The Journey to Light

journeyAdvent begins tomorrow. This season brings a certain peace if we’re willing to remember and define a peace for ourselves. We always have a choice: bemoan the hustle and bustle and commercialism, get caught up in the turmoil of finding the right gift or impressive holiday decorations or the fabulous party outfit or the best sale, or we can turn within to wait for rebirth.

The value of having a spiritual life, regardless of the religion or the lack of religion, is remembering and celebrating rebirth.

There’s no doubt it’s been a stressful and chaotic year—from wars and rebellion to drought to flood to an acrimonious election season that seemed never-ending. And it’s not just the external out-there world in chaos: families have grieved a death or divorce, children have been hurt, adults suffered. We’ve each had our share of aches and hurt.

A long year of endless change and turmoil, re-doing, re-evaluating, reviewing, and nothing ever seemed done-done. There was always another detail, another “hanging chad” to reckon with. The to-do lists have grown, the marking off of the to-dos has become elusive.

And yet. It’s Advent.

Each December we have four weeks to watch and wait: for Solstice, Hanukah, Christmas, Bodhi Day, the New Year. Regardless of our tradition, every year we have four weeks to reflect and welcome the rebirth of light. Every year, we have an invitation to open ourselves to the faith-filled journey that we, and the world, will renew, that we will go on.

In our house, we celebrate Christmas, but we also celebrate Solstice. The earth tips, even if we don’t notice, and begins its journey back to summer. We all have a chance to be rebirthed in light.

The pause in the earth’s tipping has been a sacred time of reckoning for people since ancient times, and in our family for a very long time. Perhaps it comes from being people of the land, attached to farm and sky and earth.

I remember my mother marking the place in the middle of the winter-bare lilac bush, lonely at the far corner of the yard. It was her yardstick in the march of seasons. As December progressed, she’d look out the west window to see the sun set, to watch its glow as it passed through the far edge of the twiggy bush toward the center. And then the earth paused, and she watched as the sun began its journey north again, out of the lilac bush and into open sky.

Dad, and those of us kids who worked outside (and all of us did at one time or another) watched the gathering stars as we trudged back to the house after evening chores. I don’t know which bright star we followed (Venus setting that year? Jupiter on the horizon? Sirius?) but we all learned to follow a star, our star, in one way or another.

Will you remind yourself to take time to enjoy these four short weeks? If the earth can pause, so can we.

Which star will you follow this season of December? Which journey will you make?

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Imagination

A post from Janet Taylor at the Temple Buddhist Center in Kansas City.

In our search for happiness, imagination is one of the most powerful tools available to us.  Stephen Batchelor has a wonderful chapter on imagination in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs.  In it, he describes that the three most important factors in mastering mindfulness and meditation are: 

  • First is commitment.  We make a conscious commitment to ourselves to devote time and effort to this worthwhile practice.
  • Second is technique. We study and practice the techniques of mindfulness and meditation in order to master them.
  • Third is imagination.  It might seem surprising that he would elevate imagination to such importance.  Why would we need to have imagination in order to awaken? 

 Why meditate in the first place?  Why care about learning mindfulness?  To relax? To de-stress? To find answers?  There are many different reasons to begin a meditation practice, all excellent motivators in their own way.  But one of the best motivators is our imagination.  We imagine that life could be different.  The first step in learning anything new is imagining that things could be different. 

When people get depressed, one of the most debilitating aspects is that they cannot imagine living without being depressed.  When we are in pain, it seems that we lose our ability to imagine life without pain.  We all get caught up in the experience we’re having, clinging to it with the unconscious assumption that things will never change.   And yet, it is possible.  In the midst of a difficult experience, in the middle of reacting in our old unskillful ways, we can remember to imagine how things might be different, we can awaken to the incredible experience of living beyond our limited thinking and feeling. 

How might we use our imagination as a powerful tool for passionately living life?  Here are some ideas to consider. 

First, we can recognize the ability to access imagination in each moment.  Each moment is sacred—not just the ones spent meditating.  Each moment.  We are creating our life moment- by-moment.  When we feel stuck in a certain situation or overwhelmed by the circumstances in our lives, we can remind ourselves to leverage the power of imagination to see clearly the breadth and depth of each situation, the possibilities beyond our limited way of thinking.  We are deciding moment-by-moment how to live.  Most of the time, we fall back on the easy answers, like what our parents did, or what our friends are doing or what we think we should do.  We might think of so many moments as just getting through life, doing what we have to do…

Rodney Smith, a Vipassana teacher, encourages us in the following way:  “We often feel our everyday existence is a distraction from our spiritual intention. When this happens, life is divided between the sacred and mundane, and the mind pits one concept against the other. But belief shapes reality, and if the belief is maintained that the sacred lies somewhere else other than Now, our spiritual life will be governed by that limitation.”  We can choose to see the sacred in each situation, know our practice is not separate from living in each moment, visualizing the vast, limitless resource of imagination that creates our experience.

Second, we can practice using imagination.  Our ability to think beyond our limitations is a learnable skill.  Visualizations can be a powerful part of the practice, like the loving-kindness practice that we do, or imagining ourselves as the Buddha.  These visualizations may at first seem corny or superficial, but that’s still a good place to start.  Buddhist teachers encourage us that, even without thinking anything is changing, we are planting seeds.  We know that a flower or plant begins to grow beneath the soil once it is planted, regardless if there is any change visibly seen.  So are the seeds of love and compassion calling forth the awakening of innate Buddha nature, just by the mere practice of imagining. 

Think of yourself as an artist.  Each of us is creating a life.  Each of us is writing the unfinished story of our life right now.  Each of us is making choices about how to live our lives right now.  The limitations that we think exist are in most cases, self-imposed.  Take a few minutes, and imagine all the possible ways that you might live your life from this point forward.  Think beyond your current circumstances, beyond any assumed limitations, beyond any self-imposed constraints, beyond, beyond.  With this willingness to stretch beyond our boundaries, each of us can more wisely choose the possible ways we could live life to its fullest. 

 Third, we can never run out of imagination.  Everyone feels down at times, we get sick, and get old, we feel scared and angry and frustrated.  But, the truth of our being is that there is a never-ending source of light within us.  We may feel angry, but we are not anger.  We may feel afraid, but we are not fear.  Thoughts and emotions are NOT who we are.  We can remember that we are pure awareness, we can imagine that we are love and compassion.  We can imagine being fully awake, fully present. 

This innate goodness within us is like the Sun.  The sun is always shining. It never stops. It doesn’t need something outside of itself to shine. It just keeps shining–no matter what. There may be clouds in the way, it might be nighttime, so we don’t see the Sun, but the Sun is still shining.  The light of our being is the same way.  It might be covered up or out of view, but it’s still there .  This unique point of awareness is always present in each moment.

Who or What is having this experience of living anyway?  Who or what is having these thoughts or feeling these feelings right now?  Who or what are you?  Loosen any certainty that you are a certain way, loosen the clinging to misconception that life must unfold in a certain direction, that living is limited to a few old emotions and recurring thoughts.    Imagine that you are not a thing or a body,  but rather pure awareness manifesting anew in each moment.  Imagine the possibilities.

Know that imagination is always available, in every moment, to every person. Access it, exercise it, strengthen it, leverage the power of it, use it as the fuel for our lives unfolding, and know the power it provides for transformation. 

In fact, we would not have this Buddhist path, these powerful teachings, if the Buddha had no imagination.  He would have not found a new answer, because he would not have imagined one to exist, and therefore would have not gone seeking a new way of living.  That’s the power of imagination.

Work as a Spiritual Quest

This morning I’ve been thinking about work as a spiritual quest. Most of my writing has the quest for a spiritual life as a topic, but my work to market the work and the work to edit the work just feels like – well – work! How would infusing the spiritual into work, work – what would it look like? To pause before each step to give it the presence it needs?

Ah, being present. Being present all the time takes a lot of work. How to remember to be present? One way is breathing: consciousness of breath is an always task. But the words I’m using – work, task – don’t really lend themselves to turning the corner into acceptance.

What else would put spirit into work? A smile. And suddenly, I remember Bhante Kamalesiri, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk with whom I practiced meditation when I lived in Washington D.C.

He was a tiny man, dressed in voluminous, soft, saffron-colored robes, and he always smiled. He smiled as he taught before leading us into silent meditation. And if I sneaked a peek at him while he sat, he’d be smiling. How could he sit so calmly and patiently?

After about thirty minutes into sitting, I’d have lost patience: my legs would be aching, my back, my hips, and crossed knees. Learning to accept the suffering in life is an arduous practice and my entire consciousness would be fixed on my suffering body.

In the middle of my suffering, and probably for most of us sitting there, I’d hear his soft voice floating across the room, “Gently lift the corners of your mouth.” Just that. And that simple, kind reminder, when he knew we were all aching, would change the energy of the ache.

The corners of my mouth would lift, I’d smile, and everything lightened. His simple reminder always amused me, and with the smile, I’d feel my body take a deep breath.

Try it. Right now as you’re reading. Lift the corners of your mouth and smile. Close your eyes and feel how everything in your face lightens with that smile, how your shoulders relax and your body takes a filling breath. Take a moment, just a moment, to smile and breathe.

Too often we think of work as what we do to earn the money to do the other things we want to do. What if we could turn that idea of work into thinking of our work as the gift we offer: the gift of our talents, the gift of our ideas, the gift of doing a job well? How would our daily lives change if we were to say, “I’m going to gift,” instead of “I’m going to work”? For one thing, I suppose people would look at us a little strange, but who knows – it might catch on, we might have everyone around us thinking of their work as gift!

Today I will practice looking at my work as my gift. Whatever I do. After all, I still have legs and hands and heart and head. And the courage to lift the corners of my mouth and smile. I offer that smile to you.

Remembering to Serve

From Janet Taylor, Temple Buddhist Center

On Memorial Day weekend, we can take a moment to have gratitude for those who have served us and to remember the value of serving others.  Integral to the Buddhist teachings is waking up to the fact that we are not separate beings. Often, it probably seems like we are going through life negotiating for our piece of the pie, but the Buddha taught that is just an illusion.  The Truth of being is that we are intimately interconnected, in fact no separate self exists.  For us westerners, that can seem like a crazy idea, us with our individualism and our proclamation that we need to be free to be happy.  In Buddhism, this simple notion gets turned on its head.  Yes, we need freedom to be happy, but it’s not found in staking out our territory more definitively.  Freedom in the Buddhist teachings, is about freedom from this fixed notion of being separate from others.  Freedom is about being free from our need to feel separate.  Freedom is recognizing our interconnection and rejoicing in that.

So, on this special holiday for remembering those who have served us, we can take this weekend to reflect on what it means to serve others.  In Mahayana Buddhism, serving others is seen as so important that each of us would give up total and eternal bliss in order to stay present with others and help them become enlightened as well.  Would you be willing to give up total bliss to serve others?  In our little minds, we often find pleasure at the the expense of others.  We feed our egos, we act impulsively, we harm others through our hurtful words or actions.  The first step on this enlightened  journey is to wake up to this harm we are causing others and commit our intention to do no harm.  We can all be the caretakers of our life and the lives of others by being more skillful in our words and actions towards others and towards ourselves.  With this passionate intention to serve others, we can be more forgiving and more grateful for the words and actions of others towards us.  Once we start to feel the freedom that arises from forgiveness and gratitude, a space is created in our lives for more forgiveness and gratitude to unfold. 

With more attention and intention given to a desire to serve others, we start to loosen our grip on the needs of our own ego.  In serving others, it becomes less important to obsess about our own concerns and worries.  Imagine letting go, even a little, of the continuous soundtrack in our head of what we need to be happy, what we must do, what we must have, what others must do for us, in order for us to be happy.  In this moment, we can begin to imagine a life of service, spending more time thinking about how we can be of service to the world, and less time thinking about what we need the world to give us.  In Buddhism, we are taught that we already have everything we need to be happy.  Abraham Lincoln said, “People are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  So, we can start here, start now.  This is NOT about being a doormat and being a slave to others.  This is about rising above the little inconsequential day-to-day things we usually focus on, and inspire ourselves to think of how we can embody higher levels of service. 

In How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by the Dalai Lama, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, he points out that, Buddhism, there are two basic types of practices: Sutra (which is about studying and practicing the teachings of other enlightened beings) and Tantra (which is the practice of imagining ourselves as enlightened beings) . For example, in Tantra, we use the power of imagination in a practice called deity yoga. The Dalai Lama describes it in this way.   “Imagine:

1.  Replacing your mind as it ordinarily appears, full of troubling emotions, with a mind of pure wisdom motivated by compassion

2.  Substituting your body as it ordinarily appears (composed of flesh, blood, and bone) with a body fashioned from compassionately motivated wisdom

3.  Developing a sense of a pure self that depends on purely appearing mind and body in an ideal environment, fully engaged in helping others.  This distinctive practice of Tantra calls for visualizing yourself with a Buddha’s body, activities, resources, and surroundings, it is called ‘taking imagination as the spiritual path.’”

At first it might seem uncomfortable.  Who am I to imagine being Buddha? Imagine being Jesus?  Isn’t it a lie to imagine having qualities that I don’t yet have?  Enlightened teachers have answered these questions for us.  You inherently are the Buddha—inherently awakened.  These practices open us up to the true reality to our beings.  At first, it might seem like you’re just making stuff up with imagination. Think of it instead that you are uncovering who you truly are.  We all have the potential for great goodness.  This visualization practice just uncovers that which is already there.

The Dalai Lama encourages us to purposely imagine ourselves as having a divine body, a divine mind. This is an imagination meditation; you need not be thoroughly convinced from the depths that you actually have pure mind, body, and selfhood.  Rather, based in clear imagination of ideal body and mind, you are cultivating the sense of being a deity, compassionately helping others.
…to engage in Tantra at any level demands a powerful intention to become enlightened for the sake of others.

So, on this Memorial Day, we can take these precious moments to reflect on the wonderful things that others have done for us, and recommit ourselves to being of service to others.  Through the power of our imagination, we can awaken to our true being and serve others from that place of selflessness.  On this day, we can focus on forgiveness and gratitude, for others and for ourselves.  We can have joy for our interconnectedness, joy in the fact that we are not separate.  That is what this whole journey is about.