The three lines in the readings for Ash Wednesday that stand out to me are “Come back to me with your whole heart” (Joel 2:12), “Rend your heart not your garments” (Joel 2:13), and “Your father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt 6:4). All three lines emphasize honesty over appearance. They recognize and expose a fact of life that I do not often admit to. That is, the way I present myself to the world is very rarely the same as my own internal experience of myself. The father that sees in secret can only be myself or an outside entity that knows the inner workings of my heart and mind. Either way I must be honest and whole-hearted with him. Anything less is pointless.
Lent is the time to set things right with myself. To come back to God and myself with my whole heart is freedom from ego. The symbolic way to do this during Lent is to “give something up.” To sacrifice by giving up those things that I may like in the short-term but do not serve me in the long-term is liberating, not burdensome. I firmly believe giving something up should be voluntary. If I am not acting of my own volition, I am not acting with my whole heart. To turn away from sin is to better myself. Loving God and loving myself amount to the same thing. The opposite is true as well. A shame oriented person would give something up to appease someone else. A non-shame oriented person acts with their whole heart. Giving something up is an act of devotion both to himself and to God.
Lent is a time when I feel closest to God. It is a time when I feel the most spiritual and physically healthy. I do not know God. To be strictly honest I must say that I am agnostic. But I fall more on the side of believing in God than not believing in God. I certainly want to believe in God and there are times when my faith is stronger. I was raised in the wishy-washy world of post Vatican II Catholicism in the United States of America. Religion did not take ahold of me when I was young. I do identify with its symbols, mythology and rituals; Lent chief among them. They are all I have spiritually and I do not want to let them go. I need them to approach the infinite unknowable of existence. I do not want to be an atheist. Feelings have a lot to do with it. Believing in God feels truthful to me.
Lent is a time of year I look forward to. It is a time of spiritual renewal and transformation. It is too bad I cannot feel that way all year round because when I feel that way I feel content and grounded. For me, Lent is a time of opportunity to better myself by coming back to God with my whole heart. It is a time I do not want to waste.
I recently listened to a podcast by James Altucher where he interviewed Ted Leonsis (former president of AOL and current owner of several Washington DC professional sports franchises) who talked about his six secrets to achieving happiness and success. The first secret is to actively participate in multiple groups of interest. That is, a happy and successful person must be a contributing member of more than one organization involved with activities the person is actually interested in. Second, a happy and successful person makes an effort to listen to others and also experiences regular opportunities for self-expression where other people are listening. Third, a happy and successful person has empathy for others. Fourth, a happy and successful person gets out of the “I” and into the “we”. By this, I take Leonsis to mean that a happy and successful person is not looking for opportunities for self-aggrandizement and is motivated to be a team player. Fifth, a happy and successful person finds a higher calling in all pursuits. That is, his pursuits are motivated by goals that benefit the greater good and not just the bottom line. And sixth, a happy and successful person creates situations that give rise to a “double bottom line” (i.e., multiple beneficial outcomes).
I found the interview inspiring and I highly recommend giving it a listen. But while I was listening I kept thinking that shame actively works to undermine each one of these secrets to success and happiness. First, shame does not like to participating groups because shame feels judged by other people, jealous of other people’s success and ashamed of its own failures. Shame perceives the success of others as a personal failure in comparison. Group situations tend to exacerbate these feelings and as a result shame will avoid them. Even when shame operates within a group setting and receives acceptance the high is really high and then shame tends to sabotage it and turn it into something bad. Shame then becomes suspicious of success and avoids it (or becomes incapable of embracing success) when it arrives. Second, shame does not want to listen to others because it finds others annoying or it becomes jealous and ashamed when listening to other people’s success. Furthermore, shame is afraid to put itself out there and express itself because it is afraid of judgment and criticism. Third, shame does not have empathy for others or itself. Fourth, shame is dominated by the “I” both in desperately trying to look good in the eyes of others and in criticizing the self to appease others (in order to look good in the eyes of others). Fifth, shame has no higher calling but to look good in the eyes of others. Sixth, shame never gets to be in a position of creating situations that give rise to a double bottom line because shame undermines its endeavors in the manner already described.
The bottom line I take from this is to be happy and successful a person must overcome shame at all costs.
No blasphemy or hubris intended, but if I could put myself in God’s shoes I wonder how I would then look at religion. My first observation would probably be that there are many different types of religions with differing views as to what I am, my nature, what I like, dislike, how I have structured the universe, what I do with souls after people die, etc. It seems that many religions take the point of view that they have it right and everyone else has it wrong. Further, because the others have it wrong they will face eternal damnation after death. But, if I’m God I would be thinking how could those people down there possibly know which set of beliefs is correct? There’s the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Book of Mormon etc. all claiming divine inspiration (some to the exclusion of others). There are faith traditions claiming authority to interpret these books and thus my will. But how could I possibly hold someone responsible for being born into the wrong faith or being confused or not entirely sure about their faith? Let alone, would I really care about the difference between Presbyterianism and Methodism? If I don’t show myself to man and haven’t shown myself to man in many generations can I really fault him for questioning whether I exist, let alone the specifics of my true nature? Can I really find fault with man for wondering if a text written thousands of years ago is relevant today? Life seems hard enough without all these extra pressures.
Would I really want man to believe anything because he feels guilty not to? Why is it so important that he believes in me anyway? And if it is so important, why not just show myself to him? People only follow a particular religion because other people told them to (initially). Perhaps at some point they come to their own particular appreciation or connection to that religion, perhaps not. If I am going to play this game where I hide myself and then become displeased that they don’t believe in me, is it really moral of me to hinge their eternal salvation upon whether they do or do not believe in me? This really seems like a situation where I am fucking with man and if I am a loving God why would I want to do that?
This life I created is some kind of test or amusement park. Maybe those who live down there were bored with living up here with me in the celestial realm and wanted something a little more challenging. Is it enough for me that they long for some relationship with me. Maybe we have been separated and they are trying to find their way back to me. Perhaps I am not in a position to help them. Perhaps I agreed not to. Perhaps we entered into some sort of binding contract before they entered into life.
Can I make a rock so heavy that I cannot lift it? Does this question deny my omnipotence or does this describe a limitation of the language used to describe me? I know, my thoughts are not your thoughts but perhaps there is some point of intersection.
I have found that there are four steps to effectively making something happen in life. These steps are Awareness, Attention, Intention and Action.
Step One : Practice Awareness – The first step is to simply take stock of what is by observing reality in its most raw state without judgement. This can be done by meditating. The meditation method I employ is to set a timer for 20 minutes (there are several free meditation timer apps available). I then close my eyes and pay attention to my breathing as an anchor. When I notice my mind wandering I bring my attention back to my breath. I do not judge myself when my mind will wander. This is my mind’s natural and unfocused state. It is neither good nor bad. Through the act of bringing my attention back to my breath I build up my ability to meditate. It is like lifting weights. When my mind is paying attention to my breathing I am paying attention to the present moment without layers of thought. This is meditating. This is being aware. This cultivates the proper environment for focusing my attention.
Step Two : Focus Attention – The second step is to actively focus awareness on specific things to the exclusion of those things that do not serve me in everyday life. For example, today while walking my dog I noticed myself becoming annoyed. There were lines of thought that took me to places of dissatisfaction. It was at this point that I decided to focus my attention on other more positive things (like the blueness of the sky, the coolness of the breeze, my daughters, my dogs etc.) rather than focusing my attention on my negative thought process. This is a choice that I can make and like meditation choosing to focus my attention can be improved with practice. Choosing where I focus my attention makes me think more positively and creates more energy. This energy is then stored up to be focused on my intention.
Step Three : Create an Intention and Focus Attention Thereon – The third step is to create an intention and then focus my attention on that intention. The more I am able to do this, the closer I will be to achieving the goal of that intention.
Step Four : Take Action – The fourth step is to take action. When sufficient positive energy has been banked, taking action to achieve that my intention requires less effort. With enough energy taking action is effortless. If I do not proceed through the previous steps then taking action becomes very difficult. I become distracted, I procrastinate, I give up. When I build up enough positive energy and focus on my intention my goals are achieved naturally.
Like all skills, this one must be practiced and cultivated. Once properly cultivated this skill can be the foundation for cultivating all other skills.