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Spirituality

I am feeling very quiet and reserved today. I am inclined to want to daydream, and can’t imagine doing anything too complex or focussed. I have been doing some professional organising work over the last couple of weeks and this seems to be my reaction the day after a big job.

The work I have been doing has been quite intensive sorting of a large volume of things in a home which is no longer occupied. The task at hand is sometimes heavy, as when emptying kitchen cupboards, and sometimes highly detailed, when sorting through small items like jewellery. The most demanding of all is the paperwork, as each item needs to be checked to see if it is relevant or important to keep. I become extremely focussed on the one small area that I am working on, and this tends to make me quiet and withdrawn, although others are around me.

Sorting through someone else’s belongings is an excellent lesson in impermanence. You encounter remnants from various aspects of life, at various times. You also see that things don’t wait. Its not a philosophical exercise, its something you experience in the sights and smells around you. Things go yellow or mouldy, they go hard in the jar, they disintegrate. In the meantime, nature abhors a vacuum, and little animals and insects are more than happy to fill the void left by humans and leave evidence of their activities.

There is a buddhist practice which involves sitting in a graveyard and contemplating death and the decay of the body. Its an advanced practice in understanding impermanence that most people would find very confronting. Clearing a house that has been left to its own devices for a few years is a gentler way of coming face to face with the impact of time and change. Even though the things were not my your own, or a loved ones, I found it is sobering to be so absorbed the evidence of the passage of time.

 

 

My various experiments in blogging, website design and online selling have given me an opportunity to reflect on how computers help us to do work. If you are starting from scratch, you decide in advance what you are dealing with and set rules about what you want to happen, then someone sets up a computer program to make it happen that way. If the computer program has already been written, as is the case with a pre-existing online selling website, or a blogging platform, most of that work has been done, and you need to work out how to achieve what you want to do within the confines of existing features of the application.

This automated nature of the computer applications means is a lot of effort goes into modelling scenarios and building solutions based on what might happen and how it might be dealt with before it actually happens.  Computers aren’t less work, they are a different type of work. Setting them up is not easy. Establishing the requirements for a computer application, building, testing and maintaining it is difficult work that deals with minute details and complex rules and operations. Customising an existing applications to your needs presents the challenge of working within pre-existing assumptions and solutions that might not be a good fit for your situation.

This digital age has created a lot of employment opportunities for knowledge workers, who are paid to focus their abilities and intelligence on these types of highly complex problems. Its can be interesting and challenging work that engages the mind and makes strong demands on the intellect. Knowledge workers are presented with an endless stream of problems to investigate, analyse and solve. Problems so complex that you have to get totally absorbed in the details to be able to do the work. Problems so complex that you lose yourself in them, and wake up at night trying to resolve them. Problems so complex that they take up an enormous amount of disc space in your consciousness, at the cost of other potential objects of your attention.

I suspect this need to become deeply absorbed in the work in order to do it well, and the tendency for it to spill over into free time, is a reason why some people feel the urge to resist or rebel against technology work. This may be one reason why people “play” on the internet when they are supposed to be working. They want to infuse their consciousness with something that speaks to their own identity, rather than having a head full of technical problems. It may be why some people long to quit their job and “follow their passion”. Of course if we work in IT applying out attention to the task at hand is what we are paid for, and those of us who are conscientious strive to do that well. But there can be an underlying fear that devoting so much time and attention to our work is causing us to miss out.

My recent experience with trying to set up rules to calculate postage rates for potential online sales reminded me of the all consuming nature of knowledge work. While my mind was spinning over how to solve this issue it was very difficult to connect with other people who were right in front of me, or other projects that I wanted to work on. I felt consumed by the problem I was trying to solve in my head and it was distancing me from other things that were important. I am good at analysis and problem solving because I DO throw myself into a problem and get involved in all the detailed complexity. I DO put all my resources into coming up with a solution to a messy multi-faceted scenario.  But that commitment to the task and absorption in its logic does not leave a lot of space for anything else. It can be such an effort to get a grasp on the details of a specific issue, it can be difficult to put it down over lunch, or at the end of the day.

Creativity, writing, photography, relationships, spiritual development. These are the things that are important to me. There is an opportunity cost to performing well in a demanding full time job, and these are the causalities. I don’t want to be ignoring the people around me because my head is  full of a complex abstract problem. I don’t want nights and weekends to reduced to “recovery time”. When I am on my death bed, I don’t want to be reflecting on my ability to analyse data, processes and applications. I will on occasion lend my attention to solving problems and puzzles, for work or fun. But I will be guarding against the high-jacking of my consciousness to the detriment of people and projects that are important to me.  At this time in my life, I want to use the best of my time, attention and creativity for my own priorities.

I am the kind of person who likes to start any project by reading. At one point I did a lot of reading about distance running and found it really interesting and inspiring. I didn’t actually do any distance running. I went through a Tour de France period (drug free) but the only cycling I did was at the gym. Its not necessarily a bad thing to read outside your experience, as there are usually other aspects of life where you can apply the learning. Even so I sometimes feel that reading and learning can get in the way of doing.

When I wanted to get fit I joined the gym and toyed with reading my books on personal training. (These books are unreadably boring in my opinion, and I never get very far). The reality is, I know enough. I know enough about walking, running, yoga and pilates to start my own fitness programme. I could just do it.

Its similar with meditation. I know enough to meditate effectively. I have more than enough techniques.  Way, way more than enough. In this case, I probably know too much. My learning has exceeded my practice. It feels encouraging to read about other peoples experiences of meditation; it makes me feel a part of something. But when the book is finished, I need to find another book so I can stay involved. In reality, one book is enough. One book on meditation contains everything you need to make a good start. But its not actually in the book. You have to practice it for yourself.

I was reading a self help book this morning and started to feel like I was drowning in advice that I already knew, or didn’t agree with. Do I really need more input, or is it just a habit? Taking in more and more, I feel like I am working towards my goals. But there comes a point when you need to move beyond learning, and focus on acting.

For those of us interested in simplifying, we reach a point where we have to confront what we are simplifying for. What are we going to do with the space. There is a lot of purposeful activity at the start of the process as we jettison unnecessary stuff from our lives. Ironically simplifying brings us face to face with our physical stuff in a very concrete way. For a while, we think about our things and how to manage them more than we did before. But what happens next? What happens when you have what you need, and not a whole lot more? What happens when have your shopping under control and you are satisfied with a modest lifestyle?

I don’t know if blogs on minimalism and simplicity can answer the question of what happens next, because that’s a very personal issue that will vary for each of us. I think of the monk or nun who chooses a simplified life in order to devote their life to spiritual practice. Their attention is not on what they don’t have, or what they gave up. Its on the practice, the thing they made space for. Of course some of us who simplify will go on the teach and encourage others to do the same. But for some the simpler life becomes a backdrop for something else.

For me the struggle with material consumption has died down, and I am facing the other things that I consume. Information, ideas, entertainment. Always taking in more and more. Always keeping my mind busy, challenged and entertained. Looking for the next thought and project to eat up.

At the start of this new year I am taking some time to reflect that in this area too, I have sufficient. I am full of ideas, full of learning, full of self help tips. I know enough to start doing things that I want to be doing.P1030988

In the Buddhist tradition, practitioners take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community of believers). I have just finished a book Singing for Freedom by a Tibetan buddhist nun, Ani Choying Drolma which provides another perspective on taking, and giving refuge.

Choying grew up amongst Tibetan exiles in Nepal. She was subjected to frequent beatings by her father who was consumed with anger, fueled by alcohol. She also witnessed first hand the beatings and verbal abuse dished out to her long-suffering mother, which made her reluctant to marry. At the age of 13 Ani has a realisation that she can take refuge from brutality be becoming a Buddhist nun. Once she is promised as a nun, she is no longer subjected to beatings, and after a few years is able to live in safety in the monastery.

From the protection of the revered position of nun, and with the guidance of her teacher, Ani is able to deal with her own anger and bring about improvements in her family situation, eventually becoming like a parent to her parents as the roles shift over time.

Ani is not a passive and submissive nun by any means. She has a beatiful singing voice and is able to earn money singing in concerts in the USA and Europe, and eventually reaches fame in her home country of Nepal. Ani sought out this work as a singer, not for fame, but in order to make money to build a school for young nuns. Eventually she is able to build a school which is a refuge from abuse and poverty for many young women whose life options are otherwise very limited.

We often think of the life of a nun as a life of restriction and denial, but Ani Choying Drolma turnes this perception on its head. For her, it is a life of independence and autonomy, that allows her  the freedom to pursue her own priorities. Having taken refuge as a girl, she builds a refuge for other young women suffering as she had done.

My favourite line in the book is spoken by her teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche when Ani is struggling with her anger at her father for his abuse. He says:

‘Think about this too. The lotus is born in the mud, but its flower is always white and clean. This is our greatest challenge: to live at the heart of the problem and not to be undermined by it. That is the joy of freedom.’

I am reading a book by Shirley MacLaine called “I’m Over all That” which was written quite recently in her 70s. It is a series of brief reflections on a variety of topics, quite similar to blog posts. Shirley has a reputation for being very open-minded, and she touches on her belief in past-lifes and extra-terrestiral visitors in her book. Although I don’t share those beliefs, I don’t think its crazy to think that way. A lot of belief systems have elements that outsiders find hard comprehend. I see our different beliefs about the nature of the universe as ways to comprehend the incomprehensible mystery of life. Mostly they are imperfect representations of the truth – they each capture some of the essence and miss some of the substance.

You can’t read Shirley MacLaine without reflecting on life and what it all means. I don’t tend to think in terms of reincarnation. Nor do I see myself as being put onto earth for a pre-ordained purpose, or think that life events happen for a pre-determined reason to teach us something specific. I guess this is because I don’t think in terms of a separate intelligence that is setting things up for us outside our own experience. I think more in terms of life as an evolving web of connections. I believe in karma, not in the sense that you will be punished in the future for what you do now, but in the sense that every event has an impact on what comes next. Rather than saying “everything happens for  a reason” I would say “everything happens because of a series of inter-related causes”. Each unfolding moment is a choice point that is going to reverberate into the future in one way or another. Our choices are important because the create the shape of the future.

Given that I don’t think I was put on earth “for a specific purpose” I need to find a way to make sense of my experience which can be a basis for decisions about the future. My equivalent of a life purpose, would be a life theme. Although I don’t feel like I have been given a specific life assignment by an external agency, it does seem that my life has reflected certain themes and challenges. Working through these themes has become my life’s work, because thats how my life has played out.

Shirley MacLaine would say that we have many lives, and each has its own lessons that we need to work through. This would be similar some traditional buddhist beliefs. I don’t know if the same soul returns to the world to accumulate learning through many lifetimes, and I am not sure if it matters. I am just going to concentrate on learning what I can from this lifetime. If we all do that, we add to the collective learning of humanity over time, whether it is transmitted spiritually or socially and culturally.

What I like about the idea of a life theme is that it allows me to focus on working with the theme, and to let go the feeling that I have to achieve everything in one lifetime. My life theme is to do with personal development, creativity, spirituality and meaning at a personal level. My gut feeling is that I will be happiest if I accept that, and focus my energies on fulfilling that theme.

My theme – my life – has not been about romantic relationships, marriage, and children. That has never been a focus for me. Every so often I get the idea that my life is not balanced because I haven’t ticked all the boxes. Occasional attempts to go out and find a partner have never worked out because they didn’t come from a deep need to have a partner, or an emerging connection with a real person. Maybe thats a similar story for some other people who are single.

I am going to give some thought as to how I can live out my life’s theme without being sidetracked into trying to fulfil idealised images of the perfectly rounded successful life. I want to focus on the lessons and challenges directly in front of me. Life is like a work of art to be crafted. In the process of creation, decisions have to be made. Many options will be rejected, or allowed to slip by, in order to preserve the beauty of the creation.

Fast on the heels of my contemplation of Luck, I am now thinking about Happiness. This was prompted by watching an interview with Gretchen Rubin, author of the book The Happiness Project, and the blog of the same name. The great thing about Gretchen’s Project is that it focuses on ordinary things that we can do in our everyday lives to help us to experience more happiness. Gretchen acknowledges that there is a significant element of heredity in our personalities which has a strong influence on how we respond to life. However there is a proportion of our experience that is within our control, based on what we choose to think and do. The idea of the Happiness Project is to operate at the top of our available range – to be as happy as we can be.

Gretchen focusses on everyday choices which can improve our day to day experiences. Its about increasing the things that make us happy, and reducing the things that make us unhappy. However its not a simplistic approach. Gretchen is conscious that sometimes what makes us happy in the long term might be uncomfortable in the short term. She also points out that people need to feel that they are growing, and happiness can be derived from a context of growth.

Gretchen outlines Twelve Commandments which she aims to follow. The first of these is Be Gretchen. Of course we can all substitute our own names here, although I do see some similarities between myself and Gretchen. We are both serious minded, methodical, thoughtful types who feel the need to give a bit of time and thought to happiness. Gretchen is very generous in her description of her own journey, and the things that she struggles with. I can certainly relate to her descriptions of the difficulty of trying not to over-react to frustrating situations.

Thinking about everyday happiness reminds me of times when I have come across rare and exceptional people who radiate happiness. I am not talking about people who are upbeat or jolly, but people who seem to radiate pure joy. I can think of two instances when I have been stopped in my tracks by people who have this quality. They have both been experienced meditators. The don’t seem to be doing anything consciously, the joy just radiates from them. Its as if the barriers to an intrinsic inner joy have fallen away. This is another order of happiness to the everyday happiness we generally strive for. It has a spiritual, transcendent quality. I am fortunate to have been in the presence of these people, because they demonstrate the possibility of a deeper and more abiding type of happiness which is independent of our day to day experience.

I can see many similarities between the descriptions of what we can do to be more “lucky” and what we can do to be “happy”. I imagine there is a significant overlap in between people who see themselves as happy or lucky. Both involve being engaged with people and taking a positive, proactive outlook on life.

Even when it comes to that special form of happiness, I can see that people who take their spiritual development seriously, and devote significant amounts of time and attention to their faith or spiritual practice are following the lucky principle of expecting good things. They bring a deeper spiritual dimension into their lives because they expect that devoting themselves to their spiritual wellbeing will bear fruit. Thats something to think about.

Mount Carmel Retreat Centre at Niagara Falls Canada

Earlier in the year I travelled half way around the world to Niagara Falls Canada to attend a meditation retreat with Shinzen Young. For those of you into that kind of thing, Shinzen teaches a style of vipassana meditation which is heavily influenced by his background in zen and science.

At the retreat I talked about my experience with meditation and what I hoped to get out of it. Shinzen’s advice was to focus my meditation on three areas – positive states (eg happiness, loving kindness etc), restful states, and flow states. To me, these three ares are the aspects of the practice that are the most warm, peaceful and fluid.

When I got this advice, I had this small, almost annoyed thought “I knew it!” He had just told me to do all the practices I had been avoiding. They were the opposite of what I normally focus on, which tends to be the more austere, tangible, stable objects of attention. My usual subjects for meditation had helped me through difficult times; things like listening to sounds in the outside world, or the talk in my head, or observing pain or physical sensation. When I think of meditating, I tend to gravitate back to these.

I’d like to say that I came home and threw myself into practice, but I didn’t. When I came home I was focussed more on doing than reflecting. I didn’t have the patience to be still and meditate, which was actually a nice change. I jumped on that energy and have been busy doing a lot of new things.

Even so the retreat bubbles away in the background. Today being my “Day of Rest” Sunday I have been noticing how the things that are good for me, the things that are the next step, are so difficult for me to embrace. My habitual way of operating is so strong, that its hard for me to even remember that focussing on happiness, rest and flow is an option. I think this is because I have developed a lot of strategies around coping and surviving. Now that I have coped, and I have survived, its difficult to let go.

Getting myself to change is like turning around an ocean liner – it can be done, but not quickly. It takes time and space. I need to take on board the idea that I no longer need to focus on survival, and can start to think about what it require would to enable me to thrive.

I am grinning to myself quietly as I begin to contemplate the possibilities of happiness, rest and flow. Focus on Happiness. Its a tough job, but someone has to do it.