Today was busy! I know for some it was a holiday but my schedule was stuffed! The day started early and it felt like a sprint to the end of it. I don’t mind busy days most of the time because it keeps the time moving and there’s no boredom to fight off.
On the other hand, my wife had a holiday. Today is Martin Luther King day and she was able to sleep in, keep her PJs on and enjoy a wonderful day of doing nothing, purposefully. She’s been incredibly busy since November of last year and a day home, without me!, and zilch on her schedule was what she needed.
There is a thin line between balancing a healthy life or action and inaction. Our chaotic world and its need for non-stop entertainment, to-do lists, places to go, things to experience, can set a pace where eventually we burn out, fall apart, or both. We need to know when to stop, take our foot off the gas and be still; not just emotionally and mentally but physically.
Knowing, sensing, its time for a break, a rest, a lazy day is an important sense to develop and put into practice.
The River –
“Imagine yourself sitting on the bank of a river. The river is your stream of consciousness. Observe each of your thoughts coming along as if they’re saying, “Think me, think me.” Watch your feelings come by saying, “Feel me, feel me.” Acknowledge that you’re having the feeling or thought. Don’t hate it, judge it, critique it, or move against it. Simply name it: “resentment toward so and so,” “a thought about such and such.” Then place it on a boat and let it go down the river. When another thought arises—as no doubt it will—welcome it and let it go, returning to your inner watch place on the bank of the river.”
#ThomasKeating, “Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel”
One of the greatest and most difficult realizations is the truth that we are not our thoughts. We are not our actions. We are not our egos. True, each of these can reveal things about us and to the world but we are not these things.
The problem is we’ve been taught the opposite most of our lives. The famous quote; “Reap a thought, a word, an action, then a destiny,” seems right but our thoughts do not have to lead us to who we ultimately become. We can choose to go deeper, change paths, refuse to be captive to our thoughts by breaking free of them.
Where You Heading? –
I’ve spent much of this week thinking about my past and considering my future. It’s always scary, wondering what’s around the corner.
I started two new jail classes this week. One of the first disciplines I teach is for them to consider their present and think about their future. The first part is necessary because it helps us take stock of what we’ve done, who we are, and how choices have led us to this place in our lives. After you’ve accepted where and who you are, then you decide if it is where you want to stay. “If you keep doing what you’re doing you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.”
Most of the men I work with tell me they want to make better choices, be better men and fathers but it’s not enough to want, action must be taken. Different choices must be made to be a different man and father. I explain that; “What you do today determines who you’ll be, what you’ll be, tomorrow.”
This is true for all of us.
Chirp and Chatter –
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on the front steps to our shed waiting for Beth to come home from work. Me and the dog enjoying the day when a bird overhead began to chirp loudly! It wasn’t the usual chirp and it was incessant. I looked to the limbs of our big Oak tree trying to find it. I couldn’t. The chirping didn’t stop but I couldn’t find it among the leaves. Finally, it stopped and only when it flew away could I see that it was a large woodpecker.
After watching this beautiful bird fly away I reflected on the constant chirping and not knowing where it was coming from. Some thought are like that in our minds. They chirp and chatter and we wonder, why and for what reason, they are filling our minds with noise. Perhaps its regret at an action, a question about why something is happening, puzzlement for a big decision which needs to be made, a betrayal, a hurtful word given or received, a reliving of past events, or worry about the future. Whatever the thoughts, the chirps, and the chatter can keep peace of mind and spirit elusive and unattainable.
Wisdom reminds us that thoughts are going to come and go but it is up to us not grab them and ruminate. A wise master once said; “I cannot stop the thoughts from coming to my door but I do not have to serve them tea.”
Into the Light –
Today was a special day for our incarcerated fathers class. The men, who attended and participated, received a certificate of completion, a letter from me along with pizza and soft drinks. Our certificate ceremony isn’t fancy but it is a way to let the guys know how much I appreciate letting me be a part of their lives for the semester.
Getting in and out of the jail is rarely easy which is, I suppose, the way it should be. There’s buzzers, intercoms, thick steel doors and tempered glass to keep people inside. Usually, I arrive at each door, buzz the “door keeper” and identify myself. I then wait until he or she is ready for me to go through the door. Today, however, the corrections officer was especially attentive as I was leaving. He buzzed me out as I was arriving at each door. It was almost as if the doors were unlocked.
In one of our classes during the semester, we talk about action and acceptance. I tell the men; “If the doors of this jail opened and you knew it was okay to walk through you would leave immediately, no hesitation. The problem is this isn’t going to happen. You have to accept you are here until they let you leave. At the same time, you can take action on keeping your family together and connected with the ones you love.” This is the balance of action and acceptance.
I thought about the men in my class today, the lesson of action and acceptance and their decision to come to class, listen, ask questions, share their stories and finally receive their certificates. They are trying to bring balance to their lives and hopefully to those who are travel life’s path with them.
One of the toughest of Wisdom’s lessons is finding balance. We live in a world where we are encouraged to devour, to consume, to take and use up all we can. We are taught to chase after the treasures and trinkets of the world, to collect, hoard and protect what is ours as if our belongings were a part of us, a portion of our being.
I was speaking with someone today and they told me a story about their own lives and a choice they need to make. “What do I do?” they inquired. I explained to them the concepts of acceptance and action. Knowing what do and when to do it is key.
Acceptance is the understanding that some things cannot be changed no matter how hard we wish to impose our will upon it. There are ideas, situations, people, which we must accept in spite of our desire to change.
Action is what we can do. Once we’ve accepted the things we cannot change we then see what we can change and set about doing it.
It’s this balance that keeps us from wasting energy on the unchangeable and focuses our energies on what can make a difference.
Ongoing Grace –
One of the hardest acts in life is letting go of the expectation of an apology from someone who has hurt, offended us. Many times, we never receive what we are tempted to think we deserve.
Not too long ago I received a surprising apology from someone who had hurt me years ago. They asked for forgiveness and I gave it to them. However, apologies can be tricky. When someone expresses regret about an action or harmful words our ability to forgive has much to do with our place on the journey of forgiveness. Saying the words; “I forgive you.” helps but rarely completely, instantly heals the wounds.
Since the apology, there have been moments of pain when I am reminded the wounds are still healing. Times when memories are relived and the urge to fall back into negative thoughts patterns, judgmental attitudes are present. It is here, on our journey, we realize forgiveness is not a one-time act or phrase but a process, an ongoing combination of acts, words, and intent of spirit. There are seasons, moments, instances when the past impresses itself on the present. Wisdom teaches us not to ignore, resent, or seek escape but to let it be a reminder that forgiveness in an ongoing act of grace.
In the Deep –
I listened to a police officer tell an interesting story today. She and her partner had been called to a house where a married couple was fighting. They knocked on the door, entered the residence and found the man and woman arguing in the kitchen. The two people were screaming at each other so loud the officers could not get a word in even though they were speaking at a high volume. Finally, in an act of desperation, the gentleman officer grabbed a loaf of bread, went to the fridge and retrieved some mayonnaise and meat and sat down at the kitchen table and began making himself a sandwich. After a few moments the couple noticed what the policeman was doing and stopped arguing and stared at him, incredulous at what he was doing. Taking a bite, he said after chewing; “I’m just going to eat this sandwich until you two are ready to listen.” Silence filled the room, except for the officer’s stomach digesting his snack, everyone else sat down and began to talk.
I reflected on life and all the voices which fill our minds, spirits, emotions and lives everyday. If we aren’t careful we can find ourselves all consumed by the noise. On social media, TV, radio, printed media people express their opinion and fight with those who don’t agree. Others add their perspective to whoever may be in ear shot, trying to persuade them to embrace their positions on everything from politics to sports to global issues of terrorism and finance. It can be hard, if not impossible, at times to find a place of silence and stability.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive stillness is at times and action. It is a purposeful removal of ourselves from all the distractions of the world, which scream for our attention, and enter into a space where we can rest and remember wisdom, truth, doesn’t force itself upon us but rather whispers in the deepest recesses of our souls.
I teach three groups of men who are housed in an intensive rehabilitation facility for drugs and alcohol. The time I spend with them isn’t nearly long enough but I make the best of the time I have given to me. My focus is on two subjects; the first is their choice to stay clean or relapse will determine their destiny and the second is their choice to be sober determines their family’s destiny.
This morning, in a session, we were discussing these issues when it dawned on a man in the group that his kids were at a highly significant risk of doing drugs because of his own history of drug use. Before I could get the words out of my mouth, he said rather loudly; “Don’t say it!” I paused for a moment and then relayed the statistics of kids whose parents use drugs and their likelihood to follow the same path.
I then told the men; “This doesn’t mean your children will become alcoholic or drug addicts. You can make the right choice, lead your family away from this toxic lifestyle. Let them be your motivation to get clean and stay clean. Do it for you and do it for them.”
Too often we see our decisions in a bubble. We forget, like a stone thrown in a still pond, our choices ripple in all directions impacting all who are near and dear to us. If we took in to consideration the power of our actions and inaction perhaps we’d choose more wisely.
Bullets and Breaks –
I saw my first bullet hole in a human body this week. Well, what it looks like with a thin bandage over it anyway. The leg and the hole belonged to one of the men I teach in my incarcerated father’s class. I had noticed last week he was limping and when he came in on Wednesday I asked how he was doing and what had happened. I had no idea the story which would be told.
The tale included drugs, friends pulling guns on one another, a high-speed car chase, resisting arrest, guns on all sides and finally an arrest and a charge of nine felonies. Whew! By the time he finished I was worn out! The most important detail he shared was before everything fell apart, when he was sitting on the couch with a friend and things began to escalate, he said; “If I would’ve stopped for thirty seconds and thought about what I was doing. If I would have just walked away, none of this would have happened.”
Although there was much in his story I couldn’t relate to I certainly know the harm of acting in haste, not taking time to think before I said or did something harmful, in the heat of the moment, only to regret it soon after. The difficulty is that once we do anything good, bad, positive, or negative the consequence will follow. We can’t take it back. “When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other.”
One of the most difficult yet important disciplines wisdom teaches is the; “space in the middle.” It is that place between the event, the action and our response, our reaction. Usually the less space we allow the higher possibility of making a bad decision and dealing with the results of our choices.
The young man with the bullet hole in his leg is looking at a long sentence in the state penitentiary. I hope that he, all the students and their teacher will learn and put into practice the lesson of; “the space in between.”
I watched a video today that included a compilation of car crashes and road rage incidents. It was startling and also interesting. I wouldn’t recommend viewing if you’re planning on taking a road trip soon but if you’re fascinated by human behavior you can find scores of them on YouTube.
One of the biggest surprises in these accidents is how quickly a person can go from having a normal day to being in a life changing, threatening event in the blink of an eye. It’s a harsh reminder that no one is guaranteed to be alive past the present moment and there is so little control we have over even the most mundane aspects of our lives.
A fundamental truth of wisdom is knowing the difference between what we must accept and what we can take action upon. To spend energy on that which we cannot change is wasteful, saps our strength and resolve from doing, acting upon what we can.
A Zen proverb tells the story of an old man walking along the beach. It was low tide, and the sand was littered with thousands of stranded starfish that the water had carried in and then left behind.
The man began walking very carefully so as not to step on any of the beautiful creatures. Since the animals still seemed to be alive, he considered picking some of them up and putting them back in the water, where they could resume their lives.
The man knew the starfish would die if left on the beach’s dry sand but he reasoned that he could not possibly help them all, so he chose to do nothing and continued walking.
Soon afterward, the man came upon a small child on the beach who was frantically throwing one starfish after another back into the sea. The old man stopped and asked the child, “What are you doing?”
“I’m saving the starfish,” the child replied.
“Why waste your time? There are so many you can’t save them all so what does is matter?” argued the man.
Without hesitation, the child picked up another starfish and tossed it back into the water. “It matters to this one.”
Knowing the difference between when to practice acceptance and when to take action can make all the difference.