Blessings Capitalists, or, the Economics of the Attitude of Gratitude

Five of Pentacles

How many blessings can you find in this picture? (Five of Pentacles)

Sometimes people can be just a little too perky for me. Yes, I’m one of those. Or at least, I used to be.

The perkiness and positivity is starting to infect me, you guys. Yes, that’s the danger. It gets into you and then it starts reproducing madly like an out of control virus! I KNEW those perky people were dangerous.

I have started to realize some things. (Understatement of the year.)

You know those people who talk about the attitude of gratitude? Oh, how I hate that phrase. Love the concept, but hate the phrase. Because it’s just so perky like a little tiny cheerleader.

But here’s the thing.

Even those of us who are leading chaotic lives in which we run around putting out fires all the time still have small blessings. Is there anyone out there who has never found a penny?

Well, there are two kinds of people who find pennies. The ones who say to themselves, “a penny, nice. And what can I do with THAT? Exactly NOTHING.” And the other people who say, “oh, how nice, a penny. Well, it’s not much, but it’s better than a poke in the eye. I shall save this penny. If I put it together with some other pennies, I might have enough to mail a letter! Now that would be a blessing.”

Do you see how the first person ends up with even less than before — a penny came to that person, he or she ignored it, and thus ended up without that penny, and with a gratitude deficiency as well.

The second person, though, earned a blessing profit. The second person is a blessing capitalist (a term which I have just invented, you’re welcome).

Now I’ll grant you that the blessing profit earned on a blessing as tiny as a penny is, indeed, quite small. But, again, here’s the thing. It’s easier to earn a profit on small blessings. Follow my logic carefully for a moment.

When a large blessing comes along, it’s almost too big for us to appreciate it properly. But when a tiny blessing comes along and we overreact to it with extra appreciation, we magnify its ability to bless us significantly compared to the small amount of blessing that it already represented in our lives. Precisely because small blessings are so small, it’s actually pretty easy to magnify them quite a lot compared to their original size. It’s not so easy to do that with the larger blessings, not that we don’t appreciate those too.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” In the world of blessings, a penny appreciated and made much over and loved as if it were a cute little kitten could actually be more like a nickel or a dime or dare I say it, a quarter earned. That’s a magnificent return on your investment.

Think about it. And if you’re going to be a capitalist, be a blessings capitalist.

P.S. And in case you haven’t figured this out already — I’m not just talking about money here. You can be a blessings capitalist as easily with a sunset or a smile from a friend or beautiful fall leaf as you can with a penny.

Is There Such a Thing as a Tarot Emergency? No, But Tarot Is a Potential Resource in Times of Emotional Crisis

Every so often, this question comes up: is there such a thing as a tarot emergency? Most of the readers I know will tell you that there is no such thing, and that, in fact, you are better off doing a tarot reading after whatever crisis has arisen has passed, when you are calm and able to pay attention to your reading. Moreover, in a true emergency — such as a medical situation, or a legal or financial crisis, it’s very important to consult a professional who specializes in a form of service that is appropriate to the matter at hand. If you are bleeding, for example, a doctor will help you MUCH more than a tarot reader. If someone is threatening your physical safety, you may want to consider calling the police. If you are going to court, you need a lawyer. If you are anxious about your taxes, you need an accountant. Obviously. I think that’s common sense and that you all know this.

That said.

There are some occasions that are not technically emergencies, but that feel as if they are. And often a crisis that does require professional help can, later on, spiral into a series of non-emergency emotional meltdowns.

And that’s when some people start to think that maybe, they have a tarot emergency on their hands.

They don’t. What they have, actually, is an emotional crisis. And there are many things about emotional crises that are — oh, let’s say “not nice.” But, one of the things that IS nice about an emotional crisis is that emotional crises can be treated in a variety of different ways. For example, it’s possible to talk to people in one’s support network — family members, friends. It’s possible to get counseling. It’s possible to take Rescue Remedy or other flower essences. It’s possible to have a nice soothing cup of chamomile tea. It’s possible to take time for meditation. It’s possible to call a support hotline and talk to a volunteer listener. It’s possible to go to a support group.

Given that there are SO many options for handling emotional crisis, calling such a situation a “tarot emergency” is a little bit like saying that you have a pizza emergency. No, you don’t. You are just hungry and craving pizza. But you won’t starve without it! Even if you are in a hurry and don’t have the time or inclination to cook, you could still do something else. You could eat an apple, or a bowl of cereal, or make a sandwich. Unless there’s no food in the house, in which case you have a grocery emergency. But that is still not a pizza emergency!

On the other hand, though, if you are hungry, it is true that eating pizza offers a good probability of satisfying your hunger. Depending on the pizza, you might even stand a chance of getting some decent nutrients out of the deal.

Likewise, if you are in an emotional crisis, a tarot reading is an option that could help to ground and calm you so that you start to feel better. It’s not a tarot emergency, because there are SO many other things that you could also do to handle an emotional upset. But just as everyone has their favorite food, and some people’s favorite food is pizza, everyone has their favorite way to ground and come back to earth — and for some people, that favorite way is tarot. And if that’s you, that’s fine. Tarot is a perfectly acceptable go to option for times of emotional upheaval.

Unlike some readers, I am not one to think that you should never have a reading when you are upset. I actually feel that tarot readings can be a great comfort during times of emotional distress. I don’t think that you should expect the same results as you would of other readings, but then you’re not asking for the same results, are you? Hopefully not!

Here are some questions you MIGHT ask tarot during an emotional meltdown:

  • What is the root of this situation?
  • What do I need to know right now?
  • Why am I having such a hard time with this?
  • What role is this situation playing in my life at this moment?
  • How can I best emotionally support myself through this difficult time?
  • What other resources can I turn to for support during this time?
  • How can I ground?
  • How can I bring myself back into balance?
  • What are some things that I need and don’t need to help me to be in balance?
  • How can I best support my friend/lover/relative who is having a crisis?
  • What can I learn from this situation?

Here are some questions you should NOT ask tarot during an emotional meltdown:

  • Should I break up with my significant other? Is my significant other a selfish jerk? Am I a selfish jerk?
  • Should I quit my job? Should I close my business?
  • Should I move to Australia? (See also Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.)
  • Should I loan a large sum of money to my friend or relative?
  • Should I sign this contract?
  • Should I do this business deal?

Do you see the difference? It’s better not to make major decisions when you are upset. It’s also better not to jump to drastic conclusions about your friends, family, and business partners when you are feeling emotionally fragile. At those times, the best focus is YOU: helping you to feel better, taking the edge off your panic, bringing you down to earth, bringing you back into a state of balance so that you begin to feel calm and grounded again. Once you’re feeling more like yourself again — that will be a better time for you to start considering any major life decisions that you may or may not feel are warranted. It’s okay to take time out first, and let the world deal with itself, while you attend to emotional first aid.

Why Loss Is Another Form of Space Clearing

Samurai Tarot, The Lovers, Nine of Swords, Two of Swords

From the Samurai Tarot: The Lovers, Nine of Swords, Two of Swords. Why so many swords connected with lovers? You tell me. I think we both know the answer to that. The Samurai Tarot says of the Lovers, “You cannot understand your heart if you don’t have the courage to open it up to others.” For the Nine of Swords, it says, “climbing back.” Yes, CLIMBING back. And for the Two of Swords, balance: “Keep your mind focused. Be peaceful even in the heart of battle.” This kind of wisdom is why I love this deck so much.

So much loss in the world today. And yet the energy feels right. It’s like a Tower moment: one of those things that many people hate to experience, but that takes them to a better place, ultimately.

The universe knows what it is doing.

Climate change? You know what, the Earth knows what it has to do. It just isn’t going to be that easy on the rest of us. We’ll have to cope.

Lost lover? Guess what, now you have an opening for someone wonderful to come into your life. Someone who never would have appeared if you were busy being faithful to the jerk who just left you.

Money problems? Oh, what a teaching we have here! You will live through it and thrive. These are the moments when we become so imaginative, so inventive, that we almost can’t believe our own ingenuity.

Injury? Disease? This is perhaps the hardest of all. But — maybe the universe knows better than you here as well. Maybe you need time off and you wouldn’t have taken it otherwise. Maybe you had tension in a body part that wouldn’t release unless you broke that bone. Maybe there is something you need to work through here. At least consider the possibility.

I don’t mean to be patronizing or to blame anyone for their misfortunes, truly. But what I want to say is this: misfortune — or, I should really say, “misfortune” — is more than just a misfortune. It’s a space clearing. It makes space in your life for abundance and love and goodness to come rushing in. If all that clutter that you were so attached to was still there, there wouldn’t be room for all the wonderfulness that is coming.

Of course, there are other types of misfortune besides loss. But when it’s loss — it’s also a space clearing.

Please, trust me on this. The universe knows what it is doing. And that means, by the way, that somewhere deep down inside, YOU also know what you are doing. If you don’t like what you’re doing, then ask yourself why you’re doing it at all.

Tarot Blog Hop: Samhain: Tea With Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche


Who would YOU like to have tea with, if you could pick any person, living or dead? There is one person I’ve been longing to meet, and it’s not possible for me to meet him in person in this life — not now anyway, as he died before I was aware of his existence. It’s Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Thankfully, he IS available through video teachings on YouTube, and through his wonderful books. But is he available via tarot?

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Trungpa Rinpoche founded Shambhala, a tradition which calls upon humanity to “cultivate who and what we are as human beings.” (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, 1988, p. 27.) This means taking time to meditate. It means cultivating compassion. And it means being willing to be a brave warrior. Here is what Trungpa Rinpoche had to say about warriorship in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

“Warriorship…does not refer to making war on others. Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution. Here the word ‘warrior’ is taken from the Tibetan pawo, which literally means ‘one who is brave.’ Warriorship in this context is the tradition of human bravery, or the tradition of fearlessness. The North American Indians had such a tradition, and it also existed in South American Indian societies. The Japanese ideal of the samurai also represented a warrior tradition of wisdom, and there have been principles of warriorship in the Western tradition, and great rulers in the Bible, such as King David, are examples of warriors common to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. On our planet earth there have been many fine examples of warriorship.” (p. 28)

Out of respect for Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision of warriorship, I have invited him to tea using the Samurai Tarot (one of my favorite decks and a deck that is full of deep wisdom). Let’s see what he has to say. And let’s see if I can come up with the right questions to ask! Let me just note that I have never, ever tried to reach someone through tarot in this way before. But I feel that if there is anyone out there who can be reached in this way — and who it would be utterly safe to meet in this way — it would be a living buddha (okay, or a dead one).

Yes, I actually did make tea for Trungpa Rinpoche, but I can't report that he actually drank it! :-) In all fairness, the Buddha never drinks my tea or coffee either.

Yes, I actually did make tea for Trungpa Rinpoche, but I can’t report that he actually drank it! :-)

These are the questions that I asked, and these are the cards that I drew. You can decide for yourself whether or not you believe Trungpa Rinpoche answered me.

The Monk and the Queen of Pentacles

The Monk and the Queen of Pentacles

What should I ask you? And if I did, what would be your answer?

Question: The Monk (9th of the Major Arcana, would be the Hermit in the Rider-Waite)

Answer: Queen of Pentacles (Daruma)

Interpretation: The Samurai Tarot associates the word Zen with the monk. Trungpa Rinpoche definitely appreciated Zen. But why the association with the Queen of Pentacles? In the Samurai Tarot, the Queen of Pentacles is Daruma, and Daruma dolls are also called Dharma dolls. They are meant to represent Zen’s founder, Bodhidharma. There are many interesting things one could say about Bodhidharma! When he arrived in China from India, it’s said that he was met by a crowd of people who wanted to hear him speak. Instead he sat down and began meditating, meditated for hours, and then walked away without saying anything. Later, Bodhidharma went into a cave behind the Shaolin Temple, and meditated there for nine years. Eventually the Shaolin monks convinced him to come and live in a room they had prepared for him at the temple, and he came, sat down in the room, and immediately began meditating — which he continued to do nonstop for another four years. There is more to this story — a lot more — but I feel that Trungpa Rinpoche’s message here, from beyond the grave, even, is that I should ask about meditation, and that his answer would be meditation, meditation, and more meditation!

I feel that my teachers come from more than one tradition, not just Buddhism, and that even the trees and rocks and the Earth itself are my teachers. What would you like to say to me about this? 

Knight of Wands, Shoki, hunter of demons

Knight of Wands, Shoki, hunter of demons

Answer: Knight of Wands: Shoki, hunter of demons

Interpretation: I know very little about Shoki. The Samurai Tarot tells us of his Goliardic cheerfulness! Shoki is a Chinese deity who protects against evil spirits and illness. I think Trungpa Rinpoche’s message here is to be careful who you learn from and who you accept as your teacher. Even though it is said that in some sense every other sentient being is our teacher, that is meant in a different sense from actually regarding those beings as your root teacher or teachers. I also see in this another possible interpretation, that there is a protection against evil that exists and is active, if one approaches one’s life work with a humble and pure heart. And that is something I actually believe. But it’s a dangerous thing to count on!

In searching for information about Shoki, I found out a little more. It’s said that Shoki wanted to become a doctor, and scored very well on the national exam, but was denied the title of Doctor by the Emperor because of his ugliness, and that he then committed suicide, whereupon the Emperor had him posthumously given the title “Doctor of Zhongnanshan.” At that point, Shoki vowed, as a spirit, to protect the emperor and the empire from evil. Apparently many statues of Shoki can be seen above homes in Kyoto.

Justice and the Queen of Swords (the Heron Maiden)

Justice and the Queen of Swords (the Heron Maiden)

I have become more and more convinced that spiritual actions affect the physical world (if there even is a difference between the two!). What is your view on this? 

Answer: Justice and the Queen of Swords (the Heron Maiden)

Interpretation: Justice, to me, speaks of karma. The Samurai Tarot also associates it with inner divinity — or, I would argue, one’s inner buddha nature. But who is the Heron Maiden? The Heron Maiden is one of many folk tales that advises us to be kind to strangers — you never know who they might be! In this tale, a young man finds a wounded heron and nurses it back to health. Later, he falls in love and marries a beautiful young woman, a weaver, who tells her husband not to look at her when she is weaving. Of course, he does (that’s the way of all these tales) and he sees a heron at the loom (he sees the truth, and the Queen of Swords is also a card that is strongly associated with truth and honesty). She bids him a fond goodbye, and flies away.

Do you see what these cards are getting at? We have met before in so many other lives. And we don’t, actually, know who the people are who we meet in this one. We don’t. We don’t know their back story, so to speak. We must treat other beings with kindness and gentleness — and compassion, kindness, and gentleness are the strands that weave together the spiritual and the physical world. We don’t behave gently for the sake of our own well being in either realm, but, when we are kind and gentle, we strengthen the fabric of goodness in the world. We help to weave a fabric that we can all depend on. Likewise, when we are truthful and honest, we strengthen this fabric. Dishonesty and violence, on the other hand, unravel the fabric, and that can cause tremendous problems.

Knave of Wands: the Soga Brothers

Knave of Wands: the Soga Brothers

I have to ask: why all the wild partying that so many people associate with you? Just: why? 

Answer: Knave of Wands (the Soga Brothers).

Interpretation: The story of the Soga Brothers is one of those classic, and utterly tragic, tales of murder and revenge. The Soga Brothers set out to kill the man who killed their father. The Samurai Tarot associates this card with passion, recklessness, creativity, and contradictory feelings. I don’t want to comment at length on this question, even though I boldly asked about it. There is just a feeling of sadness about this card for me, and I think the answer, if anything, is that everyone is human — even a teacher can make mistakes. All the more reason to be careful what lessons one learns and what teachers one learns them from.

Moreover, when we learn from a teacher, we still have the responsibility to think through our own actions and to behave responsibly. At the same time, the fact that someone did something that we may not personally respect, or may have committed acts that we regard as wrong, even, does not invalidate the good things that person may also have done or the excellence of the teachings that person put forward. Every aspect of the teachings, in my view, must be carefully considered and tested on one’s own — we would be foolish to simply accept what we are told, by anyone, without testing its validity for ourselves.

Seven of Cups, Illusions

Seven of Cups, Illusions

If you could say something to us now, something meant for 2014, what would it be?

Answer: Seven of Cups, Illusions.

Interpretation: What can I say? Many things are not what we think they are. We are wandering around in the dark chasing fireflies. As if only the fireflies were real!! But what’s in the dark is real too, and of value, we just may not always see that. We could sit down (or walk) and enjoy the cool night air. Why not that?

When we consider how much of what we see and experience is actually illusion, it should help to make us gentler and less aggressive. I don’t see how it could possibly fail to gentle us. What we think we know is true isn’t always so. Even the things we believe with 100% certainty don’t always turn out to be true, and don’t always turn out to be true all the time even when they are true some of the time. We have to be somewhat soft and pliable and allow ourselves to respond with genuineness to events as they unfold, without jumping to rigid assumptions based on the past. Being open to what is happening is not the same as being weak — it is simply being willing to look around calmly even in the absence of  a firm ground underneath us.

Is there anything you would like to say to me?

The Eight of Wands: Tengu spirits

The Eight of Wands: Tengu spirits

Answer: Eight of Wands, Tengu spirits, necessity. The Samurai Tarot says of this card, “Sooner or later, everything will become itself again.” Well, that’s reassuring!

Interpretation: I don’t know about you, but I had to look up Tengu spirits. I look them up every time I draw this card! Apparently tengu means “heavenly dog,” and there are two types, the crow tengu which have the bodies of humans but the beak, claws, and wings of birds, and the mountain priest tengu, who are elderly mountain priests with long noses. (For more on this, see Charles Goodin, “Tengu: The Legendary Mountain Goblins of Japan,” Furyo: The Budo Journal, Issue #2, Summer-Fall 1994.)

According to the article I’ve cited above, tengu are astral beings, who in ancient times were regarded as evil, but who in more modern times have come to be regarded as more mischievous than evil and as sometimes helpful. Goodin comments, “In their last incarnation as humans, tengu were arrogant samurai or priests — that is why they have beaks or long noses. The expression tengu ni naru is thus an admonition to avoid being arrogant.” I could see such an admonition coming from Trungpa Rinpoche. In addition, the A-Z Photo Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Statuary refers to a tengu as “the slayer of vanity.”

Yet I think there is more here, as well. Tengu are tricksters, like ravens in Native American stories. They can also take human form (which reminds me strongly of the story of the Heron Maiden, above). It’s said that Minamoto Yoshitsune learned martial arts from a tengu named Sojobo. So tengu can not only trick but also teach us. Goodin notes, as well, that tengu are famous for — well, the best term I can think of for this comes from Harry Potter — apparating and disapparating. They go about barefoot, not needing shoes to get from one place to another. Goodin makes a connection here with angels, and also with astral projection and dreams.

To me, the Eight of Wands is also a card of moving fast, so it makes sense that the Samurai Tarot would depict this energy with tengu. Is Trungpa Rinpoche telling me that I need to start moving a little faster? Or that I need to not resist when things start to happen very quickly? Is he saying that if I insist on going barefoot (I generally do, or at least, my feet are bare in sandals) then I should learn how to fly? Or is he saying there is a necessity to see such things as tengu spirits and a necessity to accept the fast-moving flow of whatever may be appearing? I don’t know, but what’s coming into my mind is this thought: Time of is of the essence. Time, and flying beings…of all the cards in this reading, this is the one that puzzles me the most.

Whew! After all that reading, I am SURE you are ready for another blog hop post. Please find your way to one using the links below. And please join me in a moment of gratitude for Trungpa Rinpoche and all his wisdom (whether or not you feel that wisdom is accurately represented here). I earnestly hope he will come back and have tea with me again.


What Does It Mean When Wealth Appears in the Cards?

Seven of Pentacles, or Wealth, from the Samurai Tarot

Seven of Pentacles, or Wealth, from the Samurai Tarot

After saying that I would post a card for the day on social networks, and not on my website, I found myself today writing way too much to put on a social network. So, my card for the day is here at the website, after all….

Card for the Day: from the Samurai Tarot, the Seven of Pentacles

In the Samurai Tarot, this card represents wealth, which (sigh) means that it is a card that is likely to be instantly misunderstood. What does wealth mean to you? Assess your own views on the matter. Because I don’t see a coin on this card, anywhere. I see a beautiful, inviting ocean. I see a tree growing out of a large stone. And I see women jumping happily from a secure boat in a calm sea into that inviting water. What does this say to you about wealth? We have to be very careful in speaking about wealth, as I noted above, because it is so easy to be misunderstood. On the one hand, all we have to do is step outside into nature to realize that we already have all the wealth we need. On the other hand, we do have a legitimate need for the safety and security that actual money brings in terms of making it possible to have a roof overhead.

How do these two ideas connect, for you? Is it possible that there is a connection between knowing that you already have everything you need, and having it? At the same time, be careful in how you view that connection. Some people think you can magnetically attract money by having a good money mindset. There is a kernel of truth in that belief, but there is also more to it than your mindset. There is work involved. This card comes from the suit of pentacles–the message here is one of being down to earth, not of pie in the sky dreams. All is well, or can be well, financially, but that’s at least in part because we are grounded and are using good sense in choosing our actions. Note, as well, one other message of this card, which is that wealth, and money, tend to flow. The tide of this ocean can roll in, and roll out, and this back and forth is certainly delightful. The power of the ocean can also pummel us into sand, though, or fling us onto sharp rocks. And wealth does that to people too, at times. The ocean is calm and lovely today, and all is as we need it to be, but please don’t depend on it remaining so, because this is just one moment in time, and the nature of time is change. Flow. If we can float and surf on the waves, we can survive more easily, but if we are weighed down with too many possessions, we might sink to the bottom and drown. I’m not trying to rain on your parade, but am simply saying that this “wealth” card is not telling us to rejoice because wealth is coming, but rather, is telling us to enjoy and be thankful for what we have right now.

What is the Difference Between a Beggar and a Liberator? Faith + Hope + Love = Action

Beggar and Liberator, from Caroline Myss' Archetype Cards

Beggar and Liberator, from Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards

So often when we face financial problems, as many of us are currently doing (this seems to have been a rough year for many people financially), our natural response is negative. Why wouldn’t it be? And yet, that negative response falls into a category that I would call, “not helpful.” This is so even if your bank made a mistake, or your credit card was charged twice for the same transaction, or your account was hacked, or you are stuck dealing with a debt that you never incurred. Of course it’s understandable to react with negativity to such events. Of course it makes us feel angry and frustrated.


I so often find myself thinking how unhelpful and impractical a concept justice is. And this is one of those times when thinking in terms of what is fair does not help. 

Here is what does help: strong, powerful action.

The cards I pulled today are from Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards. I asked, “what is my archetype for today?” (Answer: Beggar — well, that was rather pointed!) and “what should my archetype be? what do I need to change my archetype to?” (Answer: Liberator).

These cards list light and shadow attributes for each archetype. So for this two position spread, we have:

Beggar. Light attributes: Confronts empowerment at the level of physical survival. Awakens the spiritual authority of humility, compassion, and self-esteem. Shadow attribute: Dependence on others to the exclusion of effort.

Liberator. Light attributes: Freeing yourself and others from outmoded beliefs. Releasing negative thought patterns. Shadow attributes: Imposing your own tyranny over those you claim to liberate. Ignoring legitimate concerns.

How does becoming a liberator help in the move away from being a beggar? That’s a tricky one! It’s almost like a Zen koan.

First, notice what the cards did NOT suggest. They didn’t say, become a Miser, or a Gambler, or a Prostitute (which incidentally doesn’t refer only to literal prostitution in this deck — much entrepreneurial energy could be described as “prostitution” in a positive sense), or a Student, or a Thief, or a Servant, or a Seeker. But a Liberator. That’s not really a profession, is it?

And, in any case, it’s true that for so many of us, financial problems do NOT stem from being in the wrong profession. Struggles of any kind, financial or otherwise, have more to do with our thought patterns, our feelings, and our tendency to not be proactive on our own behalf, but rather to sit down and have a pity party. (That’s not to say that we’re all at fault for all our financial difficulties — many of us are struggling with medical bills, for example, that are simply unavoidable, tax bills that are unrealistic, or credit card bills that someone else ran up — but our frame of mind STILL defines how we react and whether or not we can react effectively.) That’s not to say a change of job isn’t “in the cards,” so to speak, if you are having trouble, but changing jobs doesn’t always mean changing professions. Sometimes it means shifting to a position in which you are actually allowed to do your heart’s work meaningfully rather than being obstructed from doing it or being allowed to do only a piecemeal version of it. And sometimes it means staying put and finding a way to do the work you already do in a way that will make your soul sing. In a way that is loving. (“If you can’t be with the [work] you love, honey, love the [work] you’re with!”)

But change of any kind takes faith. There is no guarantee that change will improve the situation. There never is.

What is the difference between the beggar and the liberator — really? The difference is hope, faith, and love. Once we have faith and hope, we can act. Because we feel the ground beneath our feet again. Yes, action is key — but before we can turn the key in the lock, we must have some feeling of hope that the key we have is the right key for the lock in question — or we won’t bother to even put the key into the lock. We have to believe the key will actually work.

And love?

You can’t act to liberate yourself or anyone else — from financial problems or any other kind of struggle — without love. That’s just my opinion.

To quote from First Corinthians, “there are three things that last” — and not one of them is money.

“There are three things that last: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.” –1 Corinthians 13:13

And to quote from the Dalai Lama (this quote is from the movie Kundun):

You can’t liberate me. I can only liberate myself.


How Powerful Is Meditation? Powerful Enough to Change the World

So, I’m planning the meditation class that I will be teaching tonight at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. And I find myself thinking that the theme of this class is utterly applicable not just to people who are sitting in jail (pun intended — sitting — get it?), but also to the rest of us who are simply sitting in the prison we have created for ourselves, in our own minds.

Let’s talk about Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Then let’s talk about Ghandi. And let’s talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if you are familiar enough with all three that you already know exactly what I’m going to say, then good. You can skip the rest of this blog. :-)

But for the rest of us, let me note that Thoreau spent exactly one day in jail. That’s certainly not enough to qualify him as an expert on how to survive the experience of being behind bars. And yet. Thoreau’s one day and one night in jail changed the world — because it changed him, and because he wrote about it. So already, right there, we have the power of intention, and the power of words — even before we get to the power of meditation.

Let’s turn to what Thoreau had to say.

First I’d like to note that Thoreau struggled with many of the same financial issues the rest of us are facing today. He got a good college degree, from Harvard, graduating in the top half of his class. But the country was going through a depression. According to the Thoreau Society, “Thoreau found himself temperamentally unsuited for three of the four usual professions open to Harvard graduates: the ministry, the law, and medicine.” So he turned to the fourth, teaching, but resigned as a teacher in the Concord public school system after two weeks of teaching because he disagreed with the school superintendent about how to discipline children (and I’d love to know the details of that dispute!).

So Thoreau turned to the family business, pencil making. At one point he started a school, but had to close it because he was taking care of a sick brother. Then he began working as a handyman in the home of his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eventually he asked Emerson’s permission to build himself a small home on Walden Pond, and moved in there to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, but the experience led him, as well, to write his second book, Walden (which apparently was begun when people in town began to ask him what the heck he was doing out there). Thoreau lived in this house for two years. During these two years, in the summer of 1846, there was an incident.

The incident was this: Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. He was opposed to certain actions of the U.S. government at the time. In particular, Thoreau was deeply opposed to slavery (later in life he served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad).

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also. — Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Thoreau was also very deeply opposed to the war with Mexico (which began when the United States came up with a pretext to invade Mexico and start a war in order to take the Southwest — look it up, this is true).

Upon refusing to pay his tax, Thoreau was put in jail. For an account of what this meant to him, and how it changed his life, we must turn to his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” First, Thoreau’s views on the situation overall:

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; — see if I would go”; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. –Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Next, we have Thoreau’s account of what happened when he himself refused to pay his poll tax:

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. — Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (emphasis added, by me)

Do you see what I am getting at here, about the power of meditation? There is a Buddhist expression, “wherever you go, there you are.” And that’s really the fundamental thing that Thoreau is getting at here. You can be in jail. You can be at home. You can be walking the streets of your community. But no matter what, you will be there. As Emerson said, “My giant goes with me wherever I go.” Your mind, your thoughts, your human dignity, your breath…all of this is yours, impossible for anyone to take from you, no matter where you go, whether you go somewhere of your own accord or because you were locked up. Do you see how important this is? And do you see how easy it is for us to lock ourselves up, in a prison of our own minds? 

If we do not notice that we have the ability to be ourselves no matter where we are or what our current circumstances may be, then we do, actually, lock ourselves up. We lock ourselves into some role that we feel we have to play. There is no need for this. We can be ourselves. We can breathe. We can think. We can act as we see fit. What others do — whether those others abuse us, whether they lock us up, whether they act in all sorts of unconscionable ways –that’s on them. That’s not on us. We can be present, stand (or sit, or even lie down) in our own human dignity, according to the dictates of our own consciences. We. Can. Be. Who. We. Are. No matter where we are or how those around us are treating us.

Now, you might say to yourself, big whoop. Thoreau was in jail for one night? Ooooh, what a long night that must have been! But let’s turn to how that night, and its effects on Thoreau, changed history. What did Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have to say about Thoreau? Both spent time in jail themselves because they were inspired by him. Let’s let their voices speak from beyond the grave too (after all, it is almost Halloween!).

An American journalist asked Gandhi if he had ever read Thoreau. His response?

“Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influence me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” written about seventy, eighty years ago. Until I read that essay I never found a suitable English translation for my Indian word, Satyagraha. You remember that Thoreau invented and practiced the idea of civil disobedience in Concord, Massachusetts, by refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the United States government. He went to jail, too. There is no doubt that Thoreau’s ideas greatly influenced my movement in India.” –Gandhi, quoted in Webb Miller, “Homage to Gandhi”

Gandhi began his approach to civil disobedience in India much as Thoreau did — by challenging a tax, with the Dandi Salt March in 1930. He thus began the work that eventually led to independence and autonomy for 350 million Indians in 1947 — 85 years after the death of Thoreau.

What did Martin Luther King Jr. say about Thoreau?

“During my early college days, I read Thoreau’s essay ‘Civil Disobedience’ for the first time…I became convinced then that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” –King, quoted in Brent Powell’s “Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest”

King, of course, was not only influenced by Thoreau, but also was tremendously influenced directly by Gandhi. On hearing a lecture about Gandhi’s practice of satyagraha, King said later that “His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought half a dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” King later visited India to learn more about Gandhi’s work. I don’t think you need me to tell you how King’s work changed our world, here in the United States. And it all started with the willingness to note, what happens if we go to jail? Then we are in jail. That’s all. But our meditation goes right back out again — it doesn’t stay locked up with our flesh and bones. It DOES make a difference, inside the jail (whether it’s a self-imposed prison or an actual brick and mortar jail), and outside it.  

It may seem as though I’m rambling, and I am a bit. But my message here is this: Meditation is not just a practice that makes us peaceful, calm, and present. Meditation is nothing less than a nonviolent method for changing our world. Because, when we change ourselves, guess what happens? We change everybody else too.  

Let’s conclude with King’s remarks in one of his Letters from the Birmingham Jail:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides–and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

Yes, yes, and yes. That is what the world needs: creative extremists. And meditation is one way, one powerful and brilliant way, to open that door up for us.