This time of year, we're all trying to find whatever methods we can to help us achieve our goals (those things that really matter to us) more successfully. It's possible that some of us have neglected a resource that research is reminding us has transformational capacities for helping us achieve our goals more effectively.
Our lives are made up of multiple social systems: families, marriages, work, businesses, corporations, churches, friendship circles, clubs. Like the natural world, these are all ecosystems where everything is inter-related and therefore everything is impacted by the other. There was a fascinating and insightful Linkedin article this week that used examples from nature to describe effective ways we humans can live within our social ecosystems (see "4 Bio-Inspired Tips to Create Better Teams" by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO). Several of his biology illustrations particularly stood out for me as I work with people and groups in guiding them to a more strengths-based way of living and being. Here's one of them.
Biologists are finding that
"successful organisms tend to collaborate more than compete."
Birch Trees and Rhododendrons. For example, birch trees and rhododendrons grow close by each other in the woods, not by accident but for specific purpose. "The birch provides shade to the rhododendron, keeping it from drying out. The rhododendron, in turn, provides the birch with defensive molecules that protect it from being eaten by insects. This symbiotic relationship allows both to survive longer."
A Win-Lose World. It's amazing how competitive our human social systems so often are. We've developed this win-lose paradigm: if I win, someone else has to lose; if someone else wins, that means I automatically lose.
So in this win-lose ecosystem, we end up having to protect ourselves all the time. Our walls are up. Our distrust is high. We're ready to fight to win. Because at stake is our own survival--there's only one winner.
Our conversations devolve into arguments where we all try to win. If we don't, we feel less than; we've been bested; we're losers. So we have to win at all costs.
If a friend gets promoted, we feel like we've lost something. If our significant other gets recognition, we feel like we've lost, we're diminished. If someone else's child gets into the best school and our's doesn't, we've lost, they've won. We're less than, they're more.
A Win-Win World. But imagine if we could live within our social ecosystems like the birch trees and the rhododendrons--in collaboration where there's a win-win belief and goal and worldview; where we come to each other bringing our best strengths to the system; where we each are contributing our best to each other; where we each embrace and trust the best from each other; where we stay with it long enough to work at developing a win-win outcome, refusing to take the win-lose easy way out.
A Strengths-based Approach. Imagine collaborative marriage relationships where each situation, need, and goal is approached via both spouse's top strengths. When a problem is being addressed, you ask your spouse for a "10 minute consult" where he/she uses his/her specific strengths (one or several that you might not have) in order to help bring effective resolution. Rather than competing, you collaborate; where you approach the relationship and experience mutually instead of hierarchically. Imagine that.
Imagine developing your specific roles based upon your strengths profile, whether in a marriage, family, work team, congregation; where everyone is asked, encouraged, validated, and affirmed to show up with their best; where people spend more time and energy focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses and deficiencies; where whatever gaps might exist in the relationship, they are overcome with each person leveraging his/her strengths together to effectively overwhelm the gap.
The genius of a strengths-based approach to life is that it's based upon the truth that no one of us is omnicompetent. We as individuals simply cannot do everything. We need others if we desire to truly be effective. We need everyone in our social systems to contribute their best strengths so that all together we can be as strong as possible. That's what creates a win-win.
Collaboration is a prerequisite for healthy ecosystems!
So are you living with a win-win or win-lose belief system? Which lens do you tend to look at your life situations through? Who do you need to collaborate more with from a place of mutual strengths in order to live more effectively?
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. Feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Research from the Associated Press shows*: The average attention span in 2012: 8 seconds The average attention span in 2000: 12 seconds The average attention span of a goldfish: 9 seconds Clearly, we've got an attention span problem in our culture.
And considering that the majority of us spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours communicating, what kind of communication is actually happening every day with such short attention spans?
Think about this for a minute. The ability to communicate and be present with each other is one of the most important things we learn as humans. Dr. Jack Bennett, a life coach who explores happiness, behavior change, and personal development, emphasizes, “Giving someone our full, undivided attention is fundamental to our business and interpersonal relationships."*
The outcomes are hugely significant. Effective communication creates a bond of closeness, reduces conflict, enhances personal and professional relationships, and in many cases, helps you get more of what you want out of life.
But, when faced with the chance to listen to what someone has to say, to tune in and "be present," most of us are falling short. We're busy thinking about ourselves, what we're going to say next in conversations, or our errands, our work or in so many cases, we're busy focused on electronics. We're simply not paying attention.
Graham D. Bodie, professor of communication studies at The Louisiana State University, in extensive research about outcomes to paying attention, reveals that people who are good listeners are more liked, rated as more attractive and garner more trust than those who are less proficient at listening. They are also high academic achievers, have better socio-emotional development, and are even more likely to get promoted at work. Fairly significant outcomes, I'd say!*
So with all this research reinforcing the importance of paying quality attention to each other, why do we do so little of it? Why have we allowed our attention span to decrease through the years rather than increase? Why is our emotional intelligence more stunted than ever before in spite of being confronted with more information about what it takes to live mature, effective, and healthy lives? Why is our communication ability so poor? Do we simply not know how? Or are we so self absorbed and lazy that we refuse to engage in the work?
Four Secrets to Paying Attention Well
Here are four things to work on that improve our attention capabilities.
Observe - Eye contact - Mindfulness - Empathize.
Choose to observe - notice the other person. What is their body language saying? Can you mirror it? What are you seeing about him or her right now? What does that tell you about what they're feeling? What do you observe about your own body language? What feelings or thoughts is that communicating? Communication involves two people interacting together. You can't improve what you don't observe.
Choose to make eye contact. This establishes a connection, a bond, and indicates you're interested. On average, according to experts, the appropriate amount of eye contact is 50% while speaking and 70% while listening. If, as the saying goes, the eyes are the windows to the soul, you pretty much have to notice the eyes in order to connect meaningfully to people.
Choose to be mindful. Effective listening is about not just having your mouth quiet but also your mind quiet. It's keeping yourself from the tendency to be thinking about what you're going to say next or other more pressing issues in order to be "fully present" to the other person. The more you practice mindfulness outside of interpersonal communication, the more you can perform it inside.
Choose to empathize. Here's the way one author puts it: "Empathizing with someone is really having the ability to understand the 'humanity of a situation' and knowing what it means to be in the other person’s shoes."
We all want to be understood and validated. That's what helps us be more fully alive and ourselves. Empathy from others gives us that gift. You can give it, too.
"When we truly feel listened to, in the emotional sense of the word, we feel more satisfied with our relationships. What’s more, people who have a high EQ—emotional intelligence—are capable of making better decisions simply because they have the capacity to see a situation from someone else’s perspective." (Dr. Graham Bodie) *
There's A Price For Not Paying Attention
The Bay area news reported recently on a young university student who was riding the MUNI when a complete stranger suddenly shot him as he began to exit from the train. The MUNI cameras recorded the whole situation.
What made the event even more tragic was that the perpetrator had his gun out in the open for a long time while standing there on the train, even using it to scratch his nose at one point. But no one noticed it. In fact, no one even noticed the entire exchange. As the cameras so blatantly recorded, everyone in that car had their heads down, eyes glued to their phones and tablets. They simply weren't paying any attention to anything other than themselves.
We're living in a culture that is becoming increasingly self absorbed. Our human connections are paying a price. Communication is being stunted and more and more ineffective. People just aren't listening and paying attention to each other in meaningful, healthy ways.
But we can choose to be different. We can choose to pay attention. We can choose healthy and effective communication with each other. We can practice and learn.
* This reference and several of the research reference points are thanks to Ashley Neglia, "The #1 Skill of Extremely Likable (and Successful) People" (Grandparents.com, 9/26/2013)
I'm currently reading a book titled 12: The Elements of Great Managing. It's based on Gallup's ten million workplace interviews - the largest worldwide study of employee engagement. It has some really profound perspectives on what it takes for people to feel deeply and effectively a meaningfully contributing part of organizations and teams. I'm realizing as I read that these principles apply to every social system like families, marriages, significant relationships, faith communities. The very first element that produces radically increased engagement among people is "knowing what's expected." Reality-based, clearly stated, shared expectations.
Now this may not seem like rocket-science to you (and it's not), but you would be surprised how often our relational challenges stem from unclear, unshared, and unreal expectations of each other.
I had two 2-hour sessions with a couple of faith community leaders who work together as a staff. Their relationship for the last few years has deteriorated to the point of both people considering leaving and finding separate ministry opportunities. Trust is at an all time low.
It turned out that both leaders had a certain expectation about each other's leadership style that wasn't getting met. And over time, these unmet expectations created serious tension, frustration, and what appeared to them as lack of respect for each other, and ultimately the disintegrating ability to trust the other.
Once I helped them see that each of their leadership styles were different from the other's because leadership style is based upon each person's top five strengths profile not some predetermined template for how leadership is suppose to look, this was able to shift their expectations of each other to a more realistic place. That new shared view of each other could be validated, honored, and respected - because both styles are good ... just different. It was heart-warming to hear both of them starting to complement and affirm each other for what they now saw as each other's unique strengths and style.
Expectations of the people in our lives has to be based upon reality - a clear understanding of who each other is and how we're each wired to be our best.
Clearly Stated Expectations
And we can't know what's expected of us unless the other is willing to clearly state their expectations.
As I work with couples and teams, I realize how often so many of us expect others to be "mind readers." We simply expect people to know what we're thinking and what we're needing without us having to tell them.
Now, most of us wouldn't admit that's what we're doing. But our behavior would sure indicate it.
Analyze a few of your last relationship arguments. Chances are you'll discover that at the heart of the misunderstanding or hurt feelings was your expectation (or desire) for the other person to simply know what you want. Some how, we give more points if they guess correctly - their attempts to relate have more value if they come unprompted. Right?
I want my wife to be so intuitive, to read my every micro-expression, to know me so well, so as to just "know" what I'm needing or wanting or expecting. And if she can't guess, then at least she should "pull it out of me" by means of her great relational skills of wise questions and sensitive, caring prompts.
But as you and I both know (in our saner moments), this is ridiculous! Unfair! And unrealistic!
Most of us simply aren't clairvoyant. We don't have a crystal ball with our partner's name on it. We're not mind readers with extra-sensory perception. Neither are the other people in our lives.
If we want others to know what we expect, what we need, what we want, we need to know ourselves and then be willing to state it. Clearly. So as to be completely understood. Otherwise, the onus is on us. Clearly stated expectations.
Only then can expectations be shared - that wonderful place where both sides not only clearly see and understand the other, but also where they agree to co-inhabit the expectation.
This third level is a bit more tricky and difficult. It takes more compromise and commitment to each other; more trust; more desire; more willingness to find and achieve consensus; more persistence; more patience; more grace. More work.
But when something is mutually shared, it's worth a lot. Right? There's deep strength to it. Solid commitment. A sense of committed partnership and collaboration. Mutual honor and respect. A lessening of resentment, anger, and frustration.
This kind of shared experience (which includes clear and shared expectations) is what leads experts to call basketball "a chemistry sport." As a team practices and plays together, the players develop a "tacit knowledge" about each other--they have clear understanding about each other's roles, strengths, weaknesses, styles, quirks, typical patterns--and this knowledge ultimately enables the team to experience synchronicity. To the onlooker, it appears almost magical the way players can anticipate and execute and adjust to each other in a unified and effective manner.
Our relationships - our social systems - are chemistry sports, too. Which means we each take responsibility to develop clear, realistic, and shared expectations and understandings of each other if we want to live and work effectively together.
So how's your chemistry and synchronicity with the people in your life?
The Tiger and the Fox An old Sufi story* tells about a man walking through the forest who saw a fox that had lost its legs and the man wondered how it lived. Then he saw a tiger come up with game in its mouth. The tiger ate its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox.
The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God's greatness and said to himself, "I too shall rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need."
He did this for many days but nothing happened. He was almost at death's door from starvation when he heard a voice say, "O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger."
Three Nonnegotiables for Healthy Spiritual Living
This ancient story reveals several secrets to effective spiritual living and why we need people to become truly self actualized.
One, spirituality is deeply relational.
The fabric of our being is communal and relational. We thrive the most when we learn how to live effectively within the context of our relationships.
There's no such thing as a Lone Ranger spirituality.
There's this myth about spirituality in contrast to religion that says that spirituality is personal and private, while religion is communal. Not true!
Effective, transformational spirituality is not about living up on the mountaintop in direct communication with the Universe, like the stereotypical picture of the monk or guru who sits up on the peak alone receiving and dispensing the wisdom of life to intrepid and interested mountain climbers or spiritual seekers.
Effective spirituality is like the tiger in our story---taking what feeds us and sharing it with hungry people. And the truth is, everyone in our circles of relationships are hungry in various ways.
Spirituality is essentially relational because our growth as people is directly impacted by our ability to relate to people. It's in our relationships where the rubs of life so often take place. So unless we learn how to navigate those "rubs" - our journey toward becoming more actualized humans on this planet of people by living life well among people - we isolate our spirituality and it eventually withers into ineffectiveness.
Two, relational spirituality reframes faith and trust.
The man in our story was rebuked by God for trying to imitate the passiveness of the fox rather than the active sharing of the tiger.
Many people have the view of spirituality as mostly sitting and waiting on God. "It's just you and me, God," they say. "God will provide. I just need to have enough faith in order to experience God's intervention." It's the "monk in the cave" or "guru on the mountaintop" approach.
The problem with this kind of spiritual paradigm is that it leads to isolationism. If God only acted directly, why would you need others? If you could become completely self-actualized in a vacuum, why would you need others? God could simply put each of us in a sealed off vacuum chamber until we finalized achieved perfection, and then let us free.
Trust in God or the Universe is not just sitting in a corner trying to convince yourself that you will be provided for if you simply have enough faith.
I've discovered in my life that most often the way God has provided for me is through other people who have shared their love, generosity, and support with me. God has used "the tigers" in my life to bless me time and time again.
My willingness to open myself up to other people, to be willing to receive from them, is an act of radical trust in God and the humanity that God chooses to work through. My willingness to stop trying to be "superman," mister omnicompetent superhero in life who can go it alone very well, thank you, and instead realize my need for other people to help me grow into the man I'm meant to be, is an act of radical trust in God and the people God chooses to use in my life.
Three, spirituality demands a relational environment because at the heart of spirituality is forgiveness and love.
All spiritual traditions describe the fundamental nature of God with the word love. God is love.
Here's the way the Christian scriptures state this reality:
"Since God loved us that much [Jesus giving his life to forgive us], we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and God's love has been brought to full expression through us...God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them." 1 John 4:11-12
In the one of the most concise descriptions of the divine nature, we are reminded that God is love. And notice that central to the attribute of divine love is forgiveness. And the natural progression of that spiritual experience is that we are then people who love and therefore who forgive others.
Our spiritual development, the process of becoming more and more self actualized as human beings, is to learn how to love more deeply and more completely. We learn to love ourselves. And we learn to love others. Spiritual growth is about growing in the process of loving well.
But you and I cannot truly love either ourselves or others without learning how to forgive. The point is, it is only within the context of relationships---where we experience the bumps and bruises of life---that we learn how to love and forgive. That's where healthy spirituality is developed.
Loving and Forgiving Without Judgment
One of the obstacles we often face with loving and forgiving is our tendency to judge people. Notice in our story, the tiger gives food to the disabled fox without condemning or judging the fox. The tiger refuses to interrogate the fox about how it lost its legs. Was it being irresponsible? Who's fault was it? Did the fox make bad or unwise choices that led to this tragic loss?
No, the tiger saw the need and without judgment gave of its own abundance.
Divine love and forgiveness are always without conditions. They are simply given, no strings attached. That's why those actions and predispositions with God are called grace.
The truth is, you and I as human beings simply cannot grow spiritually to our most actualized selves outside the context of our relationships. Why? Because it is in our relationships where we are forced to rub up against others and they with us in a way that prompts and teaches us what it means to really love and forgive in every context of our lives.
So which do you find yourself modeling or identifying more with in your spiritual life? The man who tried to be like the fox, or the tiger?
* Adapted from Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 79.
I'm offering a cycle of 3 spiritual retreats, starting in October, anchored in the seasons of Fall, Winter, and Spring. These retreats are designed to provide you the time, space, and resources to shape your spirituality in deeper and more meaningful ways that honor who you are and where you are along your journey of life. This will be a transformational experience for you to reflect and explore a more relational, and more self actualized spiritual journey. Click this link for more information: Spiritual Retreats.
There's an old rabbinical story that tells about two brothers living "time before time, when the world was young." They each shared a field and a mill. Each night they divided evenly the grain they had ground together during the day. Now as it happened, one of the brothers lived alone; the other had a wife and a large family. One day, the single brother thought to himself: "It isn't really fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have only myself to care for, but my brother has children to feed."
So each night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother's granary to see that he was never without.
But the married brother said to himself one day, "It isn't really fair that we divide the grain evenly, because I have children to provide for me in my old age, but my brother has no one. What will he do when he is old?"
So every night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother's granary.
As a result, both of them always found their supply of grain mysteriously replenished each morning.
Then one night the brothers met each other halfway between their two houses, suddenly realized what had been happening, and embraced each other in love.
The story is that God witnessed their meeting and proclaimed, "This is a holy place---a place of love---and here it is that my temple shall be built."
"And so it was. The holy place, where God is made known, is the place where human beings discover each other in love." *
Here are four ways from this story that our relationships can be turned into holy temples where God chooses to dwell.
First, God's holy place on earth is the intersection between people where love is the center.
Our relationships of love are where God's temple is. Those relationships are sacred ground. When people respond to each other from a spirit of love and compassion, a temple of God is raised up. God is revealed best and most completely within relationships of love.
Second, relationships become centered on love when each person looks at the other in a spirit of compassion and chooses to give what the other needs the most.
The spirit of compassion is antithetical to a competitive, win-lose worldview. Sacred relationships are based upon a win-win paradigm. We give what the other needs, not what we need to give. We love in the language of the other so that our act of love is truly experienced as love by the other.
Third, a relationship of love doesn't necessarily mean both people agree with each other on everything.
Our ability to love each other pragmatically in the midst of our differences creates God's temple. Contrary to popular opinion, love God's way doesn't mean having to unilaterally agree. God's way of loving is giving to others no matter what, even when we disagree.
Fourth, people are empowered to love compassionately and generously when they see the other as their brother or sister.
Family members certainly don't all agree with each other---whether politically, theologically, philosophically, sociologically. Families inherently contain great diversity. But because they're all family, blood runs thicker than water. Until we start seeing all others as members of our great global family---children of God, every one---we will continue struggling to give love and compassion graciously and generously to those we disagree with and are different than.
Fifth, when people are in a relationship of love, they're content to give to the other anonymously, without credit or recognition.
The joy is in the giving because, as A Course In Miracles emphasizes, when a person gives, they always receive. The New Testament references this reality when it says we reap what we sow. In this universe, you can never give away something you don't also receive. So you don't need credit or recognition in order to receive something; you've already received what you've given away. When you give, you are never in a place of deficit.
When you and I deliberately and intentionally design our relationships to be centered on love, compassion, generosity, and grace---because we recognize and acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood with all others---we enter into the holy temple of God, we are on sacred ground.
"And so it was. The holy place, where God is made known, is the place where human beings discover each other in love."
So how many sacred temples do you have in your life these days?
* Belden C. Lane, "Rabbinical Stories: A Primer on Theological Method," Christian Century 98:41 (December 16, 1981), pp. 1307-8.
I have to admit I'm getting tired of reading more articles arguing about the whole notion of choosing to be spiritual but not religious. I'm not tired about the theme—because I happen to be one of those who believe in the genuineness of spirituality outside of religious institutions. I work with people in this category all the time and continue to be impressed with their sincerity and passion to be spiritual and compassionate people. And indeed they are. So I'm tired of the pejorative tendency on the part of so many religious people to judge those who choose to remain unaffiliated or unattached to religious institutions but who still want to pay attention to their spirituality.
There was even a study that went viral stating that people who were spiritual but not religious had more mental illness than religious people. "Aw, you see! It's unhealthy to be spiritual but not religious," chortled the religion advocates.
Then I read some religious leaders' attempts to bolster that study's conclusions, stating dubious evidence that was suppose to support such a superficial and narrow judgment. “Enough’s enough,” I said silently to them. “It’s time to get over it!” There are simply different legitimate ways to building one’s spirituality.
Church leaders, whose sole mission is to support and perpetuate organized religious institutions, speak out demonizing the SBNR (spiritual but not religious, which happens to be the fastest growing religious demographic in America right now). SBNR adherents fight back, naturally so, arguing why they choose to be SBNR instead of religious affiliation. Both sides consider the other irrelevant and out of touch.
Truth is, both sides have elements of truth as well as misguided, incomplete perspective in their convictions.
Three Vital Characteristics of Healthy Spirituality
So I thought I would evaluate this tug-of-war in the context of three vital characteristics of Healthy Spirituality. Can a person be spiritual without being religious, and can a person be religious without being spiritual? Is it Either/Or (all or nothing) or Both/And? Or Neither?
CHARACTERISTIC ONE: Healthy Spirituality is a life of engagement and connection, not a life of isolation and alienation. Paul Tournier, psychiatrist and author, makes the observation: "There are two things in life you cannot do alone—be married, and be spiritual."
Now on face value, this truth would seem to favor religion's indictment against SBNR. But not quite so fast.
We have to realize--and the more I spend time with people who consider themselves SBNR, the more I see this side--that there are many different ways of developing a life of engagement and connection. Most of the SBNRs I know believe wholeheartedly in living within meaningful community and relationships. They just do it outside of religious institutions. They have deep connections with people where those connections are enjoyed in multiple and diverse environments--they just don't choose to do it within churches, synagogues, or mosques.
Looking for a place to learn and partner with not necessarily belong. I have seen, as I've watched the trends in spirituality and religious affiliations, that more and more people if they look to churches at all, look to them not for providing a place to belong, but as a potential place to stimulate their spiritual growth and personal development and as potential partners in addressing the many social ills of our world. They want to learn. They want to partner.
But they're not as interested in "signing up" for a place in which to build and establish all their relationships. They want to be given tools and practices that help them experience greater life transformation but are not necessarily looking to "consume" the entire menu of services and ministries that a congregation encourages its members to engage in which often includes that church’s entire belief system. They feel no need or desire for the whole cafeteria.
But isn’t that self-centered? This is one of the issues that irks religious leaders and adherents. Their indictment is, "That's completely self-centered!" Their point is that healthy spirituality has to be lived within community (and it usually comes down to their community) because that's where we rub up against others who may be different than us and therefore it teaches us to learn how to relate, how to forgive, how to soften the sharp edges of our personalities and spiritual lives.
Community in different places. The truth is, both groups believe in the importance of community facilitating healthy spirituality. But they each look for it in different places. Admittedly, both groups have people who think they can be loners in life and still be spiritually healthy. Neither group is immune from this temptation. Both need to look strategically and intentionally for community in which to learn the art of spiritual growth and spiritual health. The point is, let's stop judging the others’ strategy by thinking we have the exclusive environment to shape meaningful community and spiritual life.
CHARACTERISTIC TWO, Healthy Spirituality involves a particular way of relating to others and to the world. It's not just relating that is important, it's how we relate. It involves relating in love.
Just before entering the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for so many years, God offered the Israelites a very clear and stark choice:
"I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendents may live, in the love of Yahweh your God" (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Notice that choosing life, from God's perspective, is the same as choosing love. They go hand in hand with each other. Life and love.
Here's the way Dr. David Benner, in his book Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human, puts it:
"Choosing life is choosing love. And genuine love cannot remain for long as simply love of my life. Love of life is contagious. It spreads to all facets of my life, and it spreads to others. That is the nature of love. If I really love life, I cannot help but begin to value your life as well as mine. If I genuinely love life, I will treat all life as sacred. If I genuinely love life, I will care for the world because I care for the generations of humans who may yet be born." (p. 73)
Needing a conversation centered on love. It's sobering to me that so much of the conversation between religious adherents and those who don't religiously affiliate devolves into shouting matches about who's right and who's wrong. There's no genuine dialogue emanating from a place of love, honor, and respect for the Other. Instead there's finger pointing, judgments against the other, drawing lines in the sand where the side each is standing is the only true side.
That's not love. Is it?
Ironically, love is touted as the supreme value in every major religion. And yet history is filled with examples of hate and judgment and violence against those who disagree with the accepted norm of religious allegiance.
Love not tolerance. I'm tired of people elevating the concept of tolerance in this world. That's not love. Love is compassion, caring, support, honoring, and blessing the other--not simply tolerating the other.
Healthy spirituality is about choosing to learn how to love more completely and deeply in every environment and setting of life. And when we don't do it well, then we ask for forgiveness, and continue learning and practicing more effective ways to love others, especially those we disagree with.
Though both groups--the SBNRs and religious adherents--elevate the experience of love as defining genuine spirituality, the track record isn't very good about this happening effectively between them. Both groups need to keep trying. And both groups need to allow the other to learn the art of genuine loving wherever they choose their place of community and their style of artfulness.
CHARACTERISTIC THREE, Healthy Spirituality, which always engages in a life of love, is anti-legalism and anti-ritualism.
This is a defining characteristic. Here's what I mean by this. I do not mean that healthy spirituality is against law, rules, rituals, practices. Not quite. Rules, rituals, and practices are tools to help facilitate a deeper transformational spiritual life.
Every religion, and people who claim no religion, engage in practices and rituals to help themselves become better human beings—like meditation, breathing, mindfulness, prayer, scripture or devotional reading, or attendance in gatherings that lead a person to a higher spiritual place where their hearts-minds-souls can be inspired and moved (be it in church services or workshops or seminars or retreats).
People who take spirituality seriously believe that it's in relationships where we learn how to love and forgive the most effectively. Developing healthy relationships is one of the greatest spiritual practices and rituals of all. Relationships are our laboratory for the soul. And the list of meaningful, effective practices is long.
“Ism-izing” spiritual practices. What I mean by genuine love being anti-legalism and anti-ritualism is a refusal to "worship" form over content or outcome. In other words, when we elevate the style of practice over what the practice is suppose to accomplish in our lives we have "ism-ized" that experience. We end up saying, "Your spiritual practice has to look like this and not look like that." Or "True spirituality favors our accepted, traditional method or way of stating a belief."
I remember when I pastored traditional churches encountering some elders and deacons who believed that for the communion service to be legitimate, we had to cover the table of communion emblems (the bread and the grape juice) with a white cloth before the service, take it off during the service, and then put it back on immediately before the service concluded. Anything short of that was sacrilegious.
And when the service was over, the unused pieces of bread and grape juice had to be disposed of in precisely the "right" way to maintain the holiness. One church insisted on emptying the emblems into the toilet, another insisted on emptying them into a fire pit and burning it all. Both believed equally that their method was the right one. And if I didn't ask for it to be done the right way, or carry it out perfectly, I was deeply criticized and judged as a "less than faithful" pastoral leader.
That is "ism-izing" a practice ... where love has lost its true place in the spiritual life in favor of legalism and ritualism—when the rule or the ritual/practice supercedes the love it is suppose to generate. We cast deep value judgments against people who act or behave or believe differently than we think is right. We are convinced our way is the most effective way toward genuine spirituality.
Religious form instead of spiritual truth. Jesus spoke vehemently about this tendency among the religious leaders of his day. He exposed their "isms" when he pointed out things like "You are like whitewashed tombs--you look good on the outside, but inside you are filled with dead people's bones--you insist on tithing even the tiniest part of your income, but ignore the weightier things of the law, like justice, mercy, and faith." (Matthew 23:23, 27)
Jesus was indicting a form of religiosity--legalism and ritualism--for its separation of love from law—in essence being religious without being spiritual—adhering to the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. People were great at paying ten percent of their income--they practiced that spiritual ritual perfectly and faithfully. But they were neglecting the actual practice or outcome of being loving with others, especially those they didn't agree with or who were different then they. That’s legalism and ritualism.
This is one of the biggest indictments of Church I hear from people who have disengaged from religion.
Jesus’ core value. I’m inspired by the way the eminent Islamic scholar Khalifa Abdul Halim describes Jesus' core value here:
"In Jesus we have the culminating point of that upward movement where God and religion are completely identified with love which has preference over all the legalism and ritualism."
Healthy Spirituality--the kind Jesus advocated--is anti-legalism and anti-ritualism. Jesus summarized the entire Jewish Law (in the Old Testament) with love. "On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets--you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 5:43-44)
Healthy spirituality, both inside and outside religion, always centers on love; and the ultimate test of it being how we show up with those with whom we have our biggest disagreements.
"Just as love was the measure of his own life, so too Jesus made it the measure of human fulfillment and the supreme criterion of healthy spirituality" (David Benner, p. 73).
The only question that matters. So the only question that truly matters—the question that helps guard against legalism and ritualism, in the end—is, Does this practice, this rule, this ritual empower me to love the Other more deeply and completely? Does it help me to be more forgiving and honoring of all people, especially of those with whom I disagree?
Jesus truly stated the bottom line when he said, “By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
A Church that doesn’t genuinely love, and treat with equal honor and respect, all people is actually being religious without being spiritual. A nonreligious person that refuses to love all people is only being nonreligious without being spiritual.
It’s time for all of us, whatever our religious or nonreligious perspectives, to step into a more Healthy Spirituality as we hold ourselves accountable to genuine love for all others.
The Frog and the Princess Do you remember the fairy tale about the frog and the princess? A beautiful princess loses her favorite play thing, a dazzling golden globe, in a pond. A frog ends up finding it and bringing it back to her. Delighted and grateful, she promises the frog that it can come to her palace (never thinking it will take her up on the offer). The frog shows up later, much to her dismay and disgust. But feeling convicted of her need to be true to her word, she lets him enter, feeds him every day, and puts him to sleep every night in her bed. And then one morning, feeling sorry for it, she plants a gentle kiss on its head. Suddenly, the frog turns into a handsome prince ... and in true fairy tale fashion, they live happily ever after.
This simple story reveals the deep psychological connection between our attitudes toward people and their capacity for transformation. As one author says, "Only what you have not given is lacking in any situation." A counter-intuitive concept, isn't it.
As it turns out in the tale, the frog had once been a prince but had come under the evil spell of a wicked witch. She had turned him into a frog to live in a pond forever or at least until someone kissed him again. Sounds like the story of the Beauty and the Beast. An act you would least think of doing or even want to do is the act that brings transformation.
Our Typical Approach: the Blame Game
The author's statement is unusual to how we typically think. We often look at others (the people in our lives closest to us, especially) and think that the way they're choosing to behave is creating the lack in our relationship. "If she or he would just act this way or that way, we'd have a great relationship." Our focus is on wishing for something different from them. So we'll cajole, criticize, guilt, shame, or "encourage" a change in their behavior. It's the typical blame game.
But the quotation above states a counter-intuitive reality: what is lacking in any situation is what WE are not giving to it. That's not to say that the other person doesn't have responsibility for their behavior and actions in how they are contributing to either pain or joy, peace or conflict. They do have responsibility. But you and I cannot force their responsibility. And our delusion is in thinking we can "help" them change their ways. And as we often discover, unfortunately that only exacerbates the issues, certainly our own personal frustration and pain.
3 Principles for Healthy Relationships
Years ago I read Cecil Osborne's book "The Art of Understanding Your Mate" in which he points out that there are 3 primary principles in developing healthy, fulfilling relationships: 1. I cannot change other people; 2. I can only change myself; 3. But other people tend to change in response to my change.
Sounds like the fairy tale. As much as the princess shrank in disgust from housing the ugly frog, it was only when she softened her heart toward it and then ended up kissing it, that the frog was transformed back into what it had originally been created--a handsome prince. There was no amount of arguing, cajoling, guilting, shaming, forcing, criticizing she could do to change that frog. She had to change her attitude first.
So you and I have to ask ourselves the questions, "What is lacking in this relationship? What am I not giving that I can give to it from a place of authentic heart and soul?"
Loving First Is the Highest Way
Marianne Williamson, in her book "The Return to Love," states this reality: "What this signifies is the miraculous power of love to create a context in which people naturally blossom into their highest potential. Neither nagging, trying to get people to change, criticizing, or fixing can do that. The Course says we think we're going to understand people in order to figure out whether or not they're worthy of our love, but that actually, until we love them, we can never understand them. What is not loved is not understood."
In the fairy tale, the princess doesn't suddenly know the trick for transformation. She isn't aware a handsome prince is hiding inside the skin of an ugly, warty frog. She doesn't therefore simply grit her teeth and force herself to endure the gross act of kissing the ugly thing. She comes to a place where her heart softens to a frog not a prince. And she ends up kissing the frog in an act of gentle acceptance. When her heart was in a place of "pure love" her act brought transformation.
Now let's be honest: I don't think the princess ever really enjoyed having the cold, damp, warty frog sleeping in her bed or eating at the table right beside her in the royal dining room. We don't have to like the difficult characteristics of the people in our lives. And in some cases, their dysfunctions might be so dangerous for us we have to separate from them for safety's sake. We can't hold ourselves responsible for their irresponsible attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes, no amount of personal change can change the other.
But the principle is true: what is not loved is not understood; and accurately understanding the other is the foundation for compassion, empathy, and respect which all combine to reinforce a space of love which is the only environment in which genuine transformation can take place. Without that love and understanding, we hold ourselves separate from people and wait for them to earn our love or we resort to trying to force their change through whatever devious or not so subtle ways we can think up.
Accessing the Divine Miracle
So Marianne continues: "But people deserve our love because of what God created them to be. As long as we're waiting for them to be anything better, we will constantly be disappointed. But when we choose to join with them, through approval and unconditional love, the miracle kicks in for both parties. This is the primary key, the ultimate miracle, in relationships." (p-129-130)
Our attitude toward people powerfully impacts their capacity for transformation. The rub is that they have the ultimate choice (the whole freedom thing) for what they want to do with it. And painfully, sometimes they choose not to respond in kind to our love. But if transformation is going to happen, it will happen through our choice to love first.
But Frogs Are Disgusting!
The whole thought of kissing a frog is pretty disgusting. I grew up in the rice paddies of Japan spearing frogs for entertainment, not kissing them (I'm ashamed to admit ... I'm still not sure where that behavior came from ... the tendency toward violence of little boys is scary). We were told that if you even handled frogs you would get their worts. The whole point is that we were instilled with the attitude that you simply stay away from or certainly don't get close to, much less handle frogs.
No wonder this fairy tale points to such a counter-intuitive experience that we don't have much proclivity toward. We carry this "hold at arm's distance" philosophy into our human relationships. Relating to The Other (those who are different from us, who don't act or believe like us) is extremely difficult. So we tend to insist on the other "changing" first - we want them to change to become more like us in order for us to accept them and love them and embrace them.
We see this paradigm manifested in attitudes toward people of other religions and belief systems, sexual orientations, political parties, racial profiles, and yes, even in our closest relationships in marriage, romance, and friendships. No wonder our world is in such a mess!
Following the Divine Way
I'm reminded of the divine example for how this works. The disciple always considered closest to Jesus writes about it this way:
"10This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a way to show His divine love in the midst of our waywardness. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us." 1 John 4
The divine way is "kissing the frog" when it's still a frog. Notice the radical, countercultural dimension of this approach: it's when we love each other in this way that the fullest expression of God is experienced in both the giver and the receiver. It is the only way that the full expression of divine love is grown in us which results in transformation. God knows that. So God acts first. And the frog turns back into the prince. That's the divine miracle we receive and we pass on.
I know I can be such a frog at times! I'm painfully aware of many of my warts--I am awakening to more and more. Thank God my wife keeps kissing me! My princehood is awakening. The miracle continues ... and it empowers a desire for me to do the same with others. Imagine a whole world where love keeps awakening everyone to their true royalty! Now that's a world I want to live in.
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!
[If you liked this post, feel free to share it 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.]