Meditations for Lent: Week 1 Know Thy Self

Meditations for Lent: Week 1 Know Thy Self

This week, we are getting in the rhythm of routine. How you do this is up to you. Use this time to reflect on yourself, your needs, what you need to work on in your life. Or practice just sitting still, clearing your mind, relaxing. Think about what type of activities and meditations help you center yourself. What is your center?

Knowing yourself is not something that you can just sit down for a few moments and decide. Your being, your perspective, is constantly shifting as you experience new things in life. That is why it is good practice to meditate and self-reflect. Recenter your beliefs, goals, and ambitions so that you can move ahead on a clearer path.

Views on Meditation as an American and a Christian

The Concept of Rest

In American culture, there is an emphasis on productivity and efficiency. Rates of depression, obesity, anxiety, and other afflictions are on the rise because people no longer take the time to rest and take care of themselves personally or within community.

Christianity supports rest on the Sabbath, traditionally Sundays where one does not work and spends the day going to church, praying, and spending time with family. Genesis 2:2-3 “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Even God needs to rest. And He calls this rest “holy” or “sacred.” Americans often perceive rest as laziness or weakness, but in moderation, rest is a sacred practice—a thing of beauty.

There have been increasing shifts in American culture to the generalized “self care” which could be anything from regular exercise to binge-watching TV shows. While it is important to take time to do things you enjoy, doing any random activity isn’t always meditation. For meditation, you must be actively engaged with your mind and your surroundings. It is a practice in stillness, focus, and repetition. Is watching an hour of TV before bed each night going to help reduce your stress? Probably not. It might actually increase stress because of the effects of screen lighting or because of the type of program you’re watching. Meditation goes one step further than self care. It is not just for health; it is a training of the mind and cleansing of the soul.

Meditation vs Christianity

The term “meditation” is often affiliated with Buddhism as a way to reach enlightenment or nirvana. Therefore, some conservative Christians are skeptical of meditation, sometimes equating it to a pagan ritual and sin. However, there are many forms of meditation. The practice in general is a way of recentering and grounding oneself. Christianity, itself, commonly practices meditations such as a variety of prayers, lectio divina, devotional readings, praise songs, and others.

Whether or not your meditation could be considered “sinful” depends on where your mind is focusing. There are a few Buddhist and pagan meditations that I would not recommend for Christians simply because they center at places where a Christian would not center and thus are likely to make a Christian feel out-of-balance. 

Pagan Meditation

Some earth-based pagan rituals talk through imagining yourself as a tree or wave, which is fine in a general sense especially if you are considering that as a Christian you are God’s creation and therefore connected to all of God’s creation—the trees, ocean, air, and animals. But if the meditation leads you into believing that you’re going to reincarnate into something else or that if you focus enough you could actually become stone or wood, then you’re centering at a place that is not Christian.

Mantra

Mantra is a practice of simplifying a text to a single word or syllable and focusing on that word to encapsulate the whole passage. I think this is something Christians can adapt and use to dive deeper into the Bible, but don’t go off saying “Om” repeatedly because first of all—you don’t know what it means. Buddhists believe that a word such as Om can be passed onto students and that by knowing that word, they will come to understand the whole text that the word represents. In the case of Om, it represents the Veda, the three main deities of Hinduism. The repetition of the word is meant to invoke the deities like a Christian prayer. As such, it could be considered idol-worship for a Christian to chant Om because it would be like praying to a false god. However, if you are unaware of the meaning and are focusing your mind elsewhere, I doubt God will smote you.

Shalom as Mantra

You would get more out of a Mantra if you use a word that has more meaning to you and your beliefs. Try something like “shalom.” That’s right–Christianity has neat, powerful words like karma and zen, too! “Shalom” is a Hebrew word in the Bible which has mostly been translated to “peace,” but the Hebrew term encapsulates much more. It was a way of referring to times of peace between nations, but in a sense of wholeness or completeness. It is a completeness not only of body, soul, and mind, but also completeness in fellowship with community, creation, and God. It also refers to inner tranquility and health, and can be used as a greeting to mean, “May peace be with you” or “May you be full of health and prosperity.”

And before some of you start going, “Wait…Hebrew? That’s a Jewish term!” The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, and while Christians have adopted the New Testament in addition to the Old Testament, it does not deny that the things in the Old Testament are true. There are many parallels within the scriptures that link the Old and New Testaments with intimate truth. Shalom is one of those truths that exists throughout all of scripture, appearing over 400 times. Shalom is not just a present condition, it speaks to the Christian idea of New Jerusalem and eternal peace in a perfect, complete world—a world of shalom.

Transcendental Meditation

Another meditation that is widely practiced is transcendental meditation. The basis is that you let go of everything and experience an absolute nothingness or nirvana. This nothingness is a distancing of yourself from your mind and feelings, a separation of yourself from others and the world. Clearing your mind of distracting and stressful thoughts is one thing, but if you’re going so far into transcendental meditations that you end up in a mindless trance or levitate, that’s a different matter. As Christians we believe in a living community after death in the New Jerusalem. There is never nothingness because there is always God. He was in the beginning before time began. He is eternal, endless, timeless. As Christians, we want to delve deep into ourselves, into the Bible, and into the world around us; not separate ourselves from it.

Good Form

Most other forms of meditation I have found are based more on self-reflection and observation of the body and surroundings. These sorts of practices help us see ourselves and our place in the world around us. Practices like the Buddhist Vipassana meditation simply allow you to clear your mind, order your thoughts, and see once again the core of your existence. These are good practices.

There are many Biblical characters that spent hours or days fasting and praying in meditative states. It was through this process that they were able to commune with God, sometimes with words, other times with visions. So don’t be afraid if you experience something that seems supernatural, be open to it, but don’t meditate with the ambition to get a mystical vision.

The Purpose of Meditation

The purpose of meditation is to clear away the stress and clutter of your daily life so that you can realign yourself with your beliefs and calm yourself when faced with stress or danger in order to respond rationally.

Read Meditations for Lent: Introduction

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Water Walk – walk alongside your water

Water Walk – walk alongside your water

You can learn all about hydrology and ecosystems, you can weed out invasive plants and establish anti-erosion structures along banks, but the most important thing is to know your water, know your stream, your river, your lake, and what better way to bond with your water than to walk along side it and listen to it. The idea of a water walk is more about meditation and observation than action.

The following is a photo journal of my solo bike ride along Plaster Creek to the Grand River in Grand Rapids, MI. Some of the way was paved trail, some dirt, some roads.

Plaster Creek is considered one of the most polluted streams in Michigan, and I have been involved in many trash clean ups and invasive plant removals and rain garden projects in service to the health of the stream. But I had never taken the time to meditate in the sound of its brooks or walk beside it through tangles of invasive oriental bittersweet or admire the array of wild flowers and bird calls or lament of the concrete restraining walls and massive erosion or rejoice in the beauty of the parks it runs through or see it as a whole system not on a map or diagram. Today, I became the creek and the river. I cut through over-grown terrain and navigated through concrete cityscapes. I listened to the sounds of industry and cars blending with bird calls and the soft melody of the creek. Instead of working at one location or enjoying a specific park, I journeyed with the creek. I let it lead me through good and bad. I let it show me how it lives.

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Are People Apathetic About Sustainability?

Are People Apathetic About Sustainability?

A fellow student contacted me with an interesting question. We go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and while our campus advertises being environmentally sustainable in many ways, the more you get into the issues you realize that we could be doing much more. My fellow student was working on a class project related to social and sustainability issues on our campus. She noted that many students are not living in a sustainable manner (even just as simply leaving lights on), and she asked if this may be because students simply don’t care about environmental sustainability.

While I can’t speak for each individual, in general I would say that Calvin College students are not apathetic to sustainability specifically.

I think that a lack of information and understanding is the main problem that ends up looking like apathy, but really people just aren’t aware of the issues. To combat this it is important to inform students and Calvin has a lot of programs in place to attempt to do this–such as Kill-a-Watt and Mad Farmer Food Fest and the Faith and International Development Conference and student leadership Sustainability Coordinator positions in the dorms and apartments. A lot of courses also have a sustainability focus. (Specifically in the Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies Department and Biology Department. I also know of some economics and engineering courses with a sustainability focus. There’s even an environmental writers English course offered some January terms. There’s usually a handful of January courses having an environmental or sustainable focus, including at least one or more options for the required freshman course: “DCM”.). And there are also several student organizations with sustainability aims from food to political issues. My club, the Environmental Stewardship Coalition, addresses a wide range of environmental issues depending on what our participants are interested in.

However, these programs often have the dilemma of attracting people who are already interested in the issues, and while it may enlighten a few “new-comers” to the sustainability world, it is difficult to attract new people because there are so many other opportunities vying for each individual’s time, and they’re most likely to choose to do something they already have an interest in.

I think the most successful way to inform people is not just through programs that preach sustainability but also by personal conversations and individuals living in a sustainable way sharing their knowledge with people they interact with. I don’t think that there is a lack of these people on campus, almost everyone I know is concerned about the environment and interested in sustainability issues. But, I think that we often stay in our own circles, so sustainability-minded people don’t interact much with people that don’t know much about it.

There’s also a bit of a hesitancy when newly introduced to sustainability issues because it goes against our current systems so much. The very basis of our American (and possibly world) economy is market-driven with the only aim to grow profits without any enforced conditions or concern to protect people or the environment. While there have been laws put into place to try to protect people and the environment, there’s still a lot of cutting corners and illegal action because the media and economy promotes money above all else. And there’s a lot of skepticism encouraged by the media and businesses because they want people to buy more and being sustainable means buying less. There’s so much skepticism in the public eye on Climate Change, not because they haven’t heard the scientific facts, but because the oil industry and many other would be threatened if action against climate change was enforced and they have convinced the public that it is a hoax. The public doesn’t believe science, they believe media. But more than media, they believe family and friends, and that’s where we can get in and start changing people’s perspectives.

These profit-driven narratives are so present in people’s lives and worldviews that when introduced to sustainability that pursues balance rather than continuous growth, it is a dramatic shift of perspective that they must undergo to understand sustainability issues and practices. And since sustainability is so different than our current systems, it’s a challenge to live in a sustainable way. I honestly believe that it is impossible to live in a completely sustainable way today because there are so many issues (many hidden by the media and market) and all things are intertwined so tightly. Going vegan or vegetarian may protect a few animals that you may have eaten otherwise, but all of the substitutes and high-protein foods you need to consume instead are still surrounded by unsustainable practices.

I think the second biggest problem is a lack of convenience. Especially when people are used to the current systems, they’re unlikely to put in much effort to change. It’s a rare person that would carry an empty can around until they find a recycling bin if there are no recycling bins and a plethora of easy-access trash cans. Even in my apartment, my roommates stopped using the compost when we moved it to the porch, but when it was right beside the trash in the kitchen they would use it all the time (unless it was already full, because they would not walk all the way out to the compost site to empty it–too much effort, apparently). If sustainability was easier to do, more people would do it, no doubt. And especially if there was a reward (especially an economic reward) more people would do it. That’s why sustainable low-energy appliances have grown popular and common, because it saves money.

I would say that Calvin is on the right track to make students more sustainable, but the college has to stick with it and continue pushing the informative programs (especially in all courses and fields to reach all students) and making sustainable systems more efficient and convenient to get students into sustainable habits.

But I think the issue is beyond Calvin–it’s our economy, it’s our whole world. Until we change the basic systems underlying our lives to be sustainability-driven rather than profit-driven, sustainability is always going to be a challenge and a struggle.

A few Imaginings on LOVE

A few Imaginings on LOVE

I consider myself a Christian, but above all I believe that Love is the most important thing in the world. But what actually is love? I have been struggling with that question just as everyone throughout all eternity has wrestled with trying to understand this vast, complex feeling. I do not think it is possible to fully understand what love is, but here are a few of my reflections and breakthroughs that have settled me at least for a while.

I will not talk about romantic love here, though one could interpret these imaginings in that way. My intended “love” is the all-encompassing phenomenon that runs through all things, living and not, that all religions believe in, that every person has felt deep in themselves that defines them as an individual but also as a connected member of the universe.

I used to think that the meaning of life should be personal happiness. But I was equating love to happiness. Love is much more complex and painful than happiness.

Happiness is fleeting but sorrow lingers.

To feel great happiness one must accept great pain.

Pain hurts worse than how good happiness feels. But Love is above all.

Love is NOT happiness. If anything, Love is pain and sorrow. Without love we may not experience pain and sorrow because Love is the driving force behind all emotions, all conflicts, all actions.

Love is strong. Love endures all. Love is endless. Love is everlasting and abundant. Love grows and is never depleted. But What is Love? Those who feel it recognize it. But no one has ever truly understood what Love is.

Love is universal, but where one finds it is different for each person.

Personally, I find love inside myself when I’m in nature. When I am in a lush forest or in the mist of mountain peaks, or when I see a bird or a leaf, I am filled with a feeling so strong it is like nothing I feel at any other time. I am filled with a love for nature, for the Earth, which extends to a love of the universe, of God, and of Life.

I had been struggling with the question What is Love? But no one has or ever will find an answer that fully explains what Love is because it is beyond understanding and likely the most complex thing in all of eternity. The question I was trying to ask myself was: where do I personally find/experience/feel love? Because once you answer that question for yourself, your life has meaning and purpose.

For me, I feel love for nature. I cannot share that love with others unless they personally feel the same, because you cannot force someone to truly love. But my love empowers me to action–to protect and care for the environment and the natural places that I feel that intimate bond with. My actions, done with energy and passion from the love that fuels me, may inspire others to act in response or, at least, support me. But it is always my intention to act to protect what I love, no matter the cost, pain, or sorrow because that is how love works. It is never my intention to empower others or change other people, though that may be where someone else’s love lies. That is not my calling, that is not where my love thrives, but it does not mean that my actions and love will not impact other people. It may result that my actions done in love will inspire others to find their love.

The meaning of life is Love, but not in the sense that it will bring personal happiness to the one who discovers it. The paradox is that the person who finds their love and acts on it will likely experience much pain and sorrow along with the occasional happiness. But the energy and meaning of following your Love, is worth all of the struggles that will come with it. Such a life does not make sense to one who has not found their Love, the thing that makes their heart want to beat with a will to live and act no matter the cost. And we must also acknowledge that while Love is universal, the source of Love can change. Even within an individual the thing that you think drives you may change during your life, because Love is a driving force, it is not a specific entity. The question that is most important is not to understand Love, but to find where you can personally tap into this living force and be filled. Love is what life is all about, and those who do not feel it will never be fully satisfied with anything.

Spider Secrets

Screams chased me down the hall from the living room. I retreated to the bathroom. The door absorbed the vibrations of my parents’ fight that flew through the air, and I turned on the shower to cover up their voices.

Water washed over my head, cleansing my body, but the evil of the house still lingered in my soul, and only a baptism of salty tears could truly purify me.

Through streaked vision, a smudge of black flickered along the shower wall. The black dot sprawled its eight stringy appendages on the slippery, yellowed walls as it struggled to get out of the mist that had ripped through its intricately weaved home. I watched, cheering on the small creature in its inevitable journey. It had nearly reached the ledge of the tub. Two spindly arms tapped the ledge, trying to get some grip, but a drop of condensation rolled down the wall and knocked its legs out from under it. Crumbled, tumbling, sucked toward a vortex of death.

I snatched the spider before it landed in the pounding spray of the shower. His two beady black eyes looked up into my wet, streaked face. “I know you’re not supposed to be inside, but you’ll die outside in the snow.” I raised the frail frame up to the top of the shower wall, a safe distance from the water. Slowly, it uncrinkled its legs and scaled the putrid, pink wall into the corner shadowed by the blacked out lightbulb. “If you stay hidden, they won’t find you,” I whispered. They ruined everything they found.

I stepped into the bathroom and was overwhelmed by the aerosols of Febreeze that barely covered the sour, acidic smell still emanating from the toilet. It was too soon after dinner, and the scent of my sister’s daily visit hadn’t had time to fade. I looked into the mirror at myself. My baggy clothes covered my pale skin, my bruises, my lumps and curves. I turned away from my reflection and shed off my layers of clothes until I stood completely open before the two beady eyes in the corner. Those two eyes did not judge as I washed away the day’s insecurities.

Every day, I found refuge from the chaos by locking myself in the bathroom. Drowning out the screams, the crying, and the bitter silence with hot, pounding water. Whispering secrets to my spider. The more I fed the tiny creature my pain and sorrow and love, the bigger it grew. The stringy, spindly legs stretched. The bouncing, black dot swelled. The two, beady eyes opened wide.

Then, one day, I heard the sound of a vacuum cleaner in my bathroom.

Clinging desperately to the crumbling foundations you so carefully constructed. Falling, spiraling into a dark abyss that sucks the life out of you. The inevitable fate that everything you made will be destroyed. There isn’t even hope for the little, round gems of the future that you so dutifully protected. Everything is swept away.

Tears rolled down my cheeks, but there was no one to see.

Finding Places for Creative Thinking in a Busy Life

Where do you get your best ideas? Where do you go to make sense of the world? Where do you find inspiration? Maybe you’re traveling some place beautiful in nature or to a new city or landmark. Maybe you’re completely alone or maybe there’s lots of people around. But no matter where your place is, there is a commonality among all people’s “thinking” places. These are places where thoughts come freely, where creativity speaks to us.

For me, I’m lying in my cozy bed, the lights are off, I have nothing left to do for the day except sleep, my body relaxes and my mind races. Images from my day flash before my eyes, I start to linger on memories of things that happened, and then, as these subconscious thoughts rise to the surface, I drift into a land of dreams where imagining comes freely. I’ve heard that dreaming is your subconscious processing everything that happened during your day that you didn’t give yourself time to think about. I have really busy days and lots of strange dreams, so maybe there is something to this myth.

My sister has her best ideas while she’s showering. She often ends up writing lists and ideas on the shower walls with her daughter’s bath crayons.

I also do a lot of thinking in the shower, during car rides, and during church services. What’s in common with falling asleep and listening to a sermon and scrubbing shampoo into your hair? You’re trapped in a place with a simple task.

It’s true that some places can be very inspiring or relaxing, but does your creative thoughts flow there? I have more ideas taking a shower on a busy day than I do during a week of leisurely camping. For the mind to be active, the body must be active. I have to experience and learn new things in order to imagine and create my own ideas. But, there is a balance. Busy people often get stressed out because they don’t take the time to listen to their own thoughts and process what is happening around them. When there’s too much to do and too much happening, it becomes nearly impossible to pause and think about one thing for a while.

So many Thoughts
“So Many Thoughts” from Bigstock.

For busy people, it’s hard to find or make time to sit and meditate. People often think that they need to get away from everything in order to let their mind be free, but I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to leave. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has tried to escape from stress by going for a walk only to come back with less time and no less stress. Meditation and allowing yourself time to think is an important part of relieving stress, but trying to schedule time to do so goes against the very point of doing it in the first place. Listening to your thoughts should be a part of how you live. Self-awareness should be integrated in everything you do. If you process life as it comes, you can prevent it from building up and overwhelming you.

You should take time to think about what needs to be done, but you shouldn’t be repeatedly stressing yourself out about the future. If you focus your thoughts in the moment rather than in the past or the future, you can think about so many other interesting things. That’s the difference between lying awake at night because you’re thinking about what you didn’t get done that day and everything that needs to be done when you wake up versus thinking calmly about whatever comes to mind because all you’re really focused on at the moment is going to sleep. Creative ideas come from the subconscious, so you can’t actively think; you must listen to your underlying thoughts.

My advice is to find parts in your day where your attention is unnecessarily diverted in too many directions and try to focus more on your inner self. When you’re riding or driving in the car, a simple thing like turning the radio off can help you hear your own thoughts. You might notice that the corn is getting higher or that a new store is opening, and at the same time, you can reflect on how you are feeling without blocking it all out with whatever is on the radio. I’ve heard of people listening to books or language lessons in the car, and while it is good information to learn, I think it further proves that people are trying to cram too much into their days.

You don’t have to leave to escape from the business of life, and even if you go somewhere else, you won’t find peace until you learn to listen to your thoughts.

Fountains over Fireworks

eFireworks+Smoke-1369

Eeeeeee—BANG! Eeeee—POP! Crackle, crackle, crackle. Momentous firework displays occur annually on the 4th of July all around the United States of America created by artisans of design and explosives. Crowds gather around grills as they chow down on the most Americana food: hotdogs and hamburgers. The sizzling grease and charred lines of the grill add to the authentic taste of beef mingling with a zesty mustard and pickle, blended with the sweet tang of ketchup and tomato, topped off with a creamy cheese and the crunch of iceberg lettuce. Stomachs sloshing with watermelon and beer, fingers picking strings from corn on the cob out from between teeth, people ooo and ahhh at the flashing fireworks until their ears go numb from the explosions. Then, when the last explosive has lit, ascended, and dissipated into smoke, everyone packs up under the sulfuric air and waits in a line of car exhaust as police direct traffic out of parking lots and through four-way stops.

Few people pay attention to the dark clouds that drift away after firework displays when RED, WHITE, and BLUE, PINK, PURPLE, GREEN, ORANGE are lighting up their eyes, and POPS and BANGS numb their ears. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fireworks as much as any other person, but I cannot block out the amount of pollution they create.

NOAA2015_fireworks-pollution-graph
NOAA 2015

It’s hard to give an exact amount for the pollution created as displays and individual fireworks vary and atmospheric conditions also play a large part in the amount of pollution fireworks create. But, it is not hard to agree with NOAA’s 2015 study that showed 42% more air pollution on July 4th in given locations.

Ideally, someone should invent a firework that can create colors and patterns without releasing fine metals and CO2 into the atmosphere; however, there are real alternatives to firework displays that could be more environmentally friendly.

I remember being blown away the first time I saw a musical fountain lights display. The Grand Haven Music Fountain in Michigan has numerous displays every summer. Colored lights illuminate the sprays of water that dance through the night synchronized to music. Such displays can also be found in locations such as Las Vegas.

visitgrandhavencomBob Peskorse
Grand Haven Fountain by Bob Peskorse @ visitgrandhaven.com 

Now, you may be saying, “Yes, it gets rid of the air pollution, but what about all of that water and the energy for the lights?” Water displacement and pollution is as big an issue as air pollution, so precautions should be taken to make sure that water is not soiled or displaced. The Grand Haven display is built right on the Grand River and pumps water out of the river and back in. The water stays nearby its source and although part of it evaporates in the air, most of the water is returned immediately after the display without pollution. As for energy, as long as production is made with the least energy use possible and that electricity comes from a renewable source, there’s not much more we can ask for anything that involves a lot of lights.

Laser light displays and other types of celebrations and shows are alternative to fireworks, but personally, I think the Musical Fountains are the most magical option.