Archive for the ‘Zen’ Category

Do You Have Trouble Forgiving?

So do I. Maybe it’s because of the toxic family script I inhaled as a child: “Backmans never forgive.” Or maybe, being hypersensitive in general, I’m hypersensitive to “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In other words, I get hurt and it sticks.

I do know that forgiveness is required of me as a Christian. One part of the Lord’s Prayer—“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”—implies that if we don’t forgive, it’ll cost us.

And yet getting to forgiveness seems well-nigh impossible.

All this came to mind when an article in Tricycle, a Buddhist journal, caught my eye. Author Gina Sharpe ruminates on the general landscape of forgiveness before describing three practices that can foster it. Here’s part of that landscape:

Forgiveness does not gloss over what has happened in a superficial way…. It’s not a misguided effort to suppress our pain or to ignore it. If you’ve suffered a great injustice, coming to forgiveness may include a long process of grief and outrage and sadness and loss and pain. Forgiveness is a deep process, which is repeated over and over and over again in our hearts. It honors the grief and it honors the betrayal. And in its own time, it ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.

Sharpe’s forgiveness practice grows from the same ground:

As you do the following forgiveness practices, let yourself feel whatever small or large release there is in your heart. Or if there is no release, notice that too. And if you are not ready to forgive, that’s all right. Sometimes the process of forgiveness takes a lifetime, and that’s perfectly fine. You can unfold in your own time and in your own way….  Forgiveness is an attitude of welcoming and inviting and spaciousness rather than some emotion that we pump up in our bodies and minds and hearts.

I read all this and thought, This is something I can do. It acknowledges the sheer difficulty of forgiveness. It describes forgiveness as I’ve experienced it: time-consuming, slow, requiring attention and effort. Most of all, it gives me permission to take my time, to do only what I can, as long as my heart stays pointed in the general direction of forgiveness.

I offer this to you in case it helps with your own struggle. But I’m also noticing something else here. For all their emphasis on forgiveness and its importance, the Christian scriptures don’t really describe how to go about it. For me Sharpe’s article, with its Buddhist framework, is yet another example of how different faiths can feed off and illuminate each other when they’re allowed to play in the same sandbox. Have you experienced this too?

Walking in the Spirit, Not the Letter

The teaching is merely a vehicle to describe the truth. Don’t mistake it for the truth itself. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.    –Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I am wild about the works of James Joyce. I’ve read Ulysses four times. I got halfway through Finnegans Wake. If that doesn’t qualify me as a fan, I don’t know what does.

You may have heard that Ulysses—all 783 pages of it in my edition—takes place in a single day in Dublin. The protagonist, Leopold Bloom, walks the city’s streets from about 8:00 in the morning to maybe 2:00 the next morning, and the pages of Ulysses are stuffed with what happens around him and within his mind. Besides the dozens of colorful characters and the often baffling prose, Ulysses is (from where I sit, anyway) a paean to the everydayness of being human, warts and all.

For many years, devotees have traveled to Dublin to walk Bloom’s circuitous path and mark the events of that day. Having to attend a convention there recently, I departed with my head full of doing the same. I would visit the pubs he visited, track the funeral procession in which he took part, etc. It would be, without question, the climax of my trip.

I never really did it.

Instead, I couldn’t stop making my own wanderings. The walk between City Centre and my room at a Ringsend guesthouse was filled with charms and eccentricities: the serenity of the Grand Canal, the grin of Mattress Mick on his store’s sign, the stone bridges, the Padraig Pearse pub (named for a key figure in Ireland’s struggle for independence), the hardscrabble apartments that lined the way, the stone church that fronted the cobblestone street—one block long with two barber shops—where I slept each night.

Yes, I visited (and thoroughly enjoyed) the James Joyce Centre. I did pop in on a couple of pubs mentioned in Ulysses. But most of the rest never happened.

Was I missing out?

At first I thought I was. But then it occurred to me: I wasn’t walking where Bloom walked, I was walking as Bloom walked. I was wandering and wondering through the streets of Dublin. Different streets, same kind of wander. The spirit of Ulysses but not the letter.

It got me thinking about the journey of faith.

Amid its rollicking bawdiness, exhilarating final soliloquy, and profound depth, Ulysses has become a kind of sacred text for me—not in the sense of telling me about God, but in the sense of (like the Bible) helping me grasp what it means to be human. My walks taught me that the book, though brilliant, is a touchstone. I use its wisdom to find my own path.

This, to me, is the way the spiritual life works. We read the texts, we draw out the wisdom contained therein (helped by the Spirit behind all things), and we let it guide us as we find our own way. We live our own lives, not the lives that came before.

Perhaps that’s why many sacred texts are so bewildering. The Bible is rife with cross-currents, many of which clash with one another. The Tao Te Ching and Sayings of the Desert Sages are often cryptic though unutterably deep. Mystics speak in image and metaphor. A Buddhist text cautions against excessive attachment to anything in life—including one’s conception of the Buddha himself—by saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”

Perhaps these texts shock and baffle to point the way—sort of—and then let us find our specific path. Maybe by treading this way, we learn to hold the texts and ourselves lightly. We look where the finger directs us, and walk toward the moon.

 

We’re the Product of Many Forces, but We Are Not Helpless

For the months of March and April, I’d been in an odd place spiritually—not traumatic, just unsettling. Sorting through it took some serious work: a number of journal entries, an intense session with my spiritual director, an intriguing metaphor or two, a great deal of turning over the situation in my head.

Also for the months of March and April, winter kept threatening to stay through summer.

Two weeks ago we had our first warm, sunny day. Poof. Odd place gone. Euphoria washed in. I was happy as a clam. It was just seasonal affective disorder. All that inner work and mental energy wasted.

Or was it? Not quite. The reality was more complicated—and more beautiful—than that.

For one thing, the sparkling sunshine reminded me of a humbling truth about us humans. Our lives take place in a context, consisting of myriad systems that affect us profoundly and are beyond our control. The weather impacts our moods and lives. So do our genes, the state of our health, our birth order, the places we’ve lived, the political/media climate, etc., etc., etc.

Buddhism has a fascinating way to think about this, summed up in the phrase causes and conditions. The way Buddhism sees it, there’s no such thing as a permanent self, or a permanent anything: we are just the product of the ever-changing causes and conditions that shaped us and continue to shape us.  

So…did your parents suffer from depression? That could account for your dark view of life. Are you an only child? That may impact the whole way you deal with self and others. Do you live in Indonesia? You’re almost guaranteed to see the world differently than if you’d spent your life in Sweden.

I find this oddly comforting. It fosters humility: a clear-eyed view of who we are in a very large and complicated universe. It tells me that I can’t take myself too seriously, that I must embrace what is true about me.

Perhaps that sounds fatalistic. But it’s not.

Even if winter-in-April did factor heavily into my malaise, I can still learn from it. All that journaling and spiritual direction and reflection is practically a requirement for contemplatives anyway. Paying attention to the work of the Divine Spirit in our lives is what we do.

And we don’t do it just for ourselves. What we learn inwardly can equip us to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s part of how spiritual direction operates: the profession calls us to spend time on our own inner work, so we can more deeply hear the inner work of our directees.

Buddhism also notes that we can affect the causes and conditions, as well as the other way round. No wonder one of the “eights” in the Noble Eightfold Path is right action (inspired in part by right mindfulness, which is closely connected with contemplation).

A whole complex of causes impacts us. But we can reflect on what happens in that complex. And because of that reflection, we can act more clearly, more decisively, more effectively for the good of the world.

Silent Prayer Made Easy (Sort Of)

Quick: what does contemplation mean? (No fair peeking at this post.)

If you’re drawing a blank, don’t worry. It took me forever to understand it even a little—and I’m trying to live it. Contemplation doesn’t come up in everyday conversation. But as the focus of this blog, it’s worth trying to describe.

Today, let’s look at a central practice of the contemplative life: silent prayer.

Silent prayer may sound like an oxymoron to some folks, who think of prayer as talking to God. That’s one form of prayer, but there are many others. In silent prayer, we make a wordless connection to God.* How, exactly? Whole books have been written on the topic, but I think it comes down to this:

You sit and gaze at God.

God sits and gazes at you.

That’s it.

Allow me to unpack that a little. The word gaze is intentional: not look, not glance, but gaze—“to look steadily and intently, as with great curiosity, interest, pleasure, or wonder,” says dictionary.com. It implies a sustained, relaxed attention. Ever just stare at a breathtaking sunset, or vista, or painting, for minutes on end? It’s like that.

I could have added some elements to the “instructions” above: God and you gaze at each other with hearts wide open, or with boundless love. But for one thing, God’s heart is always open, and God’s love is always boundless. For another, if you gaze at God long enough, your heart will open too. It comes with the territory.

Now, to get at the essence of silent prayer, I’ve made it sound simple. In one way it is. Practicing it is not.

One big thing: distractions. Our active, annoying minds glom onto whatever thought happens to pass by. It takes a while to learn not to suppress the thoughts, not to feel guilty and promise God you’ll do better, but simply to notice the thoughts and let them pass. It helps me to know that God will make something fruitful of our time together no matter what, even if my mind is focused on the pie in the refrigerator the whole time.

Over the years, people have developed techniques to support silent prayer, and they’re both fruitful and beautiful. Centering prayer. Gazing at icons. I’ve found that silently saying the Rosary gives one part of my brain something to occupy itself—the words of the prayers, the feel of the beads—while the rest of my head enters into contemplative silence. Zazen hones the mind’s ability to focus while approaching the Ultimate from an entirely different path.

These days, more often than not, I just sit in my favorite spot and gaze out a high window at the maples beyond. Over the years I’ve watched those maples sprout leaves and lose them again, explode in color and stand stark against the brilliant winter sun. The cycle of the seasons seems to fit well with silent prayer.

If this intrigues you, give it a whirl. Try different practices, icons, what have you. Or sit in your favorite spot and gaze at God.

When you sense God gazing back—well, that is a moment like no other.

*An aside: the one I call God you may call Reality, the One, the Ultimate, Brahman, even (kind of) Buddha-nature. They are all names for what, or who, is behind and beyond all things. I use the word God here for simplicity’s sake, and because it’s part of my home tradition. But feel free to insert your preferred term as you read.

There Is So Much More to Listening, and Life, Than You Ever Imagined

Not everyone gets advice from a dying cat. Ours has decided to bestow a few nuggets of wisdom during her long exit. They have to do with euthanasia, as you might expect, but even more with listening, and conventional wisdom, and why it’s all more complicated than we ever imagined.

I’ve already written about Madeleine, a 17-year-old cat who has been my devoted companion and is now, due to cancer, in her last days. It’s the point when most pet people start to ponder the gloomy question: when do we put her down?

In situations like this, we tend to seek out wisdom from external sources, and I was no exception. I listened to the advice of friends. I heard veterinarians observe that in most cases, people wait too long to put their pets down. I read several articles discussing cats and pain. Most of this input was valuable.

It also came through a filter: a set of assumptions so deep they’re often undetectable.

As author Linda Andre observes in Disability Studies Quarterly, the bent toward euthanizing a terminally ill pet is strong. “This is the ultimate loving act for our beloved companion animals,” says the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (while also noting that “the decision when to euthanize is as individual and personal as you and your pet are”). Others might put a blunter edge on it: it’s cruel to let them suffer.

For two weeks, I looked at Madeleine’s every move through this filter. She turned up her nose at the food: does she not like it, or is that a sign? Is that plaintive meow the last straw? Is her limp so bad we should just put her down now? Is today the day?

Eventually two things became clear.

First, the filter didn’t describe Madeleine’s quality of life. At the same time I was absorbing all the external input, I also listened to Madeleine: observing her symptoms, her interest in the world around her, that light in her eyes that said life is still worth the effort. And I found that yes, she limped badly, and she may have been in some pain—but she also made it up onto a high bed to catch the sun, and purred mightily when I laid her on my lap, and cleared the room in a nanosecond when she saw me get the cat carrier for a vet appointment. In short, her life was a mixed bag that defied the usual descriptions.

Second, the filter tied me in emotional knots. And my nascent Zen practice kicked in. Why filter everything through something you’re going to do in the future (i.e., euthanize) rather than just observe what is, right here, right now? Why not just greet Madeleine in the morning and observe her behavior as is without asking the question?

Once I started doing this, my mindset changed. I could assess her condition more clearly. My wife and I took delight in Madeleine’s small achievements. They made me realize how utterly extraordinary our most ordinary activities truly are—how, at every moment, we’re living a miracle just by walking around on a world that, with its conditions favorable to life, is the longest of long shots.

Don’t get me wrong here. This is not an anti-euthanasia piece. Putting a beloved pet down has its place, absolutely. No, as I said earlier, this story is about listening, and conventional wisdom, and how complicated it all is.

For instance: I’ve learned that it’s so easy, when faced with a life situation, to assume the conventional wisdom is correct—even “the only way to think.” Madeleine is teaching me to question it where necessary. Even better, she’s teaching me to question it by listening primarily, with wide-open heart, to the person involved. It’s a priceless lesson for spiritual directors like me, and for anyone who wants to love by listening.

The other lesson is that listening is hard work. It demands a lot of us. We can easily do it wrong, even if we’ve practiced for a lifetime. But if we can manage it, the wisdom it yields is priceless.

Ultimately, maybe Madeleine is nudging me to revisit one of the Buddha’s cornerstone lessons. Stay awake. Pay attention. Notice what is. Only then can we, in the words of the Noble Eightfold Path, achieve “right action”—and make the difference we alone can make, to our loved ones and to the world.

A postscript: I finished this piece last Thursday, and the Thursday version is what you see here. On Friday, Madeleine’s quality of life took another big step downward. After consulting with our wonderful vet, we had her euthanized. Sleep well, my friend.