A New Year’s Meditation

Happy New Year!

Today marks not only the first day of 2019, the birth of a new year, but the rebirth of countless people around the world who strive to keep “New Year’s Resolutions.”

Funny – Humans have been making resolutions in some form or another for at least 4,000 years, writes one contributor to the History channel.

Back then, the Babylonians (whose year began in what we’d consider mid-March, when crops were planted) made promises to the gods, expecting good fortune if their promises were kept throughout the year.

The Romans adopted this idea, as well, and the very month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god who faces both into the past and into the future, perhaps symbolizing both the reflection on the past year and the hope and promise of what the next year might bring.

Janus, god of beginnings and passages

The 1700s found Christianity adopting the practice of keeping night vigils of prayer and reflection, lasting all night into the morning on New Year’s Day – A practice that is still found in many communities, today.

We’re hardwired, it seems, to see beginnings of any kind – such as the start of a new calendar year – with mixtures of awe, hope, apprehension, and reflection. And, though now a secular tradition, we still strive to make promises to ourselves. Only about 8% of people keep their resolutions, apparently, but it’s striking that after all this time, we’re still making them, even if we know many will fall by the wayside.

The marked passage of time must affect us on a deep level, to spark the desire to make such promises.

This brings me to a poem by a favorite poet of mine, Billy Collins. In his brilliant way, he captures the universal with the mundane, and questions this new year’s day, and what it means to us all.

Is it a second birthday? Is it a day to dread, or to look forward to?

To me, it’s a time I know I can meditate on and re-dedicate myself to living wildly, blooming where I’m planted, showing gratitude and love to the Universe and to those around me, and keeping fresh and new the love I share with my husband.

What about you?

May you have the happiest of years, starting today. Happy New Year!

New Year’s Day by Billy Collins
Everyone has two birthdays
according to the English essayist Charles Lamb,
the day you were born and New Year’s Day—

a droll observation to mull over
as I wait for the tea water to boil in a kitchen
that is being transformed by the morning light
into one of those brilliant rooms of Matisse.

“No one ever regarded the First of January
with indifference,” writes Lamb,
for unlike Groundhog Day or the feast of the Annunciation,

New Year’s marks nothing but the pure passage of time,
I realized, as I lowered a tin diving bell
of tea leaves into a little ocean of roiling water.

I like to regard my own birthday
as the joyous anniversary of my existence,
probably because I was, and remain
to this day in late December, an only child.

And as an only child—
a tea-sipping, toast-nibbling only child
in a bright, colorful room—
I would welcome an extra birthday,
one more opportunity to stop what we are doing
for a moment and celebrate my presence here on earth.

And would it not also be a small consolation
to us all for having to face a death-day, too,
an X drawn through a number
in a square on some kitchen calendar of the future,

the day when each of us is thrown off the train of time
by a burly, heartless conductor
as it roars through the months and years,

party hats, candles, confetti, and horoscopes
billowing up in the turbulent storm of its wake.

from the book, “Ballistics,” © Random House 2008

A Morning Meditation

Good morning!

As we begin the day, and especially in light of the heavy and difficult post I wrote yesterday, I wanted to take a break and share something that popped up on my timeline on Facebook, from 2012.

I was going through a difficult time, then, and was trying to reinvent myself. I had just rediscovered the Unitarian Church, a humanist fellowship, without dogma, whose belief in the “interdependent web of all existence” is a favorite concept of mine, and I had started walking every morning from where I lived in the Paseo Arts District of Oklahoma City, to the First Unitarian Church.

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The steeple of First UU in Oklahoma City. Image taken from their website.

I’d been gifted a UU Hymnal from the Unitarian Church in Norman, where I’d first discovered Unitarian Universalism – my boyfriend at the time was a piano player (much better than I was) and we’d been given the hymnal in the hopes that he might play for the church on any given Sunday. He didn’t, but when we parted ways, he left the hymnal behind. Only a year or so later, and I’d be opening it again, and start poring through its pages every day, posting quotes and readings online as often as I could, in an effort to channel more positivity in my life, and send gratitude out to the Universe (thank you, Louise Hay)… hoping to find healing for the challenges I’d been facing that had broken my spirit.

The following poem, written by Mary Oliver, and first published in Dream Work (1986), doesn’t appear in the hymnal, but was read aloud from the pulpit at the beginning of one of the services I attended at First Unitarian, in Oklahoma City.

In the midst of the other poems and readings I’d been posting on Facebook, I posted this poem, exactly five years ago, today.

Every morning
the world
is created. 
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work (1986)

May you each have a wonderful morning and find the chance to share your gratitude with the day – in the hopes of receiving it back, tenfold.

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Morning on the Quiraing, Isle of Skye, in Scotland (from our trip there in October 2016)

 

#GivingTuesday: Karma Yoga

Is it just me, or do other people find it odd that we have three “holidays” of consumerism, #BlackFriday, #SmallBusinessSaturday, and #CyberMonday, bookended by holidays named for the act of “giving,” Thanks-giving and “Giving Tuesday“? (I had no idea #givingtuesday had its own official link)

Don’t get me wrong. I love deals. My husband and I are planning a trip back to Ireland and the UK this winter, for the December holidays, and have been eyeing deals Friday and Monday at REI and Uniqlo for warm and affordable wear while we’re there.  I also highly support small businesses – we celebrated Small Business Saturday with time spent at Indian Road Cafe, for one, and even bought apples from Inwood’s Farmer’s Market.

And, of course, I support giving.

Giving and Karma Yoga:

During yoga teacher training, I learned about several different kinds of yoga, from Bikram, to Hatha, Kundalini, Raja, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, etc., etc. The list goes on and on (and yogis are developing new structures and “types” of yoga all the time!)

One kind of yoga, and one of which almost everyone is familiar in some way, is karma yoga.

According to the Vedanta Society of Southern California, karma yoga is

the yoga of action or work; specifically, karma yoga is the path of dedicated work: renouncing the results of our actions as a spiritual offering rather than hoarding the results for ourselves.

quote-instant-karma-is-going-to-get-you-john-lennon-99-6-0674

When we say, “what goes around, comes around,” or “karma’s a bitch,” or, of course, “instant karma’s gonna get you,” we generally think of karma as the thing that comes back, especially when someone does something shady. But, karma isn’t the boomerang.

Karma is simply the “action.”

Read that above quotation, again (not the Lennon one). Karma yoga is action performed “renouncing the results of our actions.” On that note, I suppose, true karmic yoga goes hand in hand with something like “Giving Tuesday.”

Okay, so the connection is obvious…

We don’t need a lecture, or even an entire blog post, to show how karma, as “action,” as good action, relates to something like “Giving Tuesday.”

But I wanted to share an article I read recently, that a friend sent me, and how I feel it connects to this idea of “renouncing the results.”

In NYC, we pass by a lot of displaced people, or, “the homeless.” Many of them may be relatively well-put-together, with what seems like an obligatory “God Bless” cardboard sign, or with detailed explanations of their life’s journey, or a family pet they still hold close. Still others clearly have been on the streets for some time – or are nearly on the streets – and suffer from ill health, addiction to drugs or alcohol, struggling perhaps to form coherent words and sentences, or even walk or hold their heads up.

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signs collected as part of the Sukkah City project in Union Square (2010). Photograph captured from Rael San Fratello

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of people sleeping in homeless shelters is up 74% from ten years ago, and most of these people are the victims of a lack of affordable housing. Many struggle with mental illness. The Treatment Advocacy Center states that lack of affordable mental healthcare is forcing many patients to be turned out onto the streets.

Clearly, this is a problem… but what does it have to do with “Giving Tuesday”?

The classic “should I give money to a panhandler” debate is fraught, and over-exhausted. But, in the light of karmic action, and a holiday of giving, I wanted to share some thoughts.

Atlantic Monthly wrote in 2011 that while directly giving money is certainly a relief to those who need it, donating to charities that help those who need is the better long term solution. But, their viewpoint is still a bit problematic. They write that there is a two-edged sword to giving “beggars” money (I admit I cringe at their use of that term):

There’s not enough change in our purses. We choose to donate money based on the level of perceived need. Beggars known [sic] this, so there is an incentive on their part to exaggerate their need, by either lying about their circumstances or letting their appearance visibly deteriorate rather than seek help.

If we drop change in a beggar’s hand without donating to a charity, we’re acting to relieve our guilt rather than underlying crisis of poverty. The same calculus applies to the beggar who relies on panhandling for a booze hit. In short, both sides fail each other by being lured into fleeting sense of relief rather than a lasting solution to the structural problem of homelessness.

I’ll admit, I’ve always thought that giving to charities or shelters that aide people who are displaced or suffering on the streets was always the most long-term efficient way to help them. But… it doesn’t immediately help them. Even the Atlantic, in the same article, admits that with time lags and fees it takes a long time for money to make its way to helping individual people.

And, I really don’t like it when people speaking (or writing) from a place of privilege, of any kind, claim to know the intentions and mindsets of those who appear to be beneath them.

What should we do? How can I give a dollar or change to someone on the street, when I know they might use it to buy drugs or alcohol, and not food?

Recently, I was sent this article, from The Guardian, written by former drug user and founder of the charity User Voice, Mark Johnson. His point? That if an addict uses your dollar to buy drugs… it’s none of your business.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. He writes,

…frankly, it’s none of your business where an addict is on his journey. If your money funds the final hit, accept that the person would rather be dead. If your act of kindness makes him wake up the next morning and decide to change his life, that’s nice but not your business either.

Your business is to know that money desperately needed by someone went directly into his hand.

It hurts to hear that it’s none of my business if someone takes the dollar I give and funds their addiction – be it drugs or alcohol. But I also don’t understand what it is to live the painful lives of those who are willing to be degraded and dehumanized on the street in order to get something they feel they need. And I do know that the affordable housing problem is very, very, very real, in NYC.

Johnson, in his article, does recommend exercising caution with “legal street beggars,” whom he calls “charity chuggers.” I’m assuming he’s telling us to do our best to discriminate who is on the street because they need to be, or are forced to be, and who isn’t. But this brings me back to Atlantic Monthly’s presumption that they know what “beggars” are thinking when they decide to milk the system.

You  might guess who else shares his opinion.

Pope Francis.

The Pope was interviewed by a Milan magazine before Lent this year, where he had some fantastic things to say about “giving without worry.”

But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? (A perfectly Milanese question.) His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do youdo on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.

Sounds a lot like Johnson’s case about worrying your money will be used for drugs, doesn’t it?

And… giving without worry is certainly another way of “renouncing the results of our actions”?

Regardless of anyone’s stance, I hope that giving to charities that help people in need, people that don’t share the same privileges many of us do, is a practice of yours.

But, when I can, I will give.

This #GivingTuesday, I encourage you to consider giving that change or that dollar in your pocket to someone in need – when you have it to spare. Or, engage them in conversation and find out if there is something they need that you can help them get. But work with compassion, “renouncing the results of our actions.”

For charities that support the homeless, consider donating to one of the following:

Safe Horizon – helping victims of crime and abuse, including youth homelessness

City Harvest – working to fight hunger through food rescue and distribution

The Doe Fund – connecting displaced people with jobs