Feeling It

I don’t like to feel angry.  Or irritated. Or distraught.  Or indignant.  Or defensive.  Or threatened.  Or offended.  Or afraid.  And yet, it seems almost impossible to avoid negative feelings these days.  There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  I can filter on Facebook.  I can tighten my circle of friends and the stores where I shop. I can block calls on my cell phone and screen calls on the landline.  But the feelings will find me.

I don’t want to feel this way.  How can I escape?  Comfort food.  A glass of wine.  A nap.  A trip to a favorite getaway.  Exercise.  A novel.  A movie.   A ball game.  A snuggle.  Some TV. Endorphins and distraction work for a little while, but they’re temporary.  The planet keeps turning, and those negative emotions keep on coming.

What to do?  Pray?  Yes, ask for help from God, and invite others to pray, too.  Meditate?  Yes, sacrifice some time — the most valuable thing I have — every day, and sit with God.  But isn’t there anything else I can do about the way I feel?

Well, maybe I can change my perspective on these negative feelings — look at them a different way.  I just finished a little book called Taking the Leap, by Pema Chödrön, and I keep returning to the end of the chapter on The Importance of Pain:

Whatever pleasure or discomfort, happiness or misery you are experiencing, you can look at other people and say to yourself, “Just like me they don’t want to feel this kind of pain.” Or, “Just like me they appreciate feeling this kind of contentment.”

When things fall apart and we can’t get the pieces back together, when we lose something dear to us, when the whole thing just is not working and we don’t know what to do,…[t]his is our chance to come out of our self-protecting bubble and to realize that we are never alone.  This is our chance to finally understand that wherever we go, everyone we meet is essentially just like us.  Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world.

Turn toward suffering?  Yes, turn toward it.  So if I can’t stop the bad feelings, perhaps I can use them.  I can get in touch with my dark side.  As Pema Chödrön says, I can “lean in”, and feel the negativity.  I can recognize that the “other” I see around me and try to avoid, is also in me.  By feeling the dark side, I can find more strength to act for the good.


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How does your news outlet report the tragedy in Orlando? I raised my eyebrows this morning as I read the Wall Street Journal cover story: “The Orlando attack is the latest in a string of incidents that have shaken Americans in recent years, including the bombing of the Boston Marathon, the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting and the Fort Hood shootings in Texas.” Why did reporter Peter Nicholas choose those three, where Muslim extremism was involved? What about the movie theatre in Aurora? What about the church meeting in Charleston? What about Sandy Hook?

Yes, Islamic extremism is a serious problem – in other parts of the world as well as here. But how does solving that problem address all the other shootings here in the US? I’m with President Obama — this isn’t an either-or. We have a problem with radicalization. We have a problem with gun violence. We need to address both. Do I think we will? Unfortunately, no. The root cause is in the minds of the shooters, beyond the reach of any legislation or quick-fix policy.

We could make it more difficult to obtain automatic weapons, and reduce the numbers for any given attack, but read the Washington Post article on mass shootings— and decide for yourself if that’s the solution. I tend to agree with this perspective, “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” Why spend more energy on that pointless debate?

Instead, let’s talk about how we change the hearts and minds of ALL shooters, before they become headlines. What can we do — or stop doing — to put this sort of violence into realm of unthinkable, where it belongs?

[Originally posted on Facebook in response to the Orlando shooting.]

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Poetry for Life

DSCF1121-3English was one of my favorite subjects in high school.  I enjoyed pouring my thoughts into a journal, and have continued that practice off and on for years.  I suppose that blogging is in some ways just a continuation of the creative writing that had its beginnings back then.  When I’m re-reading my emails at work, I know the brain cells looking for spelling and grammar mistakes were trained by countless exercises in English class, too.

Yet, what I remember most from high school English lessons was the poem “Inspiration” by Henry David Thoreau.  The first verse is emblazoned in memory, and comes unbidden to my mind, when I’m feeling tired, overwhelmed, or both.

Whate’er we leave to God, God does,
And blesses us;
The work we choose should be our own,
God lets alone.

The poem contains other wonderful verses, and I invite you to get the full poem from a publisher, on your Kindle or your bookshelf of poetry, especially if you’re a writer or a poet.  If you have any anthologies there, it may already be in your collection. In the meantime, let his words be my gift to you, and to my future self.

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Is this all there is?

Nitobe Memorial Garden in SpringSitting on the bench in the Japanese garden, I was asked by a couple walking by, “Is this all there is?” I answered aloud, “Yes,” and silently, “Isn’t this enough?” Two acres of carefully designed and cared for garden on a sunny spring day: new growth on every plant, stunning reflections of the trees in the pond, magical reflections of sunlight on the trees, the sounds of the waterfalls, slender iris piercing the dark, rich earth of their beds, big camellia blooms, and tiny buds and blossoms on tree branches.  My camera had been busy, feasting on the beauty every few steps, macro, wide angle, and video all found inspiration in the springtime scene.  “Is this all there is?”

It seems to me that the question itself bears some reflection.  Is there any fault in wanting more?  Certainly if you are in a miserable situation, that question could be a healthy one to ask yourself. But in most cases, if that question arises, I would counter, “Are you paying attention? Are you noticing the natural beauty, the artistry, the engineering, the craftsmanship, the ingenuity, that surrounds you? Are you using all the lenses of the camera of your mind?”

Life is short. The garden of your life may only have two acres. But if you slow down, pay attention, you may find that in all there is, abundance is just waiting for your discovery.DSCF0803

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Ignoring the video

Been to a restaurant lately with TVs up on the walls?  Even if the sound is off, you and your companions are constantly distracted by the flashing colors and images. Conversation that might build the relationship is instead difficult to maintain, as eyes drift away, and you react not to each other, but to the entertainment magnet on the wall.  It’s so frustrating, and disappointing.

Distracting video also happens in meditation, described by Martin Laird in “Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation.”  There you are, repeating your mantra, when along comes a compelling internal video. It plays personalized content — something you need to do after meditation, something that didn’t go as well as you’d have liked, or maybe some event that has you worried, or angry, or unhappy.   Laird assures us that these videos are not going to stop — any more than the restaurant owner is going to shut off those TVs.  But you can, with practice, become less distracted by them.

This ignore-the-video concept was immediately helpful with my meditation, but what surprised me was its practical application at work.  When a stressful email hit my inbox, when a meeting was going poorly, when a colleague was going off the rails, I noticed the video of negative thoughts starting in my head: indignation, resentment, demoralization — customized to fit the situation.  And how helpful were these videos to keeping me motivated and productive?  Zero.

My goal for 2016 is to improve my meditation practice — to meditate more often, and to get better at contemplative prayer as a spiritual practice.  But if I succeed, I may also end my workdays in a better state of mind, more able to enjoy my family’s company.  And as for dinner conversation at restaurants with TVs?  The problem isn’t the TVs.  The problem is going to one of those places when our team’s game isn’t on, or it’s the off-season.

See how your perspective changes, when you’re not distracted by the negative video in your head?

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Pokémon Wisdom

Pokemon groupEver watched a Pokémon show? Maybe you know someone who has a Pokémon card collection, or plays the Pokémon games on Nintendo? The TV show is a lighthearted adventure, with a group of kids and their Pokémon (non-human companions with varied special abilities) on a quest of self-discovery and personal achievement, periodically opposed by a team of villains out to steal their Pokémon.

My family enjoys watching this weekly show over dinner, commenting on the inevitable failure of the bad guys, and the relentless optimism of the hero. This week’s episode was more thought-provoking for me, however, as the female protagonist lost her temper with her bickering Pokémon partners, and excused herself for a walk – alone. Wandering about town, she encountered another girl – a famous person in disguise, of course – who needled her about not smiling. “Your smile is powerful. You should smile!”

Long after the show finished, I pondered this simple idea. I’m getting older now, and when I look in the mirror with no expression, the corners of my mouth turn down, and wrinkles extend the curve into a frown. But if I smile, even just a little bit, I look years younger. The lines are still there, but they enlarge into a pleasing, welcoming expression.

The promise in the Pokémon show wasn’t that smiling would be a youth serum, though. The troubled character was a girl, not a middle-aged woman. The promise was for power, for victory over the situation with her partners, and success in the competitions they planned to enter. How could a smile do all that? In the show, the girl’s smile indeed changed the outcome of a hopeless situation. When faced with defeat, with failure, with a skilled opponent and her own shortfalls, she followed the advice, and her smile changed everything.

In that same situation in real life, we have the same choice. We can invite the cloud over our heads to darken with rain and thunder, or maybe, with a little effort, we can call the muscles in our face to action, put on a little smile, and let the cloud dissipate in the sunshine. A little tug of muscle can become a smile of apology, a smile of appreciation for the opposition’s talent, and a smile of confidence that you’re going to persevere – to grow and learn from the experience.

We’re all of us on a quest of self-discovery and personal achievement. We have companions and adversaries, and yes, even battles of sorts. Let us take the advice of one Pokémon champion, and remember to smile at each other along the way. Our smiles‘ power of transformation may surprise us and bless us, with better outcomes than we could ever have imagined.

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In God’s Lap

I’m not a kid anymore. Not even close. But like a dressed-up child at a big party full of grown-ups and strangers, I can get a little overwhelmed, a little stressed, a little uncertain, in need of comfort and security.

The good news is, there’s a lap I still fit in. A place where I can go and be loved, have a hand stroke my hair, and a warm chest to lean back on. A place I am always welcome.

Sitting down at the doctor’s office after a stressful day of work, uncertain of what news might be in store at this visit, I saw the assistant pick up the cuff and her stethoscope. In my mind I climbed into the lap of God.

She pumped the cuff, and then again. “Do you have low blood pressure?” “Yes.” “Well, it’s 90 over 60.” “That’s normal for me.”

All my life, the church has taught that each of us is a beloved child of God. Remember that, and when you need it, climb up in God’s lap for a rest.

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