Friday, December 26, 2014

Making Peace with Christmas ... WWBD?

When I first began practicing the teachings of Buddha, I wasn't sure how to reconcile my Christian roots. More specifically, I wasn't sure if I should celebrate Christmas. 

I grew up loving all the holiday traditions. I didn't want to give up decorating a tree or hanging the stockings by the chimney with care. On the other hand, I felt like a hypocrite celebrating a Christian holiday when I didn't believe in it the way that (many) Christians do. 

I like to think that I follow the teachings of Christ, just as I follow Buddha’s wisdom, but if don't call myself a Christian, should I celebrate Christ's birth? Am I just in it for the gifts?

Of course, there's a lot of holiday excess and bling that's not very Buddhist —or Christian, for that matter. Not to throw the Baby Jesus out with the bath waterbut the holiday has become one of our culture's ultimate expressions of attachment — and Buddhists consider attachment one of the Three Poisons (or delusions) that keep us trapped in suffering. 

We long for something, and we're dissatisfied because we don't have it. We spend a lot of time thinking about this longed-for thing or event. We forget to be present and grateful for all the gifts we already have. Then we get the gift (or relationship or job or possession) that we longed for, and we suffer when it (ultimately) goes away.

Is the answer to not to celebrate at all? No. In its purest form, Christmas is about spreading happiness and love,  peace on earth and good will to all. These intentions are at the core of Buddhist principles. So, when it comes to honoring the holidays, I need to consider, "What would Buddha do?" (WWBD?) 

Buddha would consider the facts. After more than 2000 years, Jesus teachings still encourage us to be our best selves. Sure there have been miscarriages of his wisdom, but there has been far more positive change in our world because of him. That 2.2 billion people aspire to follow Christ's teachings today—especially when there is so much suffering and delusion in the world — is a miracle. 

It's so easy to become polarized about our beliefs. But spiritual practices don't have to be mutually exclusive. It's not a competition. The Buddha certainly wouldn't care that Jesus has more followers or Facebook friends. From what I've read about the Buddha, he'd be the first person to "Like" Jesus. The Buddha would definitely celebrate Jesus' birth. Just because Jesus’ teachings are more popular, the Buddha wouldn’t pout like an Auburn fan after losing the 2014 Iron Bowl to Alabama. The Buddha would shout, "Go Jesus! Go!"

So this year, at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Jack, Jason and I bundled up and walked three blocks to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church for their Christmas Eve service. When Jack made feint protest about attending, I heard myself say, "The whole reason we celebrate Christmas and have all these gifts under the tree is because Jesus was born."

Even my tenacious pre-teen couldn't argue with that logic.

"No matter what we believe, Jesus has inspired a lot of people to do a lot of good in this world," I said. "For that reason alone, we should honor his birth."

I'm still trying to define my own traditions, but for now I've resolved my holiday spirit. With renewed enthusiasm, I'll continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who brought us enlightened teachings about love, compassion and forgiveness and so much more. And I will continue to practice Buddhism, which encourages understanding, equanimity, meditation and mindfulness. And like the Buddha, I will say, “Go Jesus! Go! Enlighten the World! Happy Birthday! And Merry Christmas one and all— everyday of the year!”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Santa of My Understanding

It finally happened. A few weeks ago, Jack cornered me and demanded the answer to the one question I have long dreaded. I'm prepared for most of the biggies: "How exactly are babies made?"  "Did you ever smoke pot?" "What happens when you die?" and "Why did you and Dad get divorced?" But (strangely) I caught off guard by this simple quiz:

Look closely and you'll see evidence
of Santa's existence.
"Is Santa real?" he asked.

Honestly, I didn't think Jack believed in Santa anymore. I suspected that he'd heard rumors at school and was just playing along.

"What do you think?" I said, deftly lobbing the ball back into his court. I needed to at least buy some time and see where this inquisition was coming from.

"I dont' know," he sad. "That's why I'm asking you."

Crap. My question deflector failed. Time for tactic #2: Change the subject.

"OK," I said. "So ... what do you want for dinner?"

Yes, I was tap dancing for time here; and it worked momentarily as Jack lobbied to have pizza for a second night in a row.

"But Mom," he said. "You didn't answer my question: Is there really a Santa Claus?"

Dang! I was backed into a corner now. There was only one thing left to do: Be honest.

"Well, I believed in him when I was a kid," I said. "And I still think he's real."

I paused for a moment.

"Yes, as far as I can tell, Santa IS real," I said.

"Yeah," Jack said. "I think so, too."

And that was that — for then. The subject came up again the next week, and again I testified to my belief  in Santa and the conversation ended. But Jack isn't convinced and I'm sure it's hard to be a Believer these days when your almost 13 and there's a lot of Santa smack talk going down among your peers.

But in the best possible way, Jack's query tested my own beliefs and made me think. I do believe in Santa, but who is Santa?

The Santa I have come to know and see at work in the world at Christmas time is the embodiment of happiness, unconditional love and joy. The Santa of my understanding is generous and playful and spontaneous. He inspires the world to look for opportunities to give — and to receive —with gratitude, not just at Christmas, but year 'round.

Toward the end of his life, the renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung was asked an equally tough question in a BBC television interview, "Do you believe in God now?" Jung paused, looked right into the camera, smiled and said, "I know. I don't need to believe. I know." By this, I think he meant that he had seen evidence of a Divine power in the world and therefore there he no longer had need for blind faith or belief.*

So if Jack should ask again, I will rely on a mind far greater than mine and borrow Jung's response. I don't need to believe in Santa. I know Santa, I know.

*Jung provided this explanation of his statement in a follow-up letter to BBC TV:
"Only my experience can be good or evil, but I know that the superior will is based upon a foundation which transcends human imagination. Since I know of my collision with a superior will in my own psychical system, I know of God, and if I should venture the illegitimate hypostasis of my image, I would say, of a God beyond good and evil, just as much dwelling in myself as everywhere else: Deus est circulus cuius centrum est ubique, cuis circumferentia vero nusquam. (God is a circle whose center is everywhere, but whose circumference is nowhere.)"

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My Do-Over Life: 4 Years Later

Some people believe that four is the number of completion. There are four seasons, four directions, four elements, four cycles of the moon,  four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and, of course, four Hunger Games movies ...  I'm not sure of its karmic significance, but four years ago, I began this blog as a chronicle of my spiritual journey. I wasn't so bold to announce that I was on a quest for spirituality, but that's exactly what it was — and continues to be. And four years later ... here I am. 

I began writing about my interest in Buddhism and how I was incorporating the Buddha's teachings into my daily life as a writer, Mom, friend, sister, etc. I embarked on a new phase of my life and I found writing about it helped. I suppose I shared my experiences as a means of validating them. Some of my blog entries received praise. Some people ridiculed me, pointed out my typos and grammatical lapses, gaphawed at my home-spun Buddhist-Catholic wisdom. (And yes, I do realize that was not a reflection of me as much as it was of these critics.) Accepting this criticism was a gift since it marked a tremendous hurdle to cross as a writer and a person, who used to look to others for my value.
Where it all began ... 

Over the past 48 months, since I launched this blog, I've accomplished a lot. I reported stories for NPR and Marketplace. I attended retreats at Thich Nhat Hanhs' monastery in Mississippi and studied with Rabbi Rami Shapiro in Tennessee.  I stopped smoking after more years than I care to recount of being addicted to nicotine. I joined a 12-Step recovery group. I've met a lot of wonderful people along the way and have been inspired to keep going on my path.

In the past four years, I've also experienced significant loss. My marriage legally concluded, and I had to let go of the dream of having a "traditional" family.  I said goodbye to my friends, Jenniffer Franks and Wendy Rooney Beadle, both of whom succumbed to cancer. I've seen age take the form of wrinkles and jiggles and aches that weren't present in my youth. I've set aside longed for outcomes that I realize (now) were egocentric aspirations. (For example, I will never be Terry Gross' replacement on Fresh Air.)

Of course, I had a lot of starts and stops. Dating again after 15 years of marriage was an eye-opener to say the least. Online dating was a major fail, with the exception of meeting a few really nice guys who are now my friends. Only when I let go of my idea of love and romance did I meet Jason. We've been together now for almost three years. Amazing. I've learned to create a new "traditional" family in a new home of my design.

My career has also seen it's share of twists and turns and continues to unfold in interesting ways. Over the years, I've had to resign accounts and quit jobs to remain healthy spiritually, emotionally and physically. Freelance writing seems to suit me. Although the uncertainty of income is difficult at times, I love the freedom it affords. In the past year, I have written a book (or two), which is the realization of a long-held goal.

I've learned so much over the past four years! That's certainly self-evident in these 120+ blog entires. Recently, I've been asked to share some of my experiences as a teacher for the Institute for Conscious Being. In my workshops, I teach students how to use writing as a tool for spiritual practice. Indeed, I've found writing and meditation have a lot in common when it comes to discerning truth. 

When I consider all that has transpired over the past four years, if feels like a rebirth. I was given another chance by — for lack of a better term —God, who I perceive to be a compassionate power far greater than me and my ideas. 

I believe we all have lives within our lives. Every day, when I wake up I have the chance to respond to life in a healthier manner. And that wake-up call is not just in the morning when I first get out of bed. Waking up can happen at anytime, any minute of any day. At anytime, I can stop and determine to live a healthier and more authentic life. I don't have to wait until 12:01 a.m. on January 1 to give up negative habits or start practicing positive ones. As soon as I discover a motive, intention or response that I'd like to change, I can change it.

In her book, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, my favorite Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron says, "At some point, we need to stop identifying with our weaknesses and shift our allegiance to our basic goodness. It’s highly beneficial to understand that our limitations are not absolute and monolithic, but relative and removable. The wisdom of buddha nature is available to us at any time." 

The Way of the Bodhisattva was written by the 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva. It outlines the method for becoming a wisdom being who will return again and again (as necessary) until all sentient beings reach enlightenment. In this way, a bodhisattva is sort of a fire fighter of the Buddhist world. She will will not rest until every cat, dog, fish and cockroach is carried out of the smoke and flames of delusion to spiritual safety. Yes, it's a big job, to set aside my ego and see the perspective of others. But as Chodron puts it, "Life is too short to stay addicted to ego." 

And so I continue on. I have no clue what the next year —let alone next four — will bring. I do know that the seeds of healthy intention planted four years ago will continue to grow and flourish as long as I tend my garden well. Thank you for joining me on this journey and reading along.  

xo -B