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Sundays are Spirituality day here at Taking it to the Streets

Yin and yang.  Black and white.  Right and wrong.  Right and left.

Yesterday I was at a 12-step meeting discussing step six (“Were entirely ready for God to remove all these defects of character”) and people were talking about ‘shortcomings’ as though they stood alone (simply stubbornness) rather than as one part of the continuum on a characteristic.

On the continuum of stubbornness at the “bad” end, I see “getting it done” or “Stick-to-it-iv-ness” at the “good end”.  I think “Good” and “Bad” are not helpful adjectives here – I prefer “Useful” and “Less useful.”

Doctor Phil used to ask “How’s that working for you?” and I think that is the key question with our characteristics.  If I am stubbornly sticking to my exercise routine despite changes in schedule it’s working for me pretty well, thanks.  If, on the other hand, I am stubbornly resisting implementing what I know about needed changes to said routine (like – I need to do it!) then it’s not serving me well at all.

From my perspective the focus on “Good”/”Bad” and “Right”/”Wrong” is a bit puerile.  for little children those can be helpful code words to help them make sense of a vast world.  But we limit ourselves when we plunk the world into two camps (typically aligning ourselves with the ‘good guys’ and “they” are “bad”).

In our spiritual development  this tendency is self-defeating.  We can use our “shortcomings” to batter ourselves, which rarely leads to lasting change, and is often, in fact, a dodge to changing behavior.  Because if it’s all black and white and I didn’t get in 30 minutes of weight lifting then I am bad, bad, bad and now, back to computer games.  Where if it’s a continuum and I didn’t get in 30 minutes of weight lifting I can say “what can I realistically do right now when it’s late and I’m tired?  Hmm, maybe 25 crunches, a few squats and ya, alright, I’ll do 10 curls.”  Or not.  But I can look at it as a choice, not a fate.

As an aside, I think this same tendency to childishly lump things into “good” and “bad” buckets is what has this country paralyzed politically right now.

Do you know the contemporary philosopher and philosophy professor Jacob Needleman?  He’s terrific.  In one of his books he talks about an experiment he did in one of his classes, which went so well that he now does it in all such classes.

He got two people on totally opposite sides of a divisive issue – polar opposites.  Then he had first one person, then other present “their side of the story”.  But the catch was that the opposing person had to reflect back the other’s position accurately.  And – upping the ante – the rule was also that one had to do so in a respectful tone with no disrespectful gestures et al.  So the person doesn’t have to embrace or pretend to embrace the ‘enemy’s’ point of view.  But they DO have to verbally demonstrate that they really heard what the other said – and do it in a neutral tone.

It had an interesting effect.  At the end of the debate both parties still largely held their initial view. But both were able to understand the others view, and even embrace elements of the others view. And most importantly, both sides side saw that the other side was sincere and that from their world view their view-point made sense.  Minds may not have been changed (at least not in entirety) but hearts were.

We can do that for ourselves.  Rather than beat up on myself (“Great, Diane, in May you said you would blog daily, meditate daily, workout 3x/week – and look at you, you schlub!!”) I can instead look at the continuum (“Great job on yoga in May, Diane.  And it’s great you’re working out with a personal trainer, but you will get WAY more out of that if you really make it a priority to also work out on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”)

And whilst beating up on one’s self is not effective, neither is just giving up or giving in.  If I can see my behavior on a continuum, I also have the opportunity to ‘tweak’ rather than ‘overhaul’ or nothing.

How about you?  Where do you stand?  Black and white?  A continuum.  Is ‘your position on this issue evolving’?  As always, I’d really like to know!

Yin Yang

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Preparation


Sundays are Spirituality Day here at Taking it to the Streets

When I was a child, my parents celebrated Advent.  We may have had those Advent calendars – if so, I don’t recall. What I do recall was the sense of sacredness, of ritual and of building excitement.  We had an Advent wreath on the dinner table and we’d light the appropriate calendar each night until, finally, it was Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve, similarly had much ritual and excitement at my house.  We were children then, so of course a lot of the excitement had to do with “Stuff” – the toys and games we eagerly awaited on Christmas morn.

But my mother instilled another type of excitement – that of spiritual birth.

Regardless of our spiritual path, of whether or not we practice Christianity or any organized religion, I think there is a sense of big change at this time of year as the “wheel of the year” is about to turn into another season.

Our beliefs and the stage of life in which we find ourselves drive a lot of how that expresses.  But I think it’s worthwhile stepping outside of the DOING and asking a few question:

  • For what or whom am I preparing?
  • What is the meaning behind the rituals in which I engage?
  • How can I deepen the meaning, devotion and joy of this season for myself and my family?

It strikes me that regardless of our personal beliefs, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are preparing for a time of more darkness, of more interiority.  To me it seems that any ritual or activity that focuses on some of these elements is key:

  • Earth.  We honor earth, as the season changes (perhaps a Christmas tree, a holiday wreath, a swag of evergreens on your mantel)
  • Warmth.  In the Northern Hemisphere we are heading into a colder time – the hearth, the fire of Advent candles, the turkey roasting in the oven and warming the house – bringing in warmth is key
  • Family.  Whether our family of origin, the family we created or the family we choose – it’s a time of year to celebrate the bonds of love.
  • Children.  As we approach the ‘elderhood’ of the year (as foliage and green ‘die’ for the winter) it is hopeful to remember birth. Thus children are important beacons of hope.  Besides, it is fun to give them gifts and watch their delight.
  • Nourishment.  We live in an abundant age, and so winter starvation doesn’t seem imminent – in fact, for many of us, the surfeit of holiday calories is totally antithetical to the notion of lack. But it has not always been so.  And our feasts remind us that, despite the outer appearances, God and the good earth have continued to provide for us.
  • God.  In however you honor the Creator of All that Is, it’s a good time to reconnect with awe, wonder and gratitude for the Divine.

In my own life, I have focused more on simplicity of late.  I don’t get much into the cultural hoopla and materialism this time of year.  But I do focus on the points above in my own ways:  the wreath by my front door, my often-lit fireplace and candles, sending St. Nicholas chocolate letters to my grandnieces and grandnephews, a festive meal on Christmas Day and increased awareness of God’s goodness and my gratitude for my amazing life.

How about you?  What are you doing that really resonates with your core beliefs?  What part of the holiday season no longer has meaning for you – in fact, stresses you out?  How do YOU want to prepare this year?  As always, I really want to know!

advent wreath

 

 

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Sundays are Spirituality Day here at Taking it to the Streets

Driving home from the movies last night, my friend and I were admiring the Christmas lights that have sprung up in my town like daffodils in the spring.  Festive, cheerful, sentimental (bringing back such fond memories of childhood) they are a harbinger of the coming winter holidays – for many of us, Christmas.

I’ve noticed how many religious traditions have holidays at this time of year that celebrate brining in the light.  Which, if you are in the Northern Hemisphere, makes a lot of sense as we move inexorably towards Winter Solstice, this longest night of the year.

We bring in the light.  We reassure  ourselves that really, don’t worry about it, the Sun will return! (and interestingly, Christians talk about the birth of the S-O-N, as we all re-welcome the rebirth of the S-U-N).

For me, having Christmas trees is a similar remembrance – the fecundity of the earth is not GONE, it’s just sleeping.

I so enjoy these aspects of “the holidays” and enjoy the music (well, at first – after the one hundredth time I hear “The First Noel” it DOES grate…).  The sense of festivity, of conviviality, of warmth – all those beckon me in, invitingly.

What I don’t enjoy is the way our desire to love and please one another – to connect, to see and be seen – has been perverted into a frenzy of often mindless materialism.  I am particularly put off by “Black Friday” and the attendant hysteria around getting deals.

When my friend Becky died after a 111 day bout of cancer, at the age of 46, I very viscerally got that the race between time and money is truly a no-contest race – time trumps money every time.  Because, despite gloomy economists and a sagging economy, I will tell you  that you CAN get more money.  Time?  not so much.

That’s why time is one of my two favorite gifts to both give and receive (for the other see the third bullet point below).  What do I want?  Quality time with people I love.  The chance to laugh and love and talk and sing.  Just that.  Maybe a drawing from the wee children in my life, or a poem.  In fact – you can write me a poem too – that would be delightful.

Oh, I’m not a curmudgeon (at least not on this score).  I am a believer in buying “stuff” for little kids (though I don’t do it at Christmas when they gorge themselves on stuff, preferring to send surprise gifts throughout the year).

Here’s my list of things to consider in celebrating this season:

  • Create memorable holiday traditions with your family and friends and focus on the experience.  My family decorated our tree on Christmas Eve when I was a kid and we always had walnuts and tangerines while doing so – just putting those out at this time of the year brings me a flood of happy memories.
  • Consider doing donations as gifts.  My wonderful friends and neighbors, Pete and Julie, do that with their adult siblings – all band together and do a group donation to a favorite charity.
  • Some charities make it easy to be specific – I love Heifer, International where you can pick a specific animal. My dad grew up on a farm – we have given him a cow for Father’s Day or his birthday – honoring him, but changing the lives of other people.
  • If you’re not a fan of what you consider to be “handouts” then invest in someone’s dreams on behalf of your loved one with an interest paying loan to Kiva (“Change a life for $25”) or Kickstarter (“Fund and follow creativity”).
  • Consider an outing to a cultural place together – and then go out for hot chocolate afterwards to discuss your adventure.  Museums, plays – if you are in or near a big city the possibilities are endless – but I bet you have such choices wherever you live.
  • Or, celebrate winter (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere) by being IN it – go ice skating, sledding, take a walk in the woods, sit outside by a firepit – be with those you love in the bracing outdoors (and then that hot chocolate or hot toddy will be especially welcomed!)
  • Cook together.  Instead of stressing on the performance art of pulling off a feast – or the expense of catering one – invite your friends to make a cozy winter brunch or simple dinner – the laughter and happy talk as you  prepare the food will infuse it with even more love.
  • Do something crafty together.  Similarly, decorating can feel like an Olympic competition – but it doesn’t have to.  How about having a “let’s make our holiday decor party” with your women friends (I’m just not picturing guys enjoying this – but if they do, invite ’em!)
  • For many of us, this is still a spiritual or religious holiday.  Whatever tradition you celebrate – Diwali a little while ago, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa – “remember the reason for the season” and find ways to deepen your spiritual connection to God as you understand God.
  • Finally, find a way to be generous to those in need.  One of the happiest Christmas’s I have spent was one in my twenties when I baked cookies for the firemen in the firehouse down the street and then went and volunteered to help at a dinner that the local Catholic Church put on for the homeless and those in need on Christmas Day.  While I was serving turkey and mashed potatoes, a lady, probably in her 40s, with Down’s syndrome came up to me squealing “Look! I got a watch! I got a Mickey Mouse watch!” – her exultation with her gift totally made my day and all these years later still makes me smile.

My plans, still unfolding, contain many elements of what I’ve listed above.  How about you?  In what ways do you find deep meaning in this season?  Have you found a way to keep it both simple and meaningful?  As always, I’d really like to know!

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Sundays are Spirituality Day here at Taking it to the Streets

Yesterday I went to the Bar Mitzvah of my friend Julia’s son, Joseph.  One of the things I like best at a Bar Mitzvah is the young man or young woman’s commentary on the Torah.

Joseph read the Biblical passage about Jacob and Esau and their disputes.  His commentary was about the need to protect the vulnerable.  He talked about the rich not being unkind to the poor – that rather than stealing from them, we need to help them.  I thought that perhaps he could be an advisor to the Republican Party – they need him.

He gave several examples of people with more power taking advantage of those with less, the most endearing of which, from this tall, but still young man, was the injunction that larger people should not pick on smaller people.

His prescription for how one ensures adhering to this path of protecting the vulnerable was quite insightful for a 13-year-old:

Self-control.

Joseph’s analysis immediately made me think of Gandhi, a longstanding hero of mine:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
―    Mahatma Gandhi

At the Bar Mitzvah, I was surprised and happy to run into a friend from my youth.  She was clearly similarly surprised.  Not similarly happy.  Which left me puzzling throughout the service – why was Marlene so aloof?

I realized that my beliefs, thoughts, words and actions in my youth were not ones that always engendered endearment to those in my path.  And when a significant relationship ended in my 30s Marlene was the one friend who “sided” with my former partner.  She saw me as “bad.”

We become who we are along Gandhi’s trajectory.  Our actions DO reap results.  Karma is, indeed real.

The good news from my perspective is that using Joseph’s nostrum of “self-control” we can change that trajectory.

I have a long way to go, in so many ways.  My faults are glaringly obvious to me.  But Joseph’s wisdom combined with being rebuffed led me to reflect on my own life – on the ways in which I have changed for the good, and on my current efforts to change my beliefs, thoughts, actions and habits.

How about you?  Do you think Gandhi was correct – that we become who we are, starting with our beliefs, which, ultimately become our destiny?  And is Joseph correct that the way to ensure we behave in ways that are ‘good’ and just is first and foremost through self-control?  How has that played out in YOUR life?  I really want to know!

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Sundays are Spirituality Day here at Taking it to the Streets

As mentioned in my post on Step 1, The Gift of Powerlessness, I recently read Recovery: The Twelve Steps as a Spiritual Practice by Rami Shapiro.  I found some of Shapiro’s ideas challenging, but all in all it was a very thought provoking book with some new insights into the twelve steps, which I’ve studied for quite some time.

I’ve always thought that Step Two was the step that showed Bill Wilson’s divinely inspired genius when he talks of “a Power greater than ourselves” and “God, as we understand God”.  To me, that’s what makes it work for millions of people.  For it’s a spiritual program, not a religious program and can work for atheists and non-believers as well as any stripe of believers.  For any who have suffered from addictions of any type and have observed others doing what they have not been able to do, can easily see that there is a Power greater than themselves.

Step Two reads:  “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

He talks about the difference between faith and belief:

“Faith is not the same as belief.  Belief is about content:  One believes in this or that.  Faith is an attitude toward life itself. ”  He goes on to quote Alan Watts: “Faith is a state of openness to trust.  To have faith is to trust yourself to the water.”

He was making these distinctions as he was quibbling about the word “believe” in this step – his supposition being that belief systems, while ‘hanging together’ internally don’t have to be factual in order to ‘make sense’.

His key to acceptance of this comes from the term “came to believe” and the wise words of his sponsor, Bert: “Believing is a matter of grit; coming to believe is a matter of grace. When we choose to believe one thing or another, we are acting willfully, but when we come to believe we discover that we are convinced of something because reality allows for nothing else.”

So he then says: “Step Two is not about choosing to believe or not to believe.  Step Two is about seeing what is…..This is the faith at the heart of Twelve Step recovery.  Not faith in a belief or creed, but faith in the authenticity of your own experience.  Over time, your experience will show you that life, when approached with faith – and by faith I mean the willingness to surrender to reality – won’t kill you.”

A very interesting take, especially from a rabbi, which Shapiro is.

But as I said, this freedom to approach this Power greater than oneself as “God, as YOU understand God” or simply the Power greater than yourself is the key that makes 12 Step programs truly open to all who need them.

My other favorite quote from this chapter is:  “The key to living authentically, rather than habitually, is engaging the present.  We cannot do that while we are locked in the past.  As long as we ‘paste the past over the present and live today as if it were yesterday, we have no hope.  We can’t change the past, and living in it means we can’t change at all.  My experience of my Higher Power tells me that change isn’t just possible but inevitable, but only if I live in the present. God is only in the present.'”

I love that.  The power of life – the ‘hope of restoration’ – IS in the present moment.  And if I have the faith to “trust the process”, just show up and be with what is, I am capable of doing step three (turning my will and my life over to the care of God) which I’ll explore in a future post. And that, to me, is the step that changes everything.

But to get there, one has to first come to believe.  I have heard that step two has 3 components.

  1. Came (i.e., we showed up in 12 step programs, we show up for meetings)
  2. Came to (because we entered recovery we gradually awaken to life again out of the fog of addiction)
  3. Came to believe (and then and only then can we have a meaningful belief)

How about you?  Do you feel, ever, that your life is a bit – well, insane?  A bit out of control?  If so, do you have a sense of some “Power greater than yourself” that can restore you to sanity, to wholeness, to peace?  As always, I really want to know!

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Sundays are Spirituality Day here at Taking it to the Streets

I think of my spiritual life as a river, flowing to the sea.  The sea (and thus all that is part of it) is God.  The river is the main tributary, but it has many creeks and even other rivers feeding it.

For me, that central river to the sea is The Twelve Steps.  Oh, there are other rivers (Buddhism, a lifelong connection to Mother Mary, etc.), but the 12 Steps are the core.  It’s my opinion that Bill Wilson was divinely inspired. Each time I read his writings (and I do so very often) I am amazed at the wisdom he coagulated into one place.  He truly did provide a guide for living.

Right now I’m reading a book on the 12 Steps:  Recovery:  The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice by Rami Shapiro.  Rami is a rabbi and a professor of religious studies. This book incorporates teachings from world religions into commentary on the twelve steps, as well as Rabbi Shapiro’s own thoughts.

I just finished reading Step One “The Gift of Powerlessness” and found it insightful, and challenging and a good springboard for my own thoughts on Step One.

Step one is the door in.  It’s the beginning.  It’s the “I surrender” that gets us to 12 step programs.  For though many truly feel it’s the gift of the lifetime, I don’t think anyone feels that way on day one.  Because what gets most of us into 12 steps programs is this:

“We admitted we were powerless over {alcohol, food, people, gambling, etc —- LIFE} and that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Yikes!  especially in America – who on earth wants to say “Hey, my life is spinning out of control and I’m clueless on how to stop that.”

Pretty much no one.

“The wording of Step One masks the deeper discovery we make when we actually take the Step.  Step One says we are powerless over our addiction.  It doesn’t say we are powerless over life.  Yet as we begin to face the fact of our powerlessness, we discover that, in fact, we are powerless over life.  We cannot control what happens to us. All we can do is work with what happens moment to moment.” – p. 2

Wow.  So that gets even scarier.  I still want to think that I do indeed have some control – me, with my lists, my goals, my plans, my Hard Work.  I mean really, doesn’t Hard Work count for SOMETHING?

“The fundamental and paradoxical premise of Twelve Step recovery as I experience it is this: The more clearly you realize your lack of control, the more powerless you discover yourself to be.  The more powerless you discovery yourself to be, the more natural it is for you to be surrendered to God.  The more surrendered to God you become, the less you struggle against the natural flow of life.  The less you struggle against the flow of life, the freer your become. Radical powerlessness is radical freedom, liberating you from the need to control the ocean of life and freeing you to learn how best to navigate it.”

Now THAT is the gift of powerlessness.  Freedom and liberation – with that Rabbi Shapiro is talking my language.

When I discovered this spiritual path, I was sharing my non-joy about it with my brother (as I said, this is not a path one enters joyfully, and often not willingly).  Wise George said “oh, good – now you can stop being The Doer of All Things.”

Uh, yeah – I guess my younger siblings may have had my number.  Because from age 3 on, I truly believed that if I tried harder, worked harder, was tougher – then I could keep chaos at bay.

I could not.

The first sentence of this book is:

“Here is the heart of Twelve Step recovery – quit playing God!”  He goes on to say that what that means is to quit pretending that life is controllable.

In fact, Shapiro states that it’s THIS addiction – ‘the obsessive quest for control’ – rather than the substances, activities or persons to which we THINK we are addicted – that is the real problem.  Most people in recovery get that it is their thinking that is the real problem – but this specificity  – that it is our thinking we can control things – was a new thought to me.

“…if you think you can control life you will act to control life, and doing so will invite consequences that will be excruciatingly painful to you and to those who about you.”

I’ve thought about step one, about powerlessness, about the crazy thinking that underlies addiction and chaos.  Thought about it and read about it for a very long time.   And I’ve always known step three (we’ll get to that later) is about giving up control – thus the scariest step for me.  But thinking about step one in a new way has been thought-provoking.  I find that The Doer of All Things feels a bit panicky about it initially. And then, yes, if I can actually believe that life is uncontrollable BY ME, but that there IS a unifying force-field, a sea to which this river runs, and that it is good – well, I can settle back into the raft, no matter how wild the ride and trust that the Sea is calling to me. Calling me home.  Where I already am.

What if Bob Marley was right?

“Don’t worry
about a thing
Cuz every little thing
is gonna be alright.”

Powerlessness as a gift.  It just may be.  What do YOU think?

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Buddhism – in its American incarnation – has long informed my spiritual path.  So Sharon Salzberg is someone I’d heard of for years.  I’ve picked up her book Lovingkindness more than once, but just hadn’t yet felt drawn to read any of her works.

When I came across her book on faith, however, I was intrigued.  Faith to me has seemed associated with theism in general, the Abrahamic religions in particular.  How would a Buddhist talk about faith?

The subtitle gives the first clue:  trusting your own deepest experience, rather than “following God’s word” or the precepts of a given religion.

The first four pages set up a conundrum with that subtitle, though.  Salzberg’s childhood was a crazy quilt of extreme tragedy.  Reading her simple account of family life gone terribly wrong, I felt it was inevitable that she either become a deeply spiritual person or a crazy person herself. 

I compared her in another post to Viktor Frankl or Anne Frank.  Her circumstances, extreme as they were, did not rival being in Aushchwitz (Frankl) or murdered by Nazis (Frank).  But like them, she turned ‘unfair’ suffering into gold by her response to it.

She quotes Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democracy movement in Myanmar/Burma:

“There is darkness in the world, but it is merely an absence of light.  All the darkness in the world cannot dispel even the smallest candle flame.  We need only to accustom ourselves to the dim vision, and then the blessing of light will grow.”

The books is most decidedly based on her Buddhist beliefs, and she applies the Four Noble Truths and the insights she has gained from years of meditation to the question of how we maneuver life amidst the suffering, chaos and delight – all of it.

Meditation – for Salzberg, and indeed for me – reminds us that everything passes. Everything.  “There is a far bigger picture to life than what we are facing in any particular moment” (p 127).  It helps us gain perspective.  To be at peace.  To just BE.

Sprinkled throughout the book are personal vignettes.   Salzberg, along with Joseph Goldstein and Ram Dass, was part of the early vanguard of American Buddhism.  With Goldstein she co-founded the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies

But she doesn’t ‘name drop’ or self-aggrandize. On the contrary, she shares her human-ness with us and just simply illustrates how Buddhist teachings on meditation, kindness, compassion, the ephemeral nature of life have helped her to deepen, and to live a fully authentic life despite the inevitability of suffering.

I loved this:

“But if that inevitable sorrow is joined with faith in interconnectedness, rather than bitterness at the nature of things, we can more likely get up the next morning and once again do the best we can, knowing that in this inter-connected reality, even the smallest action done with good intention is consequential.”

I really loved this book and will soon be reading more from Salzberg.  I “liked” her page on FaceBook and am enjoying the updates there as well.

And I liked that, for me, she reclaimed the idea of ‘faith’ – which had become for me a sort of ‘bullying’ word used by zealots to beat on “non-believers”.  In my worldview (not hers perhaps) it is having faith in an immanent God and essential goodness – and then putting THAT faith into action that is a faith I can live with.

How about you?  Have you read any of Sharon Salzberg’s books?  What does faith look like to you?  As always, I really want to know!

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