Twelve Steps Forward

Twelve Steps Forward

Easter 8 – 19

 

Charles A. Francis published a book in 2015 about mindfulness entitled “Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple: Your Guide to Finding Inner peace”.  Mindfulness is an important lifestyle technique that I believe we all need but few of us truly understand it.  For that reason, I am publishing Francis’ summation he wrote about his book and the twelve steps he advocates.  His way is not the only path one can embark upon in being mindful but it is an excellent journey if you desire to engage in this journey of mindfulness.

 

I do not know Charles Francis and this really is not an advertisement for his book.  I do recommend reading his explanation of each step, however, and perhaps trying one a day for the next twelve days.  Of course, without having read the book, it might be difficult but you can get enough of an idea to try some rudimentary practices regarding each step. 

 

Step 1—“We became aware of the pain and suffering created by unmindful thoughts, speech, and actions.” Step 1 teaches you some important concepts to help you understand the practice. In this step, we’ll talk about the Four Noble Truths, which deal with suffering and how to overcome it. We will also talk about the Five Hindrances, which deal with things that get in the way of your meditation and spiritual development.

 

Step 2—“We learned how to develop our primary tools of observation: concentration and mindfulness.” Here you will learn how to use your two most important tools of observation. If we want to understand ourselves, and our relationships with others, then we need to learn how to observe the world with unbiased clarity.

We often make quick judgments based on preconceived ideas, because it’s easier than examining situations further, and often less painful in the short-run. That is, we jump to conclusions without having many of the facts. So, to observe reality without bias, we need to develop our skills of observation. Like a journalist, we’re trying to get at the truth.

 

Step 3—“We sought to eliminate the things that agitate our mind, and prevent us from achieving inner peace and serenity.” A common challenge for beginners is dealing with a racing mind. We’re often unaware that many of our daily activities are agitating our mind. In this step, I’ll show you how to identify and eliminate the sources of agitation. I’ll also give you some effective tools for calming your mind.

 

Step 4—“We learned how to structure our meditation session for maximum effectiveness, and to fit our lifestyle.” In Step 4, we discuss our meditation environment. There is no best time or place that applies to everyone, because we all have different commitments and living situations. I’ll give you some guidelines for choosing the best time and place for you. We’ll also talk about sitting position and how long to meditate.

 

Step 5—“In order to enhance our spiritual evolution, we made mindfulness meditation a regular practice.” This step deals with the actual mechanics of meditation. You’ll learn exactly what to do during your meditation sessions. I’ll give you different formats, so you can choose the one that’s most suitable for your needs, and I will even guide you through a typical meditation session.

 

Step 6—“We remained vigilant in our meditation practice, so that we continued making steady progress.” In Step 6, you’ll learn how to track your progress by keeping a meditation journal. This will help you stay grounded in proper techniques by establishing goals and measuring your progress. It will also help you stay motivated.

 

Step 7—“We became aware that other people can provide us with the spiritual nourishment vital to our development.” Other people can be invaluable sources of spiritual nourishment that will dramatically speed up your development. I will show you how to connect with them, so that you not only enhance your own spiritual development, but also that of others.

 

Step 8—“We sought to cultivate peace and harmony in our relationships and interactions with others by practicing deep listening, mindful speech, non-judging, and forgiveness.” In this step, we’ll examine how our behavior impacts our spiritual development and our relationships, and I’ll share with you some powerful tools for improving them.

 

Step 9—“We sought to dwell deeply in our spiritual community in order to enhance our development, and that of others.” In Step 9, I’ll show you how to avail yourself of the healing power of your spiritual community. I will introduce you to some more useful tools for enhancing your practice, including loving-kindness meditation, and a new meditation technique we’ve developed—writing meditation. You will also learn about the most powerful tool of all—the mindfulness meditation retreat.

 

Step 10—“We became aware of how unmindful consumption perpetuates our suffering, and prevents us from achieving true inner peace.” In this step, we’ll discuss how your consumption of nutrients and other substances can either enhance or hinder your spiritual development. As you progress in your practice, you’ll develop the wisdom and inner strength to make healthier choices.

 

Step 11—“With the strength, courage, and mindfulness we attained through our meditation practice, we confronted and overcame the wounds from our past.” Many of us have wounds from long ago that have never healed. These are serious obstacles to our development. In Step 11, I will show you how to use your emerging mindfulness to overcome them, so you can be free of them once and for all.

 

Step 12—“Having found freedom from our suffering through mindfulness meditation, we shared this practice with others, and continued dwelling deeply in the present moment through mindful living.” One of the great gifts you will receive from your practice is a deep sense of caring and compassion for other people. In this step, you’ll learn how to help others achieve inner peace as you have, and how your mindful leadership can help create a more mindful society. You’ll also learn how to apply mindfulness to all your daily activities, so that you continue making progress.”

 

This series topic of mindfulness is not designed to create more things to do in your daily schedule.  Once being mindful becomes a habit, it actually improves your schedule and your response to life itself.  The true purpose of mindfulness is to recognize the joy in living that is all around us.

Sanctuary

Refugees and Sanctuary

 

Strictly speaking we are all refugees in that the word quite simply means “displaced person”.  At some point, we all have felt out of place, or at least, out of step.  It is when I am most out of step that faith gives me strength and greater understanding, the chaos helping me realize the sanctuary faith affords.

 

It was on my twentieth birthday that the rector stuck his head in the choir room after the service to tell me I had volunteered to be the youth minister. I walked from the university to church but he had found me rides and so, as a most reluctant college junior, I found myself preparing for our first event – a refugee supper.  In the 1970’s the national church had a campaign to assist those coming from Vietnam.  We were to prepare a typical meal for these refugees – rice and soybeans.   Each plate consisted of one cup of rice and soybeans – a dull plate of white, rather tasteless food.  We served five hundred and made more than expected but what really affected the kids was the blandness and lack of color of the meal.  These kids who never ate their vegetables all brought vegetables to our next pot luck.  I can still hear the clown of the group:  “Thank you Lord for this food, this colorful rainbow of blessings, we are about to eat.”

 

In the 1990’s I was the director of a professional children’s choir in York, PA and we were asked to sing a sidewalk concert outside the prison for a group of illegal detainees from China.  Known as the men of the Golden Venture, these men were held for over four years and became famous for the 3-D origami art they created while there.  These refugees showed me an example of finding sanctuary in their faith and hopes.  Eight years later while working for a state agency I walked into a home of what seemed like a strange group of refugees.  It turned out I had walked into a human trafficking ring and this time faith gave me strength to help disband it.

 

The Beatitudes for me speak of sanctuary in that they provide hope and clarity in understanding what life throws at us.  My experience with refugees, both legal and illegal, is that all are seeking sanctuary.  I am at times a displaced person, someone trying to find their way in life.  Because of that, Jesus came and lived and died – all to provide me and you a sanctuary.  There are sixty-eight Bible verses about “sanctuary” but it really hits home to me when we sing it.  “Lord, prepare me to be sanctuary – pure and holy, tried and true.  With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”  Sometimes we seek the sanctuary and sometimes it is up to us to be it.

 

Goodness

Goodness

Lent 1

 

During Lent our series will focus on the Beatitudes, those eight to ten, and in one location, four saying about goodness, happiness and spirituality.  While the basis for this series will be taken from the New Testament, this will not be a purely religious series.  It is a series about goodness and our search for it in an overall sense – goodness of living, of health, of being.  We will delve into such distinction as the difference between a happy person and an optimistic person and there will be, hopefully, a vignette to explain and explore our discussion each day.

 

Most Creation stories open with “In the beginning” and the world seems to have been complete, whole, and happy.  Then something happens and chaos ensues.  While it may seem hard to relate to something like that, most of us experience it every day when we go to check social media.  The science of happiness would tell us that while the caveman did not have a Facebook account and the only twitters he heard or saw were from birds in the trees, he did fall victim to the same social pressures that we do when reading about a friend’s seemingly perfect life.

 

We are all connected and the people in our lives play an important role in the basic goodness we experience and the happiness we feel.  Both of these are contributing factors to our sense of well-being and our actual physical health.  Skeptics argue that optimistic people may not necessarily live longer and we certainly have discussed that topic before.  However, recent scientific research and the resulting evidence indicate that there is a strong link between happiness and health and it goes both ways.

 

Our approach to living is key in our trying to improve our lives and the world.  Being happy will never be as simply as taking a pill and seeing the goodness in life will not be accomplished with an increased prescription for a new pair of glasses.  We can, though, take the wisdom of the ages and look at our own approach to living. 

 

Lent is traditionally a time of introspection and, let’s face it, dreary feelings of guilt and shame.  Our source material is a wonderful way to change that and improve ourselves without beating ourselves up – figuratively or psychologically.  Let’s replace those pounds of guilt with feelings of goodness and happiness!  Life will always be a work in progress.  I hope you join me for this series in making lemonade out of lemons.  Who knows?  We might even find a way to make a lemon tart or pie without fewer calories!

Find

Find

Epiphany 39

 

It is a popular childhood game called hidden pictures.  I myself belong to a coloring page on Facebook and once or twice a month the page administrator will post a picture with things hidden within it.  Could you spot a fork hidden in the handle of a broom or a comb hidden in a picture of a cob of corn?  Better yet, could you spot the virtuoso playing in a subway station?

 

According to Snopes.com, the go-to site for all unearthing the truth hiding amongst Internet pages, no one did – either ten years ago or in 1930.  “Many a marketing survey has been conducted to gauge how presentation affects consumer perceptions of quality, and quite a few such surveys have found that people will frequently designate one of two identical items as being distinctly better than the other simply because it is packaged or presented more attractively. Might this same concept apply to fields outside of consumer products, such as the arts? Would, for example, people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting? These were questions tackled by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in 2007 when he enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music who regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year, to spend part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour. Weingarten set up the event “as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

 

Snopes continued:  “On 12 January 2007, about a thousand morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C. were, without publicity, treated to a free mini-concert performed by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six classical pieces (two of which were by Bach) during that span on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which Bell reportedly paid $3.5 million). Weingarten described the crux of the experiment: “Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?”

 

Weingarten ended up winning for the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize for his category, the award being given in part for the originality of the ruse.  However, it was not that original.  Seventy-seven years earlier another periodical named the Post, The Chicago Evening Post had done something quite similar.  In fact, several aspects of this story, the hiding in plain sight of a concert violinist were eerily similar.  In May 1930 Milton Fairman wrote a story titled “Famous Fiddler in Disguise Gets $5.61 in Curb Concerts.”   Violin virtuoso Jacques Gordon, a onetime child prodigy, performed for spare change on his priceless Stradivarius, incognito, for three-quarters of an hour outside a subway station. Most people hurried past, unheeding. The violinist made a few measly bucks and change. It was a story about artistic context, priorities and the soul-numbing gallop of modernity.  Fairman’s story began: “A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbstone concert yesterday noon on windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears …”

 

Both Jacques Gordon and Joshua Bell played Massenet’s “Meditation” from “Thais” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Of the hundreds of people who walked by Gordon, only one recognized him for whom he was. Of the hundreds of people who walked by Bell, only one recognized him for whom he was.  Gordon died twenty years before Bell was born but the younger man had heard of him.  In fact, for ten years Bell played the same Strad that Gordon had once owned, the same one Gordon had played on the Chicago streets that day in 1930. By the way, Gordon earned $5.61 that day – the equivalent of $59.73 in today’s economy.  Bell earned $32.17 which would be worth $32.35 today.  AS the nation was recovering from the Great Depression, Gordon had earned more playing than Bell did playing in one of the more heavily traveled subway systems in the country.

 

How many hidden gems do we pass each and every day without noticing them?  It may not be a concert violinist you hear but that young child singing while waiting for the school bus might someday become an opera star or pop sensation.  I assure you that in your daily commute you pass by someone in need as well as someone helping others.  The beauty of life is all around us.  We just need to really open our living, take a moment and find it.

 

Build

Build

Epiphany 34

 

There is a great deal of talk worldwide about refugees and people act like it is a new thing.  It isn’t.  Strictly speaking we are all refugees in that the word quite simply means “displaced person”.  At some point, we all have felt out of place, or at least, out of step.  It is when I am most out of step that faith gives me strength and greater understanding, the chaos helping me realize the sanctuary faith affords.

 

It was on my twentieth birthday that the rector stuck his head in the choir room after the service to tell me I had volunteered to be the youth minister. I walked from the university to church but he had found me rides and so, as a most reluctant college junior, I found myself preparing for our first event – a refugee supper.  In the 1970’s the national church had a campaign to assist those coming from Vietnam.  We were to prepare a typical meal for these refugees – rice and soybeans.   Each plate consisted of one cup of rice and soybeans – a dull plate of white, rather tasteless food.  We served five hundred and made more than expected but what really affected the kids was the blandness and lack of color of the meal.  These kids who never ate their vegetables all brought vegetables to our next pot luck.  These kids who had protested eating vegetables their entire lives now realized what a gift they were on the dinner table and how lucky it was to have them to eat.

 

In the 1990’s, as the director of a professional children’s choir in York, PA, we were asked to sing a sidewalk concert outside the prison for a group of illegal detainees from China.  Known as the men of the Golden Venture, these men were held for over four years and became famous for the 3-D origami art they created while there, buts of paper napkins folded into beautiful works of sculptural art.  These refugees showed me an example of finding sanctuary in their faith and hopes.  These were people trying to escape a Communist regime that allowed for no one to be a dissident; no freedom of thought respected.  Eight hundred men and women had attempted to flee the harsh conditions of their lives.  Their ship, the Golden Venture, did not complete the journey and some perished in the ocean before being pulled out, only to be arrested and some, eventually returned to China.

 

Eight years later while working for a state agency I walked into a home of what seemed like a strange group of refugees.  It turned out I had walked into a human trafficking ring.  My faith gave me strength to help disband it, wading through all the necessary agencies to report it and make sure the case was not lost in the myriad of cases that existed. 

 

My experience with refugees, both legal and illegal, is that all are seeking sanctuary.  I am at times a displaced person, someone trying to find their way in life.  There are sixty-eight Bible verses about “sanctuary” but it really hits home to me when we sing it.  “Lord, prepare me to be sanctuary – pure and holy, tried and true.  With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”  Sometimes we seek the sanctuary and sometimes it is up to us to be it.

 

I have been lucky in my life, although not as lucky as some.  Usually my displaced feelings come from peer pressure, not attempts on my life nor missiles and bombs exploding in my ear.  Still, life is not a competition and displaced feelings are valid regardless of their level of threat to our well-being.  The saving grace in life comes not just from our beliefs and faith but from our actions.

 

I believe that the world needs more bridges and fewer walls.  When we connect, we build bridges and recognize how similar we really are.  The world benefits from our connections when we build them.  Such human bridges serve to strengthen our world and create a better future for us all.  The world will never have enough sanctuaries and it is up to each of us to help build them.

 

 

 

Imagine

Imagine

Epiphany

 

I really want to write about imagery but since we are focusing on verbs and action this Epiphany season, I elected a verb form of the word family.  Then I realized that that word  “imagine” was really want I wanted to discuss.

 

There are purportedly seven major types of imagery, each corresponding to a sense, feeling, or action.  These include visual imagery which pertains to graphics, visual scenes, pictures, or the sense of sight.  Then there is auditory imagery, a form of mental imagery that is used to organize and analyze sounds when there is no external auditory stimulus present. This form of imagery is broken up into a couple of auditory modalities such as verbal imagery or musical imagery.   It also includes the imagery of onomatopoeia, using sounds or words about sounds to evoke images of such things that create those noises.  Olfactory imagery pertains to odors, scents, or the sense of smell and the less known gustatory imagery pertains to flavors or the sense of taste.  Tactile imagery pertains to physical textures or the sense of touch while the lesser known kinesthetic imagery pertains to movements or the sense of bodily motion. 

 

Finally there is organic imagery or subjective imagery which pertains to personal experiences of a character’s body, including emotion and the senses of hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain.  It is this last type of imagery that often poses the greatest threat to us because it can also raise an awareness of fear.  Recently, over the past eighteen months, this type of imagery has been most prevalent worldwide.  Fear is defined by the website and magazine Psychology Today as “a vital response to physical and emotional danger—if we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats.”

 

Laughter is also a response.  Psychology Today says this about laughter:  “Laughter just might be the most contagious of all emotional experiences. What’s more, it is a full-on collaboration between mind and body. Although laughter is one of the distinguishing features of human beings, little is known about the mechanisms behind it.  Scientists do know that laughter is a highly sophisticated social signaling system, helping people bond and even negotiate. Interestingly, most social laughter does not result from any obvious joke.”  Laughter is also beneficial, as is fear.  Laughter “has numerous health benefits: It releases tension, lowers anxiety, boosts the immune system, and aids circulation.”

 

So today I am asking you to imagine both fear and laughter.  Both are vital responses necessary to the human condition and yet, while they seem very far apart, both serve essential functions.  Carl Sagan, though, reminds us to be certain of that which we consider fearful as well as that which makes us laugh.  “But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

 

In other words, just because we laugh does not mean something is great.  While Columbus, Fulton, and the Wright Brothers proved themselves to be correct, the laughter they received had little to do with their success.  Their actions were backed by just that – real action.

 

We need to make sure that those things which create fear are also real.  Recent news stories have been built upon fiction, not fact.  Certainly there is shame to be heaped upon those who fabricate such false stories, attempting to engage our imaginations and create fear, but there is also shame on those who readily accept such rather than taking a few moments to fully imagine what might be truth.

 

What if we stopped trying to create fear and simply lived today in the best possible way we could, not worrying or being fearful… just being as productive as possible?  Imagine that, as John Lennon did, please.  “Imagine there’s no heaven.  It’s easy if you try – no hell below us, above us only sky.  Imagine all the people living for today.  Imagine there’s no countries.  It isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for and no religion too. 

 

Imagine all the people living life in peace.  You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.  Imagine no possessions.  I wonder if you can; no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.  Imagine all the people sharing all the world.  You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.

Change

Change

Epiphany 29

 

It is an anonymous quote but very true:  If nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies.  Change is hard and most of us approach it kicking and screaming.  The things about change is ….it is life.  It is an inevitable part of life and if we are living, we are already changing.  We just do not always recognize that fact.

 

In 2005 Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apples Computers and the proverbial daddy of many of the technological advances made in the past forty years addressed the graduating class at Stanford University.  “Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

 

Most of us would not be comfortable thinking as we start our day that we are going into the world naked.  Job was, of course, speaking metaphorically but there is some very real truth to his statement.  We tend to resist change as a means of protection.  People continue to vote for the same party regardless of the candidate because it is familiar.  It is a cloak they are comfortable wearing.  The same is true for lifestyles and religious choices.  We may not completely like the metaphoric clothes we wear every day but they are comfortable.

 

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable but it does not really lead to growth… or progress… or success.  “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”  Warren Buffet’s analogy is also true.  If mankind had never tried cooking food over a fire, well, we would all still be eating berries and grass mostly.  While some vegetarians might be cheering at that thought, the truth is that fire not only allowed us to cook and preserve meats but to also sanitize things and increase a person’s longevity on this planet.

 

“Lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at you.”  We all are going to receive criticism but these words from David Brinkley show us how to use such criticism.  The person who refuses to change will never go anywhere except where he/she has already been. 

 

Change involves taking a chance.  That is scary.  It always has been but it is also necessary.  The Roman scholar Ovid knew this:  “Chance is always powerful.  Let your hook be always cast in the pool; where you least expect it, there will be a fish.”   

 

No one truly knows what the next hour will bring but if we approach it with a positive attitude towards making a difference, towards making life better, then change will be positive for us all.  Albert Einstein once said “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”  We need to truly ask ourselves what would be so wrong if change occurred and then realize that the only future we have is if we change adapt so that it can happen.

 

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”  Harold Wilson might have said this jokingly but there is a great deal of truth in it.  For us to have a future, we must envision a better world and then set about changing things to make it a reality.