Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pretty much my Manifesto...

Have I seen you lately???

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately; and a challenge I would put forth to others. But read on, so I can explain what I mean by the word “seen”.

This essay is an attempt to summarize my thoughts regarding my brief study of Mindfulness, as taught by the Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hahn.

Where the majority do most of their living…

To begin, think a moment on where your mind usually is. Is it in the past, present, or the future. Thich Nhat Hahn would argue that people generally live either in the past or in the future; either focusing on the past with regret or desire, or focusing on the future with hope or dread. He would say, and I tend to agree with him, that we do not live in the present moment. I find myself living too much in the future. Worried for the most part. I wonder what’s gonna happen, if the choices I am making today will be the right ones in the future. I live in the future, from moment to moment. So, where do you live? If you believe you live in the present, good for you! But read on anyway.

God in the Present Moment

Going further into this idea, we soon encounter some “theology”. Thich believes that God resides only in the present moment. That God does not exist in the past, nor does He exist in the future. In my mind, it’s any excellent way of looking at the idea of “omnipresence”. If God really is in EVERY present moment, then that means He is in ALL time. Every single moment of what we know as “time” is a moment where God exists fully. Thich goes on to say that the only way to really interact with God is within the present moment. So if someone, like myself, is living only in the future, that person will not be able to interact with God, as Tich would say, “face to face”. A distant relationship is possible in this situation, but not the intimate situation that Thich is referring to. So, if you’re buying any of this, the only way to really look God in the “eye” is to come into the present moment, to live for the present moment, which means breaking off attachment to the past and the future. But how can that be done?

Breathing a Mystery

In Buddhism, a lot of emphasis is placed on breathing. It’s an intricate part of meditation and I believe vastly misunderstood by the West. When I began listening to Thich Nhat Hahn via a audiobook, I was a little unsure about his methods. Frankly I found them rather funny; I’ve changed my tune since then. He begins by instructing the student in how to breathe. Most importantly, the student is to recognize their “in breath” as their in breath, and their “out breath” as their out breath. And in doing so, the student is moving into the present moment. Sometimes, in my time of mediation, I place my focus on my “out breath” will I am taking an in breath. So I am either focusing on the future (the out breath to come), or the past (the out breath that has just occurred). I am very intentional about which frame of time I am focused on. I found it very helpful in understanding how focusing on what you are currently doing brings your mind into the present moment. It’s a practice I highly recommend. So through this simple action of breathing and focusing on the present moment and what you are doing in that present moment, you begin to unlock the keys to living in such a way. I’ll admit, it’s a lot easier to focus on the present moment when you are in a meditative posture, but it’s a good practice that hopefully will translate into life, which is of course the whole point. Any “game” that you practice for and never actually play is just a lot of wasted time. I have to admit I had a lot of theories about the present moment, but my life wasn’t forcing me to put these “ideas” into practice. Then things began falling into place that have led me down the path to present moment mindfulness; but it was not a smooth transition from theory to practice.

Too many assumptions…

As I was practicing these meditations I commented to many people that I worried what these practices would look like in the midst of the storm. You see, when I first became aware of these meditations and this way of thinking, my life was relatively stable. There wasn’t much rocking my “boat”. And I was all too aware that there is generally a calm before the storm. I worried that when the storm broke in my life that my meditations would break with them; that everything I was practicing, the ideas I was embracing would lose value and seem silly when life wasn’t so stable. These fears proved correct, but in a way I wasn’t expecting.

The storm broke when we were informed that there was an electrical problem in our basements that caused a water line to break and flood a basement, and it could be quite costly to fix it. At first I took the right course of action. I thought present moment; I thought there is no knowing what the future holds, and what could easily be “quite expensive” could also turn out to be inexpensive. There just was a lot of uncertainty as to how extensive the problem was going to prove. So for some weeks I lived life in this posture. But then there was no news. No letters in the mailboxes, no notes on the garage doors. Understand I live in a townhome development, so our association is dealing with the problem. Many would embrace this, having the responsibility to do something on someone else, but I like to be in control, which is a weakness that I continue to deal with. So, in this situation, I found myself without control, at the mercy of others that I don’t even know. So as the weeks progressed and no further news was given I began to panic. I wasn’t concerned about the past, being that there was no way I could have known what was coming, nor could I have prevented it; so I lived in the future. When would the water line break in my basement? When would the association get back to us? How much!!!?!? How much??!!! I had to know these things, and I was pissed that I didn’t know these things. I casually talked to a neighbor whose wife is on the board, just hoping for some scrap of information, but I got nothing. That night I lost it. I was pissed and though Heidi tried her best to bring me back down from it, I wanted to be pissed just too much. And I wailed in frustration, and lost the present moment entirely.

For the next week I began struggling with the source of my frustration. I quickly realized how badly I’d reacted to the current situation; how I’d lost my perspective, took my eyes off the present moment. I started realizing the source of my anger wasn’t in my lack of control, as much as it was my frustration with my meditations. They didn’t seem to be helping. I was meditating on the present moment, but my current situation wasn’t getting any better and I assumed that it would. In that week I started rethinking an old Bible story that I’ve known my whole life, and in that meditation I found the source of my frustration, and found a way to recapture the present moment in spite of the current situation.

What actually was calmed?

Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25

These are the references in the Bible for the story of Jesus calming the storm. The cliff notes version is this: The disciples of Jesus and Jesus are crossing the Sea of Galilee and a storm starts up. Now Jesus is sleeping in the boat and the disciples are freaking out. They wake him up and ask Him if He does not care about them, as they are about to die in the storm. Jesus stands and tells the sea to be still and the winds die down and the sea becomes calm. He then turns to His disciples and rebukes them saying that they have such little faith, and the disciples are fearful of such an amazing and mysteriously powerful person.

So that’s the story and from the old flannelgraph in the church basement to complicated metaphors and analogies from the senior pastors pulpit, that’s the way I’ve always heard the story. It’s a good story. It’s an amazing story that is evidence of Jesus’ position as being “fully God”. It’s often pointed out that in the midst of the great storm the disciples find Jesus sleeping. Many metaphors have been drawn from this fact. The “moral” always seems to be that when the “boat” of your life is being rocked violently in the midst of life, all you need to do is put your faith in Jesus and he will calm the storm. Of course that doesn’t mean that the rocking will stop, I’m not that naïve; but the theme remains that you are tapping into the power of God when you look to Jesus in the storm; God isn’t doing anything to you. But I’ve begun to tell my version now.

Here’s my take: The disciples of Jesus and Jesus are crossing the Sea of Galilee and a storm starts up. Now Jesus, being He is a man living entirely within the Present Moment, is sleeping in the boat and the disciples are freaking out because they don’t see the Present Moment, they only see the current situation. They wake Jesus up and ask Him if He does not care about them, as they are about to die in the storm. And instead of solving the problem of the current situation by calming the storm, Jesus looks at His followers and brings them into the Present moment. He calms them with his eyes, with his very presence, being the embodiment of the Present moment. And in this moment Jesus took away the power of the winds and the waves. The current situation was no longer valid, for the Present moment alone existed in that boat. And Jesus then rebuked his disciples for their reliance on the current situation, when they have been taught to practice the Present moment experience of God. And thus the disciples stood amazed and fearful of this man that existed alone in the Present moment.

I like my take on this story. I know that it might not be accurate if you go to the Greek and such, but I don’t believe that is the how the Bible should be interpreted. I believe that God speaks through the Bible, and if you think God only speaks Greek. I don’t know what to tell you. So I’ve taken this classic story about Jesus and flipped it inside out. And in that state I am pulling a different moral; the moral that brought me through this recent storm. In the midst of the storm, turning to God will not necessarily change your current situation, but that’s not the point. We don’t turn to God to escape the current situation, we turn to God to enter the Present moment. Not because the Present moment is safe, I’d argue it isn’t safe, but rather we enter it because that is where God is, and that is a very good place to be when life is in a stormy state. In my version, Jesus doesn’t do a thing with the current situation; it is of no concern to Him for He exists in the Present moment. And with his guidance He brings His followers into the same state.

I’ve got to DO something!

This new take, at least for me, on an old story was the key to the lock of my tension and frustration. Realizing that the storm could rage on, and I could remain outside of it was just the thing I needed. And it has given me peace in the midst of the storm.

Growing up whenever the storm of life came up I was always told to “put my trust in God” and the “God was looking out for me”. These are nice comforting concepts, and to a child they are certainly enough. But as I got older, physically or intellectually take your pick, these phrases lost their power. I believe that there is power behind those phrases, and I believe that the people who spoke them to me, and continue to, are in touch with the source of the power. But I no longer was. The words became meaningless, and I became lost. I needed more than where to turn, I needed to turn; to be active. These mindful meditations have become that action of turning. They have become my way of touching the source of the power behind those statements that were lost to me. And by “the source” I am certain there would be disagreements about what that is. I believe in a God that is transcendant of the word “God”. And that is for me to believe and others to chose not to. For me, it’s all about comfort level; and I’m not talking about relativism. Some people need a religious experience and that’s what gets them through; to ask more of them would be unfair. Some people need a mystical experience, and that what gets them through; to ask more of them would be unfair. I believe faith is a level playing field, and it’s our humanity that creates levels and stairways. Religions have a tendancy to claim they are right and all the others are wrong. If that is truly the case, then I guess all religions are wrong. What’s that leave us with? Maybe we’ve all got a piece of Truth; maybe we’ve all got some of it wrong. Maybe when the Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Judge not lest ye be judged” he wasn’t making two statements, but rather reinforcing the one with the other. To Love you must not Judge, and if you Judge you have not Love. So maybe it’d be best to forget who’s right and who’s wrong and just do what the man said.

A Buddhist Christian

Through the teaching of Thich Nhat Hahn, the Dali Lama, Thomas Merton, Barbara Brown Taylor, Heidi Gordon, Bruce Shelley, St. John of the Cross, CS Lewis, David Johnson, Ivan Veldhuizen, Bruce Balgaard, Cheryl Balgaard, Kevin Book, Corey Mills, Kevin, Justin, Pete, and countless others, I have become confident to walk my path. It changes a lot, and sometimes I change too. I don’t know where it ends, but I don’t need to. I have things I’ve done I regret, but they cannot stop me from moving forward with confidence. I must walk ever in the Present Moment and know by living this way my past will not be full of regret and my future full of hope. For in my experience, paying attention to ever step is the best way not to fall on your face.

So have I seen you lately?

Thought I’d never get back to my opening question. I believe that to see someone you have to do more than look at them. You have to engage the Present moment with them. Really hear their words; really enter their lives. In our fast paced world that’s just not how things are done. But they should be. I’ve experienced what can happen when it is. I have started seeing my friends for the first time. Hearing their ideas, their frustrations about life, their hopes and fears. And instead of remembering vague ideas about our conversations, these talks have stuck with me. Why? I think it’s because instead of spending my current situation with my friends, I have started spending the Present moment with them. And it’s made a world of difference to me. And it’s to share that Truth in my life that I’ve written this freaking long essay.

Blessings on your path, wherever it is leading you…


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