Pointing to the Same Moon

 

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Something I learned the first time I walked into a Zen Center in my city fifteen years ago: meditation techniques may be central to Buddhism, but those who practice and teach its techniques don’t ask that you officially call yourself Buddhist to join in. You can, but you can also be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, a theist, deist, an atheist, agnostic, a witch, a clown, have a fancy for hobbits, elves, unicorns, and dragons, or do Parkour or be a hardcore surfer or rock and mineral collector. It really doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe, disbelieve, or spend your time doing; meditation is an exercise of mind and body designed to bring peace into the lives of all.

“Religions are the fingers of one hand pointing to the same moon.” This is how Nonin Chowaney, Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center Heartland Temple, explained the Buddhist perspective on religious practices as I stood among a small group of people—some Buddhists, others not—in the sunlit kitchen of the center after an hour of the morning spent in sitting and walking meditation. Drinking the tea offered and looking from face to disparate face, I considered how nice it would be if everyone could so easily see the simple relationship that exists between all of us as we find ourselves facets of this world.

Whatever you practice, we have only one source from which we were derived from and which we will, however that works, slip back into. A single source that creates and receives our energies and, being from the same source whatever that may be, we are all unified to each other in the very simple way of existing together in this reality, on this planet, as members of the same intellectual and emotional species. Together.

My mom and aunts went out to look at arts and crafts one weekend when they came across a small statue of a Buddhist monk in meditation, legs crossed in Lotus position, palms in the upward mudra position that allows for the free flow of energy through the body—the give and take of positive energy during meditation. My aunt commented that it looked like something I would appreciate, and so the little monk was brought to me as an unexpected gift. For me, having a family that understands and accepts diversity adds to my passion to help others find our connections more readily despite how different we seem in look, behavior, or belief. Coming from a predominantly Catholic family, having been baptized and raised in Christianity, and now fitting comfortably into the Muslim faith, no one in my circle of loved ones fears, judges, or denigrates the journey I’ve been on and where I’ve settled in. And no one worries about why a Buddhist monk statue sits on our balcony.

Sitting with the little, peaceful monk on warm early mornings to catch the remainder quiet before peoples’ daily routines make their ways into the neighborhood, his contemplation undisturbed by the world around him, I think of the many ways we pray or otherwise think spiritually; the natural flow of methods within us as naturally embedded as melody is within the bird’s psyche. A look to the sky, and I see the big sun blinking down, knowing that between sun and earth is the one, single moon that centers itself in our nighttime vision of the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I Respect” and Other Affirmations

 

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Affirmation: 1) the assertion that something exists or is true. 2) emotional support or encouragement.

Life is beautiful. Courage is easy to find. Peace is possible. I trust life’s process. I will accomplish. Each of these statements is an example of an affirmation. My husband and I often fall asleep to wisps of moonlight and affirmations sifting through the darkened room. The affirmations of motivational author Louise Hays—who also authored the Power Thought cards I’ve kept here or there for years in whatever home I’ve been in—have been regulars for the week.

Affirmations are something I have been using throughout my life, intuitively, before I was ever able to give it such a definition; more than likely, everyone has been. The orderly, optimistic patterns of praying or affirming seem a natural function of the human mind, an inherent action driven by that sweetly mysterious place of us that many refer to as soul. Soul or spirit, immaterial yet fully operable essence of us consistently seeking meaning, purpose, and connection to some source greater than ourselves, greater than all of this big, glittery, growing, blinking, complex universe holding us.

What is the power of an affirmation? Simply, the power is within the positive emotions and motivation evoked by the repetition of sayings that remind you to do, think, and believe good things.

If you don’t believe in God or soul, believe in this one thing, at least: energy. Energy (elusive itself because it has no one specific form, but rather converts to different types and inhabits various forms) is what we run on, our thoughts and bodies bundles of energy. Energy is needed in all of our physiological processes, including neurogenesis. Previous thought in the biological sciences was that we are born with a finite number of neural cells, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, leaving us in the state of development they left us at. We were a species that peak and then plateau in emotion, ability, or behavior by the age of 40. The ability of brain neurons to reorganize throughout the human lifespan, now known as neuroplasticity, was first suggested 120 years ago by an American psychologist and philosopher named William James. Since the time of publication of James’ book, Principle of Psychology, studies into neuroplasticity have shown that new neurons can absolutely be generated—neurogenesis—and new neural pathways created that allow us to adapt ourselves to new skills at any age, including into advanced age.

Believe in energy. By using the energy it takes to think and take care of how our thoughts are physically affecting us, we have the opportunity to clear stress from ourselves, physically and emotionally, and recharge so we’re able to jump out into the world with renewed interest and motivation.

What do you have to say to have an effective affirmation? The beauty of positive thought is that it just has to be positive, it should lead you into positive visualizations and goals and it doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it. There is no one formula. The universe is a vast place of creation, and therefore creative energy. You use your creativity to fit your beliefs and needs.

You can say your affirmations aloud or let them resound in your mind, quietly away from the external world. You can take a break from background music and select audio affirmations on CDs or from Youtube to fill your aural space. You can also bring your attention to them more regularly by making them visual. Try carrying them written in a journal or on notecards you can bring out and use the extra concentration necessary for reading to keep you focused. I once met a woman who wrote out affirmations on brightly colored sticky notes that she placed along her dashboard to read at red lights or while sitting in her car on break at school or work. Some people tape them to their refrigerators; inside of folders or binders that hold their work or school assignments; onto walls next to a table, desk, or couch they frequently sit at. Others tape them or simply write them on the mirrors they stop in front of most.

I’m a fan of the mirror affirmations; the bathroom mirror is one of the first places that sees the start of my days as I splash water on my face to refresh, brush teeth and hair to feel ordered. A look up, and there are the words chosen for the day, the week, maybe the month. However long they need to stay. Lipstick is easy enough to write with and to clean; window markers are wonderful inventions and just right for mirrors also.

Affirmations are natural for us as seeking, thinking and orderly beings. Positive thinking is a must for us if we are to stay motivated and hopeful and good. Whatever it is you need to put into your collection of thoughts is what is right for you to use as your affirmation, whether thought up on your own or learned from someone else, or a combination thereof.

The mirror in our home for now greets us with a collection of “I respect” statements, some repeated from the affirmations of Ms. Hay and some inspired by the way we’ve learned to give blessings after Kundalini meditation. Whatever “I” does can be positive and healthy and good, all it takes is commitment, and a reminder that “I” is part of a greater whole. You can write these particular statements into your own life word for word, or with any revisions and additions that fit you. Like air or sunlight or compassion, positive words are infused into the world as elements meant to touch all of creation.

I respect myself.

I respect other people.

I respect animals.

I respect plants.

I respect all creation.

I respect this community.

I respect this country.

I respect all countries.

I respect this world.

I respect this universe.

I respect Source.

 

What do you need or want to think about each day to be and feel your best?

Happy affirming and positive energy to all. ✿

 

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Tea With Thanatos At 3AM

“I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”—Woody Allen

tea

Sometimes insomnia is interesting, sitting you up in the middle of the night to visit a calmness and silence the days don’t afford. You have the illusion of life in suspension, with most human activity, including bouts of traffic, stilled for the time. The moon is so clear, the stars so vital. If a tree rustles or a window rattles, it seems intended especially for you; the breezes outside seem to want to say hello and check in on your night before they go on. The world is all yours for a short while, so instead of getting too worked up over the lack of sleep, it becomes a calm time to boil water and steep yourself a cup of Sleepytime tea until you’re ready get aligned again with your expected biological rhythm as a sleep at night, wake at day, human creature.

Sometimes insomnia means you have a little too much on your mind, say a fear or something like that. Say a phobia, maybe even thanatophobia. Thanatophobia is the phobia of death; not just a basic fear of dying, according to the description I found myself reading at 3AM, but “an intense, overwhelming fear of death.” Reading on to the causes—which I almost didn’t, because what causes the fear of death does seem fairly apparent—the roots of any phobia, including thanatophobia, are said to be based in early trauma of the phobia sufferer’s life. The symptoms of thanatophobia are described as follows: “symptoms of thanatophobia are as individual as the people coping with this phobia. Some people, when confronted with their fear of death and dying, may feel slightly uncomfortable, nauseated or simply begin to perspire. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some people are so severely affected by this phobia, that they will experience anxiety and/or panic attacks.” To meet the criteria of a phobia, there must be both emotional and physical reactions when confronted by a fearful stimulus. Some people are so affected by a fear of dying and non-existence that to be thanatophobic can bring “intense, crippling anxiety that disrupts a person’s daily life.” The panic attacks themselves worsen the situation as they often bring the physical symptoms of dry mouth, muscle tension, fear of impending disaster, feeling short of breath, heart palpitations, and feelings of losing control–physical and mental sensations that become interpreted as feelings of impending death.

On this particular 3AM, I was thankfully free of any type of crippling anxiety, heart palpitations, and urges to unnecessarily shake my husband—so peacefully sleeping in blissful unawareness—awake to beg him to tighten the blood pressure cuff from the closet around my arm “just to be sure.” Although my blood pressure runs low and I’m not under medical surveillance for anything, the mind in the middle of a phobic attack can make you doubt most anything rational, especially when having a little fear-of-death moment and your home is filled with such gems as sphygmomanometers, pulse oximeters, and stethoscopes–tools of the trade from my previous nurse assisting gigs, not the stockpile of a hypochondriac, I assure you–all begging you to obsessively check to be sure all is working well. This, however, was not one of those times of full-out, panic-stricken, irrational thoughts of doom. So I decided to make the best of it by, of all things, slowing my thoughts, taking a breath, and focusing. Sometimes we just need a quiet moment to analyze a situation until it finally snaps clearly into focus, therefore making more sense to us.

Since childhood, I’ve fit with the thanatophobes of the world; only mildly at first, but over time with a little more pronouncement. I have a few friends from childhood who interestingly enough have had the same experience throughout their lives, having what seems like a natural inclination for a close, tumultuous relationship with an acute awareness of mortality resulting in acute questioning, seeking, and at times fearing. Fear of death and questioning the reason for existence when faced with mortality are not uncommon; 68% of the American population are said to admit to necrophobia, which is fear of death but also of things related to death, such as coffins or funeral homes or dead things lying around—a bird or a squirrel stone cold in an otherwise lovely spring garden, for example. It’s perfectly natural to be human and fear that which we don’t understand, including the loss of the lives we are so accustomed to; the burden of being human tends to lie in being sentient. Why be given something so amazing, a life so full of beauty and love, and the capacity to be so fully aware of it only to have to one day be erased from it? How unfair, and uncomfortable, is that? Woody Allen said it well by saying he isn’t afraid of death, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens. In some parallel universe, couldn’t it just be that even though we die, we really don’t, since we didn’t have to be there when it happened?

Is it any wonder these thoughts sometimes keep us up and afraid to go back to sleep at 3AM?

There’s nothing overtly traumatic in my childhood regarding death, but my guess is that since I also fit well with the description of a HSP, or highly sensitive person (which I think means sensitive enough to be considered “abnormal” but with the right amount of mental/emotional stability to avoid a proper DSM diagnosis), the lessons of death and dying and afterlife that began at birth were something my mind wasn’t ready to take on at early ages. Being raised in a Catholic family meant going to church weekly, starting as a bundled up infant without a care or an awareness of the deeply philosophical subject matter of religion but, nonetheless, taking the words into consciousness during all of those formative months and years of developing language and understanding its meanings. Heaven, hell, death, God, angels, resurrection, eternity. Oh my. It’s not a complaint or a regret, though, I don’t believe we should shelter young minds from learning about life, including big subjects like mortality and the mystery of both life and death–it’s a great spiritual and intellectual opportunity to be introduced to such lofty concepts at an early age. I only believe we need to be aware of why we might think in a certain way when it becomes in some way uncomfortable or destructive; we should be willing to look into our own histories and examine what it can be traced back to, if anything.

Sometimes knowing the start of an issue helps you understand why you have been holding on to negative thoughts or energy for too long; it helps you release that which hurts you, so that you may heal. Often we do develop fears or worries in childhood along with ineffective methods for dealing with them, then become emotionally controlled by our habitual methods and forget to learn how to let a fear go. Couple this with heightened sensitivity in the emotional realm and you can wind up with a phobia so developed it really does have its own entity, accompanying you through life like the evil twin you never wished you had.

What a great revelation, and sweet moment. For once, I was able to slow my mind and think these things, and let husband sleep his comfortable sleep most likely filled with life-affirming dreams (and dreams of fresh falafels, which he often misses because you just can’t access them in the Omaha area the way you can in Chicago, or back home in Palestine). For once, I developed a new method based on the idea of facing your fears: if death, for whatever reason, has stepped into my mind again in such a negative way, why not approach death not as a fear, but as a face. An entity. A person one could sit and share a cup of tea with.

Thanatophobia derives its name from Thanatose, the Greek personification of death. I figured I would start there. Next step: pulling a comfortable blanket around my shoulders, pouring more tea, and settling onto the warm, cozy couch. When you are physically comfortable anything scary or otherwise negative is often easier to deal with.

I considered pouring an extra cup of tea to set on the table (and if husband were to wake I could simply offer it to him—It’s for you, dear! I’m not sitting here talking to ghosts! Really, I’m okay!) the way people offer food and drink and other gifts to the spirits of deceased loved ones on Dia de los Muertos, the way people leave fruits and money and various objects at the altars within Hindu and Buddhist temples for beings of the transcendent realms, or light candles when praying to Jesus, Mary, or the saints. Here, Thanatose, use my favorite cup, and we’ll sit and talk like friends.

I figured the spiritual realm operates a little differently, though, so I left it to a B.Y.O.T.C. situation; even death may have his own favorite tea cup. I settled in and decided, once and for all, to stop seeing a natural, unavoidable part of existence fundamentally as a fear. It didn’t seem very possible considering I’ve been wishing to resolve this problem for decades now, with little true progress, but I realized the wishing has been part of the problem—too much passive wishing, not enough active deciding.

The way I met with Thanatos was to learn more about him, to go back to the mythology and see his origins and trace the idea people have developed of Thanatos and other ideas of death over time. What caught my attention first was the description of Thanatos; I was surprised to see he was not described simply as death, but as the god of non-violent death who has a touch that is “gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep).” He does have “blood-craving” sisters, the Keres, whose domain is that of slaughter and disease, but Thanatos himself is more like a simple fact of mortality, a rational explanation that all things living do approach an end. All of this information was thought-provoking; I was on the right path. Is there a fear of a certain kind of death? Is nonexistence and the disappearance of this life, where I am recognized by name and physicality, a more comfortable concept when you can truly imagine it as a peaceful transition of mind and soul? Something gentle within nature that simply wants to guide you into another phase of what you are as a sentient being, made of more than observable matter, made also of energy, emotion, and intellect. Made of what we cannot see or understand by tangible means, yet it exists.

Into the next hour I read, pushing on as the familiar senses of fear, anxiety, and other discomfort billowed through mind and body. I don’t want to take this fear with me through every day; I want to learn more about life by accepting every aspect of it, including its ending. I want to form some semblance of peace that is constant, not just one that at times improves a little but then rushes back because some comment or movie or book or visit to the doctor’s got me thinking in a phobic way again. Enough is enough. I want to have peace with every aspect of life in the same way I like to get along with every person I meet. It’s just the healthiest way.

Somewhere near 5AM, somewhere between articles about various cultural beliefs and fears surrounding death, various mythological descriptions of death, and a few websites addressing methods for dealing with fears of dying, the Sleepytime tea, cozy set up in the living room, and glimmering snow visible at the balcony window had all crept into my senses to infuse a sense of calm. It was time to sleep.

Sometimes insomnia might have a purpose, rousing us at a time when we are stuck alone with our thoughts and emotions, with plenty of time to focus on them without the interruption of our waking routines. All in all, I’m happy that fear and a lack of sleep inspired an invitation extended to Thanatos, whom I had imagined as a demonic entity with solid muscles and a cruel face of icy eyes and even icier breath. Not only did Thanatos turn out to be depicted as a calm-faced, bearded man—amazingly enough looking more like my kind father than a demon—but there was a more rational characterization for him: that of a gentle, and one could suppose conscientious or compassionate, death.

Like many others, like 68% of Americans or possibly even 68% of all humans, I still have a level of discomfort with mortality and may not be at complete peace with the idea of shuffling off this mortal coil and gliding into the unknown. I do hope, though, that I have finally learned the key to accepting all aspects of existence as beautiful, integral parts of each other that are nothing to fear. That is yet to be seen for sure, but I think I’m on the right path.

Regardless of my evolution, I’m sure I will still hold an appreciation for Woody Allen quotes.

New Year Renewal, Reflection, and Accessing the Good

New Year’s is thought of as a time of renewal. To renew is to “recommence” or to “come back to or start again” or to “resume (an activity) after an interruption.” What is it that stops at December 31st and resumes on January 1st? There’s really no blank space between minutes, no gap between night and day, no stopping of one moment flowing into all the others. There’s no stopping, also, of the energy of our cells and thoughts, the energy flow of all life: motion and dreams perpetual.

Reflection, though, is the thoughtful interruption of our linear thinking, or even our hyperactive, spastic, circular and boomerang and every-which-way thoughts. We pause the direction and commotion, we create a peaceful valley of ideas, memories, and hopes. We think on something and then ask ourselves what it means or how it can lead to improvement in life. We reflect also to give thanks for what we have, what we have experienced, for whatever it is we should hold sincerest gratitude for.

Reflection, “or to sit in serious thought,” letting thoughts of a day or moment or period of time bounce back from their memories into our current reality so that we may seriously consider the emotion and meaning of them. And forge new ideas and directions in life.

What a lovely way to enter into a new year, by bridging from the old one on the structure of reflection.
What will you reflect on, this first day of the new year, this auspicious time versed in renewal? Interrupt your thoughts for a moment, let your memories, hopes and emotions be the guides. Let a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of wine (Apothic Red, if you prefer a recommendation) settle in with you at the table or on the couch if you like a festive mood.

For an hour my husband and I sat, long-stemmed glasses in hand, the hookah burning the fragrance of fruity tobacco throughout the living room bringing an ambience like a temple ripe with incense, and we looked back in order to look forward. We reflected on goals accomplished, those making progress, those that may need total revisions. We talked about gratitude and ties between people, what keeps us, as loving and energetic beings, going in this life. It was the most formal pause for reflection I’ve had in a long time and it was refreshing.

Recently, I began reading the book Life After Death–“A must read for everyone who will die,” according to Dr. Candace B. Pert, Ph.D.–by Deepak Chopra. I respect Dr. Chopra’s experiences and perspectives and have been reading his books and listening to his lectures for many years; I consider him full of great resources as a spiritual teacher. In Life After Death, Chopra describes how there are different planes of existence that are based on different frequencies of consciousness, explaining the earth to be a dense spiritual world and lokas, referred to in the Western culture as astral planes, as higher spiritual planes. Chopra states, “Every frequency in nature exists simultaneously, and yet we experience only what we see.” He goes on to describe telepathy, clairvoyance, spirits and souls. We exist on an earth where we don’t see or hear the overlapping of existence of the planes, most often, but they are there and quite often coexisting.

Whether you believe there is more to the complex structure our material and immaterial universe and beyond–up to and including senses beyond the basic five, the existence of planes, the quantum field theories speaking of the entire universe as made of vibrating fields that play ” a vast, subatomic symphony,” and spirits and souls–or you don’t, at least be aware that existence is vast and rich, it is more full than we are aware of, and consequently holds many opportunities as long as we are willing to relfect, seek, and act.

Happy 2014, and if it didn’t start out with happy don’t despair; even if it appears that the “bad” is all that is present, it is actually coexisting with all that is “good.” Rest assured, the good is accessible.

hope

*Photograph: http://fccowasso.com/hope-in-god/

“You Can’t Take a Picture of This, It’s Already Gone.” -Photos From a Small Journey

One of my best trips in recent times was a visit to Chicago in 2012. I wanted to remember it, so I picked up my camera with as much reverance as if it were an object of highly spiritual power. And for me, it was; the camera never fails to impress me with its ability to offer us visual artifacts of our personal histories and of the amazing amounts and diversity of moments, places, people, and beauty in existence.

The line from a show I watched once woke itself up in my thoughts as I switched the camera’s power on: You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.

Among my favorite quotes. If anyone reading this was ever into the HBO Six Feet Under series, this is a line stated by the dead brother of a character, speaking it into her ear as she photographs her family before getting into her car and moving across the country. It stopped me in my thought-tracks, at first in the uncomfortable way of feeling a slight psychic chill over our ever-present mortality, but then with an aura of contentment, peace. It struck me as a simple yet strong wording to sum up every concept of every religious and spiritual practice I have studied over the years: everything we are a part of in our reality is temporary, and we move on to further enlightenment when we release the bonds we use to tie ourselves, with the strongest knots possible, to this world.

Love this world and all in it. Be happy for this existence and all in it. Enjoy your life and learn from it. Ultimately though, accept that no matter how much you try and capture all of your moments, all that you love, and keep it with you forever–in thoughts, in words, in photographs–what you capture is not the actual moment. It is not reality. Memories are derived of real moments, but they are no longer reality.

So I accepted that no matter what I captured with the camera lens to keep with me, what I will keep are the abandoned shells of real moments. With this in mind, I collected what was most relevant to me in that time. It might be gone, but it won’t be forgotten, and it won’t go without first having been loved, enjoyed, and having given me some type of wisdom that will carry on with me.

Releasing your hold on this world leads you to enlightenment, and so does loving your time in this world and letting yourself grow while in it.

observation car
Getting there.

city
Looking at the city. Without blinking.

taxi
If you could pause a simple moment.

dreamlike
Dreamlike speed of a world.

walkway
Walkways through the world.

in the cloud
I never just see, hear, and feel love, but taste it on the tongue like a metallic energy. It is the first layer of creation from which all else, including skin and blood and bone and breath, including soil and sea and air, are structured from. Main ingredient. Taste of everything that exists. We stood in front of ourselves, and before we walked away it looked like we stood in some type of dream, and I loved you even more. (musings at a “silver egg”) —In the Cloud at Cloud Gate.

rain
Rain on the way back. It covers the windows and, in a beautiful way, distorts the scenery.

You sometimes travel a reconfigured world.