True Gratitude

Screech! went the brakes as the car jerked to a stop on the road’s shoulder.  Just a few feet ahead of the car’s horrified occupants, an eighteen-wheeler jackknifed across the road.  Further ahead, three cars had piled into each other as they skidded on the icy surface of the road.  Trembling, the occupant of the front passenger seat exclaimed, “Thank God we stopped in time!”  In that moment of terror and relief, her primary thoughts and feelings were those of gratitude.

A group of family and friends was seated around a Thanksgiving table piled high with holiday delicacies, surrounded by a festive atmosphere.   As was their tradition, the host suggested they start the meal with each one sharing what they were thankful for.  Each participant recounted some good thing for which they were thankful.  Some of the acknowledgements focused on things or comforts, some on actions or people.  Undeniably, each thing acknowledged was worthy of gratitude. Yet, many acknowledgments lacked the depth of feeling – or even of contentment – that might have been expected.

We are approaching a holiday which emphasizes the concept of thankfulness.  In addition, throughout the year, many spiritual teachers revere gratitude as one of the highest traits of spiritual growth.    Most of us are aware that we should feel grateful, and many of us are convinced that we actually do.  Yet, how many of us truly understand gratitude?

Many – maybe even most – of us do not realize that gratitude is a choice.  It is not something that simply happens to us or does not happen to us outside of our control.  “I can’t help it, I just don’t feel grateful.”  The first part of that statement is incorrect.   One may not be in the habit of choosing gratitude, or one may find it difficult to do so, but the doing or not doing is a choice we make.  In addition, it is a choice we make in the present moment.  Although we may have felt gratitude in the past, and are able to remember our past choice, we cannot BE grateful in the past.  The past is gone, and no longer exists except in memory and in influence on present conditions.  Likewise, we may anticipate when we will feel grateful, but we cannot BE grateful in the future, because the future is a will-o-the-wisp that has not yet arrived.  It is only in the current moment that we can feel our gratitude; hence, the choice needs be continuously made. 

Also, in order to choose gratitude, we must feel satisfied with something – as with the protection of life in the first case above.  We may wish that things were otherwise – most of us do.  But in the moment of gratitude, we must feel a certain satisfaction with the way things are.  This is the hardest part for most of us, who do not really know how to feel satisfaction.  Our society tends to teach us to always want more, do more, or be more.  It tells us that feeling satisfied is the way to fall backwards. 

Furthermore, gratitude is facilitated by relaxation.  Tension, the feeling of having to watch our backs, despair about succeeding at something, or anything else that causes apprehension or distress cannot facilitate gratitude.  In the example above, it is only in the moment of letting go after safety has been achieved that the passenger can feel gratitude.  Her gratitude may or may not be sustained, but in that relaxed minute, satisfied that her life has been spared, she feels it.

So, what are we to do at the Thanksgiving table, or in those moments when things seem hopeless?   Affirmations have power.   It is good to affirm that not only can we make the choice for gratitude, but that we are actually in the process of doing it.  To say that one is thankful for one’s food, one’s family and friends, one’s health, or even the vote that came out according to expectation is a powerful thing.   The rub is that saying is not the end of the matter.  Affirmations do not take the place of actual practice; they are a beginning.  We need to realize and acknowledge that gratitude is an ongoing choice, a continuous response to life and to life’s aspects.  One might say it is a kind of being, as opposed to what one is accomplishing. That done, we need to examine our responses.  Do we feel truly satisfied with something?    If not, then this is an area in which we need to work.  If so, can we expand this feeling beyond its seed?  Feeling satisfied does not mean that nothing will ever change.  Life itself is change, and often we are able to influence that change.  We can be satisfied with eating turkey and sweet potatoes in the present moment and know that we can be satisfied with eating lentils and kale in another moment.  We can be satisfied living humbly in a small cottage in this moment and know that we can be satisfied with living in a large house, or in a yurt or a trailer camp in another moment.  This is because gratitude is a choice that we make or do not make in every moment.  It is not dependent on circumstance, and it does not limit the parameters of other moments.   Hard as that may seem, it is essential to understand and to strengthen our ability to become.

Finally, we need to know that although this may be a difficult, even arduous, practice in which to engage ourselves, it is not a battle.  We do not “win” it by efforting.  We need a medium of patient relaxation in which to practice.   For a while, anyway, we need to disconnect from the continual bombardment of things do, things to accomplish, things in which to be otherwise.  In this moment, we need to simply relax, confident that the rest will manifest.  For just the moment, we need to relax, so that satisfaction and gratitude can happen.  Relaxation is not going to sleep.  We can relax and still be aware.  It is a response that can be developed by practice, non-judgmental practice in which we simply engage without criticizing ourselves for our doing or the perceived quality of its outcome.

This Thanksgiving, and in life generally, let us be aware of the power of our gratitude, knowing that we have the ability to become ever more grateful.   Whatever our circumstances, let us release our objections to them, and bless them, if only for a moment.

Peace, Diane

HallOwEEn

HallOwEEn

It has been said that Halloween is a celebration of our fears.  Perhaps it is not wholly that, but certainly that is an aspect.  Fear was a part of the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, occurring at the cross-quarter between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, the same time as we celebrate Halloween.  Partly a harvest celebration, Samhain also included the belief that at this time the division between the spirit world and the world of the physically living was weakened.  Through the thinned veil, spirits of the dead and spirits of non-human origin (e.g., fairies) could enter.  Although some of those spirits might be benign, others were feared for hostile or mischievous intentions.  Two of the customs surrounding this belief were the wearing of costumes so as to not be recognized by the spirits and the burning of candles to scare them away.  Later in the period, turnips were hollowed out, carved, and a burning coal was put inside so that the light could be carried with a traveler.  This is the forerunner of our jack-o-lanterns.

During the second half of the cross-quarter, the period of darkness is lengthening, and the growing season concludes.  The cold season of winter is approaching, during which survival depends upon the harvest and what can be preserved from it.  The waning light and approaching cold were taken seriously, and an abundant harvest was thankfully welcomed. We have moved the harvest celebration to Thanksgiving, but some of the ancient Samhain customs certainly sound familiar.   Another change is that we no longer call the celebration Samhain.  The early Church in Britain attempted to negate the Druidic and pagan origins by taking the dates of Samhain (Oct 31-November 1) and changing the celebration on November 1 to All Saints Day, honoring the ascended Christian dead.  The evening before (Oct.31) was re-named All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

The twin themes of celebration and fear remain with us in modern times. For most children, the occasion is eagerly anticipated.  Children dress in costume not to hide from spirits, but to appear frightening or spooky themselves, or for recognition of their creativity.  (In Mexico, the spirits of one’s honored ancestors are recognized, and masks and costumes to that effect are made.)   Households stock up on treats to be distributed, and children in their disguises traipse happily from door to door demanding treats.

So where is the fear?  Children may try to be scary, and adults may fear retribution (mostly from adolescent tricksters) if suitable treats (mostly candy) are not provided.  Horror movies prevail on TV but are certainly not shunned by most audiences.  We seem to be no longer truly frightened by influences from “the other side”, or even apprehensive about tricks played on Halloween.  Could it be that our fears have settled inside us?

Now, as the days shorten and the warm, energetic season of summer yields to approaching winter, it is a good time to look at what we fear.  Each of us has personal fears, some more visible than others.    Many of our fears are those of inadequacy in some form; some are nightmares of abuse or assault; others are terrors of the dark, closed spaces, the vastness of open areas, or heights.  Fears may also be outer-oriented, such as fears of war, political oppression, climate change, earthquakes or other natural disasters.   Whatever it is, each of us has something to which to attach our fear.  I postulate that this multitude of fears has a single origin – the fear of death as defined by massive personal loss and the extinction of our identity.

Halloween is a good time to explore our fears and discover either their ephemeral nature or their reality as events that can be dealt with.  Nature designed winter as a time of rest, reflection and renewal.  What better place to start?

We need to look at what the children have done with Halloween.  What was once fearsome and spooky is now an eagerly anticipated time of joy.  We, too, can face our fears and doubts, recognize and confront them, and turn them into pointers towards joy.

Happy Halloween! 

Peace, Diane

The Medicine of Hope

When I first started studying martial arts, it was apparent that patience and respect were two of the qualities being taught and which beginners were expected to master.   I was eager to become involved with my new group, my class.  That Valentine’s Day, I baked a cake for the class and decorated it, including in the decorations the words “Patience and respect are forms of love.”  It was an insight which I gradually came to understand.

Martial arts have forms – formalized series of moves which, when integrated into muscle memory, are incorporated into the whole of a skilled variety of responses.   Similarly, qualities such as patience and respect, when practiced and mastered, lead one deeper into the overarching and underlying quality of the universe, love.  I would like to add two more qualities to the first ones I apprehended.    Faith and hope are forms of love.

Faith and hope are like Siamese twins.  They are attached and alike, yet they are not same.  Faith is the firm belief that something is, something which is not necessarily readily perceivable through the five senses. Hope is the inner knowledge that our actions make a difference, and that we can affect reality for the better.   Giving up and sliding into despair are the antithesis of both.  Together, faith and hope hold the vision of the good to come and are instrumental in bringing that vision into the present moment.  Although they are not same, it is difficult to express one without the other.    If I speak of hope, I am also referencing faith.

At this particular crossroads in history, humanity – as individuals and in general – is in serious need of hope.   As the pieces of our politics and social structures seem to be falling apart, we need continued hope that we can construct systems that support ourselves (humans) in a web that lovingly nurtures us instead of consuming us and pulling us apart.  We also need the medicine of persistent hope to heal the larger system in which we and all of life exist.  We need the inner knowledge that our actions can affect the healing of our planet, and that we need to act now.   In either case, to descend into apathy, despair and inaction is the opposite of hope, the absence of love.  Hope will lead us to the healthy and beautiful life we desire; apathy will lead us into further destruction.

We all need to be pro-life.  I am not speaking of the political issue labeled “choice”, although I could.   I am speaking of the need to choose life (another form of love), to embrace life in support of our planet and all its inhabitants, who are on this journey with us.  We have pushed apathy, despair, conflict and inaction as far as we can without incurring results which we do not desire, results which any of us who are willing to look can see looming on the horizon.   Those of us who hope are not blind to those destructive outcomes; we prefer to focus attention on the hopeful vision of the more peaceful, just, kinder, more beautiful world we all desire.   The hopeful prefer to actively direct efforts forward in the direction of that hope.  The hopeful understand that we can, by the combination of our individual actions, still affect the outworking of the present in a way that nurtures us all.   To refuse action, or to act otherwise, is to refuse hope.

Many of the youth of our planet are leading us in the direction of hope, even though apathy is a challenge for the young and adult alike.  From calls to action and marches in the streets, to simple acts of recycling and reduction of consumption, to helping to restore damaged forests and wildlife, to creating songs and stories, to lobbying politicians and ensuring voters are aware of issues, the young are each doing their own parts, according to the talents of each.  Yes, some are still apathetic, but we are seeing an awakening and a grand emergence of activity.  They are doing their duty of speaking out, and more.

It is our job as adults to listen and respond, to act and to guide.  Many adults are also acting, each according to his or her own strengths and calling.  Still, too many continue mired in apathy, either not looking, or not caring, or without the hope that their actions can be effective.  To act takes effort.   It takes energy.  Apathy and despair destroy our energy.  Hope can revitalize it, provide the energy we need for effort, for carving out the time to do our parts.

For as long as can be remembered, people have spoken of the generation gap and fear that they will be forever cut off from the young for whom they have facilitated life.  Yet, generation after generation, the young morph into adults who can finally understand those who have gone before.   If we (adults) wish to create a great chasm between us and those who are approaching or just entering adulthood, we can continue in apathy, in talk instead of action,  and allow the entire burden of the climate crisis to fall upon the youth who survive, as the crisis manages to decimate our ranks.  Greta Thunberg put it simply, “We will never forgive you.”

There are myriad ways in which we can each engage.  Hope requires that in whatever way we do it, we engage, every one of us.  Hope knows that if we do this, we need not follow the path of lemmings over the cliff of self-destruction.  Hope knows that in the present moment, there is time – the only time that exists.  Now is when we need to act.

I hope; I hold hope for a planet healed in the life-giving fabric of love.  I hold hope for those of us who still need to awaken.  I hold hope for support for those of us who are carrying the energy of healing forward.    May we each awaken to take our first breath of that hope which fuels us, and which can move forward the healing of our planet.

Peace, Diane

The Elephant in the Room

“People are suffering.  People are dying.  Entire ecosystems are collapsing.  We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.  How dare you…You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

The words are passionate, emotional, the words of an adolescent in pain.   They are also an incisive, concise and accurate statement of the ominous crisis in which we find ourselves, like it or not.    Sixteen-year-old climate champion Greta Thunberg spoke them to the United Nations and the world at the Climate Action Summit in September.

A quick search of the Internet will confirm, from various sources, the accuracy of her claims.  Many of us, especially those in power, prefer to not look at these facts.  We may peek at them occasionally; some offer excuses or soothing hopes that technology will take care of everything while our lives continue unchanged.  Then public attention shifts, and discussion continues on issues of economy, politics or gossip about celebrities.  We have yet to create a tipping point which can place the focus on money, convenience and comfort second in importance to the preservation of our planet.  Dangerously, we are not yet willing to look directly at and believe in what is uncomfortable, inconvenient and scary.  Meanwhile, the threat to our ways of life, if not our lives themselves, continues to grow as we hide our heads in the sand.

Climate change has begun.  Doomsayers predict the extinction of mankind and the end of life on Earth.  Sadly, that could happen if we continue to hide from what is happening and do essentially nothing but talk.  It doesn’t, however, have to be that way.  People have choices, and it is time for us to wake up.

Greta’s indictment of adults at the UN focuses on the power structures that bind us to the status quo.  She includes both those in the politics and leadership of the world, and those who make enormous amounts of money from consuming our common home.  Both are motivated by the common addiction to money.    I do not refer to money as a tool for exchange fairly used to reward labor and creativity.  It is the use of money to evaluate a person, and the addiction to amassing fortunes at the expense of others’ unpaid or inadequately paid labor or creativity that leads to blindness to the subsequent devastation.  We as ordinary people must, all of us, unceasingly shine the light of awareness upon that devastation if we are to counter the effects of destructive corporate action and the refusal of governing powers to effectively challenge those actions.  It is said that a lie told often enough becomes truth in the minds of those who hear it.  Truth spoken unerringly and unceasingly has greater power.   If we value our planetary home, we must not be silent.

The very rich and powerful must change the basic premises of their existence or be removed from power.  Certainly, they may not be allowed to continue those actions which increase the warming of our atmosphere, the changes in our climate and the extinction of many of our species.  We do not need more oil and gas, more factory farmed grains to burn and feed large herds of cattle (which emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas), more mines, more bombs and weapons of war, more anything which destroys or fatally alters the systems with which nature balances, protects and nurtures our world.  The excuse that these things maintain the economy and GNP is irrelevant.  That which is inimical to life must cease if we are to survive.  However, it is not only the wealthy and influential that bear the burden of change.

The example of drops of water together creating the powerful ocean or waterfall is not new.  It is, however, an excellent example of how great the power of individuals, united and consistent, can be.   We need such power to mitigate what has begun and adapt to what we cannot stop.  What, then, can each of us do?  After all, each of us is only one person.  Here are a few ideas, in addition to being persistently vocal in whatever ways we can. 

Most of us are familiar with the idea of recycling.  Public emphasis on recycling has been diluted in an attempt to make it convenient to recycle.  We now have single stream recycling in most urban areas, so that people no longer must sort their trash; they have only to separate compostable and non-recyclable garbage from recyclables.  Convenient, yes?  Someone else is doing the sorting.  Sadly, that means that many follow the path of least resistance and throw into the recycling bin things which are not recyclable.  In addition, in some communities, the recycling truck will collect the trash, but will simply dump it in a landfill along with other garbage; people are often unaware of that occurrence.  Here are some things people can do:  people can be aware of what happens to collected recyclables.   People can reduce the use of things that are purportedly recyclable, such as excess packaging, plastics, single use bags, straws and other items.  People can become aware and advocate for markets for recycled items, so that those items can be turned into new items without the use of precious natural resources.  People, especially in rural areas, can compost garbage, turning it into useful enrichment for the soil – as opposed to toxic sewage sludge.

We can learn how to grow urban gardens, from converting empty lots to garden use to doing container gardening to doing rooftop gardening.  This is a step towards eliminating the factory farms which pollute our Earth, destroy the soil for our farms, and create toxic runoff which desecrates our waters.  Small, organic farms can feed us all, and growing some of our own food and eating locally grown food can go a long way towards reducing the carbon we put in the air and also towards pulling some of the carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it in the plants and soil.    We do not need to truck in food from factory farms; this brings us foods which are less fresh and increases the carbon emissions through trucking.

We can learn to create our own electricity from the sun, or, in some cases, from wind.  We can learn passive solar building (using nature for heat) and install solar panels on our roofs.  Energy we create in excess can be sold back to the grid; eventually, there might not be complete reliance on a grid.  It would be wonderful to have energy after a storm, when the grid is down; solar energy can give us this.  Generators emit pollution into the air from burning fossil fuels.  We can also buy sustainable energy when it is available and lobby our utility companies to stop using fossil fuel.

We can push for the creation of reliable public transportation, powered by electricity.  Hopefully, the electricity will come from sustainable sources.  We can be vocal about the need for battery recharging stations for vehicles, as available as pumping stations for fossil fuel, and eventually replacing those pumping stations.  We can by increasing use make it fashionable to use bicycles as often as possible.    We can learn to slow down and walk to nearby places.

We can pay attention to our parks and advocate for their creation and preservation.  We can volunteer to help maintain them.   We can plant trees; trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen into it.  They are called the lungs of the world for that.  We can raise our voices against deforestation, decry the removal of any healthy tree, and refuse to buy products which have been made available through deforestation (cattle production and palm oil production are two of these).  In our cities, we can learn to build vertically; we can decrease sprawl into the suburbs and build parks with trees in areas which are freed.   We can stop building proliferating shopping areas; many of these are built when there is not a population to support them.  Many of those businesses fail, but the structures are left, using space which could be forested.

We can paint white every roof which is not taken by solar panels or gardens.  When glaciers and snowpacks melt, their function of reflecting heat away from the earth also disappears, increasing the rate of global warming.  White roofs en masse would shoulder some of that function.  We can also learn to cooperate in community, working with our neighbors.  There are many kinds of community – extended family, neighborhoods, co-housing, ecovillages, intentional communities; there are so many kinds that it is highly unlikely that a given individual would not be able to find one that suits.  However, we need to learn to cooperate with others in order to do this.  We need to act cooperatively in order to create the changes we need to preserve the planet.

These are only a few ways in which we can act.   Each of us has his or her own talents and gifts to offer, and there are many ways to contribute.  The bottom line is that each of us must act.   Relying on the next person to do it will not work.  The confluence of our voices and our actions will create the changes that we need.  In times of crisis, voices are raised to awaken us.  Sometimes those voices are children.  In the case of climate change, Greta Thunberg is one.  It is the function of youth to speak up when they see need or discrepancy.   It is the function of adults to listen and guide.   Greta has found the courage to speak.  Let us each respond by thinking about and acting with the contributions we can make to avert the worst of the impending events which threaten our lives.

Peace, Diane