a little something extra

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sabbath 25

This is a long and interestingly personal chapter. In it Muller encapsulates his life's history of being a natural confessor -- that is, a person to whom others naturally confessed their troubles. He also describes a key experience of having a college counselor acknowledge the sadness that the counselor noticed in young Muller, and how that opened into an immense and apparently very memorable experience of benefiting from the same quiet listening and sympathy that Muller had often given to others.

Muller describes that sympathetic listening as a practice of "being Sabbath" for one another. I expect Tripp to rejoice in that coinage of phrase, as he has often used it himself. :-)

Near the end of the chapter, he winds back towards his book long theme that our lives are too busy and too full of stuff. In this iteration, he recounts a friend's experience refusing to thin her abundant garden, and winding up with less produce because of it. In this week's exercise, he recommends a metaphorical thinning of our lives, beginning by thinning out one thing we don't need -- an unread book donated to the library, unworn clothing donated to charity, unrewarding extracurricular activities cancelled.

I think it's a good idea. I own more stuff than I need, and as I hope to move into smaller quarters in the future, I would do well to thin it down. But I want to balance the impulse to minimize, with a full celebration of the love I associate with many of my possessions. I have artwork made by my mother and by a friend -- those pieces will always have places of honor in my home, wherever my home may be. The photographs that sit on my desk, bookshelves and bureau are not there because the frames look pretty; they're there because each photo reminds me on sight of people I love, many of whom I don't get to see in person anymore. Books were given to me by people I love; so were kitchen items, pieces of furniture, etc.

Now, to be fair -- my mother describes my decorating style as "minimalist" already. I don't think it's all that Zen, but it's not crowded Victoriana either.

But my calendar... now, that's another story. I've blogged some over the past year about my mixed feelings about the Pacific Chorale. It so happens that over the next two weeks I will spend parts of ten days rehearsing and performing with the group, first the "Alexander Nevsky" score with the LA Philharmonic at Disney Hall, then "Carmina Burana" with the Pacific Symphony at the Segerstrom. This is the most crowded Pacific Chorale schedule of the season, and after these performances are complete we go on hiatus till August or September. My question this summer will be, all other things being equal, do I rejoin the Chorale in the fall? Or do I step out to have more time for myself, keeping the choir at the Church of What's Happenin' Now (Northern Outpost) as my sole musical outlet? Food for thought.

Spinning backwards from the suggested exercise into the material of the chapter. I can see that there is a degree to which my life resembles Muller's description. I am glad that friends and family members trust me with their confessions of pain and trouble, and have the chance to feel better if I listen to them well. But I'm not so good with the reciprocation. I have issues about being known, and those issues limit my relationships. I continue to mull over how to uproot them. (The issues, not the relationships.)

Links to Cristopher's and Tripp's posts on this chapter.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sabbath 24

In this chapter Muller discusses humility -- not just as a virtue for its own sake, but as a way to get out from under the feeling of Responsibility For Everything, All The Time. That feeling can keep us tied to the exhausting wheel of perpetual effort. In Muller's opinion, when we make space to recognize that we are tiny in the grand scheme of everything, and when we take sabbath rest and witness the fact that lo, the world does in fact continue spinning on its axis, that disaster does not result because we took our hands off the metaphorical plows for a little while; then, not only do we gather in the benefits of the actual rest we took, we receive a much greater blessing -- the feeling that we are not Responsible For Everything, All The Time. With practice at sabbath, we can make it so that we will never be that tired again.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to disagree with Muller. In one of Cristopher's posts about a previous chapter, he noted that he and his wife discussed how one of Muller's weekly exercises was clearly designed by and for someone who didn't have a boss, a pet or a kid. Confronted with Muller's thoughts in this chapter, I find I feel somewhat the same: this is work written by somebody who wasn't single and living thousands of miles from all his nearest and dearest.

My major point of reflection and eventual difference from this chapter illuminated something I hadn't recognized before in my response to this book.

It seems to me that Sabbath takes no real note of the future.

I worry about the future a lot. I worry about it financially (will I be destitute when I am too old to work full time?), I worry about it professionally (what will happen when my current bosses finally retire), I worry about it in terms of health (again with the too old to work), relationships, and all other dimensions of my personal life. Sabbath doesn't help me much with those worries. Muller's view of time seems very short -- a day, a week... never much more than that.

So. Muller's book wasn't written with my specific situation in mind. Big deal! I'll make what use of it I can, and forgive him for not hitting my personal nail on its particular head every single time.

In the bigger picture of this book's intentions, I think worrying about the future is as debilitating a full-time occupation as any other form of stress or worry that sabbath practices are intended to counteract. So, I have the opportunity here to figure out how to put sabbath practices to use in my individual situation.

That's it for this week. Tripp's post is up. And now, so is Cristopher's.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

wrong side of the bed

What do you do to drag yourself out of a bad mood into a good one?

I'm a moody person. I freely acknowledge this. And I do my best not to let my bad moods leak over onto other people. (I'm happy to let my good moods be contagious, of course.)

This morning, the instant I woke up I knew I was in trouble. A bad mood was already in progress -- must have pounced on me from the ceiling fan and sunk its claws in while I was sleeping.

So, here's an interactive post: tell me in the comments what you do to adjust a bad mood and brighten up your outlook? Extra bonus points if your technique doesn't involve spending money.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sabbath 23

In this chapter, titled "Be Still and Know," Muller brings up more of his direct experience with Bread for the Journey, the organization he founded. It's refreshing to read something so grounded in the real-world work he does, but at some points he still launches out into magical thinking.

He continues advocating for sabbath rest as a key component of good decision-making and a source of wisdom to undergird one's plans. His examples branch out to a larger description of how Bread for the Journey begins evaluating a community not by assessing its needs, but by assessing its strengths, many of which may be hidden or seem at first glance to be irrelevant to the needs at hand. I smiled at Muller's acknowledgment that "If people are alive, they will have unmet needs." In the face of that truth, the assessment of needs becomes a Sisyphean task of limited utility, doesn't it?

I also smiled at the place earlier in the chapter where Muller wrote about the "deep, crippling loneliness" that afflicted a single mother who was later borne up and supported by a network of other single parents who helped each other with the mundane tasks of family life, but also offered crucial if unspoken recognition and support to one another.

Smiling at someone's loneliness may seem cruel on the surface, but I don't mean it that way. I smiled because I think everybody suffers from loneliness sometimes, and that that loneliness undergirds many of our more intractable social ills. (See, Tripp, that phrase is still resonating in my memory -- I'll have to bring that "where do they come from?" question back to you soon!)

I think loneliness drives us to materialism when we try to fill the empty spaces in our lives with toys and gadgets, with "security," or just to distract ourselves with the stimulation of new stuff.

I think loneliness drives us to many addictions (this is not to discount the biological and social components that contribute to addiction) -- we use food, or sex, or pharmaceuticals, or alcohol to self-medicate our loneliness or to find an instant community we can feel part of. During my last couple of years of undergrad, I often ate in the smoking area of the student center (those were the days...) although I wasn't a smoker myself. But lots of the other arts students were, so that was where "my people" tended to be found.

Muller comes to this idea of self-medicating by another route, when in this chapter he notes that many programs or proposed solutions to social ills are flung out in a desperate attempt just to make the symptoms go away. It is hard to suffer ourselves; it is hard to witness others' suffering; so we try anything and everything to get rid of the suffering. Muller suggests in this chapter that we waste a lot of energy and other resources in this frantic approach. He believes we would do better if we sat with the problem a bit longer, listened to the people experiencing the problem a bit more, and kept our minds attentive to the solutions (which he seems to believe will be more effective) that arise in or after a time of reflection.

I'll go part way down this road with Muller. There are problems we can afford to wait for solutions to, and there are crises that we can't. If a person is starving, I can't afford to wait -- I have to feed them now, not meditate on how to establish an organic garden for them. But as was famously pointed out in the fishing parable, feeding a person is a temporary solution. We need to be smart about where we apply tourniquets, and where we engage in serious long-term rehabilitative therapy. (Okay. I'm going to stop beating that metaphor to death now.)

Perhaps the idea I'm groping towards is that we must do what we can do now to alleviate suffering, to preserve Nature, to nurture each other, etc. -- but that doing what we can do now does not let us off the hook for good. Perhaps palliative care, or the respite that comes after the starving person has been fed, just buys us the time to meditate and listen for deeper, more permanent solutions. They are two parts of the same process, and we must devote ourselves to both.

This chapter's exercise extended the "let go and let God" practice from the last exercise, inviting the experimenter to return to his/her problem of choice after a night's sleep and see what new ideas or feelings may have grown in that space during the night. Certainly, I can understand how a night's sleep untroubled by the worry du jour would boost one's courage and creativity, whether or not there's any divine influence!

The question of divine influence has resounded more strongly for me in this second reading of the book than it did the first time. My hackles come up any time that Muller gets too Organized-Religion-Godly in his language. Mostly because I think that non-believers should get to rest too.

Links to Tripp's and Cristopher's posts.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sabbath 22

My co-readers had their busy week(s) leading up to Easter. Mine was last week, and the refractory period has rendered me late posting on this chapter. Cristopher's post is up; Tripp's went up today. I put off reading Cristopher's post until after I'd read the chapter, which I did while I made dinner this evening. It often falls to me to summarize the chapter because I am often the first of the three of us to get a post up. Here, since I'm late, I'll just refer you to what Cristopher says about the chapter -- he captures what I think are all the important parts. The rest of my post will be written partly in response to the chapter and partly in response to Cristopher's post, so if you haven't followed the link above, you might want to do so now.

On the chapter -- some of my thoughts concur with Cristopher's. While I agree in theory that many decisions are better made with some rest behind them and some pause that creates space for alternatives and new ideas to grow, I also note that practically speaking, that method offers far too much opportunity for passivity, or for stealth maintenance of the status quo. The example that leaps to my mind is the sexism and homophobia of the Roman Catholic Church. Periodically when I get up on this soapbox (which I'm going to abandon in a minute, I promise) some well-meaning individual suggests that I just need to be patient, that the RCC will reform itself in time.

Well, kids, if 2,000 years isn't enough time for the extraction of the institutional head from the institutional orifice... I'm not waiting any longer. This is Exhibit #1 of "time for weighty thought" standing as an excuse for "privilege maintaining its place." This isn't waiting for wisdom. I'll none of it.

However, there are certainly instances in the individual life in which pause and rest contribute to wise decision-making. For one example, I've staved off more than one episode of potential retail therapy by postponing the decision to buy for a couple of days.

If you've been reading the co-readers' posts on these chapters, I hope you have found that you share my pleasure at the different paths our thoughts can take traveling through and departing from the same base material. Cristopher's progression to intercessionary prayer gives a great example.

Agnostically speaking, I don't have much ground to stand on re: intercessionary prayer. If you're not sure there's anybody there, then praying to the potentially-not-there person for direct action would be a pretty big waste of time.

Muller's chapter highlighted this for me with this excerpt from his prescribed exercise at the end of the chapter: "During Sabbath, we rely on forces larger than ourselves at work on healing the world." I read this and my brain said, "I'm not sure there are forces larger than ourselves."

Now that's not to say there is no force larger than myself. But ourselves, now that's a different matter. The collective power of human energy and ingenuity is more than enough to damn the planet, for example, and we'd better pull like hell and hope it's enough to save it.

So if collective human energy is all we've got, I would suggest that that human energy still needs the resource of rest to be at its best, and to be guided by the greatest available wisdom.

The full exercise Muller details for this chapter smacks of magical thinking, but it's an effective way to defuse the shrillest anxious responses our problems can evoke in us. I would suggest that one might start with the exercise, but should not stop with it. If we experience the relaxation and sense of well-being generated by the exercise, we would do well thereafter to feed it into active thinking about the problem at hand, and to practical actions guided by that thinking.