Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Our life is frittered away by detail . . . Simplify, simplify.
For generation after generation and in culture after culture, the same truth has been taught by spiritual sages — that outer wealth is not enough to satisfy the soul. With the materialism of our world getting so out of balance in recent decades, it is not surprising that a kind, loving, and conscious universe would step in to bring that materialistic obsession into balance – and voila, your budget gets slashed. Gee, thanks, universe.
Nobody likes having to go through tough economic times, but as dear Mary Poppins said, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. In the case of economic setbacks, this sugar consists of the beneficial potentials and important lessons that can come from loosening our attachments to temporal treasures that won’t last. To paraphrase Jesus with a touch of modernization:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust and good stocks gone bad consume and where thieves and incompetent CEOs and hedge fund managers break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust nor layoffs nor bear markets consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Whether through natural disasters or man-made aggressions, wars, thievery, or incompetence, people in all times and cultures have been given opportunities to remember that their worldly treasures are temporary and subject to decay and loss. If such losses help open our awareness to more sublime treasures in life, then those tragedies become great personal triumphs. Many people have risen from the ashes of challenging experiences into new realms of success and happiness after approaching their challenges with appreciation, enthusiasm, and a positive spirit.
Whether we shift our attachments, greed, and desires voluntarily or involuntarily, certain principles can help us to create a more peaceful and happy life. These principles are often followed by monastics – the kings and queens of simplicity who, for thousands of years, have sought a deeper connection to the universe by shaving their materialistic lives down to the minimum.
Monastics treasure their aloneness and sparse surroundings just as non-monastics treasure their social lives and belongings. They have chosen to step out of the usual fray of frenetic worldly life and into a space of deep inner focus. The word monastic comes from the Greek “monos,” which means alone.
In almost every time and culture, you’ll find spiritual seekers whose quests have led them to retreat into simpler lives, whittling their belongings and needs down to the bare essentials. Some monastics, such as Saint Francis and Teresa Lisieux, were penniless and barely known during their time, but have since achieved spiritual fame as people around the world remember them and visit their shrines for inspiration.
I have devoted my energies to the study of the scriptures, observing monastic discipline, and singing the daily services in church; study, teaching, and writing have always been my delight.
— Venerable Bede
Aside from moving to a cave or monastery, how can people living in a commercialized society find their way back to simpler roots? How can those who always think they need more realize that they can be happier with less?
One way to shift a materialistic focus back into balance is through losing some of the outer wealth that we may have thought was so important. Economic losses can be beneficial to our personal evolution if we are able to respond in a positive way. We may not always be able to choose what happens, but we can choose how we respond.
When approached with positive thoughts and actions, the same economic downturns that create so much unhappiness can also end up being just the medicine to spur us into new fields of spiritual awareness, happiness, and freedom.
Some people do understand the value of simplifying their lives and may choose to go outside their comfort zone by camping, climbing mountains, or visiting third-world countries. Even going to a spa can be an experience of simplifying their lives for some folks, depending on the person and the spa.
At the Golden Door Spa where I’ve offered many lectures on topics such as “The Inner Makeover,” guests spend many thousands of dollars per week to come and live simple lives while working very hard. Their day begins with a silent hike up the hill at 5:30 am followed by a full schedule of exercises, courses, massages, facials, meditations, yoga, and no alcohol aside from one optional glass of wine on their final evening. This is not a spa where you see sunbathers sitting around the pool playing scrabble and drinking martinis. Aside from the lack of prayers and devotionals, this spa’s schedule is similar to the monastic life I used to live in an Indian-based ashram.
The guests come to this challenging spa because they know it’s good for them. They leave their daily lives aside to have a weeklong taste of a sparse but comfortable life, with simple rooms and healthy meals. The guests spend most of their time in robes or simple workout clothes, and usually don’t wear any makeup. They don’t have to let anyone else know “who they are” in their worldly life, and can simply be themselves.
Even a week of this life of inner repose, yoga, meditation, exercises, and courses (with pampering) allows guests to replenish and nourish their personal, physical, mental, and emotional strength and to keep their lives in proper perspective. The atmosphere is one of inward focus and personal growth, with many elements in common with a monastic life.
Once I was having dinner with some of the Golden Door guests when our dessert was served – it was a small raspberry turnover. The elderly woman seated across from me wasn’t served a turnover because she had requested meals with no wheat. Instead she received a small dish of fruit. The woman became somewhat upset and anxiously told the wait staff that this wasn’t really the kind of wheat she meant. Of course, this woman knew that she could ask for ten turnovers and probably get them, but that would defeat the purpose of the week, both in discipline and in diet.
I’ll never forget watching this woman who was probably a multi-millionaire joyfully receiving her little turnover and then cutting off just a small corner to eat before wrapping the rest up to save for the next day. “I get hungry in the mornings,” she explained, sounding like a little waif who had to beg for morsels of food. I could see a glimmer of satisfaction as she tucked the remaining part of the turnover into her pocket.
Whether voluntary or involuntary, economic downturns are great times to rein in the greed machines of endless accumulation and take back our peaceful, contented lives. You don’t have to have more stuff to be happy. You don’t have to go to movies or play video games to be entertained. You don’t have to buy more make-up or expensive clothes to be beautiful. You don’t have to have ten or even one hundred times what you need (I’m thinking shoes, ladies!) You don’t have to purchase obligatory expensive gifts to show how much you care. Contrary to what advertising agencies want you to think, surrounding yourself with more stuff is not the answer.
Some folks have a difficult time sitting quietly for even half an hour, but monastics actually choose to live this kind of simple, peaceful, and inwardly focused life all the time. Still, integrating monastic principles into your life doesn’t require a radical shift. Jesus instructed his followers to “Be in the world but not of it.” You can add touches of monastic principles – times of quiet repose, contemplation, prayer, and contentment – and give yourself the inner resources to make the most of what you have, whether your finances are in an upswing or a downturn. You can enjoy all the abundance and challenges of your life, while keeping your foundation rooted in your eternal soul nature.
I spent ten years living a monastic life in an Indian-based ashram, and can assure you that most of us were definitely and demonstrably works in progress when it came to expressing the qualities of acceptance, harmony, respect, and brotherly love that are pillars of monastic life.
My spiritual teachers were vibrant, exciting, and fairly well known guides – they’re the spiritual gurus described in the “Pray” section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray Love, and Elizabeth’s narrative shows how liberal the ashram’s open door policy was for many years.
The excitement and energy of this path attracted hundreds of thousands of unlikely monastics – lawyers, celebrities, customer service representatives, doctors, actors, housekeepers, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons of every possible occupation and walk of life – who would come to spend a day, week, month, or even years waking up super-early every morning for a full and challenging day of meditation, chanting, service, scriptural study, and focus on the divine inner Self. The goal of coming for an ashram retreat was to develop a love of these disciplines and principles that would continue to nourish people when they returned to their worldly lives.
When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself.
— Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief
Using monastic principles to bring ourselves into harmony with the shifting circumstances of life can allow us to experience economic downturns without too much suffering. Principles such as simplicity, service, and contentment can turn difficulties into avenues of gratefulness, growth, and remembrance of what is more important in our lives.
Here are some monastic principles that can help you to not only survive but thrive during tough economic times, regardless of your religious or spiritual path or lack thereof:
The Principle of Contentment
This monastic principle says: If you have less, enjoy and appreciate whatever you have. If you have more, enjoy and appreciate whatever you have (and be generous with others). In other words, even while working to achieve your goals and dreams, be content with whatever you have right now.
An adjunct to this principle of contentment is the principle of simplicity – finding contentment in the peacefulness of simple enjoyments, such as a simple walk through nature, deep conversations with friends and family, and taking time to focus on improving ourselves from the inside out through meditation, prayer, self-examination, contemplation and other methods.
I’ve been from one side of the financial spectrum to the other – from a simple ashram lifestyle where purchasing a new toothbrush would be an occasion of great joy to a successful, six-figure Hollywood career. Then, after working too many hours to keep that successful career going, I became physically ill and spiritually world-weary, and moved to Cardiff by the Sea for a time of healing and creative service, once again living a simple life without much money.
Thanks to the principles I learned in the ashram, I was still able to experience a certain contentment during this decade-plus of low-income living. I decided to choose happiness and align my thoughts and feelings to be in harmony with what the universe was giving me. I chose to be content with whatever I had and whatever I didn’t have, and focused on giving good spiritual artistic works to the world.
One of the charitable projects I offered during these years was to script and edit a documentary about an amazing woman who went by the name Peace Pilgrim and walked back and forth across the country for nearly three decades as a penniless wanderer in the name of peace. She wouldn’t accept money or car rides, and would eat only when someone offered a meal, and sleep when someone offered a bed, or at a truck stop or a field by the side of the road.
During her walks, Peace Pilgrim touched people personally and through the media. She spoke about the blessings she experienced from living at need level, without having to spend so much time and energy taking care of a lot of possessions. Peace understood that her need level as a monastic-style pilgrim was not nearly enough for most people, and she urged people to find their own need level.
In the newsreel footage I used in this documentary, Peace showed off her worn and tape-covered shoes like a trophy – she claimed to only need a new pair every 1500 miles – and the look on her face as she turned her battered shoes toward the news camera was filled with light and exuberance. As Peace Pilgrim would often explain with her lilting voice, what she wanted and what she needed were exactly the same.
Without going to such extremes, you can still choose to be content with whatever does or doesn’t come into your life. Then, even in times of economic downturn, you’ll be able to make whatever adjustments are needed with a smile.
The Principle of Priorities
Contemplating your deeper goals is always a good use of time and energy. You may have all the “law of attraction” and “success” skills you need, but if you don’t know which direction you should be going, you’ll likely end up somewhere else. As Yogi Berra wisely said, “You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.”
Arranging your priorities is very helpful in dealing with tough economic times. If you haven’t done enough soul-searching to find what is most important to you, then the task of budgeting when resources are less can be especially painful and confusing. However, when you’ve set your priorities, which also include your personal preferences, then you can approach the task of budgeting with greater harmony and ease. One way to arrange your priorities is to make a list of all the expenses in your life and give each one a number from one to three (or one to five if you want to allow for greater nuances). The divisions go like this:
- Assign a number one to the things that are most important to you –perhaps taking care of family and pets, living alone without a roommate, having personal transportation, or having cable TV and computer access. Items in this category are things you definitely do not want to eliminate from your life if at all possible.
- Assign a number two to things you really could do without right now. I had to create this kind of list when I left my high-income job. The first thing to go was the cell phone. I certainly didn’t need to be accessible by phone at all times in my simple new lifestyle. For me, clothes were also on this part of the list, since my somewhat reclusive lifestyle didn’t require me to be especially fashionable.
Some people spend massive amounts of money to buy cars or clothes just to impress other people. Even if your job requires a good wardrobe, there may be some things that are not necessary to make a professional impression. Again, this is your list, not mine. If clothes are on your number one list, then you can find other areas of expenditure that are not as important for you to have.
- Everything else goes into category three: things you keep if you can. If finances go down to the point that you have to let some of these optional expenditures go, well then you’ll just have to do that.
Once you’ve arranged your priorities in this way, even if you miss certain enjoyments, the great thing is that you’ve hopefully managed to fund all the items on list number one and will still have those things that are most important to you.
The Principle of Sharing
In monasteries, members share in the work and in the benefits. Many monks even call one another brothers or sisters, and there is a sense of a larger family that for some extends to include all of humanity, as well as animals and other forms of life. It’s a big family. But it doesn’t have to be a dysfunctional family. Once we recognize the value of every human being, it is easier for us to share what we have. If you have more than you need and your brother or sister is in need, then monastic principles would guide you to share what you have with them whenever and however possible.
When I lived and worked in Hollywood, one of my greatest joys was to help others with some of my extra income. I loved to bring poor folks into a grocery store and tell them to fill the basket with whatever they wanted to bring home to their families. When a receptionist at work had to spend a month in another city to take care of her ailing son, I was able to phone the motel and ask them to put her stay on my tab. Not only did these acts give me great happiness and nourishment of spirit when I offered them, but they also brought comfort and contentment when I ended up going through my own times of need a few years later. My heart would lighten while remembering that when I had enough, I had given generously to others. I sensed that when the time came for me to leave this world, my acts of sharing and helping would be the great jewels that would give peace and perhaps even go with me, in some subtle karmic sense, into whatever lies beyond this life in this world.
Psychological studies have shown that sharing is beneficial to the giver, the receiver, and anyone who witnesses the generosity. During times of societal economic crisis, this attitude of sharing and helping others is a key to keeping a temporary downturn from becoming a long-term disaster. As Pope Benedict XVI said during his 2008 Christmas message in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis: "If people look only to their own interests, our world will certainly fall apart."
Without this kind of sharing during an economic crisis, qualities of greed, fear, hoarding, and divisiveness could take hold. Then we’d see families on the street with nowhere to go while homes across the nation sit empty, or bought up for pennies on the dollar by fat cats who just want to guzzle more and more into their bottomless pits of greed, eventually creating almost a third-world situation for our country and the world.
Each man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor. Then all goes well — he has changed his market-cart into a chariot of the sun.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Principle of Present Moment Focus
One purpose of monastic life is to turn one’s attention inward instead of focusing on the outer world. This present moment focus can translate as the practice of mindfulness in whatever you are doing, whether cooking, gardening, or arranging various affairs.
When you’re focused in the present moment, your mind becomes calm, like a lake without ripples. When the surface of a lake is calm, you can more easily see into its depths – so it is with the mind.
Your mind is a great tool; in fact some sages describe the mind as a portion of the infinite universal consciousness that has created everything. The mind can be either your friend or your enemy, and is often a bit of both. Focusing on the present moment allows your mind to be friendly, clear, and patient. After all, when you’re in the present moment, what could you be anxious for but another present moment?
In terms of economic challenges, when you’re focused in the present moment, you’re enjoying what you have today rather than spending today worrying about what may or may not happen tomorrow. You’re able to approach the present moment with focus and inner strength and take care of whatever preparations are appropriate to make for the future, but your attention is on the eternal now as it manifests in each moment.
One way to practice present moment focus is to look at yourself at any time and ask, “Am I okay right now?” Unless you’re in extreme physical or emotional pain, the answer is hopefully, “Yes.”
Through this practice, you come to see that in spite of some challenges, setbacks, and fears about the future, you are fine in each present moment. Then you can change your practice to declaring rather than asking, by stating, “I am fine right now.” This affirmation helps to not only define but also welcome your present state as being fine all the time.
The Principle of Forbearance
The good news about learning to suffer cheerfully is that this cheerfulness helps to alleviate the devastating experience of suffering and allows you to make better decisions and take more productive actions to alleviate the causes of suffering.
Once I was participating in a vespers service at a Benedictine monastery, when one of the older monks tripped and fell flat on his face, with blood starting to ooze out onto the floor. Without even the slightest ripple in their peaceful demeanor or cheerful faces, several of the monks brought in a wheelchair and gently wheeled the monk out for medical attention, while another monk wiped the blood off of the floor. This was a great demonstration of the blessings that can come from monastic life – an ability to stay peaceful even while attending to unexpected disasters.
Even non-monastics can find the inner resources to respond to challenges with a peaceful demeanor. If you’ve watched television news reports from scenes of extreme disasters where families have lost their homes and everything in them due to floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and all those other, ahem. . . “gifts from the universe,” then you’ve probably seen interviews with the victims of these tragedies.
Every now and then we see people who do not act like victims, even though they’ve lost so much. Instead they choose to suffer their losses cheerfully and to find greater appreciation for their loved ones who still remain. Some also use their moment in front of the microphone to express faith in the divine, or to share how this traumatic experience has shaken them into remembering what is most important in their lives.
Even though these folks are still in painful situations where they’ve lost many valuable things, they are not suffering as deeply as they would be if they were feeling resistant, angry, and victimized without using personal and spiritual tools to reframe a dark experience in an authentic and positive light.
I wish I could show you,
when you are lonely or in darkness,
the astonishing Light of your own Being.
Having forbearance doesn’t meant that you don’t experience sadness or upset over losses, especially when you’ve lost not just a chunk of your savings, but the basic necessities of your life. The point of applying these monastic principles is not to numb yourself or pretend to be unaffected by tragedy, but to add a note of cheerful peacefulness and conscious care to whatever you’re going through. Even if you’re feeling unhappy or angry about suffering certain losses, you can still remember the bigger spiritual picture within which everything is ultimately fine. You can remember that whatever you’ve lost is less important that what you still have – life, breath, conscious awareness, the ability to perceive, the heart to love, and the power to give.