Tag Archives: spirituality

Kwanzaa, Day 7: Imani (Faith)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters? Happy New Year!

I’m pretty sure most of us (myself included) are spending the final day of Kwanzaa somewhat sleep-deprived and hungover, so I’ll speak quietly and wish you the tastiest of greasy breakfasts and a quick recovery so you can start 2018 getting your shit handled. No matter how you woke up today — groaning and regretful, or clear-eyed and ready — I have faith in you and your ability for greatness. You can do whatever you set your minds to!

Today’s principle is Imani, or Faith. Faith is a tricky concept to talk about because it’s so nebulous; it means something very specific to our religious fam, while it might mean something entirely different (or nothing at all) to the rest of us. If you’re Christian or Muslim, faith means belief in a higher power as well as the righteousness of the rules as they have been set down in holy texts. The rules are often a constant source of confusion and conflict for us, though — so many of us in the diaspora are excluded by them, and our personal experience might tie the worst memories to the way religion has been used to drive a wedge between us. If you’re like me, Christian faith is most likely one of the most destructive influences in your life.

It can be hard to reconcile our experience with the positive aspects of faith, especially when the actions of the faithful can be so hurtful. It can be hard to have faith when you’ve seen what it does to people. The idea of putting your faith in something larger than yourself can be tremendously scary, a fool’s errand that only leads to the worst outcomes.

But here’s the thing: faith is necessary to push our ideals forward. If you’re religious, putting your faith in God means putting your faith in Their creation. The people all around you are made in God’s own image, which means that divinity exists in each and every one of us. Recognizing and respecting that divinity is one of the most important ways we can act on our faith — every interaction we have with someone else is another opportunity to connect to the divine spark within our fellow human beings, and the work of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed pointed us to doing just that. It can be exceedingly difficult to find the divine righteousness in some people, but faith isn’t easy. Even with the understanding that God is present in all of us, having faith that we can connect to it in another is something that escapes us too often.

For me, personally, these past couple of years has largely destroyed my faith in humanity as essentially good. It’s hard to believe that we are basically kind and wise creatures when we seem so hell-bent on our own division and destruction. Over the past year, we’ve thrown away our standards for truth and compromise just so we can cater to our darkest impulses. We’ve begun to question ideas that were settled decades ago, and fostered an environment where knowledge and morality aren’t concrete, tangible things — they’re just details that can be swatted aside for something that feels better. Instead of admitting our ignorance and mistakes, we’ve become ruinously arrogant even in the face of direct contradiction. Our collective id has crowded out our sense of perspective; the only thing that matters is our personal gratification at this point.

It’s hard to see, especially when there are so many real problems that we refuse to face. We’re pushing our environment to the brink of collapse even though we’ve had more than fifty years to deal with climate change; we’re astonishingly willing to entertain fascist and totalitarian ideas in our political process, especially if it means a win for ‘our side’; we’ve stopped listening to one another for so long we can’t even understand each other any more; we don’t think of those less fortunate than us as anything but a drain on our society. At the precise time we should be shaking off the worst excesses of our civilization for the continued survival of our species, we seem to be choosing a bender of oblivion, drunk on fossil fuels and anti-social capitalism.

I’ve struggled to push through this year with any sense of purpose. What’s the point of anything if we’re so willing to destroy ourselves if it doesn’t mean making hard changes to our lifestyle and understanding? It’s been impossible to shake the feeling that we’re just doomed and that the world has effectively ended; we just don’t know when or how.

Faith helps so much to combat this narrative in my head. If I believe in anything, it’s the strength, resilience and ingenuity of my fellow human beings. We’ve had the chance to control the way things change in our future, but we’ve missed it for the most part. It’s up to us NOW to take quick and decisive action to make sure our future is the best we can make it; that’s going to require us to put our faith in each other and our own better natures.

As a Buddhist, this means putting my faith in the idea of enlightenment for all beings. We all have the capability of expressing our unique Buddha-nature for the benefit of all humanity. Your expression may be closely following the teachings and attitudes of Jesus Christ; or the wisdom of the prophet Muhammed; or the ancient, living Mosaic Law. It might be communing with the seasonal magic of the natural world, or following a humanist philosophy, or simply being who you are to the best of your ability. There is no one thing that means nirvana; our own paths take us to our innate epiphany.

My faith rests in the journey that all of us are taking to be better people. I have to believe that this journey will find us working together to take care of each other over time, and that we will come to celebrate and respect our differences while realizing we’re so much more similar than we thought. My faith means looking for the Buddha in every person I meet and finding ways to connect with them. It means hoping the best for everyone while not expecting everyone is at their best.

In order to make the most of the new year and to fully embrace the Nguzo Saba, I have to embrace the faith that we can turn this around. I must have faith in my ability to live up to my principles, no matter how hard it might be. I must trust in you. And I do.

Let’s make 2018 a great year. I have faith that it will be, because I’ll be trying every day to make it so.


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Combatting Mindlessness with Personal Myth

Buddhism 150When I’m not pretending to be a giant rabbit who writes fiction on the Internet, I work at a services company where I deal with customers all day. The nature of our business is such that people often mistakenly believe we’re responsible for things that we aren’t, so it’s not uncommon for me to get calls from an irate stranger demanding that I change something I have no control over.

I would love to be able to say that my meditation and Buddhist practice enables me to respond in a calm and present manner to these calls, but I can’t. It’s times like these when the lizard brain takes over — often, I’m confused about why I’m being screamed at, and that makes my chest tighten and my heart beat faster. I’ll try to tell the caller why it’s not my fault they’re in this situation, which if I were thinking clearly I would realize is the wrong tack to take. Then an argument ensues, and all that matters is gaining the upper hand. For me, a ‘win’ would be getting the caller to drop their accusation of responsibility and go elsewhere. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re frustrated or feel like they’ve been helped. As long as they stop being angry with me, specifically, that’s what matters.

When I’m rational, I know that this isn’t a personal thing. I’m merely the most convenient face for a problem that someone has, and since I’m on the front line as it were I’ll bear the brunt of the negativity for some people. But it’s really difficult to remember that as it’s happening; that the person repeating “What are YOU going to do about it?” in your ear again and again isn’t speaking of a literal ‘you’. At that moment, you’re a representation of your work place, an entire company given a voice.

I’m not sure if you would have guessed it or not, but I like to avoid conflicts whenever possible. Part of it is I don’t like the stress that a conflict brings, but another part of it is the knowledge of my own temper. It’s a quick one, and I’ve learned a while ago to disengage myself from a situation that sparks it — chances are it’ll die down quickly and I can come at it reasonably later. Obviously, this isn’t an option when there’s someone on the phone with you, refusing to give you space until you resolve a problem that you just can’t solve.

But see, this is why you meditate. The feeling that you get on the bench, when you’re just breathing, is meant to be carried with you through the rest of your life. If you can remember, all it takes is a few breaths to bring you back to mindfulness, to remember who you are and what you’re doing, to take an approach to the situation that’s less instinctive and more helpful.

I ended up raising my voice to the caller the last time it happened. He was especially pushy, demanding that something be done and using the time-honored “repeat yourself in a louder voice” to control the conversation. I admit, I was flustered. I took it personally and handled it poorly. At that moment, all of my meditation training went out the window. I played his game, and lost.

If I had taken just a few breaths, I would have realized the truth of the situation. He was painting me as an enemy, an obstacle to a desired outcome, but I’m really not. Instead of allowing myself to be placed into that role I could have side-stepped that relationship entirely. I could have said, “No, I’m a friend, let me help you any way I know how.” While I don’t have direct control over the situation, I could have come up with a somewhat workable solution with just a little thought. But it’s hard to think straight when you’re running on adrenaline.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do is tell a story of myself that runs closer to the person I would like to be. I suppose this is an advanced version of ‘faking it until you make it,’ but hopefully it will be useful. As I move through my day, I tell myself that I’m a friend to everyone, even the people that would rather not see me. I tell myself that I’m helpful, generous, kind, attentive, compassionate. I construct a myth of myself — a rabbit who is an Avatar of Comfort, dedicated to putting everyone around him at ease. It doesn’t always work, of course — sometimes I forget myself and then I’m just David, grumpy and harried, who’d rather get back to whatever it was he was doing instead of being patient and helpful. But that’s OK. People fail to live up to the myths about them from time to time, but it shouldn’t stop them from striving for it.

That’s one of the ways I ‘access my totem’, I suppose. I marry my vague, animist spirituality to my Buddhist practice, so that my idealized self, the picture of myself at enlightenment, is a rabbit that radiates calm and peace. I’m not sure if there’s a name for that sort of thing (besides insanity), but it helps, when I remember to let it.

Does anyone else do this? What sort of stories do you tell yourself, about yourself, to encourage you to be a better person?


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Meditating Everywhere

Buddhism 150It’s taken me a very long time to understand what meditation is for. When I first started to practice, I assumed that the time I’d spend on the bench was in preparation for something else. By sitting down and counting my breath (one-in-out-two-in-out) my brain was being molded in a way that would manifest elsewhere. I assumed that meditation was a ritual, and that like most magic it would work in ways I wasn’t looking for, that it would surprise me with its effectiveness when I needed it to. An incredibly stressful situation would arise, and suddenly I would get through it with grace, focus and clarity without knowing how it happened. One day, just like Neo in The Matrix, my eyes would open and I would simply see everything for what it is. Instead of lines of code, I would see another person, sharing the same air that I was, wanting the same things I did, no different from me at all. I’d put in the time, and there would be a reward later, a mysterious effect disconnected from its cause by time and thought.

That’s a completely shitty idea. I know that now, of course, but I didn’t then. It took me a few years of sporadic meditation to understand that meditation isn’t a preparation for anything. It’s an act, it’s *doing*, and that you’re expected to take the focus and awareness you cultivate on the bench and carry it with you through your day. Meditation isn’t a ritual that pays dividends down the line — it’s the beginner’s version of how Buddhists are expected to move through life itself.

It can’t start out any easier. You simply sit down, and pay attention. The ideal thing is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the moment without attaching to it; when you attach to it, the thought carries you away from the present along a stream of associated thoughts and moods. When that happens, let it go, then return to where you are. It takes practice to maintain that presence, but the idea is that when you do you find yourself responding to what arises in a much more centered way. And the bench isn’t the only place where this happens. Meditation is a practice you can cultivate wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.

That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to focus on recently. My meditation practice is as spotty as ever, I’m afraid (I’ve never been one to develop good habits), but even when I don’t manage to sit on the bench I’ve been trying to really pay attention to what I’m doing when I do it. If I catch myself getting stressed at work, I take a moment to step back from that emotion, figure it out and move on. It really helps when you’re dealing with anxious or angry customers I’ve found; instead of taking a remark or behavior and being carried away by it, I can try to anchor myself and focus on a need that’s being expressed.

And that’s a huge deal to me. I come from a long life of depression, which is a pretty self-centered condition to have. You get used to thinking in circles around yourself; everything comes back to you, how you’re deficient in some way, how no one could ever love you, so forth and so on. Even managing it, it’s difficult to learn to step outside of yourself if you don’t work for it. That’s what meditation does for me; it provides me a way to step outside of myself, simply by being active in my awareness and focusing on my surroundings, other people, or feelings as they arise and fade. That helps me relate to people better, it helps me solve problems more quickly and easily, and it helps me to understand people and their perspectives without warping it through my own.

One of the reasons I’m talking about this is to try and explain my perspective in the hopes of encouraging people to explain theirs. Meditation helps me quite a bit, but I know a lot of people really aren’t into it. I’m curious about what other folks think about it — is it useful to you, if you practice regularly? Did you try it for a while, but find no good use for it? What do you do instead, if you have something that centers you? How does it work?

I think it’s important to have a way to remember the things that are important for you, no matter who you are and what you believe. Meditation is mine. What’s yours?


Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection


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