Marriage as Practice

Marriage may be the most rewarding and most difficult relationship a person can experience.  This makes it an ideal place for transformational practice.

What makes marriage so unique is the nature of the commitment.  We go into marriage with the expectation that it is for life.  You might argue that is no longer true.  But it is true that most people believe they are making a “long term” commitment, at least on the order of buying a house.

Most of us go into marriage expecting to create a family.  We want to leave a legacy of ourselves to the world in the way of children, either by blood or by adoption.  And by so doing, we take on the mantle of responsibility for those lives.  We make an implicit covenant to love them, provide for them, socialize them, and raise them to be independent, productive adults.

My dad says you’re never done being a parent.

Marriage is an everyday practice.  Even when our spouse is away, the commitment is present with us.  Will we reach out and touch them?  Will we think kindly or critically of them?  Will we bless as they come through the door from work, or greet them with our own anger and frustration?  Will we bring our work home, or give our family our full attention?

But I think the hardest and most rewarding part of the marriage practice is vulnerability.  We’ve got so much riding on this one commitment.  What happens if I lose face?  What happens if I humiliate myself right there in front of my partner?

What’s the alternative?  What if you don’t talk about the one thing you think you need but aren’t getting?  What if you don’t help your spouse get that one thing she needs?  What if you express yourself in a way that is emotionally upsetting to your partner?

We have to find a way to talk with, and reveal ourselves each other.  We have to find a way to compromise, so that each person gets some of what they need and want.  This isn’t easy.  But so much is riding on it.  It takes practice.  It takes forgiveness, because inevitably you’re going to hurt each other.

But the reward is the web of connectedness, goodwill, and love that come from a successful marriage.

Apologies and Thanks

I’ve discovered that many of you have liked my posts, and that some of you have even taken the time to leave comments, all of which have gone unacknowledged by me.

Please forgive me.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude for your time and attention, and a deep sense of shame for having ignored them for so long.

I haven’t paid enough attention to the mechanics of blogging.  I kept seeing this stat for comments, approved, and spam, but couldn’t figure out who was doing the approving or spamming, or where the comments were going.

Then finally I went into the email I use for businesses, where I expect to get lots of unwanted email, to look for something from WordPress.  But when I typed in the search for WordPress, screen after screen of emails came up; emails looking for approval for comments, or a notice of being “liked.”

I’ve had the blinders on, totally focused on writing a post every day.  And I missed the opportunity to converse with you.

I’m committed to work through your emails, respond to your comments, and to read your blogs.  I pledge to set aside an hour each day to do just that.  But it’s going to take some time to get through them all.  So I hope you’ll be patient with me.

Thank you for reading my blog, for liking my posts, and especially for sharing your thoughts in the form of comments.  I will try to do better.

The Siren Song of Mathematics

Treat yourself to a book or two of Euclid.  You might discover an aesthetic you never knew existed, a beauty bare, austere, and elegant.

Forget about utility.  Forget about any fear you might have of math, or some childhood humiliation you may have experienced.  Expect a pleasant surprise.  Just enjoy the geometrical progression of your rule and compass across the page, as they make visual music out of a geometrical problem.

The book begins with definitions, common notions, and postulates.  These are the assumptions, the building blocks out of which everything else in the books of Euclid are made.

Take each proposition as a puzzle to solve, or a dilemma to resolve.  The thing I love about geometry is how the visual and rational aspects come together there before you on a sheet of paper.  Each construction seems to me to be a thing of beauty.

And I love Euclid’s proofs, his economy of expression, his rhythmic flow of thought, and his inexorable downhill run of reason.

I discovered Emily Dickenson while I was in college.  I loved the compressed language of her poems.  Math is like that.

At some point math captured me with its symbols and proofs.  The symbols were an innovation made to compress an oft repeated, complicated verbal expression into a single visual expression.  I can remember being drawn to “The World of Mathematics” by James Newman by the summation symbols that ran along its spine.  And I felt that when I’d come to the end of a proof that I’d finally understood the concept expressed in the proposition.

That power of a name Ursula Le Guin describes in her Earthsea trilogy realizes its full force in mathematics, e.g., e=mc2.  That formula precisely names the relationship that exists between energy and matter.

Math is a wonderful ocean, deep and wide, and brimming over with ideas.  Dive in.  Euclid is a great place to start.

Visualizing an Excellent Life

Can meditation speed me on my way to an excellent life?

Two friends and I spent several weeks reading and discussing Mastery of the Mind East and West a few years ago.  In it Dan Brown contrasts peak performance with a continuous way of being in the world.

He identifies seven factors of enlightenment from the Buddhist literature: mindfulness, intelligence, balanced energy, light-heartedness, sustained concentration, calmness of mind, and equanimity (non-reactivity).  These were considered prerequisite to making progress in meditation.

When one of these factors is absent, he says the Buddhists visualize a deity or Buddha embodying the virtues the practitioner wants to possess.  The examples he gives here weren’t very clear to me, so I looked for others on the web, and found some on this website.

Now regardless of your religious predilections, it’s hard to argue with the intended outcome: radiating wisdom and compassion in all directions, transforming all sentient beings into enlightened ones, all environments into pure lands.

In other words envision your ideal self, blessing those around you, even nature itself.

Perhaps you’re uncomfortable with the particulars of the visualizations given.  Alter them enough to fit your own faith.

Sometimes I think we are all pursued by the same god, but we don’t see god the same way, or hear god the same way, or feel god the same way.

We don’t see paintings the same way, or hear a poem the same way, or feel music the same way, even when we speak the same language or live in the same culture.

We get so caught up in right and wrong that we don’t listen to one another, or learn from one another.

I suspect the Buddhists have something powerful to teach me here.  I haven’t put this practice to the test, but I’m going to.

An Ordinary, Flourishing Life

I think of my life in terms of these domains: spirit, mind, body, emotion, family, community, vocation, finances, and household.  A flourishing life exhibits health and vitality in each of these domains.

If we suffer a collapse in one of these domains, it becomes difficult to flourish.  If two or more collapse, we are well on our way to a train wreck.

I keep a practice for each of these domains by which I can improve or maintain the well being of each.  It is particularly important for householders to keep their balance, and especially difficult as well.  The life of a householder is full of obligations, commitments, and stress.

If we are determined to become “the best” in a particular domain, that translates into at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or three hours a day for ten years, while still maintaining enough gas in the tank to keep the other domains in a state of health.  That is no mean feat, especially if you’re a householder.

What happens to someone like me if he lets go of excellence, and chooses instead to flourish? 

His practices teach him what’s important, teach him discipline, and give him a sense of accomplishment.  His practices lead to emotional and behavioral stability.  He is a blessing to his family, and blessed by them in turn.  He practices vulnerability, reaches out to others, and serves his community.  He becomes skilled at his vocation, financially secure, and lives in a clean and organized home.

He is an ordinary person, flourishing in an ordinary life.

Practice with Positive Imagery

Another spoke in the “Wheel of Excellence” is positive images.  Here is a quote from the Zone Of Excellence website:

When you are parachuting, you have an emergency procedure to go through… depending on what kind of failure you have with your parachute. You’ve only got a few seconds to go through that matrix… I spent a great deal of time visualizing the scenarios and it happened to me. And it’s incredible because you’ve got that matrix down flat, you just go through it. And by four hundred feet I had the problem solved and I didn’t die. And so you get down on the ground and you go – – I won. You touched death and you won. (Astronaut)

I have a really vivid imagination for things I dread, but not for things I want to happen, especially for the minutiae of life.  I can’t imagine reviewing that astronaut’s matrix over and over in my mind the way he did.

I’ve been practicing yoga since I was a senior in high school, i.e., for over thirty years.  And yet I don’t really feel like I’m any “better” now than when I began.  At the same time, I’ve never really “visualized” myself going through a perfect yoga routine.  What would that experience feel like?  What would it look like through my eyes as I move from posture to posture?

I especially struggle with the balancing postures, even the most basic.  But yesterday I tried to visualize in my mind’s eye what it would feel like to do the posture perfectly, and I did notice a difference.

I think in the past I have thought, “If I want the benefits of yoga, then it’s better to do the yoga rather than visualize it in my mind.”

Could I have been wrong?

Practice with Focus

I’ve been working my way through the “Wheel of Excellence,” and today I want to talk about focus.

Here is some of what Terry Orlick says about focus:

Focusing is the single most important mental skill associated with performance excellence. Focusing refers to the ability to concentrate totally on what you are doing, seeing, reading, hearing, learning, feeling, observing   or experiencing while you are engaged in the activity or performance.

Where your focus goes, everything else follows. Focus leads activation, anxiety, relaxation, learning, mental readiness, personal growth and performance excellence. Let it lead wisely.

I feel like I’ve been distracted most of my life.  When I was studying for the actuarial exams, I would frequently get up from the study room to get a cup of coffee, or use the restroom.  But I would notice a certain few who never got up the entire time they were in there.  Those few generally did well on the exams.

Oftentimes it seems like we want to be distracted from our practice.  Even while we practice we watch TV, or listen to music, or an audio book, etc.

Notice that focus is most important for performance excellence:  the execution of the practiced goal for before a live audience: running a race, taking a test, playing a recital, etc.

Again, while taking the actuarial exams, I can remember reading that you should take practice exams under conditions as nearly the same as those you will be tested under as possible.

You want a rhythm and ritual to your practice, by which you can gather your focus and minimize distractions at game time.

The regular practice of three kriyas from Kundalini Yoga has helped me focus: Ganpati Kriya, Radiant Body Kriya, and Kirtan Kriya.  These all involve chanting, and certain mudras of the fingers.  The first takes 11 minutes (first thing in the morning), the second about 40 minutes (midday), and the third about 30 minutes (evening).  They have given my emotions some ballast, and have improved both my patience and my ability to concentrate.

Gracious God

I believe in God we live, and move, and have our being.  I believe in God’s grace, in the abundant life of his presence, and the redemptive power of his love.  I believe I continually stand in the sunshine of his presence.  That his light shines on my soul from moment to moment.

What does this mean?

Oh Lord thou hast searched me and known me.  Thou knowest my downsitting and uprising, thou knowest my thought afar off.  Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.  For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.  Thou has beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.  Whither shall I go from thy spirit?  Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.  If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.  If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.  Yea the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.  For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.  I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.  My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.  Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there were none of them.  How precious also are thy thoughts unto me O God!  How great is the sum of them.  If I should count them, they are more than the number of the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee. (Ps 139, KJV)

I believe that grace is made possible through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.

That without the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the justice and holiness of God would make it impossible for us to come into his presence.  In fact the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood is no forgiveness (He 9.22 NIV).

Before his crucifixion, only God’s High Priest could come into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement, and only after he had been cleansed with blood.

Korah, who led a rebellion against Moses in the desert and was then swallowed up by it, said this to Moses and Aaron: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Nu 16.3)

Are we not like Korah when we presume we can come into God’s presence without the blood of the lamb, without putting on the righteous of Christ, thinking ourselves worthy because God ought to meet our own expectations of him?  But if God encompasses space and time, then he is unimaginably old, unimaginably big, and unimaginably deep.  How can we pretend to comprehend the mind of God?

But Christ, through his own blood entered once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us (He 9.12).  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Is 53.5).

God had to satisfy his own justice in order to redeem us to himself.  He could only do that by laying down his own life for our sins.  Without this self sacrifice, I do not see how grace can obtain.

And that is why I believe in the virgin birth, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the trinity.

Paradox and mystery are at the heart of the godhead, of math, of science, and life itself.  Math and science are to me, not a contradiction of my faith, but an amplification of it.

I stand in awe, and give God praise.

Transformative Power of Conversations

I believe in the transformative power of conversation.  My life is a testament to that power.  I am the sum of my conversations.

But transformative conversations don’t just happen.  Like any other skill it can be learned, but again, it takes practice.

The practice begins with seeking those who share your passions.  Shared passion makes good conversation.  Little or no passion makes small talk.

Ask questions that matter, and listen to the answers with your whole attention.

Trust the person you’re talking to, until they give you a good reason not to.

Reveal yourself to them.

Bring people with a shared passion together.

Learn how to share the conversational space.

Talk about your passion in the context of your faith.  How do they inform each other?  How do they inform the others in your group?

Allow those who think differently from you, whether about your passions or your faith, to deepen your perspective.  Try to think and feel from within their skin.  See the world through their eyes.

Wrestling with God is not enough.  We need to hear what he says in the mouths of others.  We need to wrestle with ideas in the context of the group, not to win an argument, but to gain understanding.

Wrestling turns to polishing.  We gain perspective, understanding, and self-awareness.  We are blessed by the conversation, and bless others in our turn.  We grow rich with ideas, depth of perception, and positive emotional connectedness.

Gradually you find yourself transformed, not by a brutal hammer and chisel, but through the slow and gentle washing of water by the word of God – through the mouth of a friend.