On New Year’s Resolutions

I have long since given up making New Year’s resolutions. They just don’t seem to take. By the middle of January I normally have to think quite carefully about what exactly it was that I had committed myself to this year. I don’t think that this is because I am a person who cannot commit to things. On occasion I have managed to introduce and sustain a regular prayer practice and a regular exercise practice. But those things were introduced when I felt it was time to make a change. Those things happened when life presented the right combination of desire, motivation and imperative. Never simply at the turn of a new year, when I felt I ought to make some resolution.

For those who are more inclined to make New Year’s resolutions, Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) has some useful suggestions:

  1. Frame your resolution in concrete actions.
  2. Keep a chart.
  3. Use the Happiness Project Toolbox.
  4. Tell people what you’re doing.
  5. Do it every day.
  6. Join a group.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gretchen-rubin/balanced-life-trying-to-g_b_752920.html

In reading the list, I begin to see why my resolutions never quite make it out of the starting block!!

Even with the wisdom of Gretchen Rubin’s list, I think I will continue to gently leave New Year’s resolutions to one side. Instead I think my goal for 2013 will be to figure out what rules I live by. This is not the same thing as a personal manifesto. Rather it is a set of simple guidelines that frame my being in the world. I got the idea from Susan Piver. On her website, she has a page entitled ‘Rules to live by’

http://susanpiver.com/about/rules-to-live-by/

I like her list and it would be easy to simply adopt that. But one or two of her rules feel a little beyond me at the moment. More importantly though,  I think to adopt someone else’s list evades the real invitation. I want to pay attention to the way I am actually living in the world. What are the things that influence the choices I make? I have some idea of what some of them might be, and I think I’ll make a tentative list before the start of the new year with the idea being that I will slowly live into creating a list I would be willing to share with others. Ultimately, the point is to be honest with myself. To recognise the rules I actually live by, rather than the rules I would like to think I live by! This is precisely because I believe I am far more likely to get to the place I would like to be by being fully present to the place that I am.

What is the meaning of the incarnation?

I recently watched an interview between Susan Piver and Jonathan Fields.

http://www.goodlifeproject.com/mindfulness-serendipity-and-the-unplanned-life/

As both practice shambhala Buddhism, a small part of the conversation was focused on the idea of enlightenment. They clearly had very different ideas about what it meant. For Jonathan, it was transcending the human condition, something beyond ourselves. But for Susan, it was precisely being fully human; being fully present to the experience.

I am sure the nature of enlightenment is probably one of the burning questions in Buddhism. I confess in as much as it is appropriate to use Buddhist terms for my own spiritual practice, I would tend to follow Susan’s line of thinking. With the celebration of Christmas, I find myself wondering whether this does not shed some light on the meaning of the incarnation.

In Christianity we have a similar question – is the meaning of our faith to gain entry into heaven (the transcendent model), or is it that our faith should transform our daily reality. Of course, to present it is as a dichotomy is entirely false. Both must be true. But I think if we focus too much on trying to gain entry into heaven, we miss the point entirely.

To me, the point of the incarnation (at least the point I am focusing on right now) is to show us that profound encounter with God is possible for us in our ordinary human experience. In the person of Jesus we find modelled a deep, dynamic relationship with God. It is the daily practice of living out of that relationship which facilitates personal transformation and, ultimately, redemption.

It is through immersion into our daily reality, embracing the joys and sorrows, the wounding and the giftedness, that we find our hope. This year, that is the invitation to me: To focus on today, to be authentic to my experience of the day – some will be better than others, and to pay attention to myself and to those whom I encounter.

What does the celebration of the incarnation mean to you this year? And what is the invitation you find stirring in the depths of your being?

The myth of autonomy

I am a slow learner in so many areas. The most notable of these has to be the development of friendships. As a strong introvert with a powerful need to be seen to have things under control I valued being able to do things on my own over relationships.

In my youth, I was friends with people who shared my interests and whom happened to be around. Of course, there were those with whom I got on better. Nevertheless, as soon as I moved on to new city or new environment most of the people I would have called my friends slipped from my radar. I still have those kinds of friends: people who happen to be in my vicinity with whom I get on.

About ten years ago things began to shift. I made a couple of close friends. I’m still not quite sure what holds the three of us together. A shared sense of humour; a level of honesty; and perhaps a desire to be together. These two friends taught me that there was more to friendship than happenstance.

Building on that platform, as I have moved countries I have made new friends – real friends. Latterly, I have finally learnt that the real of gift of friendship is in the knowledge that these people have seen me at my most broken and still want to hang out with me. I don’t have to be strong and capable and together. They will show up when I am less than fine. And maybe most importantly they will understand when I say – I am not fine, but I need to be on my own for a little bit.

I don’t know quite why it took me so long to figure out the true nature of friendship. I am glad that the penny has finally dropped! I am also deeply appreciative of those who were happy to hang out with me all those years ago, when I really didn’t know what I was doing.

There is much in western society which seems to suggest that autonomy is the ultimate achievement. Perhaps I simply misunderstood what this meant for a large chunk of my life. But, for far too long I thought that meant that I needed to be entirely self-sufficient in emotional terms. My life is so much better for the recognition that this is not so.

 

In the absence of passion: focus on excellence

There are so many books out there which give an equivalent of ‘five steps to finding your true purpose’. As though reading the book and following the instructions are going to actually help one find direction (Hands up all those whose lives have actually been changed by reading a self-help book!) These books all sell incredibly well because finding one’s passion in life, one’s sense of purpose, is the holy grail of our world. (At least it is in the educated middle-class world that is my current frame of reference!)

I don’t believe that it is always that simple. For most of us, it takes time and active exploration to discover the thing we are supposed to be doing. It usually doesn’t happen by accident. There is an invitation that we find enticing. We take a first look and decide to spend a little more time engaging in that space. Over time, it becomes clear whether this new avenue is really worth pursuing or not. But mostly it takes time and reflection. It’s a bit like a developing relationship. Regardless of the strength of the initial attraction it is important to live into it a little, to see if it is the real thing or not.

But what does one do in the apparent absence of potential avenues? The answer here may seem a little counterintuitive, but is good solid advice – become excellent at what you do. Focus on doing the task in front of you to the best of your ability. The discipline will stand you in good stead if nothing else. Occasionally though, daring to invest fully in your present life may just stir a latent enthusiasm.

There is much to be said for finding ways to create the best life you can in your current circumstances. Those who are desperate to find a spouse are often not terribly discerning in their choice of relationship partners. The result is frequently an unhealthy relationship. Those who have the same desire for a spouse, but focus their attention on developing strong friendships, whilst they keep an eye out for a potential mate, are far more likely to choose well. Likewise in finding one’s life purpose: Focus on finding meaning in your current daily reality. When you understand that meaning, you are far more likely to be able to find the task which matches that meaning.

I think purpose is just that: finding the task which fits with the meaning of your life. Trying to find your purpose before you have found your sense of meaning is so much more difficult. And it is almost impossible to find any meaning when you have no investment in what you are doing. The easiest way to begin to invest is to start to strive to do what you do a little better.

It isn’t an exciting or exhilarating place to start, but at least it gives a direction which will reveal new vistas in time.

Hitting a fault-line

The death of the nurse who took the prank call from a couple of Australian DJ’s has elicited a number of different responses. I am not a fan of this kind of humour, but the outrage at the making of the call has arisen only as a result of the tragic outcome. These kinds of calls seem to be part of the standard fare of some popular radio stations and have been, for many years, without any kind of protest. So what did happen and should there be outrage?

In this particular case, I do not know exactly what happened, and I am not going to speculate. Rather I want to look at the more general case. There are occasions when one does something that one knows will cause some upset in another, but a massive overreaction appears to happen. In my own life I have observed that certain situations elicit a totally disproportional response from me. For many years, I was not even aware that I was overreacting in certain situations. But I can see it now and, more than that, I know that I have a couple of areas of acute sensitivity. I call these my fault-lines.

I have inadvertently, at least once, hit such a fault-line in another person. It was a truly shocking experience for me. Whilst I knew my action would not be well received I had no idea of the extent of the damage that would result. In such circumstances there tends to be one of two responses.

1. I am responsible for the whole mess.

2. I am responsible for none of it.

Neither response is accurate or helpful. The truth always lies somewhere in the middle.

In my own experience, the process of unpacking what I was actually responsible for and what was far beyond me was not simple, and quite painful. I learnt a good deal about myself along the way. That process was useful in itself, because it forced me to examine my motivations much more closely and, as a result, I believe I am more honest in my interactions.

Part of the processing of that experience required reflection on experiences I have had where my fault-lines have been triggered. I was able to unpack the most significant time that this has happened. I was able to let go of blame that I have clung to for far too many years. Precisely because I was finally able to recognise that the intention of those who had triggered the fault-line so many years ago was far less sinister than I had presumed. I think they did want to teach me a lesson, but I am utterly convinced that if either had known the extent of the damage they would cause, they would have chosen to act differently.

So too, with this tragic ending following the call, the person who receives those calls is never going to feel good about themselves. They are the butt of someone else’s joke. It isn’t kind, but it also isn’t malicious. The DJ’s are responsible for intentionally making fun of another person, but I don’t believe they are responsible for her response.

Should we be outraged that they intentionally made fun of someone through a prank call? And if outrage doesn’t seem right, then what is an appropriate response?

If we just have faith…

About a month ago I was confronted by a number of people in different contexts saying ‘if we have faith, God will change things. We just need to pray.’ Confronted with this attitude from such a variety of spaces, I found myself voicing the importance of stepping up to the plate and beginning to do the hard work necessary. I think, too often, we, as people faith, abdicate the wrong responsibility. We pray for God to change things and then sit back and wait for that to happen when in fact a necessary part of the process of transformation is to plunge into the muck.

Immediately the serenity prayer springs to mind:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.

I fear that all too often we do not have the requisite wisdom.

In some ways we can be like the man in the flood. As the waters start to rise, the man prays to ask God to save him, and being a man of good faith he believes that God has heard his prayer and will respond to it. Not long after, someone paddles by in a row boat and encourages him to get on board to which he responds – no, God will save me. The water rises further he climbs to the upper story, someone goes by in a motor boat and says – come on, we will rescue you, to which the man responds – no, God will save me. The water rises further still, he is sitting on his roof, when someone flies over in a helicopter – they send down a ladder and encourage him to climb on – to which he says, no, no, God will save me. The man dies and when he gets to heaven he says to God, I prayed, why did you not answer me. To which God responds, I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter, what were you waiting for?

It is important that we practice discernment. We need to spend time in prayer not simply asking God to change things, but also asking God to show us what we can do. Particularly in the case of personal issues or relationship problems, all too often we pray for the magical finger snap that will put everything right, when in fact, part of our journey of redemption is to grapple with our own brokenness. The route through can be daunting, painful, and at times very dark, but walking the path in conversation with God is so much more fruitful in the long run.

 

Lord, give us always a dissatisfied heart

A friend drew my attention to a recent blog post by Paulo Coelho http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2012/12/01/a-peruvian-priests-sermon/ .

In this post he gives a prayer, which has given words to my own desire.

‘Lord, give us always a dissatisfied heart.

Give us a heart where the questions that we never want to ask can be voiced.

Deliver us from our conformism.

Make us able to enjoy what we have, but let us understand that this is not everything.

Let us appreciate that we are good people.

But above all, make us always ask ourselves how we can become better people.

Because if we ask, then it is quite possible that You will come and show us horizons that we couldn’t see before.’

To me this is a powerful combination of gratitude, humility and desire. It is a willingness to put myself in that mildly uncomfortable space that exists just beyond self-satisfaction. It is an acknowledgement that I have much to learn. And yet that yearning does not require that I deny, in any way, that I have journeyed a fair distance and I have learnt some good things along the path.

One the joys of working in spiritual direction is that I get to have substantial conversations with people who are more my parents’ generation than my own. Over time, I have come to recognise that the relationships I value most are with those who are still learning. I am constantly amazed by the willingness of these elders to engage with me. More than that, they are willing to learn from me.

Let me quickly say, I know that I do offer something of value, I’m not looking for reassurance on that front. The point I wish to make is that I think part of the gift of wisdom is the willingness to recognise one’s own limitations. In this particular case, the desire to continue to learn stems from a recognition that my point of view is always shaped by my experience. Quality conversation happens when all people engaged can recognise the narrow field of vision from which they operate. It doesn’t take much imagination to call to mind a conversation with a person who equates their own horizons with The Truth.

Are there spaces in your own life where the horizon is non-negotiable?

If so, what do you fear losing if reality turns out to be larger than you can currently see?