"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"The ABCs of Modern Life" (Sunday, January 8, 2012)

One day, the story goes, God is Upstairs at that Great Big University in the Sky. He’s reviewing applications for admission. As he’s reading all these applications he has before him, a common theme comes through: “I would have done [so and so],” he reads, “but I didn’t have enough time.” “Couldn’t finish [this or that] because I needed more time.” “I would have done more…” or, ‘I would have done better…” or whatever, but “there weren’t enough hours in the day…” Over and over, God reads: “I would have been a better person, but I didn’t have enough time…” “Not enough time… Not enough time…” “Well,” God finally says, “that’s something I’ll do different next time!”

But, of course, the fact of the matter is that the amount of time we have is a given. We have no less time than our most ancient (or even more recent) forbears did. There has never been more—or less—time than there is today, than there is right now. Why, all of a sudden, this need to bemoan our fates and try to spread ourselves too thinly over the whole mass of what we need to do, and hope for the best?

Maybe the problem is not in the way the world was created but in the way we live and act, right now. Perhaps our fault is not in our stars—not in the cosmic makeup of existence—but in ourselves (more particularly, in our cultural selves, our social selves, and even our economic selves) that we are running roughshod over the “better part” of life in this way.

There seems to be a new innovation every day—some new gadget to make our lives more efficient and more productive; some new way to help us communicate faster and faster and faster. As I have said before, every time I walk into Best Buy, I feel like Rip Van Winkle, as though I have slept through the latest generation of technological innovation. And it is at our own peril, we are told, that we do not utilize all of these new innovations; if we do not take advantage of everything that’s offered us, we risk rendered hopelessly old fashioned and out of touch and redundant.

As a result, the American-Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Our entire society suffers from attention deficit disorder, and it is getting worse by the day…. We are literally being driven to distraction by our delicious opportunities and choices… It has given rise to a dance of inattention and instability of mind.”

Zinn continues:

“The relentless acceleration of our way of life over the past few generations has made focusing on anything something of a lost art. Things come at us fast and furiously, relentlessly. These assaults on our nervous system continually stimulate and foster desire and agitation, rather than connectedness and calmness…and, if we are not careful, they rob us of our time, of our moments… So many of us feel trapped, yet at the same time addicted to the speed at which our lives are unfolding. Even our stress or distress can feel oddly satisfying or even intoxicating.”

            Our mad rush to do more—more—more, and to accomplish it faster—faster—faster—is, quite simply, making us sick.

In her book, Awakening in Time: Practical Time Management for Those on a Spiritual Path, Pamela Kristan offers something of a sure for our modern disease in terms of three overall components: Attention; Boundaries; and Choices— it really is as basic as A-  B-C:

Cultivating focused, yet flexible attention either to hold onto what we’re doing in spite of all the distractions around us, or to let it go; 

Establishing task boundaries that contain what we’re doing and make decent transitions from one thing to another; boundaries that allow us to be who we are, while keeping us connected to others in a healthy and compassionate way;

Then finally, making good, healthy, decent choices in our lives; choices which keep us in tune with our truest values, and ground us sturdily in what is really possible for us to do and achieve. 

A-B-C—Attention; Boundaries; Choices--  those are the real Christmas presents we modern men and women need, Pamela Kristan says in her book, Awakening in Time (and she gives all sorts of practical pointers for how to do these things, too; it really is quite a wonderful little book).

So first: Attention.

Managing our time depends upon our ability to direct our attention, Ms. Kristan writes. Paying attention is also fundamental to our overall spiritual health, and entire spiritual systems, both ancient and modern, rest on paying attention (or practicing mindfulness or staying in tune to what’s happening right now) as their core practice.

But, “For most of us, attention is a kind of hit or miss affair,” she writes. “Sometimes, we focus on whatever is right in front of our noses. Other times, we slide off to the e-mail pop-up, the person walking in, or the ringing phone. Or maybe we immerse ourselves so deeply in a project that it’s difficult to come up for air.”

We need to cultivate our sense of Presence, Kristan says—of Being Present—our sense of conscious contact with ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hahn once wrote about a trip he took with Jim Forest of the Catholic Peace fellowship, a close friend and an anti-war activist.

            “One time when we were together,” Thich Nhat

“I said to him, ‘Jim, stop!’ He looked at me, and I said, ‘Eat your tangerine.’ He understood. So he stopped talking, and began to eat much more slowly and mindfully. He separated each of the remaining sections of the tangerine carefully, smelled their beautiful fragrance, put one section at a time into his mouth, and felt the juices surrounding his tongue. Tasting and eating the tangerine that way took several minutes, but he knew that we had time for that. When he finished eating… I knew that the tangerine had become real, the eater of the tangerine had become real, and life also had become real at that moment. During the time you eat a tangerine, eating the tangerine is the most important thing in your life.”

Of course, when we eat a tangerine nowadays, it’s most likely to be at a desk, or before a computer screen, or while we’re driving—in a word, when we’re doing something else. We do an awful lot of the things we do in our lives when we’re doing something else. No wonder we so often look back at our days as we climb into bed at night, and ask, “Now, what exactly did I accomplish today?” It all seems to us a great gray blur.

“It’s all too easy to let our attention run like a Springer Spaniel on the beach,” Pamela Kristan writes. “We talk to the visitor, answer the e-mail, and pick up the phone. Sometimes, we do all three at once!”

Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is showing up. But it’s probably in the other 20% of life  that the real extra-ordinariness of our lives takes root. That other 20%-- beyond just going through the motions—is where “showing up” is not all that’s required. It’s where “being present”—really paying attention-- is what’s called for.

“With a measure of constancy and control of our attention,” we read, “we gain an internal coherence at the center of our beings. We more easily take our cues from within, rather than deferring to external authority. No longer are we at the mercy of every passing event or tossed about by surface storms. Our lives follow the slower-moving currents beneath the surface where life is less chaotic and dissatisfying, and more cohesive, resonant, and rich.”

But to cultivate this deeper sense of being, we need Boundaries. All things have boundaries:

“Bodies have skin; cells have membranes; water droplets have surface tension. These enveloping, containing boundaries allow a thing to exist. Without them, there is no ‘thing’, just an undifferentiated mass of stuff. With them, whatever it is can grow, flourish, and explore its unique way of being.”

Our boundaries define who we are.

Our boundaries also mediate between us and the wider world of which we are a part. “Think of a cell’s membrane. It not only defines the cell but allows the cell to interact with its larger environment. Through it the cell takes in nourishment and information and releases chemicals and unneeded substances.”

The health of a cell depends on the health of its membrane. Our health depends on the healthiness of the boundaries we establish.

Our boundaries need to be permeable, but not indiscriminately open. If we habitually accommodate all of everyone else’s needs—if we are constantly at the beck at call of the requests, desires, demands, specifications, what have you, of everyone else—if we habitually accommodate others’ needs and ignore our own—then we let in too much of what’s “out there” and deplete our own internal reservoirs. Then, there goes our time! There go our hopes and dreams! There go (often) our health and peace of mind!

On the other hand, if we get so caught up on our own concerns that we ignore what’s going on around us, and run roughshod over the needs and desires and aspirations of others, then we become closed off and unable to participate in life’s richness. Our lives shrink. We isolate ourselves and end up alone. If we concern ourselves only with our own needs and wants, then we worship at an altar that is just too small.

Of course, the emotionally mature person (and emotional maturity may, or may not, have much to do with how old someone is) knows that life is seldom an either/or proposition, especially when it comes to setting boundaries. The emotionally mature person knows that there are times when we need to turn the focus within, when we even need to be quite self-absorbed. Like when we’re sick, or in the process of changing careers, or going through some other major life transition. At other times, accommodating others’ needs more than we might otherwise is appropriate: as when we have small children to care for; or when we’re caring for someone who is sick, or for (say) elderly parents who can no longer make all of their own decisions or do everything they need to do for themselves.

But (usually) these times of high intensity, of one extreme or the other, pass. And when they do, and “ordinary time” descends upon our lives again, then it is possible for us to reestablish a healthy balance of inward and outward focus, which provides the basis for a healthy and fulfilled modern life. “Boundaries that are firm and flexible protect and connect us,” Pamela Kristan writes.  “We take on some tasks, expectations, and proposals, and reject others.”

In a word, then, we make Choices.

We human beings are, to an amazing degree, the sum total of the choices we make. “When we say ‘No,’ we realize that the rejected request is someone else’s choice, not ours. When we say ‘Yes,’ we recall what it is that makes our hearts sing.”

At the very heart of who we are as conscious beings is a great deal of free will—freedom to choose who we are, and how we will respond to this world. In his great work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl points out that even in a concentration camp—the most horrific and constraining experience possible—we have a choice about how to respond, what to think, even how to feel. Even though our environment—the culture in which we operate—seems to hold its heavy hand over us—be it the restrictions of a traditional culture, the demands of an overly-controlling family, the dehumanizing pace of 21st century corporate culture—we nonetheless, ultimately, choose at every moment, what to do and how we going to do it.

It’s not that we don’t have choices that we make. It’s that we’re not always (often? usually?) conscious of the choices we are making:

We’re distracted  by the “squeaky wheel”, so we  do something  someone else asks just so we won’t be bothered by their demands any longer. We have only a certain amount of time available, so we do whatever happens to fit into that slot, as inconsequential and unnecessary as it might really be to our overall goals.  An uncomfortable task awaits us, so we avoid it as long as we can—until it returns to bite us in the backside. We feel burdened by (seemingly) endless demands and expectations, so we rebel and do what we want, rather than what we should. Conversely, we feel guilty about assert our own needs and wants, so we do what is expected of us, and within us there grows an increasing sense that life is joyless  and drear.

Sometimes (oftentimes?) it’s not just our consciously bad choices that get us into hot water. Sometimes, it’s our less-than-conscious choices, too, that cause us trouble. We do what’s not so important and neglect those things which are. We burn out and grow ill or depressed. We feel we’re missing out on our lives, so we get resentful or angry and our relationships fall by the wayside. In the end, living for ourselves alone or completing whoring after the approval of others are both symptoms of the same disease. We end up neither enjoying life nor serving the cause of our common-wealth.

The answer, of course (or, at least, an answer) lies in paying Attention to these lives we are leading, so that we can come to Know Ourselves better.  Then in setting firm but flexible Boundaries that define who it is we truly are. And finally, in making conscious Choices that we can stand behind, and live with, and affirm with the fullness of our whole beings—body, mind, and soul.

Then it is that we embrace these limits of Time and Space that both the natural world and modern society place upon us. Then it is that we embrace the blessed limits that living on this good Earth requires—with grace and gratitude and a full share of good humor.

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