Feb 23

Increase Gratitude with the practice of Japanese Naikan

The Importance of Gratitude

“My own gratitude heart is all that matters.”
-Sri Chinmoy

Down through the ages, great thinkers in religion and philosophy recommend cultivating gratitude as a key to happiness and satisfaction. A task as simple as keeping a daily gratitude journal in which one reflects on one’s blessings can powerfully transform life. Yet what if you get stuck in the starting gate with only a blank mind or or cliché ideas that don’t resonate in your core being when you try to count your blessings and cultivate a thankful spirit in your daily life?

The Three Questions of Naikan

One tool to increase gratitude in your life is a process of self-reflection called Naikan originated by Yoshimoto Ishin, a businessman and Buddhist practitioner of the Jodo Shinshu sect in Japan who lived from 1916-1988. Naikan literally means “inside looking” in Japanese and the core practice in this form of psychology popular in Japan is to ask yourself three questions while contemplating your interdependence with the world around you – whether family, friends, work, pets, things, our higher self, etc.

Question 1. “What have I received from ________?
Question 2. “What have I given to ____________?
Question 3. “What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________?

Taking the time at the end of your day to spend 20-30 minutes to look back over the day’s experiences through the lens of these questions can create a radical shift in perspective towards one of increased gratitude. The first question prompts a serious inquiry into all the gifts large and small that we received from others. The second question helps to counteract a spirit of expectation that the world owes us special treatment. Instead of taking the results of the first question for granted as our due, we stop to ask what have we given back to the world around us? Question 3 is the biggest shift of all for those moments when it is easy to dwell on life’s misfortunes and what we didn’t appreciate in someone else’s actions. By turning that perspective on its head, instead try to honestly assess in what way you might have been the source of hassles for others in your day’s interactions. Naikan’s founder Ishin actually recommends that you try to spend sixty percent of your efforts on the third question since it is endemic to human nature to think that the weaknesses of others are insufferable yet our own deserve to be downplayed and minimized.

My own test of trying Naikan in relation to a recent work situation proved very revealing to me. As I embarked on a new project in my job to run a book group, I sought out and received advice, mailings, faxes, phone calls and meetings/conversations that guided my nascent efforts. As I plowed ahead trying to keep up with this task in relation to numerous others, I have yet to formally thank a single person for their time and assistance. Oops!! Naikan has just opened my eyes to some tangible gifts I received to assist me in accomplishing a task and the wisdom of me finding time to write some thank-you letters that won’t require mental gymnastics to express sincere appreciation. This personal experience with the three questions finds me saying Naikan works! Use these three questions in your life to increase and cultivate gratitude. Gratitude achieved, happiness won.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” –G. K. Chesterton

Jan 25

A Taste of the Music of Sri Chinmoy

Spiritual Teacher Sri Chinmoy composed and performed thousands upon thousands of devotional and meditative songs during his life. He wrote several books on the subject of music as well.

Ponder this captivating concept that you and everything in the world around you vibrates in an inner symphony found in his book The Height of Silence:

There are seven higher worlds and seven lower worlds. Each world has a music of its own and a note of its own. The higher worlds have a music that awakens us, inspires us, illumines us, perfects and fulfils us. The music of the higher worlds constantly comes to us as the harbinger of the highest Height, whereas the music of the lower worlds naturally comes to us as a messenger of destruction.

It is not only the higher and lower worlds that have a music of their own; each individual has his music, each movement has music, each action has music. Each time we breathe in and breathe out there is music. When we don’t pay attention to the inner depth of the action, we don’t hear the music. If we do pay adequate attention to each action, then inside the very depth of that action we are bound to hear music. Unless we hear music inside each action, the action is lifeless.
-Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy’s vast musical output (over 13,000 songs in his native tongue Bengali alone) seemed to tap into exactly what he describes in this quote about the all-pervading and infinite kinds of music accessible to the spiritually initiated. For just a small taste of his unbounded creative expression, listen to Nirab Amare performed by Kusahli Tarantsova and Rageshri Muzychenko, the musical duo Silence and Sound, a violinist and keyboard player from the Ukraine who are both students of Sri Chinmoy.

Recently I found comfort, insight and solace in contemplation of Psalm 139. As I prayed and meditated on this well-known Psalm from the Bible, its message fostered a feeling of increased intimacy with God and trust in God’s unconditional love. The Bengali lyrics of Nirab Amare translated into English resonated with this teaching found in Psalm 139 with its culmination in a close embrace by the Supreme.

Nirab Amare English Translation
Silence me,
O Self-transcendent and Self-amorous One.
Silence me!
I shall before long start worshipping You
Inside the very depths of my heart
And You will keep me always
In Your fond Embrace.

Nirab Amare.mp3

The score follows:

Nirab Amare Score
Nirab Amare Score

Jan 20

Psalm 139 and Sri Chinmoy

I recently came across a reference to Psalm 139 that led me to sit down and spend some time in reflection of this Old Testament passage from the Bible. Immediately I was struck by its eloquent expression of God’s omniscience, unconditional love, acceptance and guidance in our lives. Lessons I found in this famous psalm include:

  • God is everywhere and intimately knows the inner workings of my being and thoughts. Psalm 139: 1-6
  • Everywhere I go (heights or depths) God is still there. Psalm 139: 7-10
  • God unconditionally accepts and loves me. Psalm 139: 10-12
  • I am God’s creation. Psalm 139: 13-16
  • God’s countless acts of guidance in my life are more than the grains of sand. Psalm 139: 17-18
  • I wish to stand against all that opposes support of God. Psalm 139: 19-22
  • God knows me better than I know myself and can shape me into a better person. Psalm 139: 23-24

These lessons comfort me when I attempt to intensify my own yearnings for union with the highest divinity. Illustrating that truth is timeless across centuries and religion, I find these same spiritual lessons resonate within my Indian meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy’s writings.

Psalm 139 states, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.”

Sri Chinmoy describes this concept of God’s omnipotence and intimate involvement in human life in his following words:

God is infinite, but He has entered into this finite body of ours which lasts for fifty, sixty or seventy years. God is infinite, but He houses Himself in each tiny child. Here in the finite, He wants to enjoy Himself and play the tune of the Infinite; it gives Him the greatest joy. It is in the finite that the Supreme in us is aspiring towards the Infinite. Finite and infinite: to our outer eyes they seem to be opposites, but in God’s Eyes they are one.
-Sri Chinmoy My Meditation-Service At The United Nations For 25 Years

His following words expand on the Biblical concept in Psalm 139 that “darkness is as light to you”

What is darkness? Darkness is nothing but very limited light. If you really enter into the inner world, you will see that in darkness also there is a very small, subtle light. Even inside blackness there is some light, infinitesimal light, because God is everywhere. If He is omnipresent, how can He not be inside even the most abysmal darkness? He is there, but He is manifested there to a very limited extent. So, evil, which is very insignificant light, will gradually, in the bosom of Infinity and Eternity, be illumined and grow into light.
-Sri Chinmoy The Hunger Of Darkness And The Feast Of Light, Part 1

Sri Chinmoy has written literally thousands of devotional poems, many of them expounding on the infinite nature of God’s Compassion. The following poem resonates with the part of Psalm 139 that states that God’s involvement in the writer’s life “Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.”

God’s invisible Eye
Observes my visible heart
With infinite Compassion.
-Sri Chinmoy, Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, Part 12

Sri Chinmoy’s manner of describing the concept in Psalm 139 that we are God’s creation uses a gardening metaphor:

It is the Supreme who has created love. He has created your very existence. It is like a gardener who has created a garden with many beautiful flowers. If a flower says, “No, no, he does not love me!” is that not ridiculous? The very fact that the gardener has planted and cultivated the flowers – is this not his love? At every moment you have to feel that the Supreme does love you. Otherwise, He would not have brought you into His creation.
-Sri Chinmoy, God Is

The lesson of Psalm 139 that wherever one goes God is there – whether the heights or depths – is a very personal one for me that transcends quotes from a book or Bible. My experiences and inner teachings under the guidance of my meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy revealed this truth to me in a moment of prayer and meditation. I had been struggling for a couple of weeks with an episode of jealousy and it was heartbreaking to me to view this weakness inside myself. I prayed and prayed and meditated to try to see this part of my nature reformed. Instead of a breakthrough, I seemed to just add another layer of self-criticism onto the pre-existing jealousy.

Then a couple of weeks into this process I had a revelatory moment where I heard an inner voice tell me that if I was unable to conquer and leave this troubled place that I did not need to fear God would reject me. The voice silently told me that it would stay with me wherever I was and never stop loving me – even if I was stuck inside unhappiness over my weaknesses. To this day, now at least 4 years later, I cherish this as one of the most profound examples of God’s love. Thus when I read in Psalm 139 that “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” I immediately think of this personal translation of this lesson made manifest in my life.

My own spiritual inspiration is greatly bolstered by the picture of God seen through the lens of Psalm 139 and Sri Chinmoy’s Eastern wisdom some 2,000 years later. To find these concepts cross over religious boundaries so easily lends credence to their universal truth. If you have never read Psalm 139, I highly recommend it. It will pull God close into your heart – a place He already is – just waiting to be discovered.

Dec 28

Twitter Post Speed and a White Peace Dove

Bird of Peace outside library - Photo by Sharani
Bird of Peace outside library - Photo by Sharani
My co-worker called it the ham radio of the modern age. I had just described to him that I learned of Bhutto’s assassination before it was even being reported in news articles on the Web because I saw it first on a twitter post from Infodiva, a librarian in San Francisco whom I follow in my “with others” section of my own twitter account.

I was getting ready to update my own twitter post with something reflecting that the Christmas holiday had now passed and she had just twittered about Bhutto’s death. When I quickly hopped over to Google News, no newspaper article over the Internet had yet to announce this tragic moment. I was hoping she was somehow wrong but shortly thereafter the updated news announcements began to stream in from newspapers worldwide.

If anyone ever belittles Twitter and its place in the roster of Internet tools, I will simply tell them my own experience yesterday when Twitter was faster than Google for breaking news of great significance.

This unexpected start to my day came full circle as my shift at the library drew to a close that same evening. One of my co-workers who is constantly pulling our leg and playing practical jokes on us said to us that peace is coming in the new year because there is a white bird sitting on the railing just outside the building entrance. We figured he was teasing us but one by one we went outside to look and take photos of the bird. It appeared too fine and unafraid of us to be a wild bird and we lamented what to do with this lost or abandoned albino fancy pigeon – or at least that is what we thought we were observing.

The fellow who found the bird outside first ended up putting it in a box and bringing it home to feed it bread and water. How does one even begin to track down the rightful owner of this domesticated large bird? As I write this post, I’m not sure of the outcome yet because none of my co-workers want to adopt it as a new pet.

That a bird symbolic of peace landed in my life the same day of Benazir Bhutto’s death made quite an impression on me. I wrote the following poem as I ruminated on the uncanny events in this day of birds.

Gone Astray

A day starts and ends
wrapped in wings
of unexpected falling
and tumbling dreams.

Morning Twitter post
I read of Bhutto’s fall
before CNN and BBC
before the Internet
distance drum shout.

A teasing night shift worker
from his ever joking voice,
We are going to have peace.
There is a white bird outside
our library tonight
as we leave for
home and hearth.

No jest – the avian albino
with fancy feathered feet
adopts a perch outside
our door
a peace reminder
in the dross of this
fierce and sadness day.

With the white bird
tamely placed in a box
– yet homeless
He takes it away
for bread and water
under strict orders to keep
his bravado reputation

Can we put a scrawled sign
on the street post?
Found: One White Dove
Call to claim
your rightful home
in humanity’s inner sanctum.

Can we scratch away
the dark hours of man?
Rewrite history –
slash mark across the
calendar page
tear into little
white fluttering feathers
for a molten light of peace.

The white bird
has gone astray.
O day of birds
pray let the peace dove
migrate your way.
-Sharani 12/28/07

This day came full circle in an odd and poignant manner. I close with a quote about peace doves from harmony leader and visionary Sri Chinmoy:

Dove, my dove,
You sing the song of peace.
The aspiring human beings
Are all on their knees
Before God
To have your eternal treasure.
Without you, life is nothing but
A destructive pressure.
With you, life is fulfilled satisfaction
In measureless measure.
-Sri Chinmoy

Dec 23

Kindness and the Unexpected

Acts of Kindness at Bloggers Unite
Acts of Kindness at Bloggers Unite

When I first wrote a post taking part in the Bloggers Unite Acts of Kindness Day on December 17th, 2oo7, I did not know yet what unexpected stopping points this girl on a road would encounter. I am taking a moment to write again now that my goal fast approaches of completing 9 different actions leading up until Christmas Day.

I feel a little embarrassed in writing because my actions were eminently ordinary as far as charitable giving goes during the holiday season. However, unexpected moments and serendipity accompanied me along this journey offering me far more blessings than any I might have shared.

My journey began with the great and noble inspiration found in ten year old Laura Stockman who decided to share some form of kindness from December 1st through December 25th in memory of her much loved deceased grandfather. With nine days between December 17th and December 25th, I chose to strive for 9 acts of kindness, however simple.

9 Activities
(when things like answering Dear Santa letters at the post office didn’t work out)

1. Create a Candle Group at Gratefulness.org for a hospital bed bound friend.

2. Donate to a family in the town where I live at Gem Plumbing’s “Random Acts of Kindness” holiday initiative. I first learned of this local effort while listening to Lite 105 FM’s continuous Christmas music on the radio during December. I was in tears listening to one story of help given to a family whose father had been badly injured on the job.

3. Buy toys for the U.S. Marines “Toys for Tots” drive.

4. Buy 2 kid’s new winter coats with matching hat and mittens and one of the same for an adult. Almost gave to Burlington Coat Factory’s Warm Coats & Warm Hearts Campaign but am offering directly to a community center seeking winter coats.

5. Put a 20.00 bill into the Salvation Army Kettle instead of a 1.00 bill.

6. Baked cookies and brought as gifts to various places such as my doctor’s offices.

7. Wrote a check to the campaign to keep a public library operating despite budget difficulties in the town where it is located.

8. Gave a grocery store gift card to a friend who lost his job and has not started collecting unemployment yet.

9. Brought back the library books of the woman whose husband had died that day and gave away a 20 percent off total purchase coupon for the Christmas Tree Shops to a woman who had a carriage overflowing with holiday items. Ironically, I would have saved 12.00 myself by the time I left the store if I had kept the coupon instead of giving it away. I knew that these coupons almost never exist and that the newspaper it ran in might not be something the people at that store would have seen since the newspaper was in the adjoining state.

Two moments that struck me deeply during these nine efforts involved death – something I have myself been processing recently with the passing of my dear spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy on October 11th, 2007.

First Unexpected Moment
When I tried to make arrangements to visit a local friendly 91-year old man that I first met while walking in the neighborhood during my job’s lunch hour, the phone number I hunted down said it had been disconnected. With further detective work, I managed to find the phone number (at least I hoped it was it) of his grown daughter who lived next door. I left a voice message and when she returned my call later that afternoon she said that her father had passed away a couple of weeks ago. Then she said that her husband had just died today and that the funeral home had just recently come to the house to help her make arrangements for her husband’s funeral and burial.

Since I work in a library, she mentioned how one of the things she would have to do included returning his currently borrowed library books. I instantly offered to pick up the books and return them. I ended up coming over to her place after leaving work and tried to offer comfort and company as she awaited the arrival of one of her grown sons who worked up near Boston. She showed me the obituary for her father and gave me a Catholic memorial card for him as well. I never expected that this intended effort would turn out as a gesture of sympathy with such uncanny timing.

Second Unexpected Moment
One of my other intended activities from my post on Acts of Kindness day was to bake gingerbread men/women and bring them as a holiday offering to places such as the doctor’s office where I had an appointment later that week. True confessions! While I have been the lucky recipient of goodies during the holidays at the public library where I work, I had never reciprocated before by baking cookies for others besides co-workers.

Please now picture very red shades of embarrassment when I admit that those cookies were not an easy task. The dough kept sticking to the cookie cutter no matter how much more flour I added and the decorator icing didn’t harden – something I neglected to notice when I purchased it. With waxed paper to the rescue, I was up until the wee hours of the morning trying to get these cookies together to bring to the doctor’s office, the physical therapist’s office and the library in the town where I live.

When I arrived the next morning for my appointment, the ever sweet secretary asked me if I knew that the doctor’s 52-year old sister had just suddenly and unexpectedly passed away the prior week. She showed me the obituary and I recalled how she used to work in the office taking blood pressure when her father was still alive and part of the medical office. I felt so humbled that every drop of sweat on my brow while making these cookies was a drop of insignificance and I was so grateful to suddenly have a gift that could also serve as a consolation offering.

Lasting Impact?

I am really grateful that Bloggers Unite decided to suggest an Acts of Kindness day in which bloggers all over the world could focus on sharing gifts of kindness large and small. Spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy writes:

One brave step is not too much to take.
Take one brave step toward your
destined goal.
One kind word is not too much to say.
Say one kind word to the lost,
orphaned world.
One soulful smile is not too much to offer.
Offer one soulful smile and transform
the face of the world,
Within and without.
-Sri Chinmoy

I do hope that this focus during the holiday season can blossom into an outlook in which Sri Chinmoy’s following words can also resonate:

May my morning begin
With the breath of kindness
And sweetness.
-Sri Chinmoy