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Kingston, NY, Friday, Dec. 11, 2009

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Everything ... And Nothing At All
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

December is not shaping up this year as the customary flow of social excess, frivolous spending and holiday glee. We're still buying at a steady gallop, but most of us appear to be downsizing our expectations to meet our dwindling budgets. All the trappings are in place: carols piped in to soothe shoppers and make them jolly, early Christmas parades come and gone, Santa installed at the mall, tent cities of tree vendors popped up like mushrooms on the lawn.

I don't see as many shoppers as usual, the parking lots are not jammed and there's a kind of 'wait and see' attitude going on, but some traditions die hard. Here in California, where I'm visiting on my yearly pilgrimage home, the Christmas Light Wars have already begun, the newest blow-ups added to the collection of lawn decorations and the requisite jumble of lights running, chasing and winking their way across rooftops. My son-in-law has outdone himself this year, annoying his competitive next-door neighbor so much that the man -- apparently afraid of heights -- forced his young teen up onto the second story roof with lights in hand.

Sitting in the sunshine reading, I had to smile as I listened to him micro-manage the placement of each string: "No, not there, to the left, the LEFT!" Not to be outdone by my SIL's talent (and dexterity) he purchased a set of three electronic trees that pump out a light show to music, and now we're being treated to Christmas warbling eight or more hours a day. The Grinch would be tearing his hair out in tufts.

Fortunately, he doesn't live here. My little tribe is as dedicated to this season as the Whos down in Whoville. It's not so much the gifting and gorging that moves us, at least us grown-ups. It's the warmth, the essential lovingness that was so aptly described by Frank Church to an eight-year-old reader in his well-known 1897 New York Sun editorial: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy." I experience great satisfaction sitting in a room bejeweled with decorations, warmed through with tradition and sparking memories of seasons and loved ones long gone. As my young grandson has a report to do on genealogy, I brought a collection of old pictures with me this year. One is of me, a bright-eyed three-year-old, sitting on Santa's lap. The cover tells me it's from 1948, but nothing's changed in the last sixty years. Certainly not the look of wonder in a child's eyes, clutching her candy cane and telling Santa the secret wish of her heart. And aren't you glad? In days this troubled, in times this rocky, the spirit of the Santa mythology needn't be a capitalist lie we tell our kids, but rather a heartfelt reminder of beauty and joy. We choose how we see things, and ultimately that will determine how we experience them.

Each of us is master or slave of our own perceptions. The Buddha made short work of that concept when he told us that, "All that we are is the result of what we have thought." With that in mind, the dreadful mess our nation is in can either look like a downward spiral into banana republic status or a long-expected wake-up call that will infuse us with new determination to rebuild her. The sorry state of our environment can either be a death knell to our, and many other, species -- or hoax, depending on your state of denial -- or a warning bell that we've ignored Gaia for far too long and must now step up as stewards of this lovely Earth or lose our credentials to live here. The confusing machinations of our Congress as it seeks to make necessary change can solidify in our thoughts as a mosh of unhappy obstruction based on cronyism and greed, or a welcome wobble in the old paradigm process that informs us of what is no longer workable. Each day we can winnow out what is obsolete, identify it, and question those who still consider it viable. What we need to put behind us becomes more apparent daily. We can identify the fear in the belligerence of our politicians, note the insecurity that pops up in cool commentary from our neighbors or barked commands from our employer. As much as we're capable of seeing all that's wrong, we are also free to find what's right. Each day we can either focus on solutions or sink into the mire of our problems. I recommend the former if we're to find the beauty and joy that are always there, the magnificent constants of life, asking us to notice them.

Life in 3D is much about sphere of influence. We are easily distracted, we humans. I think that's why people avoid politics and consider it too negative and mundane to be spiritual stuff. In order to wade into it and get the larger picture, you have to be able to stand aside from its dark influence or get swept away. We don't teach our young how to do that in the Western world. We don't even know we should. I learned how to distance myself from those deep ruts of influence when, at an early age, I studied acting. We're all actors, as Shakespeare would tell us, and politics is surely theater but so is almost everything around us. We're thick with Drama Queens in this nation, and audiences greedy to take the journey with them. Reality television, which is anything but realistic, is our latest offshoot of high drama. Actors touted as 'real people' mesmerize us with loosely scripted fare. Me, I think of it as a cheat, a fraud, but people suck it up as if it were the real thing and buzz about it with tweets and blog bits. Even our scandals are dramatic offerings. Now that Michael Jackson's gone, we've turned our attention to Tiger Woods and his stable of mistresses. Oh, Television Gods -- bore me some more, won't you?

Maybe we should all study acting. Coming to a comfort level in a persona other than your own requires you to back up, seek motivation, discover some essential truth about character and put everything in perspective to the whole. Essentially, my early study taught me how to observe. It's a skill that has never failed me. There's no difference between picking through the particulars of a role you fancy and getting an overview of your morning. Where's the tension, what's the essential character, what's the unnamed motivation? And, most importantly, what blocks has the character put in place that they are not recognizing? What pieces of the puzzle elude them in order for the drama to begin? Once we understand that there are always things we are not factoring in, some by avoidance and others from lack of observation, we can begin to see how fluid everything is. Then we come to a point of choice. We become our own sphere of influence.

In the 70s, I adored David Carradine's Kung Fu movies and television series. I didn't care one way or another about the martial arts, although I thought them graceful and interesting. It was the philosophy that made complete sense to me. One particular snippet of dialog between the old blind monk and his pupil, soon nicknamed Grasshopper from this vignette, imprinted itself on my memory:
Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Master Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Young Caine: No.
Master Po: Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?
Young Caine: [looking down and seeing the insect] Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Master Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?
How is it, indeed? How is it that we spend so much time hypnotized by things irrelevant and negative when a shift of our perception would free us from our need to duck and cover, worry and fret? How is it that there are things we're afraid to look at, to factor in? When did we become so addicted to faux-emotions fed to us over the airwaves that we became fearful of experiencing our own? Why is our society so fragmented that we find little satisfaction in our own reality and have to tune in to someone else's to get a thrill? No matter how challenged each of us is by our current circumstance, there is never an authentic reason to succumb to collective insanity when our own lives could be richly informed, powerfully transcendent and bursting with beauty and joy. Except for fear, of course, that thing that nibbles at us late at night when the distractions die down.

Perhaps it's the decades I'm racking up, but I'm not afraid of much these days. Facing fears is the best medicine for showing them up as what they are -- long shadows that tangle our feet and keep our eyes down, unable to feel the sun's kiss on our face. As part of my shaman training, way back when, I faced my own death. If you have become aware that you are part of everything and everything is a part of you, you must have discovered that you aren't just living – you are LIFE, itself. Death is a natural portion of that, a mystery no more potent than the mystery of one breath after another, disrupting the status quo only in the illusionary sense. Once you've come into understanding of that, not much can get your panties in a twist. Think about all the high drama that surrounds death, personally and politically. What would air on our televisions if death weren't the biggest bogeyman around? What would happen to prime time? To news reporting? To war coverage? To box office? And why don't we notice how this hot air balloon is floated above our heads, casting a long shadow and keeping us from looking up at the sun? They tell us death is the enemy. Perhaps it's just the cricket at our feet and fear, the only true darkness.

A mentor told me, decades back, that I would do well to practice coming to center -- as quick as a snap of the fingers -- because we would 'need it,' she wisely suggested. Coming to center is about emptying your head and filling your heart. It's about allowing your senses to register everything around you without a need to analyze, comment or dissect. It's a practice of internal silence, not external, and it's not as hard as it sounds. It's simply a matter of being present. We become -- and rightly -- the star of our own production, the observer of our own play, the perception and the one perceiving. No matter what our challenge, our emergency, our situation, once we learn how to remove all the distractions from our reality we will understand that no panty-twisting is necessary, unless we just love the drama and can't live without it. Being a literary sort, I think of it as the energetic equivalent of Oscar Wilde's quip: "Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing." Being centered is being in touch with everything ... and nothing at all.

In a season when our Higher Angels bend just a bit closer, when our instinct is to be kinder and our heart fairly flutters with generosity, we can seize this opportunity to focus our energy towards a magnificent idea. Our thoughts will define our future, and we must take responsibility for them. If we each optimize our Vision for a peaceful, loving tomorrow and allow it full resonance in our hearts and heads today, we can change both our personal world and the larger collective. Since everything is changing anyway, we have the capacity to steer it toward the best of human understanding while trusting we will be lifted toward even better. Consider the advice of Swami Vivekananda, give it to yourself as a gift of the season: "Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life - think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is the way great spiritual giants are produced."
Snap your fingers and come to center, then. Let all the thoughts and ideas fall away. Look at what you're looking at. Admire it, enjoy it, allow the impulses of beauty and joy to travel the invisible connection from eye, from ear, to heart. Be there with it, part of it, and observe. Everything in the world worth noting is happening within you, at center. You are part of All That Is and there's nothing more important than basking in that actuality. As the Zen proverb goes, "When walking, walk. When eating, eat."

You need not color what Is with the thousand variables your mind is chattering about. Once you hush that little voice, you will be surprised how peaceful you become. You need not fill this season with all that's wrong if you recognize all that's right and well with your world. Perhaps, if you get quiet, you can remember the secret wish of your heart as you sat on Santa's lap, and the trust with which you called it forth. All the world's a stage, dearhearts, but if you can hear the grasshopper at your feet, it's YOUR stage to fill with beauty and joy. It's so much easier than you think because, at center, Love is what you are -- the sphere of influence that you are. Everything else ... everything ... is just distraction.

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