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.