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Category Archives: Spirituality

Suffering and Compassion, Part 3

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This year I have decided to more fully participate in Lent by reading Wonderous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, by Richard Rohr, since I got so much out of reading Breathing Under Water. In each chapter, Rohr provides his interpretation of the scriptures for that day, then quotes the scriptures, and then offers a “starter prayer” for contemplation. I have found praying in this way much more fruitful. Although I usually don’t get an answer right away, by the next day I often have some insight that deepens my understanding of God.

One of the more difficult messages to digest in Rohr’s books is that God wants us to choose love, knowing full well that we will suffer as a result. Knowing that it will break our hearts. Because it is only through experiencing love, and the suffering that results from loving, that we can truly understand how much God loves us.

I have to admit, this really pissed me off. Like many people, I wrestle with the question of why God lets people suffer. I write about Easter every year in an attempt to understand the nature of suffering. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that God never promised that life would be free of suffering. The fact that Jesus died on the cross makes it explicit that no one is immune from suffering. But, on the bright side, God is with us in our suffering, even when we think he has abandoned us. Which is something, I guess.

But I still don’t want to suffer.

Now Rohr is trying to convince me that, not only must I endure suffering, which is hard enough, but that God wants me to actively and willingly choose suffering as a consequence of love. That this is how we fully understand what it means to be human. This is how we gain wisdom. This is how we can more fully experience God’s love. Those all sound like great things, but it wasn’t exactly making me want to sign up for more pain and suffering.

When I told my brother this, he pointed out how much suffering I was willing to endure for tennis. Which is true. I have written blog posts describing how I’ve had asthma attacks, thrown up on the court, played through depressive episodes and physical pain. I’ve been sick from hunger, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. I’ve experienced humiliating losses. I’ve had bad tennis breakups. But I would never give up tennis just so I could avoid the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of playing this game that I love so much. Life would be much worse without tennis.

I’m pretty sure God loves us more than I love tennis. Which means he must really love us a lot. And, consequently, suffers a lot. All the time, billions of times over. Regardless of whether or not we choose to love him, or how many times we mess up. Willingly, repeatedly, from now until the end of time, God chooses to love us.

That’s pretty deep.

Who would have thought that tennis would teach me about the depths of God’s love? The benefits of tennis never cease to amaze me.

So I’m experimenting with focusing my intentions on being loving to myself and others whenever I’m in pain. Which is what the practice of compassion is about, after all. It’s going pretty well, I think. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but I guess it makes the pain more bearable. More meaningful. More worthwhile. I do feel happier, more peaceful of late. I don’t feel as anxious and depressed. Which could be because of Daylight Savings Time, in all honesty. But it could also be that the benefits of choosing love really do outweigh the costs.

I guess we’ll see.

Control What You Can Control, Part 2

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Living with my brother has been an enlightening experience in many ways. I never realized how different our experiences have been, given that I’m 7 years older than him and was not around for much of what happened to him. However, we have experienced enough similarities in our upbringing to struggle with the same problems with relationships–which is why neither of us is in one, we are not married, and we don’t have children.

So far I have dealt with my inability to have a healthy relationship by avoiding them altogether. But at the beginning of this year, I began to panic. Because I really would like to be in a relationship at some point, but I didn’t see how it was possible to change at this stage of my life.

So I have embarked on this self-created intensive relationship rehabilitation treatment program. I have regular phone sessions with my therapist now. I have a syllabus of books that I need to read. I’ve even embraced the term codependence, which I’ve always hated, because it best captures the problems I have with choosing people who have been traumatized, issues of control, and being able to read other people’s feelings but having no idea whether I need to eat, pee, or take an Ativan.

I just finished Breathing Under Water, by Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru. In it he demonstrates how 12 Step Programs are consistent with the teachings of Jesus. So I figured this was a good choice for curing my addiction to unhealthy relationships.

You know how sometimes you really like someone else’s opinion because it confirms your own beliefs? Well, that is not why I liked this book. Most of the stuff he said I would have never in a million years came up with myself. But he made me think, and I want what he says to be true, even though it seems too good to be true.

For example, in the step regarding character defects, he said that the goal is not to fix these defects but to turn them over to God. That’s what people mean when they say to let go and let God. I always wondered. We have to work to admit what our faults are, but once we do, it’s not on us to be able to correct them by ourselves. Which is a relief, because I’ve really, really been trying without much success.

Take jealousy, for example. I used to deal with it by trying to control other people. Don’t do or say anything to make me jealous! Which was not a great strategy. Then I accepted that it was on me and tried to be rational, to practice self-compassion, to distract myself, and every other technique I could think of. But experiencing jealousy hurts in a way that I cannot bear, for reasons that are not my fault. And it’s not my fault that I can’t fix this thing about myself.

So in my attempt to turn my character defects over to God, every time I encounter one, I say something like, OK God, here’s another one. I’ve really tried, but I can’t fix it by myself. I finally get it. I’m not in control. I need your help. I don’t want this thing to hurt me anymore, and I don’t want it to interfere with my ability to love others. So any time you feel like making me whole in this place of brokenness, I’m ready. I’ll just hang out here, waiting patiently. Or I’ll try to wait patiently. Impatience is also one of my character defects that I need help with.

And you know what? It helps. It gives me hope that change is possible, no matter how much trauma I’ve experienced, how old I am, how many times I’ve made the same mistakes, and how long it took me to realize that I can’t control everything.

Don’t get me wrong–I still have my reading list. Because you still have to do the work. You just don’t have to do it all alone.

 

No Way Out

Last week I gave you my reflections on my brother’s heart surgery. Today he’s feeling well enough to share what this ordeal was like for him in an effort to share his epiphany: regardless of what you may have to lose in the process, it’s always worth it to choose life.

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In “The Walking Dead” Season 6 debut, former allies Rick Grimes & Morgan Jones share an uneasy reunion. “I’m sorry for all this,” Rick says to Morgan, shyly apologizing for having to lock his old friend into a cell until he can get the man acclimated to the new community he has just joined. Holding no grudges, Morgan replies: “It’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.”

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Fast forward to August 30, 2016. I’ve missed a couple of days at a new job. Inexplicably, I can never feel fully rested & suffer from painful gas that seems to get stuck in my chest. After weeks of combating my symptoms with sleep, stubborn cardio workouts, & Gas-X—something told me I needed a different approach this time. So I call out sick & plan to see a doctor in order to get an excuse for a couple of days & a prescription for some real medicine. Because of my reference to “chest pains”, the walk-in clinic refused to see me & referred me to the ER instead. “This will be an expensive bottle of Tums,” I thought to myself, the seriousness of my situation not yet setting in. A day later, I’m in a hospital room in my region’s premiere facility for heart surgeries. I’m told I have severe blockage in the arteries feeding my heart. They need to operate on me—TOMORROW. Doctors, nurse practitioners, & everyone who has seen my test results regard me with such astonishment. They wonder aloud how I’d been walking around.

“Oh great,” I think to myself. I’m going to have to call work again. They’re going to think I’m playing hooky.” I must have still been in emotional shock. That night, my stunned older sister calls me & tells me to quit my job—to stop forcing myself through unduly stressful challenges. “They don’t care about you! They don’t appreciate you! They have no idea how valuable you are! You don’t owe them another minute of your time. You hear me? NOT A MINUTE!” She also brought up examples of other people who should have been more concerned with my current crisis than they appeared to be. She wondered why I wasn’t more disappointed.

In hindsight, it was probably because I knew I didn’t have time to be disappointed. It was all happening so fast. I came in for painful gas, maybe some acid reflux, & they offer me open heart surgery instead. My head must have been spinning. But on some level, I knew there was no time to be disappointed or sad—it was time to be strong. Resolved. Focused. That was it. “I’ll be fine,” I reassured the only member of my family who, at that point, seemed to acknowledge the gravity of my current crisis–including me. “I have to go. The nurses just told me I had to take 2 showers with surgical soap; the first one tonight before bed.” It was already past 11 pm. It had been a long day; & the next day would be worse. I rang the nurse to get me unhooked so that I could take this shower with “surgical soap” & about 5 different washcloths intended for different regions of my body.

“Did you sleep well?” The surgeon asked me around the crack of dawn. “Yes I did,” I replied. He was stunned & said so out loud. Truth be told, I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. And it was probably better that way. Had the details of what was about to happen been revealed earlier, I probably would have escaped! The surgery was nerve-racking. I actually woke up a couple of times after the surgical team had injected me with anasthesia. I saw myself in that horrifying environment under the blue surgical shroud. I had seen things that I had never asked to see. But the aftermath was the worst. I wouldn’t wish my experience on a sworn enemy—not even the Devil himself! I’m sure the Devil deserves punishment; but what kind is not for me to decide. Holed up in bed over the next 3 days in a state of constant discomfort, I realized how the powers both to inflict pain & subdue it are both sacred & require severe checks & balances.

I’m 40. If you saw me on the street, you’d think I look closer to 20. Yet here I was. A “kid” facing “real man” problems. But I’m recovering quickly. My vitals are consistently good. Even in the hospital, the staff seemed surprised at how well I was handling recovery. “If this is what you call ‘good’ I’d hate to see what you call ‘bad.’ “ They’d laugh at me. It was just humbling for me to be so dependent on so many people for so many things.

I always thought of myself as “tough,” but I never really knew for sure. Even after what I went through, I don’t feel tough or brave or strong. In fact, when I think about how severe the pain was & how terrifying everything seemed & how long the discomfort lingered long after the the violent pain had dissipated, I marvel that I got through at all! It took a lot of intervention from my Creator, but also some personal resolve. This wasn’t a challenge that I chose for myself; but once recognized, I was seeing it through. I was strong & brave not because I am all the time, but because I had to be right then.

Like Morgan said, “Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.” Yes, well said, Morgan. All life truly is precious. Given everything I’ve had to endure over the last 2 weeks, my life is not only precious, but sacred to me now. That was a choice that I did have to make for myself. But now that I have, I’m as happy on the inside as I’ve been in a long time–maybe ever.

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Darkness and Light, Part 3

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Now that I am at the end of my summer break, my sleep cycle is officially fully out of whack. I go to bed at 4 am and often wake up after noon. I’m getting better at not berating myself for this because this luxury is about to end in a few days. And because, since I’m a night owl, I feel the best in the wee hours in the morning. This is when I have my moments of clarity. When my demons lose their power to convince me that I suck. Ironically, for me, seeing the light happens in the darkness of night.

It got me thinking about all of the good/bad dichotomies. Darkness and light. Angels and demons. Joy and pain. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading all these books about God, trying to understand what it means to be good, and the answer seems to be to accept everything about ourselves–even our sins and our vices. I write about acceptance all the time, but I guess in my mind self-acceptance was still something more along the lines of, don’t hate this thing about yourself because it’s a part of you. But it’s still bad. I mean, how can you think of something like depression as good? How can I embrace something that causes me so much suffering?

Although lately I have had a better appreciation of my depression. I pride myself on being mentally tough–on being a warrior. My greatest strength in tennis is not my athletic ability but rather my mind. My determination to not let my opponent get in my head. To fight, even when I’m down 0-6, 0-5. To be able to see what I’ve done well in a loss and to learn from my mistakes.

One of the things I take the most pride in is that players on my team appreciate me as a captain, and continue to be on my team even if we lose every match, because they think I’m positive and encouraging. I mean, I award a Player of the Game and Honorable Mention in matches where we’ve lost 0-5. That is really looking on the bright side. But my bright side would not be possible without my dark side. My mental illness has strengthened my character. It has shaped the parts of me that people admire the most.

If boot camp prepares soldiers for war, then depression is the boot camp for hardship. When I look back on each depressive episode, I realize how strong I was, even though I thought I was weak at the time. How hard I was trying, even though I thought I was being lazy. How much hope I had that things would get better, even though a part of me was telling me to give up–that life was not worth living.

Having said all of this, I can’t say that I have fully embraced my depression. I’m not thrilled when it shows up. But I’m trying to accept it in the way people sign up for the military, knowing that it may cost them their life. Or the way that people choose to get married for richer or poorer, in sickness and health. The way parents choose to have children, knowing the heartache that comes from loving so deeply.

Joy and pain. Angels and demons. Darkness and light. I will choose all of these, because I believe our task in this life is to fully embrace what it means to be human.

On Being Good

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I worry a lot about being good. I know we don’t have to be perfect because God loves us as we are, but that message is hard to reconcile with the idea of earning our way into heaven.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I’m not trying to criticize God or anything, but it sort of seems like it was a set up. I mean, any parent who put some forbidden object in a room and said, you can play with any toy you want to except for that one, they would probably not be terribly surprised if their child disobeyed them.

I remember reading a book by Harold Kushner called How Good Do We Have to Be? a while back in which he gave a different interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve, but I can’t remember what it was. So then I almost bought the book again, but I think it’s at work. I’m off for the summer, and my office is 45 minutes away, so I don’t want to drive all the way to work to get it. But I don’t want to spend money on a book I already have, either. So I decided to buy his latest book, Nine Essential Things I Learned About Life. Hopefully the answer is in there.

And since I’m apparently on some spiritual quest, I also started reading Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh, which a friend recommended, and Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. I figured between a Jewish rabbi, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and a Franciscan priest, someone would have the answer on how to be good.

Surprisingly, they do all have a common denominator. And the answer is, our task in life is not to be good: it is to know ourselves. And it is only through self-knowledge that we can know God. And it is only when we know that God is within us and within everyone that we can love everyone and everything.

That’s deep. Too deep for me to fully comprehend at the moment. But then again, I’ve just started reading all 3 books. But I have to say, in a time where some kind of act of mass violence seems to happen every day, it’s comforting that there is something specific we can do to bring about peace.

But self-knowledge? How does that work? How can self-awareness lead to some kind of radical change in how we treat one another? Today I read from Richard Rohr, and here are some quotes that I found particularly thought-provoking:

You cannot prove yourself worthy of this God. Feeling God’s presence is simply a matter of awareness. Of enjoying the now. Deepening one’s presence.

Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters?….Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies….If we try to exclude some (sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays, or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there. We don’t yet understand. If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred, too.

So today I have been reflecting on these words. I’ve been trying to get to know myself, accept all of the things that make me who I am–especially the parts I don’t like, as these wise men suggest. Which is the purpose of my blog, anyway.

It’s funny, when I started this blog, it wasn’t meant to be some kind of spiritual quest, but it seems like it’s turning out to be one.

Reincarnation and Karma

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Personally, I really like the idea of reincarnation. Having one lifetime to get our act together seems like the equivalent of a timed test. Since God is so forgiving, it makes more sense to me that He would give us as much time as we need to get it right.

In a previous post I wrote about reading Edgar Cayce’s biography. He is one of the few known documented psychics, and his readings are Christian-based. One of the things that I found most interesting is that Cayce said that reincarnation is consistent with Christianity. That in the period during which they were trying to promote Christianity over paganism, the powers that be left out the part about reincarnation because they thought it would be too discouraging: it’s hard enough to try to be good in one lifetime, let alone multiple lifetimes.

Also, Cayce found that when he would do readings where he told people about their past lives, people would become complacent if they found out they had been something loftier in a previous life. While it might be cool to find out that you were once a King or Queen, in reality this means that you have fallen from grace and need to work harder in this life to move back up the Karmic ladder.

I also like the idea of Karma because, while it gives us feedback on how to live our lives, it does so without judgment. In “Lovingkindness,” Sharon Salzberg says that there is no reason to condemn others because in our past lives we have done everything:

We have loved, hated, feared, killed, raped, stolen, given, served….Through beginingless and ongoing rounds of rebirth, we are all one another’s parents, children, friends, lovers, and enemies, over and over again….How then can we feel self-righteous or removed from anyone or any action?

And just as Karma is not about judging others, it is also not about judging ourselves and beating ourselves up for our mistakes. Rather, people who commit loving acts live in good health, strength, and abundance, while people who commit harmful acts experience pain, disease, and weakness. This was really helpful to read, because I judge myself based on what I think I deserve and don’t deserve all the time. And it does kind of hurt my feelings when I say stuff like that.

Salzberg says that we create a field of influences which is made up of skillful and unskillful (not good and bad) actions. If we have many more unskillful than skillful acts, this creates a field that makes it more likely that we will experience negative consequences. If, on the other hand, we commit to restraint, mindfulness, and lovingkindness with an occasional unskillful act–because nobody’s perfect and we all do harmful things, as she said in the quote above–the flow of our lives becomes like a vast and open space in which the impact of the unskillful acts is diluted.

I have to admit, because of my obsessive nature, I would like a more precise recommendation on the ratio of skillful to unskillful acts to get a better sense of whether I’m on the right track. But I’m hoping that if you spend time reading books on lovingkindness, that adds to the spaciousness of your field of influences.

Suffering and Compassion, Part 2

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It’s been a while since I’ve felt the need to make a confession on my blog because practicing self-acceptance makes me obsess a lot less about what a terrible sinner I am. But I feel the need to make a confession today because, despite my best efforts, I was not able to make myself go to church yesterday, even though Palm Sunday is my favorite mass–even more so than Christmas and Easter.

In my defense, I suck at waking up early unless it is absolutely necessary. And even though it was the first day of spring, it was cold and gloomy. And my brother was supposed to go with me but then he decided not to. However, I imagine that when you go to confession, which I rarely did, you’re not supposed to list all of your excuses for why you have sinned. In a way I guess that’s a good thing, because it’s just assumed that you will sin, so you’re merely updating God on your latest ones. Even though he already knows what they are. But I can appreciate why you need to acknowledge them before you are forgiven for them.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my favorite part of the mass on Palm Sunday is the reading of the Passion. In particular, I like the part where Jesus prays to God, asking him if there’s any way he can not have to go through all of the pain and suffering that await him, but he’ll do it if he has to. Because I say this prayer all the time, and it’s comforting to know that Jesus felt the same way I do about pain and suffering: he didn’t want to have to experience it unless it was absolutely necessary. In fact, he was in such torment about it that his tears turned into blood. That’s how sucky pain and suffering are.

I like Buddhism because it gives me specific things to do while I’m in pain. I find practicing mindfulness and compassion extremely helpful in this regard. But reading about its philosophy on pain and suffering doesn’t quite capture the anguish that I experience in the midst of it. That’s what I like about Christianity: everything about Holy Week is meant to remind you how much Jesus suffered so that we can be forgiven. He experienced fear, betrayal, humiliation, and physical pain, just to name a few.

It makes me feel better to know that Jesus really knew what it was like to be in agony. Kind of like when I took swimming lessons as a kid early in the morning and the water was really cold and we’d be complaining about it and the instructor would be like, oh it’s not that bad. Except he wasn’t in the pool. He was just standing there on the side of the pool, telling us what to do without actually having to be wet and cold.

Ok, maybe that’s not a great example, but hopefully you know what I mean. For me, when I ask myself what Jesus would do as an example of how to live my life, it helps to know that  he really understands the pain of being human.

My niece drew this picture when she was about 4 years old. It was a Christmas card to her dad, even though it’s more appropriate for Easter. Because back then she was fascinated by the pain and suffering that Jesus went through. So it seems fitting to include it now.