Archive for September, 2009

There is certainly a right time and place for gravitas. But, today, there is a lot of reason for grave thoughts and seemingly incessant worry. The Sufi see the Beloved in a dance, in song and in laughter. Jesus said “be again as little children. ”

The one thing about little children is their spontaneous play and laughter ( assuming a reasonably normal childhood and wholesome circumstances). There is much to make us somber, so the proper spiritual tack to take lies in finding ample cause to smile and laugh.

What makes me laugh is absurdity: statements intended to make deep sense that say nothing at all, or the many paradoxes of life (e.g., only through prudent law and regulation can a society be truly free). I also find the level of seriousness that we bring to play as adults hilarious.

Where is the spiritual lesson in this? When I get intense, preoccupied and locked into obsessional rounds of worry, I take ten steps back, so to speak, and do what seems at the time ludicrous: I go find the funniest movie to watch and laugh my way back to sanity. I also look for the quirky in the moment, the funny turn of phrase, or the melodrama in the drama that makes me chuckle.

Today, for example, I played baseball with members of my family. My 8-year-old nephew was next at bat and he made two demands before going to the plate with bat in hand: (1) this is going to be a fantastic hit so go ahead and applaud now, and (2) remember, no strikes or outs for me; I am a little kid!

These sage comments came right after a debate about whether the last runner was tagged out or slid into second base safely. All the competitive adults were of mixed opinion as we became very serious indeed. My nephew broke through all that need to win, severity and argument, replacing it instead with the simpler need to just play, and a chance to laugh.

May your day and night bring you both a little play, and some hearty laughter.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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We are, without question, creatures of tenacious habit. We get comfortable with a certain look and ritual, and we replicate it with impressive consistency.

There is a learned order to things and we thrive on that replicability and predictability.

I awaken in the morning to the gong of my Blackberry alarm and, within less than 5 minutes, I turn on my favorite early morning news channel, put on the coffee, shower, shave, and dress. In choosing what to wear, I lay out a set of choices the night before, and I hold off on putting things on until after I’ve had breakfast to keep from spilling something on my shirt, tie or suit jacket. It’s a very comforting ritual.

We need the rituals. They set a rhythm for mind and body. Good health and an organized life process, rule of life and rule of contemplation all correlate strongly . They matter. At the same time, though, change is everywhere. Sameness appears from day-to-day until something shakes us out of the “matrix,” and we catch a glimpse of seemingly sudden discontinuity.

While ritual is an essential aspect of humanity, it is equally crucial to recognize that it is all an illusion; everything is in motion, everything is tending. In fixating on the static surfaces, we miss the reality of constant unfolding. So, what to do to balance our wholesome disciplines and rituals with continuous attention to what’s actually changing?

A small thing that I sometimes do is to shift an aspect of my daily practice in some small way to quicken my alertness to the real.

For example:

1. Wearing a watch on the other wrist every so often.
2. Combing my hair differently.
3. Wearing a symbol of a particular spiritual tradition unobtrusively, just so I know it’s there.
4. A wardrobe of cologne fragrances.
5. Making daily use if differently scented body washes ( including coconut, chocolate, almond, etc. ).
6. A selected talisman of sorts that I simply enjoy holding, packed in my briefcase ( meteorite, other mineral, symbolically rich bookmark, alternative special pens, special photograph).
7. A screen saver change using my own photos mixed with favorite stock photos from the internet.
8. A changed playlist on my Ipod Touch.
9. Different and fresh potpourri for the large ornamental basin in my home office.
10. Rotation of artifacts, figurines, and paintings on my home office wall.

The only limit is imagination.

Such a practice of ritual change joins with the continuities in our daily round to honor the yin/yang of the soul, the need for a dynamic rebalancing of the constant and the flux. I find that, by doing these things, I am better oriented and ready to appreciate and more fully experience the surprise, the variances, and the times of seemingly “out of left field” occurrences.

All the best to you as you consider the change-ups that keep you just off-balance enough to be really alive and to better hear the “still small voice”.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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What do these two creatures have in common?

– Slower than slow movement.

The concept of anything moving that slow seems ludicrous to modern ( & certainly American) sensibilities, but there is a wisdom in it worth taking to heart. In the United States and the rest of the developed countries, the usual pace is swift and accelerating.

Here in the states, we take pride in multi-tasking and mad-dashing about engaging in what used to be more accurately called neurotic behavior.

It’s a wonder we really see or experience anything at all. Our passion for speed seems to know no bounds and even extends to the restroom where I have seen men at urinals having an animated conversation on a cell phone or, worse, while occupying a stall. Is nothing sacred?

We eat rapidly and often on the fly, while driving, standing in lines, talking on the phone, and while engaged in many other activities.

All of these habits have as their goal the supposedly more efficient use of time so as to wring as much productivity out of the day as possible. We are the culture that has inspired  fast food, short power-naps, e-mail chains, texting, and tweeting.

Deep and relaxed conversation is on the wane and it is being replaced by drive-by sound-bites. Is there an antidote to what is turning the person into just another utility ( captured linguistically in the shift from talking about departments of personnel to the departments of human resources)?

Italy offers one treatment strategy called, alternatively, “slow food.” Imagine it: a return to the primacy of the dining room and the long and luxurious enjoyment of good food, good company, and personal story-telling.Spiritually, we are shaped by the manner in which we live. If we sprint our way through life we will pass by many things and savor perhaps very little. Under such conditions, the soul becomes ever more two dimensional as we lose our spiritual depth and breadth.

Across world spiritual traditions, we are consistently reminded to “slow down.” In Japanese Zen Buddhism, “Kin Hin” ( or walking) meditation is practiced in conjunction with zazen ( sitting meditation) whereby the meditator walks mindfully: feeling each leg advanced almost in slow motion. Tai Chi ( the “Supreme Ultimate”) calls for the performance of almost balletic movements in slow, smooth succession. In yoga, the goal is, once again, the slow repetition of Asanas (postures) and pranayama ( breathing exercises) all aimed at mindful movement of the entire body.

How can we extract from these very specific forms lessons that we can simply apply in otherwise busy days so that we can recover the wholesome pace of humanity.

Slow Motion, Vigilance & Listening!

At the close of day, on arrival home after work, try walking into your house very slowly. Move as if time itself has slowed and feel your every movement.

Watch how the muscles interact, the sensations that arise, the textures you feel, the play of light and shadows,  patterns and forms. Of course, if other people are near-by, the practice will likely not be comfortable unless, of course, they join in.If you can, carry it further, as you very slowly move across the room and see if you can sustain this level of attention for 5 to 10 minutes.

On rising in the morning, if time permits, get out of bed the same way: with very slow and deliberate movements as you come to full alertness and take your first steps as you move through the rituals of the mornings. As opportunity presents itself, it is good to try this practice at odd times when practical: in your office with door closed, in your yard if you have one, etc.

In time, when you start running again too quickly and chronically, the practice of the snails and the sloths may automatically adjust your pace and remind you of the virtues of slow.

Every so often, couple this practice with a completely wasted hour: doing nothing, producing nothing, thinking nothing in particular, forgetting time, and just being in the world.

Molto Legato!!!

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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As a young man in high school, I recall a project I took on for the fun of it that I was then later invited to present before the Board of Education.

I was personally intrigued by the tone poems of such great composers as Claude Debussy that were intended to capture a sensory experience in musical form. The idea of a poem using sound rather than words was so interesting to me that I undertook extensive research on the imagery that arose on listening to a wide variety of instrumental and vocal pieces.

What I discovered is that certain pieces of music had a similar impact on a wide range of people, while others evoked diverse and idiosyncratic imagery. Surely, the subjectivity involved is considerable, and the music co-mingles with all of our experiences and sensibilities, memories and associations. Nevertheless, it was the ability of some compositions to elicit very particular shared imagery that fascinated me the most.

Carl Jung discovered the power of the collective unconscious and spoke of the archetypes: deep- seated guides that underlie our motivations and passions, imaginings, dreams, and symbols. This morning it strikes me that they too are operating in the language of music. The mind resonates, as it were, to certain tonal textures and sequences, and is thereby inspired to respond with its own images, sensations and emotions.

One very simple yet powerful meditation is to select a piece of music that you regard as truly beautiful, comforting and somehow emotionally well-matched to your needs in the moment. Playing it with eyes closed in a place where you will not be distracted and without attention paid to any one aspect of the music, allow images to rise and fall with the musical phrases, changes in key, cadences, and the moments of striking harmony and disharmony.

Just sit, listen and watch for the Heart’s special stirrings and how the music invites you to the cosmic dance of the Music of the Spheres.

When all our senses are so attuned to the gestalt, to the full power of all aspects of what it is to surrender ourselves to the moment in a total immersion in the universal language of music, we surely encounter the Beloved: we touch and are touched by the Infinite.

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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We just spent an idyllic afternoon with very good friends: a barbecue and a wonderful conversation filled with relaxed sharing and laughter.

During the day, we exchanged many stories of the past, most of them about moments of natural comedy, of the absurd and unlikely events that are always so much better than fiction. These were stories that celebrated our eccentricities, foibles, embarrassing moments, blind-spots, and moments of mystery and revelation.

What makes a story powerful is the capacity to tell it from the heart, with total sincerity and openness, and with the experience almost fully recovered in an instant as you tell it. In listening, you are drawn into the story by the passion and authenticity of the story-teller’s narrative.

The stories around a patio table are reminiscent of the gatherings round the fire of native cultures ( like the dialogue circles of the Navaho). The oral tradition took a backseat since the written word became dominant but our yearning for the face to face, palpable and emotionally vibrant tale, told in the voice of the one who was there, is deep and persistent.

Telling one’s own stories is both a gift and a responsibility. In offering it, it is incumbent on us to be vulnerable enough to make it real and, in so doing, the act of telling it is itself a spiritual exercise. In the re-telling and the remembrance we elevate the experience. We reveal the nuances of the events that took place and, with good stories, we create a spark that encourages others to tell their’s. The process is one of communal alchemy.

The simplest story becomes a seed planted within the consciousness of those bound together, and so individual minds are touched to reconsider things, perhaps in new ways. These can be magical moments of remembrance and transformative moments as we stumble often onto a perspective or a feeling that invites us to go deeper in searching our heart’s ties to the memory.

Where is the sacred in this? In the alchemy and the harmony that arises from the mix of stories, there lies, deeply embedded inside the metaphors and the symbols, an archetypal ocean that guides us, forges new patterns, and awakens our sensibilities to the fullness of the real!

A day spent with friends is a great blessing indeed and it reminds us of the broader family on which we depend and in relationship to which we discover our meaning.

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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My wife and I enjoy hiking and we used to take some fairly long and challenging ones with camera, binoculars and field guides in hand. Nowadays, it’s the walks color coded for short distance that we prefer. We get all the pleasure of different environments ( lakeside, forest, meadows, etc.) and all in the space of 30 minutes or so.

Still usually with cameras in hand, we go ready to capture what memorable moments may come ( a series of 8 or so turtles all lined up on a branch in a small lake, a solitary flower remaining on a substantial bush, a lone chipmunk on the side of a tree, or a colorful bird alighting on a nearby branch, etc.).

And then, the walk is over.

We feel appropriately gratified and refreshed at the bit of exercise and fresh air, the views, the quiet and time alone with each other. This has me thinking today about the extraordinary work of Paul Brunton on “Advanced Contemplation” ( contained in his many notebooks).

He argued that the best path to living the illuminated/ enlightened life is the short one too.

His argument is that many of us take special pride in the struggles and long endurance demanded of us by taxing disciplines ( and all these are fine) but these paths to enlivening and unleashing the spirit become exactly what we expect them to be — long and effortful! A Zen Roshi once said, in answer to the question “How long will it take to become enlightened?” – seven years.

Brunton instead contends that since one is already everything that one needs to be (in the experience of the ever-present “Over-Self”) all we need do is recognize that fact.

As we sit to meditate, there is no need for striving. All we need to do is accept that we are already immersed in the sacred (which is all around us and completely fills our every breath). We need only listen, look, hear and catch that first fleeting glimpse of true Communion with the Beloved. This then becomes a lengthier and lengthier experience of what has always been real in our lives whether we knew it or not.

With humility, this approach asks us to look within ourselves with all the calm we can muster. In the act of noticing the real, we are already experiencing the illuminated path; no need to wait any longer. Carpe Deum!!

At the end, we come to see that, after all of our striving, we have been at the destination all along but too busy looking for it to see it.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, we are “Movement with repose.”

Short Paths

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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They are the sign of an alive mind. They are the shepherds that draw us, when they are crafted well, to greater heights of thought and understanding, and they keep us from becoming too complacent in all the many things we think we know.

Assumptions are the scaffolding we erect to help us construct a path-forward in pursuit of our goals and objectives and they are legion. A well formed and powerful question ideally invites us to look more closely at what we assume lest we mistake them for undeniable and self-evident fact.

So, just before taking some lunch, I am thinking of the value a brief litany of questions can offer for the rest of my day  in guiding me toward a more thoughtful process  by which to examine what it is that I am assuming, and how I might elevate my sights to matters of Spirit.

How can I upgrade the qualities of my attention and awareness as the day progresses?

I begin with a simple litany of three questions:

  1. How do I understand what’s happening in my own world today? What is it I assume and what is it that I really know?
  2. Were this my last day, how would I live it assuming I that I continued to focus nonetheless on what I have scheduled to accomplish?
  3. What one thing do I strongly believe and on what grounds do I believe it? As a person who prides himself on reasoning thoughtfully and thinking clearly, have I earned the right to believe what I believe without hesitation?

What are the questions you are asking yourself today that can contribute to enhancing your own vigilance, discernment, and depth of understanding?

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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How often I catch myself eating too quickly, virtually inhaling a meal, as I simultaneously think through something wholly unrelated, rather than savoring it, and doing so with full attention.

Zen Buddhist practice encourages “mindful” eating; an act of being completely present to the act of eating. In Italy, the “slow food” movement is a meaningful corrective for this anesthetized approach to sitting down to a rapidly dispatched meal.

Interesting too, that all religious traditions place a premium on certain foods that are to be eaten in conjunction with religious festivals and Holy Days around which there is usually a prayerful rite.

While we are what we eat, I guess you could say we are also as we eat. A coherent spiritual practice can in part be measured by the degree to which the times set aside for formal meditation begin to spill over into the rest of our days and all of the activities that we perform.

My young nephew, a very talkative and bright young man, asked me the kind of question the other day (while we were catching a bite to eat at a local restaurant) that can only come from the mouths of babes.

He asked: “When I go to Jesus will he feed me?” I answered, ” I don’t think you’ll really need to eat”, whereupon he complained: ” Well, if he doesn’t, I’ll die! If he’s not going to feed me than I won’t go!”

I am still chuckling at the sweet and natural way this question was asked, and though I was focused on giving a mature answer, his reply was most definitely so much better than mine.

With innocent simplicity, he went straight to the heart of the matter: In being fed, we celebrate our profound need for one another. In a real sense, our requirements for physical nourishment is a perpetual and very compelling reminder of our creatureliness.

No matter how lofty our thoughts, we still need to be fed. Delighting in the simple pleasures, like dining with attention ( whether alone or with someone else), transfigures the moments involved and illuminates them. Eating with attention is to eat with gratitude and celebrate the continuous connection to others and the world around us on which we do most certainly depend for our total well-being.

My young nephew, it turns out, is a zen master! Is it any wonder that Jesus admonishes us to “suffer the little children”?

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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I just watched “Horton Hears a Who” once again last night with my young niece and nephew, and I was quickly reminded of the genius of Dr. Seuss.

After this August (now thankfully in the past) of so-called “Town Hall Meetings” (more accurately characterized as Town Hall Brawls) ostensibly focused on health care reform , Horton and his courageous and undaunted defense of the “Whoville speck” has new meaning for me.

” I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent,” Horton declares, when his fearful friend warns him of continuing to discuss the presumed delusion of a populated speck that no one else can hear.

“There’s a tiny person on that speck that needs my help!”

What a perfect articulation of moral leadership and compassion, and how refreshing it would be to see more of it in the exchange among people of different political persuasions here at home.

The screaming acrimony about health care ( as it most certainly was anything but a reasoned debate) is spiritually toxic to both the screamers and all of us hearing it played in the media ad nauseum. It is the dark color of fear as embodied in the officious and opinionated Mother Kangaroo bent on destroying Horton for his vision, integrity, and commitment.

In fact, she argues that Horton is dangerous especially because he might influence the children. Aren’t we hearing the exact same thing in this most recent eruption of Obama-bashing rhetoric that the President of the United States, duly elected by the American people, cannot be entrusted with a message to the Nation’s school-age children without it first being screened; a message, in fact, to be delivered today?

So much fear. So much demonizing. So little reason, civility, decorum, and respect. These are not the fruits of spiritual living but the antithesis of it. One need only recall the iconic Star Wars and the method by which Darth Veder seeks to persuade Luke Skywalker to move to the dark side to realize the danger in all this: “Impressive. Most impressive. Obi-Wan has taught you well. You have controlled your fear. Now, release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me.”

Of course, were he to give into the hatred, Luke would have succeeded only in destroying himself as Veder did before him. Authentic positive spirituality across all spiritual traditions, in the Hearts that know and radiate Light, is measured by compassionate action, an inclusive and embracing temperament, a smile, warm laughter of love and joy in being together, and true sisterhood and brotherhood, not vitriolic name-calling and unbridled rage.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Horton doesn’t even hesitate. There are people in need. Will it cost him? Yes! But it’s the right thing to do. He reminds himself and everyone else that “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

The “Kangaroo” barbarism and cacophony of  this past rude August is a lesson in what the absence of authentic spiritual practice breeds ( since these are simply never the attributes we see where Spirit is genuine) – contempt and a rush to name a suitable enemy around which a fearful constituency can rally and declare common cause.

Is it just possible that health-care reform should be major reform, wholesale and profound change, whatever the expense, simply because it is the right thing to do?Is it possible that in doing so we can work through the cost issues and smartly manage efficiencies so as to reduce the deficit while caring for the “least among us?” Aren’t there so many other things on which billions of taxpayer dollars are spent and arguably wasted without anyone in Congress or the Country even batting an eyelash or raising an objection?

Horton stands up for what no one else sees or chooses to see or hear, and he does so at grave risk to his well-being in defense of “Who-ville”. May we see that “Hortonian” spirit rise again, I pray this morning, accompanied by the courage, imagination, and foresight to see things change with  intent to care for those who lack, and in the interest of seeing wellness placed first over corporate profitability.

I for one believe the “pachyderm” spirit is large, and bold out there across this country ( if sometimes very quiet and drowned out by cynicism and harshness) and desperately needed in our times. Leadership is seeing what needs to be done and doing it whatever it takes to make it happen with a better tomorrow in mind.

It all boils down to a choice: a choice about what kind of America we intend to be in this decade and beyond. Will we re-emerge large, as a nation of bold ideals in practice, or one of  hollow rhetoric powered by political expedience serving as ideological cover for what at root is actually narcissism, a “me first”, “get what you can get” mindset?

Will we be “faithful one hundred percent” and ” say what we mean and mean what we say,” or do little but congratulate ourselves instead through loud reverential sooth-saying in insincere Sunday pontifications actually concealing  mean-spirited rationalizations, acts of hypocrisy, and a flagrant disregard for others?

I hear the “Who” and the mayor needs our help. Do you hear the “Who”?

The parable of “Horton” raises in my own thinking a question I intend to meditate on this week with special emphasis as a personal challenge:

In hearing the mayor’s voice on the speck, do I have the fortitude of Horton? Is my own spirituality sufficiently engaged?

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Labor Day, 2009

Ah, I can almost see Maria singing and dancing in the hilly country of Austria, a postulant for life as a nun in the classic musical, “The Sound of Music.”

We easily recall the catchy music and lyrics of “A Few of My Favorite Things:”

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things …”

What is so captivating about Maria is her resilience and positivity, her love of the natural, and her virtually continuous communion with the Spirit of the hills and dales: a communion too intimate and personal to be bothered with such trifles as showing up on time for services and chapter meetings.

Maria’s innocence is all the more special because it arises out of a deep well of spiritual vitality, energy, and authenticity. Where others might come across as naive or childish, Maria quickly becomes a mature voice to which we are drawn. In this particular song, she builds a list for the pleasure of the children so that they too can join in the choir about the miracles all around that render needless and blind our usual complaints.

I wonder about the things around me that awaken me to the Divine presence: the small things that go right to the heart of the matter, stop time in its tracks, and elevate me to true Joy rather than to superficial and fleeting happiness.

So, here are 10 of my favorite things (in the same spirit as sung so delightfully and memorably by Maria) but with emphasis on where I especially feel the presence of the Beloved-

  • standing in a field of wildflowers
  • sitting by a mountain river nearby a waterfall
  • looking up at the stars on a perfectly clear night unspoiled by our own lights
  • on a desert path recently in Arizona at dusk, behind a retreat center and winding up and around a mountain
  • at the top of Mount Haleakala in Hawaii
  • wading at the beach at Fort Desoto Park in St. Petersburg, Fl. in a heavy downpour
  • in the midst of thunder and lightning with the scent of ozone in the air ( the more powerful and dramatic the better)
  • in a hospital nursery
  • in the forest where no one else is in sight
  • in a cabin in the woods with little light save that from the moon, and the natural sound-scape.

It is interesting that while so many churches, temples, cathedrals, chapels, ashrams, and retreat centers inspire and present great beauty, they are simply not the first things that come to mind.

© The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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