Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living by Thich Nhat Hanh

Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living
Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living by Thích Nhất Hạnh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last month I attended a women’s retreat. At the retreat center, they had these little cards up all over the building with these great little meditations on daily living. All day, the meditations prompted me to pause and reflect as I washed my hands or looked in the mirror or took a step outside the front door. I loved the feeling of calm they facilitated.

My friend and I asked the women in charge of the retreat center where the cards were from, and they said they were Thich Nhat Hanh meditations, but the cards were out of print. Through the magic of the internet, I found out the meditations were from Present Moment Wonderful Moment and managed to find two sets of the cards and a copy of the book. I gifted one set of the cards to my friend and kept the other set intending to put them up around my house. But when my eight-year-old daughter saw the book, she independently suggested that we make pretty, hand-written cards to put up around the house. So we did.

One afternoon, we used a paper cutter and some pretty card stock my daughter got as a gift a couple of years ago and made eight cards, four for her and four for me, to put up around the house. We each have the Waking Up meditation by our beds, and I have the Ending Your Day one by my bed, as well. She has the Opening the Window on her bedroom window, the blinds of which she opens every morning first thing so she can look outside and read her meditation. We also have the Washing Your Hands, Looking in the Mirror, and Brushing Your Teeth meditations on our bathroom mirrors. We are enjoying them so much, we plan to make more.

It’s apparent that we need to investigate other gluing options for the silver paper, but even with their imperfections, I like our little cards.

This is a gem of a book, and I love how it’s brought these moments of mindfulness to our days. I don’t know if it’s directly attributable to the book, but since we put up the meditations, my daughter has been joining me for a short sitting meditation every morning. It’s such a lovely way to start our day! (And our cat Owen must think so, too. Every morning he climbs into my daughter’s lap and offers her a purring meditation.)

The only thing missing from this book is a meditation for when my kids are squabbling over something that seems incredibly tiny to me.

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The Gift Of Faith: Tending the Spiritual Lives of Children by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar

Gift Of Faith: Tending the Spiritual Lives of Children
The Gift Of Faith: Tending the Spiritual Lives of Children by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shortly after my spouse and I married nearly fifteen years ago, we joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation. When we moved across the United States, we found and joined a congregation in our new state. When we moved again, we tried the two UU congregations near us, and neither was a good fit. After our first couple of visits, my pragmatic spouse was no longer interested in attending. I, however, couldn’t quite accept that it wasn’t working for us. For nearly two years, I took our daughter every Sunday, taught religious education, volunteered at coffee hour. After an embarrassing winter morning when it became dramatically apparent that this church wasn’t going to work for us, I started trying other religious congregations in the area. I visited Episcopal, Congregationalist, and Catholic churches, Baha’ai gatherings and Buddhist temples. None was quite what we were seeking (although one Buddhist temple came very close).

My spouse couldn’t understand why I was so fixated on finding us something to do on Sunday mornings, and I couldn’t really understand it myself. But since reading The Gift of Faith, I think I have a better idea what drove me to try and find a spiritual home for my family.

Nieuwejaar says it well:

“With extended families scattered across the continent and beyond; with telecommuting replacing the social context of the office; with shopping malls replacing the local marketplace; and with neighborhoods characterized more by fences and alarms than by open doors and shared backyards, our experience of community is becoming rarer and rarer. To nurture spirituality of children only within the family is to perpetuate the isolation of the family unit and to bypass one of the finest opportunities for community available to us.”

I knew that I could nurture my children’s spiritual lives at home, I knew I could establish rituals that would help support our religious beliefs even away from a spiritual community, but we would be missing the embrace of a loving community of seekers.

As much as I felt the need for this community and felt keenly its absence, I didn’t really understand how much it meant to me until we moved across the country again and found a congregation that feels like home to us. There really is something powerful about going to a place where everyone is committed to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person. My children are friends with the other children in the congregation and with loving adults they see multiple times a week, not just on Sundays. They are developing the kinds of close relationships they would (I hope) have with their extended family were we closer to that family.

And of course, the benefit isn’t just for our kids, although that was the focus of this book. My spouse and I know that we can rely on our spiritual community to support us through hard times and celebrate with us through happy ones. The Gift of Faith is a lovely echo of all of those things we value in our spiritual community.

One more of my favorite quotes:

“In religious community we may honor one another simply on the basis of the inherent worth and dignity, the inherent divinity of each person. Then from religious community we must take this attitude back into the larger world in whatever small ways we can, chipping away at the barriers and indignities of public life, the deceptions and impatiences of the marketplace. And as the indignities and injustices of those places begin to touch and tarnish us again, we need to return to communities of the spirit to be reminded of trust and love, to be made whole and to remember the possibility of a world made whole.”

A healthy spiritual community is an oasis of love that recharges us so we can engage in our daily lives with compassion. And if we can do that, we’re doing our small, local part to change the world.

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On Overcoming a Jinx

From Left to Right: Mary I & Philip II of Spai...
Between this family and my Jinx, my meditation schedule last week didn't stand a chance. (Image via Wikipedia)

My religious upbringing was eclectic and firmly based in Murphy’s Law, or perhaps more accurately, on The Jinx.

If we were driving to grandpa’s house, we were never allowed to say, “Wow! We’re making great time!” because that was essentially asking for a flat tire or a freak hail storm or giant griffins descending from the heavens to sharpen their claws on the roof of our station wagon.

By the same token, we’d never say, “I feel great!” or “Things are going so well right now!” or “We’re definitely on for knitting circle this week!” or “The baby seems to be settling into a routine.” (I’ve never had occasion to use that last one).

So, I should have known that my declaration last week that I loved meditating and that getting up at 4:30 had not only been easier than expected, it rocked, and I loved washing my face in cold water to wake myself up, and wasn’t life grand now that I’d found the secret to happiness? would be immediately followed by a period of meditative stagnation.

What does meditative stagnation look like? In the past five days, I’ve watched eleven hours of The Tudors and eaten three tubs of hummus (small tubs, but tubs nonetheless).

While the meditation program I’m following doesn’t specifically prohibit those actions, I find that doing those things consumes most of the time I might otherwise be meditating.

I didn’t drop the plan entirely, but it was faltering badly enough, I was worried I might not be able to pick it back up. But this weekend, I was able to sneak in both meditation and yoga. I’m not going to tempt fate and call it a comeback, but this morning I got up at 4:30 again and didn’t even go back to bed after yoga (not for lack of trying, though. I was apparently not sleepy enough to lose consciousness with my toddler snuggled next to me singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at full volume and pausing to sweetly tell me that he loves my hair (“I wuv your hair, Mommy. [pet, pet] What co-wor your hair, Mommy?”)).

So, that was Week 4.

On to Week 5!

For Weeks 5 and 6, I’m taking a break from the body scan and focusing instead on yoga and sitting meditation.

Each day, I will alternate 45-60 minutes of yoga with up to 45 minutes of sitting meditation. Today was yoga. Yesterday was sitting meditation, during which my right foot fell into a profound sleep and my body attempted to follow. The sudden awareness of gravity jerked me awake a number of times. The fear of braining myself on the brick fireplace behind me was apparently only enough to keep me awake for a few moments.

But even with my lapse last week, I am ready to recommit to the program. There are only nine episodes of The Tudors left, so that temptation will be gone soon, so I have that much going for me.

This time, however, I’ll be more cautious about how much I talk it up. No need to tempt fate.

Rethinking Tolerance: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the cover of this book there’s a quote from The Boston Globe about how Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become the “darling of conservatives” because of her outspoken stance against Islam.

I don’t think I would have chosen to read this book had it not been the July selection for my local library’s book club and I’ve decided that going to a book club might be a good way to meet people in my new town. This quote was intriguing enough to keep me going through the first several chapters until the story itself had me reeled in.

This book was a challenge for me in a couple of ways. First, the content itself is a bit difficult to read. Hirsi Ali and her sister and brother were “circumcised” in their home when they were between the ages of 4 and 6. For the girls, this meant excision. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say it was brutal enough that I had to put the book down for two days before I could bring myself to read more of her story. And that wasn’t the only challenging part. There’s brutality at every turn, along with the sense of being trapped in a life that can’t possibly bring fulfillment or even pleasure or a feeling of safety. These were things I found difficult to read.

Not only was this element challenging, but Hirsi Ali’s position about Islam challenged my ideas of tolerance and caused me to look at my own tolerance in a different light.

Hirsi Ali contends that, rather than being an exception, the honor killings and terrorist activities of Muslim extremist groups are actually specifically sanctioned by the Quran. Because the religion hasn’t been secularized the way that Christianity and Judaism have, the only acceptable way to follow Islam is a fundamentalist way. The proofs she offers—quotes from the Quran, stories of brutality against Muslim women that she experienced and witnessed in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and, later, among refugee populations in The Netherlands, and even the fact that, for expressing this view of Islam, she’s being hunted down and must live a hidden life—are compelling and make it difficult to simply dismiss her claim as simply a result of an unfortunate childhood.

Hirsi Ali points to the honor killings that still take place among Muslim refugee populations in Holland. She contends that the continued existence of such practices even in Europe is a result of the Dutch propensity towards blanket tolerance of all cultures. She contends that this tolerance has led the Dutch to have an entirely hands-off approach when it comes to these populations. As a result, these refugee communities are never forced to integrate into Dutch society and internalize the very tolerance that allows them to remain separate. They never have to learn the language. Due to the Dutch social safety net, they never need to take jobs. The government funds their religious-based schools, so their children never need mix with Dutch children and never need learn subjects that might cause them to question Islam.

I generally would rather not question others’ religious practices. I want to be tolerant, and described on their own as policies, I would have agreed that the Dutch policies were the tolerant way to go as regards immigrants. But with the way Hirsi Ali presents them juxtaposed with the violence in the culture, I have a bit of a moral crisis to work through.

A couple of months ago, a friend posted a story about how an Orthodox Jewish newspaper in New York removed the images of Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from a photo of the White House situation room because their paper has had a long-standing religious-based practice of not publishing images of women. While I felt uncomfortable with the idea that they had altered a photographic record of an historic event (they were in the situation room watching the raid that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden) to make it seem as though no women had been present, I felt equally uncomfortable making a strong statement against the practice. It seemed rude and intolerant to criticize a practice based in someone else’s religious beliefs.

The much more extreme examples in Infidel have me questioning this stance.

Aside from being thought-provoking, I thought this memoir was quite well-written. There were some inconsistencies as her views of her religion evolved, but I would expect that with a memoir. (For example, early on, she blames the corruption of the Somali government for people there becoming more clannish, then later she blames the Dutch government’s tolerance for the clannishness of the Muslim immigrants there.)

I found it interesting that the language in the beginning of the book, when she’s writing about her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, is more simple, matching the developmental stage she would have been in at the time. As she matured and her thinking became more complex, so did her language. When she got to the place in her story in which she’s pursuing a degree in political science from a Dutch university, her language becomes noticeably more sophisticated and complex. It’s almost like I can see the light shining into her understanding of the world.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story is inspiring to me, especially at this time that I’m seeking to develop my public self. She came from a much different background than I did and has gone much further in her public life than I ever plan to (I have no plans to run for Parliament, nor do I plan to live in hiding because people are trying to kill me for my views), but watching her journey from cloistered child and young woman to public figure, buoyed primarily by the strength of her convictions, gives me a sense of the direction I want to go in my own life.

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Transcendence on the Treadmill

a Treadmill
The treadmill at my gym is more compact but not as practical as this one. I wonder what this guy's listening to while exercising? (Image via Wikipedia)

In the interest of reducing stress (or at least making myself so tired that if I’m in a bad mood I lack the energy to yell at anyone), I’ve begun working out again. My goal is to work out every day.

My favorite thing to listen to while I exercise is “To the Best of Our Knowledge” from Public Radio International. More than any music I’ve found, TTBOOK engages my mind well enough that I forget the tedium of running on a treadmill. It also helps me to ignore whatever program is running on the TVs looming above my head.

Tuesday I successfully ignored a TV program about fishermen getting caught in horrible storms and needing to be rescued (whose theme song was, oddly, “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi) while I listened to the TTBOOK show entitled “Religion in a Secular Age.” On it, Steve Paulson interviewed Karen Armstrong about her book, The Case for God.

There was a tremendous amount of awesome stuff in the interview, and I would highly recommend listening to the mp3 on the TTBOOK website. I may even pick up the book despite my impatience with nonfiction recently (except for Bill Bryson).

“God is not something out there,” said Armstrong of the Eastern view of God (in Buddhism, Hinduism, etc). “God is also the essence of each being.”

Armstrong described a 10th century BCE competition in India as a way of explaining the nature of theology. The priests would first go on retreat in the Indian jungle where they would fast and practice yoga in preparation for this competition. The object was to find a definition of the Brahman, which Armstrong described as “the ultimate reality in the Hindu world.”

The challenger would begin with “a very elliptical and poetical description of the Brahman and the others would listen and respond in kind.” It would go back and forth like this, the discussion continuing and evolving as each person offered another spin on the definition of the Brahman. The winner was the person who struck everyone else silent with his definition. In that silence, the Brahman was felt. The crowd experienced what Armstrong called, “the stunning experience of the impotence of speech.”

“Our minds go naturally into transcendence,” Armstrong stated. “The purpose of theology is to help people to live in that silence, in that beat of silence. And realize that when we speak about God we’re at the end of what words and thoughts can do.”

She went on to explain that a transcendent lifestyle is one that’s lived in compassion, in which one lives making an effort to empty oneself of the influence of ego—“a Self-emptying lifestyle” Armstrong calls it—through the act of compassion. She explained how the Golden Rule, which exists in some form in every major world religion, helps us to transcend our egos through compassion. Just focusing on what we don’t want others to do to us and refusing to do those things to others, brings us out of ourselves, allows us to transcend our egos.

“What holds us back from our Best Selves is egotism…which holds us back by enclosing us in a little selfish bubble” Compassion, Armstrong says, can help us to step outside ourselves. And if we’re able to step outside of ourselves we can rise above, transcend.

I think this may be why I find motherhood such an intensely spiritual experience (overall). When I allow myself to focus on my children and their needs, it draws me out of my egotism. It doesn’t always result in a transcendent experience. Especially during times when my needs haven’t been met adequately, I find that my ego holds on tenaciously and causes even more struggle and suffering. But when I can let go and just give to these little humans, allow them to pull me away from my ego, I can transcend and allow my Best Self to shine forth. Motherhood isn’t the path to transcendence for everyone, but it is my path.

I know I’m a better person now than before I had children. I’m certain I could have gotten here without having children, and I’m also sure I could have had children without allowing any of this bettering to occur. But by-and-large, I’ve embraced the daily challenge of connection and compassion my children offer me (demand of me). In this way motherhood has been an immersion course in compassion. My children speak that language fluently and it’s up to me to learn it from them (rather than teaching them the language I’ve learned, which is something short of compassion). My children help me to live more often in the silences.