Monday, April 14, 2008

Water Into Wine Back Into Water

This kind of an essay is hard to write. It’s hard because I don’t want to sound preachy. Other than my late grandfather I’m really not fond of preachers or preaching. Despite this I do think that for the most part their hearts are in the right place; at least 50% of the time anyway. (What the hell…I’m an optimist.) It’s really not important or necessary to wander off into a tirade about religion but I would like quote Mark Twain on the matter just to give a small overview and I’m probably not going to get this verbatim but I can get close enough to make the point.

“When it comes to matters of religion and politics, people’s opinions and beliefs are mostly gotten second hand from another person whose opinions were gotten second hand from another person who’s opinions on the matter aren’t worth a brass-farthing”

--Mark Twain

Whatever the hell a “brass-farthing” is you got me but it’s probably not that valuable of a thing. In any case I’ll let that quote be the extent of my opinion for the time being. Twain wasn’t perfect by any means but he had a very keen and penetrating mind and wasn’t scared to tell it like it was/is. I have tremendous respect for him for that. Unfortunately he never took his own advice on the pitfalls of human greed and his life can really be an example for us all, taking into account the good and the bad.

Alright I’m slapping myself on the wrist now. It’s really hard to stay on point sometimes especially when you don’t know what the point is until it comes down through the air into the grand central station of the mind and then somehow takes form as words that appear on the screen through all the hundreds of thousands of neurons simultaneously firing and sending messages to the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of muscles and nerve endings in the hands and fingers. Shit, that’s a long sentence but we really are fascinating creatures. It boggles the mind to think about it and that’s probably why most of the time we don’t. The fact that we are here at all defies all logic and reason and the fact that we can manage to do what we can do goes way beyond that. Clearly logic and reason have their limitations.

We are miraculous creatures and that fact probably shouldn’t be taken for granted as much as it is. Just my dog amazes the hell out of me and she can’t even spell her own name. But she sure can love in a way that any of us could aspire to and she can forgive and forget and not hold a grudge and face each and every moment of each and every day with an enthusiasm that puts Tony Robbins to shame and a sense of gratitude that is equally mind blowing. So in some ways I try to learn from her. Then again she does dine on a pile of her own shit occasionally. Hey none of us are perfect. Maybe that’s like McDonald’s in dog world. (ie: it won’t kill you immediately but you probably shouldn’t eat it too often)

What I’d like to allude to here – without telling anyone how sinful or depraved they are or how they are going to hell and how they need their soul ‘saved’, even without asking for a collection plate to be passed around – is that there is one aspect of our existence here that really takes precedence over everything else.

There is one thing that matters more than anything else because if that one area isn’t right nothing else will matter. If we neglect this one thing we won’t be able to enjoy anything else for more than about fifteen or twenty minutes or so. Nothing else will ever be enough. Nothing else is enough. If you get this one thing right you can afford to get a lot of other things wrong. And if you manage to handle this one area to the best of your ability the other things will tend to fall into place on their own. Even when they don’t you’ll still be okay and well equipped to handle the ever changing circumstances in which we all live.

To be clear on one thing, when I say “you”, I mean “me” also. It’s just a manner of speaking and I’m just expressing and reiterating some things that are near and dear to me and have been and continue to be of tremendous benefit to me.

So what am I talking about anyway? Ironically, there is no particular word for it. You may find it in religion and you may call it spirituality but to me those two words/concepts have certain connotations that really don’t do justice to what I’d hope to express here.

Let’s just assume that we are all souls on this great journey and that as souls we are ever evolving and perfecting and moving closer to something greater than our present state, though our present state is not to be looked down on or shunned in any way. In fact it’s a blessing and this evolution that we are a part of is ongoing and touches every facet of our lives and every tiny detail of our experience is a part of the grand whole. All of the religions touch on this in some way but there is a tendency to take things literally that weren’t meant to be taken literally and to misunderstand and misinterpret what is presented and for this institution that should be helpful to become possibly the biggest hindrance. It can be a great thing if we don’t let it overpower our reason and common sense and more importantly our own intuition. Really at best it can be the match that lights the fire and at worst it can have you strapping a bomb around yourself in the name of al-Lah.

I’m talking all around what I’m actually talking about but I’m hoping the point isn’t missed. If it is missed maybe I’ll try to do better next time. One thing is of greater importance than anything else. Eat, drink, and be merry but always keep this in mind. Inquire within, inquire without, but always inquire. Inquire more within than without. Have an internal sniff test for all of the inquiring without. Does it ring true deep within? If you have to make excuses for it or compromise something internally, don’t accept it outright.

“Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
--Steven Hawking

What a question! But it does exist and so do we. Accident? Hmmm…

And we can even ponder that question which is certainly no accident and it may be the most important question even though an exact answer probably isn’t possible. What are you? What is this all? Why are we all here and where is this all leading? Important questions. Let’s not let Brittney Spears rehab or American Idol or ‘freedom fries’ drown out these questions for us. In my case right here right now, I’ll make sure not to let this watered down Shiraz that I’m getting into drown it out. One thing really is more important than anything else. The other stuff is just icing on the cake.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Tread Lightly On Thyself

Someone that I love and care for deeply is in a serious battle with some personal issues and has been…well, possibly her entire life. The situation goes back to before she was in a position to have much of a say so in the matter. It’s not something that happened as a result of something she did or did not do. It’s not something she asked for and it is definitely not something anyone would wish for. But…it is. Like so many things, it just is. And now she gets to deal with the consequences and effects on a daily basis. It is the burden and struggle that mysteriously appeared on the doorstep of her life as an unwanted ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ gift from: God? The Universe? Karma maybe?

I’ve pretty much always been of the opinion that we are at least partly responsible for most of the difficulty that we encounter in life. This is a hard stance to take and it’s easy to cite examples that refute this line of reasoning. The situation I mentioned above is a good example. But at the same time I am my own best case study in this human experiment and for me, I could almost always trace the root of any problem back to myself somehow. Unfortunately doing this can have the result of being too harsh a critic of ones self and, if you’re not careful, it can spread to those around you also. I’ve been accused of being a perfectionist, and though I disagree, I’ve heard it enough times now to override my own opinion and accept that there may be some merit to the claim.

I have just about determined that there is some innate human need to feel emotionally victimized and since I didn’t have parents or family to whack at my self-esteem I guess I took the liberty of becoming my own personal bully. I really have to just smile or even laugh now when I look back and think about how I acted and how I treated myself in certain situations. Learning to be compassionate and patient with myself has been a major life lesson. I’m still in the process of trying to get it. We are all taught the importance of treating others well but seldom are we told the importance of treating ourselves with loving kindness also.

In any situation and at all times it is as if we have two ‘selves’. There’s the little self that – to borrow an analogy from a friend – gets battered around life like the ball in a pinball machine and who’s defining characteristic is one of reaction. Things happen and it reacts automatically. Think of a robot. Buttons get pushed and the robot does what it’s programmed to do. There is no 'choice' involved though there is the illusion of choice (which can make it all the more frustrating). This is the little self. Helpless and constantly having it’s buttons pushed by the external environment and by other robots, other little ‘selves’ that are equally helpless and reactionary. It’s really just the personality when comes down to it.

Then there is the big Self. This is the part of us beyond the personality that looks down on our foibles and failures in much the same way a parent would observe their child trying to learn to ride a bicycle. The parent will step in and offer some assistance here and there but realizes there is a certain amount of falling down necessary in order for the child to master this new skill. Lovingly and patiently the parent observes without judgment or criticism.

Our whole life is like this. Falling down…bumps, bruises, scrapes…then back up to try again. Repeat. Each time getting a little better, mastering some new skill, growing and learning. It’s more give than take and patience is required every step of the way, with ourselves and with each other. If we look back we can see that in almost every case we did the best we could given the knowledge and skill we possessed at the time. Life is more art than science. Even in the times we knew better or should have known better, something deeper was at work.

Forgiveness proves to be an invaluable asset as we travel along, inevitably hurting our selves and those around us as we fumble through trying to learn how to work the handlebars and the brakes and as we struggle to find our balance.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Beautiful And Terrifying Dance

The Vale Of Tears…Where did that phrase come from? I don’t know but I’ve seen it crop up in so many places and I get the feeling it’s been around for a long, long time. It is a timeless description of the world that we live in. If we could amass all of the tears that have been shed by human beings we would fill all of the world’s oceans several times over.

I am humbled and awed at the sheer magnitude of human suffering, at our ability to inflict and withstand it and our capacity to transcend it or become embittered by it. Buddha said that all life is suffering and then explained why and laid out a roadmap to overcoming it. Jesus said ‘In this world you will find trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world’. Some few have managed to escape the inescapable and the potential surely lies within us all but the cost is high, or would seem so, and it requires facing things that most of us spend a lifetime running from. There is a reason for our massive addiction to distraction, our aversion to being alone with our thoughts, our obsessive need to be occupied by something – anything – no matter how trivial or harmful. We run but can never quite seem to get away. The underlying fear prevails and… “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation”.

All too often and no matter who you are, life hurts. Physical pain is one thing and much easier dealt with. It’s easier to recognize what causes it and what to do to avoid or minimize it. Emotional pain is another animal. So much of it is self-inflicted and we are slower to learn; sometimes we refuse to learn. Our mind becomes imprinted and patterns of behavior and reaction develop. We end up doing the same things over and over again and getting the same bad results. Seldom do we question ourselves and explore the possibility of our own responsibility in the matter. Seldom are we even aware of what we are doing and are therefore confused as to why things are the way they are when they turn out the way that they do. Follow? (ha)

This life is (among other things) a classroom. It is much to our benefit to pay attention in class. Who/what is the teacher? Everything. It’s the entire range of experience from the devastating heartbreaks to the sublime moments of joy and happiness to the minutes and hours spent in boredom and monotony, an infinite number of opportunities to learn the interplay of cause and effect and the utter impermanence of everything around us. Ah yes…impermanence. It all fades away and so do we. We struggle with this one. Conditions are changing the moment we recognize and become comfortable with them, like a deck of cards that is being re-shuffled after every hand.

There are a wide variety of lessons available to us in each obstacle that we encounter along our way but the primary lesson is always the same and has something to do with accepting and letting go. We cannot bend the universe to our will but we can cooperate and become one with the will of the universe. After all, how could we ever be separate from it anywhere but in our own imagination?

By now we’ve all heard about the importance of letting go. We’ve probably also heard about the importance of living in the present moment. The present moment is a razors edge and anytime we are there, letting go comes naturally. The demons of our own creation that reside solely in our head become powerless when we wake up to find ourselves smack in the middle of eternity…which is now. We each have a certain amount of battle to do with these entities but they cease to exist when we withdraw attention from them.

In the meantime, the loss and suffering that we encounter can be shaping and molding us like heat melts and forms steel and we can let go over and over again; sometimes of our own accord and sometimes out of desperation. Either way we eventually get the point. Gradually we learn to love without attaching, work without obsessing about the end result, enjoy the fullness of the present moment and appreciate the ebb and flow of life. It’s a beautiful and terrifying dance but the song changes constantly and so do we. Each moment is a moment we can die to our past and cast off all of the misguided ideas we have formed about ourselves and feel the reality of the larger and eternal presence that is experiencing life through us right now.