Spirit Quest


Do I care? Does anyone?

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

Does anyone really care? It is a question often asked by those who have laboured hard for some cause but whose efforts have been left unacknowledged. It is also a complaint heard from those who have experienced hardship, loss and sorrow, whose lot is unseen and they feel forgotten. It is a question on the minds of lonely people, the neglected and misunderstood. Unfortunately their ranks are many. Indeed, most at some time in our lives have  wondered whether there is anybody who cares.
One of the basics of Buddhist spirituality is “mindfulness.”  It refers to the meditative practices of the religion and philosophy of that ancient religion. Buddhists pursue meditation as part of the path to enlightenment and Nirvana. Their  meditation techniques have become increasingly popular in the wider world , with many non -Buddhists taking them  up for a variety of reasons. Businesses, universities, government agencies, counseling centres, schools, hospitals , religious groups, even law firms and prison groups and perhaps strangely the army have offered training  in mindfulness meditation. Interest has been climbing. This ancient practice has been given new life in modern psychology to treat depression among other personality problems. 
Does anyone care, often begs the question, do I care? Am I mindful of my neighbour, my spouse and my family, and the society in which I live?
In 1950, the year I started my studies at Queen’s University, David Riesman published a book which became an immediate best seller. The Lonely Crowd, provided a moody contrast to the wartime  flag -waving, arguing that the return of material prosperity led not to social peace but inner desolation. In short, people were lonely, experienced a sense of having been forgotten and unappreciated. No one was mindful of them  and they themselves lacked a sense of mindfulness. Individualism was In.
Once upon a time as a child I lived on a farm in a relatively remote area of northern Saskatchewan. There were only the three of us, my parents and I. Neighbours were at some distance. We had no radio, TV was non existent (can you imagine?). We had no telephone. The phone lines stopped some ten miles from our home. There was mail delivery twice a week to a general store five miles away, once only in the winter when roads were barely passable.  It took us some three days to find out that war had been declared.  Except for school which was a two mile hike across the fields and woods, I was alone much of the time but surprisingly never lonely.
Of course I had my two dogs to accompany me  wherever I went, except to school although they tried.  I had chores to perform, cleaning the stable, chopping wood, feeding the animals , pumping water from a reticent well.
For a family that  loved books, who had an extensive library “back home” we were impoverished. As refugees reading material was very low on the list of necessities to fill our bags.  Today our shelves are once more filled to overflowing, double rowed  so that the book you are looking for is always behind another.
In that situation we did not have to be taught mindfulness, much called for our attention. We were always conscious  of the seasons of the year  and what they demanded of us. 
We did have neighbours who lived as close as half a mile away, nevertheless, a week would go by without seeing any one outside our immediate family. I have already mentioned that we had no phone thus the only voices we heard were those of our family. 
My parents loved classical music but for most of the three years we lived there we never heard any. I vividly recall that on the day my mother and I went to the town from where our train was to leave for the east we visited a home. The radio played from the Metropolitan Opera in far away New York. My mother broke down and wept.
Later as we reminisced about those years, difficult as they were, we always spoke about them in glowing terms. We were never lonely, homesick perhaps, for the family we had left behind. The question, does  anyone care, never came to mind.
My pastorates were all in urban areas, mostly Toronto, where I often encountered people who were desperately lonely. They  lived in apartments  where they could hear their neighbours through the thin walls .  The TV was a constant companion and yet they were lonely people. They may have gone out to work at some job where they were in contact with others,  nevertheless upon returning to their “four walls” they felt terribly alone.
Is it circumstances such as I have described that makes us feel alone and uncared for and unappreciated? Doubtless that has a significant impact on our moods.  But is there more? The practitioners of Buddhism could sit for hours in silence. Christian monks and nuns cloister themselves in their small cells and when eating with their brothers and sisters do so without speaking a word with each other. It would drive me crazy. I once tried it at a silent retreat. 
There are times, of course, when I crave to be away from the constant sounds of the busy city, from the throngs of people everywhere.  But I confess that I need people. After moving to Ottawa some ten years ago I began frequenting a nearby coffee shop where I soon met others. Being retired I had a good deal of time on my hands and spent much time nursing a cuppa . It was my life blood.
Indeed, I am writing this column and most of the others in a coffee shop . My writing is accompanied by the sound of music. This one plays mostly classical. There is also the sound of the clatter of dishes and the voices of people. There is also a spirit present.
Perhaps the word “spirit” is misunderstood, associated too much with religion, when in fact it is a universal phenomenon. Unfortunately we have tried to silence this spiritual voice, overwhelming it with noise. 
I believe it is very important for us, I was going to say - for our sanity, that we find spaces and time to listen to that sound within.
Prayer has often been misunderstood as us talking to God, but never pausing to listen. Some years ago I had a persistent pain in my back. After treating me with drugs that would relieve the pain for a time  the doctor asked me about my life. After relating my various concerns she concluded that my stress level was very high. I had not thought of it that way.
She suggested that I try meditation for which she prepared me. After practicing this therapy twice a day for some weeks my back pain disappeared.  From time to time when feeling under stress I turn to this meditation to find peace.
Strangely when at peace the questions with which I began this essay are absent. I feel I am in the presence of a Spirit that lifts my spirit , that makes me mindful of others and of myself. I know that I am not alone.