Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Crucial Skill of Listening

One of the most difficult skills to master is listening. Listening seems simple, but the mind makes it highly complicated. And, listening is not just about other people, it’s also about being aware of our surroundings and listening to our lives. We ignore people, our surroundings and ourselves with grave consequences: loss of understanding, loss of presence, loss of effectiveness. Listening is also not a passive endeavor. In fact, listening is the most active of mental functions. When it breaks down, often our lives break down.

Before embarking on how we can become better listeners, we first must examine what the role of listening has in our daily lives and our daily interactions with others. Listening to others and to the world around us is crucial. This is the type of listening most people consider to be listening. It is the foundation of our families, our relationships and our communities. With the advent of 24/7 news coverage and the internet, the potential for listening has expanded to encompass nearly the entire globe. Yet, the ability to listen seems to be diminishing rapidly within modern culture.

What we glean from listening to others and to the world around us can assist us in our daily lives. We can discover the problems of others are often similar to our own. This is really the core of what listening to others can do for us. It helps to bridge the gap between us. That gap is only a creation of mind.

We are all absolutely linked with one another. If we don’t feel this is true, we need to explore this completely. We breathe the same air; we all need to drink and eat food; we all have a beating heart. We also live on the same planet using the same resources in order for all of those aspects of living to take place. Some are better off, but even the most poverty-stricken human being has the same needs as the wealthiest amongst us.

Therefore, we need to listen to others. We deserve others to listen to us as much as they deserve us to listen to them. However, listening is a one-way street, and the difficulty resides in our own mind. Often, when we talk to someone, while they’re talking, our mind is busy formulating what it wants us to say and to be heard by the other. When this mental activity takes place when the other is talking, we’re not listening at all. This can be so difficult to do at first. We need to have an amazing amount of patience for ourselves to change this internal dynamic.

When wrestling with our own mental activities when listening, we have to continuously catch ourselves when our focus moves away from listening to another. If we use this process to demean ourselves, we’re not going to find much success. We need to be patient with ourselves. We’re interrupting a process that we’ve probably been doing most of our lives. The mind is like a wild animal. It wants to run away when we want to focus. The mind, however, is like a muscle. And, as we begin to explore how we interact and listen to others, we will improve our listening.

It truly is progress when we can truly listen to those in our daily lives. Mostly, we may find agreement with what we hear from those closest to us; sometimes, not so much. However, the most difficult application of listening is to those in which we have profound disagreement. In these more difficult listening opportunities, we have to understand that we don’t have to absorb what we’re listening to. In fact, we can look at this kind of listening as exploration and information gathering. Maybe, we could learn something new about the other side of a disagreement. This new information can aid in better communicating our views in ways that make more sense to the other side. It could broaden our understanding of our own views.  

We can sabotage our ability to listening by thinking we don’t need to be active in our beliefs and ideas. This is easy to do with so many modern sources of information. We can self-select ourselves out of real life engagement, and allow our minds to become lax. Truly, situations and conditions constantly change. Therefore, if we’re not actively listening to others and to our world, we can find ourselves lost in the wilderness of ignorance. Often, we don’t even realize we’re lost. How would we if we don’t have an active effort of listening, to exploring?

When we see those that are lost, it seems so obvious to us. However, we must keep in mind that we have the same capacity within us. We too can quickly become removed from reality, and we do that when we stop listening. This listening needs to also be focused internally as well as externally. If we stop listening to ourselves, we really set ourselves up for failure. Actually, listening should start there.

Our bodies are constantly communicating with us with physical sensations. And, mostly we try to ignore or block these communications with medication, with alcohol or drugs, by keeping busy, by wearing ourselves out completely. The ways in which we ignore our own selves are infinite. And, it is so easy to do in this modern era. Whenever we do anything, we need to understand what the objective is, then, we can know if we’ve achieved it or not.

We must make time and space in our day to listen to not only our bodies, but to our emotions as well. Listening to our emotions can be difficult. Not all emotions feel good, but they are all expressions that deserve to be listened. Each emotion we feel is attempting to tell us something about our life experience. We need to get to know each emotion as they percolate within our conscious and subconscious minds. What is it that each is trying to let us know about? Usually, the emotional states are reactions to pain and suffering, or desire to experience joy and happiness.

By trying to push away or block any emotional state, we’re creating a dam within our minds. We’ve stopped listening to our needs. When we stop listening, we suffer uselessly. Explore all emotions that come about, especially emotions that tend to linger or overwhelm us. These emotions have not been truly explored; we’re not receiving the message they’re trying to convey. It’s an entire language in itself. And, it’s a dynamic language.

Listening is a crucial skill. It is at the heart of our daily lives and daily interactions. As with any exploration, we must be patient with ourselves. If we begin to explore listening in all its diversity, we will begin to see the impacts on our lives and the lives of others. We need only wish to explore and expand our minds. Once we do, it will be like a flower beginning to open itself to the world, to the sunlight and to the rain.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Energy of Love

Love. It is something every person has an opinion about. If we don’t think we have it, we want it desperately; if we think we have it, we want to hold onto it just as desperately. The way we think and feel about love is directly connected to how we think about ourselves and about others. Love is an energy, a state of mind; it is a conduit of interaction. The idea of love can also be as a dream, an illusion and a trap.

When we think about love as an energy or state of mind, remember the feeling felt around certain people. This person can be a mother or father, a husband, a wife, a partner, a dear friend, a teacher, a leader of a church. Not all of the people that hold these roles have an atmosphere of love around them. However, if you can remember even one such person, you’ve felt the atmosphere of love. People that embody the energy of love warm and brighten any room. We can actually feel their presence. That presence is full of love and awareness.

Each of us can provide an atmosphere of love, regardless of being in a relationship or not. This is accomplished through deepening and broadening awareness. When a person attempts understanding of everyone they meet, when someone finds compassion for anyone and everyone, when we find patience in every situation, we’re creating an atmosphere of love. Love is tangible, and it really can affect situations, conditions and others.

Love begins with an understanding, compassion and patience for oneself that begins to expand to those closest in our life. Often, we don’t have enough love for our self. We don’t use our minds to understand our condition. If we did, we’d generate compassion and patience immediately upon understanding. Through this process we begin to see our lives as more workable. We see how we can directly impact our lives right here and right now. We’re generating love for ourselves.

Once that becomes comfortable and even commonplace, we begin to expand this feeling of love to those that are in our daily lives. Next, we can explore having that state of mind about people, wherever they are. Finally, we can begin to find understanding, compassion and patience for those we disagree with, even people that have perpetrated the worst acts against us and others. If this seems too much to consider, it is understandable. Start with yourself, and expand when able.  

Creating an atmosphere of love and awareness is critical. It is different from the love found in relationships. That kind of love is a conduit of interaction. Usually, we consider the conduit as a two-way street. However, this limits and undermines actual love. Certainly, within a perfect relationship undergoing perfect circumstances, the conduit of interaction is two-way, but this is very limited in the scope of the human condition. That human condition is one of impermanence, one of suffering, one of imperfection. Therefore, if we want to be realistic about love, we must broaden and deepen our understanding of it.

We can love someone who is undergoing surgery. While that person is under anesthesia, the conduit is absolutely one way. A person could actually be comatose, and you still love this person with all of your heart. The conduit in both of these situations is one way. If a person is undergoing acute pain and suffering, it can affect the ability to love and to have awareness. Pain and suffering can affect every aspect of our life.

When we love anyone, we must keep this in mind. We do this by maintaining active understanding, patience and compassion for those we love. This doesn’t mean we just stand by; it means we become more engaged. We must be deeply engaged in the lives of those we love. Sometimes, that engagement is one of just being there; other times, engagement is much more interactive. The only avenue toward better discernment of what to do is maintaining understanding, patience and compassion.

We must have these for those we love. None of us always do the best thing; none of us know all the effects and results that emanate from what we do and don’t do. All of us deserve compassion; all of us deserve patience and understanding. This is what love is. It isn’t about us, it’s about others. Love is about the well-being of another or all others; it is not just about ourselves.

Love is a genuine, sincere wish for well-being; it is the desire to understand and therefore have patience. The genuine wish that the object of love be free of pain, free of suffering, to experience happiness, to experience joy. Love is the willingness to do anything to achieve those ends. If our supposed love is about only our own well-being, we don’t know love.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Importance of Pain and Suffering

Life can be a struggle against pain and suffering. Pain and suffering are ubiquitous aspects of living, in this world, in this community, in this body. Attempting to distance ourselves from this reality is a constant concern. Although it is understandable, distancing the mind from our actual pain and suffering is a wasted effort. The very act of distancing ourselves from any reality blocks awareness. Therefore, we must work toward not becoming overwhelmed by pain and suffering but not ignoring it either.

Our lives are filled with pain and suffering. Acknowledging this as a fact does not need to be a negative. It’s acknowledging the simple truth. Maybe, we do have everything we need, everything we want. Maybe, all those around us are wondrous, perfect people that comfort and support us or bring out the best in us always. If that is our reality, then we are truly blessed. Despite the most perfect of life circumstances, there is pain and suffering wherever else you look. Pain and suffering are everywhere.

In fact, acknowledgment of the pain and suffering aspect of life can free us. We can take care of our immediate condition, understanding that it is not a permanent situation. Our current condition is not static and never has been. Even chronic conditions vary over time. Sometimes chronic illness gets worse; sometimes it gets better. Even when it appears to be static, it is still changing on a very basic level. We’re still breathing, and with every breath we breathe new oxygen into our bodies and breathe out carbon dioxide. We’re constantly changing.

Our pain and suffering are also opportunities for understanding, patience and compassion. We can first develop these for ourselves, and then use our own experiences within that process to apply these toward others. The truth of pain and suffering is that it is something we all experience. It is the common ground, the common language of humanity.

Pain and suffering also avail us of the opportunity to see life as it truly is. We can be completely consumed with overcoming our own pain and suffering that we miss an opportunity for ultimate understanding. This ultimate understanding and awareness of the truth of pain and suffering is truly the only way toward bringing about permanent cessation.

Beyond that ultimate understanding and permanent cessation, we can direct our awareness of pain and suffering internally or externally. If our awareness is directed internally, the focus must be precise. Yes, we may explore pain and suffering with our awareness, but we must be careful whenever we do. Too easy we can be drawn into a “woe is me” attitude. Then, the exploration becomes an obsession. This fixation, this obsession is a cave of awareness. It doesn’t mean what we’re fixated or obsessed about isn’t real. It does mean we can be so immersed into our own pain and suffering that we become blind to anything else.

Similarly, explorations of the external world can blind us to the conditions of our internal world. We can be so attuned toward the pain and suffering of others, that we neglect our own condition; we stop taking care of ourselves. Whenever we our blind to our internal struggle, we limit ourselves, our capacities and our effectiveness.

Both our internal and external conditions are important. Despite this importance, we must remember that both have the illusion of solidity and permanence. These conditions are just that, conditional. Conditions are constantly in flux, in the act of coming together and falling apart all at the same time. Awareness of one aspect can block awareness of another aspect. We must be careful to grow an awareness of all aspects, all perspectives. This requires vigilance toward balance, which requires expanding awareness, not limiting it.

Despite the truth of the ubiquitous nature of pain and suffering in all of our lives, we can move forward with this life. It doesn’t have to become an obsession or something to ignore or neglect. We can use pain and suffering in so many positive and beneficial ways; we can use it to blind ourselves to our own condition or to the condition of others. It is always up to us, and we can make a different choice today.  We can be aware of it without creating more pain and suffering. We can become aware of it and move beyond it simultaneously.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Give Freely, Maintain Awareness ***

S. Matthew 25: 1 – 30

O. The parable of the bridesmaids, and the story of a man and his servants before a long trip.

A. Jesus tells a story of ten bridesmaids, half of which bring extra oil for their lamps, the other half not bringing extra oil. As is common with weddings, it rarely goes according to plan. In the delay, those who had not brought extra oil for their lamps were ill-prepared. The five bridesmaids go to buy oil only to be locked out of the marriage feast. Despite knocking on the door, they are not allowed into the feast.

Our awareness is our preparedness. In our rush to be perfect, we may miss opportunity. Here, Jesus was talking about us being ready for his return, but the lesson is more profound. Our presence is enough. We don’t need to be perfect; we don’t need to bring extra oil. We need only bring ourselves and our awareness. What is key in our awareness is the relationship we have with God through a deep understanding of our role in the universe. The role we play isn’t connected to lamps or oil for lamps; it’s of our presence through our awareness.

Jesus tells another story about a man who goes on a long trip. Before heading off, he gives his servants bags of money, the number of bags to each group being different. To those he gave multiple bags of money, they go out, invest the money and double it by the time of the man’s return. The servant that was given only one bag, however, buries the bag until the man’s return. The man returns giving praise to those who had invested the money, chastising the servant who had buried the money.
“Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.”
The lesson here is to not squander this blessed gift that is our life. If we try to hold onto what we have, we will be left with nothing. When we die, we leave empty-handed. However, while we are alive, we can do amazing and good things for others. When we hold onto what we cannot take with us after this life, we squander not just what we have but our lives as well. We should be unafraid to give of ourselves and of what we are blessed to have. Through giving, we give ultimately give back to ourselves. Think not of yourself but of what you can do.

P. May I maintain awareness and presence. May I always give freely of that presence.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Cause-Effect Action-Reaction Existence

We have a large role to play in the external obstacles to thriving. People can act unilaterally regardless of what we do. However, being mindful of our role in what they do can diminish these external obstacles significantly. If we don’t think we affect the decisions, choices and behaviors of others, we need to explore the dynamics of our cause-effect and action-reaction existence.

Everything we do is both a cause and an effect; it is both an action and a reaction. Whatever we do, or even don’t do, is an action that precedes a reaction from our environment and others; it is a cause that precedes an effect. This seems simplistic, but often, some people don’t consider that all they do and don’t do affects others. A stone thrown into a pond has a ripple effect that can reach the entire pond.

Beginning to observe the results of our actions is the beginning of a much longer term process. There are immediate and short term effects as well as medium and long term results. Sometimes, we don’t see the impacts of our choices, especially if we aren’t aware there is an impact. These simple aspects of daily living are at the heart of the transformative potential in every day. If we begin to see the connections between what we do and how we are with the experience of our daily life, we can be more effective and targeted in all that we do.

It appears evident that what we do is a cause, but what we do is also an effect of a previous cause. All the choices and decisions we’ve made and not made have led us to right here and right now. These choices and decisions are the causes and actions that spawn effects and our reactions today. If we don’t see the connective tissue between then and now, between elementary school and adulthood, we haven’t been thorough with our explorations and observations. If we didn’t wake up, we couldn’t go to sleep at the end of the day.

All that is done becomes a cause of another effect. Once we’ve acted, the effect is primarily out of our jurisdiction. It sets off a chain reaction where effects become others’ causes. This cycle continues to proceed from before elementary school throughout adulthood. One choice leads to another choice leads to another set of choices. The previous moment leads us to this moment which sets up the next.

This all seems self-explanatory, yet many within our society do not consider the effects of their actions on others or their immediate atmosphere or broader environment. Mostly, the mind is preoccupied by pain and suffering. Most of our choices are based on our current and past states of pain and suffering buttressed with fears of future pain and suffering. The source of all of our actions and non-actions is the desire to be free of pain and suffering. The cause-effect, action-reaction cycle is the reason for all pain and suffering.

Our lives are within the midst of cause-effect, action-reaction. We are always in transition from the last moment to the next. We have a role to play in not only what we cause but also in how we react. We can instigate or we can de-escalate a situation. We can create an atmosphere of peace and calm or we can promote war and anger. The choice is up to us what we do and don't do. We need only open our minds to the reality that all of us are in this cause-effect, action-reaction cycle. We are all only trying to alleviate our pain and suffering. Yet, that pain and suffering is the reason for the cycle's existence.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Don't Be Deceived ***

S. Matthew 24

O. Jesus discusses the signs of the end of the world.

A. There are a few moments in this chapter that has Jesus speaking of my concerns of the church today.
“. . . for many will come in my name . . . They will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic . . . And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold . . . And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.”
It appears that there will be many that speak for Jesus, about Jesus. They will say they are of God or of Jesus, and they will ‘deceive many.’ There are many today that preach on the airwaves and via the internet, stoking fear and promoting war and division. The examples are as plentiful as they are scary. Millions of people listen and believe what all of these people preach.

Jesus goes farther.
“The day is coming when you will see . . . the sacrilegious object that causes desecration standing in the Holy Place.”
First, we will define sacrilegious: ‘pertaining to or involving sacrilege;’ sacrilege: ‘the violation or profanation of anything sacred or held sacred.

Jesus could be in reference to many things, including his own life, the Cross, the Holy Trinity, the list continues. Those that ‘deceive many’ use these terms and symbols to desecrate the message and intent of Jesus. Jesus is very clear here; beware of false prophets and those that ‘turn away from me.’ This is the reason to forge a deep, personal relationship with God yourself and not through the words or teachings of anyone else. We must be careful as there are many that use Jesus as a weapon to move people to action, and not to spread the word of forgiveness and mercy. Instead, they use this to promote hate and their own agendas.  

The rest of this chapter of prophecy is focused on making the disciples realize that we need to do good now, because we may not have the opportunity to do good later. If we don’t start now, we’re wasting this opportunity, and if the return happens and we’re not paying attention to what we’re doing, we will be lost.

P. May I not be deceived. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Our Mind, the Distracted Runaway

Our mind often tries to run away. Maybe, there are some difficult thoughts or feelings that keep rolling into our awareness. We don’t want to think or feel those things; instead, we try to refocus our mind in another direction. Yet, it keeps falling back into those same difficulties. We can continue, relentlessly, to refocus our mind and find short-term relief. When we constantly force our mind to focus on something else, we block our awareness of the present moment, creating the potential for mistake and misstep.

We must find a new method to deal with this potential madness. These thoughts and feelings are not repeating themselves for us to ignore. Instead, the repetitive nature should inform us that there is something unresolved within our minds and hearts. Until we resolve these mind and heart concerns, we will continue to have diminished awareness and diminished mental and emotional resources.

If we don’t begin to tackle the more difficult, our external life will suffer as our internal life languishes. And, we can do something about this right here and right now.

Our nature is to avoid unresolved or difficult thoughts and emotions. We simply don’t want to think or feel in a way that doesn’t immediately produce happiness, joy or alleviate our pain and suffering. We must break ourselves of this internal avoidance mechanism. It’s a habit that does nothing to actually resolve the pain and suffering. It is not an easy proposition, to focus on what our mind wishes to avoid.

Until we resolve these internal concerns, our mind will continue to run in the opposite direction of resolution, distraction. And, distraction is in the opposite direction of awareness. It is easy to distract the mind. Often, this is our method of choice. It’s easy to tune out the internal world and focus on something, anything in the external one. Or, we fixate, focusing toward eating, drinking, smoking, or any other behavior. The methods and sources of distraction are infinite whereas the methods of resolution are in one place, within us.

The mind finds momentary relief plentiful, anything to avoid the resolution that lay within. The only concern about the singular source of resolution is that it is almost completely covered by our attachments and aversions and our pain and suffering. This is why we prefer the method of distraction than the heavy internal lifting to reach real resolution.

Our ability to distract ourselves from taking care of these repetitive thoughts and feelings is profound. It can be debilitating, and there are plenty of diagnoses that can be given. These diagnoses are often not followed with internal engagement. If we do little or no exploration of these internal difficulties, we are missing the best medicine, awareness.

True renunciation is possible, but we must start with where we are today. We cannot remove all of our attachments and aversions in one sitting. We can begin the process though. We cannot put an end to our pain and suffering today, but we can begin the process of understanding, patience and compassion about the truth of our pain and suffering.

Beware, Blind Guides ***

S. Matthew 23:13 – 39

O. The teaching of what sorrow awaits the Pharisees and teachers of religious law.

A. Jesus begins deriding the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, showing how they aren’t on the right path, bringing those that listen and believe in their message on the wrong path as well.
“For you . . . make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!
“Blind guides! . . . How blind! For which is more important – the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? . . . For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income . . . but you ignore the more important aspects of the law – justice, mercy and faith. Blind guides!
“. . . For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy – full of greed and self-indulgence! . . . First wash the inside of the cup and the dish and then the outside will become clean, too.
“. . . For you are like whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Each of these excerpts from this teaching highlights the importance of the internal state of our life. The external gifts and sacrifices, the tithes are secondary and are meaningless without the relationship with God and the importance of justice and mercy. In fact, Jesus states multiple times about these religious leaders being “blind guides,” highlighting not only their ignorance of the truth but their inability to lead anyone to heaven.

The verses on ‘the cup and the dish’ and the ‘whitewashed tombs’ talk about the role of the internal in the eternal. We may appear to be pure of heart to others, but if we are not actually pure of heart, it is meaningless. We may wear beautiful and clean clothes, but inside we are just bones and impurity without our relationship with God and the universe.

There is another message that Jesus tries to convey here. Those that lead us may not be as they seem; they may even be on the wrong path. If we blindly follow anyone, we are as blind as these religious leaders Jesus castigates. The only path to knowing which path we are on is through our direct relationship with God. If we do not have this relationship, if we do not take time and space in every single day to have this relationship, to care for this relationship, we are blind and will not be saved.

P. May I take time every day to have a relationship with God.

Return All Glory, Fame and Good Will ***

S. Matthew 22:34 – 23:12

O. More questions are asked of Jesus by the Pharisees. Jesus also responds by talking to the masses.

A. Jesus continues to be a focus of concern by religious leaders. The Pharisees ask him what is the most important commandment.
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
This is the main teaching of Jesus, having a deep relationship with God; it is the most crucial aspect of faith. This relationship is not forged in words, but in intention and attention with our hearts, our souls and our minds. We can say many things; we can even dedicate our life to God or Jesus with words every Sunday or even every day. However, if we don’t follow those words with action on a deep level, then we have not dedicated our life to anything at all.

Jesus reinforces the importance of how we treat others through the second and equally important commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ We must consider all we encounter as our self, treating them accordingly. The way in which we treat even those that we may find profound disagreement with is critical.

At the most basic level, there is no difference between any of us. When we start treating people differently, we demean our relationship with God and ignore our role in the universe, leaving behind forgiveness and mercy. We need forgiveness and mercy, so we must first give them to all others. Who is going to be the first person to do the good and right thing today?

Then, Jesus turns to the crowds that had gathered before him and talks about religious authority.
“Everything they do is for show . . . And they love to sit at the head table . . . and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’
“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters . . . The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When having authority over others, often it is not about doing good for others. Instead, it is more about the pomp, the circumstance, the exalted position, the benefits of authority. Initially, we may be focused properly on the objective of helping others. However, positions of authority can create moral dilemmas that grow with time. Jesus states that those that take such positions will be humbled.

The glory, the fame, the good will from others is like an intoxicant. It can cloud our judgment and our position. And, our position should be to redirect any glory, any fame and any good will to our relationship with God and the universe. It is only from the universe, from God, that we receive anything. Whatever we receive we must give as we received, freely and openly. Therefore, the way in which we are seen or treated by others isn’t as important as how we see or treat others. This is the focus of our lives, the well-being of others, not of our own well-being.

P. May I focus on the well-being of others.