Saturday, January 29, 2011

We are all "me in the middle"

I was thinking today, while listening to Zencast and jogging, that different religious traditions have different ways of dealing with our human frailties and limitations. Christianity calls them "sinfulness" while Buddhism calls them our human condition. Every religion -- every spiritual attitude -- must come to grips with the heights of human potential, and the depths of human limitations.

I say we are all trapped in this fleshy prison, whether we want to be or not. We all must see through just one pair of eyes, our own, and experience life from an extremely curtailed vantage point, within a human body. We must do all sorts of things to take care of the body, which is very demanding of air, water, food, way too much sleep, and a safe and temperate habitat ... not to mention lots of other things. Then there's all the other baggage: the feelings and desires that drag us this way or that, the mind that never ceases its "mindless chatter," the aches and pains of the afore-mentioned body, the intellectual limitations of the human brain.

And then ... and then ... if we are able to survive all that, we have the privilege of growing old and then dying! So there! At one point, the Zencast I was listening to mentioned a hospice unit where a 95-year-old woman found herself, and she kept saying, "Why me?" (Smile) Sorta like, how did I end up here? Yeah, why, indeed.

Jack Kornfield was the teacher of today's Zencast (actually, I think the date it was recorded was last fall sometime), and I just love him. He touches on the deeply important problems facing humanity, he sees them, yet he can transcend them all and find that peace that surpasses human understanding. Here's a link if you are curious: Jack Kornfield, Zencast

One of the things he said was that in this life, there is unspeakable beauty, and an ocean of tears. His teaching that I listened to today was "Freedom" (part I).

Now, Buddhists say it is a great privilege to be born human. This, too, is echoed in other religions. We are convinced that we are special. Why is that again?

I am just as trapped in myself as anybody. I have been feeling some escalating stress, mostly self-induced, that is if anything due to a hectic schedule. When I get like this, I have even less control of my mind. That's a frightening concept, since it routinely runs rampant like an energetic toddler anyhow. But under stress, one of its favorite tricks is to play annoying music ... one song ... over and over and over. Today, it's Taylor Swift's "Today was a fairytale." It started the minute I awoke and hasn't left me since. So, all I can do is to just let it play. Play it again!

So this morning, I decided it was time for a good little run and a dose of Zencast, my best friend in stressful times. This is my way of coping. Other people might reach out to friends and so on, while still other people reach for the bottle, or pills, etc. I am not particularly social, and my biggest addiction, besides exercise, is to coffee. (I got some of that too this morning.) I enjoy people up to a point, and then I find them annoying. But I still love you all, anyway! Really I do.

So, here are the messages I am getting lately about my own path in my personalized fleshy prison, here. I already told you about blooming where I have been planted. That one continues to come in really loud and clear, and I'm trying to be obedient to the call. Whatever I am doing, really engage in it and realize that it all has a purpose, and meaning. Even squeegeeing the shower! Be patient, allow the moment to unfold, stop hurrying so much.

The other fairly new message is that my passion is to write, and this is also a right intention and desire as I understand it. So perhaps I can let myself off the hook of trying to save the entire world, and allow myself to pursue this passion without feeling so guilty about all the other social actions I am neglecting.

I do see my writing as a social action, though I have no idea what the outcome of it is or will be. But that is true of all action. We can discern whether our intentions and motivations are pure (as pure as possible), and our action is right with respect to the world that is within our view. But we can never guarantee the outcome. That is up to much larger forces. Thus the saying, "No good deed goes unpunished." Our actions may not have the glowing results we imagine. They rarely do. We may feel we are doing no good at all, or in fact are causing harm. So we cannot cling to a desired result, but be willing to learn and modify our actions based on experience as we go.

Another mention of hospice in the Zencast was about someone who worked as a nurse in an AIDS unit back in the early days, when it was often not successfully treated. He wanted to save his patients, these young men, with modern medicine, but soon discovered he couldn't. So for a while, he felt useless and was in despair. But he was also in the habit of praying for his patients, lighting candles for them (a prayer habit my husband shares). Eventually, he realized that perhaps his reason for being there was so that none of his patients would die without having someone praying for them. And if you think that doesn't matter, think about the wonderful Tibetan hermits living in isolation, practicing complete compassion for the benefit of the entire world. I think maybe they are doing much more good than many do-gooders. Just thinking of them, I feel a wave of positive energy.

Since we are all stuck with ourselves, we have to figure out where our self meets up with all of creation, and how we can best be a part of this beautiful, amazing existence. So I don't apologize for all the introspection I routinely do. Self-awareness and enlightenment go together. Such is my belief, no, I have to say it more strongly than that. I have experienced that as reality, in a larger sense. Our selves are the crude tool we must use to engage with the world.

My enneagram retreat is next weekend, already. I seek to be prepared, but that's such a trick, that we can forecast the future and be prepared for it! Everything is change, change is continuous, and we are also part of that changefulness. OK, I'm not sure that's a word, but you know what I mean.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An accident

I dreamed that I was driving from my home to a nearby appointment at night, and as I approached a major intersection with a nearby highway, I realized there had been a bad accident. There was a white sedan, mangled, in the middle of the intersection. Nearby was a body, lying right on the roadway. There were several other cars, and other bundles looking like bodies that had been thrown alongside the road from the impact of the crash. There were no emergency vehicles and no other cars anywhere around. I was the lone witness.

I was shocked, but I carefully drove around the car and the body, and kept going. I had an appointment in Floresville at a hair salon, after all!

But when I arrived there, the owner immediately asked me to sign a form because she knew, everyone there knew, that I had seen this accident and had not stopped to help. The form said something like I was aware of the accident, but had done nothing about it. I wanted to add a caveat that it was dark, at night, and I remember thinking that I needed to lie and say I had not seen any bodies lying around. I was embarrassed and felt guilty that they knew. Somehow, it was too late or no longer necessary that I or anyone else return to the scene and try to help out.

Furthermore, the people at the salon were friends and family members of the accident victims. But I was not a pariah, somehow. It was like they understood what I had done, although we all knew it was wrong. They were talking about their loved ones, telling me about them, and I came to care about these people through that experience. Toward the end I was thinking what I would do differently the next time, maybe.

This is my 16-year-old's interpretation: Mom, it means you worry too much about driving and getting in an accident. I was telling him, no, this is all symbolic! The car accident really means something else. (Along the lines of an overly active guilty conscience.) But he wasn't buying it.

I saw a little video clip at a church youth meeting tonight that reminded me of this dream. There is a fire station, and lots of training going on for new firefighters. However, they are never actually allowed to go out and fight fires. There are all sorts of excuses -- you're not ready, you are too young, it is too dangerous, etc. In fact, nobody at the fire station ever goes out to put out fires; they spend all their time in training.

Eventually one of the trainees says, what's the point? What are we training for? Look at all those fires out there -- why aren't we helping? The camera pans out over a nearby neighborhood, where (rather comically) there are, in fact, quite a few areas where dark smoke is billowing upward. So the more experienced guy says something like, 'yeah, well the fire station down the street can take care of those. They don't need our help.' Immediately after he finishes talking, you hear a lady shouting, "Help!" It's all rather lighthearted, but on another level, not so much.

The video is about youth opportunities to take mission trips and help with construction/renovation projects. Seen another way, it could also be an indictment of the church's idle posture in the community.

My dream was about ... ?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Writing up blind alleys

"Love tells me I am everything. Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Between the two, my life flows." Nisargadatta Maharaj (an Indian guru, from what I can tell)

I heard this quote on a podcast recently and loved it. Living is about being in tension between many paradoxes. That's what makes it so interesting. Balance seems to be of great importance, finding the middle way.

Seeing the comments on my previous blog post made me reflect on how blind I am, as a writer, to others' reactions. Rereading that post, it was just another rambling reflection traveling a twisted path with lots of blind alleys. Yet it apparently expressed some human quality that was felt and reacted to by others. I'm going to give Henry James the credit, for his beautifully perceptive story that I invited into my blog in extremely summarized form. Its spirit came and infused the post with something extra. I'll have to include quotes by brilliant people as often as possible, to invite the spirits of these great ones to hang out here and share a little of their awesomeness!

I think every writer has this problem of figuring out what the reader will think. (Tell me if you agree, fellow bloggers.) We have absolutely no idea. We only can gauge by our own interest and reaction. Yet, some people churn out really dull stuff which they seem to find endlessly fascinating. I have no way of knowing if I'm one of those people! I know I find my own posts to be of deep and profound interest, to me. At least I'm not totally boring myself with what I write! I think that would be a terminal sign.

On another gander (that's another word for ramble, folks) ... The first week of tax season is over, and I worked 48 hours. This is the most I've ever put in at any job in a week, yet it's not much compared to what a lot of other people do year-round. From what I have heard from others trying to make it in this economic downturn, 70 hours/wk is the new 50.

I am beginning to realize that the stress of my previous job has left me (perhaps to be replaced with new and improved stresses in the future!). The work itself was not intellectually challenging. However, the workload was more than could be done in the hours I was working, and that was a constant source of stress because I simply could not do a top-notch job.

Now, my new job is much deeper intellectually, but the most important thing is to do a high-quality, careful and thoughtful job. No problem! That's where my inclinations lie anyway. We'll see how the time-crunch aspect progresses heading toward March and April.

I feel very fortunate to have a boss who is really concerned about me. I don't want to say more now and spoil the mood. We'll see where things are in another 12 weeks or so.

One more thing I wanted to reflect on, a topic I've visited before, is why I go to church. Sometimes it seems such a faint reflection of the spirit actually makes it inside church doors! And there can be so much human strife within the church that threatens to snuff out even that faint light. I am disappointed that we are not much more service-oriented and socially activist in mainstream Protestant churches, and I blame the American way of devoting too much for material goals, and for the cult of family, while neglecting the community and completely ignoring the wider world.

Even with these many drawbacks, there is such a deep spiritual hunger and yearning, inside me, and it must be fed somewhere. So I feed it at church. I do have moments of feeling a real communion with others, and experiencing the spirit that way. Probably I feel this just about every Sunday, so that's reassuring.

So much rides on our really faulty perception, as well. If we dwell on the apparent negative, it overwhelms everything else. Given that what we experience is largely illusory, why not seek the great beauty and wonder of life, and rejoice in that.

Another reason I go to church is that I find it's difficult to experience a higher spiritual dimension alone. Thus the saying, "When two or more are gathered in my name, there I am among them." All people have a profound influence on those around them, for good or bad, so we must try to be good influences and not be negatively impacted by others. It helps to find a supportive and uplifting community.

In a number of religious traditions, the most spiritually advanced members withdraw from society, go climb the proverbial (or actual) mountain, and live their ultra-devoted lives as isolated hermits. I don't think we are all called to react the same way to our spiritual drives, by the way, so it is fitting that some people choose this way to respond.

But in this hurting world, it is very important to share the light of awareness with other people, in the simplest ways, on a daily basis. That is what I earnestly try to do here, with my audience of at least three! (Four counting me) So I keep practicing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Living a commonplace (boring) life

I have a question. If you attempt to do a good deed and are turned down, does it still count as a good deed, or does it morph into a good intention, and you know where those lead ... ? Why are there all these contradictory sayings in the Bible, anyhow? How is anyone supposed to know what to do? If that's the owner's manual for life, it's lacking in a vital quality, its ability to be comprehended.

When I catch myself trying to buy my way into "heaven," or trying to make myself feel like I'm a good person, I have to laugh! I do it all the time here, I know.

So I did my good deed, or should I say I had my good intention today, because the chicken soup I offered to a flu-ridden household was refused, although with plenty of gratitude. And life being what it is, there won't be another chance for a while. Or, maybe I should say I will choose to spend my time in different ways, and the days will pass quickly for a while.

My family has gone hunting ... the real, manly sort of hunting, this. No more doves or small pickin's, they are going to a ranch with exotics (deer, mainly) and Austin talked of bringing back a deer head to mount in his room, which I promptly vetoed. In fact, I don't want to see any fur, or hooves, or bones, or anything that resembles the original animal. I will, however, gladly eat the meat! That's not so much because I am a big-time carnivore, because I am getting less and less so over time. But, if I had the choice, I would rather eat deer meat than the meat that comes from giant agribusinesses. It is much more humane and better for the environment.

Being the over-achiever that I am, I sometimes wonder ... if I weren't so hard on myself, what kind of person would I be? Dwaine and I went to a wonderful, really fun dress-up party last evening with a bunch of CHURCH folks. It was a western-themed murder mystery where everyone played and dressed up as different characters. Let me tell you, there was drinkin' going on, and several real guns and ammo (but of course, you say), and right smack in the middle of the evening, we all stopped to say the Lord's prayer for a little girl in La Vernia with inoperable cancer, and it was the most beautiful and amazing feeling -- to be surrounded by "such a great cloud of witnesses" is how Paul describes it. I felt just indescribably like I was home.

By the way, I usually do not feel that way at church, because I know I am an outsider just coming to visit. My God just doesn't fit inside any church, anywhere. For one thing, this universal presence I sense is just too weird. I'm not even sure "God" is the right description.

But anyhow, back to last night. I was laughing and acting my part (I was a saloon-girl hussy, and I must say I did OK), and I thought, oh! This is the other side of life. Just having fun and not brooding about coulda, shoulda, wouldas all the time. Not being so very responsible. What's that song by Supertramp? Responsible, practical, logical, etc. Maybe I've been "Mom" too long, or more likely I was just born that way.

Recently, I have gotten this new message about my life: I need to work on blooming where I have been planted. Not imagining life as a missionary in Africa! God knows I wouldn't last a month over there. My soul is restless, and it sometimes seems as though my entire focus is simply to try to avoid whatever is happening in my life right now. Unless it's just loads of fun! Which is sort of a rarity. "Fun" doesn't quite describe work ... home life ... volunteering at church ... working out ... running errands with the husband ... you get the idea. So, avoid all those and rush on to the next thing, and pretty soon the next thing is, you're dead. So hardy-har, the joke's on you!

I was at church at yet another meeting the other evening, and I looked around with new eyes and said, 1) I chose to be here tonight, and 2) I'm actually glad I am here! ! ! (at a church meeting? But I hate church meetings!) Here, I thought, I can actually do some good and have some influence. Will it change the world? Probably not. So why am I always harping on that? Why does it have to be something tremendously big, or I'm just going to put a pathetic half-hearted effort into it? There's something wrong with that.

It reminds me of a Henry James story, "The Beast in the Jungle," where the main character had a sense all through his life that he was someone special, with a unique destiny lurking ahead, like the proverbial beast in the jungle. His lady friend questioned him about it. He tried to put his finger upon what twist of fate was waiting for him, but never could. He remained preoccupied with his special place in the universe and the knowledge that he couldn't commit to anything else because he was saving himself for this grand destiny. At the end of his life, he finally realized that he threw away the opportunity to fall in love and marry, the ordinary fate accorded to others, and his unique situation was to be utterly alone. It was a devastating story to read.

Another way of putting it is maybe, I should really throw myself into living the life I've been given, instead of imagining all the other lives that could be, and that seem so much more interesting from over here! And maybe there is plenty of joy, and laughter, to be found, even in such a commonplace life as the one I lead.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Doing good

First, a quick note of happiness, literally. We got an e-mail from one of our sons' teachers today saying our son is one of his top five students overall and stands out in a class of 32, and is a joy to teach, and so on. What a delightful note! I just love this teacher so much for sending it. (Now you know the way to my heart.) Floresville has some really amazing teachers.

More importantly ... most importantly ... Austin is a caring, generous soul. He takes care of his brother, even when it's a major pain in the ass (though I do sometimes have to ask him to, and he does sometimes rant and rave before doing it). He and his brother are very close and love each other, well, like brothers. Like the Norman Rockwell stereotype! They are never mean to each other, though they do poke at each other verbally.

I recently was catching up listening to "Being," one of my podcasts dealing with spirituality, and the podcast narrator (not sure that is the right word), Krista Tippett, interviewed Nicholas Kristof. He is the New York Times op-ed writer who has relentlessly worked for years to bring more visibility to the most vulnerable people in the world, especially in African countries like Sudan and Congo.

I was greatly impressed by his enthusiasm and optimism for the human race, despite our many apparent defects. It's odd because he knows he often elicits the automatic, knee-jerk "guilt" reaction from people, and that's not what he is about. He is genuinely trying to make the world a better place!

Some other journalists were following him around to do a sort of documentary on his unique approach to ethical journalism, and one of them complained that Kristof would go to great lengths to find the most dire situation, the most pitiful example of a person affected by the particular events in the area, and that would be the story he would cover. For most of us mere mortals, the prospect of facing suffering head-on like this is so grim that we have to turn away. I turn away. If I don't, it is inevitable that I will be drawn strongly into the suffering of these people, and I might not be able to escape intact, with my perfect little insulated life unaffected.

Yet, somehow, Kristof transforms these dire situations through the energy of his writing, and he makes us look and see things we would not otherwise. Somehow, we recognize the common humanity of all these people and have a real encounter with them, even half a globe away. Somehow, he communicates without anger about genocide, war, violence and poverty.

Kristof has met and interacted with the victims, and the perpetrators, of horrific violence, brutality, rapes, murder, and so on. His revelation about the perpetrators? Who are these terrible people? Human beings are capable of incredible self-delusion, he concludes. None of these people views himself as evil, or doing wrong. They all can rationalize why they, sadly, must do these horrific things.  They are kind to their immediate circle of friends and family. Some of the warlords in Africa pray and participate in other religious traditions, because they are Catholic. I wonder if they pray before or while they are butchering children and raping women?

This information, I take to heart. Human beings are capable of incredible self-delusion. I'm not talking about the "bad guys" any more. There are many of these delusions in my life, and I am dimly aware of some and completely oblivious to many others. I accept the truth of this statement.

Because if we weren't all suffering from many delusions, we would be taking care of each other right now, and the horrible misery inflicted by one person on another would be no more.

Writing this has been painful for me ... I hope it helps someone out there. Was this another blog entry where I was busy self-flagellating? Sorry, will be more upbeat next time.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Strengthsfinder and enneagrams

My sister got me interested in taking the Strengthsfinder assessment (personality test geared toward vocational life) -- it is all the rage where she works. So she got me the book for my bday and I just finished the test. Out of 34 possibilities, it selects the top 5 that describe you after you take an online assessment. Interestingly, the ones I had pegged as being "me" weren't the ones it came up with, but they all fit well once I read about them: input, connectedness, learner, responsibility, achiever.

It's eerie how well I think my new job dovetails with these qualities. I will have to share with my boss, after tax season. That is too big to be a coincidence! (Part of "connectedness" is the feeling that there aren't coincidences.) Right now, the song that describes my place at my new office is, "Feels So Right." Maybe I really was born to be a tax accountant, as horrifying as that thought is on some levels. But then there's my secret life, which includes this blog, that I love just as much, probably much more.

Along the same lines, my friend Karen thought I should come with her to an enneagram retreat in February. This is a personality-spiritual type of analysis which is supposed to date back 1000 years or more ?? I guess I'll report more when I know more! There are just 9 basic types of people in this view. I am really looking forward to that little getaway. I will actually go spend the night at my friend's house rather than staying on campus, because the retreat is popular and there is a shortage of dorm space. (She lives much closer to the retreat center in Boerne than I do.) This will really make it so enjoyable, such a nice little respite from the rest of my life.

Interesting that two of my closest people have drawn me toward these things, as I already think I am high in self-awareness. Perhaps  it's because I am quite fascinated by the nature of Julie. It's one of those things I study as a hobby!

I've got to get back to the rest of my life ... time at home is so fleeting and precious, these days.

OK, I'm at a break now. Housework, cooking, etc. never really come to an end, but there are stopping points. Sort of like life, which never really ends, it just flows from one thing to the next. (Or replace life with mass/energy, if you please)

Glass of wine in hand, sweet potato pie in the oven ... life is good. Now, if it would rain. Please, rain, come, and stay all night long! Oh Lord, please bring us rain.

About the Strengths etc., I am now thinking, why didn't it realize I am analytical? Where did empathy go, or intellection? Or my sister's quality, harmony, which I was certain was one of my top 5 too? With analytical, maybe it was because of that one question about making major decisions: more with your head, or heart? I leaned more toward the heart on that one. Really, doesn't everyone? Apparently not.

Now I imagine going back through the test questions and gaming the system, giving different answers, to see what exactly it's picking up on. I could, if I were willing to pay for a new book and access code each time! There just aren't that many questions to come up with 5 out of 34 of the strongest personality traits. And who exactly came up with these 34 qualities? A bit crowded field, don't you think? You couldn't narrow it down some?

Interestingly, Austin just took this exact test at school a few days ago! It was one of those random coincidences which, in my book, is of course no coincidence at all. The school was picked to do a trial run of the test, then one of his teachers was picked to be one of the ones to administer it, and that teacher picked one class, which was Austin's. (Undoubtedly, his most brilliant class of students!)  Anyway, I think the only area of overlap with my son is Responsibility. How Very Responsible We Are. That makes two of us, anyhow. No, Dwaine's got a strong dose of it himself. In fact, the only ones in the household who are truly irresponsible are Mimi, Peter, and Backpack, and you can figure out who they are. Bunch of lazy bums! Sleep, eat, pee and poop, with a little playing and relaxing in between, that's their life.

But back to my son. Austin tested way higher on the people side of things: influencing others, communication, that sort of thing. As I keep saying, he would make an outstanding politician. Those things are not my bag, except when I'm writing, which is rather an indirect way to try to influence others! There's a quality called "Woo" -- winning others over -- that is one of Austin's strengths, and I think my husband would test very high on that as well. He also tested high on individualism -- i.e., we are all separate individuals and should be treated as such, no lumping into larger groups, he finds that offensive. He's a rugged individualist himself, right now. (i.e., Republican.) Despite my efforts to counterbalance his obviously skewed viewpoint.

Andrew heard all the hubbub about the Strengths test and now he wants to take it. In fact, he seized my book and was going to steal my access code, except I protested it was my darned birthday gift, and could he leave it be, perhaps? He may be a little young to understand all the nuances of the questions. It recommends the test-taker have a vocabulary at least of a 15-year-old. It's the maturity level that is still evolving, in my opinion. But oh, well, he could take it again later. This is version 2.0, so doubtless there will be a 3.0 and so on later, at least until this fad has run its course.

I announced I had taken the test, and my husband remarked that he was very glad that it discovered I had a personality. Apparently, that was in doubt.

I am feeling very blessed in my life right now. Today, at least. Right now. (Could it be the wine? Yeah, probably.)

A la Miss Piggy -- it's moi! Three of us ladies in my immediate family took turns posing for a portrait against the backdrop of a painting at Paesano's on the Riverwalk, and it turns out the photos have a portrait-like quality as a result.

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