Saturday, December 22, 2012

Season of Contrariness

Here we are once again, at the end of the year in the Christmas Season, a season of opposing views, of strange discord that boggles the mind and does not make sense.  It’s once again the season of opposition of the spiritual and the commercial.  We try to blend the two – the season of peace, of the legend of the Christ-child, of inner quiet and spiritual awakening and renewal… and then the season of “giving”, of Christmas trees, lights, of presents, giving and receiving, of generally adorning our environment to help us “get in the spirit” to feel something special that we hope will be fulfilling, warm, and maybe nostalgic and encouraging.  I like this Zen Habits post.

We all have seen our favorite Christmas Movies… A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, The Grinch, Elf, etc.  They all tell a story of the different views on the world, of seeing beyond the world that we know, perhaps of facing hardship or shaking us out of our complacency, of realizing the true meaning of life, of coming to terms with who we really are, of our situation… what we have perhaps become… and seeing it clearly.  Perhaps there is a beautiful transformation, as with Scrooge following his visit by the ghost of Marley and the three Christmas ghosts.  A story of a cold, bitter heart transformed by insight of the fleeting nature of life and existence, and a glimpse of that warmth which is brought by genuine caring and love, and renewed with a spirit of giving and gratitude.  Ah, the stories which give meaning to the Season.

Sadly, not all of us are open to the potential of transformation.  The USA was shook last week by yet another mass school shooting, this time very young children were the victims.  It was a truly horrible, cruel and tragic event.  There is something deeply wrong with us, with our society, which creates the possibility for something like these events to happen.  There is I think a deep spiritual emptiness within us, something that we long to fill.  We know that there are the basic necessities for humans to fully develop and thrive… Maslow pointed these out, and it does point to the fact that there likely are aspects of life that just can’t be realized without a foundation of Love… for others and also importantly, for ourselves.  Not in a prideful sense, but an accepting, nurturing awareness for ourselves.   

There will always be an emptiness if this cannot be met or recognized.  We need to be able to reach out and find that Love for ourselves. I think there is much truth in this, that love and belonging are essential, and are the middle bridge of development which needs to be fostered in our world, if we are to have a chance of real growth.  I know that I’ve been blessed to have experienced love as a child, and was able to grow to experience aspects of Maslow’s higher esteem and self-actualization.  What allows us to recognize morality without these notions of love and compassion?

I was blessed during the writing of this post by a childhood memory of a small story book I was given at Christmas, The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter).  My parents struggled to make ends meet when we were young, and my father liked to give us used books which he felt were valuable.  I remember this one, and I wish that I still had it today.  I fortunately recall the memory of this particular gift.  The touching story of loving self-sacrifice ends with these words:

"The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."
The Gift of the Magi, by William Sydney Porter

Gifts do not need to be grand at Christmas, I have come to truly appreciate simplicity… it is about quality, and not quantity.  I like to think that my father recognized the importance of love and self-sacrifice and wanted me to read the story and feel it the way he did, and to also feel it and live it.  I am also fortunate to say that my mother is still alive today, and she has demonstrated the ideal of the Gift of the Magi story throughout her entire life, a living example of love and self-sacrifice for her children and those around her.  I give thanks for my family and friends around me. 

I hope all may find new peace, wisdom, joy and enlightenment this Season, and throughout the New Year.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ah, Compassion, how wise...

There’s a powerful scene at the end of the Japanese film, Departures (Okuribito), where the lead character, Daigo, having spent the entire movie expressing anger about his father who abandoned him and his mother while he was a boy, experiences a moving transformation.  Daigo’s occupation is that of an “encoffineer”, or in Japanese, a “nokanshi”, one who prepares a body for cremation.  Daigo has learned to perform the encoffining ceremony from a master, and he does it with deep respect and grace.  At the end of the movie, he truly “sees” his father clearly for the first time in his adult life, and he is transformed.  I don’t want to give away too much as I encourage everyone to see this beautiful, charming film.  There are plenty of reasons why it won the academy award for best foreign film in 2009.

So I saw the movie for the third time last weekend, and it just got better.  The key concept of the movie that comes through for me in this movie is that of compassion.  There is a deep and real sense of compassion that is learned by Daigo throughout the movie.  It goes against the grain at first as he doesn’t even want to take the job, but it grows from the lives that he touches and the respect that he learns along the way and from his boss and mentor.  At the end he almost doesn’t break through when the greatest opportunity is provided to him at the movie’s end, but he wisely makes the right choice.
I had been spending the past few days thinking about compassion and wisdom, and its importance, and the lack thereof here in our modern world, and the fragility of the intertwining issues that threaten our world.  I unfortunately was not being mindful with all my reading this past week, the issues and trials we face as a species are complex and the suffering we cause ourselves and each other are vast.  Still, it is this hope for compassion and wisdom going hand in hand, found eloquently in Buddhist teachings, where I still think there is so much opportunity.  All of the great spiritual traditions have taught as much.  It is compassion that is truly unique to humanity and which can be truly contagious and touch hearts.  You sometimes see this happening during the holidays, but maybe it's the thoughts of gift giving and that we want to be on the "nice" list, rather than the "naughty" list.  Stories, especially Christmas stories, can touch our hearts and remind us of a deeper dimension.

Wisdom is the other dimension of the hoped for transformation, that we can see through intellectual pursuit and discussion and deep analysis and reasoning, we can find what is the best for us and for our world.  I sometimes get very disheartened with the state of the world, especially with the challenges of the media today.  Thank goodness for BillMoyers and Bernie Sanders, although not directly, they are still talking about the issues which make compassion and wisdom in government a possibility for our country.  Still, when not found on the remaining vestiges of PBS or in select corners of the web, where is the true intellectual discussion?  Where is the reasoning?  Despite all of the information we have, where is the critical thinking?  I really like this article I found when looking further at the concept of wisdom:
“A glut of information can be a kind of Catch-22. While it adds to our knowledge, it can be a block to our wisdom. We can be so busy trying to process more and more information, that we don't have the time for the quiet contemplation that is essential for the development of wisdom. Without contemplation, we lose perspective and can lose our grounding. Without our bearings we lose a sense of place. Confused, we are more easily swayed.”

Wisdom writings have been with us throughout history, but there is a critical need more than ever to encourage depth of thought on the pressing issues of our time.  I still believe it is a matter of truly caring enough to do this.  It is compassion that must be a guide as a people, and it must grow hand-in-hand with wisdom.  We need to find more ways for these two important aspects to permeate our hearts, and allow the deeply needed transformation to begin.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” - T.S. Eliot

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Like a Splinter in Your Mind...

Remember the epic sci-fi movie, "The Matrix"?  It's by far one of my favorites.  There is a fascinating scene where Morpheus first meets Neo and talks to him about why Neo is incessantly searching and never finding what he needs... such as answers to the questions that are burning within him... longing for the answers, the knowledge, that he needs to be whole.  Morpheus aptly calls it the "splinter in your mind"... the text is below, it's such a rich scene with many meanings.

So I'm not going to go into how the world we live in is like a "Matrix" in its own right, although that could be fun some time, like pointing out the mechanical corporate forces that would like us to just be consumers going about our daily routine and not looking beyond the mainstream media (msm) news schlock.  Well, we can actually pretty darn good at this can't we, especially here around the holidays.

What I really just want to point out is the fact that this notion of being lost and splintered in American culture should be almost a universal feeling to the vast majority of people... with growing questions and indignation, from the insanity and stagnation of our political and educational systems, the overall decline in the civility of people, lack of public respect, to the the trading of human reason and rational thought for blind faith and sound bites from the msm, etc., etc.  So many are just trying to keep up and pay their bills and put food on the table, without time to think as citizens... about where we are going as a country.  Compound this decline with the massive problems that we have as a global society such as climate change, resource depletion, pollution, overpopulation... it's easy to work oneself into a nauseous state... the splinter becomes a log.  Most of us will genuinely long for a better society and world... this longing will usually create some genuine stress for us.  Stress is pain... stress is suffering.  Suffering has many forms.  Where does one find true relief... or even true joy for that matter?

Morpheus:  This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Morpheus: [to Neo who is choosing the red pill] Remember... all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.

After years of looking at these questions, I think that one of the only real places to look for these answers is within yourself.  How does one go about this?  One way that is tried and true throughout history is through mindfulness practice, which can be an amazingly personal journey.  Enter the Buddhist teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

I was raised as a Catholic christian and until recent years, practiced fairly regularly... despite the richness of the catholic church's prayer and social teachings, there were never any real clear paths to dealing with the inner aspects of the pains and suffering of everyday life.  Saying a few Our Father's and Hail Mary's never really cut it.  I'm being a bit sarcastic, but despite being exposed to a pretty rich and varied contemplative prayer history in the church, and having done quite a bit of research in that area over the years, I still came back longing for a more refined practice.  The Eightfold Path I find has provided that... a path that can provide the mind access to the truth about life and the way things really are, and a way to deal constructively with the stresses and complexities of modern life.

 One of the best studies I've found on the Eightfold Path has been written by Bhikkhu Bodhi:  The Noble Eightfold Path:  The Way to the End of Suffering.  It's not a short work... it's a beautiful, thorough work.

Splinter scene from The Matrix:
Morpheus: I imagine that right now, you're feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, that's not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo: No.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know *exactly* what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Neo: The Matrix.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Neo: Yes.
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
IMDB, quotes from The Matrix,