Monday, March 30, 2009

Day Thirty Four - Meditation

Words are not sufficient to describe the experience that meditation brings forth. Today I saw the chattering mind at work and felt separate from it. I looked down upon it. I observed it from afar. All those thought that say I am not worthy, they are of the chattering mind. All those thought and feelings of embarrassment and annoyance, they too are off the chattering mind. Under normal circumstances I identify with this mind, I get carried away by it, I think I am it, and what it thinks and feels I think and feel. Sometimes, however, I am aware of this. And sometimes, during meditation I actively separate from this. In so doing I am able to observe it at work. I am able to see that its thoughts and feelings are not my own. And maybe, just maybe I can reprogram it to think in a new way. For the Chattering Mind thinks the way it thinks because it has learned to think that way. It never had a teacher who took it under its wing and said do this and don't do that. It learned by trial and error and was shaped by the environment it was subjected to. Now that I see this, I can also see that what was learned can be unlearned and bad habits can be replaced by good. This thing that once imprisoned and tormented me is now like a child, full possibility and liberation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Day Twenty Nine - Entitlement and Caring About the Thoughts of Others

When a person focuses on the thoughts of others he is probably not focusing on his own thoughts. Furthermore, in order for one to be entitled to something, one must be aware of what one wants, and therefore focused on one's own thoughts. In order to be happy, one must have a proper sense of entitlement. However, an over sized sense of entitlement can turn into selfishness just as an undersized sense of entitlement can turn into unnecessary humiliation and paranoia. This system seems to work in favor of the over sized sense of entitlement, because a person with an undersized sense of entitlement will think that any attempt to enlarge his sense of entitlement will be selfish (thus knocking his sense of entitlement back down to size - for in his mind, he is not entitled to be selfish because being selfish is wrong). Conversely (I suppose) a person with an over sized sense of entitlement will think that any attempt to decrease his sense of entitlement would be unfair (for in his mind he is entitled to feel entitled).

Taking myself as an example, I have problems in my life and they all relate to a low sense of entitlement. Because of this, I tend to make decisions based on what I think others will approve of. Because I tend not to consider my own wishes (or am not even aware of my own wishes) I end up in situations where I don't want to be and become resentful, depressed etc. Up until recently I have been looking at the problem of "why am I not happy?" from the perspective of "I am not happy because I am not doing what I want to do". If this were true then the simple solution would be to start doing what I want to do. However, the problem is that I do not feel entitled to do what I want to do. So, even if I were able to do what I wanted to do I would feel guilty doing it and therefore what I wanted to do would not be a pleasurable experience.

Therefore, the solution seemingly is to start feeling entitled to do what I want to do. I am not sure how to do this but I think the answer might involve meditation and prayer. If only I had an instructor.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Day Twenty Eight - Archetypal Characters in my Dreams

There are people I have known in my life that have become archetypal representatives to me. I know this because they repeatedly appear in my dreams and always make me feel a certain way when they do. There is a family that makes me feel unsuccessful and unworthy of success from a home life perspective. There is a married couple that makes me feel overly pampered by my upbringing and therefore disqualified from having valid opinions. There is a former employer who recently appeared in a dream that made me feel unworthy and unsuccessful from a career perspective. Last night I had a dream in which members of the family and the former employer sat around a table. I was also sitting at this table. Other than that I do not have a strong recollection of what actually happened at this meeting although there is a glimpse of a scene from a Superman movie where he (or me as he I'm not sure) carries a woman from the sky and sets her down gently on the ground. The implication seems to be that I derive my sense of self worth by my perceptions of what others think of me. (I'm not sure about the Superman part). But this observation is nothing new. I've known this for a long time but have not been able to or seen a way to move past it.

I had expected the removal of crutches to provide solutions to the problems but really it has only allowed me to see them and to admit to them. In order to take something home from my Lenten Hero's journey, I must face the ordeal. The ordeal is not removing that which insulates me from my problems, but actually facing them. The removal of the insulation allows me to cross the threshold from the ordinary world into the special world where ultimately the ordeal can be faced. So the question remains, must I actively seek this ordeal or will it come to me when I am ready and the time is right?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Day Twenty Seven - Past Half Way (Definitely)

Either way you look at it, I have made it past the midway point of Lent. This of course brings me back to the "Milestones" entry I made back on March 3. In that entry I talked about how keeping track of milestones in Lent (perhaps) misses the point in that (1) it turns Lent into an endurance contest rather than a chance for transformation through self reflection, and (2) it takes the mind out of the present by focusing on the end point. So, here I am marking another milestone. Two things come to mind. First, I am aware that I have a tendency to focus on milestones so I am not doing this un-mindfully. As such, I should not become too concerned that I am doing this, for to do so would be counter productive one step further. I am doing it, I am aware of it, that's fine, and that's it. Second, am I concerned about milestones because of what I just spoke about, or am I concerned that someone reading this blog might see this entry and the entry on March 3, and acknowledge the conflict? There's no direct and immediate way to tell what my subconscious motives are. I am pretty sure whatever the motivation is, the correct response is not to dwell on that and to just continue forward. For all of that is a distraction (and a paranoid distraction at that) from what is really important. What is really important (I think) is that right now I am sober and fully awake to this present moment. What has happened in the past, what will happen in the future and thinking about what I am thinking about is not as important as what is happening, what I am doing and what I think RIGHT NOW. Now, there is one additional step to take. I had expected the removal of crutches to provide solutions to the problems but really it has only allowed me to see them and to admit to them. I suppose solving a problem requires an additional step. That additional step requires action. I don't know what that action is or will be. I am pretty sure I am awake and see things for what they are. The next step is to act.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Day Twenty Three - The Magic of Rigid Dogma

Believers in rigid dogma ("Rigid Constructionists") have to believe that they are right in order for their form of worship to be effective for them. In order to be right, however, it is necessary for all those who believe otherwise to be wrong. To people who are less rigid in the way they view religion this appears to employ a sort of doublethink whereby the believer believes their rigid dogma to be true even in the face of obvious contradictions. I have recently had a dialogue with an old friend of mine who has made the transition from Roman Catholicism to Evangelicalism. When I tried to discuss an interview I listened to with Bart Ehrman (a Biblical scholar, ex-evangelical and current agnostic) who discusses obvious contradictions between the four synoptic gospels of the Bible, he (my friend) responded that he was "disappointed" in me. He said this in reaction to my mentioning that I had listened to this interview. As far as I could tell, he did not listen to the interview but even if he did I am sure that he would have no problem rejecting its content no matter how cogent the arguments were. I found this response interesting and it got me to thinking. I have no doubt there is a power to Rigid Constructionism. I believe that this power can allow the Rigid Constructionist to experience an authentic religious experience. I do not believe, however, that it is the only way to have an authentic religious experience. But the rub is this, (I think) the only way for this mode of thought to be effective is that the believer must also believe that everyone else is wrong. Now, I imagine an advantage to being a rigid constructionist is that it can make life simpler and manageable. The disadvantage is that a Rigid Constructionist must be at odds with most other people. On the other hand, the advantage of being a Non-Rigid Constructionist is that the he need not jump through disingenuous hoops to convince himself that what he believes is actually true. This is not to say that all Rigid Constructionists jump through disingenuous hoops. I have no doubt that many believe what they believe and do not question, but I suspect there is a segment of their population that harbors lingering doubts. Of course it is also easier for a Non-Rigid Constructionist to accommodate those with differing views. The disadvantage is that life has the potential to become more complex and bewildering. Perhaps the Rigid Constructionist adopts his viewpoint as a means of controlling the world around him. For, to categorize and label something (even if you adopt the labels of another) is a form of control. Just a thought.

Link to Bart Ehrmans's Interview :

Day Twenty - Half Way (Sort of)

If Lent were 40 days long today would be the halfway point. Lent, however, is not 40 days but is 47 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Here are some passages from the Catholic Encyclopedia on the subject:


Duration of the fast
In determining this period of forty days the example of Moses, Elias, and Christ must have exercised a predominant influence, but it is also possible that the fact was borne in mind that Christ lay forty hours in the tomb. On the other hand just as Pentecost (the fifty days) was a period during which Christians were joyous and prayed standing, though they were not always engaged in such prayer, so the Quadragesima (the forty days) was originally a period marked by fasting, but not necessarily a period in which the faithful fasted every day. Still, this principle was differently understood in different localities, and great divergences of practice were the result. In Rome, in the fifth century, Lent lasted six weeks, but according to the historian Socrates there were only three weeks of actual fasting, exclusive even then of the Saturday and Sunday and if Duchesne's view may be trusted, these weeks were not continuous, but were the first, the fourth, and sixth of the series, being connected with the ordinations (Christian Worship, 243). Possibly, however, these three weeks had to do with the "scrutinies" preparatory to Baptism, for by some authorities (e.g., A.J. Maclean in his "Recent Discoveries") the duty of fasting along with the candidate for baptism is put forward as the chief influence at work in the development of the forty days. But throughout the Orient generally, with some few exceptions, the same arrangement prevailed as St. Athanasius's "Festal Letters" show us to have obtained in Alexandria, namely, the six weeks of Lent were only preparatory to a fast of exceptional severity maintained during Holy Week. This is enjoined by the "Apostolic Constitutions" (V.13), and presupposed by St. Chrysostom (Hom. xxx in Gen., I). But the number forty, having once established itself, produced other modifications. It seemed to many necessary that there should not only be fasting during the forty days but forty actual fasting days. Thus we find Ætheria in her "Peregrinatio" speaking of a Lent of eight weeks in all observed at Jerusalem, which, remembering that both the Saturday and Sunday of ordinary weeks were exempt, gives five times eight, i.e., forty days for fasting. On the other hand, in many localities people were content to observe no more than a six weeks' period, sometimes, as at Milan, fasting only five days in the week after the oriental fashion (Ambrose, "De Elia et Jejunio", 10). In the time of Gregory the Great (590-604) there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each, making thirty-six fast days in all, which St. Gregory, who is followed therein by many medieval writers, describes as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five. At a later date the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent upon our present Ash Wednesday, but the Church of Milan, even to this day, adheres to the more primitive arrangement, which still betrays itself in the Roman Missal when the priest in the Secret of the Mass on the first Sunday of Lent speaks of "sacrificium quadragesimalis initii", the sacrifice of the opening of Lent...

From what has been said it will be clear that in the early Middle Ages Lent throughout the greater part of the Western Church consisted of forty weekdays, which were all fast days, and six Sundays.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Day Nineteen - The Vanity of Endurance

If one looks at Lent as an endurance test I think it then becomes a vanity. That is, Lent becomes something to merely strengthen the ego. Since the ego is doomed to death, the benefits of such an endeavor are likewise doomed to death and if the ego is all there is, then this is the best we can do. But if there is something more and that something survives the ego then surely Lent is about that. In this way Lent is about bringing forth fundamental change by chipping away at the ego so that the soul - the true self can emerge. Self sacrifice has its place and is not a bad thing in itself, but when it is used to build up the ego - when the self says I am good because I have done this and I haven't done that or I feel guilty because I have done this or neglected to do that, this is a vanity and serves to add another layer of ego over an already encrusted soul. It makes sense then, that self sacrifice must be done first with no thought to the outcome. It should be done for its own sake without thinking about the past or future where the ego tends to exist. This then starves the ego and allows the soul to emerge. This may explain why when Lent is viewed as an endurance test it becomes easier to lose heart and give up on the discipline, because it lacks soul (because it is ego). However, when self sacrifice is done for its own sake without a thought for the ego this perhaps gets to the heart of Lent.

In writing this it occurs to me that I am preaching. The next thought is by what authority do I preach. The answer of course is by no authority. This is merely a thought that occurred to me. It seems right to me but in truth what seems right to me might not seem right to everyone or possibly anyone. The thought now is that this second paragraph seems to be concerned with the thoughts of others and the hope that I might not be misconstrued or generally look bad. This of course is just the same kind of vanity discussed in the first paragraph. It is a vanity that I am particularly (I think) prone to. All the more reason for me to practice this discipline I suppose.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day Sixteen - Hope

I've been buying lottery tickets lately, no more than $2 per week. The idea struck me that this is an exercise in hope. It is not that I believe that I will win the lottery. But for some reason having the lottery ticket in my wallet allows me to relax a bit. I feel like there is an iron in the fire somehow and that makes a difference. This I think is the power of hope. It is not a knowledge of iminent pay off. Nor is it a desire for the possibility of payoff. It is the possession of the possibility. I tried to explain this to someone once but I did not feel like I was getting the idea across. He kept rephrasing my idea as "buying a lottery ticket with the idea that I was going to win." That's not it. That's not it. There is a peacefulness that is achieved with hope and it does not have much to do with the end result. Faith, hope and love.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Day Fourteen - The Allure of the Altered Mental State

I remember once a long time ago a good friend asked me what was the allure of an altered mental state ("AMS"). I answered the allure was "that it brings you closer to death." Now, this answer sprang forth without much thought but I had the sense even at the time I said it that there was truth to it. I never took the statement to mean that I wanted to die but rather that a glorious mystery lay beyond the veil of death and that experiencing that mystery (or even partially experiencing it) would be wonderful. As such, achieving an AMS was an attempt on some level to approach that veil and peak underneath. Recently however, I thought about this statement in the context of the "Hero's Journey" and have come to see it in a new light. There is a stage in the hero's journey when he undergoes a symbolic death whereby he is transformed from his original flawed self and reborn as a more perfect self. It occurred to me that perhaps seeking an AMS is an attempt on some level to undergo (symbolically or otherwise) the death of the self in order that the self might be transformed and reborn into something better. Often times we seek the AMS when things are not right in the world. And perhaps the AMS has a role to play in transforming the self. But perhaps the desire for an AMS itself is a message from the deeper self that change is desired and change is needed.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Day Twelve - Reaching Out

Today is the second Sunday in Lent.  Although I have made it through two weekends (almost) remaining sober I feel somehow that I have lost my initial fervor for the Lenten process.  It's not that I want to drink because strangely that part has not been a struggle.  I thought not drinking would bring me more benefit than it has.  True, I am not depressed and my mood is more stable.  But I was hoping for some kind of epiphany which has not yet happened.  I feel tired all the time but more than that, I'm not happy.  I'm not sad either, but I am not happy.  So I must look back at the act of not drinking (interesting) and perhaps see that it is opening a door that drinking had shut.  But further action is required.  It is not enough simply to stop drinking.  I must now commit to action.  I must now walk through the door.  

Two things come to mind.  First, I am not happy with myself (again, which is not to say that I am sad with myself).  The things that make me happy with myself are things that make me feel like I have accomplished something.  They are also things that make me feel like I am reaching out to others (something that I have found increasingly more difficult as I've gotten older).  In my mind when I feel good about myself, then I feel entitled to reach out to others because then I have something of value to offer them.  By contrast, when I feel bad about myself I tend to retreat within.  This creates a negative feedback loop whereby the more I retreat within the less opportunity I have to accomplish and reach out.  The chain must be broken and it makes sense that not drinking is a logical first step because drinking has two effects that reinforce withdrawl.  First it has the short term effect of making the self comfortable with the present situation.  Because the present situation is not pleasant when not drinking I then crave the feeling that drinking provides and so I go back to it.  Second, drinking has the longer term effect of causing depression, supressing drive and creativity and negatively impacting health.  All of these effects reinforce the feeling of negative self worth.

So then, ceasing drinking has to be the first step.  I have done that and will continue to do that at least for the rest of Lent.  But now I must look for ways to reach out.  I must reach out both to myself through meditation, prayer, writing etc. and making full use of any time to myself I might have.  But I must do this in a way that is non judgemental or punishing.  I have spent a lifetime punishing myself for God knows what.  I need to let go of that tendency.  I must learn to like myself again.  And I must reach out to others.  I recognize that my impulse is to resist reaching out to others and so I must recognize this impulse when it happens for what it is and then take action to work past it.


Adendum - A thoght occurred to me that the reason I began my drinking career in the first place was to reach out to others. In my younger days I suffered from tremendous social anxiety. As a result I was withdrawn and gave people a negative vibe (I suppose) which at worst invited ridicule and bullying and at best made people feel uneasy or allowed them to overlook me. I was always able to entertain those that I felt close to but meeting new people and getting them to like me was always a challenge. Alcohol, however, freed me up socially and allowed me to be comfortable around people I did not know. This worked brilliantly for a while. However, since that time the experience has degraded. I think there are a lot of nuances to consider here, but one take home message is that I need to learn to reach out in the absence of alcohol. Until I can learn to do that the struggle will continue.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Day Ten - The Lenten Journey

In "The Writer's Journey," the author Christopher Vogler maps out 12 distinct stages that appear in most stories. These stages are (1) the ordinary world, (2) the call to adventure, (3) the refusal of the call, (4) meeting with the mentor, (5) crossing the first threshold, (6) tests, allies, enemies, (7) approach to the inmost cave, (8) the ordeal, (9) reward, (10) the road back, (11) the resurrection, and (12) Return with the Elixir. These stages are based upon the philosophy of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Campbell and Jung spoke mostly about ancient myths and the common themes that run through them. Vogler took these themes and applied them to modern story writing particularly in the realm of film. These stages are archetypes - meaning that they tap into something deep within the common subconscious shared by all humans. Stories that are powerful, that move large groups of people, that are popular or commercially successful - have these qualities because they resonate with people on many levels. Likewise, they resonate with people because they touch upon the "truths" of human experience. "Human Experience" is one of those things that falls into the category of "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." It is gnosis not episteme. That is, it is an experiential type of knowledge that cannot be readily explained to someone else who has not had a similar experience. "I can only show you the door. You must walk through it," said Morpheus to Neo in the Matrix. In the following blog entries I would like to explore these stages in greater detail and relate them to Lent because I see parallels between the two phenomena. Specifically, the person who takes Lent seriously is embarking on a hero's journey of his own. If these stages tap into truth on the story level, it must also be true that they tap into truth on the life level as well. Why else would they resonate?



I tried working through the various stages in relation to Lent, but I found that there was not necessarily enough material for each stage. I have decided to attach what I have written to this post and perhaps I will add more information if a thought occurs to me.

I. The Ordinary World

The hero's journey begins in "the ordinary world" which is the world in which the hero feels accustomed to. The journey begins when the hero feels the pull from "ordinary world" to enter the "special world". This pull is sparked by something which is not right and requires fixing about the ordinary world.

In Lent we leave the ordinary world of pre-Lent and enter into the special world of Lent. Of course, the only reason that Lent becomes a special world is because we choose to make it so. As such it is our own choice to walk through the door by taking on certain disciplines.

II. The Call to Adventure

The call to adventure is different for differnt people. For my part, the call to Lenten adventure comes from within me. It is a call telling me that my life is out of balance and I must take action to bring it back into balance. This is not an easy thing to do. It require an honest self inventory of that which has taken life out of balance and then taking action to address the situation.

III. The Refusal of the Call

In this stage of the hero's journey, the hero initially rejects the idea of embarking on the adventure. I find it difficult to relate this stage to a singular Lent, however, if I look at Lent over a lifetime I can see that in my younger years I did not treat Lent seriously. However, as I got older I realized that Lent was more than just another religious experience to make a person feel bad about themselves but rather is an opportunity to embark on a spiritual adventure.

IV. Meeting the Mentor

There are two mentors in Lent, the self and God and perhaps the two are one.

V. Crossing the First Threshold

I suppose the first weekend without alcohol was the first threshold to cross.

VI. Tests, Allies, Enemies

These are the tests that prepare the hero for the ordeal to come.

VII. Approach to the Inmost Cave

This is the preparation phase before the ordeal.

VIII. The Ordeal

This is the first major challenge that the hero has prepared for and the begining of the hero's fundemental transformation.

IX. The Reward

After defeating the oposing force of the ordeal the hero reaps the reward.

X. The Road Home

After the ordeal has been surmounted and the reward has been taken the hero often experiences a lull where his new found wisdom is tested. It is one thing to have an epiphany but quite another to internalize the lessons learned and apply them to a new challenges. Here the hero is tested once more and often the test is more dire than the ordeal. In this final and supreme test the old hero dies and the new hero is born.

XI. Resurrection

The hero is then reborn fundementally changed. He has internalized the lessons and transformative power of the journey.

XII. Return with the Elixir

The hero then returns to his starting point bringing back the lessons learned which allow him to set right that which was wrong in the ordinary world.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Day Seven - Milestones

Day Seven - one week down. This makes me think about milestones in relation to Lent. When I say "one week down" this suggests that Lent is an endurance test and that if only I can get to the end I can return to my old ways. But the liberating part of Lent is that it provides an opportunity to release myself from my old ways and I wanted to be released from them for a reason. So perhaps thinking of Lent in terms of milestones is counter productive. Or maybe it is a question of emphasis. Perhaps some milestone marking can be fun but making Lent entirely about milestones misses the point. That point being, Lent is substantially about self reflection and self reflection requires the mind to be in the moment. When I focus on milestones I necessarily take myself out of the moment and focus on that future moment when I will be released. I suppose there is a place for that but really the only time that exists is the present and I should at least be mindful that the present takes precedence over milestones during Lent.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Day Six - You Can Lead a Horse to Water...

I'm feeling good about making it through the first weekend. Actually I really have not been tempted in anyway so far and enjoying the sobriety. I had some gastrointestinal issues last week that seemed to have almost completely resolved so I believe I am over the first hump of my body adjusting to the new routine.

I've been thinking about the following statement, "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." Morpheus in the Matrix gives Neo a similar instruction, "I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it" (or something like that). I've been thinking about this idea within the context of a dialogue I've been having with an acquaintance of mine who made the transition from Roman Catholicism to Evangelicalism. I have discussed with him some of the problems I've been having in my life and he has suggested that I talk to a "Christian" (i.e., evangelical) counselor. I expressed some misgivings and he made the statement "you can lead a horse to water..." Now, the way I initially interpreted this statement is that the horse is too ignorant to drink the water. But after thinking about this for a while I have come to a new interpretation. It's not that the horse is ignorant necessarily but that the horse does not know if the water is in fact water. Perhaps it is poison. I am beginning to see that all of the struggles in my life tend to boil down to one common denominator - for whatever reason I subordinate my own wants and needs to those of others. There is a sense that I am not entitled to enjoy the fruits of life that everyone else is. One result of this mindset is that I have a strong motivation to look good in the eyes of others and to avoid looking bad. When I perceive that I look bad it has historically hit me hard. So now back to the horse at the water. I want to make sure that I really want to drink the water because I know it is good for me and not to drink it because I think that the person who has led me to the water would want that.