More thoughts on our underlying shifting ground

Similar thoughts to the ones posted on Monday, this time from a Christian perspective, written by probably the most influential Catholic Theologian of the 20th Century. He uses the word “pessimism” to describe the underlying sense of groundlessness which we frequently feel. His ideas are remarkably similar to ones found in other traditions, such as posts I have already written based on the work of  Pema Chodron.

This perplexity in human existence is not merely a transitory stage that, with patience and creative imagination, might eventually be removed from human existence. It is a permanent existential of humanity in history and, although it keeps assuming new forms, it can never be wholly overcome in history……. Of course, we cannot say that human finitude and historicity alone explain the fact that history cannot follow its course without friction and without blind alleys. Nor can this Christian pessimism be justified merely by the fact that it is impossible fully to harmonize all human knowledge with its many disparate sources, or to build a fully harmonious praxis on the basis of such disparate knowledge. We might also mention that we can never fully understand the meaning of suffering and death. Yet in spite of all this, the Christian interpretation of human existence says that within history, it is never possible wholly and definitively to overcome the riddles of human existence and history, which we experience so clearly and so painfully…..

People are afraid of this pessimism. They do not accept it. They repress it. That is why it is the first task of Christian preaching to speak up for it.

Karl Rahner, “Christian Pessimism”, in Theological Investigations XXII

(Photo Credit: AP/Winslow Townson)

Under our feet

At the entrance to some Zen Temples in Japan one finds a sign, saying simply kyakka-sho-ko. One way of translating this is Look under your feet. Like most zen sayings it is open to numerous interpretations, but the one I like to consider is the way that meditation, or entering any sacred space, begins right where we are standing, in the circumstances of our ordinary life. We may not even consider this as being worthy of attention or deserving special notice. We can find our daily life so distracted and drab that we may think that our real life lies elsewhere, or our happiness lies when we get some of the elements that are missing now. How often we do this – undervalue our actual life, or the opportunities presented for love in actual daily tasks, thinking that a more special version of life exists elsewhere. We are not helped by that fact that modern culture encourages dissatisfaction with what we have, always presenting something new and something better. And that this culture is a powerful narcotic. So we can find that we are not interested on what is under our feet, but prefer to look around or elsewhere, to live with our head in the clouds, planning or worrying, waiting…… anywhere other than just in this moment

So this phrase says to me – Look around, notice, appreciate, take care of what you have. This life, this place, this family, this relationship, this time. It reminds me that every moment – even ordinary activities such as eating, walking, shopping or cleaning the house  –  is where I can cultivate my attention. It carries an echo of that famous phrase – when we are eating,  we give our full attention to our eating, while walking we pay full attention to the sensation of walking.  The sacred is found in the ordinary; the ground of our growth is deep within our own being. Mindfulness practice in its simplest, is essentially developing the capacity to sit –  to be with ourselves –  and to be happy there.

Time that nurtures

It’s important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive, but these qualities don’t necessarily nurture the soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animal’s rhythm of rest and activity.

Thomas Moore

How to let go of sorrows

When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders. Breathing in, we say to ourselves, “I have arrived.”  Breathing out, we say,”I am home.” When we do this, we overcome dispersion and dwell peacefully in the present moment, which is the only moment for us to be alive.

Thich Nhat Hahn, Walking Meditation

Preparing for the end of the world

Well,  the much-hyped end of the world on Saturday did not quite happen. No earthquake, no rapture, no rising up  of the perfect, no revealing of the wicked.  As the predicted time passed across the world, the tendency was to reduce the whole  event to the delusions of a small fringe group.  However, the roots of the idea reveals a psychology that is found not only in those evangelical Christians who believed in Saturday’s date so fervently.  As one Christian commentator said before the event, this type of forecasting tells us little about God but tells us a lot about those who make the predictions.

For one thing, it reveals a way of dealing with the unsatisfactory nature of this world by looking for something or someone to come “fix” things and transcend this world. There are a lot of uncertainties in the world today, stemming from economic uncertainties, the difficulties between nations,  religions and cultures,  and from natural disasters.  And there are always uncertainties in our personal lives. Things change. People close to us get ill or move away.  This can make us feel very insecure and one tendency is to look to something outside, or someone stronger than us, to steady us on this uncertain ground. It is always tempting to seek for some lasting security and we do so frequently, trying to hold onto some aspects of our life or someone who has come into our life.  However, the foundations of mindfulness are quite different. They are based on seeing that change and ambiguity are simply the nature of things in this world, on realizing that life lacks the very things that we feel we need most, such as permanence, security, and certainty.  Our everyday practice is to increasingly feel this personally and move towards relaxing in the uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect us. This means that when we come up against the anxious nature of this world, or even its disasters, or when we encounter change and setbacks in our lives, it does not mean that something is wrong with us.  Understanding this allows us relax with ourselves as we are, without always thinking that there is something lacking in us, or missing in the world.

The second implicit idea in this picture of the end of the world is what it says about us and how we need to be in order to “qualify” for this moment. It sees the direction we need to be going in as having “perfection” as its goal.  Now as I said in yesterday’s post, healthy striving and moving forward toward our full potential  is a good thing. However, this spiritual notion of “perfection” can give rise to some dangers. One is that it can build upon an unhealthy perfectionism and unrelenting standards which is frequently linked to shame and the need to earn approval.  This “tyranny of the should” as Karen Horney called it,  gives rise to a deep sense of never being “good enough”, leading many people push themselves and better themselves because of a fear of being judged or disappointing others. Having the notion of “perfection” as the way to define ourselves can give rise to a compulsive running away from ourselves. It also, ironically, can mean that we become slow to do anything, fearing  the mistakes we may make and possibility of failure.

Another danger lies in the suggestion is that the goal is to become “perfect” rather than to becoming “whole”. However, we are not called to move toward some kind of flawlessness or faultlessness but rather towards completion or wholeness.  As Jung rightly pointed out, this means that we hold onto all aspects of our self, including the “shadow” parts  which have their roots in the unconscious: The realization of the self … leads to a fundamental conflict, to a real suspension between opposites…, and to an approximate state of wholeness that lacks perfection. … The individual may strive after perfection … but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness.  In some sense we are always “on the way” rather than ever getting it fully together.

The final danger is in the way that any type of “leaning towards” pulls us out of this moment and how it actually is. Our focus is not on any future, “better” moment, but on this one, even if it is not as we would want it.  The best way to prepare for the future – or the “end of the world” if you like – is to care for this moment and then the next moment. There are enough distractions in the world today, including these spiritual ones, pulling us away from noticing where our life is,  now.

Meanwhile, here we are, missing the fullness of the present moment, which is where the soul resides.  It’s not like you have to go someplace else to get it.  So the challenge here is, Can we live this moment fully?  When you ask a group of people to spend five minutes watching their own breaths moving in and out of their bodies, just as an experiment,  they discover that their minds are like bubbling vats, and it’s not so easy to stay on the breath.  The mind has a life of its own.  It carries you away.  Over a lifetime, you may wind up in the situation where you are never actually where you find yourself.  You’re always someplace else, lost, in your head, and therefore in a kind of dysfunctional or nonoptimal state.  Why dysfunctional?  Because the only time you ever have in which to learn anything or see anything or feel anything, or express any feeling or emotion, or respond to an event, or grow, or heal, is this moment, because this is the only moment any of us ever gets.  You’re only here now; you’re only alive in this moment. The past is gone, and I don’t know what’s coming in the future.  It’s obvious that if I want my life to be whole, to resonate with feeling and integrity and value and health, there’s only one way I can influence the future:  by owning the present

Jon Kabat Zinn

Here I am

Hineyni”  for me is the most powerful word in the Book of Genesis. Abraham says it to God. It means “Here I am”, but it is not a geographical answer.  It is the response to the challenge to acknowledge the truth of the present moment, to recognize what needs to be done and to be prepared to do it. Abraham says “Hineyni” three times in the most terrible of circumstances.

Mindfulness is also “Here I am, not hiding” and it is also an expression of freedom. Even when experience is painful, especially when it is dire, mindfulness is freedom from extra anguish, from the extra pain of futile struggle. “This is what is true. These are the possibilities. I understand the necessary response”And sometimes “There are no possibilities other than surrender.  I surrender”

Sylvia Boorstein, That’s Funny, you don’t look Buddhist.