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Monday, June 17, 2013

The integrated practice

A puzzle can't be assembled without knowing the full picture.  (cc) Ella Phillips.
A puzzle can’t be assembled without knowing the full picture. (cc) Ella Phillips.

I’ve been an artist as long as I can remember. My father is a traditional oil painter whose work usually involves realistic landscapes. Being works of realism, his paintings have always been very detailed (one can literally count the leaves on some of his trees). This influenced me toward realism and hyper-detail in my own drawings growing up. I would often begin a drawing by working on one little spot at full detail, moving around the page, until the whole thing was complete.

It was not until I went to college, majoring in fine arts, that I learned to loosen up and approach a drawing as one large composition.  I was frustrated and surprised when, in my first life drawing classes, we’d be given just minutes or even seconds to draw a figure before the pose would change. We were told that we should be able to stop at any point, and the drawing should be complete in its form – but simply at varying levels of detail. This forced me to look at an entire composition as a snapshot. At that point, I could develop shade, form, and detail to whatever level desired. This had several effects on my work: I was able to achieve greater accuracy in proportion, better composition, and it added a great deal more expression and movement to my work.

In recent years I’ve noticed a similar principle can apply to our spiritual practice. And, by this, I mean all of our life practices – not just the ones we typically think of as the official “spiritual practices”. Many ancient philosophers recognized that our aim is to ‘live well’ and, by this reckoning, there is no real distinction between matters of ethics, health, spirituality, or wisdom. They are all habits we try to build in living well.
In the past, I had always thought it would be too much to try and do everything at once. For example, if I decided I’d like to build a habit of journaling, or eating right, or meditating, etc – I would take on that one project, and imagine that I would build the habit until I was perfect in it. Then, after that point, I could look at building another habit, and so on.

Inevitably, I would not be perfect at it. I would continue to falter. Frustratingly, sometimes I would build a decent habit and then flub up. At that point I would feel defeated and then cease my efforts. This process of repeated failure to build the one habit meant I’d never get to the others. Or, if I did, it would be absent the first habit I had tried to establish earlier.

But lately I’ve found – for me at least – that I am typically more successful when I don’t try to divide and conquer. Instead, I think about everything I want to do better, and then try to do it all at once – diving into my new life.

This seems counter-intuitive. If I couldn’t handle one habit, how could I possible take on all these ideal goals at once? In my personal practice, some of the major elements I try to build are: regular exercise, good diet, daily meditation, daily journaling on my progress, continuous mindfulness, compassion, kind demeanor, and better attention to duties. There are some other occasional things, such as educational reading and so on, as well.  But, without ‘right effort’ as the Buddhists put it, the default state would include a lot of laziness, snacking, couch-potatoing on the computer or TV, and so on. Only through an examined life and continuous effort can progress be made along such a path.

What I have found, is that by taking it all on at once, you build a network between your practices that somehow seem to support one another.  But here’s the catch: this kind of approach forces you into a situation where you will not help but fail. And fail you will, again and again. But in a ‘fail-inevitable’ environment, you are forced to come to terms with imperfection, and in so doing, build a strategy that includes a tolerance for failure. It also forces you to give up things that aren’t as important.

Here, instead of giving up when you falter, you press on. The next day you pick it back up. You don’t wait for the next week or for some period after some time has passed, where you weren’t trying, to try again. You just continue on – like stumbling and then making the next step in your stride better. Because your practice is not one habit, but a network of habits, you haven’t really failed on the larger scale. You just have a gradation of imperfection that improves over time.

And, as you press on, it’s important not to punish yourself or try to ‘make up’ for missing different things. If you don’t work out one day, you don’t exercise doubly the next. You just continue your practice normally and, like a stone smoothing under running water, improvement will happen in time. Stay focused on the present.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.It is just like drawing a picture by quickly sketching out the entire composition and then making it more perfect over time. You’ll have a ‘bigger picture’ view of things and won’t mind those little pencil strokes that go this way or that – that will simply add to the ‘energy’ of the whole endeavor.  It is also much like meditation. As you try to focus on the breath, stray thoughts and distractions will arise. Simply put them aside and stay focused on the present effort – without frustration about the past or trepidation about the future.

Although I still fall short of my mark many times, I’ve found this integrated and holistic approach has been working for me fairly well. If you are having trouble building the habits you’d like in your life, you might consider ‘jumping in’ and taking it all on at once, rather than focusing on building one at a time to perfection. You’ll be messy; you will stumble; but it will paint a new picture of your life that you can continue to shape.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

What "death is a part of life" means

Created at
Created at

Often in reading philosophy and wisdom teachings, one has a kind of repeating experience. We see many common phrases or statements by wise teachers. Perhaps we see the same or similar notions from a variety of traditions. And, the first time we see them, we may think we understand them; agreeing or disagreeing. Then we go off, read and learn more, experience life a little more, and before long we come upon the statement again. Only then do we realize that some of the words in it didn’t mean what we thought they did, and that the teaching was more profound than we thought. A little more life experience happens and we may have the experience yet again with that teaching, and this may go on an unknown number of times. Here we see a world of complexity, subtlety, and nuance behind the teaching, and we are never really sure if we’ve fully understood it. As our confidence in our understanding diminishes, our wisdom yet improves and our appreciation for the teaching grows.

One thing we often hear is that “death is a part of life”. On the surface, this seems to be a rather obvious statement. When we look at life as a series of events, it quite plainly includes being born, a bunch of stuff happening, and then – inevitably – our death. So, death is a part of life, learning to walk is a part of life, getting a job is a part of life, and so on. As a comfort for the grieving, this seems about as effective as telling someone to “get over it” or “walk it off”. We might look at this a little more deeply, and see that learning to accept death is a part of a happier life. But even this does not fully unpack the meaning of this teaching.
Most people look at life and death as opposites. But it seems this isn’t exactly right. Rather, the opposite of life is lifelessness. Both of these are conditions or states. But death is an event. It is one half of a cyclical process – the other being birth. And, it is this cyclical process of birth and death that we call life. So, quite literally, death is a part of the process we call life, just as is birth. To imagine death the opposite of life would be as nonsensical as to imagine birth the opposite of life.

This works not just in terms of human or animal life, but life everywhere, in all systems, and on all scales. Even as I sit here, writing this, I cannot do so without death. My typing hands are living tissue made up of cells that are continually dying and being replaced by the birth of new cells. This is only possible because of the sustenance I consumed. Even vegetarians require the death of the organic materials they ingest in order to live. The similarity of these things to the death of our loved ones and ourselves is not merely analogy. They happen for the same reasons and because of the same universal process of all life.

But now consider what we really mean by ‘birth’ and what we really mean by ‘death’? What is really happening? Let us begin by considering the Sloan Great Wall

Where are the edges of this thing?
Where are the edges of this thing?

At the time I first learned of it, the Sloan Great Wall was considered to be the “largest object in the universe”*. It is a giant wall of galaxies 1.38 billion light-years in length. My first thought on reading this was that the statement was a cheat! This “wall” wasn’t an object at all – it was simply a bunch of galaxies that happened to line up into something we can draw an imaginary line around and give a name to. Sure, they influence one another gravitationally, but to consider them an object? And, what of the surrounding galaxies? They must surely influence the galaxies of the SGW gravitationally, but they arbitrarily don’t get to be a part of this ‘object’? Earth and Mars influence one another. Can I just draw an imaginary line around the two and give the group a name and now it’s an object? It all seemed very fishy to me. It seemed that this name said more about the brains of those who imagined it than about some objective reality in the universe – about as ‘real’ as the constellations we draw heroic figures over in our night sky.

But if the Sloan Great Wall wasn’t the largest object, then what was? Isn’t a galaxy just a collection of star systems? And, a star system seems pretty close to my example of drawing a line around Earth and Mars. The recent hubbub about whether Pluto was a planet was more of a philosophical debate than about any of the objective data.

And so it is with all of existence. Our tiny size compared to the Sloan Great Wall might make its true nature more obvious, but in truth all objects in our world are of this same nature. Everything you’ve ever anticipated getting your hands on, every food you’ve ever desired, every person you’ve ever loved, and you yourself are different conglomerations of particles. And these globs of particles are surrounded by the same kinds of particles, which move into and out of the named glob. That glob further reaches out and manipulates other globs in a manner not unlike it manipulates its own parts. The more we think about this, the more arbitrary that borderline at the edge of each of these forms we’ve given a label to seem – just like drawing a large crab or a hunter around a group of stars in the night sky.

And now consider that none of these structures are permanent. They have all come into their current form for a short time, and as their parts continue moving by natural law, will eventually lose their form, much like seeing Mickey Mouse in the shape of a cloud. You could almost say these forms are somewhat illusory – a helpful habit our brains evolved.

And this is the nature of birth and death.

As we can see, ‘birth’ is a much broader concept of the ‘coming into being’ of various forms, and ‘death’ is the movement of aggregates to the point where we no longer recognize or label a form (or perhaps now label other forms).

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.Thus, ‘death’ includes the dissolution of, not only things we call life forms, but storms, jobs, relationships, planets, nations, and so on. ‘Birth’ is the coming into being of all of these forms and more, including baby humans. So, in a sense, if these forms are illusory then it begins to look like death (and birth) are illusory. They say more about when our brains identify something than they say about the objective nature of it.

The Buddhists call this realization ‘emptiness’. Understanding death in it’s broadest sense makes us realize how integral all kinds of loss really are to the entire magnificent processes in the universe that make everything possible.

Understanding that our ego, our very self, is also illusory – and the implications of that – is a whole other matter!

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*In January of this year, the Huge Large Quasar Group broke this record; a chain of 73 quasars 4 billion light-years across.

Monday, June 3, 2013

When love seems absent

(cc) William Warby.
(cc) William Warby.

We all face times when it seems there is little genuine love in the world. Perhaps we’ve been seeing a lot of depressing things in the news, or perhaps it’s more personal. Maybe it’s been a long time since people close to us have shown any love to us. Maybe it’s a general feeling regarding people we don’t even know, but interact with day to day – people in stores, employees at businesses we patron, neighbors, fellow drivers, etc. Whatever the source or the cause, it can be discouraging when we think of how the world could be – when we think about how we know human beings could be toward one another – and then face striking contrasts to that over time or in a single significant incident.

Responses to this can range from anger to melancholy. We might ‘toughen up’ our outer shell in response; becoming more like the worst we’ve been noticing. Or, we might simply resign ourselves into a quiet depression and withdraw from interactions; looking down as we pass others, being abrupt, and so on.
Here, we’ve found ourselves in a dark corner of the world. There seems to be no love present here. But there is another way to handle times like these.

We might feel we are like batteries, charged by love, and who need to exchange that supply with others. So, in times like these, we feel drained of our charge. We look for, and yearn for, others to come along an recharge us. We wonder how much longer we can hold out.

But this view of human beings and love is a little off base. We are not so much like batteries, which store a charge, than we are like power sources. All goodness and love enters the world through beings that love. If we feel drained and in need of a charge, it may be that we have forgotten a power that we possess. Or, maybe we knew we had this power, but we are thinking that our ability to love isn’t the issue because that would be an outgoing commodity instead of an incoming one. But this too is forgetting the nature of love and of loving.

I would recommend that, whenever we feel we are in a dark place, that we consider this a sign that we’ve been tagged by the cosmos – we’re “it”. Or, if you prefer, we are up to bat. When it seems we have entered a time or place without love or compassion, this means it is our turn to be the source of love for that time and place. I think we would find the results well worth it.

The trick is to make sure that it’s real love. Real love is selfless and not based on reciprocity. If we take on only the first part of this, and go out doing a bunch of nice things for people, we might end up worse than we were after seeing them fail to appreciate our actions or return the love. Some people get the idea that the reason we love when we need love is because others will return it (or be more likely to) and we will therefore benefit. When this doesn’t happen, they imagine their efforts to get a ‘love exchange’ going have failed, and more sadness and feelings of futility ensue. Even in cases where love is returned, this is only an exchange of diminishing returns, and inherently unstable as a source of happiness in the long-term.

The truth is that love and compassion doesn’t work that way. Rather, it is the giving of compassion itself which can be the source of our happiness, if we can recognize it and appreciate it as such. As an example, consider making a small animal in a cage happy with food, who may not realize you as its source. Or, consider an ideal mother who is made happier by caring for an infant who, by nature, cannot yet fully appreciate her actions. She doesn’t have to wait several years to get a return on her investment. She is happier because she truly loves the infant. Likewise, we can cultivate a true, selfless love for others, and not see them as a resource – a place from which to get love – but an opportunity to practice a love of our own. When we are able to cultivate that kind of empathy and compassion, then in our efforts to gain happiness from giving love we cannot fail. We have been made happier through our acts alone – they are not dependent upon the responses of the object of our love.

As just one example, Dr. Emma Seppala has written an article in Psychology Today: “The Best Kept Secret to Happiness: Compassion”. There she provides several research projects which have shown how acts of compassion stimulate the same pleasure centers as when we are the recipients, and the happiness can even be greater. She also describes a host of other benefits beyond mere happiness.

So, when things seem darkest, remember that you can be a source of love. This, in fact, is how humanity can illuminate all the dark corners – by each of us acting as the light when no others are. Every day is another opportunity to be compassionate when least expected!

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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.