Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Cycle of Death & Birth

I recently started doing devotions again. I used to do them quite regularly up until several years ago when I suppose it felt like they were either losing effectiveness or, more plausibly, I just became too busy. They're much different of course... my travels of the past six years have inevitably and irreversibly changed the way I view things/people/life/God and my refreshed devotions reflect those changes. Anyway, considering how much the content and format have changed, it's surprising how similar the revitalization/communion with nature/transcendent experience feels. Mystics across every religion- Islam (sufis), Judaism (Kabbalah), Christianity (Desert Fathers/Mothers), Hinduism (yogis), etc. - all relate similar experiences as they explore the deep realms of themselves. Having done a fair share of internal searching throughout my 20's, I'm still intrigued by these practices, but also more concerned with how they can be applied to my relationships and daily mindset.

The chapter of the book I'm reading now, The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, is discussing a lot about mind states and the different ways in which we can handle them. Some of the thoughts I've enjoyed pondering in recent devotions:

- "Our thoughts are wonderful companions but horrible masters."

- Neurogically, our brain processes each sensation through a twofold process. First, it is labeled as positive, neutral, or negative, and then it is categorized into one of a large variety of specific emotions such as greed, wisdom, hatred, jealousy, etc. From what I understand so far, we don't have much control over the first part of the process, but we do have a say in how the sensation gets labelled. For instance, we could choose to view a typical neutral sensation in an unhealthy way (boredom, lethargy) or in a healthy way (peace, contentment).

At other times, I listen to online sermons from the pastor at my sister's church in Arizona, Shane Hipps. I've always been more of a soloist, a heart-to-hearter or a small grouper in terms of spirituality, but I find Shane's sermons open-minded, invigorating, and inspiring.

And many times, I simply journal, or just sip my morning tea/coffee while I gaze out the window and let me thoughts flow by.

So a couple days ago, my devotions dealt with the biological process of death as described in Tibetan Buddhism (a group which does a significant amount of meditation on the dying process and the purpose behind it... to the point where they even meditate in front of corpses according to what I hear.) Soon afterwards, I hear the sound of a bird banging up against a window repeatedly. Google informed me it's an Eastern tarheel, most likely a bull-headed young male taking advantage of the spring mating season to mark his territory against the evil rival he keeps spotting in the window who looks suspiciously like a long, lost twin.

At first I can't believe how stupid he is not to realize the difference between a window reflection and an enemy bird... especially considering the growing pain he must have in his head. And then I suddenly flash back to the recent devotion on mind states and think of how we all do quite similar things when we consistently choose to be angry, depressed, irritated, etc. as responses to certain stimuli in our lives. And even though we consciously know these mind states are eating away at us physically, mentally, and emotionally, we stubbornly persist on choosing them.

So I went on upstairs and began working on a translation with Joo. They've gotten more interesting lately as she's branched out in the scope of her translations. This one in particular was discussing how the general populace throughout history tends to get 5% happier with every 10 years of life, how perfectionists tend to overeat, and about a mosquito-zapping laser gun. Just then, I notice and explosion out of the corner of my eye and look out in time to see a limp squirrel do about 3 flips from a high lamppost to the ground. I grabbed Joo and ran outside to see the poor stiff who just ate into who knows how many Volts of electrical wiring...

Being the sensitive wife that she is, Joo suggested a funeral and so she dug the hole while I carried the squirrel and found some flowers for the grave. I couldn't help but think of the death process I had read earlier in the morning which talked about how the four elements- earth, fire, air, and water- all return to "themselves" upon the death of a living creature. Joo gave a touching eulogy apologizing to the squirrel for dying from electricity - something that only exists because of us humans, but means nothing but pain to wild animals. But we also discussed some of the more hopeful transitional aspects of death and pondered where the squirrel's soul was now...

In other obituaresque news, the beautiful flowers which have graced my parents' property are now starting to droop their weary heads and so Joo went around snapping off the bulbs and throwing them to the wind, hoping they carried enough life force to sprout forth next year.

On our way up to our house, we noticed that the eggs had finally hatched in the nest over the deck and so we looked at the calm morning dove babies until their mother grew a bit restless and sent us away. Also growing each day are the bacteria in JooYeon's premiere batch of kim-chi... ahhh... the beauty of death and life...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring Cleaning at the Showalters

With the weather warming up and flowers abloom all around us, we ventured outside to do some light spring cleaning like clearing out the window wells and shoveling out the roof gutters...

Joo got lots of hands-on experience such as painting all of our outside chairs...
Dad got rid of all our family secrets in a fire while I supervised.
Joo and I held down the fort while Mom and Dad went out to Arizona to visit Heather for a week- they spent a lot of the time watching the Cleveland Indians spring training, but also plenty of time at some of Heather's favorite dives, and even an eloquent tea house which was a dress-up affair.
They were priveleged to witness the cactus in front of Heather's home blossom for its one glorious time every 20 years...

Meanwhile, we had loads of fun playing frisbee, tennis, doing yoga, watching the plants, etc.

Joo even finally took the huge plunge to make her life in America sustainable by starting her first batch of kim-chi. It's difficult to explain the importance of this, but one quick example is that nearly every Korean household has two refrigerators - one normal, and one especially reserved for kim-chi. We won't know how it turns out for awhile because it has to ferment and age for quite some time before it's ripe for the eating...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

All you need is Love...

After returning from our recent trip to South Korea, Joo and I's life has fallen into about the closest thing to a routine since we finished our time up in Korea and started our honeymoon over a year ago. Most of the time has been spent at my parents' house with the following highlights:

- Househunting. We've been "on call" with our real estate agent down in Athens, OH and Joo checks the MLS every day just to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. For all the national talk of empty houses everywhere, Athens seems to have even fewer houses on the market than normal. That said, we have had some close calls that we've traveled down to look at and which just barely missed our standards of walking distance to OU, no major fixing needed, an open kitchen/living room layout, room for a small garden, and of course a specific price range.

- Frisbee. I've been ecstatic to get out on a couple of the nicer days and play my heart out with a good group of local guys and girls.

- Translations. The workload has been quite sparse, but thankfully enough to cover our living expenses (since we have been fortunate enough not to have to pay rent for awhile) and even put just a bit back to get ready for a home purchase.

- Baking bread. We've branched out to start trying things like soft pretzels, pizza doughs, Indian naan, rosemary whole wheat bread, etc. The joy of course is in sharing it with people like my parents or friends.

- Family time. It's continued to be a good time for Joo and my parents to get to know each other as well as me to get to know my parents as an adult (it's amazing how different -and fun- they seem now that I'm at my current life stage!)

We did have a recent one-week visit with the Stricklers in Indiana which is fast becoming our second home in America. The Stricklers (shown below) consist of Craig and Tammy (the parents), Cammy (whom I've only seen a few times but enjoyed spending this Easter with), and Weston. And Jenny, Weston's girlfriend, is practically a Strickler as well.

This time when we went out to spend some time with the Stricklers, my cousin Kathryn also flew out to spend her Spring break with us. I wish I had more pictures of that time, but alas our camera still resides in Korea at the service center. It was a rather eclectic mix with the Strickler family, Kathryn (the only teenager), Joo and me, and an everflowing stream of people of all ages coming to and fro from the Stricklers whose home is somewhat of an intentional community. The week was meditative ranging from morning devotions and yoga to family conferences and discussions on thought-provoking movies like Milk and Reign over Me.

Tammy had just gone through a 10-day meditation course like the one I had done in India (and Wes and his dad had done earlier), and so she spoke about it at a Wednesday night spirituality group that they formed. All of us shared stories about how we had experienced strange (but pleasant) incidents/states as we reached the end of the 10 days. It had also been interesting for us to read accounts from mystics from various religions throughout the ages who all described similar experiences in different types of terminology. We closed the session with a gong meditation, a new one for me and Joo. As we sat there in a prayerful state after some silence and group ohms, a local musician named Marion resonated a huge Chinese gong in a way that filled the room with powerful vibrations that ripped through our bodies and minds.

Writing things like this causes me to wonder how different people among my contacts who follow this blog, most of whom are Christians, would react. Some would be very interested. Others would be concerned of the "overly-liberal" aspects of it. Most, especially if they would be there in person to witness the experiences, would probably not be that judgmental, but would also raise the question "why?" Yes, these practices inevitably result in feeling pulsing throbs of energy race through the body, out-of-body experiences, increased sensitivity to light, etc., but what's the purpose of all of this? It's kind of the opposite of conventional prayer which is much harder to measure objective effects, but which has a set and specific purpose.

For me, it is an essential step in re-connecting with the Christian faith of my early youth. I feel there is a large gap between what I know/fully believe in and the spiritual ideals I hope/strive for. For several years in my early twenties I focused solely on what spiritual teachings could teach me for my daily life and now I'm spending more energy being aware of how I feel about experiences in my daily life and what that . As time passes, my hope is that those two areas are slowly growing closer and closer to each other to bridge that gap.

For a very crude example, I know from my personal experiences that helping relieve others, anyone, of their burdens - through physical chores, discussions, or other ways - fills me with a definite positive feeling. This would be compatible with either the Christian or the Buddhist teachings of loving your neighbor, but would not be compatible with a Christian or Moslem extremist position of helping out only those "on your side."

On a more debatable level, it has been my personal experience that accepting everyone and attempting to establish relationship with them is preferable to judging/excluding them. This directly clashed with some of my earlier Christian beliefs where the New Testament directed Christians to cast certain people out of the church and not even eat with them. While context is important, and the ultimate goal was theoretically to help these people "come around" in the long run, this mentality simply goes against my definition of what unconditional love is.

To give an example of something that came up in one of my devotions this past week... I was reading about mind states and how there are a range of healthy mind states (wisdom, love, generosity) and a range of unhealthy mind states (grasping, aversion, delusion). Now, picture an apple tree in late autumn. As you approach the tree to select some fruits, would you choose some nice lush ripe ones ready to eat or would you gather the rotten, worm-infested, stinking ones? Obviously you would pick the first ones because they would be more delicious and also healthier for the body. It is the same with mind states. In any given situation, we can choose to assume a healthy or an unhealthy mind state. So, why do we so often select unhealthy ones that bring disease to our soul like eating a wormy apple could bring disease to our body?

So, those are some of the types of things Wes and I discuss, but we also had a lot of fun in Columbus where we stayed at the Embassy Suites and went to a wine-tasting. Joo and I also went to an organic gardening seminar in Athens to try to start making contacts in the area and increase our knowledge about gardening as we will hopefully soon be embarking upon our first garden together. We learned things like how any part of the black walnut tree can kill vegetables, how the fingers of smokers should never be allowed to touch live tomato leaves, and how certain plants can either be used to team up with each other (tomatoes and asparagus) or to sacrifice for one another (radishes seemed to take the brunt of the sacrifices, bless their hearts).

On Easter, a certain bunny was quite kind to us visiting us with baskets at the Embassy Suites in the morning (Stricklers), a delicious lunch of 3 sweets and 3 sours (Longeneckers), and a spice basket in the evening (Mom and Dad).

As a closing, I have felt incredibly blessed in two ways recently. The first is that I am surrounded by a diverse range of close relationships in my life that love me and whom I love dearly. The second is that I am married to Joo, who has gracefully invested herself fully into all of my most meaningful bonds with people, even though that means quickly shifting between social environments that are some times nearly polar opposites.

"In the end, it all boils down to Love."
-Reverend Joel Miller