation of joy is the desire to re-create the situation that gave us joy. I am thinking of a past solitary moment, early on a cool autumn morning, when I sat on the side of a hill, while the sun rose over a lake and the light was shining through the trees and burning the mist from the lake’s surface. It was one of my contemplative, Zen moments and I experienced what some psychologists call “flow.” This is the experience of being so in the moment that you transcend time and space and are truly in the now. On a different day I could plan such a moment and feel nothing. The joy of the initial experience was a gift, not a reward. I did nothing to earn it. It just happened. Does this make sense? As people we are deeply emotional beings whether we realize it or not. Some of us embrace our feelings while others of us repress them. I tend to do a little of both. It’s easy to embrace joy or love but I tend to repress feelings like anger. Sooner or later repressed feelings will make themselves known. Often they show up as physical ailments like headaches or depression. I guess my advice would be to feel your feelings. It’s wonderful to jump for joy but it’s also OK to feel angry once in a while. It’s all about balance. I’m not sure it’s possible to be happy, joyful, and upbeat every minute of the day. To be honest, people like that wear me out. However, if you are angry and negative all the time, you might want to work on that. It’s not normal or healthy.
Friday, August 19, 2016
The chapters of our life stories can often be taken from the decades in which we have lived. I was a child of the 50’s, a time many considered idyllic. I came of age in the 60’s, a time that was turbulent and a time in which there were many substantial changes in our culture. In the 70’s I got a job, married a wife, bought a house, and became a parent. Most of the 80’s and 90’s were devoted to turning a job into a career and raising two boys into men. In the early 2000’s life changed for all of us because of 9/11. I also became a grandfather and I discovered I had a gift for writing and sharing feelings that many people have but cannot always articulate. I am now in my mid 60’s and my aging seems accelerated even though I am trying to slow my life down by downshifting as much as I can. I feel like I am on the other side of the mountain but I am OK with that. While climbing up the mountain I feel I accumulated some wisdom and a little enlightenment. Life has been a tall mountain so I am not sure how long it will take me to get to the bottom of it. I am in no hurry because I am enjoying the ride now. It’s much easier because it is all downhill. Life is a journey and every step is important. How would you measure your life so far? What are the chapters of your life? Is the peak of your mountain in front of you or must you look over your shoulder to see it?
All of us are sometimes criticized. It is often referred to as constructive feedback to give it a more positive spin but it still usually feels like good old criticism. I have been criticized many times in my life and I admit that I didn't always take it very well. It's not because I think I am perfect. It's more because I really strive to do things well and to always do the right thing. When someone tells me I am not meeting an expectation, it hurts. I don't know if there is a painless way to receive and accept constructive feedback. I do believe, however, there are painless and positive ways to give constructive feedback. First of all you must always respect the dignity and feelings of the person on the receiving end. Constructive feedback can be presented in a gentle, even loving, way. Constructive feedback doesn't have to be presented with negative terminology. The reality of a situation can be presented in a non-threatening way balanced with positive examples of how the situation could have been handled or how it might be handled in the future. I don't believe any decent human being comes to work or does anything with the intention of making mistakes or doing poorly. In today's complex and highly technical work environments the use of computers often makes the possibility of errors more likely than not. Some management gurus, like W. Edwards Deming, believe that mistakes in the workplace are usually the blame of a system or a process rather than people. When was the last time a "system" or a "process" was put on a work improvement program? People seem like the only option for criticism so they are usually given the blame. None of us are perfect, we do sometimes make mistakes, and sometimes our mistakes may be carelessness. Sometimes we may need encouragement or some deserved criticism. If we deserve it, we need to be humble and accept that we have made a mistake or need to get our heads on straight. If we are the leader, the parent, or the friend, do it in a caring, non- threatening way so the person walks away with some dignity and resolve to try harder. Encourage them. Don't break their spirit.
Here’s something I once read from a book called Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh.
We try to be in touch with life and look deeply as we drink our tea, walk, sit down, or arrange flowers. The secret of the success is that you are really yourself, and when you are really yourself, you can encounter life in the present moment.
Today I want all of you to really be who you are. Along with being who you are I want you to be where you are and I want you to do what you are doing. This might all sound simple but it is not. Most people are not who they really are. Most of us are trying to be who we think we need to be to impress or appease others. Most of us are not where we are. Our minds and bodies are rarely in the same place. Whatever most of us are doing, we are probably thinking about what we need to do next. Many of our lives demand multi-tasking and that really complicates things. In today’s world it is very challenging to only do one thing at a time. Wherever you are today, and whatever you are doing each moment, be there and do it. If you’re drinking your coffee, tea, or soda, really drink it. Know that you are drinking it. When you have a snack or eat your lunch, know that you are doing it. Taste your food, enjoy it’s flavor, and mindfully chew it. If you are outside, and there is a breeze, feel the wind. Today is going to be sunny so it will be a simple task to feel the sun. Simply put, live your life today and enjoy every minute of the day. Be alive and awake.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
“To meditate a short time with depth is better than to meditate for long hours with the mind running wild”
As much as I try to be a centered and balanced person, sometimes my mind is running wild and I feel like I am going in ten different directions. Life did not always seem as fast paced as it is now. It seems there is always something to do and somewhere to go. Living in such a vortex without getting blown away requires deep roots. Meditation is good fertilizer for these roots. As much as I talk about meditation I do not spend hours a day in hypnotic bliss. In the morning I strive for 10-15 minutes of quiet as I sip my coffee. Once I leave home and slip into the madness of daily life I am often pulled out of my center. When I am lucky enough to have some presence of mind I can quiet my mind and breathe. Being centered within myself while being actively engaged with the demands and tasks of life is a never ending tug of war. It is impossible to be consciously centered all the time. The best we can do is be aware of when we are and when we are not. Returning to our center throughout our day can be the North Star on our inner compass.