Lent, Soft Addictions, and Detachment

Router on Julie's desk--photo by Julie McCarty 2011I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but do the very thing I hate.     –St. Paul in Romans 7:15

I was awakened the other day by a little scratchy sound in the next room. Was it a mouse? No…maybe my husband was hauling out spring clothes? No, it was taking too long for that… Was he cleaning the house? . . . REALLY? At five in the morning?! 

When I dragged myself out of bed, I discovered the internet wasn’t working and Terry was trying to get the web up and running by unplugging and resetting various cords. 

After he left for work, I kept trying to fix it, without success. Eventually, I told myself it didn’t matter–I’m a writer for goodness sake: get to work!

But, try as I might, I was restless and jittery. How could I work without checking e-mail and reading the morning news online? I kept looking at the little red light on the router, flashing at me.

I was like a little baby who has had her milk bottle wrenched away, mid-sip. I want! I want! I want e-mail! I want to blog! I want to revise my website! Waaaaaahhh!

(So far I don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, and you can see why these options may not be good for me.)

While I was sitting at my desk, having mental internet withdrawal symptoms, I remembered a phrase from old-time spirituality books:  “inordinate attachments.” These are things in life that we cling to in a way that is excessive or beyond what is spiritually healthy.

Attachments are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but sometimes they keep us from focusing on the really important things in life. For example, using the internet to do scholarly research is a good thing, but it might be an attachment if I simply cannot pull myself away to fix my family dinner.

While few people today speak of “inordinate attachments,” modern author Judith Wright communicates a similar idea when she speaks of “soft addictions.” As she describes in an interview with WebMD, “Soft addictions are those seemingly harmless habits like watching too much television, over-shopping, surfing the Internet, gossiping — the things we overdo but we don’t realize it. . . It seems like normal behavior, but that’s simply because everyone is doing it, too.” (To read the full article, click here.)

Lent is a good time to step back from our busyness and take stock of our lives. Are we too attached to some things? Do soft addictions keep us from having any time for prayer? Are there relationships in our lives that push us into doing things we know are bad for us? Do we find our attachments growing into bad habits that may evolve into the type of sin that hurts others or ourselves?

In spirituality, the opposite of attachment is detachment, the ability to let go of things. This letting go is done for the sake of a greater good. A person might detach from her fondness for eating in restaurants during Lent so she can use the money saved to feed starving children. A student who finds his schoolwork is not getting done “lets go” of chatty texting in order to succeed in his studies.

Practicing detachment is one way to open ourselves more fully to the action of grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We find the ultimate detachment in Jesus, who, while on the cross, opened his hands wide and let go of his life with the words, “Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit.”

A Personal Focus for Lent

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there. . . . Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  (Exodus 24:12, 18)

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights. . .     (Matthew 4:1-2)

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, and I’m wondering what spiritual practice I might do for Lent. If you are like me, you have experienced various Lenten penances related to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving over the course of your life. Some of my experiences produced quality spiritual growth. Other times I failed to follow through or had results that were, um, a little “silly” (such as the time I gave up potato chips and ate so many chocolate chip cookies that I actually gained weight during Lent).

Waiting for Spring -- Photo by Julie McCarty 2011

One spiritual practice that has been meaningful for me is reflecting on a single word, phrase, or bible verse for the whole 40 days. For example, one year I focused on the virtue of patience. I read about patience and pondered what patience is and what patience is not (laziness or procrastination). I asked God in prayer to help me be patient. When life brought me annoying moments, I tried to be patient.

One possible pitfall of this theme approach is that I might forget to follow through for the entire 40 days, but I have found ways around that. I can post my theme in places I’ll see it, such as the bathroom mirror, refrigerator, computer screen saver or cell phone banner. I can find a book on the topic and spend a few minutes each day reading about it. I can make it a point to weave my theme into prayer time and the routine of daily living. On occasion, I’ve asked spiritual people what they think about the topic.

When making plans for Lent, it’s important—as always—to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your choices. (Why do I always think of this tip last? It should be first!) The “theme approach” may not be for everyone.   Think about what will build your relationship with God, and what will deeper your love for others.      

May all we do glorify God and build bonds of love throughout the earth. Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics for Lent

   If focusing on a theme doesn’t appeal to you, here are 13 other ideas:                 

  • Volunteer at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or other charitable organization.
  • Plan quality time with your children: eat together, use discussion starters, read together.
  • Organize recycling in your home in order to take care of God’s creation.
  • Visit a lonely or homebound person.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent with television, social networking, internet surfing, or video gaming.
  • Listen to inspiring, spiritual music while commuting to work.
  • Care for the body God gave you by increasing your sleep or exercise.
  • Read one book of the bible or other spiritual book slowly and reflectively. 
  • Sort out closets and donate clothing to those who need it. 
  • Teach your children a new prayer and pray it together when you gather for meals.
  • Be kind to someone you often ignore. Pray each day for him or her. Smile genuinely and listen respectfully to this person.
  • Fast from shopping for clothes (or books, electronic gadgets, makeup, etc.)
  • Visit a retreat center. If you cannot go away on a retreat just now, make arrangements to go on retreat later this year.

Skillful Speech–Part 2: Insights from Buddhism

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.                –Fourth Mindfulness Training*

In “Brutally Yours, Bob Hartley,” an old episode of The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Bob Hartley urges clients Mr. Carlin and Michelle to be more honest and open with their feelings. During the conversation, Bob hides his true feelings about his secretary leaving work early and the clients challenge him to practice what he preaches. As the show progresses, Mr. Carlin and Michelle make a game out of hurling insults at other people, while at home Bob nearly ruins a budding friendship in his overzealous quest for total honesty. In the end, it is agreed by all that some things are better left unsaid.

The episode illustrates in a humorous manner just how difficult it can be to be truthful and yet do it in a way that does not unnecessarily hurt another. In my last post, I wrote a few things that Jesus had to say about the right use of speech. This week, I’ve been reading about the idea of Right Speech in Buddhism. (I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t know much about the Buddhist path, but I think that Buddhism offers some insights on the topic of how to speak and listen with compassion.)  

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh devotes an entire chapter to Right Speech. Here are some of my notes from reading his explanation of Right Speech:   

  • Being truthful is basic to Right Speech.
  • Much suffering is caused in this world by people who are simply not paying attention to what they say and how they say it. Our words have the potential to add to the suffering of others, or to alleviate their pain. (The Buddhist practitioner seeks to alleviate the suffering of others.)
  • Right Speech means “not speaking with a forked tongue.” That is, do not tell one person one thing and another person a different thing. It is fine to use different words, examples, or images in explaining something to help others understand, but it is not truthful to invent different “truths” for various people.
  • Right Speech means not speaking cruelly. “We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred.” This can be challenging even for people of good will, he writes, but because words are powerful, we must avoid vicious speech.
  • Right Speech also means that we should not exaggerate or embellish what we have seen or heard. “We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that he is furious.”
  • Right speech involves deep listening, something very needed today. When we listen with an open heart, calmly and without judging others, we may actually reduce their suffering. (What a great gift to give another!)
  •  Hanh writes: “Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. . . If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting [to the other person], rewrite it.”  This can be adapted in our own time for the social media by using the “save the draft” feature and reviewing what we have written at a later time, when we aren’t angry or upset, before hitting “send.”

 When it comes to integrating Right Speech into our everyday lives, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha (meditation verse):

Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers.  (page 92)
 

The author suggests writing this saying on paper and placing it by the telephone, to recite just before making a phone call. Today, we can adapt this practice by putting this verse near our computer screens as a reminder of the ways of Right Speech.  

There is much more that could be explored about Right Speech, but I will leave you to ponder these ideas for now. If you are like me, there is plenty in just these few points to challenge my own ways of communicating with others.

One final thought: May someone shower you today with compassionate words and empathetic listening, and may you find a skillful way to do the same for someone else. Until next time, Amen!  

(Skillful Speech, Part One contains insights from Christ about right speech.)

_________

*Quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (NY: Broadway Books, 1999), page 84.

Skillful Speech–Part One: What Jesus Taught

 
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . .
     a time to keep silence and a time to speak. . .
                        –Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b (NRSV)

 

I sometimes find it difficult to know when to speak up and when to bite my tongue. It seems that controlling what one says is one of the hardest things to master.  

These days many people are examining the problem of vitriolic speech  in our culture, talk so inflammatory that it is comparable to throwing sulfuric acid in another’s face. Some claim that caustic speech in the media is harmless because

Fighting Hippos–Photo by Melissa Schalke–Dreamstime.com

it’s only “entertainment.” Others decry the loss of a more genteel way of expressing ourselves. People on both sides value the freedom to speak openly in a democracy.

Rather than focus on legal dimensions or proper etiquette, I would like to look how we use words from a spiritual perspective.

Twisting the truth is as ancient as Adam and Eve, who both used words to shift blame away from themselves: when caught in disobedience, Adam blamed Eve, and in turn, Eve blamed the snake. Although their words may have seemed logical at the time, they were not able to hide the truth from God. 

While there is nothing new about distorting the truth or using words in an attempt to manipulate others, what is new in our time the ease with which so many of us can spread our words around the globe within seconds. The sheer vastness of communication today makes it more important than ever before to raise questions about the words we choose, the tone in which we convey messages, and the truthfulness of messages that we receive and pass on to other people.

 

What did Jesus teach?

While Jesus was not afraid to tell religious leaders when they were wrong, I find no evidence that he derived any pleasure in correcting others. Jesus was a kind, compassionate person who wanted all to be brought into communion with his heavenly Father, even those commonly thought of as “enemies.”         

In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, we read about Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus and his disciples for ignoring the religious ritual of hand-washing before eating. Jesus replies by drawing attention to the ways the religious leaders were using rationalizations to break commandments even more basic. He calls them hypocrites and quotes the prophet Isaiah:   

This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
     teaching human precepts as doctrines. 
 
                                 —Matthew 15:8-9, NRSV  
 

From this, we can see that what is important to Jesus is that our words are genuine and in accord with our actions. It is not acceptable to rationalize our evil deeds or merely say we believe in God. Attitudes and intentions deep within us are what matters.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus emphasizes the importance of what we say, again focusing on the motivations of the heart:

 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

                                    –Matthew 15:17-20, NRSV

 While the leaders were focused on religious purity laws, Jesus was more concerned about the ideas coming out of one’s mouth. He even says some words defile us because they arise from evil intent within our hearts. (Even if we succeed at fooling the people around us with clever phraseology, God still sees our hidden motivation.)

So how we use words is indeed important to Christ. If you are like me, you fall short of these high standards, and I will remind you that God understands our human weakness and will forgive anything we are truly sorry for having said or done. However, that does not take away our responsibility to at least strive, with the help of the Spirit, to improve the ways we communicate with one another.

There are times when it is the path of wisdom to remain silent. There are other times when the Spirit prompts us to speak, sometimes about something that others do not want to hear. At those times it is especially important to speak the truth in a compassionate manner.

 For the words that come out of our mouths—or spill onto the internet—have the power to heal others or hurt them, to bring people together or to push them towards war, to build up the kingdom of God with love or divide God’s family with hate.  Which path will you and I choose? 

 NEXT TIME:  Part Two: Insights from Buddhism about “Right Speech”

 

Spiritual Aerobics

Spiritual Aerobics

1. Reflect on this saying: “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.” When is this saying true? Is there a time when it is not appropriate?

2. What does your upbringing or spiritual tradition teach about speaking the truth? Does it have teachings about gossip, slander, telling half-truths, etc.? If you don’t know, ask your religious leader, read the sacred texts, or search the web.