Today, for me, is a day for “being” much more than for “doing.” Waking up to a scratchy throat, stuffy nose, and lower energy than is usual, I choose to rest and take care of myself. I am fortunate that I am able to do that; many cannot afford that luxury.
Revisiting literature that is eternal and universal, I picked up Thoreau’s “Letter to a Spiritual Seeker,” and sought out my favorite quote from his letters to Harrison Blake:
“I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. Well anything for variety. I am ready to try this for the next 1000 years, & exhaust it. How sweet to think of! My extremities well charred, and my intellectual part too, so that there is no danger of worm or rot for a long while. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it – for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”
– Henry David Thoreau; “Letters to a Spiritual Seeker”
In a way it may be easier to be contented “with nothing definite – only a sense of existence” when not feeling very well. Illness reminds us that we can only live one day at a time. Why not cherish each day? How often do we consider how life “should” be, rather than seeing the beauty and the good in this day, in this moment, as life actually is, even when this moment isn’t terribly pleasant.
Today is my 66th birthday. I like my age! At this age I find it easier to discern decisions, speak my mind, and notice what matters the most. I think I know my values and virtues by now. I try to live them intentionally, one day at a time. I have learned that when I live my values and virtues everything else seems to fall easily into place.
On my birthdays I take the time to revisit books that have meant a lot to me. Don’t get me wrong; I worked today! But in between appointments I recollected many of the ideas that I found useful and profound over the years. I was drawn to Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal, which influenced me in ways difficult to describe, and still informs me today. Reading again his description of his experience at Polonnaruwa on Sri Lanka, I couldn’t help but think of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experiences and his four conditions for an experience to be “religious:” ineffable, noetic, transient and passive. Merton certainly was able to check those boxes that day!
On January 27, 2014 I published an essay on this website titled “Wanting….Needing….” (https://jamesmwalshpastoralcounseling.com/2014/01/27/wanting-needing/) In that essay I referenced Merton’s religious experience on Polonnaruwa as well as a recent visit my wife and I had made to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. After going back to read from Merton and James, I went back and reread my essay on wanting and needing. It seemed relevant to me personally again, and perhaps is relevant to the times we live in.
Today’s meditation includes a reading of that essay with display of some photos from that webpage. Here are the video and audio recordings of today’s meditation:
“The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”
Difficult times seem to bring out our best or our worst sides. Much of our response to difficulties is dependent on our attitude toward difficulty itself. To be avoided? Denied? Or to be faced squarely, accepted. Willing to work with it? Or not? We can say “it’s not fair” but, after all, the road is always messy the way real life is always messy.
If we’re going to do the work of being mindful then our first lesson is to practice acceptance. Acceptance is often mistaken for an attitude of “everything is fine; don’t worry.” But that is not true; sometimes everything is not okay.
You’re in a convenience store; an alarm blares; you smell smoke. Employees are panicking, running out of all the doors as you hear a siren in the distance. EVERYTHING IS NOT OK!
Perhaps a more relevant situation would sound like this:
A child I am serving comes to school agitated. He lashes out easily; can’t sit still. He’s ready to fight. The room is tense. Other children in the room are getting agitated now. And I don’t know what to do.
When we practice acceptance we commit ourselves to seeing each moment of our life as inevitable, given what has come before. As a result we’re rarely surprised, though we still may feel startled. When I practice acceptance I form the intention to notice what is happening, not taking it personally, not judging anyone involved. As acceptance becomes a felt experience, I notice strong emotions forming and arising, but they are events I am experiencing rather than the experience itself. And with acceptance, I can notice a space between the event and my response, a space that contains my freedom to act with skill rather than with impulsiveness or defensiveness, without my anger or fear getting in the way. And calm returns quickly to me, and that calm becomes contagious.
A few good quotes:
First, from an interview with Dr. Laurie Santos of Yale University in the NYTimes:
Question: What does the research say about how happiness is affected during Covid?
Answer: The message I’ve seen from the current research is that Covid’s not great for well-being; symptoms of depression and symptoms of anxiety tend to be going up. And those are systematically worse in more vulnerable populations. So if you look at, say, African-Americans right now, the effects of that stuff is worse. If you look at lower-income individuals or folks who don’t have child care help — all the folks who would normally be getting a well-being hit — it’s worse in the context of Covid.
Question: So how can we achieve happiness in chaos?
Answer: Try not to run away from those negative emotions. As parents, when kids are expressing uncertainty, your instinct is to just deny it or pretend it’s not there, to “power through it.” But uncertainty, fear, frustration, anger, jealousy — all of those negative emotions — they’re not going away. You need to give them space. One technique is to use meditation, where you really try to recognize and accept those emotions. In particular, RAIN: recognize, accept, investigate and nurture.”
Second, some wisdom from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (page 417):
And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.
And the video and audio from the October 13, 2020 meditation session:
Stoic philosophy is sometimes mistaken for pessimism. It is anything but that. Instead it is realistic, noticing reality without judging it, and it is radically accepting, always teaching us to be aware of the worst fault you find in others, as it may be the fault you most fear in yourself. In our mindfulness practice we follow this same philosophy closely. In these pandemic days it is easy to fall into the trap of pessimism, but our mindfulness practice guides us into seeing reality as it is, and our practice of acceptance allows us to respond with skill and with vigor. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations reminds us of these timeless principles. In today’s meditation I have used some quotes from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The video and audio of this session can be found beneath the quotes.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
“You have the power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
If you would like to join one of these sessions in real time, here are the details:
11:50 am Zoom Meeting site opens (11:50 EDT [USA]; 15:50 GMT)
12:10 – 12:15 A Brief Talk from Dr. Walsh: Lessons we can learn from Mindfulness