Happiness. Contentment. Life-Satisfaction.

Who doesn’t want to be happy?  Or experience contentment?  I don’t see anyone setting goals for the purpose of being totally dissatisfied with life, do you?  Many people strive to be happy and live a life marked by a sense of satisfaction. They buy books, take classes, and even read blogs to find the secret to happiness. Do these things lead to happiness?

As an adult, I’ve been fortunate in many ways.  Early in my career, I was asked to apply and interview for the position of associate pastor of what was becoming a very large and prominent church.  It seemed like a career step that was an obvious one to take.  It was a high profile position from which I could have a significant impact on many people’s lives.  As I went through the interview process, I met several hard working people who had a strong sense of mission.  But they didn’t strike me as happy.  Instead, they seemed to want more:  a larger church, a bigger outreach, and greater success.  I was in my late-20’s and many people were pushing me toward the position and the senior pastor was very persuasive.  Though it was difficult, I said no.  All I knew for sure was that I didn’t want the kind of life these folks were leading.  I knew it wouldn’t be good for me, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.

I continued to strive to be fulfilled.  I worked very hard, often at multiple jobs of significance. All the positions I held were very worthwhile.  I believe I made a positive impact on many people’s lives.  But I didn’t make a positive impact on my own life.  I ended up depressed, feeling trapped, isolated, and severely burnt out.  This happened in my late-30’s.

I didn’t know what else to do but to follow my heart.  I couldn’t see a solution around me so I chose a geographic solution:  I moved across country.  This is rarely a good idea because one’s problems generally follow us wherever we go.  I moved from Miami to Tucson not for career but because, on visiting there, I could pray in the desert.  I had visited Tucson to consider a job.  I quickly discovered that I didn’t want it.  While there, I found a sense of wholeness driving in the desert and visiting a Benedictine monastery in the center of town.  I had no job and didn’t know anyone there.  I had enough money to live on for a while and just made the move.  It was the best decision I could have made for myself.

My first year in Tucson was marked by hiking in the desert, praying at the monastery, and journaling reflections on life.  It took a year or so for me to begin to heal.  Some days I would drive to the mountains, leaving early in the morning and not returning till the evening.  I’d sit in quiet places in the Sonora landscape and allowed the stark beauty to  renew me.  I came to understand that while I had values for nurturing the spiritual dimension of my life, to use my abilities for others, and to generally lead a good life, I allowed a combination of ambition and insecurity to cause me to work far too much in order to prove myself.  I came to realize that it didn’t matter whether people valued my contributions or not, whether I met some measure of success or not, whether my income was at a certain level or not.  The only thing that mattered was that I appreciated the gift of life I had been given.  With that realization, my spiritual practice took on a new depth and I experienced a pervasive sense of peace and contentment in my life.

It’s not that there was something magical about Tucson or that the Sonoran Desert is more spiritual than another place.  Instead, I allowed myself to stop being so busy and to be aware, to wake up to what was around me.  I didn’t need to seek out happiness or fulfillment in anything else other than what was already around and in my life.  It was here all along.

If there’s a secret to happiness, it’s a very simple one.  Happiness and contentment do not result from our searching and striving for them.  Rather, happiness is ours to choose in the present. When we come to know that within our deepest selves, then we discover happiness.

Photo credit: ezhikoff via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

NOTE:  My book, Stumbling Into Life’s Lessons: Reflections on the Spiritual Journey, is a collection of essays I wrote over the first two years I lived in Tucson. The essays provide insight into my journey toward happiness and contentment in life. To learn more about the book, follow this link to Amazon.  https://www.amazon.com/Stumbling-Into-Lifes-Lessons-Reflections/dp/1450248845/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488983910&sr=8-1&keywords=Stumbling+into+life%27s+lessons

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Changing Our Hearts and Minds

Human beings are amazing creatures.  We consider ourselves the most evolved of creatures on Earth.  We have complex intelligence and keen awareness, an ability to create a wide array of symbolic forms of communication, giftedness for art and creativity, and a depth of compassion that seems to be greater than other creatures.  The Judeo-Christian tradition supports this understanding of humanity.  When formed from the muck and mire, the Creator declared us to be “very good.”  Everything else in creation was merely “good.”

Of all creatures, human beings are the only ones able to destroy their own habitat and threaten their own sustainability.  We poison the air we breathe, the water we drink, add chemicals to our food, and create multiple stresses for our bodies to help wear them out.  While other creatures are known to kill for their own survival, we kill our own kind just because they hold opinions, beliefs, or ways of living different from our own.  We haven’t just killed a few others like us.  Instead, people killed by other humans surely number in the billions and billions over the millennia.  For the entirety of my life time, we’ve had the ability to kill all life on the planet.  What horrible, sadistic creatures we are!

Yes, we say that we are capable of great heights and horrible depths.  But are we willing to turn away from the death-dealing aspects that have characterized our humanity?  Are we, as individuals, willing to say, “I choose life!” and orient every aspect of our lives toward  the best aspects of our humanity which also benefits all creatures?

Today begins the forty day period Christians call Lent.  In preparation for the celebration of the new life of Easter, Christians engage in prayer and penitential practices with the intention of becoming more open to the fullness of life at Easter.  It is a time of repentance, of having a fundamental change of heart and mind which the Bible calls metanoia.  Perhaps there is no better time than right now to embrace a reorientation of our lives, to give up the death-dealing aspects of humanity and to embrace those things which embody our nobler selves.

Today, there are human beings who have made this clear, firm, and radical decision for life.  For the last several months, Lakota Indians, with military veterans and a cadre of followers serve as Water Protectors at Standing Rock.  While they are known for demonstrations in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, their actual focus is protecting the water supply of North America.  We have all witnessed the way oil spills have repeatedly polluted the water.  Most often, the spills are the result of negligence.  Indeed, pipelines may be the safest way to transport oil.  But they are usually not maintained at a minimum level to ensure safety.

Now that technology has advanced to the point where entire countries are meeting their electrical generation needs from renewable sources, we must ask: why should we risk the water supply simply to sustain an old technology? We have alternative sources for energy if we would just use them. While other countries are advancing the use of these new technologies, the United States lags behind in order to protect profits for the oil industry.

The Water Protectors are showing us that to make a fundamental change of heart and mind requires that we invest our time and our resources to use new ways to live on Earth.  To do so is to embrace life.  After all, no one will die without oil, but people will die without water.

We often think of Lenten practices as safe, easy, and private.  Perhaps we give up luxuries like snack foods or attending a movie.  What would it mean if we heeded the call of Lent:  to repent, to experience metanoia, to have a fundamental change of heart and mind?  Wouldn’t such a fundamental change turn us away from the ways we bring death to each other and our planet?  Could a fundamental change of heart and mind lead us to embrace the wonderful aspects of being human of which we are so proud?  Repentance, metanoia, begins one person at a time, and now is that time.

Photo credit: new 1lluminati via Foter.com / CC BY

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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A Buddhist Christian? A Contradiction?

I read and study a wide variety of literature on spirituality.  While I am a Christian, my spiritual practice also draws on elements of Buddhism.  It’s often been the case that Buddhist practice has helped me gain a better understanding of Christianity.

Many people have drawn on both Christianity and Buddhism in their spiritual practice.  Within the Christian tradition, perhaps the most famous was the priest, monk, and spiritual teacher Thomas Merton.  In fact, Merton died in Thailand during a gathering of Christian and Buddhist monks in Thailand during dialogues about spiritual practice.  Similarly, both of the great Buddhist teachers of our era, the Dali Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, have written about the compatibility of the teachings of Jesus and Buddhist teachings.

In considering Christian and Buddhist practice, there appears to be a fundamental conflict in the purpose of meditation.  For Christians, meditation is to bring one closer to God and to experience the presence of God more fully.  For Buddhists, the practice of meditation is letting go of all distractions, thoughts, and images.  Letting go of all expectations, beliefs, and desires is the heart of Buddhist practice.  This clearly leads to the question:  how can a Christian who not only believes in God but is attempting to grow closer to God by meditation let go of all expectations and beliefs?  Isn’t that contrary to faith?

What I have learned in my practice of meditation is that I have been taught particular beliefs about God and expect God to be that way.  I expect God to be all-powerful, a trinity of three persons, all loving, and ever-present.  Yet, if God is truly Divine, then God is beyond my capacity to imagine and describe.  God is so much greater than I can ever understand that my beliefs and images are nothing less than inadequate.  In order to truly experience the Divine, I must let go of everything I have been taught, thought about, imaged, or considered God to be.  All those things just get in the way of the real experience.

To encounter the Divine requires that my understanding of a Diving Being has no importance at all.  Instead, I simply open myself to all the Divine is and may be. This is how Buddhism challenges me to let my beliefs, expectations, and pre-determined categories fall aside in order to be truly present to what is.

A good example of setting aside one’s beliefs and expectations about the Divine is Biblical story recorded in the gospel attributed to Luke.  An angel appeared to Mary and told her she would have a baby.  Mary was not in control of the experience.  She was simply open to what would occur.  In that, something Divine was born in her.

Buddhism has taught me to let go of my beliefs and understandings of what the Divine should be or even be like.  That has meant that in silence I have had the opportunity to simply allow God to be God.  In doing so, I’ve grown to understand more of what it means to be a Christian contemplative.

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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