buddhism, china, confucianism, eastern spirituality, Interfaith, spirituality, taoism, tibet

Experiencing the Tao

Happy Chinese New Year! 

experiencing the tao

Thursday February 19 began a new year in China – the year of the goat or the sheep or the ram, depending on the inflection you use to pronounce it. Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. Those born in goat years (1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003 and 2015) are said to be artistic, charming, sensitive, and sweet. It is known as the most creative sign in the Chinese zodiac.

China Buddha

In addition to it being the year of the Sheep, it is also the year 4713. China resisted the Gregorian calendar until 1912 but it was not widely used throughout the country until the Communist victory in 1949 when Mao Zedong ordered that the year should be align with the Gregorian calendar.

I first visited China and Tibet in 4703 and found an interesting paradox between the cultures. In Tibet, the whole country oozed of spirituality. The faith of the people seeped out of every pore and crevice. But in China, I found I had to ask about spirituality. I wanted to compare what I had learned of Eastern religion with what actual Easterner’s had to say.

But when I would ask people if they were a Buddhist or a Taoist – I discovered that we were talking about two very different things. I was asking them about a “belief.” If they supported the teachings of a particularly religion.

But they heard me ask, “Do you practice Buddhism or Taoism?” And one after another they answered “No. I’m not a disciple. But someday I hope to be.” I actually found myself fighting not to say something like, – no I just mean do you believe in what they teach – not do you really live like they teach! Time and time again people who knew and believed in the merits of a religion, refused to claim the name of that religion for themselves without making a serious commitment to living by it first.

China Taoist Temple

Can you imagine? That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you decide to love your neighbor as yourself. That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you replace the values of might and greed with justice and mercy. That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you actually start living like Jesus did. And where would that leave the Christian church in our country today?

It seems to me this Chinese approach to religious affiliation recognizes and respects something about the group, communal experience. Faith isn’t just an individual decision, but also a way of entering into community. There is something about my claim to a religious affiliation that affects other people who make that same claim. And if I am not ready to commit to that community, I refuse to usurp their name. The people of China didn’t adopt this attitude overnight but over thousands of years of life together.

Buddha China Community

One of the first places we visited when we arrived in Beijing was Tian Tan or the Temple of Heaven. The Temple was built in 1420 (a relatively modern structure given the setting). Every year Emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties came here to pray for rain and a good harvest and to make sacrifices to Heaven. The Emperors had a unique role to play as the agent between the two worlds. The Emperor was for all practical purposes the God of the people, although officially he was considered the “son of God.”

The structure of the Temple is a good representation of all the architecture of the period. It is laid out in three main sections connected by a walkway. The focus of the first section is the Abstinence Palace, a square building set on a square piece of land. The Chinese believe that squares symbolize the earth while circles symbolize heaven. This is an earthly structure. Yellow is the color of the emperor and no one else in all of China would have been allowed to use the color yellow. All yellow roofs would indicate that the building belonged to the emperor. This building and every other building in China has a raised threshold at every door and every gateway. This was intended to keep evil spirits from entering because they would have to jump over the threshold.

From the Abstinence Palace the emperor would have walked to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Here the courtyard is square but the building is circular. And on the periphery of the square is another building. Before entering the Prayer Hall the emperor would go into this building and change his clothes – taking off his yellow garments. This was necessary because the Emperor was approaching God as his son and not his equal.

The third section is the Circular Mound Altar and the Tianxi Stone. No one was allowed to stand on this raised center stone for this was the spot closest to heaven. Not even the emperor addressing his father God as his son would ever have done such a thing as to stand on this stone.

So it was somewhat heartbreaking to see people not only standing on the stone, but also assuming mocking poses. There was a great irony in my trip. That in the course of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution holy places had become tourist attractions, yet without the revolution I would never have been able to see the sights that I saw. And I was moved that the Ming Tombs and other burial places are left unexcavated – testimony to the fact that at least for the time being respect for the dead is more important than additional tourist destinations.

Chinese architecture dragon

Kevin was my tour guide for this trip. His real name is Yang Ger Gong. Kevin is always cheerful and he reminds you of a mother hen, leading her chicks about, always looking back to be sure no one has strayed off course and gotten lost. And he tends to loosen up a bit and tell Chinese jokes after a bit of Bourbon!

Kevin’s grandparents credit Mao Zedong and the Communist Revolution with saving their lives. He calls them Maoists. His parents, a geologist and a photographer, fled to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. When Keven was 10 years old the Chinese government allowed children in exile to return to the mainland. Kevin moved 300 miles away from his parent’s home to live with his grandparents. His parents practice no religion, but Kevin, at 24 years old, had come to embrace Taoism.

Interfaith Pilgrimage

As he shared his faith, I found myself deeply resonating with his convictions. One morning I woke with the vision of Pilgrim Spirit Tours imprinted firmly in my mind. I knew I would return to China and that I would lead others who wished to experience the spirituality of the East. I began talking to Kevin in earnest about what such a pilgrimage would include and it was his suggestion to visit the 5 Famous Peaks – the holy mountains of Taoism, as well as spiritual centers for Buddhism and Confucianism.

It was exciting planning the return trip but what I had not anticipated was Kevin’s joy. As we walked out of Beijing International Airport two years later and boarded our first bus, Kevin told us that this was to be a special trip. He explained that very few people – including Chinese Taoists – ever make it to all five peaks. He had been to two of them himself. Kevin’s joy would only magnify as we journeyed together for the next two weeks.

There are the three main belief systems in China: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Buddhism is a transplant religion from India. Both Confucianism and Taoism originated in China over 2500 years ago, 500 to 600 years before the time of Jesus. Older still is a book both of them use called the I Ching.

The I Ching was written in the early part of the Chou dynasty that began in 1120BC. It is sometimes used for divination or fortune telling, but more often it is used as a philosophical text. The I Ching is based on yin and yang – the two great interactive forces that are the polarities of existence and life’s basic opposites, such as good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, summer and winter, passive and active.

Pilgrim Spirit Tours

The symbol for Yin Yang is called the Taijitu (Tai-G-to) and it has come to represent Taoism. The two halves complement and balance each other. Each moves into the other and exists in the deepest recesses of its partner’s domain. And in the end both find themselves at home in the circle that surrounds them, the Tao in its eternal wholeness.

So what exactly is the Tao? Huston Smith provides three definitions for the Tao. It is first of all the way of ultimate reality. It cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom. Second, although it is ultimately transcendent, the Tao is also immanent. It is the way of the universe, the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Finally, it is the way of humankind. Kevin put it this way, “The universe has a Way but nobody knows where the way is, and still everyone follows it. That is Tao.”

The Tao accomplishes great things by means of small things. Taoism seeks harmony with nature and all things through a principle called wu wei or non-action or an ever better phrase “creative quietude.” Creative quietude combines supreme activity and supreme relaxation. It flows through us when our private egos and conscious efforts yield to a power not their own.

China Pilgrimage

In Confucianism the Tao is understood as the moral way to which the ruler as a superior man should aspire. Its most used sacred text is called the Analects. Confucius taught social and personal morality that stressed the practice of key virtues. No matter what the specific religion or lack of religion of the Chinese people, they are also Confucian. It is so historically socially bred in the culture that you could call say its part of the DNA.

Confucianism is almost exclusively cognitive which is why it is considered a philosophy rather than a religion. It teaches that one becomes a “superior man” when he reaches moral and intellectual maturity. This non-inclusive language is intentional as women were not expected or encouraged to pursue self-cultivation in that time.

The chief virtue is Benevolence. Filiality is another virtue that involves reverencing one’s living ancestors and worshiping one’s dead ancestors. It stresses deference, obedience and faithfulness to parents. The virtue that we saw most plainly lived out as we observed traffic patterns and moved among the Chinese was the value of Propriety or “ritual correctness” or “good manners.” Almost everyone we had any contact with seemed to have a highly developed sense of politeness and civility.

China Pilgrimage

Taoism, on the other hand, is clearly a religion. Taoists claim Lao Tzu as the religion’s founder. After he died, Lao Tzu’s disciples wrote down his teachings in a book called the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius. The Chinese even claim that he traveled to the academy in which Confucius taught. Today there are statues at the Academy that commemorate this meeting.

In contrast with Confucianism, Taoism teaches superiority not through self-cultivation but by tapping through inactivity into the superiority of the Tao. Taoists describe Confucianism as difficulty in the midst of ease; Taoism as ease in the midst of difficulty. The Chinese say, “Confucius roams within society, Lao Tzu wanders beyond.”

There are two kinds of temples prominent in China – those built by Chinese Buddhists and those built by Taoists. When I asked Kevin the main difference between these faiths, he offered two: That Buddhism includes many lives and the focus is on the one to come. Taoism believes only in this life and so the focus is to live in the now. Taoists kowtow at the altars three times like this. Chinese Buddhists bow in a similar way to the Tibetan Buddhists but with an important difference… The palms are significant as they take on a surrendering pasture in Tibet, and a receiving posture in China.

Dragon Carving in China

When we had reached the fifth peak, we had accomplished something few people – even Chinese Taoists – ever achieve in their lifetime. I made an offering of incense and kowtowed in the Temple to show my deep respect for the Tao that had led us and been our Way. Another pilgrim did the same. Then as we began winding our way down the mountain, something was amiss. Kevin – our leader – was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that this one time instead of leading us on, he had lagged behind, kneeling in prayer, offering his own thanks for this pilgrimage and to the Way that had guided him there.

Having learned so much about the different approaches to life within China, I asked Kevin what he thought the main difference was between the East and the West. He said, and I quote, “The West is more confident and selfish. The East is more public” meaning there is an emphasis on the group or the community.

I emailed Kevin after I returned home. I asked him what he wanted me to tell others about China. This is what he said: Just tell them about the China you saw. The real China.

China Taoism That China is a beautiful place, calm and majestic, musical and ancient, vibrant and mysterious, shrouded in mists and striking in color. A country that dances and somehow each person knows the steps so that everything is fluid and flowing. This is what I discovered in China – a giant dance floor in which everyone moves and no one steps on any one else’s feet or pushes anyone else to the periphery of the dance floor.

On busy streets and marketplaces, on bamboo boats and farmer fields, in lush parks that draw young children and old friends, there is a richness in the dance movements that one can only make with other partners who have also learned the steps. China offers us a picture of a community of people who care enough about each other and their common ancestry to actually learn the steps.

Taoism on Chinese Pilgrimage

How much more beauty unfolds in the dance when all people join it – when it includes the rich textures of diversity from the North and from the South, from the East and from the West. This is the dance you and I are invited to experience. The dance of life.

Namaste

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More pictures and the Power Point Presentation at this link:

20150222 c3 experiencing the tao chinese new year

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Being Fully Human, buddhism, christmas, Compassion, ego, egoic giving, generosity, gifts, giving, holiday, presents, reason for the season, santa claus

Expressing Our Thanks in Giving

GiftWhen my son Alex started first grade he came from a pep rally ready to raise money for the school. He gathered a bowl full of small toys and office supplies and told me he was selling them for $5. I found the magazine from school and explained that he was supposed to sell the items in the magazine. 5 minutes later he was very upset. “I have to sell the stuff in this magazine?!” he demanded. “Yes,” I calmly explained. “Great!” he said as he flung the magazine to the floor, “We don’t even HAVE any of this stuff!!”

‘Tis the season for fundraisers … and charity events … and end of year donation appeals. And since we just celebrated Thanksgiving, we have officially entered what used to be the beginning of the Christmas season and is now the last lap. You all remember the reason for the season, right? Yes! Of course you do! The reason for the season is to engage in overindulgence, materialism and consumerism. It is the time to celebrate commercialism run amok! What a wonderful time of year! Because underneath the layers of Christmas wrapping paper and piles of newspaper inserts lies the heart of Christmas, and it turns out it is a heart full of love.

Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza, whether we embrace the season through the lens of secular celebration or religious tradition, this time of year at its best is about giving, it’s about good will to all people and it’s about compassionate action. The winter holidays are a time to remember the joy and delight we discover in giving of ourselves to others.

Did you take advantage of Black Friday sales this week? One year my brother in law actually got in line at Toys R Us at 4:30 in the morning! To me that is absolute insanity, but he still loves telling that story. We buy our presents, fill red buckets with change and hurry home to wrap our gifts in pretty paper and ribbons and bows.

A Buddhist Perspective

In Buddhism this kind of giving is called “dana.” Thoughtful gifts given to friends and family become symbols of our love and affection. As we complete our shopping list, we are reminded of the importance other people have had in our lives over the past year and we attempt to show a bit of our gratitude for their presence in our lives. We express our Thanks in Giving.

We also pay a little more attention to the needs of our larger community this time of year. The Buddhists It is a time for cultivating compassion itself or “karuna.” “Karuna” moves us beyond considering our own happiness and well being to acknowledge that there are others who are unhappy and who suffer in all different ways. As we support charities and give to strangers we will never meet, we demonstrate “metta” or loving-kindness.

But it can be a delicate balance, expressing our Thanks in Giving without feeling overwhelmed with stress, weight of expectations and the burden of accumulating credit card debt. Because for most of us, our holiday giving becomes a blurry mixture of compassionate action and egoic giving based on WalMart values.

Giving from the Heart vs. Giving from the Ego

When we give out of the need to live up to some stressful expectation, we give from the ego. When we give and find ourselves crushed, angry or frustrated when people don’t react to our gifts the way we expect them to or think they should, we give from the ego.

But when our giving comes from the heart with no expectation of what we will receive in return, then we are practicing compassionate giving. When we give because we are truly thankful for what we have received and feel the need to share what we have with others; that is compassionate giving. Compassionate giving finds joy in the act of giving itself.

In adopting the heart of a giver, we stop keeping score. Instead, we receive the joy of discovering that in our core – in our genetic make up as altruists, we are givers. That giving is simply an expression of our own True Self. When we give from the heart, the delight we experience is in the giving and NOT in anticipation of being appreciated or acknowledged for the incredible gift giver we obviously are. The delight is in the giving — and the reaction to that giving really becomes of no consequence at all.

This kind of giving is totally different from egoic giving. It’s a lot like the difference between compassion and idiot compassion. Compassion is other focused, idiot compassion is self focused. Egoic giving is also self focused. Let me give you an example.   

Egoic Giving 

I used to get together once or twice a week with a small group of friends. One of people in the group was very obese and one night he announced that he was going to join a diet program through a medical facility. It was quite expensive but he was committed to that plan of action even though he had very limited income.

One of the other members of the group immediately thought we should all pitch in to help cover these costs. Now, our obese friend didn’t ask for our help. Never even suggested it himself. But friend number 2 had an offer on the table and although I didn’t agree with it, it would have been very awkward to be the one person in the room saying “No way. Not pitchin in. Not gonna do it.” So we all began contributing to the monthly expense of this program.

The first couple of months he announced his weight loss and we all congratulated ourselves on our group accomplishment. You see where this is going. A couple of months later, he started to have lapses in his commitment to the program and his success started to wane. Guess what happened? You know don’t you. Everyone who had been footing the bill felt betrayed and let down. How could he do this to US?

Wrong. When we decided to donate to someone who didn’t even ask for it, we were engaging in egoic giving – something that made us feel better about ourselves. Helping to pay for the program did not buy us the right to hold anyone accountable to us – and it created a barrier for us to be an accountability group for our friend – because instead of speaking out of genuine love and concern for our friend, we were talking out of anger and feeling bitterness that our own contribution was being appreciated in the way we thought it should. The truth is, our obese friend didn’t owe us a thing.

When we give because it makes us feel good to give, there’s nothing wrong with that. Feeling good is something we all aspire too. But when we give with strings attached, when we expect something in return, we are engaging in egoic giving. This is the kind of giving that looks like an accounting relationship. If I give to you, you are in some sense in my debt – maybe to do  me a favor in return, maybe to bail me out when I need it, maybe to live up to my image of you and for you to see me as the selfless, caring and compassionate person I know myself to be.

Compassionate Giving

Compassionate giving, on the other hand, asks nothing in return. It is the giving we do from the depth of our heart –– regardless of the response we get. Compassionate giving brings us to selecting our gifts and placing them under the tree with love that is free and unconditional. And it challenges us to extend such giving beyond our immediate family and friends to embrace all of humanity. It cultivates a heart of universal compassion as we offer up our concern for the well being of all others.

So let’s wrestle with the question that comes up time after time about giving to strangers. What about the guy on the street corner? If we give him a handout, will he use it to feed his family or to buy a beer? The truth is we really don’t know. So we have to make a decision. Give or don’t give. There really is no right or wrong answer. We usually don’t have enough information to practice idiot compassion. The decision really says more about our view of money and our financial systems and structures than anything else.

Some of us will prefer to donate our money to organizations that seek to address the underlying causes of disparity in order to create more financial stability for people in the long run. Some of us will be moved to act in that instant to help that particular individual with the money we are fortunate enough to have in our pocket right then and there. Some of us will opt to take this person out for a meal and a conversation to connect on a more intimate level.

All of those decisions are valid, value-based responses to human need. And if we decide to give, we owe it to ourselves and the recipient to believe the best. Give and let go. What ends up happening to it, doesn’t matter. There is no reason to stress yourself any further worrying about what you have done and whether the other person will appreciate it appropriately. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t.

Our Relationship to Money

Giving from what we have to help others individually or as a group is an important aspect of living a good life. Money and our relationship to it is certainly one of the most emotional aspects of our lives. We can’t separate money from the rest of our life, because how we approach money, how we treat money, how we depend on money, how we may even tend to worship and idolize money shapes how we approach life.

The tithe (or 10 percent of our income) is a common model for compassionate giving. In the ancient world a tithe could be a compulsory tax paid to the government, a required payment to support the synagogue or a donation to charity. It’s a model that I used when raising my own children. They got an allowance. They were required to put 10% in savings, to donate 10% to whatever social justice program they wanted (which I admit was usually the faith community I was leading), and the rest was theirs to blow on Pokemon cards.

Giving satisfies our impulse toward altruism, but it contradicts our impulse of individual survival. If we give away 10%, that means we only have 90% left for our own wants and needs. We fear that unless we have more, we will be dependent on others and in our dependency we will not be free. We want freedom from anything that might hold us in bondage. We are free when nothing is present to stop us from getting what we want, when nobody is telling us what to do.

The truth is we only dream about meeting the needs of all the world’s children because we do not trust we can do more than we have ever done in the past. While the reality is that we have everything we frail and flawed human beings need to end poverty and hunger and homelessness. Why don’t we do it? We are captive to a genetic disposition of survival that has created a culture that fails its own people and a worldview that allows human beings to walk away empty, hungry and without hope. We are bound, captured by our culture, in bondage to money.

Of course, sometimes we just aren’t in a position to give any money to anyone else – that is the sad reality of economic disparity in our nation today. It is then that we need to be able to receive the gifts of others in order to maintain our own health and wellbeing. During those times, we can still cultivate the heart of a giver through our presence, with our care and concern for each other, for the positive energy we send into this world. We each do what we can – for each other, for this community, for this world in which we live.

The Spirit of Santa Claus

Edwin Osgood Grover in The Book of Santa Claus writes, “Santa Claus is anyone who loves another and seeks to make them happy; who gives himself by thought or word or deed in every gift that he bestows; who shares his joys with those who are sad; whose hand is never closed against the needy; whose arm is ever outstretched to aid the weak; whose sympathy is quick and genuine in time of trouble; who recognizes a comrade and brother in every man he meets upon life’s common road; who lives his life throughout the entire year in the Christmas spirit.”

So with the giver’s heart of Santa Claus and in the Christmas spirit of Compassionate Giving, let’s all celebrate the reason for the season!

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, buddhism, christian, god, gratitude, hardship, Jesus, Progressive Christianity, struggle, thanksgiving

Thanks Giving

Thanks GivingA friend of mine came to the house on Wednesday. She had returned home after being at an aunt’s funeral in Ohio. And she shared that she had never been to a funeral and left so joyful in her whole life. She was joyful because her daughter who left home without a word 11 years ago at 18 years of age and who my friend had not heard from once in all that time – showed up at the funeral and restarted a relationship with her mother. My friend learned that she is a grandmother. My friend has much to be thankful for this year.

Every year we set aside one day to be thankful. Every Thanksgiving my family sits around the dinner table and shares what we are thankful for at the moment. All the usual suspects appear – family, friends, and health. But there is more to thankfulness than that.

As Buddha once said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

And so I realize I have so much more to be thankful for – those things I take for granted like the miracles of sight and hearing, the turning of the seasons, the peace of a good night’s sleep. These things are not always on the top of my mind – but when I do give them ample thought or when someone reminds me of them – I am very thankful. In fact, all of the things that I think about being thankful for are pretty darn easy to be thankful for.

And that struck me as somewhat incongruous with what Jesus is usually calling me to. Because when I really get down with Jesus, I don’t hear him telling me to do what’s easy. I hear him challenging me and making me uncomfortable. I recall a passage from 1 Thessalonians. Plain as day: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Give thanks in all circumstances.  

So I started asking another question this year. Instead of asking what I am thankful for I started asking myself what I’m not thankful for. And you know, that was a pretty easy list to make too. Because quite frankly, some things about life really stink.

Things like illness and poverty, prejudice and violence, unemployment and homelessness, hunger and loneliness, hate and injustice. And broken relationships. There are people and situations that I don’t even want to even think about, let alone be thankful  But here it is, spelled out very clearly for me by Paul: Give thanks in all circumstances.

Wow. Now there’s a challenge. It seems to me that the key to thanks giving, then, is in seeing every thing as an opportunity to learn and grow. Then all persons and situations – including the most difficult ones – have the potential of becoming our teachers.

Now, I do have to say that I don’t believe God gives us bad things because God has decided we have to learn something. I don’t believe God tests us in this way. So every challenge, every resistance, every thorny problem has the potential of propelling us into higher levels of understanding, competence and maturity. But those same difficulties are not assigned from God – and we should not go on an agonizing search for answers trying to discover what it is we are supposed to be learning. Instead, difficulties are just a part of our living in a fallen world. Not all is sweetness and light. Every experience of suffering brings pain that we must endure  – and from which we might grow.

And indeed, the opportunity for growth is unique – because we are challenged in ways we would rather not be. Because spiritual growth demands that we overcome our character flaws. And to do that, we often need something or someone to shatter our incorrect beliefs, our frozen feelings and our self-delusion. We need outside assistance to help us break free of our current, limited understandings. Some way of uprooting the very things in life we are holding onto most tightly in an effort to keep them the same. Some way of experiencing enough pain that we are forced to make the necessary changes that we have resisted for so long.

OK, here’s an easy example. We are called to cultivate an attitude of grace at all times and for all people. I once worked in an office with a nice young lady who could really botch things up – and who regularly did. She was always apologetic and willing to fix her mistakes and I found it easy to be gracious toward her.

I also had a boss – who was a perpetual thorn in my side. When he messed up, I wasn’t nearly as gracious. I may have even told other people he messed up for no good reason at all. Which of these two people presented the greater opportunity for me to learn the golden rule – to treat others as I wish to be treated? Who are the difficult people in my life right now who present a perpetual training ground in which I can practice and learn this most valuable discipline? For them, this year I am grateful.

Seeing hard times as teachers means seeing them in an entirely new way. In Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who possess great powers. They are also very compassionate. Most are like angels, but there is also a special class of them called reverse bodhisattvas. They are equally compassionate, but have terrible appearances and their mission is to enlighten others through creating difficulties, challenges, and hardships. Such a viewpoint allows us to “flip” our perception of people and circumstances so that they become spiritual practices designed to help us reach new heights of spiritual growth.

Reality, then, is neither good nor bad – it is a matter of how we choose to perceive it. For someone who has mastered the art of seeing this way, the world is always perfect. Our external reality doesn’t have to change to make it so. The secret lies in changing our perception of it. Thanksgiving comes out of inner transformation.

Jesus was an expert “flipper.” Throughout the Gospels, he teaches the art of seeing and the need for internal transformation using the phrase “being born anew.” There are a lot of different connotations to these words nowadays – and not all of them are good. But to Jesus, being born anew wasn’t about accepting a religious belief but about experiencing a spiritual awakening.

The night before Jesus was betrayed, as the story goes, he ate with his disciples. He broke bread, gave thanks and gave it to them to eat saying – this is my body, which is going to be broken for you. Then he took wine and after giving thanks he gave it to them to drink saying this is my blood, which is going to be poured out for you. On the very night before he was betrayed, knowing in all certainty the horrible pain and suffering and death that awaited him, the first thing he did was thank God. Even in the midst of greater difficulty and hardship than I will ever know, my Jesus was thankful.

I don’t always follow that example. I’m not that strong. Often my thanks are given much later and from a safer distance. My friend whose daughter returned to her life last weekend is thankful now. She is able to look over the expanse of time and see the growth that occurred even in and through the pain. But 11 years ago? We humans don’t usually think in terms of forever, but in terms of the moment­ – a day, a week, a month at a time­ — complaining that there is never time enough. Gratitude means we are to make the momentary eternal by using what we have been given to the best of our abilities here, today, in service of love for others. There is no best and no worst hour. There is only now. We must choose how we will view the now and what we will do with it.

I am grateful this because I believe that Spirit is with us in the midst of the pain and the hardship and the struggle. I believe that we are never alone even in the darkest hours of our life. And I know that the Divine is strong enough to support and strengthen me when I can no longer support myself.

We can use Jesus’ way of seeing to foster our own inner peace – not as a device to intellectually solve life’s problem or to understand why bad things happen to good people – but to be amazed by the poignant beauty in the paradoxes of life itself.

  • What good things are you thankful for?
  • What hardship or difficult person are you thankful for?
  • Where did you feel Spirit most present in your life this past year?
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