Saturday, April 28, 2012

Space, Stuff, Meaning

Spring cleaning seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Yard sales and garage sales have blossomed forth here and there in residential neighborhoods alongside the abundance of azaleas, peonies, and irises that nature has given us this year. Where once neat little garbage cans stood at solitary attention in front of the houses on trash pickup day, amorphous piles of household detritus now accumulate where driveways meet the street – patiently awaiting the trash fairy’s arrival. Yes, spring cleaning has become a yearly ritual of modern suburban living. All hail special trash pickup day!

I’ve been an especially dutiful observer of the ritual this year – given the cosmic coincidence in my life of a deep urge to simplify, a church whose work I respect preparing for its annual second-hand sale, and a pastor friend with a van big enough to haul my stuff from here to there. And so it is that I’ve been thinking a lot these days about stuff: why we accumulate it, what it means to us, what it’s like to hang onto it, and what it’s like to get rid of it.

I moved into the house where I presently reside from a two-bedroom apartment not too far away. Having been something of a vagabond in my early adult life I’d generally gravitated toward household furnishings that were compact or capable of quick disassembly in order to facilitate movement from place to place to place. It was rather humorous for a while how I had to spread my stuff around in order to make my new home seem just a little less vacant. Yes, my little glass-topped bistro table sure did look funny with a big dining room chandelier hanging over it! Oh, and I remember waking up on my futon in the middle of the night in my spacious bedroom and listening to the drip, drip, dripping of the dehumidifier echoing through the house from way down in the empty basement! Ah, what beautiful space the house had way back then!

Needless to say, that spaciousness didn’t last very long. After all, what do we do when we have any excess space? We fill it. I now had a covered back porch that was just crying out for a couple of big rattan armchairs – so I complied. I had a dining room that was pleading for the biggest table I could afford – and I listened. Oh, and when my sister was upgrading to a new bedroom set, I simply couldn’t pass up a great buy on a four-poster bed, side tables, and chests of drawers. This wasn’t just stuff, though. It had meaning. The rattan armchairs represented relaxed enjoyment of the beauty of the outdoors – the little patch of the outdoors that was now my very own domain. The dining room set stood for dinner parties with friends and family, discussions of the meaning of life over tea with diverse-minded individuals, a nurturing table for all who might enter. Yes, and the bedroom set signified stability. I wasn’t a young vagabond anymore and it was high time that the thirty year-old man that I was acquired some furniture that actually required two people to transport! Yeah, and what self-respecting thirty year-old invites a woman to, ahem, accompany him on his futon? No, I needed all of that stuff!

Flash forward twenty years. Those rattan chairs never really got as much use as I’d thought they would. The sunlight heats up the porch so quickly that there’s only an hour or so during summer mornings and evenings that the room is all that comfortable; and in the winter it’s just unbearably cold. Besides, the chairs ended up being a little too big and awkward for the space. My ex’s cat probably got more use out of them than anyone, may she rest in peace – the cat, I mean. Yeah, and I haven’t really had as many dinner parties as I thought I might have, either. Oh, and that bedroom set kind of soaked up the energy of a marriage that never quite lived up to its potential. Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to once again lay my head down to sleep on a well-travelled futon in a far-too-spacious home that echoes with the dripping of water way down in the basement. It’s all just stuff, anyway. Chuck it all. Chuck it all. Unplug the dehumidifier and set it out by the curb for some scavenger to find. Settle into the silence – the deep, rich, spacious silence.

When my marriage ended and I was in the throes of grief – that bardo realm that I’ve spoken of in the past – I wondered how I would ever be able to survive the financial storm that was hovering just over the horizon. What would it take to settle the whole mess? What would it take to pay off the lawyers? Would I end up having to sell everything that I owned? Would I even have the right to sell everything that I owned? Just what did I own, anyway? In the throes of grief we don’t think all that clearly; and so it was that I pondered how much money I might get if I staged a garage sale and sold everything, lock, stock, and barrel – regardless of what might be said about who now owned that which I’d always thought of as mine. Just get rid of it all and start all over again. It’s easier to beg forgiveness than it is to ask permission. What a joyous rebirth that would be, I thought, to start all over again. At the time I figured that if I were lucky I might even make enough money to pay the mortgage for a couple of months. People just don’t want to spend that much money for someone else’s stuff. A lifetime of acquisition, hopeful years spent together, all that investment of time and money and energy and emotion and this is what it amounts to… Such was my state of mind at the time.  

I actually enjoy getting rid of stuff. I enjoy knowing that someone else is getting so much more use and enjoyment out of something than I ever did. That is far more enriching than whatever paltry sum of money I might receive if I were to sell it. That little glass-topped bistro table has reminded me numerous times over the years whenever I see it in its new home that my stuff can be so much more enjoyable when it is in the possession of others.  The space left behind is enriching as well. It provides a home in which stillness may dwell, and stillness has come to be that which I value the most at this time in my life. Now, if I could only remember that before I acquire anything else that I’ll ultimately end up giving away!


Image Credits

Rattan chair, by Chris 73 via:
Wicker chair abandoned at road side, by Peter Barr via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Aspirational Contentment, Part 2

In my previous post I sang the praises of the voluntary simplicity movement. I did so (and do so) for various reasons, the primary one being that I just don’t think we will ever be able to halt or even slow our degradation of the environment or our warming of the earth until those of us in highly developed areas begin consciously moving towards simpler and less consumptive lifestyles. Similarly, by embracing the tenets of voluntary simplicity, developing areas of the world might find it possible to eschew increased complexity and consumption for the sake of sustainability even as higher levels of material affluence become available to them. Perhaps one day, given the widespread adoption of simplicity, people all over the world might come to enjoy a way of life that is both nurturing and sustainable – albeit at a decidedly lower level of material affluence than the average U.S. household at present.

Such an achievement couldn’t help but work wonders with respect to fostering trust, cooperation, and peace in a world where all three are in short supply. And if that sounds far too Pollyannaish for your current worldview I simply ask that you try to imagine people all over the world living the lifestyle of the average suburban North American: multiple cars and televisions; cellphones for one and all; computer upgrades at the drop of a hat; a perfectly controlled indoor temperature; vacations whenever they’re needed; new clothes whenever the winds of fashion shift; stuff for comfort, entertainment, and recreation; stuff to keep up with the ever-increasing standards for stuff; and, finally, stuff for the sake of stuff. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? It’s mind-boggling to even contemplate every human being all over Asia, India, and Africa living as so many of us do here in the West. Perhaps it’s easier, then, to imagine a world in which only some of the people live that kind of lifestyle; a world in which resources are funneled from wherever nature might have put them to wherever those with the most economic power dictate that they should go; a world in which more and more of those resources are used to protect the status quo – the position of those in power, the interests and rights of those in power; a world in which those with the least economic power can only survive by being beholden to those that have the most. Oh, silly me! I’ve just described the world as it already exists!

Of course, the recent economic recession with its widespread layoffs and pay cuts and downsizing has left many people involuntarily simplifying their lives who had previously enjoyed the aforementioned material abundance. As difficult as such involuntary simplification might be, however, it is something that we humans are uniquely equipped to do. We are an exceedingly resilient species, an attribute that is our most valuable asset even as it lurks in the shadows as our greatest liability; i.e. we are so adaptively successful that we are overwhelming our environment. The embrace of voluntary simplicity, on the other hand, requires us to do something that has rarely been done in the history of the world by human or animal, something that has rarely even been possible – namely, to choose to take less of that which we have the ways and means to appropriate for ourselves. Historically speaking, contentment has neither been of much value to our survival, nor has it been all that attainable even if it were. In the coming decades, however, our ability to be content with less may just end up being the only thing that saves us as a species.

Aspirational Contentment

Within the context of our hyper-materialistic culture the word contentment carries with it certain negatively-viewed connotations such as passivity, meekness, weakness, impotence, dependency, lack of imagination, and perhaps even lack of intelligence. In other words, so some might think, we resign ourselves to contentment because we lack the required confidence, agency, strength, or independence to go out and get what we really want. Or perhaps we’re merely content because of our failure to envision how much better things could be if only this or that or thus-and-such would occur. And so it is that coupling the word contentment with aspiration (and its very own positively-viewed connotations of potency, will, and imagination) achieves a sort of dynamic balance, linguistically speaking.

Aspirational contentment also encompasses multiple meanings which I find appealing. In one sense it conveys the reality that even though we might not be very content in this moment, we nonetheless aspire to be more so in the next. This takes contentment out of the realm of passivity and positions it within the realm of that which is valued, chosen, and worked towards. In another sense aspirational contentment conveys the recognition that contentment is a viable solution to the many problems that we face – perhaps even the best/only solution. We choose to become more content because we have aspirations for a healthier, and more just and peaceful world. We do not lack imagination or intelligence. Quite to the contrary, our movement towards contentment is informed by our keen awareness of the problems inherent in our current way of being and our ability to clearly envision a more life-giving and life-affirming way of being.

Let me now flesh out some of the ideas that I only mentioned in passing in my previous post. I’ll do so by proposing a formal definition of aspirational contentment:

Aspirational contentment begins with openness to the exploration of contentment as a means to personal fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of the diverse life-giving potential of the earth. This process of exploration involves learning to identify contentment when it is present and learning to take action that cultivates and nurtures it when it is not. Continued aspirational contentment involves willingness and readiness to be content – willingness and readiness rooted in personal experiences of contentment that are valued and appreciated as both rewarding and fulfilling for their own sake. As these occasional and fleeting experiences of contentment become more frequent and robust, contentment transitions from a quality that is more transient and state-like to one that is more enduring and trait-like. Thus, with practice, aspirational contentment may transition into the very embodiment of contentment.

Perhaps we can get right to the heart of the matter by exploring the role that fear plays in perpetuating our lack of contentment. Do we fear that others will think less of us? Might that be the primary motivation behind our acquisition of material things or experiences that bolster our sense of status or our desired image? Do we fear not having enough? Might that be the reason underlying our compulsion to earn more and more money regardless of whether our work is actually useful or meaningful? Do we fear being bored? Is that what drives us to engage in newer and more interesting or exciting activities? Do we fear being alone? Could that be what keeps us entangled in relationships that are otherwise not really all that fulfilling? Do we fear the feelings that might arise when the frenzy of modern life settles down and we find ourselves experiencing this strange new phenomenon called stillness?

When we finally come to grips with the role that fear plays in perpetuating our modern existence we might also come to recognize how much courage is required in order to embark upon a journey of aspirational contentment. Far from being the domain of the meek or weak, contentment is the domain of those who are really ready to plumb the depths of being. Imagine waking up in the forest without even a scrap of food in your possession for breakfast. Now imagine taking your alms bowl into town in order to see whether enough abundance or generosity might be found there so as to sustain you for another day. Furthermore, imagine that no matter what happens – whether you come back with a full bowl or an empty one – you will abide in sublime contentment. Mind you, I’m not advocating the adoption of lifestyles that have us living so close to the edge as that; however, I do think that the realization of what we are truly capable of can serve as inspiration for us on our own personal journeys of aspirational contentment.

Image Credits

Mauritanian wooden bowl, gdah, from Nouakchott by Bertramz via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, April 13, 2012

Aspirational Contentment

For some time now I’ve wanted to introduce a bit of a twist to what is commonly referred to as voluntary simplicity – voluntarily living a simpler and more intentional life so as to enjoy greater personal fulfillment even as we more positively impact those around us, our community, and our environment. The voluntary simplicity movement was bolstered immensely by the publication in 1981 of Duane Elgin’s groundbreaking book: Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. Unfortunately, we’re now thirty years down the road and whereas some of us have indeed volunteered to live more simply, most of us have not. In fact, over the course of these thirty or so years, human civilization has become so increasingly complex that it sometimes seems like a house of cards that is just one economic shock, one natural disaster, one viral pandemic, one war, one nuclear disaster, or one degree of average world temperature increase away from absolute and total collapse.

Given all of its benefits – benefits that I can certainly attest to given the simplicity that I’ve come to know – why hasn’t voluntary simplicity become the lifestyle of choice in this troubled age? Given all of the world’s problems that are either directly or indirectly tied to an excessively complex and consumptive human lifestyle, why hasn’t the embrace of simplicity become the most obvious solution over yet another round of technological advancement? Instead, the ever-tightening knot that is the global problematique has us grasping for any solution under the sun as long as it keeps us from having to adopt the simplest one of all – contentment. If we could just be content with a much simpler version of all that is materially available to us our problems would be nowhere near as intractable.

Why is contentment so elusive, anyway? Why are we always looking towards that day when we’ll have that dream job and the commensurate salary that we deserve; when we’ll be living in our dream house with all of the material comfort that we need; when we’ll have all of the free time that we desire and the means to fill that time with all of the activities that we’ve always wanted to do? It is my contention that before we can embrace wholeheartedly the tenets of voluntary simplicity, we need to learn just a little bit more about contentment. We need to learn to identify and appreciate it. We need to value it. We need to explore it and practice it. We need to cultivate and nurture it. Maybe we won’t be content all the time. Maybe there will be some things with which we will never be content; but at least we will come to know contentment more intimately and it will more often be an option that is open to us. This process of learning to identify, appreciate, value, explore, practice, cultivate, and nurture contentment is one that I will term aspirational contentment. Aspirational contentment is an openness to contentment – a willingness and readiness to be content. Perhaps we are not content at this moment, but with aspirational contentment we understand that contentment is possible and we choose to remain receptive to it. Aspirational contentment, then, is the gradual movement from a mode of chronic discontent to a mode wherein we are able to consciously choose and embrace, and ultimately embody, contentment.

The New Busch Stadium with the Gateway Arch in the background

Hey! How ‘bout those Redbirds? Yes, the home opener of the professional baseball season was today and many of my fellow St. Louisans are absolutely champing at the Clydesdale bit for the hometown team to repeat as World Champions – or at least champions of that part of the world that is the 48 contiguous United States. You might say that we’re simply not content with being last year’s World Champions. We need to always be World Champions!

McMansion under construction
I was catching some of the opening day hype on television this past week – a twenty-five year old television, I might add. The local news station was doing a story on how much energy will be saved this year at the local baseball stadium because of swapping out the older generation video scoreboards for new flat-screen technology, in addition to adopting other energy conservation protocols such as powering down the amplification system during the off-season. Said changes will reportedly yield savings equivalent to the energy needed to power 300 homes for a year. Of course, the reporter didn’t actually elaborate on the nature of those 300 homes. Are we talking about 300 Mcmansions like the one that my neighbor lives in, or are we talking about 300 shotgun house like the one I live in? {smile}

A home more like the author's
Needless to say, this was supposed to be a feel-good kind of story, an isn’t-it-great-how-green-we’re-becoming kind of story. And it would seem to be that way, wouldn’t it? Ah, if only I could just smile and nod and marvel at the wonders of technology! However, I just can’t help wondering what will become of the now-obsolete video boards that the new flat-screens have replaced. Will they be recycled, will they end up in a landfill somewhere, will their toxic components end up leaching into the ground water somewhere? I’m sorry, but I actually do think about these things! Okay, let’s simply take at face value that 300 McMansions worth of energy will be saved every year. But what is the real energy cost of all of this building and tearing down, building and tearing down, building and tearing down? Sure enough, the stock market loves all of that building and tearing down and replacing. It creates jobs, too. Alas, it also requires an incredible amount of energy – a requirement that has us flexing our military muscles more and more frequently in the oil-rich regions of the world. Oh, and it doesn’t much help the state of our warming planet, either. Hence, we have the global problematique – that Gordian knot of tangled and competing interests.

Old Busch Memorial Stadium beside its replacement.

The New Busch Stadium under construction.

St. Louis’ state-of-the-art baseball stadium just opened up in 2006. It seems, then, that the state-of-the-art technology utilized during its construction didn’t last but five years! At that rate, how long can we expect the new stadium to last? The old one was with us for some 39 years (1966-2005) before becoming obsolete. Well, actually it didn’t so much become obsolete as it came to be seen as lacking in corporate viewing boxes and other amenities that are such a big part of the ball club bottom line these days. Oh, and that cookie-cutter architecture came to be so passé. We want everything to be fresh and vibrant and new. And that’s why the new stadium is designed to be reminiscent of the ballparks of old! With everything moving so much faster these days can we even hope for the new stadium to last half as long as the old one? Given the fact that it was only about six years before our state-of-the-art baseball stadium began shedding 75+ kilogram metal plates onto the sidewalk below, I think not. See the related Post-Dispatch and USA Today stories.

Surely it must be evident to others as well that all of this building and tearing down and replacing is born of and feeds into our fundamental lack of contentment. This lack of contentment is there in our individual lives and it is writ large by our cities and corporations and nations. And that is why I hope that this introduction to aspirational contentment resonates with readers as a viable mode of being that will, if adopted by enough people, positively change the world for the better.

Busch Memorial Stadium

The photo above is the stadium where my friend Charlie and I saw the double header in which Bob Gibson pitched his 2,998 strikeout. We took a bus downtown and sat in the bleachers expecting to see his 3,000th. Alas, it was not meant to be. I'll never forget being there, though. And, you know, the complexity of the scoreboard used back then is rather inconsequential at this point.

Image Credits

Busch Stadium panorama, 2009, by Kevin Ward via:

McMansion under construction via:

Shotgun House via:

Busch Stadium, 2005, taken from atop the Gateway Arch looking west by David K. Staub via:

Busch Stadium, later in 2005, taken from atop the Gateway Arch looking west by Tristan Denyer via:

Busch Stadium, 2001, by Rick Dikeman via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, April 7, 2012


For most of this week I’ve been working on a poem intended for submission to the Austin Zen Center's ongoing Just This blog journal – the most recent topic being ‘crossing the stream’. Of course, crossing the stream is an oft-used Buddhist metaphor, one encompassing some kind of difficult movement from a place of unaware existence to one of awakening. Within this metaphor the Buddha’s teachings are frequently thought of as a raft that may be used for safe passage from one side to the other. At first I thought this poem wouldn’t nest very well with my previous post. Upon reflection, however, I see that they make a perfect pair. I’ll talk about why further on, but for now let me just introduce my submission:


Crossing the Stream

I set out to cross the stream once long ago.

Or maybe it was yesterday.

Funny, time can be like that.

I remember gazing at the other side –

The grassy lowlands beckoning,

The cool green forest foothills

Rising gently into snowcapped glory…

I remember wondering of the sights up there –

Above the clouds,

Beyond all worldly cares.

Oh, how I longed to tread that path unseen!

Sloping toward sunlit transcendence...

But first I had to cross that stream.     

I found a raft of four logs lashed together,

Hidden in the reeds there, half submerged.

And though the vessel’s simple nature had me wondering,

That I could see the other side left me assured.

And so I poled my humble raft into deep waters

With thoughts already soaring high above. 

And it was clear that I’d gone way too far to turn back

By the time I felt the current’s tug.

Down, down, down the river took me

Till I’d have gladly kissed the ground on either side,

Past sleeping beachside towns and sweeping bayous,

And out into the ocean deep and wide.

Then just as my raft’s lashings were unraveling

And I was wondering what worse fate I could have met

The wind and waves began to rise up

And the sun began to set.

There was a time I thought myself much stronger

With ample will and strength in store,

But down, down, down those waters pulled me

Till I could fight their power no more.

And as I sank into the blackness

I could think of nothing but that shore

From which I’d gazed up at those snowfields

Feeling in need of something more.

And so I died to all I’d once been.

I died as well to all my dreams.

And as I settled on the ocean floor,

I died to every separate thing.

For one last breath I viewed existence,

For one last cold and watery sigh –

Upon the bottom of the ocean

Immersed within a star-filled sky…

There was a time when crossing to the other side

Still seemed as real as each new breath,

Way back when sun and moon, and stream and tide

Were as distinct as life and death,

Before that death to all illusion

There upon the ocean floor,

Before realizing that just this moment

Is the long sought after other shore.

It seems obvious to me now that the reason this poem nests with my previous post relates to the way that we usually think about ‘the other side’, i.e., in a dualistic way, in an ‘I lack something now but with practice I will attain something’ sort of way. Please don’t take this as a criticism of the crossing the stream metaphor. We just have to receive it as it is – as a conceptualization of a process (practice) that allows us to transcend conceptualization.

The poem above reflects my own experience of the practice of Buddhism, one that I don’t think is qualitatively different than any other spiritual practitioner’s experience – regardless the tradition. We begin practicing with the idea that there is something to be attained: wisdom, acceptance, awakening, enlightenment, peace, nirvana, etc. (to use the usual Buddhist terms related to "destination"). In other words, we think we know where we’re going. We think we can see the other shore. However, I suspect that every sincere spiritual practitioner will be able to report that their practice has taken them to “a place” that was wholly unimagined and unanticipated at the outset. Thus, in the first stanza, the practitioner gazes up at the imagined beauty of the place that he imagines he will be someday. This brings up an interesting reality: even our most pure motivation to begin a spiritual practice rises up out of the soil of delusion.

Of course, I’m borrowing the metaphor of the raft being the Buddha’s teaching. There are even four logs – one for each Noble Truth…, get it (wink). Seriously, we don’t invent our own spiritual practice – we don’t build our own raft – we borrow, find, and appropriate the practices of all the men and women who have ever practiced before us. As such, gratitude is a very good thing for us to nurture.

By the end of the second stanza the practitioner can already see that the journey is going to be quite different than expected. By giving ourselves over wholeheartedly to practice we are giving ourselves over to a current that we cannot predict or control. We are giving ourselves over to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, as the small self meets the Large Self the practitioner might come to wish that he or she could just forget the whole affair! This is not the journey that was bargained for! Ah, but it's too late now. The small self has already been irrevocably changed.

At this point it might feel as though the teachings have failed us. They can’t save us! In fact, they fall apart just as we need them the most! They take us out into existential desolation and abandon us when we least expect it. At this point we need to realize that we’re beginning to experience the death of the ego – the small self. This is the realm of existential crisis – the coming face to face with true emptiness. Now, from my last post you might think that the experience of emptiness would be one of those Easter egg-like treasures that land in our laps as a result of our practice. Well, it depends on your point of view, I suppose; but I think our first glimpses of emptiness have the potential to bring on the greatest storms of our existence. Oh, if it could just be the way it was! If we could just step back in time and remain safe and sound in our unawareness!

The practitioner experiences the death of the small self. He or she sinks to the bottom of the ocean – the ground of being, if you will. At that point, death is experienced as a great birth. What is being born, though, is the realization of the oneness of all things, the realization that what had been viewed as the self is but a part of a grand and glorious tapestry (as it is often described), a tapestry that is ultimately seamless.

And where does that leave us? Just this breath – just this manifestation of the grand and glorious mystery of existence – we die and are reborn. And that is why I want to hit the publish button on this post over the course of this Easter weekend. Is this not the Buddhist version of the crucifixion and resurrection? This weekend, Christians all over the world will be remembering the crucifixion and resurrection of their Savior, their Christ. I suspect that more than a few of them, however, will recognize this process of death and rebirth taking place in “their very own” lives.

Happy Easter, everyone!  

Image Credits

Cropped and filtered version of a U.S. Navy photo by

Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shane Tuck:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank