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Archive for December, 2017

Gentle reader, have you ever ingested, on a regular basis, any substance – controlled or not – in order to seek relief?  How about ingesting a substance on a regular basis in order to seek relief from anxiety or depression.  I have.  This morning I took a pill that is to provide me sinus relief.  I have taken a pill that was also to provide me relief from ‘high anxiety’ and from ‘depression.’  Thankfully, I have not taken either of those pills during the past 25 years.

In the early 1980s I had a mentor, Bill, who owned a PR/Advertising firm.  Some of what his firm did was to create a ‘need’ and then to come up with a way of ‘addressing the need.’  The great PR/Ad agencies are really good at this.  Consider the following, short list.

Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder (to name but three).  These are not really ‘diseases’ – they are for some folks, however, ‘dis-eases.’  Consider that they are, among other things, marketing ploys.  Doctors didn’t discover them.  Marketing departments did.  Drug companies did.

Every minute of every day we in our country are called to blot out these ‘dis-eases’ by being exemplary consumers.  We respond – or is it ‘react’ – to the commercials by ‘naming’ and then by ‘consuming.’  We are, in a real way, being brainwashed from birth.

Instead of applying self-knowledge, self-discipline, delayed gratification, and – yes, hard work – we simply consume a product.  Many of us have been injured in a hit-and-run accident at the corner of ‘Fake-Need’ and ‘Commerce’ (Now that I have written these words, is it really an ‘accident’?).

I am privileged to have spent the past 40+ years working with physicians.  My friend, Dr. Bob, a family practice doc, estimates that close to 80% of his patients’ issues are non-health related.  The number of folks that come to see him are reacting to what they are seeing on t.v. – and their iPhones.  People are not ‘getting sick’ they are ‘acquiring a condition.’

My son, the Artist, was on the cusp of the ‘attention deficit disorder’ craze.  He did have trouble learning and ‘paying attention’.  This was due not to his having a ‘disorder’ however.  This was due to the way he was being taught.  This may be news to some but artists do no learn the same way that others learn – no do scientists, or historians, or engineers.  Once he was in a learning environment – not simply a teaching environment – he flourished.  How well did he flourish?  He had a full-scholarship to graduate school plus a stipend to live on AND the graduate school only took one student in his discipline each year.  If I had ‘bought’ what the school was selling when he was 6-7 years old who knows what damage I would have helped inflict upon my son, the Artist.

There is another price we pay when we ‘buy’ what is being sold to us.  The acquisition of a ‘condition’ helps create one’s ‘identity.’  Too often, the ‘identity’ we integrate becomes not a blessing but a cross to bear.  I know some folks who have taken on a number of ‘diseases’ – when one is ‘cured’ they always find another to take on.  Some, on the other hand, take on one – integrate it – and it becomes their identity.  An executive I worked with in the 90s introduced himself by saying the following: ‘I can’t concentrate, I have attention deficit!’  What he came to realize was that this ‘disorder’ had become his identity – an identity that he used to his benefit and, ironically, that contributed to his ‘ills.’

This executive had become both a ‘condition’ and a ‘victim.’  Being a ‘condition’ and a ‘victim’ ensured him that he would not become the person he was called to become.  He spent too much energy on enhancing/maintaining his ‘condition’ and on being a ‘victim’ that he had little energy left to become the person he was called to become.

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Last week I was sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops; this café has big, comfortable chairs just made for sitting and reading.  A fellow sat down in the chair next to mine; we introduced ourselves and spent a few minutes ‘getting to know one another.’  Later on I reflected upon how privileged and blessed I have been in my life when it came, among other things, to my having a rich variety of experiences.  I spent a few minutes reflecting upon some of them – reliving them, savoring them once again.

More than forty years ago I the opportunity to visit a monastery in Northern California (a nice place for a monastery).  While there I was able, among other experiences, to have the opportunity to listen to a talk given by one of the monks, a Father Bruno.  As he spoke I wrote down some of what he offered us and afterwards I spent some time putting ‘flesh on the bones’ of my notes.

Here is one of the longer passages that I ‘fleshed out’ after Father Bruno’s talk (‘and the word became flesh’ means a number of things, for me at any rate).  This is what I wrote:

‘Listen to the silence, and you will know that everything is there although nothing is said, all knowledge exists in that depth, that emptiness, and when you finally speak, the words comes out of this silence and carries the silence with it.  The word is like an arrow point, it has meaning – but if the word pulls away from the silence, isn’t verified by the silence, then it is empty and dies.’ 

After typing these words a question that Robert K. Greenleaf offered us many years ago emerged into my consciousness: ‘When you speak, how will speaking improve on the silence?’

The monastery shrouded in silence and simplicity creates a space where the ‘Word,’ the light, God’s voice inside of you can emerge and nurture you.

This quality of stillness – the fruit of a long life lived cultivating the ‘silence within’ can be experienced by us if we embrace and practice the discipline of ‘silence within.’  ‘Stillness’ and ‘Silence’ are supported by their sibling, ‘Solitude.’

These three siblings, ‘Solitude, Stillness, and Silence,’ have long been a spiritual staple for many faith and philosophical traditions.  I am thinking of the great counsel offered us by the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.  He counters the great American admonition: ‘Don’t just sit there, do something!’ with this: ‘Don’t just do something, sit there!’  Great counsel for us busybody Americans.

The phrase ‘Be Still,’ has a resonance beyond the call to retire to a still place.  Stillness can be found in many places – inside the melodic line of a symphony, at the moment when the sun light breaks the seal of the night shade, in a quiet compassionate gesture.  If one seeks the presence of Stillness one can find it in unexpected – and expected – places.

Today, will I choose to be a seeker of ‘The Stillness’?  Will I be open to receiving it when it whispers, ‘I am here!’?

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It is mid-afternoon.  I have been in a bit of a funk since early this morning.  Actually, I have been in this funky-state for some weeks.  I want to withdraw from the world – perhaps hunker down in some cave in the desert and wait it – life – out.

‘Life!’  Literally, I can ‘take my own life’ (think: suicide).  My ‘life can also be taken by the other’ (think: murder).  My ‘life can also be taken by disease’ (think: cancer).  I can also resign my life to ‘its fate’ (think: resignation).  I can also dedicate my life to a greater good (think: service for the good of the other).

A few minutes ago as I was sitting here in my ‘cave’ (think: apartment) I was holding a question: What is the true joy of life?  I was not aware of the question until it emerged into my consciousness.  It has been a recurring question in my life for many years, however.  I had been reading Epictetus’ Discourses and had set him aside and was reflecting upon his counsel.  I had no focus for my reflection; it was random and free-floating.

Then I became aware of the question.  It appeared fully formed.  It was written clearly for me to see.  I closed my eyes and held the question: What is the true joy of life?  I did not search for a reply; I simply held the question.

Then, ‘George Bernard Shaw’ came into my consciousness.  I recalled that Shaw responded to this question.  I am still holding the question for myself.  Since I have no response I have decided to offer you, gentle reader, Shaw’s response; it is a good one, I think.

George Bernard Shaw wrote:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

 

 

 

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Beware the barrenness of a busy life. –Socrates

This morning the weatherman (yes, gentle reader, it was a man) for the first time this fall gave us the temperature and the ‘wind chill factor.’  The dreaded ‘wind chill factor’ will now be with us in central Indiana well into March of 2018. [An aside: I wonder if I would feel less cold if I only knew the temperature without the ‘wind chill factor;’ I think I would.]

It occurred to me as I was driving to my favorite coffee shop this morning that behind our ‘chronic busyness’ (one of the many addictions that we in the United States have) resides a ‘Busyness Factor.’  Our Culture has integrated, among other deep assumptions, the assumption that ‘Busyness’ is judged by the ‘Quantity of our Activity.’  The irony here is that ‘more’ only whets our appetite for ‘more.’  Being more busy and increasing quantity does not, in themselves, satisfy our deepest hungers (our ‘hungers’ include our physical hunger, our intellectual hunger, our emotional hunger, our spirit(ual) hunger and our social-relational hunger).

We have, in our Culture, developed a syndrome: ‘activity for activity’s sake.’  Don’t believe me.  Stop, step-back and look around – take the time to observe.  Now, this simple exercise itself will probably reveal to you, gentle reader, how addicted you are to ‘activity’ for I have a sense that you will not be able to simply stop, step-back and observe (cease your activity) and do so for only a few minutes (at most, I would bet).

In 1971 (you might recall, gentle reader, that I cherish, savor and return to books written decades and centuries ago) Wayne E. Oates coined a phrase for us; his phrase also became the title of his book: ‘Confessions of a Workaholic.’  Wayne coined the term: ‘Workaholism.’   In our Culture we have expanded his term so that today ‘workaholism’ has been replaced by ‘Busyness.’

Wayne Oates told us that he did not become aware of his being a ‘workaholic’ until his wife and sons started calling him on the phone in order to make an appointment to meet with him.

[Another Aside: What does it mean to ‘connect’ with another?  For me, sending a text and responding to a text does not equate with ‘connection.’  I experience ‘connection’ when I can hear a voice, pick up on a tone and voice inflection, feel the energy – or lack of energy – emanating from the very being of the other – add to this the ‘visual’ and all that accompanies the ‘visual’ – think: non-verbal, for example – and the ‘connection’ becomes more powerful.]

Our bodies respond to ‘chronic busyness’ by generating bio-chemicals that help keep us going.  Sadly, when we abruptly cease to be ‘busy’ these same chemicals begin to ‘attack’ our weakest organs.  I am thinking of a famous college football coach who retired in ‘great health’ and had a heart-attack and died six months later (even though he had been deemed to have been in ‘great health’).  In the 1970s I would, each October, take two weeks off and would always become sick – some virus would put me in bed for days.  I woke up in the early 80s and decided to let go of being a ‘workaholic’ (chronic busyness) and once I did I no longer became ill that way (and have not been ill ‘that way’ since then).

Consider this, gentle reader, that ‘chronic busyness’ is an addiction that is more challenging to treat (let go of) than many of the drug addictions, including alcoholism.  Why?  Because our addiction to ‘Busyness’ is a Cultural Addiction.  Because our ‘Chronic Busyness’ is also directly connected to – and fed by, nurtured by and sustained by – our addiction to ‘Quantity.’  By the by, our ‘Chronic Busyness’ is also sustained by our addiction to ‘Distraction’ and ‘Speed’ (‘Hurry Sickness’ as captured so well by Milan Kundera).  Unlike the other ‘addictions’ our Culture socially approves of (think: ‘honors’ and ‘rewards’) ‘Chronic Busyness’ and ‘More and More – Quantity’ for its own sake.

I wish I could continue but I must stop now for I have a great many things to attend to today; I am sorry, but I am really busy.

Life seems a quick succession of busy nothings. –Jane Austen

 

 

 

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During these past weeks of, once again, embracing my struggle with the discipline of ‘Deep Stillness/Hesychia’ I returned to the words of Thomas Merton.

Late in his life, Thomas Merton traveled to Northern California in order to spend time at Redwoods Monastery.  He had arrive at a moment in his own life in which he felt the need to go deeper still – to discern a more honest way of living out his monastic vocation.

For Merton, among other things, this meant questioning some of the basic truths he had been living with for decades.  Sitting on a ledge over-looking the Northern California coast he took pen in hand and he wrote:

In our monasticism, we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple, undisturbed thoughtful life.  And this is certainly good.  But is it good enough?

 I, for one, realize that now I need more.  Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate leisure. . .  There is a need of effort, deepening, change and transformation.  Not that I must undertake a special project of self-transformation or that I must ‘work on myself.’  In that regard, it would be better to forget it.  Just go for walks, live in peace, let change come quietly and invisibly inside.

 But I have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk, a great need of clarification of mindfulness, or rather of no mind – a return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt.  Need for the Spirit.

 Hang on to the clear light!

This is truly a ‘personal statement.’  It is uttered by a human being standing at a crossroads in his life, looking for a more authentic way of living.  Merton is also speaking, I think, to a larger and more widely shared hunger – for honesty, integrity and peace.  Not any peace.  The peace closer to what the Desert Fathers called Hesychia.  A deep, abiding peace, born of struggle, surrender and letting go and ‘letting in’.

For me, as for Merton, the prospect of ‘break[ing] with [the] accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk…’ is both anxiety producing and inviting.  I am drawn to it and I am repulsed by it.  This paradox, among other things, confirms my being a fully human being; a living paradox.

When I am at my best I cannot deny the need for this type of clarification and purification in my own life nor can I deny the sense of relief I can, at times, experience when I finally commit to this search/discipline.

In order to embrace this search/discipline I know that something(s) in me must shift, change or transform.  I must choose to be vulnerable.  I must let go of stuff in order to create a space – even a small space.  When I am ‘full of myself’ I have no room for…

Hesychia is such a space.  It was in this space that the monks believed that the tap roots could be nurtured and sustained.  The tap roots that would then nurture and sustain the ‘Deep Stillness’ – the ‘Deep Stillness’ that would open a space for God to find the one searching.

Whenever there is stillness there is the still small voice, God’s speaking from the whirlwind…–Annie Dillard

 

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