Author Archive for yoda

Contemplative Photography / Visio Divina

Rev. David Tinney and I have published a book that focuses on the spiritual discipline of Visio Divina (Latin for divine seeing).  Praying with images has been used as a practice in the Orthodox tradition for centuries, through the use of icons.  It is becoming more familiar in Western tradition, though this mode of prayer or contemplation may still seem foreign to many.  Visio divina invites us to linger, to look beyond the obvious and to contemplate the deeper meaning of an image.  This is the practice of “beholding.” When we behold a person or object, we gaze at it with eyes of compassion.  This entails releasing our inner judgments and preconceived notions and opening ourselves to the grace and movement of God in the image.  

Our book is full of photographs that invite the reader to spend time beholding and listening to God’s word of grace for them at this moment.  To this end, we have included spiritual reflection questions, that can be used individually and as a group. It also includes tips on how to use their own camera to gain deeper insight into their relationship with God. By engaging in these practices, we hope the reader will find themself delving more deeply into the beauty of creation, with a heightened sense of the diving shimmering through each image.

The book is available through or through Amazon in both ebook and hardcover format. 

Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou My Vision: Visio Divina Retreat

May 15-17, 2020

Gruenwald Guild, Leavenworth, WA

For more information, click the link below. 

Be Thou My Vision

Traveling Light

My husband and I just got back from a three-week vacation to Europe.  We travelled through Italy and down the Adriatic coast.  Part of the time we were in hotels or houses we rented and the other time we were on a cruise ship.  We took planes, boats and trains. Before leaving, it was hard to make a decision about what to take with us–you never know when you might need that extra shirt or dress, right.  The weather looked like it was going to be cold and rainy for the first part of the trip and warm and sunny later.   And we hadn’t been on a cruise ship for 20 years.  It was so different from the way we usually travel; we just felt the urge to throw one more thing in that we might need.  Enough excuses, but I am sure if you have ever travelled for an extended time, some of you might identify with this dilemma.  Despite the good advice we received from more seasoned travelers here in this congregation about how to travel light, we ended up taking one very large check on bag each, plus a duffel bag to carry on the plane. 

All went well on the plane but when we got to our first train ride, we couldn’t find anywhere to stash the big bags.  They were heavy and didn’t fit in the luggage rack above the seats.  Then when we landed in Florence (in the rain no less) we had to maneuver the bags over cobble stone streets, taking twist and turns for about a half hour before we found our apartment.  And of course, there was no elevator and it was on the second floor.  Then we moved from Florence to Venice on a train. 

This went smoother as it had a luggage rack between the cars but as we landed in Venice (again in the rain) we had to not only deal with cobblestone but with bridges that had steps rather than ramps.  We must have been a sorry sight indeed, getting wet and dragging luggage that weighed about 50 pounds, not counting the duffels that kept falling off the top of the big bag.  We had to haul these bags up and over four bridges before we found our hotel.  I must have really looked pathetic because a nice Italian gentleman offered to help me negotiation one of the bridges by taking my bag and lifting it over the bridge.  Either that or he wanted to impress his girlfriend who was walking with him by helping out an old lady.  Guess the boy scout in him got activated.

To make matters worse, there were no straight streets in either of these cities.  We would begin a direction that we thought would take us to our destination only to end up with a building facing us and the need to choose between two forks in the road.  Street names changed and were hard to find. At times the GPS we relied on seemed to be as completely lost as we were.  It was really a challenge to navigate at times. 

In today’s gospel, Jesus gives seventy-two of his disciples marching orders to go on a mission.  Let’s take a look at his instructions for going on this journey.  First, He tells them to travel light and not to worry about what they are going to need for the trip.  They were not to take money, extra clothes or sandals.  Good advice for travelers.  We were told to travel light as well and wish we had taken that advise.  However, Jesus’ advice for travel is what I call extremely light!

Second, Jesus encourages them to stay with the first people who invites them into their house.  He told them not to change houses once they were invited in, encouraging them to make do with whatever accommodations they found themselves in.  No complaining about the food or the bed or trying to find a better house.  This trip was not about being in the best house but focused on spreading the Gospel.

Third, they were told to not be picky about food that is given to them.  They would be staying among Jews and Samaritans, maybe even Gentiles, some of whom practiced the Jewish laws of cleanliness and food preparation but some who might not follow these laws at all. They were told to “eat and drink whatever was set before them for workers deserve their pay.” 

Fourth, they were told not to worry about the end results of their preaching.  They were to grant peace to the house that received them and to give them the news that the Kingdom of God has come.  They were to bless those people who listened to their message and heal the sick in that area.  When their message was rejected, they were to make this public statement “As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.”  After this, they were to move on to the next city and not ruminate on their failure to have their message received.

They were sent in pairs so at least they had someone to support them during their travels.  Whether they were paired with someone they knew well or not, at least the other person was a believer in Jesus.  Going in pairs helps to strengthen a person’s resolve. A person alone quickly becomes discouraged; partners are more likely to persevere. But I imagine that it was challenging for the disciples to leave the area they knew and go to the neighboring villages, places where they may not know anyone.  Jesus told them he was sending them out as lambs among wolves.  Wow, that is enough to scare anyone. 

He sent them out to preach the Good News and there was no way of knowing whether they would be received well or not.  They needed to learn to trust in the journey and in their belief in Jesus’s message of the Kingdom of God both in the present and to come. 

The early pilgrims of Christianity were similar to these 72 sent out by Jesus.  The word pilgrim is from the same root as the word peregrine which means “coming from another country or foreign.”  Many early Christians took on the mission of Jesus and wandered to foreign countries to spread the Gospel.  According to Christine Valters Painter’s book, The Soul of a Pilgrim, the Celtic monks used the metaphor of peregrinatio to shape their ministries.  Peregrinatio is “the call to wander for the love of God.”  Often these wandering missionaries journeyed for “the love of Christ,” setting out without a destination in mind.  They even at times got into a small boat with no oars or rudders and trusted themselves to “the currents of divine love.”  In order to do this, they trusted in love and that God would provide for their needs and would guide them to where their message was most needed.  They relied on the Holy Spirit to provide both the destination and the way.  The impulse for the journey was always love.

This way of travel or journey is foreign to most of us.  When we go on a trip, we want to know where we are going, maybe map out the best way to get there, plan for exactly where we will stay and where we will find food. It is no different for most of us when we set out on a mission trip.  We have in mind where we will go and stay.  We may research the situations and culture we are going into. We don’t want to have many curve balls thrown at us.  We have a hard time trusting in God to provide or to be flexible if things don’t turn out the way we thought they would.  And yet, when Jesus sent the 72 out, he told them to let go of their expectations and just go.  This is the Gospel pattern for mission.  To not fear talking with people you don’t know, to not worry about your needs being met, to make sure you eat and take care of yourself and to not worry if you are successful or fail—just shake it off and move on.

The same need for control is true for most of us on our spiritual journeys, both externally and internally.  In our external spiritual journey, we want to know ahead of time where we are being called and what God wants us to be and do.  We want to know what will be expected of us.  We may have a plan in mind but also want to be able to discern if it is God’s will for our lives.  Am I call to ordained ministry or to work with the English as Second language program or to serve in mission by building houses? We might find ourselves asking, “Have I made the “right choice”?  Did I hear God correctly?” What if I commit to a path in life and then feel like I have no passion for it?  What if I find one obstacle after another in my way?  Should I continue along this path or take this as a sign that it is not God’s will for my life? Many of us want to be sure of the answers  before we begin that journey at all. Let’s face it, most of us want a burning bush or at least a neon sign pointing that way. I know I did as I answered the call to ministry.

To believe that God only has one path for our lives is limiting God.  God grants us choice and free will.  In each choice, there are lessons to be learned that can help us to deepen our relationship with God.  There are multiple ways of living into the fullness to which God calls each of us.  We need to listen closely to discover what is truly life-giving and learn to trust ourselves as well as God.  Our thoughts and habits have a way of keeping us on well-worn paths of action and thinking.  We need to increase our ability to sort out which stories that we tell ourselves are life-giving and which ones keep us stuck in fear and the desire to stay in a comfortable routine.  We need to challenge those that do nothing to bring us to wholeness.

Likewise, on our inward spiritual journeys, we want to have a seasoned guide or guide books that will help us know what will be required of us as we seek to deepen our relationship with God.  But the inner journey is more about learning to let go of this desire to be in control and have the faith that Jesus encouraged his disciples to have as they went out on their mission. We need to learn to be open to inner guidance that is given on the way.  We may need to examine the places where wounds and shame reside.  We may not want to go to these places as we don’t trust that God will be there to provide the help and support needed to find the way to wholeness.  The spiritual journey calls us into foreign and wild places where God cannot be put in to a box and tamed.  God is full of surprises but underneath every surprise is love and the promise to supply our needs.  Isaiah’s metaphor for this is that God is like a mother who comforts her child.  Isaiah says,”

As a mother comforts her child,
     so I will comfort you;
     in Jerusalem you will be comforted.  

When you see this, your heart will rejoice;
     your entire being will flourish like grass.

Our job is to learn to let go of the baggage that keeps us stuck, just like that 50-pound suitcase that bogged down my journey in Europe.  Leaving behind all the shame, the need to be perfect, the need to be able to predict the outcome, will free us up to take the journey into wholeness with and anticipation for the joy that will be found. The invitation here is to let go of our own agendas and discover where God is leading us.

It may not involve getting into a boat with no oars and drifting on the sea, but at times it will feel like we have no idea where we are going or how to get there.  If we set out with love as our guide and motivation, we can rest in the assurance that the Spirit will guide us and that we will have companions on the way if we are open to those who cross our paths.   They might not be who we thought they would be, but we just might be pleasantly surprised by what they have to contribute to our growth and journey.  Our God is a God of love, who provides like a mother does for her children.  I invite you to take the journey, to yield yourself to God’s prompting and discover the joy that comes from “your entire being flourishing like the grass.”     (Meditation on Luke 10:1-11 and Isaiah 66: 10-14)


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.”


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

Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Step by Step

Last month we visited my son and daughter-in-law in Norway.  They have two beautiful children, which of course any grandparent might say. The youngest is a boy, Lucas, who is filled with joy and loves to be outside.  Lucas loves all sorts of machinery but also leaves and dirt.  His joy is infectious and he can bring a smile to anyone’s face.  During this visit, we went to their cabin in the mountains for a weekend. When we arrived it was a bit rainy, cold and overcast.  However, we decided to take the kids out for a walk after a long car ride to get there.  Our granddaughter took a spill close to the cabin and decided that she was too upset to go any further. She left to go back to the cabin with her mother.

Lucas was having too much fun and wanted to continue with us all the way up the hill.  The path led to a meadow that was rocky and covered with all sorts of lichen that were showing off their rich autumn colors.  Lucas was a real trooper and walked most of the way, holding his father’s hand when the way got steep or too rocky.  He even struggled up the hill without asking to be carried.  His father would have done that for him but he wanted to “do it myself.”

Later, as we descended the hill, I watched as they walked together and noticed that they were fully in sync without even having to give a thought about it.  It reminded me of a song by Rich Mullins we sometimes sing in church.

Oh God, You are my God 
And I will ever praise You 
Oh God, You are my God 
And I will ever praise You 
I will seek You in the morning 
And I will learn to walk in Your ways 
And step by step You’ll lead me 
And I will follow You all of my days

Sometimes I think of Abraham 
How one star he saw had been lit for me 
He was a stranger in this land 
And I am that, no less than he 
And on this road to righteousness 
Sometimes the climb can be so steep 
I may falter in my steps 
But never beyond Your reach

Lucas was never beyond the reach of his father, even when he wanted to walk by himself and not hold hands.  Yet, anytime the road got rocky or he needed help, he didn’t hesitated to reach out to his father, who was always keeping an eye on him. 

How like God this is.  God is always present as we journey through life.  Many times, we let go of God’s hand. We want to “do it ourselves”—just like a toddler who is discovering his independence and ability.  Yet God is always walking beside us; ready to catch us if we fall, ready to sooth our hurts and cries when the road gets too rocky.  We just need to reach out and take God’s hand. We may feel we are all alone but God never takes God’s eye off us.  And if we continue to stay connected, we will begin to walk—step by step—in the path God leads us.  It will still be rocky at times but we will know we are not alone.  With God we can conquer even the biggest hill in our path.

Bless The Lord

img_5804Do you ever get a song stuck in your head and find yourself singing it to yourself at odd times?  This happens to me frequently. For the past week or so it has been Matsunrise-on-mountainst Redman’s “Ten Thousand Reasons.”  If you have never heard it, I encourage you to find it on YouTube as it is a beautiful song.  Beware though—it might get stuck in your head too.   I find myself singing it when I awake in the night time and early morning.  Specifically, this verse is resonating with my soul at this time.

“The sun comes up
It’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass
And whatever lies before me
Let me be singing
When the evening comes”

It was especially poignant one morning when I awoke to the full moon setting over the mountains and the sun lighting up the sky in oranges and pinks.  It was glorious and felt like such a sacred moment.  The presence of God was palpable in the air and I was just struck with the beauty of creation.  The scene kept changing, with each moment becoming more beautiful as the sun came up.  It felt like a “new day dawning.”

We have all had moments like this I am sure.  It is easy to sing God’s praise when we are surrounded by beauty and wonder. But the next lines say “Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me…”  Really?  Does this mean I need to let go and let God be in control?  That I need to sing this song in the time of pain and suffering just as loud as I sing it when all is right with the world?  This is so much harder.  To thank God when the “evening comes.”  Not just the literal evening but the darkness that can feel overwhelming—when God feels so far away and we are scared and lonely.  When we are placed in a situation we don’t like—a negative medical diagnosis, a divorce, a job lost.  We usually feel the air knock out of us at times like this, like we don’t even know how to take the next breath much less sing anyone’s praises.

Yet, even in times that seem the darkest, we are invited to sing God’s praises. Maybe in doing so we will be able to remember the good times as well.  The psalmists follow this pattern, lamenting for a while but always ending with blessing the Lord. God knows our pain, travels with us through it and knows us deeper than anyone can.  God calls each of us beloved.  When the dark times come—and they will—we can join our voices to others in our community or, if unable to sing, can let them sing for us.  Singing praises helps to lift our spirits and to remind us that this too shall pass.  I invite you to try it the next time evening descends upon your life.  It might help you to feel less alone.

Help! My life is out of control!

stressWe all know that life is stressful. In fact, without a certain amount of stress, life would be boring to most of us. We use certain internal stressors such as deadlines to make sure we stay on track with our responsibilities and appointments. Some stress comes from positive events in our lives such as a new marriage or birth of a baby. Other times, it is from a death in the family, financial worries, or too many demands at work. We live in a fast paced world that asks us to keep up a whirlwind speed that can become overwhelming at times. When we become overwhelmed by tasks, deadlines or commitments, we can move from stress to di-stress.

Stress and anxiety are the fight or flight instinct that is our body’s natural way of responding to emergencies. When there is an actual emergency, this instinct allows us to think clearly and quickly respond to what is needed. Hormones race through our body to speed up our heart and other physical processes. They help us to avoid or deal with the threat. However, because we have the ability to anticipate problems, many of us fall into chronic worry or planning for possible problems that never even materialize. Thoughts about these possibilities can trigger the same flood of hormones and stress. Chronic anxiety leads to impairment of the immune system and increases the risk of physical and mental problems. This can lead to increased physical problems such as autoimmune diseases, coronary artery disease and decreased satisfaction with life.

Signs of stress vary among individuals but may include:

  • Worry, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Sadness or depression
  • Feeling pressured and hurried
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain
  • Allergic reactions, such as a skin rash or asthma
  • Problems sleeping
  • Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or misusing drugs
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Eating too much or not enough

Mindfulness is a great tool for coping with stress and anxiety. This practice involves stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment. Simply focusing on the breath or our body can do this. It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise. The only definition of successful practice is that when we notice we are thinking or feeling, we name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment. Practicing this type of stillness is best done as a routine before we are in the midst of an upsetting situation. Then when these situations occur, we can lean on our practice of letting go of anxious thoughts that are not helpful to solving the problem but just add stress. A great resource describing how to apply this technique specifically to anxiety is The Mindful Way through Anxiey: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life by Susan Orsillo, PhD & Lizabeth Roemer, PhD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also another tool that can help to alleviate the anxiety we feel. There are several different techniques in this field that can be applied to anxiety. The first step is learning how to identify these thoughts and differentiating the rational from the irrational. A therapist can help us to isolate the thoughts that are causing the anxiety and teach us ways to challenge them to decrease anxiety. This type of therapy has been shown to be a very effective means of reigning in our chronic worry, anger or depression. A good resource to read to become familiar with this tool is When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD.

It is also important to remember to take time for self-care in the form of spending time with friends and family and getting the proper nutrition, exercise and sleep. Participating in positive activities and having fun is an important stress reducer. Watch any negative self-talk about not being able to cope or being competent. Seek out people that are supportive and caring. View problems as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remember, stress is normal but anxiety can be met head on and decreased. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a friend or therapist if life begins to feel overwhelming and nothing seems to help. We all need help at one time or another and no one needs to go it alone.

Consciously Stupid

I have begun a new exercise program that includes a set of DVDs to use for home workouts. six pack abs On the DVD, a very ripped instructor and several good looking people are doing exercises that, frankly,re challenging even for a person who has worked out most of her life–me.  Now, I have ridden a bike over 60 miles at a time and have a routine of doing the elliptical machine at the club for over 55 minutes.  And not just on the easy settings but on the hill climb setting.  I also work out with the Fitlinx machines to lift weight using upper and lower body machines.  So I figured I could follow the instructor pretty well and didn’t have to use the alternative methods modeled by the one woman who, frankly, looks like she hasn’t worked out a day in her life.  Right?  Who wants to follow the out of shape woman.  That would really be a hit to my ego.  I was sure that, even though I was about two decades older than any of the people in the video, I could keep up with the best of them.

Man, was I wrong. I knew I was choosing to do this because I needed to feel in shape even though I had not done a routine like this for a long time.  I had moved to the Elliptical because of knee issues. The DVD workout had lots of squats and others knee and bun pounding moves in it.  Weights were used in other exercises and still included bending and squatting.  I didn’t want to give in and say I was out of shape by having to follow the “fat” woman. That was what I was aware I had labelled her in my mind.  I was consciously being stupid.  I knew my motivation for choosing to follow the athletic looking people was all ego and not based in reality of my limitations, yet I did it anyway.  Competition drove me to push myself regardless of the warnings on the DVD and the fact that no one was seeing me workout.  Who was I trying to impress?

How many times are we aware that the choices we are making are not in our best interest but we do them anyway?  We look for something to stroke our ego rather than making the right choice for our situation and limitations.  We compete against others real or imagined rather than focus on our gifts and talents. We know that overeating is going to lead to weight gain that will make us feel bad about ourselves but we binge out on sweets because we are feeling depressed.   We know we need 8 hours of sleep to be at our best but we stay up late to watch a movie or read a book.  We know that spending time in meditation or prayer is good for our spiritual life but we pick up the computer first thing in the morning, check Facebook and an hour is gone before we know it.

Being conscious and self aware is good and a first step to changing our behavior to move towards a happier, more fulfilled life.  But we need to take the next step and make choices that will lead to self care and growth.  I am dealing with the resulting sore muscles now in ways that help, such as massage and heat/ice, stretching more and most importantly, following the modified version of the exercises.  I hope to be able to work up to doing it the harder way if I can.  For now, I know that I am taking better care of myself and won’t hurt myself along the way.  I encourage all of us to use our awareness to make good choices.  This means pausing before moving from awareness to the choice, acknowledge the emotion that is driving us to choose inappropriately, and making the choice that is in our best long term interest.  Not easy but each day presents us with many opportunities to practice.  We will make mistakes but we can greet those as opportunities to learn and improve our ability to make a better choice next time.  Above all, we need to treat ourselves with kindness and gentleness. This will increase the chances of making the appropriate choice the next time.

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.

  • 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