Saturday, June 29, 2013

Contentment, Complacency and Danger

We are back home after having taken a short trip to North Carolina. I had been asked to make a brief presentation followed by a book signing. The trip also allowed us to visit a dear friend.
It was a great trip: beautiful weather, great food, and super catch-up visits. But it was good to be home. I love my mattress and I slept like a baby the first night back. I like my familiar routines – from waking up to the coffee my electronic coffee-fairies make to the wildlife sights off the deck I witness as I have my first cup and take some puffs on my pipe. My body and its functioning seem to respond to these comfortable routines as well.
Catching up on the mail included perusing my favorite magazine, BBC’s Focus – Science and Technology. It is a replacement subscription for the initial BBC publication, Knowledge, which is no longer published. The magazine has a Question & Answer section, where readers write in and experts provide answers. It’s one of my favorite sections.
In this latest issue, a reader had written: Why do we get bored? An expert provided the following answer: “Like hunger, thirst and loneliness, boredom is a negative feeling that drives us to change our behaviour. Natural selection has favoured individuals with the capacity to feel bored because they are more likely to discover or create things that improve their survival chances, or to look for a new partner and so spread their genes more widely. Contentment leads to complacency, and that’s a dangerous evolutionary strategy.” [Focus, June 2013, p. 65]
Contentment leads to complacency and that can be dangerous. What a thought-provoking statement for me!
Here I was relishing getting back to my habitual routines. Do my routines foster contentment? Complacency?  I think they might. I need to look at that.
I do remember getting sober and reaching plateaus, where it felt like my recent inward growth was getting stagnant. Nothing seemed to be happening. It worried me. I was gently reminded: “This too shall pass.”
Then there were those times when it felt like every day was bringing me another lesson to be learned and I would complain, hoping for some peace and quiet. I was gently reminded: “This too shall pass.”
Perhaps I get bored with contentment as well as excitement. Perhaps I need variety. Sameness grinds down my spirit – whether it’s an exciting or mundane sameness. I’ll also have to think about that.
This weekend my wife received the following from a good friend and subscriber: It is an excerpt from The Places That Scare You (A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times) by Pema Chodron:
“Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, let it go.
Go to places that scare you.”
(Advice from her teacher – the Tibetan Yogini, Machik Labdron)
“…Live your life as an experiment. At the end of the activity, whether we feel we have succeeded or failed in our intention, we seal the act by thinking of others, of those who are succeeding or failing all over the world. We wish that anything we learned in our experiment could also benefit them. In this spirit, I offer this guide…. May it help move us toward the places that scare us. May it inform our lives and help us to die with no regrets.”
For some reason I am very contemplative this weekend. All these thoughts about complacency, contentment, facing fears, living as if it’s an experiment have stirred up something – but I don’t know what or why it is.
ACIM tells me I don’t need to know what or why. It simply is. It is Now. It is who and where I am at this moment. I don’t need to judge this as good/bad, helpful/destructive, fruitless/productive.  I just need to observe and let it be…
Thinking on paper.
Sharing myself with you.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#3 June, 2013
Copyright, 2013

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Living in the Landscape of Grace

“Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the façade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.” Anonymous [Sent to me from a subscriber, who got this from a friend.]
 “Before recovery, my life was a living hell. Driven by an obsessive mind and a disease that wanted me dead (and settled for drunk), I was driven by a hundred forms of self-centered fear, and I felt alone and defenseless. I had no tools, no hope, and darkness filled my thoughts and painted my days. Finally, I hit bottom.
“When I entered the rooms of recovery, I felt as if I had been lifted out of a sinking life raft, and dropped into a great big, safe ship. Meetings gave (and still give me) support, comfort, hope and help. The program provided me with the owner's manual to the life I had always wanted, and the greatest gift of all was a relationship with a loving and nurturing Higher Power.
Today I begin my days by turning my will and my life over to my Higher Power…. By surrendering my will, asking for His guidance, and then seeking to do His work, I experience a freedom, a sense of purpose, and a state of serenity that is beautiful. It is Grace. Today I get to choose to live in this landscape of Grace….”  [From Michael Z, The Wisdom of the Rooms. Contact]
As virtually everyone in AA tells their stories, they are telling mine, as well. This is certainly true of Michael’s account of his earliest days. As I discuss my transformation in my book, my experiences were completely different than Michael’s yet totally the same.
“I still relish, most mornings, the simple fact of waking up, rather than coming to. I still feel overjoyed sipping my first cup of coffee and remembering last night’s conversation, rather than staring into a black void in my memory, forcing down some coffee laced with vodka, and hoping I wouldn’t gag.
“It’s hell to be dead inside and thinking all the while, “This is life!” It’s hell trying to time your drunk so that you can just make it to bed before you pass out or fall over comatose on the couch and embarrassing your daughter and her friends. It’s hell to dread answering the phone because it’ll be another bill collector. Or to let mail stack up, unopened, for weeks because it’s bills you can’t pay, or ‘deadbeat’ letters, or some other form of bad news.
“Bad news. ... Bad news. ... For me, plain and simple, that’s what reality had become—bad news. So I drank my vodka to avoid it, and I avoided it well. I avoided people. I avoided my children. I avoided bad news. I avoided all news. I avoided life. I avoided reality. I avoided everything except my vodka.
“During the last year, I was drinking about a fifth a day and a half-gallon over the weekend. I had to have alcohol in my blood at all times, twenty-four hours a day, just to feel normal. That meant I had to have a drink every four hours or so—even in the middle of the night. And during that whole time it never dawned on me that this was abnormal.” (D. O’Dell, How the Bible became the Bible, pp. 176-7)
Getting sober through the help, understanding and acceptance of Alcoholics Anonymous was just the beginning, however. Just as most alcoholics did, I went to AA to learn how to stop drinking. What I found was an acceptance I had never encountered before. That acceptance – that freed me from trying constantly to be someone I wasn’t – touched my soul in a way that nothing ever had. The relief I felt was visceral. It altered the trajectory of my life. It saved my life.
What I found in AA were the tools to live life – the “owner’s manual” to life that I never had received.  As the biological effects of alcohol were drained from my body, I began feeling better. But what now? How do I live without the crutch that had come to dominate my living?  By using the tools of AA’s program, I started learning how to live life – not on my terms, but on life’s terms. As a responsible adult.
So, what are the tools of the Program? Don’t drink; Go to meetings; Get a sponsor; Share honestly at meetings; Work the Twelve Steps; Pray for your Higher Power’s will for you today and pray for the power to carry that out.
It worked for me. I am still recovering, but I have been sober for over 26 years now. I am still learning what it means to be a responsible adult. I am still learning what it means to be a playful Child of God. But most importantly, this journey of mine, which began in church basements in Northern Virginia, has allowed me to begin a deeper spiritual journey. And it has allowed me to use the same essential tools as I used in AA: Do the work my spiritual program suggests; Accept others as I was accepted; Share of myself as honestly as I can; Do a reality check with trusted friends before making a decision.
Living within this landscape of Grace, as Michael Z calls it, requires ... well … living. Purposeful living. Studying, Contemplating, Erring-Learning-Growing, Doing.
Living in the landscape of Grace is not simply relishing the intellectual comprehension of a spiritual program. It is LIVING the program. When I do that, I am reasonably happy, content, and truly helpful to others. When I do that my perspective changes – and so does my universe. It’s amazing.
What more is there to living life?
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#2 June, 2013
Copyright, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fear and Hate: Why Do We Think These Are Family Values?

We just got back from a 12-day trip to Ireland. What a wonderful country with such a difficult past history. The Irish refer to the recent past (1960s-1980s) as “the troubles.” Most of us remember portions of that as well. The bombings. The police/Army battles with crowds. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Defense League (UDF) fighting each other and fighting London. It was a confusing bloody time.
This got me thinking on the flight back home about the significant difference between religion’s focus on exclusivity and spirituality’s focus on inclusivity. I know with my head that this is an oversimplification, but I experienced this viscerally while touring Northern Ireland last week.
Ireland’s 32 counties today are split between the Republic of Ireland (the southern 26, and mostly Catholic counties) and Northern Ireland (the northeastern 6 counties, mostly Protestant, and a part of the United Kingdom, which includes England and Scotland. This split was begun following the civil war (1916-1922) when Ireland was granted partial independence from Britain and was known as the Irish Free State.  Ireland remained a dominion of the British Commonwealth. In 1948 the Irish Free State formally left the British Commonwealth and adopted their official name of The Republic of Ireland. The country’s constitution, however, included a claim on Northern Ireland’s six counties as a part of its national territory. In 1998, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, brokered in part by President Clinton, the Irish constitution was altered by referendum to remove the territorial claim to Northern Ireland and instead extend the right of Irish citizenship to all the people of the island should they wish to have it.
As we toured the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, I got a recognizable sense of inclusivity. We saw town after town where it was pointed out to us that there was a Church of Ireland (Catholic) built there recently – the first since the mid-1600s when Oliver Cromwell destroyed all things Catholic – with joint contributions from both the Catholic and Protestant communities. Police stations were small and indiscriminate. Individual police personnel were unarmed. Police cars were brightly colored – quite cute, actually.
After 8 days of touring we entered Northern Ireland in the Province of Ulster and dominated by the city of Belfast. As we drove in the area, especially Belfast, the police cars were modified Range Rovers that looked like small armored tanks. Police stations were surrounded by 10-12 foot high stone/brick fences topped with broken glass and razor wire. Police personnel were heavily armed – mace, tear gas, and hand weapons.
Within Belfast, itself, there is still one portion of Belfast where Catholics and Protestants live in very close proximity. These Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are separated by a menacing fence – brick and stone with razor wire – from 12-20 feet high. Streets between the neighborhoods are installed with gates that are closed and locked at night and opened in the morning. The whole area is collectively known by the extensive, and mostly political, murals that adorn buildings and walls there. In fact, it has become a tourist attraction of sorts. However, I found the differences between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods quite distinct and significant.
The Catholic neighborhood is rather non-descript neighborhood. It is clearly a lower/lower middle class area. The murals, although political, express the past in a historic kind of way. Murals were painted of the critical leaders of the early 1900s civil war. They also depict significant leaders that came during the “troubles” to help solve the tensions – Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, for example. The headquarters of Sinn Fein, the party of the IRA, is still there, but it is now a political organization electing people to the British Parliament.
The Protestant neighborhood was quite different. Also a lower class area, many of the houses had their own private fences around their property. Bars were on windows. The murals there were much more pointed, threatening and violent. They extolled only the leaders of the UDF during the 1960s – 1980s. It was simply a chilling feeling.
I asked our Belfast tour guide what was causing this difference between these Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Her answer was that the Protestant neighborhood was much more fearful. The churches and political rallies consist of much more fear mongering.
Efforts by the City of Belfast to educate and encourage families to train their children that all religions need to be respected are taken seriously in the Catholic but rebuffed in the Protestant neighborhood.
Fear. Hate. Enmity. Why do we still consider these to be “family values?”
In my book, How the Bible became the Bible, ISBN 978-0-7414-2993-3 pages 213-14, I discuss The End of Days and refer to instances when fear and anxiety are high. When this is the case, Christian churches quite often begin spending more time preaching and quoting from the Old Testament or the Book of Revelation. The focus, of course, is on obeying the Law in order to gain God’s favor and admittance to Heaven. The alternative is eternal anguish. This is dogma, and where dogma is predominant, so will be fear and exclusivity because belief in the dogma is what will “save” you. Of course, if you don't believe the dogma, you are wrong, evil and threatening. Spirituality focuses on the universal experiences of openness, acceptance, peace and joy. It’s a perception that focuses on “I think my way. You think yours. As long as you respect me, that’s all right.”
The reality of the difference between exclusivity and inclusivity was palpable as we travelled Ireland. Sadly, it reminded me of the hateful rhetoric here in the States.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#1 June, 2013
Copyright, 2013