Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Still Small Voice of Peace

Our kids have pretty much grown out of singing the road trip blues-“Are we there yet? When are we going to get there? I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m bored. I need to go to the bathroom.” Masters of catastrophe, kids are! One of the kids will say, “I’m starving.” I will reply, “Kids in Africa who haven’t eaten in days are starving. You on the other hand, had a sandwich fifteen minutes ago. You are not starving.” Or else, a kid will say, “I’m dying of thirst.” And I reply, “That is highly unlikely but don’t tempt me.” One of our kids, who shall remain nameless, hit the jackpot with the most woeful statement and had us all laughing. After several rounds of complaints, this one said, “I’m dying to death back here.” Dying to death! That could be the mantra for catastrophizing.

We’ve tried banning the expression “I’m starving.” A little mindfulness about the power of language can’t go astray. Of course it’s not just kids who excel at catastrophizing. I found a small lump on my body recently and within minutes I had imagined myself in months of chemo and radiation. I pictured myself bald. Then I day dreamed my death bed scene telling the kids how much I love them and kissing Meg for the last time, wondering if she will remarry. All of this anxiety was created over what turned out to be a boil. It seems it is easier to lance a boil than it is to dissect the workings of the human ego.

Catastrophizing does not serve you well. At best, it leaves you depressed and anxious. At worst it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If the worst never arrives, you worried for nothing. If it does happen, you endure it twice. Catastrophizing tells the stories that pessimism wants to hear to justify its perspective. Catastrophizing is sitting in traffic and imagining that the meeting you are missing is the beginning of the end of your career. Catastrophizing is looking at your child’s report card and imagining that he will never get a college degree. Catastrophizing creates stories with very little basis in reality, feeds the stories with evidence from unrelated situations, spirals in negativity and eventually becomes irrational and closed to all reasonable conversation.

We’re pretty good at it as a society as well. Every time I hear people talking about America sliding down the slippery slope to socialism, my mind goes back to the kids in the back seat telling me that “they’re starving.” Do you remember the hyped up drama about “death panels” a few years back? Some people seemed to think that President Obama would personally be visiting nursing homes with a pillow tucked under his arm. When public conversations become irrational like this, not much is achieved.

We’ve seen this many times before, on both sides of issues. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the 1960s had its own controversial path. Many people became convinced that whites would be enslaved in this new world order. Now, 40 years later, we take the Civil Rights Bill for granted and very few people are worried about a black takeover of the country. I can’t help wondering if in 10 or 40 years time, there will be a universal health care system in America and we will all look back and say “what was all the fuss about?” That’s often the way with catastrophizing. As the predicted dates for the end of the world come and go, and as all the anticipated anxiety fails to materialize, we look back and smile at our over active imaginations.

Catastrophizing is often built around pre existing conditions like fear of change or self doubt. It’s another cunning ploy from your ego to play small and hide behind fear.

There is a fascinating story told in the Bible about the Israelites floundering in the wilderness, and they are imagining the worst. They shout to Moses, “We’re dying to death out here.”

Here is the actual text-

They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Exodus 14:10-12

You can’t really blame them for thinking they are dying to death. They couldn’t flick ahead a few pages to see how it turned out like we can, or watch Charlton Heston save the day in the movie The Ten Commandments.

In the face of their catastrophizing, here is Moses answer to them.

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:13-18

Now this is interesting. Was Moses being optimistic? Because we know the story, we know that it took 40 years, rather than one day, for the Israelites to find freedom. Maybe Moses was not talking about their physical deliverance, but an inner freedom that was theirs to claim that very day.

Moses offers three antidotes to catastrophizing, all based on negating fear.

1. See alternatives. Your imagination is powerful. So use it to conjure up multiple scenarios. Then remind yourself that any of them is possible. Even your most positive predictions may fall short of reality.

2. Stand firm. Be patient and allow the situation to unfold. Don’t be too quick to form conclusions about good and bad. Bad can very quickly seem better once worse happens. Good can easily be forgotten once better happens. There is always more to come. Sometimes good things change so that better things can emerge. Stay open because everything that happens makes you wiser and stronger.

3. Be still. In other words, stop swirling in fantasy about unknowns and dwell in this moment where everything is as it is.

For the most part, it’s a mind game and it’s a game you can win.Your mind functions like a committee. The committee is constantly bombarding you with different voices and opinions. One of the members of the committee is catastrophe, the pessimist who wants to remind you to expect the worst. Maybe the voice of catastrophe is simply echoing the voices of people who haunt your life with their negativity; a teacher, an ex or a business nemesis. They all have their perspective, and they all bring something worthwhile to the table. But none of them holds all the truth of your life.

There is a still small voice that stands firm in the midst of all the other voices. This is the voice of your true essence, your highest self that transcends and includes all other perspectives and roles. It’s a small voice, not because it lacks power. On the contrary, this is your most powerful voice. It’s small because it has no need to raise its voice in anger, or shout irrational obscenities in meetings. It’s small because it waits to hear the answers to its questions and keeps an open mind. It has no predetermined ideas as to how the future will play out; preferring to urge you to be all you can be in each moment, a work in progress.

It’s a still voice, not because it lacks conviction. On the contrary, this is your most powerful voice. It’s still because it doesn’t fight reality. It’s small because it has nothing to prove and compels you forward with gentle persuasion. It states its case calmly and respectfully, and genuinely looks for win/win solutions.

The intent of spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, contemplation and so many other practices is awareness so that you know which committee member is ruling your life at a given moment. With this awareness, you can choose to appoint the still small voice as the chair of your mind’s committee. As chair, it can affirm and embrace each voice for what it is, but not be ruled by any one voice. Spiritual practice helps you to tune into the still small voice and live your life with contentment and skilful means.

In this moment, stand firm and be still, all is well and all will be well no matter what the circumstance.

Please visit Soulseeds for inner peace resources.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Harvesting Memories

Two very elderly ladies were enjoying the sunshine on a park bench. They had been meeting at that park every sunny day for over 12 years… chatting, and enjoying each other’s company.

One day, the younger of the two ladies, turns to the other and says, “Please don’t be angry with me, but I am embarrassed, after all these years, my memory is not what it used to be. . .What is your name? I just can’t remember.”

The older friend stares at her, looking very confused, says nothing for two full minutes, and finally says, “How soon do you need to know?”

I’m speaking about memory today. I’m sure there’s a good reason for that, but I can’t remember it right now. As Meg says I have a photographic selective memory. When it comes to household chores, I run out of film.

My topic is memory because it’s Memorial Day. What role does memory play in your life? My hope is that you can draw inspiration from the positive memories and find some healing and transformation in the difficult memories.

Memory and Gratitude

Memory is one of the basic ingredients of gratitude, which is in turn one of the basic ingredients of optimism. We’ve had two tender memorial services in the last week. Both included inspiring eulogies for the dear departed. As I listened to the eulogies on both cases, it struck me that it would be SO powerful to tell each other’s stories like this while we are still alive. Imagine the gratitude if we took every opportunity to share memories and each other’s positive attributes while we are around to hear it.

Having said that, there is something unique about memorial services. No matter what has happened in life, or what might be unresolved in a relationship, a eulogy focuses on gratitude.

There is a funny story about a minister who is leading a memorial service. He calls on people to come forward and say a few nice words about the deceased. No one comes forward. He urges them, “Surely someone present today can say something appreciative!” Eventually a man comes to the microphone and says, “His brother was worse.”

In most cases, this is not a problem. Once someone has gone, memories come to us of good times shared and admirable qualities. They comfort and inspire us. These memories often lead to forgiveness and healing. Even when it comes to wars that you may disagree with or feel conflicted about, it’s appropriate to remember the people who have lost their lives in war. They no doubt had their mixed motives, like all of us, but our lives are built on the imperfect but well intentioned platform of those who have gone before us.

Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created the amazing Mount Rushmore Memorial, was once asked if he considered his work perfect in detail. “Not yet,” he replied. “The nose of Washington is an inch too long. It’s better that way, though. It’ll erode to be approximately right in about 10,000 years.”

Memory tends to be like that. We erode the imperfections of the past into a coherent whole, integrate even the difficult memories, and move forward. In time, memories fall into place as they need to.

Memory and Change

We all have stories and a lineage. Our memories are built on these stories that are part fact and part fiction. It’s not so much that we retrieve memories. We reweave memories in a way that feels consistent. There is an old Jewish story that makes this point.

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov felt anxious about the future for his people, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. He would light the fire, say a special prayer, and sure enough his anxiety would subside. Sometimes, his people would even be miraculously protected after his forest ritual. Years later when he was gone, it fell to the next generation to deal with the same anxiety. The head Rabbi knew the story of his ancestor in the forest but didn’t know all the details. So he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Creator of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and sure enough his anxiety would subside and often a miracle would be accomplished. Another generation later, the same ritual would take place but with even less certainty around the detail. The Rabbi would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was always sufficient. The years passed. Finally the next generation brought the head Rabbi to the same point. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he said: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was always sufficient.

Ritual and memory are like that. When I was growing up, our family had a Christmas ritual that we inherited from an English custom. Christmas pudding, steamed and served with brandy butter and cream. The earlier custom was to include certain items in the pudding before cooking it; silver coins for wealth, tiny wishbones for good luck, a ring for marriage etc. Whoever found the items in their pudding on Christmas day would get what they chomped on. When I was young, my parents would put coins in the pudding that they had collected from their parents; shillings and sixpence and the like. They must have gone missing, because by the time I was about 10 the coins were current day coins. Then when people started losing teeth on their Christmas pudding and the hygiene of cooking metal in pudding was questioned, we stopped putting coins in the pudding altogether. But we still ate the pudding and brandy butter endures to this day. Just like the story of the Rabbis, eating the pudding and telling stories about the coins of Christmas past was always enough.

Tradition, ritual and memory are based on ever changing memory and culture. One of the dangers of religion is the expectation that tradition remains the same. It’s not possible. All traditions change, and there should be no guilt about allowing rituals to evolve. It’s all based on memory, and as Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Animal Dreams, “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”

Memories in Nature

Nature has always been the focus of significant memories both for individuals and cultures. The ancient story is told that while the Israelites were in exile, they were particularly desperate and anxious. The rainbow was their reminder that they were part of something larger than their circumstance. Before they understood how rainbows came about, they no doubt filled it with supernatural meaning. They put the meaning on the rainbow that their God (hope) was larger than any natural disaster like a flood and larger than their exile. In non theistic language, we could say that they were comforted by the evolving reality that all things are constantly moving and changing. Despair and grief may feel like the last word, but there is always a rainbow close by the rain. Rainbows are universally loved, even now that we do understand how they occur. The meaning we place on rainbows, however, might be different.

I remember taking a wedding on a beach a few years back. Clouds were looming and the bride was getting anxious. People were constantly looking up at the sky to check for rain. A few drops of rain began to fall, smudging the marriage license. Just when we were about to turn and run for cover, the rain stopped and a massive rainbow appeared right behind us. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was as if the rainbow was framing the happy couple like a gazebo. The rainbow was a reminder not to give up which was similar to the original intent of the covenant between the Israelites and their God.

There is always more to come. It’s such an important part of a covenant, whether it’s an agreement between two people or two nations or between humans and the earth. There is always more to learn, more to understand and more to come. We now know that there is nothing supernatural about a rainbow. It’s all about the refraction of light as it passes through water. There is nothing supernatural, but there is something magical about the rainbow. It’s AS IF they are coming from beyond. It’s the same with memories and ritual. There is nothing supernatural about miracles that appear to come from nowhere. They are formed in the brain. But there is something magical about the healing qualities of memory that can turn wounds into wisdom and pain into perspective.

Do you ever arrive somewhere for the first time and “feel” like you’ve been there before? Maybe it’s a smell or a sound that triggers your memory of another time or place. The memory could trigger a protective instinct or some kind of reassurance. For me, the smell of pine after rain in Duncan Woods triggers an incredible surge of optimism. A 20 minute walk in the woods takes me back to childhood hikes. The smell of the beach refuels me. There is a sign down at the beach at Grand Haven. It says, “No refueling on the beach.” I always smile at the sign because this is one of the places where I totally refuel. The beach takes me back to childhood vacations, hours lying on the sand before we knew about the dangers of sun exposure. In our blissful ignorance, we would spend hours refueling each summer.

Nature, in all its beauty, is a playground for the senses and a memory emporium. It’s a place to be inspired by happy memories and heal difficult memories.

Memory and Mystery

Memory remains one of the great mysteries of consciousness. How do birds travel thousands of miles every year and apparently stop at the same points each year on their trek? How do they know? How do new generations of birds know to continue the same route? Are they taking visual cues or following their nose? No one knows. Then there is the clownfish; remember, Nemo? After clownfish hatch from their eggs, they spend 10 to 12 days in the open sea, carried out by currents. But they often miraculously find their way back to the reefs where they were born. Apparently they sniff for leaves that fall into the sea from rainforests near their coral reef homes. Memory fills their senses and brings them home.

Do you ever find yourself somewhere and sense that you have been there before but don’t know how you know? Or do you have moments of déjà vu and wonder where in your memory the experience is coming from? Do you sometimes say something and wonder where your information came from? Memory is a mystery to be mined for meaning.

Part of the beauty of imagination is when we have memories of the future, and understand with confidence what needs to be said or done. As the White Queen says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” The Queen warns her that it can make you giddy at first.

Maybe the point where memories collide in both directions is dreams. Dreams appear to be the brain’s way of consolidating memories. Dreams are a complex and confusing combination of memories, maybe a clearing house, where you put unlikely people in the same situation and play out frightening and delightful scenarios.

Memories are personal, subjective and evolving. As Philip Roth wrote, “each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthing windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint”

Dreams and memories connect you with hidden powers. Deep down you have a memory of who you are at your essence, an essence that the anxieties and traumas of life have partially robbed from your conscious mind. Explore your dreams, memories and surprising thoughts to recover some of the power of your full humanity. Once you recover some of this essence, you will feel liberated to live through floods and rainbows, love and loss without overly attaching to any of it. For there is always more to come. Namaste.