Loving must be as normal to us as living and breathing, day after day until our death.
Choosing to love, day in and day out, is hard. If it weren’t, Mother Teresa’s above quote wouldn’t be so profound. As a yogi, this quote makes me ponder the connection between love and breathing. Breathing is something we do to stay alive each and every day and though we can do it mindlessly, the act of paying attention to the breath in our yoga practice transforms it into not only a means of survival but a tool for thriving.
So too with how we love. We need a minimum amount of love to survive, but giving and receiving love that is mindful and also given and received without a second thought makes us thrive.
The kinds of love that is emphasized in our society – romantic and familial – is relatively easy to do without thinking about it. Though being in relationship is always challenging, we generally find it doesn’t require much effort to love our spouses and children and extended family. But how are we loving them?
I think sometimes we confuse “loving” with “not actively hating” or perhaps “tolerating” or “providing for”. But, it is an all-encompassing love of ourselves and others, the very love that Mother Teresa so beautifully embodied throughout her life, that must be learned (or rather, re-learned, as I believe we possess this ability at birth).
The very heart of this love is profound and radical acceptance of what is. Loving with no conditions attached, no ifs or whens. We learn to do this by simply doing it, day after day, until we die. Choosing to accept, to forgive, to embrace, and to give without expectation of receiving anything in return. The more we do it, the easier it will become.
Like breathing, first we do it without thinking, then we focus our attention on how we’re doing it thus transforming the act entirely, and then we continue in this way until the habit is formed and we no longer need to think about it. It is when we reach this place that we can become a source of healing in this world.
- Dainin Katagiri, “Time Revisited”
My concept of time changed drastically after my son was born. Suddenly my eventual death seemed so near I could taste it, and while I have no fear of death in and of itself, I have a great fear of leaving my son before he is grown. I just need to live until he doesn’t need me anymore. Then I can go. This is my nightly prayer.
Time seems to move so slowly when you are young. Then you get older and it begins to feel like that cylindrical carnival ride that starts to spin faster and faster and faster until the floor drops away and you are pinned to the walls of the cylinder simply by centrifugal force.
When I had my son, I already had an established spiritual practice, so I can only guess how this shift in perspective would have felt to me pre-practice, but I imagine it would sound an awful lot like the oft-heard refrains of “oh, they grow so fast” and “life is short” and “there is never enough time”.
Sometimes when I’m in a mindless rut and not living in the moment, I feel these phrases leaping into my throat. When that happens I am reminded that Time and it’s passing is only of concern to us when we are not alive in the moment; when we are seeing past, present, and future as distinct rather than same. Time, like everything else, simply is and it is all happening now.
Years ago when I was traveling in India, I was able to finally put a name to something that always made me uneasy as I observed the various examples of contemplative and monastic life. Why did this level of spiritual existence have to happen separate from the world? Why were people with spiritual discipline and enlightenment locked away in monasteries and dwelling in caves? The amount of beauty and suffering that exists side by side in India makes it an environment highly conducive to realizations. Surrounded by that crush of humanity I had to wonder, what is the purpose of seeking spiritual enlightenment if not to be of service to the world?
The election of a new pope has me thinking about this again, not because I think any big change is underway in the Catholic Church, but because there has been a lot of talk about the changes that people think need to happen, including the admission of women to the clergy and allowing clergy to marry. (not to mention the much broader social issues like the church’s stance on birth control and marriage equality, to name a few)
To me, the prohibition of priests to marry and the vows of celibacy often taken by monastics, while perhaps good for some, deprive these devotees of one of the keys to growth – relationship. So much, if not all, of our growth as humans happens in relation to others. Being in committed romantic relationships, having and raising children, learning to integrate into the extended family of another – all of these provide so much potential for emotional and spiritual learning. I also have to wonder about the effects of denying parts of ourselves in the name of God or service. How can we model unconditional love and acceptance if we are denying our own very basic human needs and desires?
The following quote is from Robert Thurman’s “The Politics of Enlightenment”
“It is a misunderstanding to think that enlightenment is some sort of final escape from life and that the doctrine of the unsatisfactory nature of samsara obviates any need for involvement with other beings or social responsibility. Because nirvana is selfless, there is no self that enjoys a state of being beyond the world. Wisdom and compassion are ultimately inseparable, wisdom being the complete knowledge of ultimate selflessness and compassion being the selfless commitment to the happiness of others”
I really love how he so perfectly encapsulates the reality that the goal of spiritual enlightenment is not to exist beyond the world, but to be of service to the world. If one is not selflessly committed to the happiness of others, one is not truly enlightened.
This is not to say that people who choose not to marry or have children cannot reach enlightenment or that they are not selflessly committed to the happiness of others. Nor am I saying that romantic relationships are the only ones in which we grow and the only means by which we can serve others. All relationships provide opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. What I am saying is that marriage and family provide ample opportunity to practice selfless service, compassion, empathy, kindness, and equanimity. As such these life choices should not automatically preclude a contemplative life. It’s true that marriage and children require immense energy that cannot be directly devoted to study and prayer, but any mother will tell you that the moments she spends with her little one asleep against her bosom are some of the most Divine she will ever experience. Many married people will tell you that their earthly model for unconditional love is their spouse, who loves and accepts all of their flaws and errors.
These thoughts are not original to me. Greater mind and deeper intellects have been pondering these very things and there is a new monastic movement happening. People who feel called to a contemplative life are eschewing the age-old ideals of celibacy and separateness and instead choosing to live fully engaged lives full of purpose, meaning, and the day-to-day challenges that most people face. There are also many examples of contemplatives and monastics who have kept traditional vows while completely immersing themselves in service. Mother Theresa, Thomas Merton, Father Greg Boyle to name a very few.
The key is not whether or not our spiritual leaders are married, but how engaged they are with humanity. There was a great deal of what I will politely call “fuss” in the media about the fact that Pope Francis washed the feet of AIDS patients. While I am well aware of the significance of this act of humility, shouldn’t we instead have been asking why it is so noteworthy that a cardinal would do such a thing? Shouldn’t all cardinals be imitating Christ in this way? Shouldn’t such humble acts of service be, yes acknowledged and appreciated, but also expected?
Isolation in a monastery, a convent, a cave, or the Vatican can no longer be the answer to the spiritual needs of the world. Like the age-old question of a tree falling in a forest with no one near to hear it, if a person reaches enlightenment with no one to serve, even if it really happened, does it matter?
I recently listened to an interview with author, playwright, and storyteller Kevin Kling on On Being (clearly, one of my favorite public radio programs). In it, while discussing his connection to spirituality he mentioned how as a young child he had a sort of inherent understanding that he and his grandparents were nearest to the light of the Creator (his words), he in the dawn and they in the twilight.
I loved this phrasing and couldn’t help but think of my own son who is so near the beginning of his life and therefore fresh from the Source, as I am nearing the middle of mine, which will perhaps be the furthest point I will ever be from God. I imagined my son and I, connected by a string as we travel along the circumference of the circle of life. He s nearly at the origination of the circle and I am nearing the diametric opposite.
My connection to him keeps me tethered to the Spirit as I edge towards the part of life that is consumed by taking care of others and building a career and finding personal and professional fulfillment. Anytime I get too wrapped up in these pursuits, I have my little Buddha at home, ready to remind me of what is important and how wondrous and beautiful the world is.
And then, as he enters middle age, I will be the one closer to the origination/end point and hopefully I will have uncovered the wisdom of the freshly born once again and will have done a good enough job parenting him to be able to be his reminder of what truly matters. He’ll have me on one end and perhaps his own children on the other end.
Then I imagine the mandala that forms within this circle when we add all the families connected through generations. The fabric and shape of the Universe reveals itself in this circle. And once again, I know for certain that all that matters in life, the only things, are the connections we make.
Well, I’ve done it. After a 4 1/2-year love/hate relationship, I’ve finally gathered the necessary strength and resolve to end my relationship with Facebook. The analogy of being in a bad relationship really applies in my case. It was fulfilling some of my superficial needs but none of my fundamental needs; I loved it sometimes and hated it other times; I constantly thought about leaving but felt stuck; I didn’t like myself very much while in the relationship; and I had serious reservations about our differing world views and ethics.
I’m not going to make any high-minded statements about how evil Facebook is, simply because others have said it better. Here’s a good example. And I’m not going to go on and on about how Facebook is destroying our ability to connect with other humans. It has certainly changed the way we do it, but I think every generation has something that does that. In the spirit of not going on and on I will say this one thing: Facebook (and all interaction that happens only online) does make it easier to dehumanize others and see them as separate from ourselves, and that, in my humble opinion, is a big problem. The things people say to each other via Facebook and Twitter and online forums are things that most folks would never in a million years say to another person if forced to interact face-to-face.
My misgivings about what Facebook is doing to the human race were not, however, my impetus for giving it the ol’ heave-ho. For me, it all boils down to the fact that it’s just not normal to have the goings-on of 250 people in your daily headspace. Granted, some people do just fine with it, love it even. I’ve just come to the realization that I’m not one of them. Clearing my mind of all the noise has been at the center of the last 10 years of my life. Learning to use my limited energy wisely has been a big part of that work. Facebook doesn’t fit in with either of those two pursuits for me at this time.
So, overall, I do think Facebook is ethically problematic for many (oh, so many) reasons. But honestly, this is a me problem, not a Facebook problem. And how do I feel after 3 days “sober”? Honestly? I feel great. I thought I’d be experiencing information withdrawals but instead I just feel incredibly free. Free from something that I should have never allowed to make me feel stuck in the first place.
So newsfeed be damned! I’m looking forward to a notification-free life.
I recently listened to a podcast of the NPR program On Being. The host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Dr. Vincent Harding, a civil rights leader, speech writer, and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was really one of the most uplifting things I’ve listened to in a long time. It was uplifting not because the civil rights movement achieved everything it set out to do and not because race relations in America are finally where they should be – it didn’t and they aren’t – but because the leaders of the movement have not given up. They are still as motivated as ever to do the work necessary to achieve the “beloved community” of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke.
During the interview, a scripture was quoted and it is one with which I am very familiar. Proverbs 20:12: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, God made them both.” This scripture came up in the context of a discussion about how the younger generation and the older generation do or do not connect.
Ms. Tippett made the observation that although it may not seem an obvious truth, the fact is that many thinking young people have a deep desire to
connect with and learn from their elders. Not because they will be able to tell us how to fix our current problems, but because by hearing their stories, we can apply their wisdom to our current circumstances and make our own stories.
As someone who regularly feels a deep longing to connect with my elders, I was so pleased to hear this observation voiced. However, my experience has been that outside of a religious framework there isn’t really a space for this relationship. Society has transformed so much in such a short time, that those of us who want these relationships and connections have to make an effort to seek them out.
Interestingly, the world has never been more chock-full of “role models” and experts and people offering advice. One could read one self-help book every day for their entire adult lives and still not exhaust the supply. All this to say that there is a plethora of information out there. There is a great deal of difference, though, between information and wisdom. It becomes a bit of a spiritual discipline, then, to have eyes that see and hears that hear true wisdom.
How do we cultivate this discipline? How do we train our eyes and ears to see and hear our elders? How do we learn how to communicate with, listen to, and exchange ideas between generations?
Dr. Harding addresses some of these questions during their conversation. I am continuing to ponder them. In the meantime, I highly recommend giving this program a listen. If you have ever felt overwhelmed by the changes that need to happen to help our country to achieve a more perfect union, or if you have ever felt hopeless when observing those in our society who receive the most attention, I promise that you will feel better about the state of things after listening. It’s easy to forget all the amazing folks who are working in big ways and small ways towards a more equitable future. This served as a much needed and much appreciated reminder.