Friday, December 28, 2012

One More Face of God

The child was probably not born in what we call December, although there is really no way to know since the stories about his birth tell us more about the hopes of his followers than the details of his entrance into the world. Most likely no wise men from the East showed up, and it assuredly did not snow.

But none of that really matters. What matters is that once again, God entered the world – a joy, a miracle, and one that happens every time a child is born. This child would grow into an awareness of his connection to God that far surpasses that which most of us achieve in a lifetime, true, but it was his awareness that was different, not the connection itself. This is what we forget – that God is here with us, everyday, all around us, in every joyful and sorrowful and angry and beautiful face we meet. We see the face of God every day.

When someone we love dies, we lose one of those faces that has shown God to us in our lives. We may have had to look through anger at times, or sadness, through cruelty or rage, or just through so much of our own longings being unmet. But this face, this beloved face, however it showed it, still showed us the face of God, and now that particular vision is gone, and our hearts grieve.

My family grieves this season for my father-in-law, David Alan Atchley, who died early Christmas morning. A father and grandfather, a husband, for much of his life a workaholic, a fisherman and hunter, the face of God that his family saw in him was sometimes gentle and sometimes gruff, sometimes laughing and sometimes angry. It was a face that saw changes, not just from the course of time and age, but also from the life-giving experience of receiving a heart transplant and the life-rending one of losing a son. And with all the joys and challenges it brought, his was certainly a face of God, meant to challenge, teach and guide those around him as he learned from them as well.

So this season we celebrate the birth of the Christ child and mourn the death of David Alan Atchley. The two are tied up together: in the hope and beauty of each birth we see the inevitability of a future death; in the sorrow of a death we see the joy of a new life to come. And so with joy, with sorrow, and always with gratitude, we greet the Christ child and mark the passing of one more face of God.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Riding the Pleasure Train

The Prince and the Princess get married, and they live happily ever after.
That’s the fairy tale, the ideal that we hold up. The pleasure, the Buddhist understanding of sukkha, of the fairytale kiss, lasts for a while. Then the Princess gets annoyed one morning when she finds the Prince’s dirty socks dropped on the floor and his sword thrown across the table rather than being left by the door where it belongs. The Prince, for his part, is kind of annoyed that the Princess doesn’t have good things acookin’ when he comes home of an evening after a hard day of riding around being noble; turns out she’s more of a “get together with the other women in the area and form a cooperative to buy-sell-trade leather goods” kinda Princess than a “make sure my Prince knows he’s well tended” kinda Princess.

So the first stop on the sukkha train, destination Dukkha (otherwise known as pain and suffering, Buddhist style), is being forced to let go of seeing the ideal you want instead of the reality that is right in front of your nose. That in itself can lead to a great deal of squirmy discomfort. The pleasure that seemed so perfect is still pleasurable, but it requires more work. Then maybe the Prince and Princess start squabbling some about the finances of the castle; now the pleasure is becoming less and less frequent, and the discomfort is growing. Maybe the squabbling intensifies if the Princess starts checking out a local lord, or the Prince discovers that he likes Princes more than Princesses. Maybe it turns into heartrending pain that leaves both of them feeling like there is no air to breath. And the train pulls into the station.

Or maybe only a little of this happens. Maybe the Prince and the Princess work through the transition from ideal to real and live a long and happy life together, finding the beauty in the everyday. And then one day the Princess catches a fever and dies, and the Prince’s grief is dark enough to block out the light of the sun. Again the train comes to the dukkha station, just pulling in from another direction.

Happily Ever After?
We think in terms of “happily ever after”, and not just in fairy tales or even relationships. We want our spiritual lives to be like this as well: we want to reach a spiritual peak where we are happily ever after communing with God, or meditating with extraordinary clarity and depth, or constantly sending out waves of positive energy. But the problem with “ever after” is that it is ever changing. And as long as things are ever changing, they will be ever subject to changing in ways that we don’t like. In fact, it is all but certain that given enough time, they will change in ways we resist; and if we are not given enough time, that in itself is a change that carries its own pain.

All of this brings us from sukkha to dukkha.  This isn’t a tragedy, just an eventuality. It is movement and flow, the essence of change. The more we can learn to move with it, the more we live in sukkha. The more we try to freeze a good moment in time, the more we want what has made us happy to continue making us happy rather than living in gratitude for what this moment brings, the more we live in dukkha.

Take a Moment
So take a moment, take a deep breath, and take a fresh look. Is there something you are trying to hold onto that is changing? Are you looking to the past for happiness, rather than living in the present? Do you approach this moment with gratitude?

Be mindful. Practice gratitude. Leave the dukkha station. And then do it all over again tomorrow.

Monday, October 29, 2012

And When God Said

This started out as a series of notes that for a church service on which I was working; almost unbeknownst to me, it became a poem...

And when God said,
“I the Lord your God am a jealous God,
punishing children for the iniquity of parents,
to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me*”,
it was not a curse, but a natural law
for the tendrils of our ancestors’ evil weave their threads into our lives.

We call it corporate evil
systemic sin
damage done by our families
And we feel it, carry the burden of it, writhe under it.

And often - so often - too often
We don’t even recognize it,
don’t see it when it stands before us
sits beside us
looks back in the mirror with our own eyes.

But when that veil of ignorance slips a little
When even one part of this ancestral burden takes form in our vision
Suddenly we have a
C   H   O   I   C   E

Grant this thread leave to continue its poisonous path through the tapestry of our lives,
and be a conduit for the ancestors’ evil into the lives of others
Recognize this thread, rough among the silks, already woven into our lives;
accept its presence, and deny its power, as we
weave a new thread of beauty and healing around it

And when God said,
“I the Lord your God
will show steadfast love to the thousandth generation
of those who love me,”
it was not a promise but a natural law
for the tendrils of our love will weave their threads into the lives of those
who come after.

*Deuteronomy 5:9

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Scrubbing as an Act of Love

Rubber gloves, green scrubber, bleach cleaner. These aren’t what I usually think of as the tools of compassion, but they were the ones I had in my hands today.

My sweet, funny, kind, smart (really smart, he’d want me to emphasize) friend Joe died very unexpectedly a few days ago, although his friends and family only learned of his passing last night. In the midst of their shock, Joe’s amazing circle of friends gathered together and started figuring out what all needed to be done. Who needs to be called? Can we find a way to contact that person? Who can go see her? They looked to each other for support, but even in the hard blow of sudden grief they looked outward to see who would need a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on, and they made sure it was there. You can tell a lot about a person by the friends he gathers around him; that right there should tell you a helluva lot about Joe.

I’m on the outside of that group. I know some of the people, and I’ve heard about all of them from Joe over the years, but this isn’t my close circle of friends. So when more friends needed to be called or people needed to be tracked down, there was little I could do. What I could do, though, was clean. Certain areas of Joe’s house needed some hard-core cleaning. (Suffice it to say that this was a necessity, not just a kindness.)

That’s where the rubber gloves come in. I spent a number of hours over there today scrubbing on my hands and knees, along with a couple of other friends of Joe’s. This was what I could do. This was the offering of compassion I could make to Joe’s family and friends, to take one burden off of them. As hard as it was to be there, at that moment there was no place else in the world that I wanted to be, because this was the offering of love that I could make to my friend.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Wonderful Tonight. Wonderful Indeed.

So there I am, driving along through the hellish heat of a Texas summer, when suddenly I hear it: “Wonderful Tonight,” by Eric Clapton. A song that my husband David would play for me. And its our anniversary. And I’m headed straight toward the town where he’s buried.

Ker-plow! One second I’m fine, the next it’s as though I’ve been hit by a Mac truck. I drive on through minutes and hours more in the Texas sun until sun gives way to clouds and clouds open up to rain. And I’m glad, because since the moment that song hit the radio the sadness has been working its way through my veins and corpuscles, and sunshine would feel like an insult now. By the time I reach the town where my in-laws live the gentle rain has become a heavy downpour and I drive right by the turn-off for their house, deciding instead that I needed to head straight to the cemetery.

I pull up close to David’s grave with tears falling down my face as fast as the drops are falling outside the window. Not much caring about either form of precipitation, with my heart ravaged by grief I step out of the car and into the downpour, immediately drenched. Overcome by more emotions than I can begin to sort, I walk over to David’s headstone, wanting to speak the love and yearning and sorrow that are filling my being, but as I open my mouth – wait a minute, what? – this is what falls less-than-mellifluously from my lips: “You f#%ing bastard, how DARE you make me come visit you in a goddam CEMETARY on our anniversary! You are such a piece of s&*t!” and other meaningful and loving words to that effect.

Caught totally off guard by this unexpected rant, I actually have a “Who said that?” moment of disconnect before the absolute absurdity of the situation hits me. Here I am, wet to the bone, cursing at my husband while standing on his grave – it's like something out of a heartwrenching-but-in-the-end-uplifting Hollywood movie. I start giggling, and then the giggling gives way to giant belly laughs that have me doubled over and howling. I fall to my knees in the mud, leaning against the headstone, and then I'm laughing and crying all at the same time, still in the pouring rain.

I arrive a while later at my in-laws place looking like something the cat dragged in, worn out, and yet peaceful. The pain and the laughter, the rain and the absurdity – I guess I needed it all right then.

All this happened a few years ago, but when I heard “Wonderful Tonight” on the radio today it brought the memory flooding back. It is a memory of grief, not of David, but it’s a memory that makes me smile now, and I find David in that smile. For so long the grief was about feeling the loss of him in everything, but now it’s more about finding the beauty of him in everything. And this beauty - it is a blessing.

“Oh my darling, you are wonderful tonight.”


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Last Lesson

I recently learned of the death of my mentor in grad school, Jack Forstman. Jack was such a lovely man, with a big, booming laugh and blue eyes that twinkled like stars when he smiled, which was often. He cared deeply about his students, giving them help and support in any way he could. To my great good fortune, Jack took me under his wing early on, asking me to team-teach a course with him, overseeing my dissertation, and having a great deal of patience with me through a difficult patch in my life. He celebrated my triumphs, mourned my sorrows, sent gifts when my child was born and prayers when my husband died. A scholarly man with a list of credentials as long as my arm and a teaching career that most PhD’s would kill for, and yet what comes to mind first when I think of Jack is always his kindness and his laugh. Truly, a lovely man.

In the years since grad school, Jack and I have sometimes gotten together for coffee and conversation. These easy little chats meant a lot to me, and apparently to Jack as well, as his wife Shirley told me many a time when I saw her around town. “Call him, he so enjoys getting together with you,” she would tell me. “I will, I will,” I always said, but in the last couple of years I never did. My old friend fear, all dressed up here as deep embarrassment, was just too much in the way. I didn’t recognize it as such, of course; I just had a vague sense that I would call Jack when I had figured a few things out.

My life hasn’t gone the way I thought it would when I was a student of Jack’s, and in recent years it has strayed farther and farther from that path. All of this translated into an embarrassment that I left unexamined, and left unexamined it grew to include the belief that Jack must share it, too.

Let me be clear: I let the embarrassment of my perceived failure get in the way of human connection; I let fear break into a friendship with a man who was dear to me. This, my friends, is sin: letting fear rule over love. There is little that I actually think of as sinful, but this most definitely fits the bill.

Have you ever let an unexamined fear rule you? Have you ever turned away from a human connection because you did not want to face the fear that stood between you and the other person?

I cannot set straight my relationship with Jack any more. But I can look to other relationships to see where I have let unacknowledged fears get in the way of connection, and work to right them.

I thank you, Jack, for this last lesson. I wish I could call you and tell you about it over coffee, but somehow I think you know, anyway. And somewhere those blue eyes are twinkling.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

After the Burning Bush

You see the burning bush, hear the still small voice following the storm, feel the burning coals touch your lips or get swept up into the heavens. Your mind enlarges beyond comprehension, your heart is thrown open wide and your spirit soars through the cosmos. Everything in you is different than the moment before; you feel changed down to the cellular level. In a burst of comprehension you realize that this is what you have lived your whole life for, this moment, right here. It is sum and total, prayer and answer, life and joy and everything.

And then the right here moment passes.

Umm… what?

At first the vision burns bright in your mind, continuing to change the way you look at the world and relate to the people around you. It changes - not your memories, but how you interpret them. And ideas of your future shift like sand beneath water as the sense of something greater takes hold.

But the minutes pass, and the days, the months. The vision which sounded a clarion call in your life dims just a bit; the bells ringing in your ears grow fainter. Until one day you realize that this extraordinary experience, this life-changing vision – it's only a memory now. Treasured, to be sure, a lamp unto your feet, but one that shines only when you turn back to look at it.

You're still different, though, right? Maybe not as different as you first thought, but different nonetheless. Maybe the shifts are more subtle, but they're still there, you still feel them, but they don't fill your consciousness the way they did. So what do you do now?

Well, you can’t go back from being changed to not being changed. If the coal really touched your lips, then you have to speak, even when the speaking no longer comes from a raging fire within. Maybe especially when it no longer comes from a raging fire within. Because if we live only for those peak experiences, we’re going to miss the life going on all around us. We will be ever seeking, ever craving. Rather than doing the deeper work of unfolding the vision into the minutiae of washing the dishes or mowing the lawn or changing the world, we’ll always have our eyes to the mountain peaks; what was received as grace and gift we will start trying to find or earn.

A Christian mystic from the 12th century named Hadewijch knew all about this. Her life was filled with mystical visions and ecstatic moments, but after she had savored their sweetness for a time, she made an amazing discovery: that getting to that peak experience was not the point. Going back out into the world and living a life of compassion and service was the point. She explained this by saying that if you want to be God with God – if you want the mystical vision of cosmic unity – then you have to go be Christ with humans – you have to go out and actually live for others. That “looking to the mountain peaks” mentality she called immaturity; being “full grown” meant realizing that the mountain peaks are just another step along the journey.

You removed your shoes before the burning bush, putting all that is less than the highest aside so that you could stand in the presence of the holy. So what do you do when the vision fades and the bush no longer burns? You put your shoes back on and get to work.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Yalim's Questions

I wrote this little retelling of the story of the Last Supper for a recent church service. I hope you enjoy it.

Yalim loved the celebration of Passover. Family and friends gathered together around the table, there was lots of good food, and her papa always led them in speaking lots of sacred words, although she didn’t understand all of that.
“What do they all mean, Papa?” Yalim asked the morning before the Passover celebration.
“They remind us that God brought our ancestors out of slavery,” said her Papa, checking the joint on a table he was repairing.
“But why were they slaves?” Yalim wanted to know. 
“So many questions, Yalim! We’ll talk about it later,” said Papa, turning to get more nails. “Now you must go and help your mother prepare.”
Yalim wandered into the house, where her Mama was stirring a pot of the apple mixture called haroseth. “Ah, Yalim,” said Mama, “go into the pantry, get a bowl of dates, and take them to the upstairs room.”
“But why upstairs, Mama? Aren’t we eating down here?”
“Some men are coming to the house to celebrate Passover,” Mama replied.
“Why aren’t they eating with us?” asked Yalim.
“Hush, child, you ask so many questions – go!” said her Mama, shaking her head and Yalim went, wondering all the while

Just as the family was about to sit down to the feast, the men showed up. They looked tired and dusty from the road, and the one who seemed to be their leader, the one they called Rabbi Jesus, had sad eyes. Her mama showed them upstairs, and then came back down to the Passover feast. A little while later, she leaned over and whispered to Yalim to take another pitcher of wine upstairs in case the men had run out.
Yalim crept in quietly, not wanting to disturb them, and began refilling the empty cups on the table. The sad-eyed Rabbi was speaking. He held up a piece of the matzoh bread and said, “This is my body.”
“That’s not right,” thought Yalim. She had just hear her Papa saying the ritual words at their own feast, so she knew this wasn’t the right thing to say.
A few moments later the sad-eyed man picked the cup she had just filled for him and said, “This is my blood.”
“That’s not right, why do you say that?” asked Yalim. And then her hand flew to her mouth in horror – a little girl like her wasn’t supposed to be talking to these men, and she was never supposed to interrupt the ritual. Oh, her papa would be so angry! And some of the men did look angry.
But the sad-eyed Rabbi merely said,  “I am teaching something new,” and looked kindly at her, waiting to see how she would respond.
Hesitantly, Yalim said, “But the Passover isn’t new – it’s an old story.”
“Yes,” said the Rabbi, “the Passover and the Exodus tell the story of how God loved his people so much that he brought them out of slavery. But now God is using me to teach people how to love each other enough to be transformed for them, to sacrifice for them.”
“Oh,” said Yalim, “but that sounds very hard to do.”
“I’ll tell you a secret,” the Rabbi said, his eyes growing gentle, “It’s not really a sacrifice if you love people so much that you want to do it.”
The men all around Rabbi Jesus looked confused, like they weren’t sure about what he was saying. But Yalim just smiled. Her questions had been answered. She understood.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Freedom in a Pretzel Pose

I went to yoga class today for the first time in 5 or 6 weeks. Vertigo has been a near-constant companion of late, and my last attempt at a class full of bending and twisting left me ducking out early while trying not to pass out. I’ve felt better the last few days, though, so on goes the spandex: downward dog, here I come. But 5 or 6 weeks of a more-or-less yoga-free existence, you might be surprised to learn, do not do wonders for balance or flexibility. “Graceful” and “fluid” really don’t capture my practice today; “awkward” and “straining” might be more apt. But no matter: the important thing was simply being there. It’s a little lesson I learned from the Bhagavad Gita.

Gotta love Hindu sacred texts like the Gita. They often have this epic, sometimes cosmic, scale and yet somehow manage to boil down serious spiritual truths into the tiniest possible package, like this:
Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life.
                                                Bhagavad Gita 3.20
(Easwaran translation)
If you like your spiritual instruction just a little less pithy, then we have the slightly fuller descriptions:
They live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; theirs minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service…
                                                Bhagavad Gita 4.22-23
                                                (Easwaran translation)

Contentment, freedom, service – okay, maybe these are not the first thoughts that come to your mind when you hear the term “yoga”. Maybe you think more of twisting up like a pipe cleaner than of service, but the truth is that they go together surprisingly well. After all, the physical side of what we Westerners call yoga is actually supposed to be a moving meditation and a pathway to stillness of body and mind so that the spirit within can be perceived. That may not be what you hear when you head to that power class at the gym that leaves you sweaty and breathless, but remember that “yoga” actually means “yoke” – as in joining together in union – and you start getting the picture.

When you are bending and twisting in yoga postures, the goal isn’t to do the pose perfectly, but rather to still the mind. If you can put your hands on the floor in uttanasana (standing forward fold) that’s great, but no better than if your hands only reach your knees; if moving into the pose helps you develop clarity of thinking, then it matters little where your hands and feet are. Oddest of all, while it is so easy to spend your time in a yoga class comparing yourself to others (“she can do tree pose while standing on tiptoe and doing a backbend, while I can barely stay steady if I lift one foot an inch off the floor”), really it’s about letting go of expectations, accepting where you are and working to your fullest within this moment.

So we’ve got contentment and freedom taken care of; what about service? Yeah, that’s there, too. The Bhagavad Gita takes a microscope to the idea of karma yoga, the path of selfless service, where everything we do is done in service to God and to others. Even more, it teaches us that it is God performing the service through us: Brahman, the eternal Reality, “is present in every act of service” (3.16). When we step out of that intense focus on our own wants and likes, we begin to act in the service of others.  When I let go of my own wants and needs and failures, I make room for others in my life and open myself to giving; I recognize that God is working through me. If I find a deeper stillness and greater peace in my yoga class, then I step out into the world with more love to give it.

Contentment, freedom, service - these come from focusing on the process, not the end result. If we spend our time doing the next right thing, then we don’t have to worry about whether it’s all going to come out like we want. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but either way either way we have acted from love and compassion, just as we will act from love and compassion in dealing with those unknown results. I think T.S. Eliot says it beautifully:
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
                                    Choruses from “The Rock”

Focus on sowing properly rather than on reaping what you want, and you will find contentment, freedom and service. And who knows – maybe it will lead you to a yoga class.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


So I’m at a doctor’s office getting a round of tests. Feeling pretty awful and the tests are generally making things worse – lovely. This is definitely a “grit your teeth and bear it” kind of moment, which I do with a few deep breaths and as much patience as I can muster. Then the technician monitoring the test is called away for a few minutes, and I am left alone in a quiet, cool, dim room. I feel the tension in my body begin to flow out and a recognition of the grace of this small moment begin to flow in. A blesset.

This word “blesset” came to me as a way to describe those tiny moments of grace that fill our days. “Blessing” seems too big and proud a word for what I’m talking about. My son is a blessing (although there are times when I need to be reminded of that), my family and friends are blessings, my work is a blessing. These elements of my life call and transform me; they give me a chance to overcome pride and selfishness and the 101 other failures of compassion to which I am prone. But a blesset is a small thing, just a droplet of grace, a simple recognition of where I find myself in a given moment.

I’ve been feeling unwell more often than not of late, and it’s easy to get caught up in that, to focus on the pain or dizziness or nausea or whatever less-than-pleasant reminder of my physicality is invading my mental space. But every time this word crosses my mind – and it crosses my mind more and more – I stop and ask myself, “What is the blesset of this moment?” and invariably there is an answer: quiet, a chance to close my eyes when I don’t feel well, the beauty of a sunset, the sound of music playing in a another room, a cool breeze, the sun’s warmth, the sweetness of an orange…I don’t think it matters what blesset I find, just that I find one, that I open myself to the moment enough to recognize the grace that it holds, and to be grateful for it. And I hope that you see the blessets in your life, too.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On Barricading, Boxes and Crying Strangers

“I don’t wanna be here I don’t wanna be here I don’t wanna be here.” Thus the refrain running through my head as I sat in church this past Sunday. I didn’t walk in with this feeling of geographic discontent, but it hit pretty quickly and just kept growing - I was suddenly and irretrievably peopled-out. I kept imagining a me-sized box sliding down over my head, barricading me from everyone else. I might have tried escape, but I was hemmed in on both sides by people at the ends of the pew. I closed my eyes, working on the toddler-worthy assumption that “if I can’t see you then you can’t see me,” and wished the world away.

When I opened my eyes again, I saw a woman in the pew in front of me - a visitor, I knew, since she had introduced herself during the welcome. And she was crying. This is not as outlandish as it may seem, since this was a service about healing physical and emotional wounds, but there she sat, this stranger, crying.

“Go to her,” I heard in my head. Ignoring that with some alacrity, I promptly closed my eyes again.

“Go to her,” I heard again, and this time I gave fight to whatever part of my better nature was prompting me: “She doesn’t know me from Adam, she doesn’t want some stranger hanging around her when she’s feeling vulnerable, she’s probably craving solitude right now just as much as I am.” Eyes still closed.

“Go to her,” reaffirmed the obnoxiously placid yet insistent voice, heeding my objections not at all.

Oh, fine.

I crept out of my pew, sat down beside the crying woman I didn’t know, and after checking with her to see if it was okay, put my arms around her. And I just sat with her as she cried. Eventually she started telling me of her sorrow, and eventually I found myself crying with her, and there I sat for the rest of the service.

She was visiting from out of town and I’m not likely to see her again. I have no way of knowing if I ministered to this woman or not, but I do know that she ministered to me. In sitting for just that moment with her sorrows and brokenness, I was called for just that moment to recognize and let go of mine. By sitting with a crying stranger, I felt the touch of healing.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Put Down That Chocolate Bar and Do the Happy Dance

It’s Lent, so of course I’m knee-deep in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita while also contemplating the universalist message of the Lotus Sutra. Christian ritual, Hindu devotional reading, Buddhist philosophy – yep, that’s the kind of pan-religious hippie chick I am. My Lenten devotions sometimes take the form of a spiritual practice derived from another religious tradition – Buddhist meditation, for instance, or Hindu-inspired yoga – but not this year. No, this particular convergence was simple happenstance – and just like all happenstance, I don’t think it actually happened randomly. Something drew me into seeing the connection between these three seemingly disparate things – seeing, not creating, because the threads of connection are always present between all things, although we often do not see them.

Lent is a time of renunciation in the Christian liturgical calendar; we generally think of it as the time of “giving something up” – forgoing something we enjoy. And boy, does that sound pretty dull and drear. But take a look at the Upanishads and the Gita and things start looking up. The call to renunciation is at the heart of both, and when we really get at what they are saying, we start seeing that renunciation is about 180 degrees away from “dull and drear”. Honestly, it’s about finding joy.

“Giving something up” really just means consciously making a choice. We give things up every day: we give up going to the park on a beautiful day so that we can go to work and make money, or we give up going to work and making money so that we can go to the park on a beautiful day. We make a choice, each with its own consequences, and each choice involves a renunciation. But because it’s a choice we make happily and with a goal in mind, we don’t usually think of it as a sacrifice. We want to do these things.

The Gita and the Upanishads tell us that when our renunciations, our choices, are done from selfless motives, they bring us closer to understanding our connection to the divine and to each other. They are not elements of a drab and drear life, but rather pathways to community, to transcendence, to joy. The things we give up – whether it’s something as simple as candy or as difficult as a destructive habit – are just things or ways of being; they’re not the truth of what we are. The whole purpose of sacrifice is to help us remember that. It’s not just about strengthening our self-control, although that’s a nice side benefit; it’s about rediscovering that vision of ourselves as spiritually connected beings whose true state is joy. The Upanishads and the Gita tell us so - along with just about every other sacred text in the world.

So go ahead, forgo chocolate, stop the cigarettes, vow to be nice to the people who annoy you. Renounce it all in the name of love, and head on the path toward joy. After all, it’s Lent.