Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Breathing New Life into the Holidays

Now is the time to make sure that you are prepared for the Holidays in EVERY way. Breathe new life into traditions, into relationships, into consumerism. Maybe even just breathe a little.

There is an inspiring story told in the Bible (Ezekiel) about a valley of old bones that had new life breathed into them. Ezekiel used the image of dry bones to describe the feeling that the Israelites had lost all their familiar traditions while in exile. Then he gives them the good news. He says that even the driest old bones can have new life breathed into them. How? With grounding, healing breath. In Hebrew language they used the same word for breath as they did for spirit. No accident, I suspect. For the Hebrews, spirit was the whole person in harmony. The ancient Rabbis had a beautiful image for spirit. They saw spirit as being a house guest in the body. Therefore, you should care for all aspects of your life as if God is present. In your very breath, the divine dwells.

Introduce a breathing practice into your day and watch your energy increase, your mood improve, your body strengthen, your mind sharpen and your spirit revive. Start now and be ready for the Holidays.

Combine a breathing practice with don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements to prepare for an awesome Holiday season.

1. Don’t make assumptions
Before you see family, take some cleansing breaths. Breathe out assumptions, and breathe in acceptance.

Albert Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” The story that you carry with you about family is persistent and makes all the sense in the world to you. But what if most of it is fictional?

An old Buddhist tale tells of two monks traveling through woods. They come upon a woman standing at the bank of a river. She needs to get across, but is unable to make it alone. The elder of the two monks picks her up and carries her through the rushing water. Once they’re all on the other side, the woman leaves the monks. The younger monk is stunned at these events. They’re not allowed to touch women so intimately, and he doesn’t know what to make of his older friend’s behavior.

Finally, after stewing over the incident for several miles, he says to his traveling companion, “How could you touch that woman back at the river the way you did? Have you no respect for our vows?” The elder monk turns to his young friend and says, “Are you still carrying that woman? I put her down at the river bank over an hour ago.”

What stories about family are you carrying into this holiday season? Someone is quiet, therefore they must be angry with you. Someone is late, therefore they don’t care about you. There may even be some truth to the story, but it’s still a story. You choose whether you carry assumptions into the holidays or start afresh. Breathe new life into family by letting go of the stories and assumptions that drag you down.

2. Don’t take things personally
How much of the tension you feel around family are you making about yourself? It might not be about you at all. Take some cleansing breaths before seeing family. Breathe out drama. Breathe in acceptance.

An Irishman once came upon two people brawling in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get involved?”

Don’t you often do the same thing with family? When someone is pushing your buttons, most of the time they are involved in their own drama. Is there anything gained by getting involved? Just smile and breathe and move away.

You don’t need drama to feel alive and important. You are alive and important because you house divine love in your mind and body. Drama doesn’t help you to thrive. It distracts you from your essence as a vessel of peace in the world.

Try this holiday visualization-

Picture yourself as a harp with all kinds of large and small debris swirling around you – words, feelings, innuendos, assumptions, drama. Some float toward you, passing right through the spaces between the strings, and glide on by. But others hit the strings, striking a chord that reverberates way back to your past, bringing up old hurts. It strikes a long, discordant note that jangles your nerves and throws you off balance. Notice what passes you by but don’t chase it. If something sticks, say to yourself, “Okay, what can I learn here to make beautiful music in the world?”

3. Speak the truth
Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Before you see family, breathe out pretense and breathe in authenticity. More good can come from working through even the harshest truth than concealing it behind a veil made up of spared feelings or saved face. Speak your mind, and share your truth clearly.

Know your own boundaries with family, be clear about them, and stick with them.

There is a powerful scene in the movie The Family Stone. With all the Stone family home for the holidays, including a narrow minded and uptight new girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker), the dinner scene is explosive when the girl friend suggests that a gay couple should think twice about adopting a child in case the child becomes gay. She suggests that being gay is abnormal and is a challenge that people don’t need in life. Her opinion is like a red rag to a bull at this table. Various people around the table try to save the situation with humor, until Mr. Stone slams his fist on the table and says “Enough!” He won’t have this talk in his home.

Maybe there will come a time for you to say “enough!” this holiday season. Thrive in your own truth this season.

Vietnamese Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hahn offers this reminder:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech . . . I vow to cultivate loving speech. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering . . . I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain, and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break.”

4. Do your best

We’re all human and we all make mistakes. The question is how forgiving you will be – with yourself and with others. Your life experience to date brings you to this point. Your accumulated wisdom and strength enable you to bring your best to this moment. Do your best, stop expecting perfection and your best will be enough.

In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “’Do your best then step back. This is the only path to peace.”

Choose to thrive this Holiday season. Choose to breathe new life and spirit into the traditions and relationships that are important to you. Even if they appear dead and lifeless, there is always hope. Breathe in peace and breathe out drama. You don’t need drama. It doesn’t help you to thrive. It’s a distraction from your essential purpose on earth, which is to live and love fully and liberate others to do the same.

Please visit Soulseeds for inner peace, breathing, and other Holiday resources, as well as some awesome Christmas gifts for all ages.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Pope and Condoms- Morality that Fits

Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan once said, “The church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late.” It’s unfortunately true that religious institutions generally get dragged into the modern world kicking and screaming. Their beliefs and practices often lag the reality of contemporary life as well as the lifestyles of members.

The Catholic Church is a reluctantly modern institution clinging to some pre-modern ideals. The Popemobile is a souped-up car with bulletproof glass, a safety measure not afforded earlier Popes. Some of the Catholic Church's buildings are exquisite examples of enlightenment architecture. What takes place inside is often archaic and superstitious. Her members are people of conscience and knowledge having been liberated by many of the tools of modern science –multiple translations of Bibles and commentaries in native languages, and the internet to name a few. However they are expected to follow official teachings, some of which are pre-scientific and outmoded. The most significant mentors (past and present) in the lives of most Catholics are nuns and parish priests, scholars and activists like Bernard Lonergan, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day and Jim Wallis, even mystics like Matthew Fox and Joan Chittister. These mentors are, or were, well and truly ensconced in a modern or post modern worldview.

The Catholic Church has been an active evangelist for modernism. It has nurtured a freedom it may not be ready to accept. Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty transcends the teachings of pre-council Popes regarding religious tolerance. The Catholic Church no longer claims to be the only true church. One of the consequences of Vatican II is that none of the Catholic doctrines most hotly disputed today –contraception, homosexuality, celibacy, euthanasia, and women's ordination to name a few— is secure for all time. All of them are now open to reversal by a future Pope or Council. In the meantime, Catholics will continue to live according to their own common sense and conscience.

The recent statement of Pope Benedict about condom use is a case in point. While the necessities and expenses of modern life require Catholics to practice appropriate birth control, the official stance of the church has remained unchanged. Until last week, that is, when the Pope opened the door to certain circumstances when condom use might be appropriate. The circumstances he presented were narrow for sure, male prostitutes were mentioned, but the door is open nonetheless. The big news is that he has acknowledged that circumstance plays a role in ethics as opposed to an unbending divine decree from God via the Vatican, a distinctly modern development. I for one applaud this development. To my mind it is the institution taking a small step, breathless but not too late, to catch up to the people and the times. May there be many more steps forward.

A counter argument could be that Pope Benedict is being pragmatic, as Popes have been before him. The Catholic Church allowed its priests to marry for the first 1000 years of its life, and only stopped the practice when it became too costly to support families, not to mention the legal landmine of property ownership. The ban on marriage may have morphed into an ideological (or spiritual) objection, but it was originally a practical consideration. While marriage for priests will be a harder won liberty, it seems that if priests had families, the ban on contraception would be gone quicker than you could open a packet of ribbed Trojans.

Whatever the motivations, this papal development is good news for anyone who embraces the personal responsibility of modernism. Whether you think that modernism is good news or not, it’s futile to resist it. It is here to stay. The freedom to choose from a large number of viable religious options is a given in today’s world. People now speak about a religious “preference” in the same way that you might prefer Pepsi over Coke. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say they are “into” Buddhism much like you might be into Jazz or Country music. The Catholic Church, like all churches, is now a voluntary association in a marketplace of religious choices. This freedom also stretches to include personal morality. As an example. it is estimated that the use of contraceptives among American Catholic women is slightly higher than in the US population as a whole. People are already picking and choosing their religions, their beliefs and their morality. Religious institutions are catching up to the people.

It’s tempting as an inclusive spiritual leader to say “live and let live” in this marketplace of religious and moral preferences. If people choose beliefs different to mine, that’s fine. But does this stretch to include all beliefs? The problem is that not all beliefs are equal and not all beliefs are harmless. Some beliefs lead to violence and innocent suffering. If children die from diseases that could be cured but their parents believe in faith healing, then this is an irresponsible belief. If people die from AIDS because religions preach against condom use, then this is a dangerous belief. If people die in terrorist attacks because of a belief in martyrdom, then this is a hateful belief. If doctors are killed because people have religious objections to abortion, then the belief has crossed a line. If overpopulation wreaks havoc on the planet because of a ban on contraception, then this is a shortsighted belief. I could go on. You get the point. Now I am left with a dilemma. How do I live and let live in these cases? Is my higher loyalty to those holding the beliefs or those suffering because of the beliefs? My heart is with the latter. I choose to challenge any beliefs that lead to harm and the degradation of human dignity. People and institutions should be challenged to be all that they can be and that includes me and any of my beliefs. We owe it to each other and the future of the planet.

Modernism is a gift in many ways. It liberates people to think freely and critically. Choices are made and ethics are decided in a cultural context that can’t be second guessed from the Pope’s throne. However this doesn’t nullify the role of spiritual communities, including Catholic communities. Science and technology offer many tools for self reflection but don’t minimize the role of the individual within a tradition. We are drawn to community which offers a check and balance on our individual, situation driven, morality. We do well to listen to our spiritual brothers and sisters and the stories of our tradition.

I welcome modernism’s gift of free thought, and I welcome the movement from black and white to a hint of gray in the Catholic Church. For the millions of Catholics who are already comfortable in this gray zone, it is affirmation of your inner wisdom. For those who are afraid that some assurance or guidance will be lost, trust your sense of decency that resonates with your tradition without needing any absolute, literal and external authority. You know what is good, true and beautiful. You conscience senses it intuitively. Your tradition teaches it with story, legend and poetry. I end with a brief quote from Vatican II-

Human dignity requires one to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind impulse or merely external pressure. (Gaudium et Spes 17; Veritatis Splendor 21)