Finding Gifts in Everyday Adversity

With the start of the year, I am focusing once again, on a practice I find difficult to maintain. The practice is reminding myself that things (and people) which anger, distract, upset, or confuse me can also be used as gifts that challenge me to be more conscious, compassionate and centered in God as Love. By God I mean the positive living Presence within and without each being. By Love I mean that caring, joining, joyous aliveness we fundamentally crave, and I believe are here to express.


Life provides me many more opportunities to receive such gifts than I would consciously choose. Someone cuts me off in traffic, oh joy, another opportunity! I drop the food I was trying to put in my mouth, on my new clean clothes, another celebration? Someone screaming obscenities on the street sees me notice him and yells “Faggot,” more practice. Reading the fear and hate filled messages from most of the Republican presidential candidates is another level of challenge.


I find it helpful to recall the following saying: “The problem in wrestling with a pig is that while you both get muddy, only the pig enjoys it.” When another is angry, disrespectful or even intentionally baiting me, how can I respond without “wrestling with the pig?”


This is where the struggle to live spiritual values becomes immediate. I can choose not to be drawn into the mud, no matter how tempting it may feel. A righteous rage is so tempting. I get to feel powerfully angry while feeling in the right. Yet when I go with it, I become other than I want to be. It is like a sugar high; charged up at first, drained and regretful later. This is not to suggest that one deny feelings of hurt, fear, anger or even rage. It is making the choice not to be controlled or run by them.


Sometimes people get confused thinking that if I am an optimist or believes that God is good, then feeling angry or having vengeful thoughts means I am a failure or a hypocrite. Being human each of us is open to the full range of possible feelings, thoughts and reactions. Pretending they don’t existence doesn’t help; actually it can make things worse. Feelings denied to conscious awareness have a tendency to emerge less consciously when an opening arises, too often at the worst possible moments.


Living a spiritual life for me means choosing over and over again to take the high road, to react with honesty and compassion. It does not mean I will always succeed, but it does mean I can and do renew my intention to be the best expression of divine love that it is in me to be. Remembering to seek the good in not-so-good experiences, the gifts from set backs and tragedies, is an important way to reinforce living a more compassionate, spiritual, joyous and grateful life.

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Let Your Light Shine.

I learned as a young child to muffle the light that would shine from me. I was never actually told, ‘don’t go there.’ It was more the opposite. Yet the very praise at how open, caring and expressive I was, since it was unlike the people praising me, suggested something wrong. Around the same time, I also remember not feeling or expressing myself with the drama that others did. If I did not like tomatoes—I didn’t—it would not occur to me to say I hated them. Others would. Wanting connection, discomforted sensing my differences, I began modifying what I expressed. In doing so, I also modified what I felt and experienced.

Letting one’s light shine is not the same thing as, to put it crudely, ‘blowing it out the other end.’ The inner light is an expression for the Divine (or if you prefer the good will) within you, the knowledge within of love and joy and wholeness. Fears, limitations, judgments of separation and otherness are also part of our experiences but are not expressions of light. For so many of us, expressing the details of our disappointments, suffering and tragedies comes easier than the joys, particularly those of every day life. What we express becomes how we experience our lives.

The phrase, “let your light shine,” comes from Matthew 5:16. ”In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.”

While I question the “in Heaven” aspect, I see the value of allowing others to see the divine within me despite the discomfort I sometimes still feel doing so. When another acknowledges and expresses their gratitude for the goodness in their lives, I get a glimpse of the Divine. It reminds me that the same Good is also central in me, and my life.

The phrase ‘letting your light’ shine apparently comes from biblical times when several families would share the same dwelling. Those with enough money would have lamps and the oil to light them at night, while the poorer families did not. Most would uncover their lanterns so their neighbors could also see by it, but some would cover it up, so only they could benefit from its light. Letting one’s light shine cost no more yet provided the warmth of community to all.

Aggressive missionaries have abused this concept to push their belief system on others. Remembering this serves as a reminder to me to balance my desire to share the inner knowledge and awareness that brings me such comfort and joy, with being respectful for others own spiritual journeys.

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ATTRACTION, REPULSION, OR NEUTRAL: BEING MORE CONSCIOUS

ATTRACTION, REPULSION, OR NEUTRAL

A meditation technique suggests that when thoughts or fantasies arise, rather than push them away or get lost in them, simply notice if they are “attractive, repulsive or neutral.” Initially this creates some space from them. As I become aware of my judgments I am back in the moment rather than under the spell the mind created. Back in here-and-now, I can re-focus on the breath I follow in meditation.

While this instruction helps in meditation, it can also be of service during every day life. We judge far more often than we are aware. Just as meditation is a practice of being present in life, becoming conscious of our judgments during daily activity and relating with others can help us differentiate between what actually is, and what might be tinted by our fears or desires.

Almost four decades ago (gulp!), in my late twenties, I co-led a Gay men’s support group at The Pacific Center in Berkeley with a man I will call Rob. Rob had training in religion rather than psychotherapy. After the group ended, he became good friends with a group member named Odell, who also became a friend of mine. I lost contact with Rob, while Odell kept up contact with each of us.

A few years later, Odell related to me that Rob was badly shaken up after having been mugged by a Black man a few months earlier. After that, the few times Odell saw Rob, Rob acted distant and uncomfortable with him. For you see, Odell is also Black. Perhaps if Rob had been better able to step back and observe his own reactions, he would have remembered Odell for who he was, not any superficial resemblance to his mugger. Instead he withdrew from a good friendship, a sad loss for everyone.

I am not suggesting we shouldn’t judge. Judging and knowing our own preferences and needs is valuable. Yet it is also important not to allow our judgments, especially pre-judgments, to interfere with our ability to actually perceive what or who is in front of us now. Rob’s fears controlled his behaviors. Ours will also unless we become aware of them and choose not to let them.

This is really about being more conscious, especially when our emotions are stirred. Checking if we are feeling “attraction, repulsion or neutral,” can help us be more aware in our everyday encounters. With awareness we can choose to react in terms of our values rather than just our impulses, fears or desires. After all, what does living a spiritual life mean if not making efforts to live according to your values?

Just because I don’t like something about a person I have just met, does not mean I have to push them away. Indeed sometimes becoming curious about my reaction can help me know more about myself. Maybe I am picking up something about the other that is dangerous. Or maybe, like Rob, I am reacting to a past danger rather than the real person in front of me.

Ultimately, I would rather seek to see the divine or at least the good in each person I meet. While acknowledging that some folks will make this quite a challenge, I think of the intention and effort as part of living a more spiritual life. Or if you don’t like the term spiritual, it is part of how we can live a happier, fuller, more joyous lives.

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God Again

“Dear God, I want a hobby horse (or a doll) for my birthday.” (Today it might be Play Station 4.) A child’s prayer, yes. As young children, our understanding of God was simple. “Our Father who art in Heaven.” This holy, powerful old man way above us, who could reward or punish us, although we were generally safe if we listened to our parents. Unfortunately too many expressions of religion have maintained a similar image of God. Instead of obeying parents, as adults we are supposed to obey the priestly class and their rigid reading and interpretation of the holy books. Apparently designed more to maintain control than develop a closer relationship with God, it is no surprise that so many people have drifted away from religion.

My understanding of God has changed over time. For many years I found Buddhism, meditation, and the written teachings about them particularly those of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh and Suzuki Roshi, my source of spiritual understanding. God, if such existed, was at best irrelevant in a world that seemed intent on learning new and more destructive ways to increase suffering. One strived to live morally, and by that I mean with compassion, generosity, and honesty, because this is a better way to be, not in hope of some imaginary after life reward.

While this remains a core of my understanding of how to be and act, God has returned for me over the last few years. I have written about some of this already. Exploring becoming a prayer chaplain at Unity opened my eyes to a different and more personal understanding of God as the inner connection with the Divine. Yet even in Unity, I suspect many do not really believe in God. They engage in understanding and practicing the principals Unity expounds upon such as affirmations and denials, without any need or recognition of God.

Nevertheless the first of the five basic Unity principles is that God is all good, active and present everywhere. Initially I suspended belief in this statement since I found the other teachings and practice so useful. I understand that people mean different things by God. Yet an all good, powerful, knowing and present deity is hard to reconcile with all the suffering in the world much of it created in his name.

The prayer chaplaincy came to me when I was feeling drawn to get more involved with Unity, but could not regularly attend nightly classes. I heard about an orientation meeting for those interested in becoming prayer chaplains. Realizing I didn’t really know what prayer was, I figured at least I could learn what Unity meant by prayer.

I remember driving over that evening, having a conversation of sorts in my head. “What am I doing? This seems absurd!” Yet there was this inner response that laughed away my anxiety and confusion. “But I could be doing something better with my time.” More laughter knowing I had nothing to do that night. “Well, what do I have to lose? It is only one evening.” Then I got there, and wow was I surprised.

What surprised me was that what they were calling prayer was something I had done on and off my entire life, never thinking of it as prayer. Even the laughter I felt in reaction to my objections in coming to the meeting, was a place within where I knew with a Higher sense what was right in the moment. For me, that inner laughter is an expression of God; it is the place from which at times I ‘just know.’

So back to the question, why God? If Unity principles are useful, positive ways of being in the world, why add God to the mix? Just follow the principles as you grow to understand them. Adding a God who is supposed to be all powerful, knowledgeable, present and compassionate requires a real stretch in belief, given all the suffering and injustice in the world. Rationalizations such as “God knows more than we can,” or “suffering is for our deeper growth or to test us” does not cut it particularly in the extreme situations. Young children being harmed, mass murders and even natural catastrophes as a damn test? Doesn’t sound compassionate to me.

The only answer I really have at this point is that It just is so. There is a Presence I have become more aware of over my lifetime. I continue studying this seeking more clarity. Yet I doubt that logic is enough to find God. Faith involves learning by a different means, paying attention to what is and is emerging within, not without questioning but with a willingness to trust. As I trust It more, my faith deepens. Not blind faith. As Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche once said, “Blind faith is simply blind.” Even if it is not based on ordinary logic, faith still needs to be based on knowing, not just closing your eyes and ears and jumping off into a void.

So I acknowledge this place of Knowing. Is it God, a higher expression of myself, or just some hormonal rush? Guess what; none of these choices exclude the others. Indeed Unity would unify these options. God is both our highest self and something that is more than merely us. And how we react in the body to Knowing is a bodily function. Not every chill is a sense of the Divine; sometimes it is just cold out!

Finally, at least for me now or this will never get published, I want to emphasize the need to Question what this is. It is only through questioning not just others’ beliefs but my own that I have deepen and enriched my understanding of existence. If believing in God (or a God head) enhances your life, go there. If not, don’t. Just keep your mind open. Life is change, sometimes subtle sometimes not. As I get older, I do understand more things. But what I understand most, is how limited my understanding is, as well as that of others who all too often assert otherwise.

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FAITH

When I write, what I end up with is usually quite different from where I started. After starting a couple of different themes, I decided this blog entry would be on my understanding of faith. Initially I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of Unity’s principles. Yet since I write from my own experiences, speaking of how Unity’s principles have formed my experience and understanding of faith makes good sense. I hope this exploration will be useful even if the faith traditions you are exploring are different.

For many years the Buddhist concept of Buddha Nature rather than the Western concepts of God formed the center of my belief system. Buddha Nature spoke of something innocent inherent in all beings that connect them, something beyond and deeper than personality. This something is always present, available within each person rather than some external deity telling us what to do or not to do, rewarding or punishing people according to rules or whims.

Yet I have had experiences and feelings that Buddha Nature did not adequately explain or develop for me. Attending Unity and developing conscious prayer awakened in me that which I think of as reclaiming God. What I mean by this is a conscious awareness of God or Spirit or by whatever name, which has always been with me. This added something active to my understanding of Buddha Nature.

Faith for me is my growing awareness and acceptance of the Divine as an active force in my life and world, something that is both of me and more than me. Since currently my faith is developing from exploring Unity, I have framed this about the five principles central to Unity.*

When a set of beliefs or approach to life attracts my attention, I view it like trying on a new pair of shoes. First I try it on. How does it fit? Does it wear well or chafe? How much does it cost? With my attraction to the welcoming messages from Unity, I have been ‘trying on’ their principles and so far, liking the fit.

The first two principles are my main focus here, as these seem to me the foundation of faith in Unity.

1) God is all good and active in everything, everywhere.

         2) I am naturally good because God’s Divinity is in me and in everyone.

The first principle is both hardest to accept, and most profound in it’s acceptance. Given wars, poverty, greed and cruelty in our lives and the world we live in, how could there be an all powerful, all present, active God that is also good? I suspect accepting this will be an ongoing struggle. Glib answers such as, ‘well God knows better than we can’ doesn’t seem very useful or meaningful to me.

The basis for my developing acceptance of the first principle of God the Good is because of how it ‘fits.’ Not that it fits every situation in the world, but how it works in my life. If God is Good, then in seeking God I choose to seek good everywhere. This can be quite challenging when things are not ‘going well,’ when I get cut off in traffic, when people are hurting and/or acting in ways that are negligent, destructive or abusive. Yet these very situations are often most rewarding when I do find the good.

By not expecting to suddenly find an insight that will make all the suffering and abuse in the world make sense or be transformed, I can better focus on my life and my interactions. While eventually I may examine larger, world sized issues, for now I need to focus on what is real in my own experiences and that of those people in my life. After all, the rest is basically reportage, things we rely on others to communicate with all the inherent distortions that invites.

The second Unity principle, that we are good because Divinity is in each of us, is easier for me to accept. I have learned to often see beyond peoples’ destructive thoughts and actions as long as my own feelings aren’t too strongly triggered. When I get to know someone, I can recognize their underlying needs and suffering, as well as their capacity for love despite all the evidence otherwise. Reaching people past their fears and defenses is often difficult, although it helps when I can acknowledge my own, similar fears and defenses.

The last three principles* provide guidance to growing and living these truths:

3) I create my experiences by what I choose to think, feel and believe.

4) Through affirmative prayer and meditation, I connect with God and bring out the good in my life.

         5) I do and give the best by living the Truth I know.

The more I look for the good, the more I find it. Intellectually, emotionally and even visually, when we look for something we tend to filter amongst the input to find what we are looking for. The 3rd principle of Unity, that my thoughts, feelings and actions create my experience is this and more than just recognizing what might go right.

In the past, I have described this as ‘the universe cooperating with us.’ In addition to opening my eyes to see what is good or right, in some mystical or at least more than logically explainable way, more things start going right. So far the effect in my life is that I am happier, enjoy events and people more, and find myself less fearful and judgmental.

Driving to Unity (and elsewhere lately), it is not unusual for me to feel anxious if I leave a little late or run into traffic. Remembering principle, I choose to relax and release my anxiety. I remind myself that good is coming my way. And guess what. Most of the time the traffic opens up and so does a parking place. (Driving in San Francisco, this can really feel like a miracle!) Yet even when I am late, there is still good for me.

So I return to faith. The more I try it on, the more I seek Good in situations, the better life fits. I also work a lot with the 4th principle, affirmative prayer—something I have embraced from Unity—and meditation, which I have practiced for 40 years

While some use the terms prayer and meditation interchangeably, for me they are somewhat different. Meditation involves letting go of ego, of the mind’s expectations and activity, allowing one to be in the silence or, in the sense of ego-self, not to be. Prayer is more active in asking for, clarifying and envisioning what I seek. Meditation creates the openness, receptiveness. Prayer is active in the choice of being one with and attending to that inner, greater-than ego-based voice and sense of direction.

The more I work with this unity of receptivity and action, meditation and prayer, the more I understand and practice living these principles. This is the 5th principle, practicing or living from the principles. Faith is the ongoing choice to live ones beliefs, a process that I find deepens my understanding of things, as well as my joy in being alive.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that real Faith also involves some doubt. Questioning can help develop and keep faith clean and strong. I have doubts often enough. Right now I feel doubt about sharing what I have written. Who am I to expound on principles I have just begun to explore? What I write is based on my own experiences, not just blind assertion or some intellectual game. Following an inner need to put forth what I have to share, I have faith that good will come from it.

Namaste

The five principles while essentially the same, are expressed with slightly different words at different Unity sites on the web and elsewhere. This one comes from a handout at our local Unity in San Francisco

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Joy: Not only for the New Year

Two weeks ago I was out walking our dog Cheerios on a typical San Francisco winter day, clear and sunny, yet at the same time cold and windy. Off the leash in a park and eagerly chasing her ball, Cheerios was full of life and energy. As she dropped the ball at my feet her eyes remained glued to it. But she could barely contain her energy. As I reached down to pick up the ball, rather than bark as she often does to hurry me up, she actually leaped in the air while keeping her attention laser-like on the ball. I had to laugh at her focus, excitement and un-contained energy.

It got me to wonder how long had it been since I expressed that much exuberance. Don’t misunderstand me. There is much in life I enjoy and appreciate…but that much unbridled, explosive excitement? Young children easily go there, but as we age that sort of aliveness usually gets inhibited. We may have been told early in life to ‘be quiet and sit still.’ I learned through being around so many adults who rarely cut loose, not to fully express my own joy.

Moments of awe remained possible, especially since they usually sneak up on us. But that energy is quieter, more of a stunned stillness than the explosiveness that joy can have. Being still we may feel less exposed so safer to be with and in moments of awe.

When we allow ourselves, joy can emerge from its more refined closets through music and dance. Sexual expression is another place we sometimes overflow with joy. One powerful place I find joy is being in touch with God or Spirit. There are the sudden moments when my faith in seeking the good in each experience is surprisingly rewarded. Usually when I attend Unity and greet people coming there is joy in our embraces. A recent Sunday after hugging a few people I know, someone new had just entered. Noticing us she asked, “Can I have some of that too!” Of course we laughed and hugged, a simple joyous expression in the moment, an affirmation of good in and between us.

As much as I delight in moments of joy, I don’t find life to be a continuous stream of them. I am learning to express the joy that is available more often. It does not have to be loud. When I let go of concerns about how others perceive me and feel good about recognizing and expressing the joy of the moment, it naturally happens.

Ultimately unless we allow ourselves to feel and express awe, joy and gratitude, life becomes at best a dull passing of time. Yes, sadness, grief and anger are also important parts of human expression that come with their more uplifting cousins. We need to feel all of it. The alternative is a zombie like existence that seems hardly worth the effort.

So I continue to be reminded by Cheerios to jump for joy and feel the fullness of being. We may well be “spiritual beings having a human experience.” But if we restrict our joy and aliveness we are NOT fully having that human experience. Since the Divine is often expressed in joy, such restrictions also limit our spiritual nature.

Posted in Attitude, Being Present, Emotions, God, joy, Pets, Religion, Spirituality, Uncategorized, Unity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving Day

I took our dog Cheerios out early this Sunday morning for her usual walk. San Francisco is quiet that early on Sundays. The sky was a clear blue, the air crisp and fresh after a few days of needed rain, and the sun was bright if not yet warming. I felt a deep sense of gratitude being here, alive and awake. Writing about giving thanks this week, exploring just what that might mean, I felt something missing. What I wrote felt more like an intellectual appreciation of life rather than the deeply felt sense of this morning. While there was nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t full enough.

When I take the time to acknowledge, to really recognize the blessings I have in my life, I appreciate what and who are here in my life rather than take them for granted. Like many others, I grew up learning to keep a keen eye to what was wrong and what could go wrong. This was/ is a defensive posture, helpful when facing immediate threats, but toxic when it became a life style. Since we tend to see what we expect to see, it negatively limited my ability to appreciate life. Even while the good was enjoyed, a part of me still looked for what might go wrong.

I have gradually been developing more of a keen eye for what is right and what can go right in life. Seeing, recognizing what is right and good in my life makes me happier and more grateful. This is a core teaching of Unity, although by no means limited to Unity. Unity’s first principal is that ‘God is goodness, the only enduring power in the world, active and present everywhere.’ If this is so, then even in times of adversity and suffering, God (or at least Good) must also be present. When times are hard it takes more conscious effort to find the good. Of course such times are when we need it the most.

As Americans we are relatively privileged, having opportunities beyond the reach of most other people in the world. Yet suffering is a fundamental part of life for everyone, everywhere. Some people remain positive and able to find joy despite terrible events in their lives. Others, even when they have incredible riches and opportunities, remain enveloped in suffering and fear. I feel happy that I am growing to be more like the first group, able to find the good in most situations. Doing so gives the hurts and problems in life less power to keep me from my good.

Thanksgiving Day can be something more than gorging on food and preparing for a shopping binge. Originally it was an expression of appreciation of the harvest, which the European settlers in New England brought with them. I gather these Pilgrims were not the most cheerful of folks, believing more in austerity than celebration. Yet they were able to appreciate the value of setting time aside to give thanks for life’s bounties. We can embrace their gift of a day for appreciating what we have without either limiting ourselves to their somber ways, nor going to the excesses of over stuffed bellies and over charged credit cards.

Yet Thanksgiving is but one day, one opportunity. What if we use it to begin or deepen a regular practice of gratitude? Lately, each night before going to sleep I think of 3 things or people that I am thankful for that day. It is too new a practice for me to draw conclusions about, but I believe it is helping me be more conscious of the good in my life. Hopefully, this will help me express my gratitude to others more often.

So this Thanksgiving, go ahead and enjoy the food and the company, but pay attention to how much you and those around you are able to give and receive gratitude. Give thanks to God by whatever name if that is meaningful to you. However I believe that unless we also extend that gratitude to those whose lives we share, it’s value will be limited.

Thank you for reading my ongoing venture into living a more conscious, intentional life guided by what I perceive to be God/ Spirit given direction. To the degree you feel moved to share anything in this that touches you, I will also be grateful. After all, this will suggest I am not only writing to myself ☺

Posted in Affirmation, Attitude, Being Present, God, Gratitude, Learning, Relating, Spirituality, suffering, Uncategorized, Unity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments