Stewardship

Last week I was in western Maryland to provide two days of training to mental health professionals interested in learning how to help men and women mired in gambling, an addiction now referred to as “Gambling Disorder” in the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s classification system of psychopathology.  Gambling Disorder is becoming increasingly common in the United States, and in many other countries, as governmental jurisdictions legalize gambling venues and activities.  Paraphrasing a famous statement in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”  When new gambling ventures become available, rates of Gambling Disorder in the area increase accordingly.

In the course of my conversations with the professionals in these training sessions, the word “stewardship” came up.  It’s an appropriate word, I think, to consider when looking at this sort of addiction.  A steward is one who is appointed to take care of something of value, perhaps to manage the wealth of another, or the well being of a loved one.  Throughout history stewards have held positions of great respect, often entrusted to act independently for the benefit and welfare of one not present or without power or the capacity to control.  To be a steward means to be a person of high character, strong moral bearing, and trustworthiness.  It is an honorable title.

The person mired in Gambling Disorder has an addiction in which he is no longer a steward of his material well being.  He has fallen into the trap of squandering his goods for the sake of a temporary feeling that may include anticipation, excitement, or joy.  At other times the person with Gambling Disorder seeks to dissociate from feelings that are unpleasant, or even very painful.  At its worst, the gambling behavior has become a flight to a sense of ego self that is false, based on narcissistic fantasy rather than gentle acceptance.  Whatever the ends sought by the gambler, he allows his wealth, his mind, and his spirit to dissipate and, in time, collapse into ruin.

It always occurs to me when working with persons with Gambling Disorder that they have lost sight of being stewards of their minds, and this, I believe, is their greatest loss.  Our minds are unique; very rare is it that a sentient being has self awareness, or mindedness.  We are able to not only know, but we are able to know that we know.  Our capacity as a species for self awareness allows for insight into the nature of our suffering, our joy, our being.  This self awareness, directed at the activity of mind and body with compassion and understanding, is the basis of our mindfulness practice.

When we become mired in our own versions of suffering, our minds and our bodies are damaged.  The pain of life emerges, inevitably, and we easily fall into the trap of demanding that life be on our own terms, always pleasant, at least by our definitions, always congruent with our own intentionality.  Yet life is rarely this way, and we suffer for the differences.  Our clinging to these delusions is the source of the suffering, and meanwhile the pain of life lingers unmet and unresolved, leading to another round of aversion and judgment, and more suffering.  As this suffering perpetuates our bodies respond with tremendous stress reactions, causing damage to our organic self, and our minds sink further and further into distress.

The way you practice mindfulness, both formally (in your practice of meditation, whether sitting, walking, mindful yoga…) and informally (staying awake in each present moment without judgment) is an act of stewardship for your mind and body.  As you practice radical noticing, radical awareness of breath, and radical acceptance, your body stands down and relaxes, and your mind is free to see with clarity, with wisdom, and with compassion.  This simple activity, even if only practiced formally for five or ten minutes, is the care taking of the person who is steward of his/her mind and body.  Please, when you find yourself thinking “I just don’t have time to sit” consider the alternative, the damage that mindlessness causes, and wonder if “I can afford to NOT sit today!”  If you are not a steward of your mind, who will be?  Can anyone other than yourself be this steward?

Don’t delay!  Take to heart the admonition of the Zen night chant:

“Life and death are of supreme importance.

Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.

Let us awaken

awaken….

Do not squander your life.”

Peace,

Jim

Our Daily Bread

Last month my wife and I escaped the dreariness of winter on the east coast of the USA to sunny southern California for 9 days.  Not that either of us was sinking into a depression, but I think that as we age we’re noticing that the dark days of winter lend themselves to a sinking of mood, energy, and motivation.  We held up well through January, but by early February we were in need of a break, and decided to visit our son and daughter in law in a sunnier clime.

On our fifth day out west we discovered a small coffee shop and bakery called “Our Daily Bread.”  It was a delightful spot to sit and sip a cup of tea, munch on a pastry, and loll about.  Our conversation often turned philosophical, as we looked back at the blessings the years have brought to us and wondered about the years to come, as we age (gracefully, we hope) and enjoy our adult children and our grandson (to be joined by siblings and cousins, we hope again!).

Reflecting our life together, we know that we’ve avoided one of Buddhism’s three poisons, greed.  Selfish craving is at the heart of suffering, a truth found across all religious landscapes and philosophical systems.  Selfish craving, which arises from our ignorance, another of the three poisons, results from our unwillingness to accept life on life’s terms.  Greed is the desire that life be something other than what it is, and is by no means limited to simply living for more and more material goods.  It runs much deeper: it is the insatiable desire to have things just the way we believe (falsely) they MUST be.  There are many manifestations of greed, and the most pernicious are very subtle.  Most of us recognize greed for material things, but we can easily miss our greed for life to be “better” than it is, and not hurt at all.  For instance, as we age, our aches and pains and creaky limbs can easily be experienced with aversion (or hatred, the other of the three poisons), leading to the arousal of a fundamental and profound dissatisfaction with the conditions of life.  Add in the loss of family and friends to aging, illness, and death, and our greed can become the seed for a hellish hatred of life, leading to untold suffering.

One antidote to greed, or selfish craving, is found in the profound simplicity and wisdom of Christendom’s greatest prayer, The Lord’s Prayer.  I have cherished this oration since my catechism classes in parochial school, and recited it with devotion and an ever evolving understanding every day for most of my life.  This prayer begins with a simple declaration of the truth of God’s existence: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”  The verb “to be” is invoked, in the present tense, immediately informing us that God simply IS.  Do not waste your time in speculation about God’s nature, God’s time, and God’s attributes; that’s just an invitation to go down the path to profound ignorance.  Simply inhabit a world in which God IS.  The prayer goes on to express the aspiration for God’s presence (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done”), after reminding us that God’s name is hallowed, not to be known, not to be uttered.  After these simple yet profound declarations, The Lord’s Prayer tells us how to live our lives, and in doing so echoes the truths taught to us by the Buddha about the three poisons that lead to suffering.

“Give us this day Our Daily Bread.”  I know I’ve recited these words many thousands of times, and have learned that it is important to say them mindfully.  What is my “Daily Bread” anyway?  For me, it’s come to mean the simple necessities of life and the means to earn and provide them.  Shelter from the elements.  Nutritious food, prepared well and without ostentation.  Clothing appropriate to my duties and activities.  Beyond shelter, food, and clothing, an automobile to take me to the places I must go, some books to read, some music to enjoy.  Loving contact with friends and family.  The acceptance of simple pleasures, eschewing shows of wealth and illusions of superiority.

“Our Daily Bread” is living life simply.  It is allowing satisfaction with life to emerge, knowing that life may be pleasant or unpleasant, easy or difficult, sometimes all of these conditions at the same time.  “Our Daily Bread” is living life as it happens, shaping it with compassion (the antidote to hatred/aversion) and wisdom (the antidote to ignorance), but also allowing life to shape me.  “Our Daily Bread” is the faith that life will shape me in the ways I must be shaped, teaching me generosity (the antidote to greed), compassion and wisdom.  “Our Daily Bread” is a commitment I can make each morning and evening, a commitment to living life centered on interrelatedness.  Perhaps Francis of Assisi said it best with his famous prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is discord, harmony;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Try bringing the sense of living “Our Daily Bread” to your mindfulness practice. Perhaps form a daily intention to recognize “Our Daily Bread” moments throughout the day.  If you do, you may find that you’re surrounded by a multitude of bakers, all waiting to serve you your daily bread!

Peace,

Jim