Thursday, May 29, 2014

Remembering A Friend

It was just over a year ago that the Dalai Lama was in Louisville and I was able to attend one of his public talks.  It was an ecumenical gathering that was part of the annual Festival of Faiths celebration.  A friend and former teacher of mine shared the stage with the Dalai Lama as the Christian representative.  There were also representatives of other major faiths and religions.  This event was one of the last activities I did with my dear friend, Fr. Dennis.  The weekend after the Dalai Lama’s appearance my son was ordained a priest.  Dennis was able to take part in the ordination ceremony and along with the other priests who participated he was able to lay his hands on my son and bless him.  The blessing of fellow priests is a traditional part of the ordination ceremony.  A month later Dennis died very unexpectedly and my son was able to concelebrate his funeral mass along with the Archbishop of Louisville.  Dennis is now buried at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery I have written about many times over the years.  In the course of my life many people have died and I’ve certainly attended my share of funerals.  I must admit, however, that none were as difficult for me as the passing of my friend, Dennis.  He was a brother, a friend, and a mentor.  After he retired from active ministry and moved into a house near the monastery we got together about once a month for an entire day.  We did this for approximately eight years.  I miss Dennis and the days we spent together very much.  He was one of few people I have ever been completely open with in regard to my personal thoughts and feelings.  I have written many “daily thoughts” over the years but they were all somewhat guarded and not totally revealing in terms of my true feelings.  Dennis was someone with whom I could be completely honest without fear of judgment.  He also felt the same way about me.  We were very close and there were no secrets.  If we are lucky we are blessed with one or two real friends in our lives.  In the world of Facebook and other social media, the meaning of friendship has been sorely distorted.  If you have real friends in your life you should cherish them.  Trust me when I say that if you lose them you will surely feel the pain.  I think many people feel misunderstood by most of the people in their lives.  If you have a friend that not only understands you, but who also accepts you without judgment, you have a true friend.  The one year anniversary of Dennis’s death is still about a month away but I think I will make a trip out to the monastery that day and visit with him.  We still have lots to talk about.       

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

You Must Leave The Cave

We are all on a journey.  I know this sounds like a cliché but it is true nevertheless.  Often in our lives we feel like we are standing still but we are not.  Journeys and life involve movement.  If we are not moving ourselves, life will move us.  Movement is part of life and there are no journeys that allow you to stand still.  The journey of life is hopefully a long journey with lots of interesting side trips.  Our movement through life may not always be pleasant but if we are lucky it is interesting.  All journeys give us experience and many journeys fill us with wisdom.  The first time we go down a path we may be lost and not know our way.  With each additional trip the path becomes more familiar and we may work the path multiple time just because we enjoy it.  Other paths may be treacherous and if we survive them we make every effort to never go down that path again.  Some paths are rocky or slippery and we must be careful with every step.  Other paths are like a super highway where we can turn on the cruise control and enjoy the scenery.  We often end up on many paths where we have no idea where they will end.  Occasionally they are dead ends but sometimes they take us to the places of our dreams.  I saw a movie once upon a time with my granddaughter called “The Croods”.  It the story of a prehistoric family who dwell in a cave.  The father is always reminding the children of his cardinal rule.  The rule is “Never leave the cave”.  Of course, he has a daughter who wants to leave the cave more than anything.  Circumstances finally force the entire family to leave the cave and by doing so, they discover a world full of wonder.  So get out of your cave and begin your journey.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Spirituality Of Subtraction

I have occasionally mentioned something called the “Spirituality of Subtraction”.  This is a term first coined by Father Richard Rohr and is an idea that is difficult for the young.  It should be.  When one is young it is a time to build up and to accumulate.  You acquire an education.  You begin a career and perhaps start a family.  You buy a house and fill it with stuff.  Youth is a time of building and gathering.  This is the point of the first half of life.  More often than not, when we are doing all this building and gathering, we are also creating the illusion of who we think we are.  This illusion is what some people call the “false self”.  The second half of life is very different.  One begins to tear down and let go.  Sometimes, despite whatever education you have acquired, you may feel like you don’t know anything at all, but, hopefully, your knowledge has turned into wisdom.   When you were young and thought that you were smart and knew everything, that was an illusion of your false self.  The career that you spent your entire life acquiring may be slipping away.  You may be losing interest in it or it may be losing interest in you.  If you’re lucky you have some good relationships with people you love and who love you in return.  As you are growing older your children are growing up.  They leave your nest and continue their own journey of life.  The changes you are going through will also happen to them eventually.  At some point you will realize that you no longer need that four bedroom home and the mini-van in the driveway.  Your priorities change.  When you begin to de-construct and let go, many of your illusions are exposed and your “true self” begins to emerge.  Most of you who are young will read this and think “What is he talking about”?  Those of you past 50 probably understand me.  None of this is good or bad.  It is a natural process that we will all participate in with different degrees of satisfaction and pain.  If you are interested in learning more about the idea of the false self/true self, or the “Spirituality of Subtraction”, I recommend the books of Thomas Merton and Father Richard Rohr.    

Believe What You Experience

One of my former teachers once said, “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living, we live ourselves into a new way of thinking”.  The great teacher, Buddha, said, “Believe what you experience”.  It’s been my experience of life that we often start with an answer and then we build a question.  We want things a certain way so then we try to manipulate reality to match our desires.  Such manipulation may get us what we want but the side effects can be damaging.  Rarely do we just let life unfold.  The fact that it’s done that for millions of years doesn’t seem to deter us in our desire to be in control.  Most of us try to live according to whatever belief systems we have chosen to embrace.  How would life be different if we believed according to what we have experienced?  This is a door that can swing both ways.  If you’ve never experienced love, it’s difficult to believe in it.  On the other hand, if all you’ve known is abuse and hatred, the idea of love can give you hope and lift you by your bootstraps to break the cycle of despair.  As always, for me it’s about balance.  We need something to believe it.  However, if we’ve never had the experience to support and strength our beliefs, they will eventually fall by the wayside.  Belief must be balanced with the experience of what we believe.       

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Complaining And Whining

“To hear complaints is wearisome alike to the wretched and the happy”.
-Samuel Johnson
I really try not to complain or whine.  My basic approach to life is one of gratitude because I know I have been blessed in many ways.  When I do complain it is usually because I think something is stupid, a waste of time, or has no value that is apparent to me.  When I do complain I sometimes become obsessed with whatever I am complaining about.  I know that it sometimes annoys other people and most of the time it wears me out too.  It’s so much better to be happy and content.  Everything in life doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be happy.  However, to be happy one needs to spend some time counting your blessings.  Too often we focus on what’s missing in life and we don’t spend enough time acknowledging the good in our life.  When I avoid the negative it is relatively easy for me to be happy.  It doesn’t take much to make me happy and I am usually content with whatever is available.  Although I sometimes think I am a complex person, my basic needs are rather simple.  I like nice things but I don’t think of myself as a materialistic person.  Happiness is found in direct proportion to our gratitude.  When we are happy and content with life we don’t usually complain.  The less I complain the less I exhaust myself and others.    

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Zen Things

I don't know who came up with this list but it's very good.

Zen Things
·       Do one thing at a time.
·       Do it slowly and deliberately.
·       Do it completely.
·       Do less.
·       Put space between things.
·       Develop rituals.
·       Designate time for certain things.
·       Devote time to sitting.
·       Smile and serve others.
·       Make cleaning and cooking become meditation.
·       Think about what is necessary.
·       Live simply.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Spirituality And Leadership

The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living once studied the idea of leadership in the writings of Thomas Merton.  While Merton did not specifically address the issue of leadership, his writings prompted the following questions:
  • How is the inner life of a leader integral to leadership style?
  • How are core personality traits reflected in the way a person leads?
The Institute identified the following six key characteristics of a leader.
  1. Compassion
  2. Courage
  3. Humility
  4. Relational
  5. Clarity of Vision/Intuition
  6. Openness to Change
In my opinion, these characteristics support what many refer to as “Servant Leadership”.  True leadership is a life of service.  In our society, especially in politics, leaders more often than not seek their own self-interests and the promotion of their personal values rather than serve the needs of the people they represent.  In history, the greatest leaders have been servants not dictators.  Leaders should be compassionate, they should be courageous, they should be humble, they should be people oriented, they should be visionary, they should intuitively know what is the right thing to do, and they should be open to the change that supports what is right.   

Monday, May 12, 2014

Are You Bored With Your Life?

“Acedia” is a monastic term that describes a kind of boredom with your life.  We all have things we dread, procrastinate about, or simply do not want to do.  Acedia is more than that.  It is the sense that everything is a chore, everything is exhausting, everything is meaningless.  Whenever I feel like this, and it seems to happen more and more frequently, I have that “I’m over it” feeling.  As my wife often says, “I’m tired and I’m tired of it”.  I know I am feeling this way when I have a sense of fatigue that goes far beyond a lack of sleep.  It is a mental, psychological, and spiritual weariness.  I think everyone, except for the most extremely positive and optimistic people, sometimes feel like this.  So what does one do about it?   The first step is to simply recognize it.  The second step is to remind yourself that your feelings are like the weather, always changing, and that your feelings are often a poor representation of reality.  I also find it helpful to change my routines as much as I can.  I know I am a creature of habit and routine.  Sometimes I take comfort in that.  However, I also know that my routines can sometimes create a rut that brings on these feelings of acedia.  Sometimes we all need a break from our lives and responsibilities.  Sometimes we need a “me” day.  Sometimes we need a good nap or perhaps a night out with friends.  From time to time I need to go out to the monastery for a weekend and make a retreat.  As I think about it I realize it has been way too long since I have done this.  We all need someone or something to periodically give us a boost or sense of renewal.  We all sometimes need to re-charge our batteries so that life does not overwhelm us or totally drain us of all zest for living.  
I took my first "Selfie".  The results show why people shouldn't do this.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Living Your Life

In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his or her life and for ‘finding themselves’.  If they persist in shifting their responsibility to someone else, they fail to find out the meaning of their own existence.
-Thomas Merton
Living your own life is not as easy as it sounds and finding yourself can be like looking for buried treasure.  It involves walking down quite a few false trails, digging a lot of holes, and moving tons of dirt.  I have been walking, digging, and moving quite a bit of dirt for a very long time now and I’m a little weary.  However, this is a task that only I can do for myself.  I cannot outsource it.  No one else can walk my path, dig my holes, or move my dirt.  For as long as there’s been people, individuals have wondered “what is life and what does it mean”?  For the last month or so I have been watching the television show Cosmos.  It is the story of the universe from a scientific point of view.  I can’t decide if I am  blown away by the magnificence of the galaxies, the star systems, the complexity of outer space and beyond, or if I now feel totally insignificant in the great scheme of life.  When the world as we know it has taken billions of years to form, does it really matter if I came to work today?  In cosmic time am I just a miniscule, sub-atomic particle in the continued evolution of all that life is or do I really matter?  On a similar vein, a few months ago a friend shared his thoughts that within a few generations most of us will be completely forgotten, even by our descendants.  We are all star dust and to dust we shall return.  What do we do in our current configuration?  How do we find ourselves and the meaning of our current existence?  Let me quickly admit that I don’t really know or I would have already done it.  I don’t know if my life matters or not.  What I do know is that I am a consciousness aware of itself.  As a living being with a consciousness, I am motivated to move and grow and expand myself.  My senses take in data and react appropriately or at least as programmed.  Like a machine that evolves into artificial intelligence, I evolve into whatever I become.  Along the way I rub shoulders with other beings, I form relationships, I experience happiness, and, if lucky, I feel loved and worthwhile to everyone and everything around me.  I become one with my world.  No one else can do any of this for me although they may walk a similar path and be going in the same direction.  Ultimately we are all on our own although life may give companions on the journey.  These thoughts are almost too heavy even for me.  I’m glad the weekend is here and I’ll be spending it with my granddaughter.  Tomorrow we will go to the movies and visit the Land of Oz.  O my!  I think I just realized the meaning of life.              

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Doing What You Love

Today I am teaching the first of four sessions on the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator.  I am looking forward to it because psychology, and especially the study of personality types, is something that I am passionate about.  I first discovered the Myers-Briggs when I was in my thirties and working as a Lay Minister.  I was taking a course on Spiritual Direction when they gave us a lengthy version of the Myers-Briggs assessment.  This first awareness of my personality type was a true awakening experience for me.  For the first time in my life I started to make sense to myself and over time I also began to understand other people and how we all see life differently.  Since that moment I have been on a continuous journey of self-awareness.  I am sure there are people who are dreading my class today because attendance is mandatory for them and they may care less about the subject matter.  These people are my target audience and by the end of the class I hoped they feel enlightened.  There is not a lot in the workplace that truly excites me.  What does excite me is when I have the rare opportunity to do something I love and which I feel I do well.  Today’s subject matter is something I know a lot about and teaching is something I really enjoy.  It is a rare day when I don’t encounter people who are just trying to get through the day.  I am often one of them.  I think a big part of that struggle is a lack of passion for what one is doing.  If a person can find their passion and have opportunities to express it, they will be a happy person.  More often than not most people get stuck in a job that truly feels like work.  If you find your passion, and especially if you can get paid for it, you will never work another day in your life.  Work is not work if you love what you are doing.    

Monday, May 05, 2014

Quieting The Mind

I’ve read many books about meditation.  Over the years I have tried to spend time each day just being quiet and still.  Way back in the 70’s I studied Transcendental Meditation.  It was introduced into the United States by a Hindu monk named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  Later in the 80’s I learned a Christian version of meditation called “Centering Prayer”.  Both of these types of meditation are very similar in their technique.  They basically involve the use of a mantra or prayer word in coordination with your breath.  They don’t require total silence or isolation but it is important not to be disturbed while you are doing them.  Typically these types of meditation would be done for about 20 minutes twice a day.  The biggest obstacle to meditation is your own mind.  Most of us have over active minds.  We have what the Buddhists call “monkey minds”.  Imagine a tree full of monkeys.  They’re making all kinds of noise and chatter while jumping from limb to limb.  Our minds are often like a tree full of monkey’s.  No one can turn off their mind.  However, certain types of meditation, especially one’s that use a mantra or prayer word, can help us control our thoughts somewhat or at least learn to let them go.  These types of meditation also help us to feel a sense of calm in our bodies.  The mantra or prayer word acts like an anchor.  Our minds could be compared to a busy river where there is lots of activity on the surface.  When we let our thoughts run rampant, it’s like we are on the river.  When we sit still and use a mantra or prayer word, it acts like an anchor that brings us down to the bottom of the river where everything is calm.  When we realize that we are thinking and floating back to the top of the river, our mantra or prayer word can anchor us and bring us back to our inner stillness at the bottom of the river.  When you can live your life with this inner stillness, you are what some would call “a centered person”.      

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Mind Over Body

Today I am going to explain the difference between being young and being my age.  When you are young your body is in charge.  It wants to do all kinds of wild and crazy things that someone my age can no longer do.  When you are young your mind is just along for the ride.  Your body wants to do something that is probably not a good thing.  Your mind is going “Are you sure you should do this”?  More often than not, the body wins and you do something stupid.  When you are my age your body doesn’t want to do anything.  By the time you are my age all those stupid things you did in your youth are catching up with you.  My mind never says “Are you sure you want to do this”?  My mind is saying “YOU REALLY NEED TO DO THIS”!  When the alarm goes off my body wants to stay in bed but my mind is saying “You need to get up now.  It’s a work day”.  When my body wants coffee and a donut on my break, my mind says, “Don’t even think about it.  You need to go and walk as many laps as you can around the office.  In my youth I wanted to stay out late, howl at the moon, and be crazy.  Forget sleep.  Now that I am in my 60’s I can barely stay away until it’s bedtime.  I very rarely go out on a Friday night to party with my friends.  After a week of work, my body says, “There’s no way, Dude”!  I enjoyed my youth and I survived it.  Getting older, however, is not all bad.  I like my age.  I like my slower pace.  Yes, I do miss the energy of youth but I also enjoy the contentment of being older.  My body is still putting up quite a fight with my mind but more often than not, the mind wins now.     

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Live In Each Season As It Passes

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each”.
-Henry David Thoreau
Recently I have been in a few conversations about people, how they act, their attitudes about life, and how so many of us see the same things so differently.  I quickly get worn out by negative and pessimistic people who always see the worst of everything.  Drama Kings and Queens often have the same effect on me.  These people are chronically unhappy and nothing ever seems to give them joy.  I am an optimist.  I see the glass as not only half full but often overflowing.  A pessimist once told me that an optimist is a person out of touch with reality.  If your reality is always negative, pessimistic, and full of drama, then I hope to always be out of touch with it.  I know that a lot of life is just trying to survive but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed.  The above quote by Thoreau is a very good definition of Zen.  Living in the season means being one with it.  Whatever the season, it is full of life.  Breathe in life.  Drink life.  Taste it’s fruits.  Let the goodness of life permeate your bones.  Life does change but that is not necessarily good or bad.  Life just is.  Our opinions of life are based on personal judgments which can be terribly skewed.  Thinking that life is always either good or bad is dualistic thinking.  Life is both good and bad.  The Zen way, the contemplative way, is to not judge it but to simply be present to it.  Often, joy happens when we least expect it. 
If you’ve never read Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau, I highly recommend it.

The Road Not Taken

“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something…your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”.
-Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs changed the world.  He would be my hero if all he did was invent the iPod.  I have always been reflective and introspective.  It’s part of my nature.  However, I don’t dwell in the past and I am not in mourning over its passing.  However, I do sometimes re-live great memories in my mind.  Much of the time my life does not make sense to me while I am living it.  It is when I look back at previous events or people who crossed my path, that I can begin to make sense of the present moment.  I can see now when things that felt like failures were really successes and they made me who I am today.  I agree with Steve Jobs that it is only in retrospect that we can connect the dots of our life.  Life never goes in a straight line.  My personal blog is called “Stumbling along the Spiritual Path”.  The use of the word “stumbling” was very intentional.  The path of my life has gone in many directions.  My path has sometimes seemed overgrown with weeds.  It has gone up and down and all around.  Sometimes I could not tell if I was going North, South, East, or West.  A few times when I wasn’t paying attention I got wacked in the eye with a tree branch.  Many times I have stumbled and occasionally I have fallen down.  This convoluted path, however, has been my path.  It has taken me through some pretty interesting and unique experiences.  It has brought me to where I am today and has also made me who I am today.  These thoughts make me think of a favorite poem by Robert Frost. 
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.