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Throwing Away the Trash

Affirmation: I freely forgive myself and others.

The topic of the NPR story was about the abolition of the death penalty. What type of response do you have to the phrase “death penalty?” You must have given it some thought. The Old Testament promotes, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” (Exodus 21:24) Then, Jesus came along and promoted a whole new concept, forgiveness. Even at the end when He had been unjustly toured and crucified He prayed for His executioners, for all of us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24)

I think of this quote often. Someone once commented to me that He did not say, “Father, I forgive them for they know not what they do” or even “Father, I forgive them even if they know what they are doing.” I’m sure there are many biblical scholars who have dissected these last words of Christ that are much more qualified to fully explain all the implications of His petition; I am not one of them. I am simply trying to absorb the lesson that even after Our Lord was put to death because some people did not approve of Him healing the sick, raising the dead, and protecting and promoting the care of those who most needed love and care; He refused to hold onto the burning coal of hatred. In His final moments He was teaching us His greatest lesson.

As I drove along that day the story being discussed on the radio was about the death penalty in China and the tradition that allows a family member of the victim to actively participate in the execution of the offender by removing the support from under the person who is to be hung. The narrator told of a young man who had been stabbed to death by another young man and the mother of the victim had chosen to perform the execution. She approached the condemned, reached up and slapped him and then reached out and helped him down from his perch. She then went over and took the hand of the mother of the condemned man. The story resonated throughout China and now it was being shared with the rest of the world. Because of her action, the Chinese authorities were reconsidering their tradition. Because of her act of forgiveness, some of the world’s conscience was being awakened.

Why do most of us find it so difficult to forgive, me included? I am not normally angry. I’ll get hurt before I respond with anger. Perhaps that’s just another form of anger. Sometimes, however, I’m angry at institutions, authorities or systems. Sometimes I’m angry with individuals. I can be angry with strangers, friends and worst of all, with people I love. Some small injurious word or behavior and I can feel the resentment building. Most of the time just when I think I’m “over” something that has happened, I don’t even realize I haven’t let go of the perceived injury or intentional slight or harm but then some reminder comes along and I’m back with my sad response. I can recall events from decades ago that still cause my body to tighten up but most times I don’t even recognize the emotion. Sometimes when the anger arrives the feeling puzzles me because it is so rare for me to respond in an angry manner. The point is, however, whether or not anger or hurt feelings come quickly or slowly, responding appropriately and then releasing it is not only to your benefit, but to the world’s.

The question that sometimes comes to my mind is, “What do I know to be true; what do I believe absolutely with all of my mind and my heart?” “The only important thing in life is to love and to forgive.” This is a quote from a wise older woman who was from my Small Christian Community. I believe with all my mind, body and soul that the above statement is absolutely true. Richard Rohr, one of my favorite spiritual teachers explains the Beatitudes in this way, “Jesus seems to be saying, our inner attitudes and states are the real sources of our problems. How we live in our hearts is our real truth.” When I can carry only love in my heart and my body and when I can release myself from any resentment, my life is rich and rewarding and peaceful. My life is then filled with hope and joy and I am able to take those emotions, those qualities with me out into the world.

One of my morning meditations took me into a subway station. What am I doing here, I pondered? On the station were 6 briefcases evenly spaced along the edge. The train came and five people picked up a case and boarded. I went over to the sixth case and looked down. It had my name on it and so I opened it. It was filled with trash. It was filled with the resentments of yesterday, perhaps of my whole life? I carried it up out of the subway, found a trash can and threw it away. Perhaps like most of the garbage in my life, I need to gather those resentments up periodically and toss them out. Perhaps with practice, I can throw away all those resentments and other junk that interfere with the love and joy with which I want my life to be surrounded.

The Chinese woman in the story was changing the world because of her ability to forgive. I believe we are called upon to do the same and that with the softening of our hearts; we too will change the world.

Focusing on the Positive

Affirmation:  I have the power to choose the positive over the negative.  

Father Richard Rohr, prolific writer and teacher, has a daily e-mail missive that is published by him and his organization, The Center for Action and Contemplation.  One of my daily practices is to read something motivational in the morning and inspirational in the evening.  Sometimes, actually many times, one reading can prove to be both.  Father Rohr’s writings often fall into the dual category. Father Rohr is a Franciscan friar and much of his theology and philosophy stems from the writings and practices of Saint Francis.  I have also been told his approach to religion can be somewhat controversial.  He has a very inclusive approach to God and spirit; you wouldn’t think that would spark any controversy but it does.  He doesn’t follow all the rules.  His focus is on one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  He speaks a lot about non-dualistic thinking and the non-dualistic mind.  He encourages his readers and followers not to judge.  He encourages simply observing, not labeling.  I find his advice to be so very refreshing, also quite yogic, also very Zen.  

One of his exercises in The Naked Now directs one to focus his or her attention on a single object and just to observe it.  What purpose could that possibly serve you might ask?  A dear friend of mine is part of my church study group and we are presently reading The Naked Now.  She wasn’t too enamored with Father Rohr’s teachings but she is a good student and followed his suggestion.  She found a chair on which to focus in a doctor’s waiting room.  Her eyes settled on it and she shared that her first thought was, “That is the ugliest chair I have ever seen!”  She’s quite a remarkable woman, a searcher, looking to increase her faith and grow to know God better.  She shared how powerful that moment was for her.  If she couldn’t even focus on a chair without judgement, how was she approaching the really important things and especially the people in her life?  It’s a very challenging practice to learn to simply observe and not to judge.  It may be even harder according to some studies to judge something in a positive light than a negative light.  

Today’s reading, this February 19,2016, from The Center for Action and Contemplation, Father Rohr wrote about how important but challenging it is to focus on the positive.  
Dan O’Grady, a psychologist and Living School student, told me recently that our negative and critical thoughts are like Velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive and joyful thoughts are like Teflon, they slide away. We have to deliberately choose to hold onto positive thoughts before they “imprint.”
Neuroscience can now demonstrate the brain indeed has a negative bias; the brain prefers to constellate around fearful, negative, or problematic situations. In fact, when a loving, positive, or unproblematic thing comes your way, you have to savor it consciously for at least fifteen-seconds before it can harbor and store itself in your “implicit memory;” otherwise it doesn’t stick. We must indeed savor the good in order to significantly change our regular attitudes and moods and we need to strictly monitor all the “Velcro” negative thoughts.”

No matter what I read or hear about concerning the mind the message is the same; we have the God given free will to control what we think.  We get to choose our thoughts.  It’s a gift.  It’s given freely.  Maybe the power we have over our thoughts is another phrase for “grace.”  Grace, freely given to whomever requests it.
I heard a story about a man who was traveling through the South in the US and ordered toast and eggs for breakfast at a local diner.  When the breakfast came there was also a white looking “cereal” on the plate.  He said to the waitress, “What is that?”  she explained they were grits.  He told her he hadn’t ordered grits.  She said, “Honey, you don’t have to order grits.  They just come.”  The story was being told to emphasize that grace is just like grits in the South.  You don’t order it, it just comes.  I loved this story but, I thought, you still must choose whether or not to eat the grits.  I believe Grace is like that too.  We must decide whether or not to accept the Grace.  We must decide whether or not we are going to focus on the “fearful, negative or problematic situations,” or if we are going to focus on joy, hope, peace, love and gratitude.  

This is one of the reasons I write in my daily journal three joys from the previous day and one joy to which I am looking forward for the present day.  It forces me to concentrate throughout the day on those things that bring me joy so that I can remember them for the next morning.  Today a Blue Heron swooped as I sat to begin my mediation and then a Pelican came along and finally before I closed my eyes one of the two Osprey that seem to be nesting close by soared above me.  I just sat and absorbed the awe I felt as these amazing creatures flew by.  If you assumed I am somewhere close to the sea at this time, you would be correct.  

My husband and I chose to spend some time in Florida for one of my significant birthdays.  We went online last year to Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) and chose a home.  We got a larger than needed home with the hope that our children and grandchildren and as many friends as possible would come and stay with us and would celebrate with us.  This was our first VRBO rental and it has been quite an adventure.  It began before we left home when a friend warned me of potential scams; people advertise proper that’s not theirs or doesn’t even exist.  I did my due diligence and alleviated myself of that worry.  The house did exist.  We arrived and there it was.  It looked like an estate located somewhere other than the United States, maybe somewhere in South America or some island somewhere.  The first thing we noticed was an abandoned car on the side lawn.  The garage portico was filled with all sorts of plastic chairs and tables, heaters and who knows what else; stuff that would be used for a very large event.  
The owner met us at the front door.  She and her family had been cleaning all day.  We took a deep breath and entered.  The furniture was very dated, beyond antique status and there was a huge Christmas wreath still hanging over the fireplace.  The wires for the lights were hanging off of it.  I think we were so stunned we didn’t have any words.  We had rented this place for a few weeks and I’m not sure what recourse we had other than to suck it up and make the best of it.  Does it sound like I only focused on the negative?  Well, it’s true.  The tale becomes even more bazaar but I’m not going to go into any more detail at this point.

Now comes the part where I have to decide if I’m going to focus on that abandoned car and Christmas wreath or the fresh flowers and chocolates the owner put everywhere or the heated pool out back or the views from the windows out of the back of the house, the views that allowed me to sit quietly and watch the Blue Heron, the Pelican and the Osprey soar gloriously through the air and bring me one or maybe three of my joys to record for the next day.  Dan O’Grady is right.  That negative stuff stuck to me like Velcro.  It took quite a few days to get it off of me and to come to the point where I could focus on the positive, on the joys that were available to us in this VRBO adventure.  It’s good we have the power to choose.  It’s good I’ve been practicing for quite a while.  I chose to find the joy, the grace and the blessings of a husband and a family that wanted to celebrate this life of mine of which I’ve been so blessed to live.

Claim Your Power, Choose Your Perceptions

Affirmation: I have the power to choose my perceptions of all the events of my life.

 

images-2We are presently into the third week of 2016. It’s the beginning of a whole new year. Many people have shared with me their goals or resolutions. One person when describing her expectation of the new year used the word “awesome!” Another told me she always gets excited at the beginning of a new year with all the possibilities that will be presented to her. Certainly we get to choose how we want to imagine our unknown future. I have one person in my life who says she doesn’t imagine the future at all. She simply allows it to unfold, there’s no expectation of any sort. Do you think that’s actually possible? She must be making plans for some things and she, I would imagine is planning for a good or at least a pleasant outcome. When we start out on an adventure, and yes a new year (even a new day) is the beginning of an adventure, we will normally carry in our minds and hearts some sense of anticipation. When the angels appeared to the shepherd to announce the beginning of Jesus’ life here on earth they heralded, “Be not afraid.” They were offering them a choice and guiding them to be at peace. Our response to what happens to us is in most respects what we get to choose. We may be anxious about the unknown but we can choose whether we want to be excited or filled with fear.

womens-retreat-1At this year’s Immaculate Conception women’s retreat I found myself pondering the question of how to hold the future events of my life in a positive, blessed light? I began by trying to believe that everything that will happen to me will be for my good and while that may be true, the real truth is there are some things that I would rather avoid, even if they are for my good. I guess it’s like not wanting to require medicine in order to get over some illness or even not having to eat Kale in order to stay healthy. When unpleasant things arise and someone shares with me that’s it’s probably for my benefit, I think of my husband Sandy’s expression when he says, “that’s like practicing bleeding.” It’s not anything with which anyone wants to deal. So, I began to go around asking people how they make peace with all the aspects of their lives, those we label “bad” or “disagreeable” or worst of all “disastrous.”

 

The Seekers, one of my study groups, usually does a year end review together and we present a few questions to help shape the vision of the future year. This year we have chosen several questions from Sarah Susanka, renown architect and author of The Not So Big House and The Not So Big Life. She actually sent out the questions to promote a workshop she was presenting in Chapel Hill. I share them here for your perusal:

 

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What has inspired you over the past year?

  • What were your sorrows and disappointments from the year, and how have you been changed by them?
  • What were your enthusiasms, accomplishments, creations and joys, and how have you been changed by them?
  • What new patterns of behavior have you adopted over the past year, and what effects have they had?
  • How are you different this year than you were last year at this time?
  • Are there any things you are being asked to do right now that you are rejecting?
  • What recent synchronicities do you recall?
  • To what part of yourself are you giving birth?
  • Specifically what is it that you wish to focus on or experience in the coming year?

Father Jude Siciliano was our retreat facilitator this year. He leads gently, not with commands but with a soft voice and reflective questions and readings. This year he opened the first session with Rumi’s The Guest House.

 

 

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images-3This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

What does it take to “welcome them all in?” Once I learn to do that will I have peace, will I no longer carry fear and anxiety with me into the unknown? If my faith is true and strong will I be protected and gently cared for and be spared the travails and disasters of life? If they do come is it because I wasn’t “good enough” or faithful enough? This was my question to all I met as I began this new year? I am pleased to share that I have found the answer or perhaps a better phrase would be that I have been blessed with an answer.

Unknown-1The answer, for me, is that life will happen no matter how strong or great my faith. Life will present challenges and disappointments no matter how many positive affirmations I create to try to avoid suffering. Pain is a part of our human existence and no one gets to go through life without it. Sometimes it’s in small things, like a festering splinter or a bad cold and sometimes it’s heart wrenching and debilitating. We all know what those events can look like. There’s a popular phrase used in the media right now, to paraphrase it it says, “stuff happens.” We may be able to welcome it all in, like Rumi suggests but it’s the challenge of a lifetime. What I have discovered is that after, yes after, not normally during, I will get to choose how I want to perceive the “stuff.” Will I see it for the blessing it can be, it may have brought, the lessons I may have received or will it remain nothing but continued pain and suffering? I began to make peace with who I am and how I have previously responded to the challenges of my life and I realized that with my faith, from all these years of practicing my faith, I have the free will to choose how I shape that experience, no matter how I labeled it at the moment of its conception. I am a strong, resourceful, loving person and I fully recognize that things will happen to me that will knock me down but I also believe that I have created the inner and outer resources to rise up again and to believe that I can,

“meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

So in answer to Sarah Susanka’s last question, for the following year I want to focus on the fact that I can choose to believe 2016 will be exciting because I know I get to choose my response to whatever happens to me and I choose “Awesome.” In fact, I’ve decided to choose “Awesome” for the rest of my life.

The Devil’s Tool

Affirmation: I Choose Joy.

Joy to the world! The Lord has come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room

The 2016 Christmas season is here as I write this. Christmas day has come and gone but the season itself lasts until January 6th, Three Kings’ Day. I had spent the beginning of the season preparing for Christmas. I was ready. The question, however, that I kept asking myself was for what had I, we, all of us been preparing?

st._michael__event_image-1At the beginning of Advent Father Ryan at Saint Michael the Archangel Catholic Church offered a suggestion to help the faithful prepare. He simply suggested that we focus on joy. It’s such a simple suggestion, so simple but like so many things in life, so very difficult. Maybe not for everyone but I have a feeling it’s true for many people especially at this time of year when we are being reminded, have been reminded for many weeks about how the season “should” look and feel.

I’ve been facilitating a group at A Place for Women to Gather here in Raleigh, North Carolina for the last few months of 2015. We call it “A Sacred Circle.” There are half a dozen women who participate, sometimes more. We take some time to center and talk some about our journaling process. We each create a positive affirmation to focus on for the month, or perhaps the year or maybe for our entire lives. The question I usually ask is, “Do you find that focusing on your affirmation has made any difference in your life?” Let’s face it, if you’re working on living intentionally and you aren’t seeing or feeling any difference, you should find another approach; although I believe with all my being that if you’re truly working on this process of journaling and writing out your affirmations, it cannot not work. The answer is usually “definitely.” I share this with you because my affirmation for December ( or perhaps forever) is, “I focus on the joy in all things.” How, you may ask, has that worked for me?

My gifted acupuncturist, Jennifer Spain, of Ancient Elements Accupuncture always seems to have a lesson for me along with the healing she encourages. Maybe the two can’t be separated. One of our sessions focused on how we manifest reality. I’ve always believed in that principle. It’s another of my affirmations, “I am always manifesting. I manifest my highest and best.” She took this to another level when she proposed that everything that becomes “real” begins energetically. I must admit I forget that we are energy. We are pure energy, just like the moon and the stars, the flowers and the trees, the hills and the dales. It’s hard to imagine that our solid forms are a zillion little atoms and other forms of energy that appear to be solid but that’s the reality. Not only are we first formed by “intention” but everything that comes about begins with a thought, either consciously or unconsciously. Recognizing this concept brings a whole new importance to choosing our thoughts. Do I want to manifest joy or do I manifest fear and anxiety and all the other negative emotions that bring sadness and gloom?

Have you ever been rolling along feeling great and having fun when all of a sudden some unsettling thought pops into your head? I was sitting at a delightful concert with my husband when out of the blue I began to become anxious about some event that I was imagining might take place at sometime in the future. I couldn’t believe what I was doing to myself. All of a sudden my heart was beating too fast, my hands became sweaty and my muscles were feeling achy. Where, how, why was this going on? The joy I had been feeling just moments before was sucked out and I was in “fight or flight” mode. I felt terrible. How did this benefit me? Who did it benefit? Was this how my loving God wanted me to feel? I don’t think so.

images-1There’s a lot of stories about the devil. Of course, it all begins for most Christians with Genesis and the creation story of the Garden of Eden. The story is that he took the form of a snake and transformed the garden into the world we have now. He, Satan, did not want those two people, Adam and Eve, or for that matter any of us to be content and happy. Whether or not you take the tale literally the message is the same. There is a force beyond our understanding that relishes our state of suffering; not only does it relish it, it does whatever is necessary to promote it. As I sat at that concert and felt that feeling of panic come over me, I decided the devil was moving in using his or her tools to sap my joy and my peace. Once I discovered who or what was at work here, I could then chase it away with a command to “go to hell” or “get behind me Satan” and reclaim my equilibrium. The devil may have tools but I have tools too. I have prayer and faith and a brain that I can use to foster those skills that sooth me and lift me up and one that has changed my life is deciding how and what I want to claim. I claim joy!

Tom Hanks portrayed James Donovan in the film Bridge of Spies. It’s the story of the Cold War and an attorney who is asked by his government to facilitate the swap of a prisoner of war between Russia and the US. The spy is played by the veteran actor Mark Rylance. Tom Hanks keeps asking him if he’s worried, frightened, anxious? And the spy, Rudolph Abel keeps answering with the phase, “Would that make a difference?” Since its release several people have mentioned this movie to me and each one has focused on that phase. “Would that make a difference?” Everyone seemed to understand that it would not. The challenge is to move that understanding from our heads to our hearts. Once we’ve accomplished that, we will be in a very good place.

MV5BNDkzODEyOTU0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzQyNDI5NjE40._V1_UY100_CR252C02C1002C100_AL_My preparation for Christmas revolved around my affirmation created during our December Sacred Circle, “I choose joy in all things” and I found that it did definitely make a difference in how I approached not only the season but each activity in which I participated, each person with whom I interacted, and most importantly each moment I was able to let the intention of claiming joy reside in my heart.

May you too have a Blessed, Joyful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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