Archive for Spirituality

The Practice of Lovingkindness Meditation

In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend the Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Conference in Atlanta, GA.  Without really knowing many of the presenters, I chose to sign up for a three-hour session on what I thought was compassion.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who I had experienced briefly at an Academy for Spiritual Formation conference, was the teacher.  The presentation was an eye opener for me to a whole other way of practicing meditation and prayer. 

Rabbi Shapiro presented from his book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice.  One of the practices he taught us was called Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation.  Metta is a Pali word, which can be translated as love. The best translation of this type of love in Christian terminology is agape. It is a love that is unconditional: open and unobstructed.  According to Sharon Salzberg, who is the cofounder of Insight Meditation Society,

Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.  Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves.  We can open to everything with the healing forces of love.

Metta has two root meanings; gentle and friend.  It is likened to a gentle rain that, without choosing or selecting, falls indiscriminately.  This reminds me of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).  The practice of metta begins with us gently befriending ourselves.  This is sometimes even harder for us then praying for our enemies.  We are more likely to judge ourselves harshly and not spend much time in self-compassion. With the metta practice, we can uncover the possibility of truly respecting and loving ourselves as part of the human race. 

There are various phrases that meditation teachers use for this practice but the overall flow of the practice is the same.  One begins by taking a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair, on the floor or lying down.  In metta, we always start by saying the phrases for ourselves.  We focus on our breath and imagine our heart being open and welcoming.  We then say some phrases that are a variation on the following traditional phrases (some alternatives are in the parentheses):

  • May I be free from danger (May I have safety, May I be free from fear)
  • May I have mental happiness (May I be peaceful, May I be liberated)
  • May I have physical happiness (May I be healed, May I be healthy)
  • May I have ease of well-being (May I dwell in peace, May I live with ease)

I prefer to use Rami Shapiro’s phrasing as it resonates with our American life for me. His suggestions are:

  • May I be free from fear
  • May I be free from compulsions
  • May I be blessed with love
  • May I be blessed with peace

One suggestion that Rabbi Shapiro made when we pray for ourselves is to invite a mental image of ourselves as a young child, especially if there is one that is wounded within us.  As we say this prayer, we say it to that child. And then we get an images in a progressive sequence of our teen age self, our middle age self and one of ourselves when we are much older than we currently are, ending with one when we are on our deathbed.  As we say this prayer to each image, we begin to feel the warmth of compassion extending to all various selves we carry within us.  This can allow real healing to take place.

After praying this prayer in a repetitive fashion for ourselves, we move on to say it for a person close to us whom we love or are friendly towards.  Next we extend it to a person we know but not very well, such as the person we buy our coffee from daily.  Lastly, we bring to mind the image of “an enemy” or a person with whom we are currently in a conflict situation.  We say the same phrases to them without anger or judgment but with an open and loving heart.  It can change the attitude we have towards them and thus be a change agent in the conflict situation.  We can also extend this metta prayer to include all living beings and our world. 

This practice has been a life changer for me, especially in the current state of the world that is full of divisiveness and hate.  If I seriously pray with an open heart for those who I feel are “enemy,” I can begin to look at them though other eyes.  I can see them as humans with fears and compulsions.  I can see that their desires are similar to mine: for peace, acceptance, and love.   I will be honest, for some people, I have to repeat this prayer over and over again before I begin to feel a shift in my own attitude.  That is all that I have any real control to change—my attitude.  This practice gives me the spaciousness of heart that allows acceptance of reality.  It helps to connect me to the oneness that connects us all, which I know stems from the heartbeat of God.  It is in that oneness that I know that Julian of Norwich’s statement is true; “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

Resources:

Shapiro, Rami. The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness

https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-on-lovingkindness/

https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness/

Learning to Balance

balanceI recently returned from a trip to Europe where I was able to visit my granddaughter and her parents.   It was a fun trip filled with new experiences for all of us.  My granddaughter was learning many new things. One of them was to sit up on her own. If she over-reached for a toy, she fell forwards or backwards.  She was working on developing a strong core to be able to stay upright and to right herself  if she fell.  Additionally, we took a trip to a new country for me–England.

Overall, there was plenty of new information to take in and integrate into my knowledge of the world.  I started thinking about the need for both adaptability and stability as we approach new situations.  We need them both to learn and grow.  Without adaptability we remain stuck in our old way of perceiving reality and without a solid core or center we can feel out of sorts and confused.

As a small example of this, bathrooms in Europe are quite different from those here in the United States.  While there are some similarities, there are many challenges one faces when trying to accomplish the simple task of toileting, especially in public places.  Some have self contained rooms with both sink and toilet; others have common sink areas.  So far, that seems similar to the US, right?  But the faucets connected to those sinks came in all shapes and functions. At times I would just stare at them, not knowing how to even turn them on. I never saw one that was automatic like the ones common in the states.  However, there were ones where the faucet was hidden in the stem that tried to fool me into thinking they were automatic.  This made the task of washing my hands a challenge sometimes.  Also, reading the signage in some of the stalls was a bit like trying to assemble furniture from IKEA.

It was important to remain flexible while dealing with this common but important task.  It helped to use what researchers call fluid intelligence.  According to psychologists Robert Cattell and John Horn , fluid intelligence is the “capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic.”  Being flexible helped me to search “outside the box” for a solution.  Additionally, I could draw upon my experience in other situations or my “crystallized intelligence” to make a best guess on how to proceed.

Using flexibility or adaptability is important in many of life circumstances.  At the same time, it is important to have a sense of your deep identity to keep yourself centered and grounded.  If either of these two qualities are out of balance, we can “fall over” just like my granddaughter did when she over-reached her center of gravity. We can ground ourselves through centering prayer, mindfulness, breath work and many other ways of stabilizing ourselves in the present moment.  We can practice flexibility by trying new things in our everyday life,  even if they take us out of our comfort zone.  If we can stay in balance with these two tasks, we will be able to deal with most of life’s challenges or at least be able to right ourselves when we “fall.”

What Makes True Happiness?

IMG_2368A young waitress serving the Dali Lama at a ski resort sat down at the table and asked him what was the meaning of life.   He answered immediately, “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or…” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What makes true happiness?

What makes true happiness?  That is a good question for all of us to ponder.  This question seems to have many different answers depending on whether we are young or old, poor or rich, depressed or feeling upbeat.  Does it really depend on our situation or age or does it depend on our attitude and approach to life?  If we are focused on gaining material possessions or a great job, does that give us great happiness?  Maybe,  if we are living in poverty.  If this is the way to happiness, how do we reconcile the fact that some of the happiest people are also poor? There are challenges in life due to poverty, chronic pain, discrimination etc. I am not suggesting that these don’t need to be addressed.  However, if these challenges are perceived as overwhelming or take over all our focus, we miss the positive things that occur in our lives as well.  And many of us in the first world, act as if we have extreme poverty when it is far from the truth.  Instead we worry over have the latest gadget or clothes when we have more than enough.

We all need to feel we have a purpose in life.  This is what organized religion has provided in the past for many of the baby boomer generation.  With the advent of scientific discoveries, the ability to know so many facts at the touch of a button, and the picture of earth sent back from space, we have become an untethered people. We are no longer tied to a geographical spot on the map. Expectations no longer limit us.  We expect more and more in everything we do and have. Consumerism is encouraged as a good way to stabilize the economy.  We have lost our purpose of life or at least one that came predetermined for us by our elders or our religious leaders.  We look to our government to give us a national perspective but even this is divide and not to be trusted.  Where can we search for the meaning of true happiness?

How can we adopt the Dali Lama’s suggestion that compassion and a good heart is the road to happiness?  Firstly, we need to focus on having compassion for ourselves; not demanding perfection in everything we do but learning from failures and mistakes with an open and generous heart.   We can learn to laugh at our foibles at the same time not allowing them to define who we are as a person.  Claiming our belovedness as a child of God (or whatever we call the energy that unites all of us and yet is more than just us) can help us to feel secure and worthwhile.

We can  greet each day as it is, allowing it to unfold without expectations of how it needs to be in order for us to be happy.  Suspending judgment until we truly understand and can empathize with people we interact can allow us to feel compassion and openness in our hearts.   We can acknowledge pain with an open heart but not add to it by our thoughts or resistance to the pain.  We can sit with our emotions until we are clear about what action we need to take if any.

I believe we can do all of the above. If we practice doing this each day we will grow into compassionate and open people who find happiness if most of our lives.  It takes practice and humor when we miss the target but we can learn to rewire our brains towards happiness. Neuroscience is discovering how this occurs.  The practice of mindfulness is aiding many people to do just this. Listed below are several good books that have been published on the subject.  I have also included a website. We each are in charge of our happiness and can change the attitude with which we approach our situation and the world.

  • http://www.rickhanson.net/writings/just-one-thing
  • Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, by Rick Hanson
  • Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim your Life, by Orsillo, Roemer, and Segal
  • The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by William, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn

 

 

Wisdom’s Heart

 

IMG_6578 ” I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I recently have had one song on my mind.  It is a beautiful piece called Mother’s Blessing that is written and sung by Snatam Kaur, who is a Sikh Mystic. She wrote this song when she was pregnant and it is a beautiful statement of her wish that her child will always know God and feel God’s protection.  Some of the words are:

May you never forget God, even for a moment,

Worshiping forever the Lord of the universe.

Remembering God, all mistakes are washed away…

God is inside you, God is Infinite…

May you never be worn by worry.

Let this mind of yours be the bumble bee

And let the Lotus Feet of God be the flower.

Those beautiful words and blessing has hit me at  a deep level.  As some of you know, I became a grandma for the first time six weeks ago.  My son and his wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl named Sophia (or wisdom).  In experiencing her birth through my daughter-in-law, I had a visceral experience of what it means to be the vine and the branches as in John 15:5.  I feel an intimate connection to this little one even though at this point I have yet to hold her since they live in Norway.  Yet, I know in the depths of my being that the essence that made me is flowing through her as well.  That essence is God or the Ultimate Reality and I deeply wish for her that she will come to know that Divine Reality.

Those of you with grandchildren or great grandchildren know what I am talking about.  Somehow it is different than having children.  With children the connection is so close because you are physically involved in the creation of the new person.  But being removed by at least one generation and to still feel the connection speaks to the connection that we all have with one another whether we are once or twice or seventy times removed from the actual creation of the being.  And with her birth my heart expands so that I wish this mother’s blessing for all peoples.

The birth of any child is such a miracle.  It is the mother’s heart that pumps the blood that sustains life for the both of them for the nine months as an amazing form of creation is taking place.  The babe inside goes from being two small individual cells to a full human being! During this time of gestation, two hearts literally beat as one. Everything the mother takes in as nourishment affects the baby’s development.  Even the smallest deficiency can affect the ability to sustain this life throughout the nine months.  In my daughter-in-law’s case she needed to increase her iodine level before she could carry a pregnancy to term.

Through this small miracle of life we get a glimpse of the heart of the universe or Wisdom’s heart.  The image I have for Wisdom’s heart is a warm, welcoming, life sustaining one that is rhythmically beating, pulsing and connecting all of life in just the way that a mother’s heart is connected to her babe.  And in the same way as for a mother, what we do matters for our earth.  How we answer two questions Who I am? and Where did I come from? determines how we look at this world of ours and how we will  treat everyone and everything else on this planet.  If we see ourselves separate from God instead of  the extension of God as portrayed in Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches, then we won’t  realize that to misuse others or the animals, plants, or trees, hurts ourselves as well.  From this perspective of separateness, we can feel justified in subjugating nature to serve only us.  This has been the western approach for many years.  To quote  Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for us?

We have climate change, huge disparity between the rich and poor, extinctions of species and on and on.  But if we take the approach of many of the wisdom teachers of old, such as Teilhard de Chadin, Meister Eckhardt, and Lady Julian of Norwich to mention a few,  we will know that we are connected to the earth and to the universe as intimately as a baby is to her mother. We will come to understand that Love is the center of creation. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Love is the physical structure of the universe.”  This love flows through us and works through us, in fact it is who we are.  It is also where we came from. If we truly know this, we will walk upon this earth in a different fashion.  We will treat others as we want to be treated not because it is the Golden rule but because we understand fully that we are connected as one. 

I recently had a deep experience of this connection.  Snorkeling in the waters off of Maui, I dove down to get a closer view of a large turtle.  While watching this massive creature swim, I was aware of hearing a whale song. That song resonated in my being even though I had no idea what the whales were trying to communicate with each other.  Later, on a whale watching expedition, we saw these great humpbacks and heard their songs again.  We were told that all the males sing the same song, each year adding a new verse that all of they learn.  Isn’t that amazing? They communicate and are artists just like we are!

I will leave you with a quote from my favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, in which she calls this union with God by an old English term, oneing.  In her book the Showings, she wrote,

By myself I am nothing at all but in general I AM the oneing of love.  For it is in this oneing that the life of all people existsThe love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person.

We live and breathe and have our being in Wisdom’s heart.  Let us take this knowledge to our heart and walk softly on this earth.

The Patience To Wait

candlelight” Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.”  Lao-tzu

As autumn draws to a close and winter closes in, the darkness appears to win the battle over the light.  It is a time of drawing inward and setting our houses ablaze with light.  We move towards the Season of Light, which is celebrated in many different cultures and spiritual traditions with the lighting of candles and the gathering around a fire.  In ancient times, these rituals were done to ensure that the light would return to the earth, providing the warmth and energy needed to provide growth for the spring plantings.  Christianity celebrates this time as Advent, which is a period of great hope and expectancy.  But do we have the patience to wait?  Can we remain open and receptive, allowing ourselves a time of emptiness without trying first to fill it with some direction or wish list for the how we want to be transformed?

Patience is a hard thing to learn.  When my sons were little, I used to ask for patience so that I could be a good mom.  I wanted to be happy with them, not wanting them to be older than they were or different than they were.  I was told by more than one person to be careful what you ask for, because instead of just getting patience free of charge, life would give you opportunities to practice patience.  And boy did I get lots of opportunities to practice!  Patience is an active thing.  It is more about leaning into whatever life presents you and learning to be fully present with it.  It is not about having a preconceived notion of what the right action is but waiting until “the mud settles” and the right action becomes obvious.  When I responded to one of my son’s antics by yelling or being upset, I missed the opportunity to use it as a teaching moment.  I also missed the humor contained in most of the things they tried and alienated the relationship I had with them.  I got a chance to practice this over and over and eventually got better at it, I believe.  You would have to ask them to get their side of the story, but we have a very good relationship now so I think I did some things right, some of the time at least.

Mindfulness is a way to practice patience.  According to Williams et al in their book The Mindful Way through Depression,

“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are…  (It) means paying attention to things as they actually are in any given moment, however they are, rather than as we want them to be.”  

This practice is about stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment.  This can be done by focusing on the breath or the body or the food you are eating.  It is as simple as bringing your attention back to what is happening around you at the moment.  It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise.  They will attempt to move your attention off the present, into planning for the future or ruminating about the past. These thoughts arise even for seasoned practitioners of mindfulness.  The only definition of successful practice is that when you notice you are thinking or feeling, you name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment.  Practicing this type of stillness or patience is best done as a routine before you are in the midst of an upsetting situation.  Then when these situations occur, you can lean on your practice of letting go and waiting until the right action arises.  Above all, being non-judgmental about the times you are not able to be patient, allows you to practice a key aspect of mindfulness–the acceptance of whatever is happening at the given moment rather than some goal of perfection we desire.  And you will get many times to practice this if you are like most of us.

 According to Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk,

“Personal discovery and growth come from letting there be room for all of this to happen; room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.  Suffering comes from wishing things were different. Misery is self-inflicted, when we are expecting the “ideal” to overcome the “actual” or needing things (or people or places) to be different for us so that we can then be happy.”

As Lao-tzu states, if we keep our expectations open, not seeking a specific end to the interaction with others or with our spiritual journey, we are able to welcome all things and use them to enhance our understanding of ourselves and others.  Each event in our life can bring us closer to our true self. And in this way, we can move towards bringing back the light we need for growth and energy in our own lives and in the lives of others around us.

Lao-Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell), Tao Te Ching

Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times.

 

The power to choose is yours

Power to choose“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”      Buddha, Dhammapada

This week in my yoga class my teacher shared a saying that spoke to me and I have been thinking about it ever since.  She said “If you don’t choose your feeling tone, your past will choose it for you.” As I pondered it, I knew that it rang true.  If each day, each moment I am not conscious of what intention I have my life then I can only react out of my unconscious habits.  Those habits have been shaped over my life, most of them being formed in my childhood and early adulthood.

It is the same for all of us.  The past  shaped us and will continue to rule us unless we become more mindful of the new path we desire.  For example, if we are raised in a family where shame was used to control us, we will easily sink into shame  even when others are not intending to shame us.  If we were raised in a very judgmental family, we will be quick to judge others and ourselves, even when we would prefer to be compassionate. This reaction results from our need to be vigilant to such tactics to deal with the environment in the past.  As such, we continually scan for evidence of the same negativity in our current situation.  Our brains are programmed to be aware of any such “threats” that exist, even when there are really only a few of them in the present moment.  Being able to  spot them immediately helped us to survive when we were children.  Our brains are hardwired to notice and  respond to the threats, real or imagined.

If we are to choose a different path, we need to heal the wounds of the past.  One way to do that is by using positive experiences to counter the negative one.  Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain*, suggests two methods of doing this.  The first option is to let all the positive experiences that occur in the present  sink into the old pains.  To do this we have to maximize the positive experience. We need to replay it over and over in our mind, making a full colorful “movie” of it to see in our mind’s eye so that we really can get a full body experience of it.  Savor the positive moment.  Let it strengthen and replace some of the negative experiences in the past.  This helps to give us today what we should have received as a child.

The second option is to replace negative material that surfaces with positive emotions and memories that will be its antidote.  For example, if you have felt weak and dependent in the past, let a current experience of strength bathe it with healing.  If hurt from past neglect or rejection in relationships continues to make you feel unworthy, bring to mind where you are loved by other people or God.  Hanson suggests adding a thought such as “I got through all that, I’m still here and many people love me.”  While the memory of the pain will not vanish, using these two techniques will help it to diminish.  It will allow you to move on to the future you desire, rather than have the past choose it for you.

For more information about the use this technique and how it impact us at a neurological level, I refer you to Hanson’s  book.  Cognitive behavioral therapy also has many different methods to help us change our thoughts.  As quoted in the passage above, our thoughts lead to words, deeds, habits and character.  Our feeling tone or our intentions are intrinsically related to our thoughts.  By watching both our intentions and our thoughts we can begin to change our character.  One of the best places for this thought to spring from is from love and compassion, both for ourselves and the world.

* Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard, Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

IMG_0508When Bobby McFarren first came out with the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, I thought he must just be high on something.  It sounded too pat an answer to life’s many difficulties.  It couldn’t be as easy as just telling yourself or someone not to worry and focus on being happy, could it?  Maybe he was a typical laid back man from the tropics who lazed around in the sun all day.  What did he have to be worried about?  Well, it turns out he was from the States and a world class musician to boot.  And what he had to say is true.  We can control the level of our worry by  focusing on being happy.

How can we do that?  Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Richard Mendius, a neurologist, havewritten a book called Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, Love & Wisdom.   This book outlines in detail how to decrease our stress and be happy. According to them, scientists have recently mapped out the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) that are involved in emotions such as anxiety and depression.  These chemicals are key to firing parts of the brain that alert us to danger in our environment so that we have an increased chance of survival.  Over the thousands of years of human evolution, these pathways have developed to a level that our brains can make split second decisions whether to fight or flight or just relax.  Since these pathways are key to our survival,  they get the most traction in our brain.

We have evolved to pay greater attention to unpleasant experiences. This has created a negativity bias that overlooks good news and focuses on any possible dangers or threats in our environment.  With the development of our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that separates us from other animals), we have even been able to imagine possible scenarios, thus developing anticipatory anxiety about the danger we might meet in the future.  While this might serve us well if we were ever to meet such a circumstance, for the most part this tendency causes us to worry unnecessarily, even before something happens.  It causes unnecessary suffering more often than it prepares us for disaster.

The good news is that we also have the ability to retrain our brains to focus on more pleasant experiences which can increase the neural pathways that are devoted to feeling good.  You can actually change the “wiring in your brain” by using some simple, easy remedies.  Drs. Hanson and Mendius suggests first of all that we look consciously for and take in positive experiences, letting them sink into our awareness by actually savoring them.  This helps them to be consolidated in our memories. We can then use the positive memories to counteract a painful one that is occurring in the present.  For example, during the birth of my second child, I was able to use the memory of how good it was to hold my first child after he was born to help me cope with the pain of labor.

Their book is full of many other helpful suggestions that help us cool the fires of the sympathetic nervous system which is the one that produces the stress-related hormones.Instead, we use these techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which allows calming, soothing and healing hormones to spread throughout your body.  Some of these techniques are familiar to many of us, such as progressive relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and imagery.   Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be of help in this area as well, challenging negative thoughts with realistic challenges.  The authors’ suggestions are too many to cover in this brief article.  I would recommend that you read their book.  Don’t be scared off by all the technical terms for the brain and its wiring.  The authors really explain this in a way that we all can understand.  Dr. Hanson also has a website that is worth visiting .  (http://www.rickhanson.net/)

So Bobby McFerrin was on to something in 1988 with his catchy tune.  I even can catch myself these days humming a few bars as I take his advise and let go of the negative filters. Instead, I choose to focus on the blessings and gratitude I feel for all that is positive in my life.  I would suggest the same for you.  Don’t Worry, Be Happy–it will change the way your brain works!

 

Compassionate Heart

As I listen to the news lately, I hear yet another story of killing in Syria or Afghanistan.   The reporter then switches to a story about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and I begin to feel overwhelmed by all the violence that exists in our world.  How does one remain open to the suffering that occurs daily without developing a numbness or a cold heart that makes the suffering of others as distant as possible?  Do we just have to “turn the other cheek” and allow the brutal people of the world take over?  How can we remain compassionate, open to the pain of others without letting ourselves become a doormat or our hearts to be hardened into a narrow minded focus that cares only for ourselves and our immediate companions?

And what if in the past someone has abused us or taken advantage of us in an unfair way?  Are we who are striving for a compassionate heart supposed to forgive and forget?  Are we to let them continue to hurt us?  Do we have to continue to relate to them without setting any limits on their behavior?

For answers, I turn to two great spiritual leaders, Jesus and Buddha.  Both urged their followers to have a compassionate heart and to love one another as brothers and sisters.  Jesus is quoted as saying, “You know you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you.  When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.” (Matthew 5: 38-39)

What is meant by this statement?   If we look only at the surface of the statement from Matthew we might think Jesus was urging us to be passive and not resist evil when we face it.  In fact, this scripture has been used to oppress people and keep them in a one down position.  Dr. Walter Wink, in his book, Engaging the Powers, sheds light on what these words probably meant, given the social context of the day. According to Dr. Wink, no one in that culture would use their left hand to strike anyone as it was considered the unclean hand.  So in order to slap the person’s right cheek,  he had to use the back of his right hand.  This gesture was meant to be demeaning to the one receiving the blow.  Masters would backhand slave and Romans would do so to Jews.  If you present the other check, the person must still use his right hand and then he will have to use his fist or palm. That was a gesture used only between equals.  Thus, by turning the other cheek a person would be communicating that he or she refused to be humiliated and must be treated as an equal.  It was a non-violent but non passive response to the other person’s grasp for power.*

Buddha says,”Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.  Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world…”(part of the Metta Sutta).  How does one cherish all living beings when some seem so bent on perpetuating evil in the world?  According to Sharon Salzberg in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us  Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary.  Compassion is not at all weak.  It is the strength that arise out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal…Compassion can lead to a very forceful action without any anger or aversion in it.”  We need to be open to exploring the context out of which the negative behavior arises before we judge the person who commits the act.  If we can see what lead up to the behavior, we can hold an open heart towards the person while still not condoning the act.

A practice that has helped me remain more open to others and to develop a compassionate heart is that of metta.  In doing metta practice, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish for ourselves and others.  We always begin with ourselves as any practice of lovingkindness that based on self hatred or depreciation cannot sustain itself.  We are called to love one another as we love ourselves which means we need to love ourselves first.

Sharon Salzberg’s book gives an in- depth look at how to do this practice and the benefit from making it a daily routine.  Briefly, we repeat four phrases that state our wish to  be free from danger, to have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.  The phrases I like to use are taken from Rami Shapiro and are

  • May I be free from fear,
  • May I be free from compulsions,
  • May I be blessed with love,
  • May I be blessed by peace.

I always start with myself but then call to mind images of people that I love and state the same phrases for them.  I then move to someone I am having a hard time loving or with whom I have a conflict.   After this I expand it to the world or particular world leaders.   The last step is to pray this for all beings, animal and human.

So, this is my prayer for you, dear reader:

May you be free from fear.

May you be free from compulsions.

May you be blessed with love.

May you be blessed by peace.

*For a more in-depth discussion of this passage and others like it, read Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Denis, Sheila and Matthew Linn

Song of the Morning

 “ No one knows what makes the soul wake up so happy.  Maybe a dawn breeze has blown the veil away from the face of God.”   

We sit in silence out on the deck of a lovely cabin in the Mt. Hood National Forest.  It is time for Morning Prayer.  We listen to Gregorian chant sung by monks, setting our hearts in rhythm to the ancient cadence that has graced myriads of cathedrals throughout the ages.  As the monks sing out to the glory of God, the birds around us add their voices to the choir.  They lift their voices in praise of the only God, the creator of all.  A squirrel barks and a jay scolds while the songbirds tweet melodically.  All are part of the chorus, just like the various instruments of an orchestra.  Each has its part to play in the symphony of praise to God this morning.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;

praise him in the heights above.

Praise him, all his angels;

Praise him, all his heavenly hosts.

Praise him, sun and moon;

Praise him, all you shining stars.

Praise him, you highest heavens

And you waters above the sky.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,

For at his command they were created. (Psalm 148 1-5)

As the words of the psalm end, we go into silence to contemplate the sounds of the earth, the trickling of the nearby stream, and the blessings of the new morning.   The sun breaks over the trees and shines its face fully upon us as our leader reads these words,

“O Medicine of Dawn,

healing are your morning rays,

I lift my face toward

the ointment of your splendor

as I become a morning prayer.” *

That is the challenge for each day.  How do I become a morning prayer?  How do I raise my voice in praise, as it is so natural for the creatures of the earth to do?  How do I add my own uniqueness to the chorus without falling into comparison or envy or desire to be something that I am not?  Maybe my part to play is like the barking of a squirrel or the scolding of the jay.  Neither of them is particularly beautiful by its self.  And yet, each adds the bass notes to the symphony without which something would be missing.  Am I content to be the bass player to someone else’s lead, someone else’s melody? It could mean being in the background.  It could mean sounding the discordant note in alarm when something is off kilter.   To be content with whatever role I am meant to play would mean surrender. Not surrender to an outside authority such as dogma, religious rules or requirements but surrender to truth, to consciousness, to joy, to community.

“Encourager of Morning,

Soft glory of the new day,

I am tasting the joy of being awake.

Let your face shine on me

That, I, in turn may shine on others.”*

It is through surrender that God can work through each of us to bring the light and love to others in need.  We are all called to play a unique role in this world that only we can perform.  We are called to be light bearers but to do so we must first let go of any darkness within us that blocks the light.  We must make peace with our shadow side so that we can move from the small “self” to connection with the larger “Self” that is the experience of unity.  As we do this, we are moving towards becoming fully human and embracing wholeness (holiness).  While it might seem overwhelming, it really only requires living in the moment, being as conscious as we can at any given time.  Simple yet complicated in its simplicity.  Ah, the paradox of God!

“As Morning Blossoms,

I go forth to meet the great shining,

The dear unfolding of the day.

With the fading night

I begin a sacred dance

In the arms of your shining.”*

The song of the morning is calling to each of us.  Listen to the rhythm that was placed in your heart at birth.  Join the dance of the universe and surrender to the arms of God’s shining.

*All quotes taken from Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Marcina Wiederkehr

 

Mothering Day

I am very aware of the upcoming celebration of Mother’s Day this year.  This is not because I am a mother and am looking forward to some acknowledgement from my children.  With their busy schedules in medical school and one that is far away in Norway, I will probably just receive a text wishing me a good day.  And that is fine.  I have three solid sons who are all involved in making a positive impact on the world.  What more can a mother wish for?

My awareness comes from the fact that I lost my mother this past February.  I miss her and though she was over 80, I was not ready to let her go.  I miss being able to call her on the phone and chat about everything and nothing.  No one will ever take the place of her and I am thankful for all that she taught me.  It is through her influence that I am the woman and mother than I am today.

I am  aware that many of my peers have lost their mothers as well.  Additionally, there are people I know that never had a good relationship with their mothers and thus don’t really have a mother they want to feel obligated to honor with a special card or gift.  There are also women who want desperately to become mothers but for some reason can not.  For all of us, Mother’s Day will be filled with loss and grief along with celebration.

According to Wikipedia, “Mother’s Day is a celebration honoring mothers and celebrating motherhood, maternal bonds and the influence of mothers in society. It is celebrated on various days in many parts of the world, yet most commonly in March, April, or May.”  It harkens back to some ancient celebrations of motherhood and goddesses in many different cultures.  It is a way of celebrating maternal bonds and the nurturing role that women can have on a society.

As such, my thoughts this year lean towards using the day to celebrate those women in my life that have nurtured me and encouraged me in my career, as a mother, as a woman and in general.  I am going to take the time to send cards to some of those women and thank them for being a significant part of my life.  I encourage you to do the same if you resonate with this idea.  For me, this won’t replace the loss of my mother but will help me to feel lighter on May 13th.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the amazing women in the world!