Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Sunday Contemplation

We have just finished our second month of contemplative Wednesday night services at church and in the middle of anxiety, fear, and anger, quiet, incense, and prayer may seem like an escape, or avoidance. I've found these past several weeks, though, that contemplation is necessary to keep a plumb line, to reorient my compass, to look, in the words of the prayer, to changlessness in the midst of chances and changes. To turn away others in need, because we have surrendered to fear, or to get lost in anger, even when in the sake of what is righteous, is still to be lost.

Thomas Merton:

“Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo.”



I have been watching slow things the long afternoon,
The thickening pad of snow out on the windowsill
That grows so slowly we can never see it grow
Although we say we can.  All that we know is that
It has grown and most probably will grow so long
As the snow falls.  And that is quite enough to know.
Then it will go and that will be a slow thing too
Whether it goes in sun or rain, whether a wind
Is or is not blowing. It always has been so.
And what is slower than this short, gray afternoon?
Slower than the way the sun, almost snowed in,
Begins by being low and ends by being low
And never sets or so it seems?  Such a slow sun.
Nor is there much to show for my long afternoon
Except perhaps that I've been growing I suppose.
Only the unremarkable growth that must be, though,
Which isn't much, Heaven knows, for anyone to show.

~ Robert Francis

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What's So Funny About Peace, Lovingkindness and Understanding?

Or How Metta Made Me Like Chris Thile...

Sometime in the past couple of years, I stumbled on a lovingkindness guided meditation by Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who teaches mindfulness practice.  The practice was similar to the mindfulness or breathing meditation I was used to, except that he asked that we imagine someone that for us exudes unconditional love, to visualize that person, and to visualize embracing that person.  Unconditional love is impossible for us to reason with our brains, but if we've felt it, we know it.  It is warm and happy and forgiving and understanding.  Unconditional love is unchangeable, so that no matter what you do, it will never be less and it will never go away.  It is the love of God, and most of us have experienced it through the love of a parent (hopefully), or a grandparent, or family.

The guided meditation continued, though, to not just experience that unconditional love, but to imagine what the person is feeling toward you, to physically feel the love they have for you, and then imagine it radiating out of them into you.  Finally, after meditating on that love for a bit, you were to imagine it was radiating out of you into the whole world.

This one exercise fundamentally changed me, in just one session.  I had been practicing mindfulness meditation for a couple of years as a means to ease anxiety and increase awareness and calm, but this was different.  It was proactive, it was radiant, it was compassionate.  So, I started reading up.

Lovingkindness is a translation of the word Metta in the Pali language of the ancient Buddhist writings, and is a Buddhist meditation practice that cultivates love - for yourself and for others, people you like, and even your enemies.  It is the foundation for the Brahma Vihara, or heavenly dwelling mediations along with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  Basically, in lovingkindness when you meditate, you focus on certain phrases, like:

May I live in safety
May I have mental happiness
May I have physical happiness
May I live with ease

When your mind wanders, or you lose focus, you return to these phrases, with a concentration, not thoughts.  Lovingkindness is a religious practice, but in many Buddhist traditions it is easily useable within Western religions, especially Christianity, where we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves. Metta, however, understands that before you can love your neighbor, you HAVE to necessarily love yourself.

Combining Metta practice with basic Buddhist and Christian teachings of non-judgment, compassion, forgiveness, and love for others, led me to a new way of thinking about how I dealt with others.  I would try not to act in a way that would do others harm.  I would try to think about how my actions affected other people, to try to do the thing that they needed at that moment over what I may want to do.  I would try to be kind and understanding.  And I would try to re You member that whatever emotion I experienced caused by the actions of another would quickly pass, that before I acted in a negative way, I should think what a right and good and appropriate reaction would be.  Granted, I'm not perfect, so depending on the day, hour, how tired or hungry I am, my success can change.  But when I am in a decent mind, I think - may this person live in safety, may this person have mental happiness, may this person have physical happiness, may this person live with ease.  Sometimes, I repeat those phrases right after I have just called that person an idiot, but not to his or her face, and then like I said, I'm not perfect.

One side note - Buddhist practices in many traditions are very compatible with Christian belief.  In fact, they supplement it - they are methods to get to the point where we live as Christ.  I've heard some Buddhists say that the Buddha had 80 years on Earth and Christ only had around 30, so that while the basic teachings on how to live and act are much the same between the traditions, Christ was taken away before he had time to teach us how to get there, but the Buddha taught for 50 more years.  You CAN be a Christian and practice Buddhist meditation - read Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh for details.

So even people I have held grudges against, for whatever reason, I am compelled under the teachings of both Christ and the Buddha to let go of judgment, to seek a way to love them as my neighbor, to show them lovingkindness.  That brings me to Chris Thile.

The first time I saw Chris Thile perform, it was before he was leading Nickel Creek, at Merlefest in 1998, I think.  Sara and Shawn Watkins were with him, but I don't think they were going by the Nickel Creek name yet.  At the time, I was a hardcore bluegrass and country traditionalist.  Ralph Stanley was still in decent health, Del McCoury had the best band in the world, and I got to see Guy Clark, one of my absolute all-time music heroes, on a small stage with 150 or so others, so close I could smell his cigarette smoke from the stage.  Guy Clark can always make me feel something real, raw, yell out, or cry.  His songs are about packing up with his wife and taking the freeway out of Los Angeles, or about crying over his dead father's Randall knife, or how feeling yourself free after a bad relationship was a like a coat in the cold, or how a man could go to his grave knowing that the only happiness he found was in the arms of a Dallas prostitute.  Oh, and also home-gown tomatoes.  Hey life ain't all bad.  Sometimes you forget all about the sweatin' and diggin'.  But for the most part, his songs were gritty, heart-wrenching, real, poetic, beautiful stuff.

In the midst of my Guy Clark worship, and Ralph, and Earl Scruggs playing live for the first time in decades, and Gillian Welch on the small stage, and some really amazing stuff, here comes Chris Thile, with his teenage arrogance and show-offy mandolin runs, and preppy haircut, and white guy guitar expressions on his wankerish solos.  At one point during their set, he told the audience to "imagine you are a lighthouse" and then he sang this overly-emotive, new agey song about how he was a light house and I left.  That was it for me and Chris Thile.  Sorry bud, not my thing - you live in your world and I'll live in mine.  Difference being mine has good music.

So, cut to last night - January 14, 2017 and on my way to Tractor Supply to get dog food, who should come on WUKY, but Chris Thile, new host of the Prairie Home Companion.  If this were 5 years ago, no question, I would have turned the dial and not thought anything of it.  I actually would have felt good about myself for having standards.  But a self-congratulatory attitude about negative judgments do not really mesh with metta, you know?

So, in a completely open, non-judgmental, open way, I thought, may Chris Thile live in safety, may Chris Thile have mental happiness, may Chris Thile have physical happiness, may Chris Thile live in ease.  And it kind of worked. I eased into listening, letting judgment slide on by each time it popped up, and when talking about Chicago, from where Prairie Home was being broadcast yesterday, he mentioned Wilco, and one of his favorite albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  And then he sang part of a David Bowie song, and part of Led Zeppelin song, and the intro to a Rage song, and a song he wrote comparing the bad pitching changes of the Cubs manager to our country picking Trump as president. I remembered then that when I saw Chris Thile play in 1998, almost 20 years ago, he was probably 15 year old and I think I was probably more obnoxious than him at that age, especially since I didn't have his talent.  We'd both grown older, more mature, our tastes had changed, we'd lived life, and by the end of the episode, not only had I shown Chris Thile some lovingkindness and compassion, I think we're friends now.

That's how the metta practice works - start with yourself, then reach out to others.  Start by loving the neighbors close to you, and then eventually you can work your way to even your enemies, even Chris Thile.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Word About the Blog Title...

So, blogging can be a very egocentric exercise - with a tinge of arrogance in a belief that something the blogger could publish would enlighten the world.  That feeling has kept me away from this for awhile, but I'm still feeling the need to publish one, mainly with the thought that regular publishing would force me to actually finish something with punctuation and proper grammar. 

With the bare truth that not many will ever read my blog, but still fighting off the feeling that I am participating in an exercise of some self-centeredness, I finally came up with a name.

...That's All I Got...  means two things.  First, I probably won't blog that much, and when I rarely do have a thought worth writing about, that will be the end of it - I won't be holding back any big ideas that would benefit the world.  There's nothing else there in my brain.

Second, it's the admission that what I do end up typing on this free space on the web provided by Google is that it's probably not worth much - you want enlightenment, you might want to check somewhere else. 

So, the title is both a comment on the quality AND quantity of my thoughts and writing.  Not much there, and, when there is, there's not much to it, but that's all I got.  Like that joke from Annie Hall - the food is really terrible, and the portions are so small...

Welcome to my small portion...