For many years I have followed the advice of sage Christians when it came to Lenten observance. This year, however, I have been learning from a non-Christian.
Lent is a season of preparation and awareness, anticipating Easter, but for some time I have been approaching it not as “obligation” but “observance.” My practices have shifted from “giving up” to “giving to.” I feel I have been maturing spiritually and positively. A special advisor for me during this refocusing has been the famous Tibetan Buddhist, the Dalai Lama.
Perhaps you may agree with me in this, and I would like to share with you some of the discoveries I have made as a result of a church study group reading of The Book of Joy – Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
I believe that Lenten spiritual growth should focus on both my inner and outer worlds, and I have developed two guiding principles to help me.
First, I try to pay more attention to developing strong inner values while becoming less self-centered.
Second, I believe that caring for and serving others results in much personal joy, which is a real reward.
Both these principles are advocated by His Holiness in recorded conversations with retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Capetown and their discussion guide, Douglas Abrams.
“The more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience,” says the Dalai Lama. “We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we have the ability to create more joy.”
As we wrap up our Lenten self-assessments—especially in the time of COVID-19—we need to be intentional that such inner appraisal is reframed from self-centredness to attention toward the circumstances of others. Many sincere Christians have foundered on the rocky shores of unproductive guilt over their own private demons. The Dalai Lama keeps repeating that unhealthy attention to our weaknesses will not enhance our inner values, nor will it make us better people. In fact, the reverse may be true. “Giving up” things that we know are not good for us may actually expand our negative cravings and make things worse.
Good can actually result from constructive suffering. Acceptance of our vulnerabilities and re-directing our energies through reaching out to others can result in mutual strengthening and support. For example, at an appropriate opportunity, the authentic revealing of an embarrassing or shame-producing personal experience with another can be a sign of inner strength, not weakness. The sharing of our feelings and our struggles builds us up. Thus, a healthy refining of negative suffering can lead to something better.
As you end these waning days of a turbulent Lent, consider that meditation in quiet stillness, with the Spirit of God, can be life-giving. Distracting thoughts are quieted as we begin to perceive a greater reality.
Optimism, says the Dalai Lama, is based on feelings; and feelings are unstable. Hope, however, is based on a steadfast faith that has been tested and continues to be honed with each new life development.
In sum, as constructive as self-focus can be, anxiety results in giving it too much attention. Turning outward to serve and care for others can lead to a life of fulfilled joy—and what a time it is to turn outward and consider others.
Behind the words of this Buddhist seer I begin to hear the haunting words of Jesus, and my Lenten spiritual journey has been doubly-blessed. Perhaps, as Holy Week approaches, you might consider his words and be blessed, as well.