just be it It’s about the work involved in establishing a dedicated practice to feelings of a bigger belonging through practices aimed at increasing feelings of compassion, gratitude and forgiveness

Breaking Past the Echo Chamber of the Mind

I recall Wayne Dyer saying we have an estimated 60,000 thoughts a day, with almost all of them being repeating thoughts.  I also have heard ‘belief’ defined as a thought we won’t let go.  When we are stuck in our beliefs, rigid to pilgrimage to new thoughts, learning stops.  I do remember a time when the news was primarily non-emotive reporting.  The advertising persuasion was there for a new car or for cigarettes, but the news anchors didn’t report from their bias.  Our churches kept pushing static thoughts and the government had its agenda.  In effect, it seems those in power aim to control the thoughts we think so we’ll obey them.  I was fortunate, growing up through the static times of the 50’s and early 60’s where a culture of questioning those static thoughts was frowned upon.   And then the Beatles came with the rest of the British music invasion.  Eastern spiritual practices were influencing us, psychedelic drugs were pulling the rug from under our static world, and politics was being turned on its head with the beginning of globalization.  I was an early revolutionary at the time, and fortunately for me, my parents took an open minded approach to my challenge of those early childhood static thoughts.  While many of the rest of the family would have thrown me under the bus, while the church was appalled by my questioning thought and the state was disgusted that I wouldn’t blindly follow them to the Vietnam War, my parents encouraged and accepted my exploration of thought.

Holding on to repeating thoughts kills creativity and enthusiasm to meet life with vitality.  Just like water is flexible, always exploring the path of least resistance, constipated thought within the echo chamber of the mind is rigid and generally leads to anxiety, disatisfaction, craving, lack of vitality, anger, fear, and greed.  You can check this out for yourself by assessing your attachment to ‘being right’.  The more we’re attached to our sense of knowing the answer, the more threatened we are when we meet diversity of thought.  No doubt, it’s much easier to associate with those who echo the same thoughts in our minds than to engage in dialogue with those who have a different thought echo chamber.  And we seem to form our groups of similarity  to further entrench our ‘beliefs’.  I can feel safe speaking politics with those who think the same thoughts I do, speak religion with those who think God is what I think, and with those who consume like I consume.

This matter of consumption is crucial to our times as we’re facing media aimed to shape consciousness rather than to inform.  Media used to report events and leave the personal reaction to us.  Today, with the vast options to media and the corporate financial incentives to shape viewers’ minds, there is no news.  Perhaps the closest thing to news today is the BBC.  No matter where you turn, there’s an angle to persuade you to a particular repeating thought pattern based on inference and judgment.  It’s almost impossible to find a news anchor today reporting events without an emotive vocal inflection or biased slant to what the owners’ of the media want conveyed.  Whether it’s on the so described ‘right’ or ‘left’, we can pretty much predict the repeating thoughts we’ll hear day after day.  Those thoughts generate a horizontal thought association with what lines up with our thinking, we consume more and more, and ultimately become ‘obese in thought’, many times repeating the biased media’s rationale over and over and over.  This reinforces our sense of ‘I know that’ and kills the cornerstone of democracy which demands a well informed society willing to dialogue the events of the day with an open, ‘I don’t know that’, mindset.

Perhaps the greatest gift of a truly liberal arts education is coming to that place of intellectual thirst where you ‘know you don’t know’.  The deeper we go in our learning, the more we uncover, the more we know we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg. I remember researching topics at the library, reviewing the thoughts others had on the topic, providing my personal analysis, and then being challenged to come up with my own synthetic creative statement which incorporated previous thinkers with my thought.  It was always a humbling experience and my advisors were continuously challenging my inferences and conclusions until I was humbled to the vast mystery and depth of the issue.  It seems that students today ‘believe’ Google will provide them a complete answer.  Yet, our searches are ranked on a ‘pay to play’ basis, so once again,  it’s impossible to get an unbiased answer without influence from those in power and wealth.

Whether you’re under the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network or NBC’s counter marketing strategy with MSNBC, you’re decreasing your capacity to face issues with a creative mind.  If you do engage someone with an open mind you’re probably also caught in the fantasy of actually changing their mind.  This seldom goes well since an attempt to change another always has an underlying element of violence.  So how can we go forward, or has the propaganda machine won?

There is a way to break the echo chamber and move into new territory.  It’s through the process of ‘stilling the mind’, with a steady practice of simply observing our thoughts in silence, eventually noticing those magical places of ‘no thought’.  These moments are brief, but it’s where real peace is found and where the creative ‘new thought’ arises.  One spiritual teacher described it as a ‘bounce’.  It’s a space where we can let go our very notions/concepts of a separate being and touch impermanence and the felt sense of our interconnection with all things.  This is a place where original thoughts come up.  It’s actually called Divine Providence in the Declaration of Independence.  The founding fathers had a strong sense of spirituality and deep faith in thoughts arising from deep within the well of faith.  Indigenous cultures recognized this great power as well as they advised ‘just breathing’ before anyone speaks.  Actually, the word ‘inspire’ comes from the root of ‘breath in’.

If you want to break the echo chamber of static thoughts, increase your vitality, and contribute something new to the conversation rather than repeating old thoughts over and over, start a mindfulness practice in the early morning before the renegade mind takes over with relentless repeating thoughts.  This is easiest in nature with the first lighting of the day and the first nature sounds that accompany it.  In this space we’re more likely to bounce into the creative ‘no thought’ moment, more likely to touch the sacred and still the mind from the profane, from greedy and fearful thoughts, from the restlessness and disatisfaction that seems to come from the human condition.  Over time, you’ll be amazed at the discovery of first time thoughts, actually once again becoming the ‘creative artist of life’ you once were as a child.  This practice of awareness and mindfulness will lead to a richer quality of life as you become less and less concerned with ‘being right’, ‘changing others to be like you’, ‘seeking the approval of others’, or with numbing yourself from the pain of echo chamber thoughts through intoxicants and screen time.

Flexibility and Curiosity vs. the Closed Mind

Our Biggest Problems Stem from Our Closed Minds

All too often we succumb to the ego’s desire to ‘think we know’.  We enter this world with curiosity and playfulness.  We all have our experiences which we try to make sense of along with those in our surroundings who try to have it make sense to us like it has for them.  Our limited views create our cultural bias, the tendency to judge the outside world through a narrow view based on our own culture.  As a child in the 1950’s, it was culturally ok to litter.  We watched racially biased television and used language that had racially derogatory implications.  We didn’t know a variety of skin color, didn’t know a variety of religions,  didn’t know the impacts our waste had on the environment or the dangers of the drugs used on our dairy cattle.  As a young child trapping gophers, I didn’t know the life of the creatures living on our land.  As a farm lad, our animals were viewed as assets.  My cultural bias was pretty homogenous except for the migrant workers from Mexico and the occasional exposure to a different European language from our neighbors a mile away.  Our cultural bias came from conservative Norwegian Lutheran traditions that were closed to embracing diversity with an open mind.  My parents were ambitious, intelligent and truly believed in the American Dream.  They worked hard and they were humble, participatory citizens, active in the church.  They believed that idle hands were the work of the devil.  As children, we fully believed the mandates of the Ten Commandments and the suggested consequence of lasting damnation if we were to violate them.  Looking back now, the commandment to ‘honor and obey’ your parents made the parenting process much easier for them.  Our religious orientation had a fair amount of fear in it.  Yet, my most positive early spiritual experiences came from a loving relationship with Jesus.  This is where I began to develop a more open mind to the mystery of God.

I clearly remember several times when pressed to find a solution or a lost object, falling to my knees, clearing my mind, and asking the Divine for assistance.  It had the regularity of gravity.  Every time I emptied my mind to that which was much bigger than me I was answered.  My tendency to ‘think’ I knew what was going on was diminished as miracles happened through my youth.  The combination of this faith and supportive parents gave me courage to step out, to broaden my view, to whittle away at my cultural bias.

This extension was most dramatically challenged in 1967 when I joined a Philippine family as an AFS exchange student.  Their life was dramatically different from mine.  They had previously lived three generations in an apartment building, but rented a house and car to accommodate the qualifications for hosting an American.  They welcomed me with deep love and fully included me in all the family rituals and chores.  Their religion was different, the school I went to had a different perspective on things, their skin was a different color, and they lived with much less than what I had been used to.  At meals, we had been instructed to eat everything with gratitude, no matter what.  We had blood sausage, shark soup, developed duck eggs, dog, snake, just to mention a few of the standouts.  Our AFS training had been ‘no complaint, no complaint’ when it came to food.  I slept on straw covered by a sheet.  Cotabato City on the island of Mindanao was half Muslim/half Catholic at the time and carried some of the religious conflicts we’ve come to see today.  The value for life seemed different there as we nightly heard gun shots and occasionally witnessed gun violence in the streets.  At the time, my cultural bias was being challenged.

My host family was so happy.  They had so little that they had space to truly give attention to and gratitude for what they had.  Each morning we woke before dawn to polish our Jeep.  I saw loving humanity in the Christians and the Muslims.  I had seen this back in Minnesota wondering why people would judge one another so harshly from their ignorance fed from a narrow cultural bias.  In many ways, I was smashing my narrow cultural bias, yet, there were areas where I didn’t resist strengthening my bias.  When returning to the US I literally got off the plane and kissed the ground for the freedoms we have and the quality of life we enjoy.  Yet, the needle on my cultural bias had been dramatically moved. 

At five, I was set on being a jet pilot.  Upon my return from the Philippines, I applied to the naval academy and the air force academy.  My cultural bias would be further tested through my senior year of high school.  I had violated the laws of ‘smaller belonging’ by traveling to the Philippines rather than staying home to run our football teams’ co-captain practices.  The judgment from those who stayed behind found a number of ways to punish me from their sense of betrayal.  While this hurt, there was a bigger shift going on.  My belief in the church was being challenged as they judged people with long hair and promoted the violence in Vietnam.  My belief in country was being challenged as the confusion of the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly evident.  The whole notion of ‘authority’ was under scrutiny.  At some point I opted out of pursuing a military education.  At the time, news was news, and the images and reporting from Vietnam kept us from the sanitary reporting of today.  We saw what war did and the premise of the war was more obscured than ever as it proceeded.  Friends were writing letters back about the horrors of the war and my bias to serve without question moved further.

That spring, Dr. King was assassinated.  That summer, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.  I had traveled to Italy for a major AFS student exchange conference that summer.  It lasted one week and I then had two weeks to travel to Frankfurt for our return flight.  The only problem was that I had spent all my money in Italy.  Traveling through Europe without a penny in the pocket is one of the greatest ways to move the cultural bias needle.  I felt the judgment from others, learned to beg for food, and found devious was to transport my way to Germany.  Here I learned the tremendous value in periodically breaking from the insulating attributes which wealth brings.  We then had the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention and shortly after, I took a train to Valparaiso, Indiana, to begin my Liberal Arts education at Valparaiso University.

Many of my fellow classmates had been stars in their home communities.  Far from home, they had left the support of their families and their previously learned identities.  Once again, our narrow windows on the universe were being challenged in extreme ways.  We were now exposed to another major shift in cultural bias.  What we ‘thought’ of ourselves was no longer relevant.  Our minds and our spirituality were further challenged by our teachers, classmates, and a culture fully calling out the dangers which can come from a ‘I know everything’ closed minded attitude.  I came to fully appreciate the benefits of a Liberal Arts education in the evolution of humanity.  I witnessed the violence and dangers which come from a closed mind and appreciated the skills developed by those who cultivated the open mind.

A Call for a Less Violent Politics

We know it’s simply of human nature to continually face our dissatisfaction with things.  We can feed our restlessness by growing our attachment to our sense of “knowing”.  I’ve heard it said that the three most dangerous words are, “I know that”.  The closed mind takes its limited information and locks into a concrete conclusion that leaves little room for all that’s unknown.  Curiosity is quelled, we take sides, and push to get others to share our belief.  Today we have hundreds of special interest lobbies funding campaigns to get what they want.  As we’ve polarized the nation and further locked into our cultural bias from media that feeds conflict and our dissatisfaction we find ourselves frustrated with a broken system of government.  There simply isn’t an example of dialogue in any branch of our government.  Our churches seem to be regressing to pushing the Evangelical message as they help to push government agendas without regard for those who are harmed.  Yet, all of our great spiritual traditions mandate us to first seek to not cause harm.  With that, shouldn’t all of our legislation drive from that premise?  This makes common sense to me.  First, examine who gets hurt by the actions we take rather than today’s push to see how the action helps one’s special interest.

Our politics will become less violent when we use skillful means to communicate with one another.  This is fostered through taking a time in silence to just breath together, nonverbally, letting the restless mind settle before we speak.  Real faith has the courage to let the calculating mind rest as Divine Providence provides a better solution when we allow it.  Rather than the self centered nature of the lobby, participants would examine an agenda item without attachment, first exploring who gets hurt.  Ancient Hawaiian culture began all meetings with a silent, reverent breathing together before speaking.  The mandate was to act in the interest of “best for all with harm to none”.  This is the Golden Rule as promoted at the core of every major spiritual tradition.  It’s a mandate that comes from the practice of an open mind, expanding our sense of belonging, breaking down our cultural bias.


I Can’t See It From My Angle

This morning we were meeting the day with beautiful reflections on the water.  My wife was sitting three feet away and described a reflection of the clouds that was pretty amazing.  From my chair, I just couldn’t see it.  I didn’t have the angle she did.  I needed to get up out of my chair and move to her position to see it.  I found this to be a great metaphor for our times.  It seems we’re all sitting in our chairs, perceiving the world from our fixed angle, refusing to get up and move.  We can open to new ways of seeing things or we can close our minds to the possibility of another angle.  It takes curiosity, kindness and a willingness to see things new.  If we only fix on news media that lines up to our angle, only converse with people of political and religious angles we know, only hold to socioeconomic and racial circles that match us, we’ll never be able to see the beauty that can come from moving to another vantage.

As a child, my experiences were quite homogenous.  We were white, Scandinavian heritage, lower income dairy farmers.  Our religion was Lutheran and our politics were Democratic.  There wasn’t much diversity except for our conflicts with Catholics, civil discussions with Republicans that didn’t seem that different from us, and the Hispanic migrant workers.  For us, Nikita Khrushchev was the boogie man of the time.  We believed in the authority of our government, Jesus and our parents.  Any curiosity on the matter could threaten our everlasting life in heaven.  However, big change happened.  My angle on the military and government changed when I got letters from classmates who had moved their angle to Vietnam.  In 1967 I was a foreign exchange student to the Philippines.  I was placed in a town that was half Christian and half Muslim.   I lived with a family that made our lower income life look like luxury. I witnessed shootings and a cheaper value on life. At times, I carried a side arm.  The Beatles and the British music invasion were happening.  My senior year Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were speaking a language of love, peace, social justice and kindness to all peoples. They were shot and I recall some people from my homogenous hometown refusing to get up out of their chair and see things from a different angle.  They were afraid to.  Times were changing and things weren’t working out the way they thought they should.  We were questioning our government’s wisdom, many of our church leaders locked into their dogmatic angle refusing to explore love and compassion from other angles.  Our parents were struggling with the rapid change.  In colleges, we were protesting and they shot at us.

Sometimes, instead of getting up and moving to see things from another angle we just want to close our eyes.  We stop exploring our beliefs and how we came to them.  We close our minds to what we thought was, to what is, and fearfully refuse to pay attention to what’s happening.  I know many friends today who simply refuse to talk about anything other than sports, weather or perhaps gossip about other people.  I admit, when I’m with someone of far right political thought and dogmatic religious belief, it’s hard to stay above my judgment.  It takes tremendous energy to move into an empathetic position, seeking an understanding to their belief system.  Yet, that’s where the real work needs to be as we move to what Thomas Harris called an  ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ position.  Dr. King has said our advisory can smell our contempt for their position and when this happens we lose our persuasive moral authority.  They are smelling our unwillingness to empty our fixed position, our sense of ‘knowing’.  Yet, this is what’s required for real dialog.  This is what real empathy looks like.  If I’ve never got up out of the chair to move to see a new angle I’m blind.  If I’m refusing to move to see from your angle, my closed mind will only grow stronger and learning stops.

I love the phase, “I live my life in expanding circles of belonging”.  Rather than living in fear, building walls to new experiences and locking into our smaller belonging, we step out and invite diversity in.  My Lutheran faith was rejuvenated through my study of comparative religions.  Today, Buddhist, Indigenous and Sufi writings feed my soul to a deeper spirituality, all based on ‘bigger belonging’, smashing the illusion of our perceived separateness.

Sometimes we deliberately get up out of the chair and move.  Sometimes the rug is pulled from us through experiences of surprise.  Brother David Steindl Rast, a Benedictine monk, has suggested we live each moment in ‘surprise’.  The founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, has challenged the very arrogance of the ‘knowing fixed mind’ when the universe (God) is so beyond our human capacity of understanding.  They would both claim our response to the gift of life should always carry a sense of wonder, awe and gratitude for the opportunity to just be.  This is what feeds the human spirit, creativity, the open mind, and bridges/circles over walls/division.

Carrying a curiosity to put ourselves in others’ angles of perception is not easy.  I can certainly see in myself the temptation to lock into my sense of ‘rightness’.  It seems easier to carry the solid, rigid nature of a rock than risk the ever changing flexible ways of water.  Yet, when I look at all the angles water gets to experience as it travels from stream to river to ocean, that’s what draws me to richer dialog.  Rather than saying, “I don’t talk politics, diet, money, religion, etc.”,  I’m stronger in my invitations to understanding, using questions like, “How did you come to that view (angle)?”,  “Tell me more”, “I’m curious about what’s behind that belief.”, “Wow, I’ve never seen that angle, tell me more.”


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