Success is a double-edged sword. It produces great things. But it also exacerbates busyness and over stimulation. The pressures and demands increase dramatically with success. And the proverbial “burning the candles at both ends” becomes more and more a reality with painful consequences. What have many successful people learned to do about this?
The Popular Side of Divine Spirituality This is the time of year I tend to love studying the Best Buy ads, the Apple Store manifestos, the Amazon, GroupOn, Living Social deals piling up in my Inbox. There's simply so much I'd love to have that I know would make my life more effective and efficient and enjoyable. Right?
After all, this is the season especially synonymous with abundance, even extravagance. It's what we like about Christmas--the picture of God giving the most extravagant Gift possible in the form of the divine son of God. Heaven poured out the very best and highest priced offering to the human race. God held nothing back--the sign of immeasurable love and compassion.
So at Christmastime, we take our cues from that Sacred modeling and give valuable gifts to those we love. We break open our piggy banks and spend to show our love.
And of course Madison Avenue, with it's own extravagant advertising budgets, continually reminds us that abundance is the order of the day--and naturally they have just what we need to buy from them to give evidence of our extravagant love to our friends and families. This time of year pays homage to this multiple-billion dollar industry and its success.
But ironically, there is an equally significant dimension to the Advent story that often gets ignored or downplayed. For sure Madison Avenue doesn't want this concept trumpeted this time of year. Yet this dimension is also at the epicenter of true spirituality and an accurate picture of what God values.
It first appears in the Advent story in the personage and the place God chooses for the Royal Divine Son to be born. Of all the "qualified" people on planet earth to be chosen as the surrogate parents for God's Son, God chooses a very young, humble, uneducated, poor teenage girl and an equally humble, peasant class working man who lives off the sweat of his brow to provide for his family.
And of all the birthing sites available on earth for this divine Son to make his grand entrance, God chooses a dank, dark cave where the farm animals are kept. Even Motel 6 is bypassed.
What's up with these divine choices? Is there a message and modeling of godly spirituality here? What's this other side of the "extravagance" coin for God?
The Less Popular Side of Divine Spirituality
This part of the Incarnation story hints at a word that we don't always associate with spirituality much less this time of year: frugality. Now this is an intriguing word in this context. But don't be fooled--this is not describing an attitude and approach similar to the miserly Scrooge in the other Christmas story who goes around grunting, "Bah, humbug!" as he pinches his pennies, refusing to give any more than he absolutely has to.
No. According to one author, "Frugality is founded on the principle that all riches have limits." (Burke). Frugality is simply stewarding the resources we have in a way that acknowledges their limits. "You can't buy happiness is" one of the adages stemming from this paradigm.
I'm challenged by the way Elise Boulding puts it: "Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying. The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things."
Jesus' Countercultural Model
Jesus gets conceived by a poor, simple couple and birthed in a starkly frugal environment. For his early years he lives as an immigrant and refugee with his parents in Egypt. He's home schooled by his mother. He ends up taking over his dad's simple business as a carpenter and stone mason. And then when he finally begins his ministry-calling as an itinerant rabbi/preacher he doesn't even have a home to call his own, choosing to live with others along the paths of his travels.
Jesus' lifestyle wouldn't exactly be described today as extravagant by any means. He grew up in the midst of a profound frugality so he never developed an attitude of entitlement. He learned the happiness of not having things.
He was never encumbered by possessions--so much so that the only thing he ever really owned was a garment that was the most valuable thing the soldiers could find of his to roll the dice and bet each other for as he hung dying on the cross at the end of his life. No physical assets other than the clothes on his back to include in a will after he died.
And yet he was happy as a human being. He laughed with his friends. He went to parties. Children loved being around him--which they don't tend to do with Scrooges. He sang songs, told stories, worked miracles. He found his greatest joy in surprising people with love and grace.
Frugality. He manifested it in a profound way by showing that riches have their limits and by teaching the happiness of not having things but choosing to live extravagantly in giving love to others.
Pay Attention To Both Sides of the Divine Coin
It's so easy to get seduced by the popular paradigms of our culture--that happiness comes most from what we possess, from an increase in our physical assets, from the gadgets and toys we have, the nice clothes we can wear. This time of year we long for what so many advertisers hold in front of our eyes as those tools to possessing a better life.
But perhaps this Advent Season I would do well to remember both sides of the spirituality coin--not just extravagance but also frugality--the willingness to live life with an open hand, not grasping at things to hoard but giving and letting go, moving from a physical assets mentality to a relational assets mindset. This is, like Jesus modeled, a very countercultural way to live. I'm learning that spiritual transformation and effectiveness involve both divine values, extravagance and frugality.
One of the popular TV advertisements these days stirs up both irritation and intrigue inside me every time it plays. It's the Geico Insurance commercial with the little piggy squealing with delight "Wee, Wee, Wee" all the way home as it rides in the car with its head out the window. It's obviously having the time of its life and loving every minute of the ride home, much to the irritation of the woman and her son. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8F_G2zp-opg]
The sound of the high-pitched squealing irritates me. The concept and message, at the same time, intrigue me. Though it's advertising an insurance company (most of whose commercials are very lame to me), the attitude being graphically displayed is quite powerful the more I watch it. The pig is experiencing absolute delight in something most of us would consider terribly mundane - riding in the car on the way home.
That pig's attitude and experience stand out to me this Thanksgiving Season. It's amazing how an attitude of delight in the simple things impacts one's experience. Some people call it an Attitude of Gratitude. And the more the experts study this simple attitude, the more profound they discover the results of stepping into it truly are.
My wife Shasta forwarded me one of her blogger friend's posts today because it was on this issue of gratitude. In the post, author Rachel Bertsche quotes from this morning's Wall Street Journal that references the latest scientific research: “Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy, or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.” (“Thank You. No, Thank You,” Wall Street Journal, 11/23/2010)
Imagine that! Who among us wouldn't want more energy, optimism, social connections, and happiness? Who among us wouldn't want less depression, envy, greed, or addiction? Who among us wouldn't want more money, restful sleep, exercise, and greater disease resistance? Hard to pass on those effects! And think of it - all from simply stepping into gratitude.
I've read study after study, and research experiment after research experiment, on the impact of gratitude, and they all offer the same conclusions: people who find specific, tangible ways to delight in their lives, to express gratitude for what they already have, are at least 25% happier and experience a much higher degree of personal and relational well-being than those who don't practice gratitude.
Knowing all of this has prompted my wife Shasta and me to adopt the very simple practice every morning at the end of our spiritual devotion time. We both have iPhone apps called Gratitude! So we open it up, spend the next few minutes writing at least 5-6 things we're grateful for, and then share our lists with each other. I've been in awe of the inspiration as well as sense of well-being this activity has given to both of us. [Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology and leading researcher on the dynamics of happiness, has discovered that the most effective tool for raising personal happiness and well being is the gratitude journal. And one of the powers of it is that it is so simple and easy to do. You can do it any time, any where.]
This morning Shasta and I were sharing our lists and I mentioned one of my items: "I'm grateful for the fun ride on the shopping cart with Shas down the long ramp at Costco." The moment I read it, we both broke out laughing hilariously with the memory of that experience yesterday (it's actually our very regular practice whenever we finish our shopping at Costco - the ramp down to the parking lot rocks, much to the dismay at times of some of the boring customers slowly walking their carts!). Our endorphins and dopamine were literally bubbling through our systems as we laughed in memory. :)
There is power in gratitude and in the ability to find delight in the simple things. Don't you think? So what gratitude list will you come up with this Thanksgiving? Why not even make it a regular spiritual practice? After all, a few extra endorphins and dopamine hormones squealing "Wee, Wee, Wee," all the way home through your system can't hurt! If little piggy can do it for Geico, maybe you and I can do it for ourselves, too!
Happy Thanksgiving! I'm very grateful for each of you who continue letting me into your computers and hopefully hearts. :)
True happiness, said comedian Bob Monkhouse, is when you marry a person for love and later discover that they have money. We all appreciate the joke, of course, because though one side of us knows that a loving relationship provides a good chance of happiness the other thinks it would be guaranteed if that relationship made us rich as well. Imagine it: true love plus lots of money! What more could you ask for! Happiness guaranteed. It's like my dad would say to me when I was in college (tongue in cheek, I'm sure): "Remember, Greg, money isn't everything. But if you happen to marry someone with money, it won't hurt. " And yet we all know - and study after study confirms it - money doesn't buy lasting happiness. In fact, as it turns out, nothing produces lasting happiness in a one shot deal. A sense of wellbeing, the ability to thrive with joy in life, is more complicated than that. Behavioral economists and economic psychologists coined the contributing problem the "hedonic treadmill" - our expectations rise with our incomes, material possessions, or other positive experiences so that the happiness we seek remains just out of reach. It's like we're caught on a treadmill, working hard, and getting nowhere. We have to keep working just to stay in the same place.
James Montier (global equity strategist for Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein and author of the report entitled It Doesn’t Pay: Materialism and the Pursuit of Happiness) described it this way: "In other words, we quickly get used to new things and they become part of our norm. We might get a new fast car and at first be out washing it every weekend but six months later we have become accustomed to it, the kids have scuffed up the seats in the back and the boot is full of dog hairs. This is hedonic adaptation at work . . . material possessions are likely to be assimilated relatively fast.” And like you and I have experienced, we're off to find the next new happiness-inducing experience. The treadmill keeps going.
So can you do anything about this cycle? Some experts say, "It's simple. Just reduce your expectations so you don't experience the discrepancy between expectation and experience." The theory is, if you have low expectations, you won't get disappointed. Just be Zen about it all and live in the now. Buddha's point was: since desire is the root of all suffering, the solution is to simply get rid of desire. Live without want and you'll never want of anything.
Certainly learning the art of managing our desires is important. But it might not solve the whole problem. Happiness, or a sense of thriving and being fulfilled, wellbeing, is impacted by both our expectations and experiences. So rather than denying that reality, perhaps there is a way to shape them in ways that actually pay off.
A recent study reported in the Journal of Economic Psychology (2008) suggested two powerful ways that increase a person's wellbeing and happiness. First, the principle authors acknowledged how many studies have shown that few events in life have a lasting impact on subjective well-being because of people’s tendency to adapt quickly; worse, those events that do have a lasting impact tend to be negative. And second, their research showed "that while major events may not provide lasting increases in well-being, certain seemingly minor events – such as attending religious services or exercising – may do so by providing small but frequent boosts: if people engage in such behaviors with sufficient frequency, they may cumulatively experience enough boosts to attain higher well-being."
In this study they surveyed participants before they attended religious services or exercised and others as they left these activities. Study 1 showed that people reported higher well-being after religious services, and Study 2 showed a similar effect for attending the gym or a yoga class. Equally important, frequency of engaging in these activities was a positive predictor of people’s baseline wellbeing, suggesting that these small boosts have a cumulative positive effect on well-being.
Imagine that. You can boost your experience of wellbeing by going frequently to church (at least once a week) and to the gym or yoga class (at least several times a week). The positive effect from frequency is cumulative - it increases your wellbeing more and more, as opposed to dropping off dramatically like after a major event or purchase is over.
"The key for long lasting changes to wellbeing is to engage in activities that provide small and frequent boosts, which in the long run will lead to improved well-being, one small step at a time."
It's interesting that oftentimes people will become involved in spiritual community on a "I'll go when I really feel like it" basis. But if they're particularly tired one week, the motivation isn't there to get up and go, or it doesn't seem like it really matters much in the long run if they miss for awhile. And yet, in the physical exercise and trying-to-get-in-shape arena, we all acknowledge the reality that you have to be regular and stay regular to reap the real cumulative benefits. Which means going even when you might not feel like going. And going regularly.
This happiness research is pretty significant - if you want your wellbeing to be boosted, you have to be frequent and regular. Even engaging in what some might consider to be "small" activities (like church or exercise), when engaged in often, raise your wellbeing and experience of thriving.
This study certainly corresponds to numerous research done in the last 10 years about the positive overall health impact of spiritual community and regular attendance. UC Berkeley's School of Public Health reported on a major study several years ago about the connection between faith and health.
Using data collected over a period of 31 years and involving 6,545 adults in Alameda County, non-churchgoers were found to have a 21 percent greater overall risk of dying sooner compared to those who attend religious services at least once a week. Even after controlling for potentially confounding variables (like gender, current health, income, education, etc.), additional trends were noted, including a 66 percent greater risk of dying from respiratory diseases and a 99 percent greater risk with digestive diseases among those not attending religious services. Regular involvement in supportive and meaningful spiritual community was linked with lower blood pressure, fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease, less depression, and a decrease in earlier death from all causes.
Study coauthor William Strawbridge of the Public Health Institute attributes the health benefits highlighted in the study to the networks within religious congregations. "The church attendance aspect involves the interaction between people," he said. "Basically it's these relationships that are good for health," coupled with the accompanying attention to life issues and spiritual growth and development in the context of supportive community.
So, want to give a boost to your wellbeing? It apparently won't be coming from that "retail therapy" we often feel tempted by. It won't even be come from winning the lottery we all dream of. But apparently it will involve not hitting the snooze button this weekend and instead making your way to a spiritual community of people who will support you on your journey. And then hitting the gym afterward will be the icing on the cake! :) Go figure!
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How happy would you say you are right now or recently? Is it possible to really tell whether or not you're happy at the moment? Is it a quantifiable experience or feeling? Have you discovered what it is that truly makes you happy? Are you pursuing that? Happiness is one of those intriguing things, isn't it. We all seem to identity different things that we feel are sources of happiness for us - loving family, nice home, good job, healthy income, meaningful relationships, the latest electronic gadgets or technology, going out to eat at a great restaurant, good health, a spa day. The list is endless. Does this mean it takes different things to make different people happy?
And have you noticed that often when you possess the very things you feel would make you happy the happiness tends to wear off a bit in time? What's that all about? Is that normal? Does it mean that you simply misidentified what it is that genuinely contributes to your happiness? So if you could just land on the right thing, you'd finally be happy?
We live in a culture that is almost obsessed with happiness. In fact, it's wired into the very fabric of our Constitution as Americans - sentence two in the Declaration of Independence - our unalienable right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And boy have we Americans taken seriously our pursuit of happiness! So you'd think that the earnestness of our pursuit would result in a truly happy existence.
And yet every poll and survey taken in recent years about American's happiness indicates the exact opposite. Americans are less happy now that they've ever been. Our standard of living is higher than ever. Our income is higher. The amount of possessions we own (including the proverbial right to own our own house) is greater. We have more opportunities accessible to us than ever. And yet our happiness is at an all time low. What's up?
The New Yorker printed a book review by John Lanchester in which he said, "The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren’t any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a 'hedonic treadmill': their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach."
This notion of a "hedonic treadmill" is quite helpful. When I work out at the gym and run on the treadmill, it doesn't matter how fast a speed I set it at, how hard and fast my legs are going, whether I set it on an incline or decline, how hard my lungs are working to breathe and get sufficient oxygen to my muscles - no matter how good my health and conditioning are, I remain in the same spot - everything else in my body is working harder but I'm not getting anywhere. The proverbial rat race.
I've experienced the hedonic treadmill numberous times in my life. I remember some years ago living up in the Puget Sound and standing on the shore looking longingly out at the sailboats. How I wished I could be out there! If I could just have a boat to sail on, I'd be happy! And then I got one. Fun and happiness had at last arrived.
And then I was sailing up one of the channels in the Sound on a beautiful day. And suddenly, as I looked at the beautiful houses nestled up to the shore, I caught myself thinking, "Wouldn't it be amazing to live in a house right on the edge of the water and have such beautiful, inspirational views every day!" If I could just be in one of those homes on the Sound I would be happy!
And it hit me - the hedonic treadmill - I had achieved one of my happiness goals and was still wanting more. My expectations had risen at the same pace as my increased possessions. When would there ever be enough? Could I ever outpace my happiness treadmill? Could I ever come to the point where I actually said, "Okay, now I have everything I need to be completely and absolutely happy. From here on out, my life will always have happiness."
The experts in the field of positive psychology (who have led the movement of the study of human happiness) talk about a "set point" that every person has when it comes to happiness. In other words, no matter what additional input we receive or achieve that drives up our feeling of happiness, we will always return to a natural level of happiness. And since people have different set points from each other, we can never use "the Joneses" as an accurate standard of measurement for our own experience of happiness. The idea of having to keep up with the Joneses is a faulty paradigm (even though so many people operate their lives with this kind of comparison).
Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, described a comparison study done with lottery winners and paraplegics. Contrary to everything you might think, “in the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you,” Haidt concluded. "Though it’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, it's not by as much as you’d think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics had both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”
As the hedonic treadmill principle indicates, our internal expectations and desires tend to increase or decrease with our external circumstances so that in the end no net gain or loss is experienced. And we end up returning to our natural set point of happiness.
So why do we spend so much time and energy trying to pursue all of the things we're being told make us happy when a true net gain of happiness never happens in the long run? Why do we spend so much time complaining that we don't have this or that when none of those things will genuinely increase our level of happiness?
One historian, commenting on The Declaration of Independence's emphasis on the unalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness" makes a powerful observation. The eighteenth-century understanding of the word “pursuit” was rather darker than it might seem now. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined it as “the act of following with hostile intention.” Maybe the writers of the Declaration were trying to tell us something important? "Go ahead, pursue happiness if you want. You are guaranteed the freedom to that pursuit. But if you make that choice, engage with and follow happiness as a hostile foe - something you can try to conquer but very possibly might never possess. It might conquer you. So perhaps it be a wiser tack to declare your independence from that hostile pursuit?"
So are you and I stuck on the hedonic treadmill of happiness? Is it possible to get off it? Is there any hope for a life of genuine happiness? What would that life look like if it were possible? Stay tuned.
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[If you like these posts, feel free to share them with others - click on the share button to the right. If you would like to receive each new blog post as an automatic email, please subscribe at the right.] I read an article last week by Stacy Corrigan, a personal and corporate financial health coach, referring to a highly significant spiritual and scientific law of life. Quantum physics has proven that the core building block for all material things, as we know them, is energy. In the scientific world energy is equivalent to light. And then she gave this illustration: "When two beams of light join together they become much more intense than two individual beams. We know this to be true when we look at a satellite image of the earth at night from space. The cities that have many beams of light close together show up more readily on the image than the cities where the same number of light beams are spread far apart. The energy becomes greater the more there is in close proximity to like energy."
Remember, she says, all material things drill down to being just energy. So everything you contribute to life - your specific acts of kindness, caring and compassion; your money; material things like food for those in need; etc. - is also energy. Which means that the more you send out, the more powerful the energy becomes, and the greater opportunity it has to team up with similar energy so that it can grow and flow, contributing to what she calls the "boomerang effect" - what you send out comes back to you multiplied.
This quantum physics concept has a fascinating parallel with some deep spiritual realities. Notice a few sacred scriptures:
“Whatever a person sows, that is what he will reap.” (Galatians 6:7) In other words, the energy that a person puts out through whatever kind of actions, behaviors, or projected thoughts will return in kind. Computereze says, "garbage in, garbage out." We become what we give out because it returns to us and ultimately transforms us into what we're projecting. Kind of the negative version of the boomerang effect.
Here's the way another text articulates this reality: “A farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop.” (2 Corinthians 9:6) Fascinating that even in the agricultural arena the principle is true - and in this saying, the emphasis is on quantity of output determining the quantity of input. Generosity produces generosity. Scarcity produces scarcity.
The context of this last text is intriguing. The author (Paul) is talking to Christian believers in one part of the Middle East, appealing to them to give money to the believers in another part of the region that has gone through a devastating famine. He's trying to raise both consciousness and funding to help with this specific emergency need on behalf of hurting, suffering people.
So he is basically articulating the boomerang effect to motivate their giving by suggesting that their generous giving will come back to them in equally generous ways. Here's how he describes this:
"You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure … God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say, 'They share freely and give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will be remembered forever.' For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you. As a result of your generous service to them, they will pray for you with deep affection because of the overflowing grace God has given to you." 2 Corinthians 9:7-13.
Notice the powerful energy that circles around – it goes out (as believers in one region give generously to the needy in another region), combines with other energy (the divine energy of generosity that comes to each person making their giving possible in the first place), and then returns in greater form (as the helped believers return kindness through their prayers and support of those who gave) – and it keeps spiraling around, back and forth, around and around, increasing in energy and impact. The boomerang effect.
I'm convicted about how easy it is to live life with a perspective of scarcity - I don't have enough myself to live very well, so how can I be expected to give generously to others! But as this spiritual principle (and scientific reality) states, my attitude of scarcity only produces more scarcity. And here's where it is all so counter-intuitive - but the more I give, the more I receive. Generosity produces generosity. When energy is combined with more energy (like the city lights seen from orbiting satellites shows), the combination creates even more energy. So when we choose to work with others who also give and share generously, our combined energy creates even more impact. And what returns to us in the form of positive energy is even more powerful and transforming.
This is why giving to and sharing with others is such a profound spiritual experience. Here's how one author puts it: “Those who gladly share with others feel themselves bathed by a constant inner stream of happiness. Sharing is the doorway through which the soul escapes the prison of self-preoccupation. It is one of the clearest paths to God.” (Swami Kriyananda)
What a powerful boomerang effect - as I let go of my preoccupation with self and protecting my ego and hoarding my possessions to have control over my life, and give generously to others, I am actually drawn closer to God - my soul connects with God's soul - and I am liberated in transforming ways. In fact, I become truer to my truest Self - I'm acting out who I really am - a loving and compassionate child of God. And this choice to live in alignment with my true Self results in a life of greater confidence, security, and increased generosity. Generosity produces generosity by connecting me to the heart of God which is pure love and selfless giving to others.
The boomerang effect - it works both ways. So which boomerang do you want circling back to you? Which harvest do you want to reap?
[If you like these posts, feel free to share them with others - click on the share button to the right. If you would like to receive each new blog post as an automatic email, please subscribe at the right.] So what does it take for you to live in the moment - to be truly present in a place of peace?
Karen Armstrong is a former nun and now one of the world's foremost authorities on comparative religions with her latest book A Case For God topping the best-seller list. She is also the recent creator of the "Charter for Compassion," whose signatories (like Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Dalai Lama) fight extremism, hatred, and exploitation throughout the world. She was recently asked by Oprah's O Magazine what it takes to live in the moment, to seize the day. She replied:
"Sometimes you wake up at 3 A.M. when everything seems dark, and you think, 'Life isn't fair. I've got too much to do. I'm too put-upon.' It's a rat run of self-pity! But when you feel compassion, you dethrone yourself from the center of the world. Doing that has made me a more peaceful person."
It's amazing how much stress we put ourselves under when we sit on the throne of our lives, trying to be in control of everything. Rather than producing peace, this worldview contributes to anxiety and distress instead. It's kind of like trying to spin multiple plates on sticks. The first few plates we seem to handle pretty well. But as the plates get added, we're running around trying to keep them all from falling and breaking into pieces. It isn't long before the task is simply too much for us, no matter how gifted or full of energy we might be. So much for ruling our kingdoms with ease.
I like Karen Armstrong's perspective - what helps to dethrone us from the center of the world is compassion - having an outward focus of empathy and caring toward others. Counter-intuitively, including more people in our lives that we give love to actually decreases our dis-stress and anxiety and centers us more in a peaceful frame of heart, mind, and spirit. It's almost like we were designed to live with compassion.
And actually, we were! Neuroscience research in fact reveals that compassion, helping others, triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response. In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others and enhances feelings of trust.
And the compassionate act doesn't have to fancy or extreme or complicated at all. Dr. Lorne Ladner, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., wrote: “I just recently read one research study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.” When's the last time you chose to actually pray a blessing for someone else? How difficult is that?
So Karen Armstrong seems to be on to something when she talks about her personal experience of how compassion actually helps her live more peacefully. The act of dethroning self with our obsessive need to control life by giving authentic love and compassion to others is a eustress rather than a distress - the positive, energy-producing kind of stress rather than the debilitating kind. And the long term affects of this are truly transformative.
Compassionate acts as simple as loving, sympathetic touch are powerful, too. According to experts in a study about emotion and touch, sympathetic touches are processed by receptors under the surface of the skin, and set in motion a cascade of beneficial physiological responses:
"Female participants waiting anxiously for an electric shock showed activation in threat-related regions of the brain, a response quickly turned off when their hands were held by loved ones nearby. Friendly touch stimulates activation in the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves in the chest that calms fight-or-flight cardiovascular response and triggers the release of oxytocin, which enables feelings of trust. Research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney reveals that sympathetic environments — those filled with warm touch — create individuals better suited to survival and reproduction, as Darwin long ago surmised. Rat pups who receive high levels of tactile contact from their mothers — in the form of licking, grooming, and close bodily contact — later as mature rats show reduced levels of stress hormones in response to being restrained, explore novel environments with greater gusto, show fewer stress-related neurons in the brain, and have more robust immune systems."
The practice of compassion has the potential of radically transforming the life of the giver as well as the lives of the receivers. No wonder Jesus, in concluding his public discourse about the values of God's kingdom, connected the giving of compassion, living a life of unconditional love and care for all others (including even our enemies) with a life characterized by freedom from worry, anxiety, and distress (Matthew 5-6). Compassion, one of the most godly things we can do in life, puts us in place of inner peace and tranquility, a state of trust and unselfishness in the very heart of the Divine Life.
So what empowers you to be able to live in the moment, to seize the day, even in the midst of stress? Have you tried compassion lately? As the spiritual and scientific experts reminds us, it just might help transform your heart, mind, spirit, and body.
[If you're here at this Blog for the first time, click back and read Part 1 of this topic: "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen?" It will fill out this post more meaningfully.] As I noted in my last blog post (see "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen? Part 1"), Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, talks about the importance of developing a pervasive spirituality, where the sacred is seen and experienced as inherent to daily life. She has discovered that this kind of spirituality has great impact on minimizing individual self-centeredness and increasing a deeper sense of personal well-being and compassion for others.
I love the way Brian McLaren, in his book Finding Our Way Again, describes the process of developing a pervasive spirituality. He says that rather than simply trying so hard to practice our faith (which ends up only adding to our already over-filled To Do lists), we could be “Faithing our practices” - "embuing our normal [everyday] practices with meaning derived from faith.” It's about learning how to see Holiness in every part of our ordinary days.
The Jews do this with what they call "the blessing." By giving a blessing for everything they encounter during the day, they are reminded of the sacredness of all of life because a Blessing isn't something that embues what is being blessed with goodness or God's presence. A blessing is simply a tangible, intentional act of acknowledging the inherent Sacredness and Goodness in those things as gifts from God. “The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive to God ... alive to [God’s whole world].” (McLaren)
The Hebrews in scripture also built altars of remembrances out of stones at places where they encountered the Sacred and Divine in meaningful ways. Why put ordinary rocks on top of each other on the side of busy thoroughfares and even in out of the way places? The point was that every time they saw them they could be reminded of God's activity in their lives. They could tell each other the story of their encounter with God and remember that life is sacred and blessed. Stone altars to help holiness pervade ordinary life.
I wear a ring that has a cross on it on the middle finger of my right hand. It was a gift from my wife. It's there as a constant reminder of my calling and life purpose. Throughout the day, I'll feel it and look down and notice the cross and remember: I am loved; I have a divine purpose; my life is a calling to live for God. It's amazing how that thought, generated by a tangible symbol, suddenly transforms that moment into a sacred moment, a divine encounter, an embracing of God's continuing and pervasive presence in my life.
Last Saturday, at my Second Wind spiritual community, in the middle of our discussion on this topic, we engaged in what is called prayerwalking. We all went outside and individually walked around the neighborhood community with the goal of intentionally noticing what captured our attention. We were to do several things: 1) What did we notice? 2) Offer a blessing on it. 3) Consider how it reflected God to us? How was the Sacred revealed to us through it? And 4) pause and be in the moment. Then when we all returned to the room, we tried to capture our experience by jotting thoughts/reflections on paper, staying silent, staying in that Sacred Space.
When we debriefed the experience, it was astounding how much all of us described paying attention to life around us in new and meaningful ways. There was a sense of sacredness we expressed feeling as we each walked around the blocks in such an intentional frame of mind. The activity reminded us how something as simple as walking around with a different intention (an open, more "enlightened," purposeful mind) could contribute to a more meaningful spiritual experience and a greater receptiveness to life around us. When you begin seeing all of life as sacred and spiritual, you look at it all very differently.
What symbols, reminders, tangible ways do you have to remember the Sacred and the Divine all through your day? How are you decompartmentalizing your spirituality so that all of life is experienced as holy and sacred and thus more meaningful and purposeful?
I love the way Carrie Newcomer describes this in one of her songs, "Holy As A Day Is Spent":
holy is the dish and the drain the soap and sink, and the cup and plate and the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile showerheads and good dry towels and frying eggs sound like psalms with bits of salt measured in my palm it’s all a part of a sacrament as holy as a day is spent
holy is the busy street and cars that boom with passion’s beat and the check out girl, counting change and the hands that shook my hands today and hymns of geese fly overhead and spread their wings like their parents did blessed by the dog, that runs in her sleep to chase some wild and elusive thing holy is the familiar room and quiet moments in the afternoon and folding sheets like folding hands to pray as only laundry can i’m letting go of all my fear like autumn leaves made of earth and air for the summer came and the summer went as holy as a day is spent
holy is the place i stand to give whatever small good i can and the empty page, and the open book redemption everywhere i look unknowingly we slow our pace in the shade of unexpected grace and with grateful smiles and sad lament as holy as a day is spent
and morning light sings “providence” as holy as a day is spent
Perhaps every day life could be filled with a deeper sense of well-being and meaning if we intentionally saw the holiness in all of it? Maybe we could close the HPI (Happy Planet Index) gap here in the States if we allowed our spirituality to pervade all of life, including our offices, our kitchens, and even the baby's play pen? Want to join me in experimenting with this?
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I read recently about a person who discovered that he should drink 16 glasses of water a day. The next morning he brought to his office a large pitcher filled with water. Throughout the day that pitcher on his desk frequently reminded him of his need, and he'd pour another glass and drink. Overall, it was a positive experience—other than having to go to the bathroom 27 times in a period of eight hours. Remaining hydrated, he learned from that experience, requires intentionality. He had to stop periodically in the midst of his busyness, become aware of his body's need for liquid, and take a few moments to drink a glass of water. It was amazing how helpful having that pitcher of water in front of him all day was to his intention of drinking more water. Intentionality is a huge piece of what makes people effective and successful - setting intentions and then determining a specific course of action to accomplish those intentions. It applies to every area of life, right? We intentionalize what we desire, what we can and what we have control over, and then hold it all with an open hand, recognizing that sometimes the best things that happen do happen as surprises. However, intentionality is an important value. And what helps our intentions become reality are the tangible reminders we put in front of ourselves regularly of what we're trying and wanting to do - finding ways to integrate our intentions with the rest of our lives.
Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, posted an article in the Huffington Post last week in which she tries to understand some of the reasons India ranks so much higher than the United States on the Happiness Index (especially considering the comparative massive economic disparity and rampant poverty in India). The Happy Planet Index (whose most recent compilation came out in July 2009) strips the view of the economy back to its absolute basics: what we put in (resources), and what comes out (human lives of different length and happiness). Its the first ever index "to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live sustainable, long and happy/meaningful lives." That's the way they define it. The resulting global index of the 143 nations reveals some interesting comparisons.
So after just returning from her first trip to India, she reflects on her experience of its culture and posits a significant observation. First of all, she defines spirituality as "a sense of connection to something larger than oneself." And then, recognizing recent research that shows that spirituality positively impacts health and well-being, she describes her experience in India:
"In India this attention to spirituality is pervasive. It is evident in every aspect of the culture - there is constant integration of reminders that we are part of something larger than the self ... in the shrines present on every street corner, sides of houses, roadside stops, hilltops, alleyways, back of tractor trailers, and beyond. Shrines are big, small, colorful, bland, dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman, or thousands of other manifestations of our shared nature, to Hindus the manifestations of a Oneness or God or an Ultimate Reality. It is evident in the pervasive Namaste - a greeting with hand folded in a prayer position accompanied by a bow that means something like 'I see the Oneness in you.' It is evident in the pervasive 'bindi,' the smudge of color between the eyebrow - a reminder that we are part of something larger than the self - visible by a 'third eye' if you will … I am so impressed with the complete integration of spiritual development into daily life. Being surrounded by constant reminders of our connectedness and dependent nature make emotions and actions stemming from self-centeredness more difficult to come by."
In contrast here in the West, we tend to compartmentalize our time for spiritual practice if we engage in any at all - once a week in spiritual gatherings, or a specific meditation time each day, or at religious Holidays, or prayer at meals. Other than these moments, the rest of our lives is rarely surrounded by spiritual reminders or awareness. Our passion to separate Church from State, our carefulness to maintain distinction and distance between the spiritual and the secular, has led to an overly heightened sense of individuality and independence and self-importance. Our worldviews have gradually narrowed through the decades from cosmos to planet to nation to city to neighborhood to self, with whatever happening to self carrying the ultimate significance and importance.
This reality, suggests Dr. Smalley, helps to explain some of the difference between India and the U.S. on the Happiness Index - it's about how pervasive spirituality is in everyday life.
The point is, the journey of spirituality (and a corresponding sense of well-being and happiness) don't simply happen by chance. It takes intentionality and thought and discipline. It takes structuring our lives around tangible reminders of our connection "to something larger than ourselves." It takes decompartmentalizing our lives and integrating spirituality into the flow of daily existence. It means allowing the divine to incarnate itself into the fiber and fabric of our lives. It means engaging in specific activities, tangible reminders, intentional words, visual - auditory - kinesthetic experiences.
So what would it look like to make spirituality a way of life for me? What intentional ways do I build into my day to be reminded of transcendence? How intentional are I about living life deeply and with greater awareness and enlightenment?
STAY TUNED TO PART 2: What are some tangible ways to facilitate a more pervasive spirituality?
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