Three Minute Breathing Space

I’m too busy to meditate!  I don’t have time to sit on a cushion in the morning!  Or in the evening!

OK, we’re all too busy and though we desperately need to stop, slow down, tune in, and allow comfort and ease to return to our bodies and minds, we just don’t have the space in our schedule to do so.  It’s not easy out there, and some days are less easy than others.

To help you find a way to have a little bit of structured mindfulness practice I’ve recorded a 3-minute Breathing Space meditation, that ironically is 4 minutes long!  The first minute is a bit of “the basics” (e.g. basic posture, reminder to form the intention to pay attention without judgment), but the final 3 minutes are very simple: tune in to the body, tune in to the breath, then watch whatever is arising in body/mind with equanimity.  This first recording is in the m4a format used by Apple computers:

This second recording is in the mp3 format:

 

So give yourself a break!  You’ve been working so hard today, and you deserve to take at least 3 minutes off to allow your body/mind to rest.

Peace,

Jim

Religiousness, Part I

As much as I’ve practiced mindfulness, in formal and informal ways, I’ve struggled to understand how my practice relates to my religious life.  This struggle has been limited to my “understanding” of this interrelatedness, not to my visceral experiencing of spirituality.  To be spiritual is to be experiencing life and its ultimate questions, and mindfulness is fundamentally an experiential practice, not an intellectual exercise.  Despite the heightened spiritual experiencing that mindfulness brings, I still haven’t answered my fundamental questions of a religious nature.

It is not unusual these days to hear people say “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  While that may be true for a lot of people, I think it may be more accurate for most of these people to say “I seek spiritual experiences that help me to understand religious questions, but I do not want to be associated with religion and its dogma and practices.”  To make sense of this, a few definitions are in order.  First, the word “religious” can be related to different referents, such as a person who has been ordained or taken vows within a religion (e.g. a Catholic priest or nun, a Protestant minister, Jewish rabbi, Moslem imam are all considered by their religions to be “a religious,” which is a noun in this case) or to a particular religion to which a person belongs (e.g. “I am a religious Catholic”).  But in a broader sense “religious” refers to questions about ultimate concerns, such as “What is God?”, “Is there a God?”, “What is the purpose of life?”, “What is my purpose?”.  The list of religious questions is pretty much endless.  These are the questions that are difficult to answer in a purely intellectual fashion, and today when we hear people say “I’m not religious” I think that they often mean “I’m not satisfied with the answers that dogmatic religions have for these kind of questions.”  In this sense “religion” is reduced to a system of beliefs (e.g. dogma) and practices (e.g. liturgical rites) that intend to answer religious questions, but provides answers to those questions that are in conformity to a particular set of answers, and limits the freedom of the individual to develop his/her own responses.

So I think we’ve seen the definitions of two words, religion and religious, but what of “spirituality”?  As mentioned above, spirituality always refers to an experience that a person or a group of people have.  But spiritual experiencing is quite particular, as opposed to our typical and mundane experiencing of traffic lights and tastes of food and tiredness and boredom and excitement and washing and folding clothes and brushing teeth and making beds in the morning and feeding the dog and listening to the radio and……….In other words, all of the experiences of a typical day.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written extensively on spirituality and its experiencing and has made this statement about mystics (people who seek out and value spiritual experiences): “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness,  contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity”  (from his book “I’m God, Your Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego”).  I love this definition of the mystic, the person who seeks spiritual experiencing.  It suggests that the spiritual experience is unlike mundane experiencing in that it is the moment in which we sense, that is truly feel, some hidden unity, rather than the broken and scattered reality that we usually apprehend.

I’d like to close out this essay on that thought, that spirituality is the experiencing of the hidden and very real unity of all of existence.  In another essay I’d like to discuss this more, but for now will leave you with a poem that I think captures something important about spiritual experiencing.

Oh friend,

Had I known you are in the breeze I would have walked more.

Had I known you are in the stillness of now I would have sat more.

Had I known you are everywhere in everything I would have lived more.

Had I known you are eternal I would have died more.

by Amir Hossein Imani

Peace,

Jim

Waves

I do not remember when I was first introduced to the haiku and prose of Matsuo Basho, the great Japanese poet from the 16th century.  I cannot claim any special knowledge or expertise when it comes to poetry in general or haiku in particular, but I have to acknowledge that on occasion a particular poem will transfix me, bringing a moment of sheer illumination and joy.  Here’s a bit of prose, and a haiku, from the opening of Basho’s classic “Narrow Road to the Interior:”

The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering. Coming home from a year’s walking tour of the coast last autumn, I swept the cobwebs from my hut on the banks of the Sumida just in time for New Year, but by the time spring mists began to rise from the fields, I longed to cross the Shirakawa Barrier into the Northern Interior. Drawn by the wanderer-spirit Dôsojin, I couldn’t concentrate on things. Mending my cotton pants, sewing a new strap on my bamboo hat, I daydreamed. Rubbing moxa into my legs to strengthen them, I dreamed a bright moon rising over Matsushima. So I placed my house in another’s hands and moved to my patron Mr. Sampû’s summer house in preparation for my journey. And I left a verse by my door:

Even this grass hut

may be transformed

into a doll’s house.

Translated by Sam Hamill

(Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, a.k.a. The Essential Bashô, 1998)

What captivates me about Basho is the immediacy he brings to every aspect of his writing.  He notices things.  He is alert, without tension or anxiety.  It is clearly a present moment awareness, very visceral, very much focused on sense experience.  It is not a surprise, of course, that Basho was a man of Zen, committed to living a mindful life.  In the reading of his haiku and prose I find myself easily drawn into a mindful state, sensing the experiences in which Basho abides seamlessly, as if it was my own sensing, my own experiencing.

Poetry of this sort has that effect when the mind is open and receptive.  In January I was traveling in California with my wife and friends when I came upon a collection of artwork done by young children of the Long Beach Unified School District.  The water colors were engaging, and it was easy to picture proud parents praising their children and encouraging them to “paint more, paint more!”

Several paintings I saw that day had poetry embedded someplace within the artwork.  The poems were all written in the present tense, and oriented toward descriptions of sensory experiences.  The students captured what they felt in their emotions, in their senses, in the moment and the natural places depicted.  All were lovely, and created with great attention and care.  But one in particular captured my attention, and I’d like to share it with you.  The watercolor painting was straightforward, picturing a beach, the ocean, palm trees and a breeze, and a girl laying on a beach blanket with a basket beside her.  And in the sea you see waves, which is the title of the picture and the poem.  It was written by Atzallana Quintana, a young student from a school in that district:

Waves

You slowly

look up and the

Sunset sets your

eyes as

beauty, your

feet are hard

and cold, with

the rough sand and

the cold salty water.

You can see boats

slowly moving, the

clouds forming together

to hide the sun and

bring out the moon.

And still…All you

hear is waves~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am not going to analyze this poem, for to do so would impose my way of experiencing it, my way of being with it, and may distort your experiencing, if you make the mistake of thinking I have any special knowledge.  I would only encourage you to feel the presence Atzallana brings to her writing.  How she is firmly grounded in awareness of body and senses.  Her awareness feels comfortable, at ease.  I believe that if you savor each syllable, you will find yourself experiencing Atzallana’s world for a few moments.

Well, I will make one brief analysis.  Atzallana’s use of the word “still,” her timing of that word, after so much visualizing has been presented, her decision to have you pause for three beats, before moving on to an auditory sensation: that is brilliant poetry, an illumination of the sheer joy to be found in the present moment.  Basho would be so proud of this young poet, Atzallana Quintana.

Peace,

Jim

Taking Care

Driving this morning I found myself in a left lane merge onto a high speed interstate highway.  Upon entry I saw a warning sign flashing about 500 yards ahead, warning drivers to merge to the right.  I signaled with my turn indicator and checked my right side rear view mirror.  The nearest car appeared to be 3 or 4 car lengths behind, so I began slowly to change lanes.  The driver of that car accelerated hard, preventing me from changing lanes.  I moved back to my left lane, applied the brakes and slowed so I could change lanes behind that driver.  Minor annoyance arose, but I’m so accustomed to the aggressiveness manifest in people’s driving habits that it passed nearly unnoticed, and certainly was not taken for anything worth remembering.

Then something interesting happened.  The aggressive driver suddenly changed lanes, moving into the left lane that I knew was blocked a short distance ahead.  Greed emerged in my body and mind; the thought of not allowing him back into the lane arose quickly and strongly.  Righteous anger triggered pleasure centers in my brain, and I could literally see the pathway of revenge ahead:  accelerate hard, give him a taste of his own medicine!  But in that same moment a voice of sanity, literally the voice of my mindfulness teaching partner, Shannon, spoke these words she so often quotes from Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to chose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  So in that moment of righteous anger, the residue of the greed, hatred and ignorance that we all seem to struggle with, I found that space and returned to mindful practice.  I slowed and then gestured to the aggressive driver to move back over.

And then something wonderful happened: I began to laugh.  I laughed at myself.  All that meditation practice, and still so much dukkha, so much attachment to my desires.  I laughed at the human species: how we crave to be first on the highway, and how foolish our impatience and aggressiveness are.  I laughed about how wonderful life actually is, if only we can recognize our own contributions to our suffering, and just let go.  I laughed because I felt happy: happy that my day would have no residue from my old habits.

This practice is a wonderful practice, truly a pathway to freedom.  This is such a small and petty and simple event, but doesn’t it capture the type of experiences that we all have?  Have you ever felt yourself descend into a bad mood, and wonder why you were so irritable?  Could it be that in an ordinary day small, petty events that are not met mindfully may have added up to an irritable state?

Here’s another way to look at it. In an exchange with a contemporary named Pasenadi, who was the king of a nearby land, the historical Buddha was asked by the king “What, in the dharma, constitutes the highest good?”  Gotama answered “Things fall apart; tread the path with care.”

Care.  Care is a word that has more than one meaning.  Without going too deeply into scholarship concerning the derivation of the word attributed to Gotama, we can take “care” in this context to mean the opposite of being careless.  One must live with great care, which can be done when one brings a deep sense of caring to all sentient beings, beginning with the self.  When one has deep caring for all existence, one lives with great care.  Another way to see this is to think of “care” as the opposite of “squander.”  Each moment in each person’s life deserves great care; one must not squander the opportunity to live each moment fully.

In the moment of taking a mindful breath and allowing the wisdom of my colleague, friend, and teacher to fill my mind, I remembered that space between stimulus and response, and could exercise care in the moment.  As a result I did not do harm to another being, both the aggressive driver and myself.  As a result there was less opportunity to spread suffering further, by driving aggressively and, perhaps, recklessly, myself.  As a result I came away from this minor event with no painful emotional residue, only the joy from not taking myself and the world too seriously.  And as a result there was a moment of care brought to a world that is starving for care.

And all because of the wisdom of a skillful teacher, and the space in a single breath!

Peace,

Jim

Being Seen

Friday, Christmas Day, was a long day for my wife and me.  We traveled to southern California in order to visit with our son and his wife for two weeks, and had the full holiday travel experience.  A jammed plane, lots of crying children, and the usual airline food.  We had an hour delay due to weather, but most of our fellow travelers remained patient and pleasant, and eventually we made it into the warm embrace of our loving son and his gracious wife.

It is easy on a day like this to not notice things, especially the people who serve us.  At the airport there were so many people working on the holiday, and each person responded to our needs in the spirit of the Christmas season.  Even the men and women at the security check points were very hospitable.  My wife and I made it a point to express our gratitude to each of these people for working on Christmas Day.  As we did so there was an unmistakeable air of fellowship among us, a true sense of the spirit of the Christian Incarnation.

It is not enough to simply “see” what is going on in our immediate environment in order to fulfill some function, or complete some task.  This kind of sight is utilitarian, and while necessary it is hardly sufficient if it is our intention to live life abundantly.  Living a full life requires that we are mindful of seeing, an active process in which we engage with the seen with curiosity and openness, a state of mind that leads inexorably to acceptance and love.  It may sound odd to say that we were able to accept and love airport employees, but I think it is honest to say that we were accepting and loving toward the people we encountered on Friday.

Mindful curiosity is a pleasant state.  When we sit and simply notice our breathing, then allow our awareness to be open to all of the activity of mind, and then notice that activity with acceptance, our curiosity naturally arises.  Our mind becomes a source of wonder for us, and instead of being enslaved by its impulses and desires we learn to attend to its activity with skill, knowing when to follow the mind’s direction and when to recognize the mind’s desire for safety and control, conditions that may be quite unnecessary.  This practice of mindfulness, of being curious and open to all experiencing, leads to a fullness of life defined by acceptance and love.  And being accepting and loving translates to truly seeing all people, recognizing our inherent connectedness and shared humanity.

Being seen is a pleasant experience.  When I am truly seen by another I feel a stirring within, hard to define and describe, but quite palpable.  I feel known, as if my eyes were truly windows into my soul.  When I am seen I may feel some fear stir as well.  In that moment of being seen I become vulnerable.  That fear can lead to a flight to safety, to becoming unseen once again, or even to becoming frozen in place, unable and unwilling to face the risk inherent in true relationship.  But that fear is an energy, and if my practice is true and my mindfulness is one of curiosity and openness, then the energy of fear can be transformed skillfully into the courage I need to be accepted and loved.  And then something wonderful happens: this person who has truly seen me is seen in return.  And in the act of seeing, relationship arises, and now the spiritual ideal of agape, or charitable loving, the origin of the compassionate heart, comes into being.

“Being seen” is a curious phrase.  On the one hand, it seems to connote a passive quality, that I am seen by another, if “being” is taken to be a verb.  But what if we take “being” as a noun?  Then the phrase connotes another meaning, that the most essential aspect of our existence, our very being, can be seen and experienced by another, and another’s most essential aspect of existence can be experienced by me.  Imagine a world in which each person formed the intention to truly see and the willingness to be seen?  Gandhi had it right when he said “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  It begins with each of us, and it begins with our simple act of practicing mindfulness in each moment of each day.

Lovingkindness

Paraphrasing Dickens, anger is the best of times and the worst of times.  Anger happens.  An event occurs, your mind/body perceives a violation in the event. At the speed of light, your body registers sensations, especially in your chest, jaw, perhaps in the small muscles around your eyes.  You begin to breathe more rapidly, more shallowly.  Impressions of behaviors come into awareness; perhaps you “feel” the urge to strike back, physically, verbally, ready to do damage to the perpetrator.  You begin to act, and now thoughts arise, thoughts that make sense, and maybe even justify your aggressive actions.  Later, you look back with regret, wishing you had moved more slowly, more thoughtfully, more mindfully.

Anger is a difficult emotion to manage, moving through a person with speed, intensity, and direction.  Our bodies are “wired” for anger, and its purpose is clearly in service of survival.  Don’t attempt to wish away your anger; you always have to careful about what you wish for.  Without anger, you might not survive.

What I’m describing up to here is “state” anger, an emotion that emerges in reaction to changes in the environment, and then gradually fades as the mind/body perceives resolution of the perpetrating events.  Maybe the wrong has been righted through your actions, or perhaps the originator of the wrong has repented with remorse and restoration.  Or, maybe you simply decided that the weight of the violation was not worthy of your energy, and you forgave the offense.

State anger is normal and natural, but trait anger is dangerous.  When I would try to look monstrous as a child, my mother would say “hold your face that way long enough and it will be permanent.”  That was incentive to look even more monstrous to my 7 year old self, but it was also a trenchant insight by my mother.  People who have experienced much violation in their life, especially if their anger response was invalidated by a parent or authority on some regular basis, can come to a point where anger is not only a state they experience, but actually has become a trait of their personality.  Anger that persists, anger which is never fully quenched by justice making or forgiveness giving, becomes embedded in the body and mind of the person, and is always present like a background program in a computer system.  We’ve all experienced the so-called “ear worm,” the song that runs in our head on autopilot for hours or days at a time.  In a similar fashion, unextinguished anger can become a kind of “body worm,” leaving the person vulnerable to outbursts of state anger much more easily than is healthy for one’s body, mind, and relationship life.

If you have found yourself in this sort of trap, consider the possibility that the fire of anger might be diminished through the regular practice of lovingkindness meditation, known to many as metta.  Making metta is an ancient practice, and has parallels in all religions.  The simple act of allowing the body/mind to enter into a state in which it experiences deep feelings of compassion, and then escorting the compassionate-active body/mind to images and memories of those who have hurt us, who may have kindled much anger in us, can be very healing.  It takes time and discipline; making metta is not a complex process, but like anything in life worth having it is worth working for.  I’ve embedded a guided metta that I recorded as part of a workshop I gave some time ago:

 

The practice of metta might help you, if you struggle with anger, to feel a softening of your heart.  The person (or people) who have caused harm to you may still be toxic; do not misinterpret making metta as a tacit admission of self blame.  To the contrary, the act of forgiving another is more complex than acting to soften your heart.  But an important first step in the act of forgiving is to realize the harm that comes to you by remaining angry: harm to your body, your mind, and your spirit.  So please enjoy this ancient practice, and if you are not plagued with anger, enjoy it all the more.  I don’t think that there is any greater pleasure than the act of feeling, expressing, and acting on love.

Peace,

Jim

Ordinary Mind

When we meditate we seek to focus the mind on the breath.  This takes great effort.  The mind wanders, necessarily, as the mind is conditioned to cling to aliveness, and must wander to assess for any potential threat to its continued existence, leading to a state of anxiety.  The anxiety of living is proportional to our history of exposure to threat, real or perceived.  This anxiety is omni-present, and the root of the wandering mind.  As we focus the mind this anxiety lessens of its own accord.  At the same time, as our anxiety lessens, whether through reason or experience, the capacity for the mind to remain focused strengthens.

When the mind is focused it has reached a state one can call ordinary mind.  As the mind nears this state, the diminishment of anxiety and its concomitant behavior, clinging, feels rather extraordinary, and the mind may even conjure up images and bodily feelings and suppositions that seem rather extraordinary in response to this progression.  Do not be deceived by these seemingly extraordinary occurrences, which are simply mental (neurobiological?) artifacts of the process of letting go.  An ordinary mind finds itself in a state of comfort and ease, and knows there is no need to pursue any other mind state.

When we meditate we often feel quite pleasant.  This is in large part due to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system as our minds become more and more focused on a single object, whether the breath or some other object of attention (i.e. the sensation of stretch when doing yoga).  This pleasant body state in turn encourages the meditator to both formal and informal meditation practices with greater frequency and commitment.  However the process of meditation will often lead to realizations of the workings of the mind, which may include rather unpleasant memories, thoughts, and bodily affects.  All of these unpleasant mental objects can be worked with, but sometimes the meditator will experience these events as some kind of failure of the meditation session.  With this mindset the meditator may declare meditation itself a failure, or, perhaps worse yet, rededicate him/herself to having pleasant meditation experiences.  Neither alternative is helpful; to avoid meditation all together leaves one bereft of this pathway to the ordinary mind and freedom, and the pursuit of pleasant experiences in meditation builds new illusions about the nature of things and can actually become a form of servitude to another form of clinging.

The ordinary mind is free.  It knows no boundaries, as it can turn toward all experiences with equanimity, whether those experiences are pleasant or unpleasant.  The ordinary mind responds to living experiences with expansiveness, as it has seen all possibilities in the hours it spends in meditation and joined awareness with acceptance.  Stated more clearly in his “Asian Journal,” Thomas Merton spoke of ordinary mind when he wrote:

…There is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.”  All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.  The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya*…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

Peace,

Jim

*Sanskrit for the “cosmical body of the Buddha,” interpreted as referring to that which is most essential in all beings.

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

As I Hear Myself Speak, So I Come To Believe

As I hear myself speak, so I come to believe

We had some freezing rain overnight last night in this area, leaving a slick coat of ice on paved surfaces.  At about 6:30 am I gingerly tiptoed across my driveway to pick up the newspaper, and was happy when I made it safely back to my front door.  Of course it is February in the northeast section of the USA, and this is typical weather for mid winter here, so nobody should be surprised.

By 10 am the temperature had risen above freezing, and the roads were quite safe to drive.  So I headed off to the bank to do a transaction, then it was off to the dentist for some drilling.  But what got my attention was the brief conversation I had with the bank teller when I was making my deposit.  She stated “what a bad day it is!” as soon as I arrived at her window.  I replied “well, it’s not too bad, the sun has come out, it’s cold of course but after all it’s February.”  She continued “it’s awful, and the roads are quite dangerous.”  Again I replied by saying “I’m sure they were earlier, but the sun is out and they’re quite safe now to travel.”  She then gave me a list of accidents she had heard about on the radio, insisted it was all terrible, and then went about the business of adding up the value of the checks I was depositing and completed the transaction.

Years ago I read a fun little book called “Illusions,” by Richard Bach.  I think it’s out of print but if you can find a copy you might want to buy it, as it is quite thought provoking.  The book is about a reluctant savior named Donald Shimoda, who carries with him a “Messiah’s Handbook,” which is filled with aphorisms.  One of them I’ve never forgotten:  “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.”  Oh, how true I have found this to be.  In my work as a Pastoral Counselor I’ve met so many people who were completely convinced of their own ineptitude, lack of willpower, and complete inability to be in any way socially appealing to any other person.  Most of the time these regular folks were quite intelligent, skilled, and attractive.

So this I have learned: as I hear myself speak, so I come to believe.  In working with people in therapy I have realized that those who think lowly of themselves are so trapped because they attribute their perception of their limitations to be an issue of character, rather than an issue of a skill that can be learned.  Just recently a person told me about being a hopeless procrastinator.  This perception of self caused such a downturn in his/her emotions, it was palpable to any observer.  And the more this person repeated “I’m a procrastinator” and illustrated “proof” of the idea, the more his/her emotions turned into sadness and shame.  But the truth of the matter is that self-efficacy, the opposite of procrastination, is a skill that can be learned, beginning with recognizing the mental antecedents to lethargy, and applying the antidotes that arise from our capacity to reason.  The more this person spoke about these mental antecedents, and considered the antidotes of reasoning, the more he/she realized that it wasn’t a matter of character, it was a matter of developing a new skill, something that actually could be done.  Character is difficult to change, but new habits and practices can be acquired.

When we speak of ourselves and the world in which we are immersed, the words we use and the ideas we articulate not only express the workings of our inner world, but become a feedback loop which influences our inner world as well.  Narratives repeated become narratives believed.  It was recently revealed that Brian Williams, a newscaster for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the USA, has greatly exaggerated the dangers to which he was exposed while covering combat in Iraq several years ago.  I wonder if he, himself, had come to believe those stories after telling them so many times?

Be mindful of your words.  Listen closely when you’re speaking of even the simplest matters, like your perception of whether it’s a good day or a bad day.  I believe the bank teller I met today was simply repeating the conditioned mantra that many buy into: if it’s not a “perfect” day (i.e. clear, sunny, lightly breezy, moderate temperature) then it’s a “bad” day.  And I have no doubt that she came to believe that today is a bad day, and I can’t help but wonder how that perception, becoming a “heard” truth, becomes a “felt” truth that pervades her ways of feeling and being.

Be mindful of your words.  Gandhi put it more eloquently than me:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.

Be mindful of your words.  Those words become your actions, habits, values, and destiny, but your words are also the royal road back to your thoughts and beliefs, when those words are chosen mindfully.

Peace,

Jim