Tag Archives: Lent

Readings for Ash Wednesday

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment. (JL 2:12)

There is an interesting nexus of psychology and spirituality in the readings for Ash Wednesday as observed by the Roman Catholic Church. The first reading from The Book of Joel talks about authentically returning to God. This is to be done with your “whole heart.” That is, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion to use the language of the Presidential Oath of Office. Nor is this to be done through compulsion but of one’s own volition. We are told to “rend [our] hearts, not [our] garments.” Again, the actions (specifically fasting, weeping and mourning) must be accomplished on the deepest level of the self as opposed to making a show of action or pretending to act. But what exactly is the action we are to take? What does it mean to return to God whole heartedly? It seems the action of fasting is an act of self sacrifice. It is intentionally taking on discomfort as an act of devotion to a greater good above the self. The weeping and mourning suggest that there is sadness and loss in a return to God. Are we mourning the loss of our earthly lives and desires? Are we mourning the loss of the self? Is this not something we should readily give up without a sense of loss? Perhaps if one is honest there will always be a sense of nostalgic loss anytime one is either separated from God or returning home from this separation.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (MT 6:1-6)

In the Gospel reading Jesus speaks of not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing when giving alms. In other words Jesus instructs us not to let the ego take credit for the act of charity as a means of self aggrandizement. This is not merely giving alms in secret so that other people do not see you and give you credit for the act. This is giving alms (in a sense) in secret so that your self (i.e., ego) does not take credit for the act. Again, we are talking about authentic action but perhaps even a level deeper than what Joel described. In this way, your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In a sense this might seem to be an act of trickery – that is, the ultimate goal is to receive payment from the Father who sees in secret. But if we are to follow the theme of authentic action to receive authentic results then this payment by the Father who sees in secret cannot be a kind of payment that the ego would find pleasing. It must be an authentically Good and True form of payment. It is as if Jesus is trying to explain something selfless and non-egocentric in the language of the ego as if that is the only language his disciples could possibly understand.

 

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Motivations of the Ego and the Spirit

galaxyContinuing on my Lenten theme of spiritual exploration, I would like to discuss some ideas I had on the ego and the spirit. This is just me thinking on paper and not any conscious attempt on my part to instruct or to judge anyone else. I certainly do not profess to have all the answers, I just like to think and write about what is on my mind. Anything I write should be taken in that spirit.

To being, it seems to me that the ego never sees above its own level. For example Jim might hate his neighbor Bill because Bill offended him in some way years ago. Bill, who was not aware he offended Jim all those years ago, has grown to hate Bill in return because he senses Bill’s hostility. In this example, both Jim and Bill are operating on the level of ego. They sense the hostility or threat from the other and have taken steps to protect themselves from this threat.

But there is a bigger picture that the ego always fails to see. This is the bigger picture (I believe) that the Second Great Commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (MK 12:31) addresses. But in order to see this bigger picture one must step out of their ordinary existence and look beyond material things such as race, political affiliation or petty grievances (for example). It also should not make a difference that the other side does not adhere to the same rules. These are the rules of the spirit after all which are per se above the rules of the ego. Of course, on the level of ego it very much makes a difference that the other side does not play by the same rules.

The ego centered counter argument to the spiritual approach is to say that by following this logic Jim will leave himself venerable to Bill who does not follow this logic. To a certain extent this is true. When a person is physically attacked the ego takes over completely. The fight or flight response is very primitive, rooted in in materiality and self preservation. It is also very necessary, normal and appropriate for survival in emergency situations on the material plane of existence. However, most of life is not an emergency situation. In the modern American world, Bill and Jim have a choice during the majority of their days and weeks to listen to the paranoid call of the ego or to rise above it and listen to the call of the spirit. When people are constantly operating on the ego level of self defense their neighbors will sense this and react accordingly. As long as a person remains unaware of the ego and its motivations he will be governed by his ego. However, with awareness comes the ability to see the ego in action and the ability to chose to go along with the ego or to set aside the ego’s instructions.

To dismiss the ego in this manner implies that the self is in control and making a fully conscious decision. It is somewhat paradoxical that coming more into the self in this manner also means to act more in accordance with the will of God (at least in the context of the Christian world view). I say this because to act in accordance with the Second Great Commandment one must dismiss his ego and make a conscious decision even if the neighbor has not dismissed his ego. Logically there is no other way. It seems to me that to argue otherwise is to attempt to make the self autonomous from God which is ultimately an act of self-annihilation. This is another paradox of the ego in that the ego acts motivated by self preservation but the end result of ego based action is always an act of degradation and ultimately to the detriment of the self.

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Giving of My Self

binary starIn keeping with the theme of Lenten spirituality I would like to expand upon last week’s topic where I discussed the idea of surrendering myself to God’s plan rather than trying to come up with my own scheme. Essentially this amounts to a shift of attitude. I still make plans and guide my life but I am doing so with a sense of acceptance. I do not need to worry so much about the outcome because that is out of my hands.

This is a subtle dance, however. It seems to me that to give myself over authentically is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. This is true because to truly give myself, I must actually have a completely formed or emerged self to give. This seems to happen in three distinct stages.

The first stage in terms of being able to give of myself is what I call “shame based egotism.” In this state my true self is buried deep under layers of ego. Here, my prime motivation is to avoid shame and humiliation at all costs. In a sense this motivation is “self-centered” or egotistical because at its core this motivation is an instinctual, self-preservation strategy. At the same time, however, there is a strong denial of my true self and a sense of obligation to give away myself by giving in to the will of other people. This obligation comes from a feeling of a lack of entitlement to pleasurable or self enhancing experiences. In this stage there can be no giving of my self in a genuine way. My self is actually given away all the time but only grudgingly, with resentment and the feeling of being coerced into doing something I do not want to do..

I will graduate from the first stage of shame based egotism to the second stage of self based egotism when I learn (or muster the courage) to say “no” to other people. The power of shame will fight against this at first telling me that I am being selfish and disloyal. But with enough practice saying no to other people who ask me to do something I do not want to do my true self will begin to emerge. As I said, this stage is still egotism but it is a step in the right direction towards authentic action. By saying no to other people I am essentially declaring that I refuse to give of myself. This act of self preservation then creates the space for a genuine “yes” to be given down the road.

Although this is the only way out of shame based egotism, this second stage carries with it some degree of danger. Many people never make it out of this stage because they feel a sense of liberation and autonomy they have never felt before. In this stage there is the tendency to fall into an “us versus them” type of mindset. There is the sense of having escaped from an oppressive world and the desire to remain free of this oppression. Along with this sense comes the compulsion to make ego based comparisons with “other” people seen as threatening. I believe this is the source of racism and other similar autonomous mindsets.

But once I can say no to other people I am then in a position to say yes authentically. This is the third stage where I am finally able to give of myself and truly live a life according to God’s plan willingly. God’s plan will always be in accord with the will of my true self which had been formerly obscured by the ego. In this way it becomes clear that I must have an ego before I can discard my ego.

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My Life is Not About Me

galaxyI have heard several times lately from several different sources the message that my life is not about me. When I hear a message repeated over and over I tend to think I am hearing it for a reason. Maybe the universe is sending me a message because I am ready to hear it. Or perhaps the message is constantly out there but because I am ready to hear it, I am more open to it and so I do hear it. Both are possible but the common theme between the two is that I am ready to hear it.

This message that my life is not about me is usually conveyed in a religious context and I take it to mean that rather than my life not being about me, that my life is about God. But what does it mean to live a life not about the self but about God? I think it is clear that a person who lives a self centered life does so because he is motivated by his ego. The ego desires comfort, safety, wealth, power for its own aggrandizement and protection. It is distrustful of others, jealous, racist and acts from a place of fear ultimately. By contrast, a person who lives his life according to God’s plan will discard these egocentric qualities and motivations. This is where faith comes in because to do this requires a faith that ultimately all will be well and taken care of despite not keeping a constant fixation upon things being well.

It seems clear to me that God is not ego. What is a little difficult to pin down is a more positive definition of God. But this makes sense in that God is infinite, eternal and beyond comprehension. Naturally an entity fitting this description is beyond definitions and labels. Faith comes in here too in that it takes faith to relate to something that is so intellectually un-relatable. At the same time God is love (1 John 4:8) and thus God is completely relatable because love is relation itself. Clearly Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians is the opposite of ego:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor.13:4-7).

It also seems to me that God is both an “other” and at the same time intimately connected to me. God is an “other” in the sense that He is beyond all comprehension and I am not. Therefore the two of us are different and separate. However, there is also the sense that I came from God and have a connection with Him. In this sense living a life according to God’s plan might be the same thing as living a life in accordance to the will of my true self, which is the part of me that is not ego.

This Lent the message that my life is not about me has been made abundantly clear. I was all set to begin Lent when the sudden death of a family member disrupted everything. This event told me my life is not about myself because I cannot control or predict it. Because I cannot control or predict my life there is someone or something else in control that is not me. To the extent that I try to control or believe I can control my life I am acting in a manner that is contrary to reality which is always destined to end in failure.

God is eternal and as such, God’s plan is eternal. By contrast, my mortal existence is definitely not eternal (as was powerfully demonstrated by the death I just experienced). Accordingly, any plan that I come up with for myself is finite and not like God’s plan. Anything material (e.g. wealth, possessions, health, racial identity) is likewise not eternal. It seems to me that any sort of desperate clutching to these things would be contrary to God’s plan.

It also seems to me that if one adopts an attitude of surrender to God’s plan that a tremendous burden will be lifted. Jesus himself said that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light.” (Matt 11:30). But the question naturally arises, how can one know what is God’s plan? I think the approach to this question is to avoid those things that are definitely not God, like ego. Moreover, it seems logical that if one is acting in accordance with his true self that he will experience a lightness of spirit and an ease of action. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he describes the fruits of the spirit as “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23). Clearly these are not the fruits of the ego. And I suppose faith must again come in to play in determining what is and is not in accordance with God’s plan.

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Finding Rest

Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.

The Confessions, St. Augustine Book I, Chapter I

Life can seem like a burden at times. I find myself longing for safety and rest. I feel this most of all when I cannot sleep and lie awake in the middle of the night, my mind racing about all my worries. My ego desires separation. My ego wants me to stand out, rise above, succeed. My ego castigates me when I fail. My ego separates me from God. This is its work and its work is burdensome.

By contrast, approaching God is restful. If I am to approach God and I must approach him from within me because it is within me that I generate my thoughts and feelings. Within me is the only place I can know truth.

But I must admit I don’t know anything. I must accept the possibility that there is no God. And if there is no God then all my existence is ego and the prospect of non-existence seems like rest. However, if there truly is God then I want to connect with him. I must do this internally which means he is within me, a part of me and I am with him. The opposite of this is ego.

In life I must find that space of whole-heartedness. When I act with a whole heart my work is not burdensome. When I act with ego my work becomes a burden. As I said, it is ego that wants me to separate and stand above other people. It is ego that wants me to separate from God. When I find my base in God, I can do other things in the world. But I must start there.

I don’t know if this meditation (perhaps my ego would call it ramblings) is blasphemous or in error. I suspect other egos might label it as such. But I can only know God in my own way. Everything else is “out there” and separate and something I must strive to understand. Only within me is there understanding. Where else could it be? I am grateful for those things outside of me that bring me to understanding but they are all only a means to an end. They are all things I must test and learn to trust. I can only ever truly rely upon and trust myself because I do not know with certainty all those things outside of me. But if God resides inside of me then I can truly trust and find rest in him.

 

 

 

 

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My Lenten Practice

I recently read Tony Robin’s book Money Master the Game. I recommend it for anyone who is concerned about their financial situation and does not know what the first steps would be to address that situation. Towards the end of his book he talks about a three-step meditation technique he practices every morning. For three minutes he thinks about all the things he is grateful for. For three minutes he sends out blessings to the people he thinks need help. And for three minutes he pictures himself succeeding at whatever endeavors he wants to accomplish.

I was introduced to this book through a podcast where James Altucher interviewed Tony Robins about this book. James frequently talks about what he calls “The Daily Practice” where he tries to work on four pillars of his life every day. Those pillars are physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.

I have been trying to follow the advice described above from both Tony Robbins and James Altucher for some time now but during Lent I have decided to do this in a more disciplined manner.

Spiritual:

This lent I am taking 20 minutes out of my day (preferably first thing in the morning) to meditate. I use the free “Insight Timer” app as a meditation timer which rings a bell in the beginning and end of the meditation. For the first part of my meditation I follow Tony Robbins’ meditation technique. During the gratefulness section this morning it came to me that one function God serves is to be an object for gratefulness. I know being grateful is a powerful spiritual practice because it deprograms what my shame-ego tries to program me to think. It seems to me that expressing gratefulness to someone is more powerful than just being grateful and so (for me) God can be that someone. Another thing I noticed while meditating today was that the voice of my shame-ego was smaller than the voice of my intentions. It was in the background trying to undermine me but was easy to dismiss. God is the personification of the object of my gratefulness. My shame-ego is the personification of the voice that undermines me in my head. I am also reading a daily Lenten reflection book called Lent with St. Paul.

Intellectual:

For the intellectual pillar I am trying to finish a novel I have been writing for some time which I intend to publish as an e-book. I will also work more regularly on this blog. I also write down 10 ideas a day (another James Altucher suggestion).

Physical:

I run, walk, and do push ups every day. I avoid those activities that do not serve me physically.

Emotional:

This pillar seems to be the most difficult for me. James Altucher talks about avoiding negative people and associating with people who love and respect you as a way of working on this pillar. I do this to an extent but because I work from home I do not associate with people outside my immediate family with the regularity I need. During this Lent I will try to seek out organizations to join to work on this.

I am grateful for the opportunity to focus my energy in a more disciplined way during Lent. I recognize that it is important not to overburden myself with an overly strict regimen because I risk burning out and abandoning the practice. I simply try to do the best that I can with a whole heart.

 

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Lent : Your father who sees in secret will repay you

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.

 

 

 

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