Church

There’s an adorable English mastiff I saw a few times in the yard adjacent to the Lutheran church a block from my house. There’s a living quarters on the premises, so I guessed that that the dog belonged to the pastor. One day an elderly gentleman in that yard asked me if my dog’s frantic barking at his dog was playful or otherwise, and I guessed that he was the pastor.

“I’m pretty sure it’s playful – it sounds playful – but he’s a rescue and he’s so big that I don’t want to risk it,” I yelled back across the street. When I got home after that walk, I went to my whiteboard to-do list and wrote, “Go to church/befriend pastor.”

So yesterday, that’s what I did. In addition to that particular ulterior motive, I’ve been wanting to go to a place of worship lately. I enjoy the sense of community and the singing, and generally, I find church services to be a good reminder to be a good person as often as possible.

It was a windy day in Chicago, so there wasn’t anyone standing outside to indicate which door might be best to walk through, so I went through the front door. Opening the heavy wooden door was a dramatic affair as it blew open violently, and the wind rushed in along with a hurried me trying to get out of the cold. The small group of greeters standing inside looked at me wide-eyed and one said, “Well hello!”

I said hello and grabbed a program and started to walk by them, when they stopped me saying, “Do we know you?”

“No, I don’t believe you do!” I said, and I turned around and shook each of their hands (all of them were super awkward about it, but sweet, so I stopped myself from making snide remarks).

I introduced myself to the pastor, and laid the groundwork with a reminder of who my dog was. He’s loud, and a doberman with a tail, so he stands out in a crowd. The pastor remembered him and me by proxy.

The inside of the church was beautiful. Ornate dark wood carvings lined the front of the church, and behind that was a colorful abstract stained glass window. The same type of glass dotted the walls alongside the pews. The carpets were a deep red. Overall, I’d describe the space as warm and cozy, even in spite of the high ceilings and ya know… the churchy vibe.

By the time the service started, I was the only one seated in the first 4 rows, and the back of the church was only sparsely populated. Since I hadn’t been to church in so long, kept turning around to check if people were standing or sitting at certain parts. For the most part, I enjoyed my time there. The song selection was a bit dated, and I know we all love us some organ music, but if I slept less the night before before, the tempo would have lulled me to sleep.

The takeaway from the sermon was that we should more mindfully dole out small measurements of love to improve the relationships in our lives. Jesus said in Luke 6, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

To the children, it was put in terms of baking cookies, and the pastor handed out chocolate chip cookie mix packets to the children at the front of the church. My favorite part of the whole service was the audibly whispered, “YESS!” from one of the parents behind me.

After the service, I glad-handed downstairs between bites of homemade banana bread and sips of coffee. I put four boxes of Girl Scout Cookies on hold in the school office (I was supposed to go get them today, but my check didn’t go through, so I’ll go get them tomorrow – it’s only a block away after all). I walked back into the cold grayness of the outdoors with a smile on my face.

I don’t know how often I’ll go back to this particular place of worship, but I’ll definitely go get those cookies and introduce my dog to Cici (that’s the mastiff’s name). I also hope to open a philosophical dialogue with the pastor while our dogs play.

I spent a lot of time in churches when I was growing up, and the similarity between what Jesus said and what Buddha said (according to my recent readings) is striking. I mean, I always knew that, but churching it up yesterday reignited that bit of knowledge. Now I want to check out a synagogue, and a mosque, and a non-denominational spiritual center to see how everybody else is doing this whole “spread the love” business that I’m such a big fan of. Maybe I’ll learn something, or maybe I won’t, but I’ll be going in with an open mind and an open heart to see what there is to see, and spread some love of my own.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 22

Slow start today. I’ve been trying to take advantage of the fact that my cousin is out of town for the month to catch up on some deep cleaning. The apartment looks great, but – in part due to his absence, and in part due to the fact that I was busy and on my feet all day – my dog has been particularly anxious.

When I decided to take advantage of a short break in today’s rain, so too did every other dog owner in the neighborhood, so we did a lot of turning around and my body ached from trying to restrain him. Also, he was already amped up because there’s this rabbit that lives right outside the apartment next door, and once Maximus spots that little bastard, it’s nearly impossible to get him to wind back down.

I’m totally gonna kill that fucking rabbit, you guys/gals. I haven’t decided how, though. I don’t want to put out poison because I don’t want my dog or any other household pets getting ahold of it, and I don’t think bringing a gun out into the streets of Chicago is a good idea. Still brainstorming. Feel free to put in some suggestions.

Luckily, today’s meditation session was titled Lovingkindness Meditation for Times of Emotional or Physical Pain, so I got to pretty directly deal with some of the emotions that cropped up earlier in the day. There were a few different options for mantras, but I chose, “May I accept my anger, fear, and worry, knowing that my heart is not limited by them.” I was to start by repeating that for ten minutes or so, then switch to breathing meditation.

As I meditated, I customized the phrase bit by bit until I felt like it fit me a little better.

First, it became, “May I accept my anger, fear, and worry, knowing that they do not define me and my heart is not limited by them.”

Then, “My anger does not define me. My fear does not define me. My worry does not define me. I am not limited by them.”

Then I added sadness to the mix. I repeated the mantra again, but got overtaken first by anger, then immediately by sadness. Sadness took hold, and it took me about a minute to bring my body out of its physical response to the feeling. This seems to be a recurrent theme – the “sadness underlying my anger” thing.

I read an interesting article recently about how angry outbursts can be an indicator of depression. Apparently, nobody’s really been looking at anger as a marker for depression, but there’s a fair amount of evidence correlating the two. I can say with certainty that I related to the subjects in the article as I was reading it, and the things I’m digging up in this meditation practice seem to support the main point of the article (at least for me).

After I pulled my body back into the proper position for some intentional breathing things evened out again.

Earlier today I heard back from the admissions folks at the University in Vienna, and they seem to have confirmed that many of my plans are viable (still not assuredly in, but it was good news). I also got a job offer to barback at a Michelin Star restaurant on the weekends, so that’s pretty fuckin’ cool. As I write this, I’m sipping scotch and thawing a steak to enjoy in my clean apartment.

Life is alright, but clearly there’s some stuff that needs sorting out. More tomorrow, probably. And the next day. And the day after that.

And probably the day after that, too.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 17

Prime numbers, amiright?! Today’s meditation was the flip of day 15, in that I was to call up positive emotions instead of negative ones, then focus on the sensations that those feelings begat.

Pretty much the moment I hit center and was able to focus on my breathing, my dog popped into my mind. My mind conjured an image of him hugging me, and of him holding his head against mine while I pet him. I felt my love for him and his for me in that moment. Warmth radiated out from my center and I felt my face contort in that kind of weird smile people do when they’re overwhelmed by happiness (it bares some similarities to sadness in that everything pulls back and you get teary-eyed).

Then I mentally meandered for a while, trying to imagine this thing or that thing to illicit the positive emotions I was shooting for. My mind flitted through the various women I’m currently interested in, and I imagined being with them, around them, near them, etc, but honestly most of the things I imagined were just daydreams, and not actual events from my past, so I feel like those didn’t count.

I tried thinking of different words for happiness. My usual self-speak kicked in, and I was reminded of my many failures recently and farther in the past. Finally I remembered that I made a bar for myself! I felt awash with accomplishment. It had a similar radiating warmth, and I felt myself sit up straighter, and a smile pulled itself onto my face.

I refocused on my breathing, and found myself putting a lot of mental attention on my alarm and when it would be going off. When I tried pinpointing the reason for my shift in attention, I realized I was anxious about it going off. I was worried that if it went off right then (or in the immediate future), I wouldn’t have really done today’s session right. I wouldn’t have maximized my Good Feels Meditation Day because I how could I? My life is largely in shambles and so on and so forth.

I caught myself before getting too far down that rabbit hole, then took a moment to be happy about that. It wasn’t elation, necessarily, but should elation be the standard for positive emotions? I don’t think so. I think that there’s a whole range of small pleasures worth paying attention to, and if you’re looking for them, you’ll find plenty peppered throughout your day. If I’m looking, they tend to be there.

Back to breathing. And this fuckin’ itch that wouldn’t go away on the left side of my face! I caved and scratched it, which was serendipitous in that it reminded me I just got a tattoo I’ve wanted for almost a decade! I felt giddy! Again, radiating warmth, but also the smile that pulled itself onto my face was tighter than the other ones. My shoulders hunched up and my hands clenched, and I rode the feeling back to my breath.

My alarm went off, and I was largely pleased with the way today’s practice went. I veered off course a few times, but I was able to bring myself back, which is the whole point. After my meditation, I was reminded of a number of other reasons why my life isn’t so bad right now. I’m doing a lot of things that I absolutely love, and I’m doing them with a passion I haven’t had in a while. This blog is a fine example of that, as are the subjects of my happy thoughts for today.

Pleasantness in its many forms sits around us all day just waiting to be noticed – we just have to be looking. I’m gonna look harder.

The Wasp and the Hound

We were about 45 minutes into our long walk for the day. My mind was stuck on my persistent lack of money (mostly my fault for spending it all as soon as I get it). I was sick and resentful for being outside. My knee has developed a constant, dull aching that I feel comfortable chalking up to a combination of old age and constant straining against an easily excited 75 pound dog. His legs are notably more muscular than when I first took him home – who needs weights or resistance bands when you can drag your owner around for hours on end each day?

We came to a corner, and he’s learning (slowly) to stop before crossing the street, but this time his attention was on something – anything at all – down the road. I got frustrated and jerked him around to my side, but his gaze never left whatever he was staring at. I got down to his level and I held his face to mine, trying desperately to be entertaining enough to pull his attention from whatever he was transfixed on, but no luck.

When I finally stopped drilling my eyes into his skull and looked around, I saw a tall, well-dressed, waspy white woman with short, blonde hair look at me with clear disdain behind her designer sunglasses. She averted her gaze and sipped her latte, and I didn’t hear it, but I felt the, “Hmph!” as though she had slapped me in the face with it.

We started across the street, “What even is it that you’re looking at?” I asked my dog with as much sincerity as I could pack into a single question. “There’s nothing even there! Silly creature.”

Clearly nobody with a smooth tone and sincere interest in their dog’s likes and dislikes was capable of the consistent beatings my momentary lapse in poise suggested I was doling out at home. Or at least that’s what I hoped went through the lady’s head after I said it. Given my mood, I was already prone to guilt and sure enough Guilt took full advantage of the opportunity, and I felt my shoulders hunch forward on their own.

“You know what, fuck that lady!” I thought as I pushed my shoulders back again with some effort. “Let’s see you try to handle this dog for longer than five minutes without getting frustrated!”

Furthermore, let’s see you re-navigate the struggles of your youth with that haughty aplomb. Based on your clothes, and her “better than you” attitude, I’d say she was sitting pretty comfortably in her middle age. Get off your high sybian for a second, and try dealing with the litany of concerns milling about in my head without getting a little physical, why don’t you?

I laughed to myself at the thought of her trying to wrangle my beast – at the picture of her being dragged down the street after a rogue squirrel – knees scraped, clothes tattered, sunglasses humorously askew, yelling, “Peace, puppy!” or some other ineffectual hippie nonsense.

If she turned around then, I’m not sure cackling to myself would have added to her opinion of me, but we were beyond that now, weren’t we? Slowly, reason and guilt crept back in, and my shoulders found neutral ground, between shame and defensive hubris.

Of course, my anger wasn’t really at her, or my dog, but at myself. It’s always at myself, in all likelihood. All we can control are our actions and our reactions, after all, and I had failed myself, my dog, and the wasp in a moment of weakness when I whipped my dog around the sidewalk. Still though… Fuck that lady.