Contemplating the Questions

I don’t have much in me right now, except for questions. So I’ll ask them, sit with them, and perhaps you can sit with them with me.

First, How can I balance my regular life with the effort, work, actions needed at this time?

These are not normal times, and this is not a normal, garden variety conservative president. I remember what life was like under Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. My life went on, pretty much as normal. I was an activist, so I did activism, but it didn’t feel like an emergency – urgent, but not life-threatening. Most of us have to work to eat, keep the roof over our heads, keep our cats in kibble, so there has to be some modicum of a normal working life. But sometimes it feels like even that is problematic now. How can I plan courses or events, or launch new products, or write new code, when all this stuff is happening? But I have to, at the same time.

What effort, work, actions are really needed?

This is the tough one. On one hand, sure, writing our congresspeople, marching in the streets, doing other kinds of activism, is important – but what is really going to make a difference? We have someone in office who actually seems not to care at all about the rule of law, nor does he respect the balance of powers. So what is really going to make the biggest difference? Those of us against Trump might be in the majority, but there are an awful lot of people who like authoritarians, and are fine with what he’s doing. So what actions can I take that are going to have the biggest effect?

How to reach those people?

Ultimately, white working-class people who are authoritarian Trump supporters are going to eventually be hurt too, since Trump actually doesn’t care about them. In fact, they’ve already been hurt when he took away the interest discount for home buyers. But one of the hallmarks of Trump’s campaign has been that facts don’t actually matter to many people. Telling someone who says of the new ban on immigrants and refugees from the selected countries that none of them were responsible for a terrorist attack in the US isn’t actually going to make a difference to them. In general, humans are really hard to convince with facts when those facts don’t align with their pre-existing beliefs, but some humans have spent time and effort disciplining themselves to critical thinking approaches. But unless both sides of a conversation have that same approach, there can’t actually be a conversation. So how do we talk with people like this? How do we show them that they will be hurt too? Or maybe, ultimately, as long as they aren’t hurt all that much, they won’t care – they’ll be the “good Americans.”

What’s the endgame?

I’ll be very happy to see information that suggests that I am wrong about this, but I’m not seeing a way back to normal democratic process here in the United States. Dick Cheney actually said of the recent immigration ban that it “goes against everything we stand for and believe in…” That’s all well and good, but he’s one of the few men responsible for the process that led us to the mess we’re in right now. I just re-watched the movie “Lincoln” which shows how brilliantly Lincoln managed to end the Civil War, and bring the nation back together… sort of. The sad fact of the matter is that we have at least two different countries (actually 11, if you talk with Colin Woodard.) And I’m not sure that these countries are really compatible anymore.

And even if somehow, we manage to get rid of Trump, there is still Pence. And the Democratic Party holds a minority of everything except mayors – minority of congress, state legislatures and governors. How are we going to turn that around, and can we? And I’d also love to see information that suggest otherwise, but the toxic combination of the inevitable  exacerbation of income inequality and inaction on global climate change that comes with GOP leadership means disintegration, if not in the short term, in the medium term. So what do I do with all of that?

And what about practice?

I keep feeling called to a deeper engagement with spiritual practice. I’ve felt that over the past few years, but the tug is even stronger now. How do I live into that while all this is going on?What does that look like?

As I said, all I have are questions, now.

 

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Eating the Lion

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

I’ve been having a great time reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s book “The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind“. The reason is that it is the best articulation that I’ve come across of Jesus’ teachings that really resonates with my own understanding and experience – Jesus as a teacher of transformation. Ever since I read the Beatitudes in church when I was a child, I knew this Jesus dude had something going on – something I knew I wanted a part of. But even as a Nazarene in my late teens and early twenties, I had a hard time with the “Jesus as Savior” narrative, and I spent a lot of time in seminary thinking about how I was going to theologically squirm my way around the Nicene Creed. I was introduced to the “Jesus as Political Radical Revolutionary” narrative just before and since seminary, and I certainly like it a lot better, but it didn’t quite sit right with me either.

There are some very challenging teachings of Jesus that neither of those narratives can really handle very well. One of them is the parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew 25, another is the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and another is the parable of the prodigal son. Here’s what Bourgeault says about these:

These hard teachings are admittedly disconcerting. You simply can’t translate them into a sentimental theology that says, “Jesus just wants us to be nice, to share, to trust.” They are classic esoteric teachings, echoed and confirmed throughout the universal wisdom tradition, that speak to the need for a certain spiritual substance (or quality of consciousness) to crystallize in a person before he or she can emerge as a complete human being. But what are these teachings doing here? They are like sophiological tidbits that somehow strayed into our soteriological gospel, and there they stand out like a sore thumb, always irritating and slightly unsettling. And even if the four gospels are all we have to work with, these sayings are odd enough to tweak our suspicion that there might be more to this iceberg of Jesus than meets the eye.

Another “hard teaching” is found in the Gospel of Thomas, Logion 7:

Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.”

It seems like a strange teaching, doesn’t it? But really, in essence, it’s pretty simple (simple, but not easy.) If you think of the lion as our dual (us/them) nature, then to consume the lion is to be able to tame that dual nature – in neuroscience speak, to tame our amygdalas. To be consumed by the lion is to be consumed by the dual nature – to allow our amydalas to rule us.

I imagine if Jesus were alive today, he’d probably use a lizard instead of a lion, but it’s the same idea.

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“Fear is the Mind Killer”

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

If you’ve read the science fiction classic “Dune” by Frank Herbert, or you saw the movie, you know this scene. A young Paul Atriedes, son of Duke Leto Atredes, is being tested by the Bene-Gesserit. There is a box, and he must put his hand in the box. And the woman testing him places a poison needle next to his neck – if he removes his hand from the box, he will die.

The box is a box full of pain. He feels as if his hand is being flayed. And he says to himself, “Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings obliteration. I will face my fear.”

As I read over my Facebook and news feed this morning, it seems soaked in fear. On one hand, you had a speech last night by Donald Trump which was basically “be afraid and I’ll save you.” And on the other side, we have people who are deathly afraid of a Trump presidency.

Fear is literally the mind killer. I’ve talked about the Amygdala hijack already. When we are actively feeling fear, our Amygdala, which mediates the fear response, hijacks traffic that would normally go to our neocortex – our wise, rational, creative brain. And our fear will get re-stimulated over and over again, not just by hearing new things, but by thinking old ones – continuing the process of hijack.

Fear is the most powerful of emotions – it’s evolutionarily designed that way. And if you look back at history, the worst of leaders that created the conditions for the worst atrocities ruled by fear.

The most important thing you can do between now and November 8 is to get yourself out of the state of fear, face your fear, and befriend your fear, and help your friends and family do the same. Because if you’re not in fear, you’ll be much better able to act in ways that will have more impact, because those actions will be smarter, more rational, and more creative than actions you take out of fear, because fear is the mind killer.

So how to do that? Spiritual traditions have developed these practices over many hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years. They include mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, yoga breathing, and many, many others. Today, I’m introducing the concept of concentration practice (including saying the rosary) on my Life as Practice Blog.

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This Present Moment

I was folding laundry this morning, a task I generally don’t like, but try to use as a way to stay present. But my monkey mind was doing its normal thing. I was perseverating about the election season (actually, freaking out is more accurate,) and I was trying to figure out how I was going to keep myself sane for the next 3+ months (and, potentially, the next 4-8 years.)

I was asking myself what kind of information would I want to hear right now? What would I want to learn? What would help me stay centered? And then I remembered one of my current projects. It’s a low-key project, one I’ve been ruminating on literally for years (since seminary 10 years ago.)  I wrote a blog post last month about it. I thought that perhaps, making it a bit more front-burner would be a good idea, both for me, and potentially others. I decided that I would dedicate the next 3 months at least to writing several posts a week (potentially one a day, but I don’t want to promise too much) on aspects of this project. I have tentatively named this project “Overlapping Magisteria.” I’ll describe why I’ve used that name in a subsequent blog post.

As I was thinking about what’s happening right now, not only in US politics, but in pretty much everything that’s happening in the world, I realized that it is a function of two key truths.

  • First, we human beings have the amazing capacity to live and create beyond the part of our brains designed (so incredibly well) to keep us alive, but we too often don’t. And it is crucial that we learn how to do this – or else things are going to get much worse.
  • And the second truth is that we have been taught by very wise people for literally thousands of years how to live and create beyond the part of our brains designed to keep us alive, and it’s only now that we’ve got some amazing tools to image the brain, we’ve begun to learn why that stuff works so well.

This project is actually going to take place in two places. Here will be the scientific, theological, political, and philosophical discussion and reflection. On my other site, called “Life As Practice” I’ll be posting specific practices from a variety of faith traditions designed to allow us to get out of our reptilian brains. Some of these practices have been shown by current science to have very specific effects on the brain. I’ll aim to post at least one of those per week, and I’ll be practicing them myself each week. (And, if you’d like to join, there’s a Slack team.)

I would love this to be a conversation. It doesn’t matter what your faith tradition – since this wisdom is found in all faith traditions. It doesn’t matter if you have no faith tradition, because there’s a heck-a lot of science, too. I’d love to hear your perspectives, your ideas, and your experiences. I’d love to hear how this is reflected in your life. I’d love to hear about your practices, and your wisdom.

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Happy.

Ruth and I were walking down our road on our almost-daily walk. And as is often the case when we take this particular walk, I feel happy. Since I didn’t spend most of my life happy, I tend to take sadness or despair for granted, and not question why I feel that way. But happiness? I’m always asking why when it pokes it’s little head up, like a new flower arriving in the spring.

But for the last few months, I have realized that I am happy. I’d say deliriously happy, except that sounds like a state that isn’t sustainable, and I know I am happy in a sustainable way. Not that I’ll always feel happy. I know that I’ll feel sad, or angry, or despairing, or one of a dozen difficult emotions, now and again. But instead of sadness being the baseline, and happiness being a high, it feels like my life has reversed – happiness is the new baseline.

And the funny thing is that it’s not because everything is actually perfect. I still have chronic health issues I am dealing with. I’m still (trying) to pay off my seminary student loan debt. My life at the moment is in flux. I’ve left behind the career I’ve known for 15 years, onto another set of endeavors that have no guarantee. But all of these those seem more like a set of puzzles to solve or experiments to try, rather than a problem I have to deal with.

But what started me out on this journey of happiness was this: I was committed to listening to myself, and how I wanted to live my own life. And being committed to giving myself love and compassion, and being self-aware–they are both things that are core elements of what makes my life happy.  And the funny thing is, I don’t have what many people (at least in the US) think will make them  happy,  but I don’t even want those things. Ease and time is way more important to my quality of life than money or security or stuff.

Sometimes, as I watch the horror the world seems to have in store every single day, I feel a little guilty at being happy, and living the life I truly want.  Watching the world go to hell in a handbasket doesn’t make me happy. But I’ve fully realized that I don’t have any control over what happens in the world, just over what happens in my life. I have control over the things I say (or don’t say,) the actions I can take (or not take,) and the things I can contribute (and not contribute) to the world. Understanding that, and letting go, has made a huge difference. Some of us live lives of choice, and that is a great privilege, one I try to be responsible with.

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Life as Practice #7: Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Determination

In 2005 (or 2006 – I don’t quite remember) I went to a retreat/conference for UU Buddhists. It was a wonderful gathering. John Daido Loori, who was the Abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, gave a talk in which he described this triad, or three legs to the stool of practice: great faith, great doubt, and great determination.

Being the Buddhist/Christian hybrid that I am, I think of these three a little differently than he did. And I would argue that these three are critical to a truly spiritual life, whatever one’s particular tradition.

For faith, I’ll just let Abraham Joshua Heschel speak for me:

Faith is sensitiveness to what transcends nature, knowledge, and will, awareness of the ultimate, alertness to the holy dimension of all reality… To have faith is not to infer the beyond from the wretched here, but to perceive the wonder that is here and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of living. It is not a deduction but an intuition, not a form of knowledge, of being convinced without proof, but the attitude of mind toward ideas whose scope is wider than its own capacity to grasp.

Faith is not some one-dimensional wholesale adoption of someone else’s truth. That isn’t really faith, that’s delusion. Faith is also a practice and a process. It changes over time, and over a lifetime.

So why is doubt important? Doubt is something to notice, to pay attention to, and sometimes to wrestle with. We doubt our practice will lead to joy. We doubt God is listening. We doubt things will change. We doubt our own abilities. Doubt is not only OK, but necessary, because without doubt, we’d not progress, we’d not find the holes to fall into, then crawl out of. We wouldn’t deepen our practice or grow.

Then, there is determination, because sometimes there is only doubt, and no faith. This life as practice path isn’t always easy. Sometimes we’d rather sit and eat bon-bons, or watch television, or get lost in a good movie than practice. It’s not that any of those things in themselves are problematic, of course. We need rest and enjoyment. But it’s too easy in this society to completely lose the track, completely stray from the path. There are too many reasons in this world to not want to be present and aware to what is going on.

With great determination we learn new kinds of ways to be in the world with awareness, love and compassion.

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Life as Practice #6: The Power of the Word/s – Lectio Divina

Language is one of the things that makes human beings human. Science has shown that the acquisition of language shapes the development of the early brain. Basically, our thoughts are shaped by language – the way we think is shaped by the words we learn and use.

For most spiritual traditions, there are sacred texts – texts which tell stories, proscribe behavior, and explain philosophy and theology. For some traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these texts are central to belief and practice. On the other hand, many Buddhists have a devoted practice without ever having read the Dhammapada (I didn’t read it until more than 15 years into my own practice.)

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the theology of the Bal Shem Tov which describes one thread of Jewish philosophy of sacred text:

When God created heaven and earth He created also a light, the infinite light, the marvelous light that is absolute, ever warming, penetrating, eternal. But because of the failure of creation and the decline of goodness in the world, God hid that eternal light. Where did He hide it? He hid it in the words of the Torah.

But then there are the modern complexities around sacred text in a Christian context. Peter Gomes says in his wonderful book “The Good Book”:

What can be believed about the Bible? What do we need to know about the Bible? Can the Bible survive the efforts to interpret and understand it? Can we? Is it wrong to ask critical questions of the Bible? How do we reconcile the parts we understand and perhaps dislike, with the parts we do not understand but which may be salutary? When we speak of the authority of scripture, as certain Protestant traditions delight in doing, does that mean that we suspend all of those faculties of mind and intelligence which we apply to all other books and all other instances of our life?

For many, including me, sacred texts contain important wisdom. But there are also pitfalls. This post is not about the problems of literal interpretations of scripture – its about how to use sacred text in a life of contemplative practice. Sacred text, in fact, words of all sorts, are great fodder for contemplative practice. One of my favorite practices is called “Lectio Divina”, which translates as “Divine Reading.” It is a practice that allows you to get into the words in a much more personal way – to visit and embrace your feelings and thoughts about a particular text. This practice lets the text sink in in a very different way, and gives rise to very interesting and unexpected ways of interpreting a text.

I love teaching this practice, and using different kinds of text. For instance, I taught this once to a group of Buddhists, using the Dhammapada. I’ve taught this practice using Rumi and Hafiz (Sufi poets,) as well as more modern poets. A friend of mine and I even used prose by James Baldwin once. It’s all good, as they say.

What’s important about this practice is to reserve judgement about the feelings and thoughts that come up when you do it. Sometimes, I have used passages I really don’t like – and it has felt hard to reserve judgement about the fact I don’t like those passages. But looking at the feelings that come up, examining them is really powerful, and in my experience, helps me understand any text a lot better.

This can be done alone, or in a group. Start with a passage that is relatively short. A paragraph or about 5 verses of the Bible or other sacred text that is verse based.

Lectio: Read the text, slowly and with deliberation. When you are done. Say aloud one word that jumped out at you while you were reading.

(If you are in a group, leave room for everyone to say their word, and then pass the book to the next person to read.)

Meditatio: Read the text again, and say aloud a thought (one or two sentences) that come to mind as you reflect on that word you said first.

Oratio: Read the text again, and say aloud a prayer (a few sentences) that come to you.

Contemplatio: Read again, and sit in silence letting the text sink in for about 2 minutes.

 

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Life as Practice #5: Flirting With Despair

Despair is a common emotion, and a very familiar one to me. It’s one of those strong ones – the ones that carry you away, in this case, downward into a place that feels impossible to get out of. Despair is an emotion that saps your energy and strength, and makes everything seem completely impossible.

Despair sometimes comes because of grief and loss. Sometimes it comes because we really are in a place of desperation – our life feels somehow unlivable. And sometimes, it just comes, for no good reason at all it seems, to visit with us.

The good news is that suffering because of despair is unnecessary. Yeah, I know – especially if you feel despair, that sentence seems completely… well, completely unbelievable. And there are many times when I would agree. But I do know differently.

Despair comes from the belief that nothing we can do will change how we feel, or the situation we’re in.

First, we can’t just change how we feel by force of will. That’s not how it works. How it works is that instead of plunging in, and being despair, we need to know the despair, and accept it for what it is. Don’t try to change it, or put it away, or fight it. Let it be what it is. Oddly, that is when the despair can shift.

There is always something we can do to change our situation, even though it might seem impossible. Sometimes, that thing is just to learn to be with the situation. Learn to not be averse to it, to not want it to change, also accept it for what it is. And sometimes, we need to change the situation – but getting distance from our despair is a necessary step.

And getting distance from despair requires practice – the practice of awareness, of noticing, and accepting what is.

So what about prayer? I happen not to believe in a micro-managing God. I don’t actually think that God is “looking down” at me, and is going to magically make things better (for me or for anyone else) if I pray about it. But that doesn’t take away from the power of prayer. The amazing, creative, compassionate, loving force called God moves us in the direction of our best, highest selves, and prayer is like oars or paddles for that stream. And like oars take you further down the stream in a real river, prayer transforms us, and takes us, and the people we love, further down the divine stream.

 

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Piety

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “piety” lately. What is piety, and what is it to me?

I don’t think of myself as a pious Christian. That is because I don’t do many of the things that I imagine most pious Christians do. Piety is, I think, a concept familiar to those of us who are “People of the Book” (that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims) than those (of us) who are Buddhist.

And also, I thought of piety as empty – an attention to ritual or observance that lead to a “holier than thou” sort of perspective, but was empty of meaning.

Then I started to read Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Piety gives rise to reverence, which sees the “dignity of every human being” and “the spiritual value which even inanimate things inalienably possess.” Exploitation and domination are utterly foreign to genuine piety, and possession of things leads only to loneliness.

He speaks so eloquently of the deepness of a genuinely pious life. The ways in which it opens us to the divine, shapes us, and helps us tap into meaning. And I began to re-arrange my concept of piety, to open it up to be more expansive.

Is piety simply a way of living where we are really just paying attention? I’ve often translated the concept from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing”, to mean that I pay attention to the present moment, and listen for God’s voice in it. Is being pious, which for some mean very specific observances, just that? And how do I bring that to my life, as someone who does not have that framework of observance?

At least, for now, perhaps I’ll be reframing my ideas about piety, thanks to Heschel. I’ll probably have more to say about what I’ve learned from him in later posts.

 

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Life as Practice #4: Past, Present and Future

Most Buddhist traditions focus a lot on training you to pay attention to what’s happening at this present moment. It’s a really important practice. Being able to be present in each moment to whatever is happening, whether it is your breath sitting, or being with a loved one, or working, or whatever it is, is the beginning of being able to be equanimous with whatever is–whether it is joyful or difficult.

And, of course, we all know that now is all there really is. The past is past, the future is yet to come, and living in them, dwelling in them, keeps us from the present moment.

The problem is, that in order to live our daily lives, we need to attend to both past and future. What do I need to accomplish today? Where did I leave my keys? We need to dip into both past and present with some regularity. So how do we do this without losing the present?

Part of the question is: are you clear, and in the present when you are attending to the future or past, or are you lost in the future or past? Are you constricted when you consider, for example, what you have to do tomorrow, or what happened yesterday? Are you dwelling on it, perseverating, feeling stressed about either the past or the future? Being present to those feelings is key.

I have two examples of practices I use that help me in this regard. First, is cooking practice. I love to cook, particularly for other people. And I love cooking for retreats – it’s a kind of container that helps me with this practice.

Cooking requires thought about present and future, particularly. You want everything to be cooked approximately at the same time, and, especially if you are cooking for 30 or more (yes, I’ve done that) it requires a lot of coordination. What I find really interesting is how I deal with the stress of trying to make sure that everything worked well, was seasoned correctly, is cooked, and arrives basically together, on time, when people are ready to eat. In a sense, it’s attending to both the future (how everything is going to come together) and the present (how am I feeling about it all.)

Christians contemplatives have some great practices to look at the past. My favorite is the Prayer of Examen (I mentioned it in a past post.) This prayer has its origin in Ignatian spirituality – the spirituality of the Jesuits. The basic idea of the prayer is to look back on your day with mindfulness, and notice what happened during the day, with an openness to the presence of God.

I came up with a version that is kind of a mix of traditions, and I think it is one that someone who doesn’t identify as Christian can use.

First, sit and be present to how you are feeling in this moment about the day. Is there anxiety about what happened, joy, pain, and/or anger? Be open to those feelings, and have compassion for yourself. If you wish, be open to the presence of the Divine, however you define it.

Be willing to look at the days events with gentleness for yourself and others. And if you find yourself unwilling, notice that, and let yourself admit that you don’t have that willingness. It’s all OK.

Then, look at the events of the day, one by one. Notice what feelings come up when a particular event occurred. Notice when there is sadness, or anger, or joy, or pain. Let gentleness and compassion wash over those feelings, if they are difficult for you. Notice what you might have done differently, or said differently, and forgive yourself if you feel shame or anger at yourself. Let the grace that is present in the Universe bathe you with love.

Notice if you can’t remember much of the day. Notice what might have allowed you to be more present in the day. Think about what you might do tomorrow to be more present for the day.

End the Examen with gratefulness for your efforts during the day to stay present, and gratefulness for whatever the day has brought to your practice.

 

 

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