Monday, March 30, 2015

Podcast: The Air We Breathe



In this life, we are all connected - even in every breathe we take.

Episode 110 "The Air We Breathe"




Every Tuesday I bring you a new meditation or talk via my studio in the desert.  A podcast to take with you on the road and in your week when you need a little time away. Desert Wisdom broadcasts weekly and is available on iTunesStitcher, and always at my webspace, DesertPaul.com

Facebook | Twitter | iTunes | Stitcher

Die Before You Die

"New Life"
- along a wilderness trail- 

I went to church yesterday to participate in a Palm Sunday service which featured a Gospel narrative recounting Jesus' suffering and death.  As the congregation listened to this rather lengthy reading, I overhead a woman who sat in front of me whisper to her friend, "I always hate listening to this story - it's just so depressing." 

I thought to myself that maybe this woman's discomfort over hearing the story of Jesus' death might well stem from an overall avoidance of the subject of death in general in today's culture.  After all many people today have never even seen a dead body and at the first sign of wrinkles it's off to a surgeon to make it all better and reclaim the fountain of youth once again. So, it's no wonder that thinking about death or hearing stories about death are to be avoided at all costs - unfortunately doing so often prevents us from learning something about life. 

I remember something a friend who has been a monk for many years once said to me: "I spend my days learning how to die." At first I thought it was somewhat macabre that someone would spend the days of his life focusing on his death,  but then I realized he wasn't talking about preparing for his eventual and inevitable physical death - the disintegration of his body. He was telling me that he devotes his time learning how to die to what is unimportant so that he can live by paying attention to what really counts in life.

I am reminded of something author and spiritual guide Eckart Tolle once said:

Death is the stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to  'die before you die'
and find there is no death.

I recall some recent research reported by Dr. Ira Byock, a nationally renowned hospice-care physician. He discovered that at the threshold of physical death, there are only three of four very basic sentiments people feel compelled to express before they take their last breath:

Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
Thank you.
I love you.

It seems to me that these simple yet profound statements so beautifully express the core of who we really are as people - the core of what really matters in our lives as human beings. 

We spend so much time on the things that, in the end, count for little or nothing - building careers, climbing the ladder of success, ensuring our investments, accumulating more and more stuff,  garnering the praise of others. But on a death bed no one asks how their portfolio is doing, they don't ask if their jewelry is secured, or who at work is in line for the next promotion. They talk about what really counts in life and show us what lies at the heart of our existence: 

Forgiveness, thankfulness, love. 

In my experience I have often found that when people finally arrive at the threshold of physical death they often regret spending so much energy on the fringe stuff of life with so little time on the things at the center. 

So why wait until you are almost dead to learn this lesson about life - why not die before you die? 

I think my monk friend was exactly right, and like him, I also want to spend my days learning how to die, learning how to die before I die, dying to all that's not really me, devoting my days to what counts, to what really matters in life - building relationships, healing relationships, rejoicing in relationships, being thankful for relationships. After all, in the end, this is all that remains. 

Everything else is dust in the wind.  



Listen to my podcast:"Desert Wisdom"






Sunday, March 29, 2015

The March on Jerusalem

"Palm Sunday, 2015"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Back in the time of Jesus, the people of Jerusalem were used to grand processions on their city streets. Almost every day flanks of heavily armed Roman soldiers mounted on fierce mighty steeds, would solemnly parade along the main streets as a show of force. They carried banners proclaiming Caesar as king, warning Jewish citizens that they had better remain docile and submissive lest they incur the wrath of the mighty empire. 

Today is Palm Sunday on the Christian calendar, a day to commemorate another kind of procession on the streets of Jerusalem, a day when Jesus and his ragtag group of disciples formed a little procession and marched into Jerusalem along the city streets - a procession that was deliberately meant to be an obvious "in your face" protest against those mighty parades of the powerful forces of Rome.

Instead of being mounted on a warhorse, laden with weapons and clad in armor, Jesus comes into the city riding on the back of a jackass armed only with the weapons of love and the armor of compassion. Walking next to Jesus are his disciples, a bunch of simple fisherman, a group of women, a handful of children and in the crowd of onlookers are the outcasts of society - those people who had been cast onto the trash heap by the rich, powerful and famous of the popular culture. In the crowd there are beggars in rags, sick people on stretchers, and those hobbling around on crutches. There are others in the crowd with faces emaciated from hunger, those that are notorious public sinners, and lawbreakers who have no place among upstanding citizens. 

And instead of brandishing swords and clubs the people on the Jesus' procession are waving palms and olive branches - signs of peace and tokens of love.  The air is filled with a sense of hope and expectation - a new way of living is entering into the city of Jerusalem and into the world, a new order in which the powerful will no longer lord it over the weak, where there is a place of dignity for every human being. 

We often see Hollywood movies about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Most people don't realize that this was actually a subversive protest march in which the forces of love and justice march in direct opposition to the forces of empire and domination - setting the stage for an inevitable clash. 

This morning as I think about that Palm Sunday protest march of 2000 years ago, I am reminded that this year we are also celebrating the 50th year of the infamous March on Selma. As I think about it,  what happened in Selma 50 years ago was very similar to what happened on the streets of Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. The events of Palm Sunday were indeed a "March on Jerusalem" - the clash of opposite forces on the city streets, the seemingly meek and weak armed with love and thirsting for  for justice going head to head with the powerful might of the status quo.  Surely there is no hope for love to win the day? Or is there?

On this Palm Sunday as I reflect upon this March on Jerusalem, the question I ask myself is "are you going to just sit back and watch as the parade goes by, or are you going to join the marchers?" 

In the imagination of my meditation, as I sit in the quiet of my garden I hear a parade going by on the street outside my house-  the "March on Jerusalem" continues. So I get up from my comfortable chair in the quiet of my garden and I join in. 

As I  march along I see that I am walking along with millions of others. Jesus leads the way along with the Buddha, the prophet Muhammad, the great prophets of Israel. And look, over there is Gandhi, and of course there is brother Martin Luther King marching right next to Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Caesar Chavez and Harvey Milk.  We are all plucking off palm and olive branches from the nearby trees and waving them - signs of peace, tokens of goodwill. 

As the march proceeds, I notice that there are some people on the sidelines who don't like the noise we are making disturbing the complacency of their quiet lives.  Still others are angry and they aim to stop us on our way.  How dare we sing songs about "lifting up the poor and outcast from the  garbage heaps and sitting them in places of honor next to princes and kings?"  

In the imagination of my Palm Sunday meditation,  I am carrying a banner:

On the spiritual path
the afflicted are comforted and
the comforted are afflicted. 

And I ask myself once again, "How can this rag-tag bunch of people, armed only with love and compassion possibly hope to win in a head-on clash with the powerful forces of the status quo?  Surely there is no way for love to win the day?

Or is there?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Apathy and Passion

"Crown of Thorns Cactus"
- in my meditation garden -

The other day someone asked me about what the difference was between being detached and being indifferent.  It was actually a great question because the two words sound sort of similar,  but on a spiritual path they couldn't possibly be further apart in their meaning. 

To be "detached" means that you don't cling too tightly or selfishly try to possess anything or anyone in a very impermanent world - to be "indifferent or apathetic" means you don't "give a hoot" about anything or anyone - an apathetic person is walled off from the world outside of one's individual self. 

The psychologist, Rollo May, once wrote:

Hate is not the opposite of love;
apathy is.

I think there is a great truth in this observation. When you hate something or someone you at least feel some sense of connection to the thing or person you hate. But when you are apathetic you are cut off, removed and hidden within the confines of your own ego - you don't care, you just "don't give a hoot."  As I see it, there is no room for apathy on a spiritual path.

While I try hard not to cling to, hoard or possess anyone or anything in my life, I do want to embrace my life as fully as possible. I want to really love, to be involved with, hold closely those people who join me at various times on my path of life - even those people with whom I disagree. 

I want to be able to get up every morning and bask in the rays of the desert sun, my senses filled with the sounds of wind, the flutter of hummingbirds and the gurgling fountains, the smell of the flowers, the fragrances of the herbs in the garden - I want to deeply embrace it all, filled up and overflowing.

On my spiritual journey I want to passionately embrace this world in which I am placed and so I also want to feel loss and pain and personal anguish when I see poverty and injustice,  even when it doesn't seem to affect me directly. I want to look deep into my soul and say: "I am an immigrant, I am that Black teenager killed on a city street, I am the homeless woman sleeping on the street" - what happens to them happens to me because we all belong to one another. 

I am reminded of a passage from the Book of Revelation in the Christian scriptures:

I know you inside and out..You're not cold, you're not hot,
far better to be either cold or hot
rather than to be stale. 

I wonder if "being stale" is another definition of apathy?

Tomorrow Holy Week begins on the Christian calendar, sometimes known as "Passion Week" - a remembrance of Christ's last week on earth. Oftentimes when people talk about the "Passion of the Christ" they refer to his suffering and death. I actually think the "Passion of the Christ" goes far beyond what happened to Jesus during his last week of suffering and death.  

In fact, I think that I am such an avid follower of Jesus because he was so passionate. 

He loved deeply, intimately connected with the lives of any who came his way. He immersed himself in the world - he prayed under the glow of the cosmic stars at night, took delight in the wildflowers and rejoiced in the splendor of the lilies of the field. He healed the sick and suffering and laid down his life for those who suffered injustice. He gave everything he had and everything he was for the good of others. He was the icon of what it means to live a passionate life. 

As I  enter into this week of "The Passion of the Christ,"  I pray that I may live my life as passionately as he did. 

You certainly don't need to be a Christian to want to live life passionately.








Friday, March 27, 2015

A Narrow Path

"Wilderness Trail"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I begin each day in my meditation garden, often using a passage of scripture, a prayer or a mantra to help focus my Quiet Time. Today I reflected upon one of my favorite prayers from the Islamic Sufi tradition - so simple, so beautiful, and so full of wisdom:

Give me O God
Deep thoughts
High dreams
Few words
Much silence 
The narrow path
The wide outlook
The end in Peace

As I sat with these words, I was very struck with the phrase: "a narrow path and a broad outlook." At first it may seem somewhat odd to be praying that I might walk on a narrow path in life.  Isn't  a narrow path restrictive, myopic and limiting?  Don't narrow-minded people walk on a narrow path? How is it possible that traveling on narrow path in life might give me a broad outlook? 

And yet this is indeed the great paradox of a spiritual journey - it does point to a pathway that is winding and narrow, and that's exactly why it is often a road less travelled. 

The Buddha referred to the "way" to which he pointed as a narrow path, so did Jesus who said:

Enter though the narrow gate.
For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
 and many enter through it.
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life,
and only a few find it.


Not far from my desert home there is a vast and expansive California super highway. In some places this highway can be as wide as eight lanes,  and at any given moment of every single day there are thousands upon thousands of cars traveling on it. It's the main road connecting this part of California and everyone takes it - the quick and easy way to get from one place to another. Just pack up all your stuff, get into the car, turn on some tunes, set the GPS, and drive along a well-marked highway until you reach your destination. 

Just outside our "Desert Retreat House" there are many little winding narrow trails making their way through the wilderness. You have to travel lightly on these trails - you can't weigh yourself down with stuff when you walk in the hot desert sun along a twisting path that is not readily marked, sometimes hard to find and not always easy to follow. And yet traveling a wilderness path is far more beautiful than driving inside a car on a busy and chaotic superhighway

The spiritual journey is like walking a narrow wilderness trail, winding your way through the beauty that life has to offer as opposed to locking yourself up behind tons of fast moving steel and mindlessly driving from one place to another.

The narrow path is a way that is so radically different from the broad road in life. 

 On the broad road you weigh yourself down with more and more, bigger and better.  On a narrow path, you travel lightly and live simply. On a broad road the focus of your vision is inward, on self-gratification; however, on the narrow way the vision is outward, connecting with a world outside you, connected to others who walk with you on the way, connected to a world of nature. On the broad road, the goal is to reach the destination, on the narrow path the purpose of the journey is to enjoy each moment along the way.  

The narrow path leads to life but it is harder to travel, that's why more people choose to take the easy highway. 

Paradoxically, the narrow path cannot be travelled by narrow-minded people- and it always opens up a vision to the broad outlook.

So, that's my prayer as I begin yet another day struggling to find my way along the narrow path with that broad outlook. I pray for deep thoughts, high dreams, few words, much silence and Peace at the end. 



Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"











Thursday, March 26, 2015

Showing Up

"Ever Faithful"
- The Sun Rises at the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday someone posted a comment in response to one of my blog articles, saying: "I've always thought that the main way you find success and happiness in life is by just showing up." The comment really grabbed my attention. 

I think this comment struck me so much because it was so different from what I so often hear when people write or talk about finding happiness in life - the "10 habits of successful leaders."  the  "7 ingredients for happy living," the "12 keys for growing a lively church," the "5 ways of effective meditation." Instead, this person simply said, you find happiness if you "just show up." 

I've been thinking about that comment ever since I read it. At first blush, that one little sentence may sound sort of simple, perhaps even simplistic; however, I think it contains a profound wisdom. 

I often wonder what people mean when they talk about being successful or finding happiness in life. It seems to me as if so many of us measure our happiness against the backdrop of some great Hollywood blockbuster. 

Just like in the movies, people expect smooth sailing and perfect joy in their relationships - spouses who are always supportive, living happily ever after in the soft glow of the setting sunset, grateful children with tears in their eyes thank their adoring parents for caring so deeply for them  Others may imagine their happiness as a scene where they get the big promotion at work as their colleagues all cheer and pat them on the back. Or perhaps they might imagine achieving spiritual success by seeing some divine light appearing in rays from the clouds, hearing the thundering voice of God:"well done good and faithful servant."  - just like in the movies. 

But for the most part that stuff rarely if ever happens. 

Life is difficult.  Relationships can be dull and often demand a great deal of self sacrifice - most kids never say "thank you" to mom for making their lunch every day.  Work is usually routine and often boring, and when it comes to the spiritual life, there are some times in which we might experience thin-place moments of transcendence, but just as often Holy Presence seems far more absent than present. 


In his book, An Undefeated Mind, Dr. Alex Luckerman argues that we find true happiness and deep peace in life when we can develop the resiliency of an undefeated mind. He puts it this way:

An undefeated mind isn't one that never feels discouraged or despairing;
it's one that continues on in spite of it.
Even when we can't find a smile to save us, 
even when we're tired beyond all endurance,
possessing an undefeated mind means never forgetting that
defeat comes not from failing but from giving up.

As I see it, we have an "undefeated mind" when we are able to just "show up" for life no matter what. 

So, get up in the morning and show up for it all, hang in there, let go of all expectations and see what bubbles up. When you do this it's amazing what happiness you can find.

I got up this morning and, faithful as ever, the sun showed up.  So did I. 

Who knows what life may have to offer me today. 

Surprise me.




Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"






Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Say Yes

"Morning Sun and Olive Trees"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

In exactly nine months it will be Christmas Day. I know this, no because I am starting to think about my Christmas shopping but because, on the Christian calendar, today is the "Feast of the Annunciation." According to this story, nine months before her baby is born, the Angel Gabriel visits Mary and asks if she is wiling to be the mother of Jesus. She says "yes" to the angel's invitation, and in doing so becomes impregnated with the power of love. Nine months later the baby is born in a Bethlehem manger.

Like many if not most Biblical narratives, if the story of the Annunciation is read literally- a CNN documentary of some past historical event, the story must seem somewhat ludicrous to a scientifically-minded, intelligent person living in the 21st century - people don't get pregnant by the force of some magical power. 

And even if you do believe in the literal veracity of this story, while it may be important because it accounts for how Jesus came along; when the "rubber hits the road," the story really has little effect on the everyday lives of average people who have never seen an angel and never been asked if they would allow God to impregnate them. 

When I read the beautiful poetry of the Annunciation story, I never think about a past event, instead I hear a story about me, a story about all Christians and all believers - more than that, I hear a story about any human being who embarks on a spiritual path, and is bold enough to embrace a life of compassion and kindness. 

The story of the Annunciation is so full of rich imagery and deep sentiment that, over the ages, it has  touched the spirit of countless artists and inspired the hearts of poets. The Angel Gabriel, his wings on fire with unbridled love engulfs the innocent maiden Mary in his embrace, inviting her to take an enormous leap of faith. He invites her body and soul, her mind and her spirit to be filled up with an all-encompassing energy of love, the power of God. 

Mary doesn't take time to weigh all her options (no cost-benefit analysis) and she has no idea what accepting this power of love into her life  might mean - no idea of exactly what may be expected of her or how she might suffer because of her choice. But, her heart if filled with trust as she throws caution to the wind: "yes, yes, yes, be it done to me as you will.'

Such stunning poetry

God is "Love." God - the universal abiding, all encompassing fire of love burns at the core of every living being. And each us is Mary- always invited to say "yes" to Love and to walk in the way of Love rather than in the direction of self-centeredness and ego. But the choice is always ours and saying yes to love is risky and bold especially in a culture that more than often says no. 

In the Baptismal Covenant, before a Christian is initiated into the way of faith he/she is asked this question:

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people 
and respect the dignity of every human being?

Wow, talk about a loaded question. It's a question asked by the Angel Gabriel- wings all flaming with a burning passion, an all-embracing love stands before the soul, asking, "Will you allow your entire life to me impregnated  with the power of love? Will you embrace a lifestyle, everything you have and everything you do devoted to the cause of love, respecting the dignity of every human being?" 

If we place ourselves into this poetry, we hear Angel Gabriel ask this question not just of potential Christians but of any who would say yes to Love- regardless of beliefs, regardless of traditions or spiritual paths.  The Angel asks this question of us all on this Annunciation Day.

So today, I renew my answer once again and I say yes to Love- "yes, yes, yes, be it done to me as you will." 



Tuesday, March 24, 2015

LISTEN: Beauty - Another Name For God


As diverse as our humanity is, so is what we call "God" - even Beauty.

If you've experienced something 'beautiful', have you experienced "God" ?

Listen to this episode of Desert Wisdom and find out.




Every Tuesday I bring you a new meditation or talk via my studio in the desert.  A podcast to take with you on the road and in your week when you need a little time away. Desert Wisdom broadcasts weekly and is available on iTunesStitcher, and always at my webspace, DesertPaul.com

Facebook | Twitter | iTunes | Stitcher

Monday, March 23, 2015

Nothing to Offer

"The Deep Wilderness" 
- Outside the Desert Retreat House-

I was browsing through a magazine yesterday that included a rather substantial section of classified ads - several pages advertising various retreat centers across the country, promotions for places to which you might think of going, as a group or individually, for spiritual renewal and soul regeneration. 

One retreat center was located on majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and according to the ad, the place offered "spectacular ocean views, tranquil sunsets, spa quality food and daily massages -what better way to renew your spirit."

I think, though, that my favorite was an advertisement for a retreat center high up in the Adirondack mountains of New York State nestled deep within rolling forests of sweet-smelling pine - "a region dotted with pristine mountain lakes and a natural waterfall that greets you on your daily hikes." The ad claimed that this was "the most spiritual place on earth." 

As I read through the descriptions of these various places and all they had to offer people seeking spiritual renewal, I sort of smiled to myself. I wondered what I might say about why someone might find spiritual renewal by coming out to the desert wilderness where I live:  "Come to the desert, it's a place that has nothing to offer you - just rocks, sand and stones and endless wilderness." 

I vividly remember the very first time I went out into the wilderness of a desert several years ago on a pilgrimage I made to the Holy Land. We were driven out onto the deepest part of the Judean desert just outside Jerusalem (a region that looks remarkably similar to the wilderness near my current home),  and there in that deep wilderness each us in our pilgrimage group was left to stay there all alone with the instructions: "We will come back to get you in a few hours, just sit quietly and go with the experience"  

I'm not very prone to panic attacks but after our guide pulled away, sitting there in the midst of absolute nothingness such as I had never before experienced, I was scared to death. The silence was just too much to bear, the miles of sand and stone with no roads or landmarks in sight were too overwhelming.  I worried: "Would they remember to come back and get me? Would they even be able to find me out here?" 

But then I settled down, took some deep breaths and simply "let go." My experience of that place that had absolutely nothing to offer was one of the most profound spiritual experiences I have ever had in my life. It became immediately clear to me why Moses and Jesus and the prophet Muhammad all went out into that deep wilderness to hear the "voice of God." 

Now that I actually live in a desert region, I have had several experiences of fulness in the emptiness the desert has to offer. The trails just outside my house are relatively tame and well-marked but the deeper you go into the wilderness, the scarier it gets. Everything always seems so out of control, no comfortable landmarks in view, no refreshing waterfalls or lush pine forests, no relaxing massages, nothing to offer but emptiness and thundering silence.

Whenever I am out in the deep wilderness, initial panic is still my first response (just like it was back in the hills outside Jerusalem) but then if I go with it, my emptiness is always filled up and I am inevitably pulled out into something ("someone") far greater than me.

The Taoist, Lau Tzu, once taught:

Become totally empty.
Quiet the restlessness of the mind,
only then will you witness everything unfolding from the emptiness.

Of course you don't have to physically come out to a desert in order to enter the wilderness.  A backyard chair or a corner of an apartment can turn into the desert when you are willing to sit there with an uncluttered mind, present in the moment, waiting to see what bubbles up. It's amazing what fullness can emerge from the emptiness.

Lent is coming to an end on the Christian calendar. Before it does, take some time to come out into the desert - it's the most spiritual place on earth. 


Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"









Sunday, March 22, 2015

Observations on the Path

"Along the Way"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I have always considered myself to be somewhat of a "people watcher." I often go into a coffee shop or a mall or just sit on a park bench and observe, becoming something like an anthropologist who goes into a foreign country and watches the behaviors of the native inhabitants in order to understand their culture.

The other day I decided to do some serious people-watching while walking along one of the wilderness trails just outside my house.  For me, these "observations on the path" are incredibly insightful about how we walk our everyday journey of life and travel along a path of faith and wisdom. 

The first person I encountered along the way was a racing biker. He was speeding along so fast on his bicycle that he almost knocked me down as he whizzed by me. I noticed that he occasionally looked at his watch and it seemed obvious that he had some serious goals to meet -  perhaps intending to set some kind of record time.

The next person to come along was a runner who also seemed very serious and pretty intense. She had earphones plugged into her ears, no doubt making the run a bit easier to endure.  I imagined that she was listening to music or perhaps tuning into a lecture or maybe a work related memo or report. Anyhow, she took no notice of me whatsoever as she quickly passed me by.

Then there was the mom pushing a baby stroller, also equipped with earphones plugged into her iPhone endlessly chatting with someone on the other end of the call as she walked along the way. She was pretty loud and I heard all the intimate details about an upcoming lunch date.

And then the serious hikers came along, equipped with backpacks, water bottles strapped to their sides. One of the hikers was carrying a GPS device that demanded his sole attention as he plotted their hike, sure not to get lost on the path to their desired destination.  Once again, they never even  looked my way as they walked by.

Then at long last someone finally came by who actually seemed to be enjoying the stunningly beautiful spring day in the desert - no distracting devices, no maps demanding attention or speed challenges to attain,  just a walk in the wilderness. As she passed me by, this latest traveler actually stopped and smiled, the first person to look at me, and she said "wow what a beautiful day- it all smells so fresh doesn't it?" 

She was right - it was indeed "so beautiful" on that path, and it did smell so very fresh and so pristine - crystal blue skies, spring blossoms, scents of lavender and sage, a gentle breeze blowing off the mountains through the trees. But all the others had missed it - too many distractions, so many plans, so many goals to accomplish, so much to do that they had missed it all.

At one time or another in my life I have actually been all those people I observed along the path. I have set my eyes on my career and with eyes straight ahead set my life course toward accomplishing those goals that I had set for myself. I have been inordinately distracted by the busyness of my life. I have walked a spiritual journey armed with my books and my bibles and dressed in my vestments on a path earnestly pursuing the truth about God. 

But now I realize that walking on a spiritual path is never a journey with a destination -  rather  it is a walk in the wilderness. In fact on a spiritual journey whatever destination you may have in mind almost always gets in the way of finding truth, wisdom, and Holy Presence - always revealed in the moment as you walk along the way.

In one simple sentence, my favorite Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches me almost anything I ever need to hear about a journey through life and a path toward "God." 

Walk as if your feet are kissing the earth

I have a library full of theology books and have pursued a lifelong career of living a life in the church; however to me, this one little sentence is really all I ever need to guide me on my way. 

With each step I take I arrive at my destination, and wherever my feet come down is sacred space to be revered and holy ground to be reverenced with a kiss. 










Saturday, March 21, 2015

Letting Go

"Full Bloom"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

It may only be the second day of spring but the wilderness outside my house is already in the full bloom of early spring.Yesterday I decided I had better go out onto the trails and get some pictures because this spring-bloom isn't going to last very long. In just a few weeks all those glorious yellow and gold blooms will fall from the trees giving way for the leaves to grow and the planting of seeds on the ground for new life in another season. Such a great lesson about the cycle of life - for something new to grow, something old must always die. 

The truth is that all of us are dying all the time. Scientists tell us that the healthy human body loses about 100,000 cells per second and just as many cells are subsequently reproduced.  In fact, the entire human body is regenerated every seven years; and if the old cells don't die off, making room for the new, they get in the way and block the healthy development of the body causing cancers and other diseases. 

This cycle of death and life is, of course, not only confined to the physical world- it is in fact at the core of our spiritual development.

In the Gospels, Jesus teaches his disciples;

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain.
But if it fall and dies, it bears much fruit.

I think Jesus is offering an important wisdom here that goes far beyond an analysis of the cycle of physical death and life. He is teaching something about the need to "let go" on the spiritual path- surrendering the old to make room for new life to spring up.  

As I walked on the trail yesterday, so vividly aware that the beautiful blossoms were in fact already in the process of dying, I thought about Jesus' teaching. I find it is a great truth and an enduring wisdom that in order for me to find my "new self"  I must learn  to let go of my ego-centric old self. 

When I "let go" of my old ego-centric self, I am not overly attached to anything in this life. When I "let go," I don't hoard my money or my resources, my house, my car, any of my stuff. When I "let go" I give up my long-held grudges - I surrender the memories of those times in my life when people have done wrong to me. When I "let go" I give up all my regrets about things I may have done better in my life and I surrender any lingering pain over those goals in life that I never achieved.  When I "let go" I give up trying to control what happens in my everyday living - I give up the idea that the world is supposed to go along according to the way I want it to work.

And it' true, when I "let go," new life always springs up.  The memories of the past that have strangled my joy, the burden of grudges, the anxieties over a need to control everything all die. They fall to earth and die and and this bears much fruit.

The Buddha taught:

In the end, these things matter most:
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?



Listen to my podcast" "Desert Wisdom"

Friday, March 20, 2015

Awakening

'Springtime in the Wilderness'

Before moving out to the desert I would often drive on the Interstate Highway winding my way though this desert valley, often thinking to myself that this was probably one of the driest and most abandoned places I had ever before seen. As I drove along the highway all I could see were miles of sandy wilderness - rocks and sagebrush all surrounded by towering mountains of hard cold stone. I often wondered why on earth anyone wold ever even think about living out here in this "god-forsaken" place? 

The names of the little desert cities out here also seemed very odd to me. As I drove my car on the highway, I would have expected that the towns along the way might be called "Dry Gulch" or maybe "Death Valley," but instead they sported names like "Desert Hot Springs,"  "White Water Canyon," and of course, "Palm Springs." Now that I live out here, I know exactly why these little "cities" have those fresh "spring" names. 

What appears to be one of the driest places on earth is perhaps one of the most fertile places on earth. An enormous aquifer runs just beneath the surface of this wilderness territory- streams of living water inches below the dry desert terrain. Although the daytime temperatures can easily reach up onto the triple digits, fresh vegetables and fruit grow abundantly and palm trees are to be found everywhere. The gardens at my home are filled with freshly growing plants and flowering bushes, lemon and lime trees, pomegranate, fig and olive.

Living out here I am regularly reminded of some beautiful poetry in the Hebrew Scripture:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

Today is the first day of spring, and to me there is probably no more beautiful place on earth than springtime in the wilderness. One day I can be walking along a desert trail all barren, stark and dry and the next day spring has sprung - golden yellow blossoms on the bushes and the trees, pink and purple wildflowers on the desert floor, exotic blooms springing up out of the prickly cacti, "every common bush" bursting with new life. 

Each year when spring comes to the wilderness, I am again taught an important life-lesson.  People often say that springtime is a season when nature wakes up. Actually I think spring is a season when nature teaches all of "us" to wake up. 

Everything that once appeared so dry and lifeless, so dead and cold, comes alive in springtime; but nature reminds us that it has been alive all along. Life has always been flowing underneath the surface appearances of it all.  It's just that most of us have been asleep and unaware so we haven't recognized it. 

Spring is not a time for the earth to wake up - it is a season for our awakening.

I came across this beautiful springtime prayer the other day. It is the kind of prayer that can be recited by believers and non-believers alike, a prayer to the living God, to an abiding Holy Presence, a prayer to the Universe in which we all live and move and have our being:

O you in whom we live and move and have our being,
we have been asleep too long!
Lead us to our awakening places.
Awaken us to the new light.
Awaken us to hope.
Awaken us to joy.
Awaken us to love.

Happy First Day of Spring!



Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"






Thursday, March 19, 2015

Right Beliefs

"Hope Springs Eternal"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House - 

I was sad and bewildered yesterday as I read a story that swept through the various news media. Apparently the Catholic Cathedral in San Francisco has installed a watering system designed to keep homeless people away from their church.  

The street people of San Francisco gravitate to the safety of the cathedral steps when night falls in the city and often sleep in the alcove just outside the doors of the cathedral, but not any more -  not unless they wish to be soaked by water draining down on them from spigots set up in the celling of the entranceway.

Cold water pours out of these newly-installed spigots for about 75 seconds every 40 minutes  throughout the entire night. If you are a homeless person sleeping there you can be assured that you will be drenched to the bone by the time morning comes.  One homeless man said, "If we stay there we will be wet all night long- hypothermia, cold and other stuff sets in." 

The staff of the cathedral admitted that this recently installed water system was specifically designed for the purpose of keeping homeless people away.

As I read this story about the cathedral in San Francisco I also recalled another story recently published about another great world cathedral--Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Pope's cathedral. Every night homeless people also congregate in the safety of Saint Peter's Square, but unlike San Francisco, in Rome the homeless people are welcomed to stay there and in fact they are greeted with open arms. 

Pope Francis has ordered that "Vatican Issued" sleeping bags be provided for the thousands of homeless people who flock into Saint Peter's Square every night.  Then in the morning breakfast is served and showers are provided, including barbers who are there to cut hair and help groom away the dust of the streets -  all measures that help restore the dignity of human beings and make them feel as if they have some worth.  Such a far cry from the dehumanizing practice of dousing street people with cold water to keep them away.  

The thing that I find most interesting about this "tale of two cathedrals" is that the infamous Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco is a stickler for preserving doctrine and adhering to "right beliefs," clear orthodox doctrine. He has even established a "catholic moral code" in which he lambasts gay marriage and condemns homosexuality, abortion and birth control and has forced his catholic school teachers to assent to this code as a condition of their employment. And all along the poor, the needy and the outcast lay outside his cathedral doors and are soaked with cold water - treated like animals. 

The Pope on the other hand (who is after all the "top dog" of the catholic church) doesn't seem to be all that overly concerned about adhering to orthodox doctrine and right belief. In fact, he has said that he refuses to judge people because of their sexual orientation, he has opened the doors to those who have been cast away by church law, and has declared that mercy and compassion always outweigh correct theology and right beliefs. I think this pope has it right.

The Buddha once taught

However many holy words you read, however many you speak,
what good will they do if you do not act on them?

Personally I have never been a big fan of holding on to "right beliefs." I think that teaching and doctrine in any religion should do little more then help people follow a path of compassion and kindness in the living of life everyday, and if the doctrine doesn't do that, maybe those "right beliefs" aren't all that "right" after all. 

As I see it, apart from whatever beliefs a person holds, the way in which one "acts" toward others is far more important than any "holy words" or sacred beliefs and teachings. 

The whole purpose of being a Christian is to follow a "way" through life as pointed out by Jesus.  Jesus welcomed the poor, comforted the afflicted, embraced the outcast and healed the sick. I can't even imagine him dousing homeless people with cold water. 




Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Rugged Individualism

"A Desert Garden"

Among all the many "Breaking News" news bulletins of the past week, one seems to be missing. We have heard story after story about Hilary's emails, elections in Israel, the President's ongoing battle with Congress - but very few people have likely heard the shocking news that, by some estimates,  there is probably less than one year of water remaining for the State of California. 

If you don't live in California, you may think this headline doesn't apply to you at all,  but if the Central Valley of California turns into a desert in the next few years there won't be any fresh vegetables on most supermarket shelves in this country- maybe then people will start to take notice. 

Even for those of us who do live in California, the news of an impending water crisis is generally taken rather lightly. There still seems to be plenty of water to fill up our glasses at the tap, water the lawn and fill up the pools. When all this begins to change,  and some day the tap runs dry, maybe then the severe drought will become "Breaking News." By then it will probably be too late to do much about it. 

Most of us who live out here in the desert are pretty careful about how we use water. The yards of almost every house in my neighborhood are not green grass lawns but drought resistant desert gardens -desert gardens take almost no water to maintain, lush grass lawns have to be watered constantly.

I guess that's why I was so stunned yesterday to walk down a nearby street and discover that, in the midst of this life-threatening severe drought, someone was actually tearing up his desert landscape and planting several acres of lush green grass. When the guy was asked if he understood that we were in the midst of a water crisis, he said that he was getting sick of al the cacti in his yard and besides, green grass might improve his property value.

In his very insightful essay, Rugged Individualism, author and environmentalist, Wendell Berry laments the way in which contemporary American culture has come to understand what it means  to live in a "free" society:

The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive 'right' of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no community, no neighbors and no posterity.

Many people lead their lives today under the ethic of "it's not a problem if it doesn't affect me."  They lead their lives to advance their own personal agenda, to meet their own needs and promote the needs of their closest circle of friends. This is a slippery slope on the pathway to ultimate destruction.

In his essay, Berry goes on to say:

'Every man for himself' is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness and peace.

The Buddha got it right when he taught that the idea of an isolated individual ego separated from others is nothing more than a "delusion."  We are all dynamically interconnected to one another in a dynamic web of relationship - to think or act otherwise inevitably leads to suffering. 

The very definition of a "civilized" society is one in which individuals sacrifice their own personal  needs in order to build up and support the common good- a society of "rugged individuals" is not a civilized at all- just bunch of barbarians who happen to live in the same place.



Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"













Tuesday, March 17, 2015

LISTEN: Loving the Questions


With all the uncertainties in this world, sometimes it is alright to say, "I just don't know..."
This week of Desert Wisdom is about all of the questions.





Every Tuesday I bring you a new meditation or talk via my studio in the desert.  A podcast to take with you on the road and in your week when you need a little time away. Desert Wisdom broadcasts weekly and is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and always at my webspace, DesertPaul.com

Facebook | Twitter | iTunes | Stitcher


Monday, March 16, 2015

Another Ordinary Day

"Morning Has Broken"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

When I woke up this morning the first thought that entered my mind was that this was just another ordinary day- the same old routine, another Monday morning, the beginning of just another work week. I wonder how many other people in this country woke up this morning with the same thoughts in mind? 

In fact, my guess is that lots of people woke up today singing the "Monday Morning Blues" - if the statistics are to be believed, most people in this country are depressed at the thought of having to get up and go to work. Supposedly 70 % of the American work force say that they don't like their jobs very much - many feel depleted by what they do, in a rut, on the road to burnout. 

Lots of people believe that their very ordinary jobs are little more than "busy work," punching a clock, putting in time without ever really making any noteworthy contribution to society.

I suppose it's no wonder that so many people might feel that what they do is just too ordinary. After all, from the moment our kids enter school they are taught to aspire to "greatness." In almost every graduate speech I have ever heard, speakers have "charged" the fresh new graduates sitting before them to "go out into the world and dare to be different."

But the truth is that for the most part, most people (regardless of their jobs or careers) don't do grand, noteworthy things in their everyday routine work--the kind of stuff that gets reported on the news or published in the papers. 

Most ordinary people get up in the morning, sometimes they take a few moments of prayer or meditation, then it's off  to work or school where  they sit at computers or make their reports,  go to the endless meetings, or they wait on tables or checkout customers at the store. Others drive their trucks or clean hotel rooms or pick the crop, or see patients, or write sermons. They do their chores, take care of their kids, go shopping, cook supper, watch a little TV,  browse the web and then go to bed, hoping that the weekend isn't all that far way. 

For the most part,  every day for most people is just another ordinary day. 

So perhaps a lot of people aren't all that satisfied with what they do because they somehow have convinced themselves that they have failed in the noble quest of achieving greatness in life - they have failed to be different.

While reading a recent Buddhist periodical magazine, I came across this wise and insightful commentary on the gift of being "ordinary:" 

Being ordinary means giving up any hope that we might be the center of any universe. It means we don't have any coattails for others to grasp, no bragging rights to offer up, no exciting news about our great successes to be posted on a Facebook page.

It turns out that, when we honestly dare to be ordinary, the wisdom of the universe opens up to us. We get to watch for what each day is telling us and asking of us, heading off to work or school cooking a meal, maybe staying in bed all day to give a cold a chance to move on.

When we dare to be ordinary, we are able to notice more - a whole new world of miracles that unfolds without end..we become available to it all.

What a great gift it is to be an ordinary person, not to be on any center stage, no concern about what great feats to report on Facebook and never feeling bad because there is so little to report. What a great gift to be able to live the everyday routine of ordinary life, knowing that I am am simply connected to it all, open and available for a "world of miracles to unfold without end."

I went out to my garden after I got out of bed today, and instead of singing the "Monday Morning Blues" I sang a song of joy. The morning sun had just come over the eastern mountains and a glorious ray of sunlight broke through the swaying palm trees -so exquisitely extraordinary.

Don't dare to be different - dare to be ordinary!



Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"









Sunday, March 15, 2015

Everything Breaks

"Sunday Morning"
- At the Desert Retreat House- 

About a year ago we equipped the windows of our desert home with "permanent shades" designed to protect the house form the harmful rays of the intense desert sun- the shades came with a "lifetime guarantee." A few days ago the mechanism of one of the shades broke and now needs to be repaired and I've been grumbling about it ever since - so much for permanent sunshades that will last a lifetime. 

Yesterday I was browsing through an article in a Buddhist periodical that I read from time to time and came across this quote:

Everything that has a beginning has an ending.
Make your peace with that and all will be well.
Everything breaks.
Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality.

I wondered if this article had been written for me?

At some deep level we all know that "everything breaks" - and yet in our day to day living we find that this obvious truth is so often ignored and suppressed. Somehow we like to convince ourselves that sunshades really can last a lifetime, and that we will always have all our stuff in life- our things, money, possessions, status.  At some level many of us may even have convinced ourselves that our bodies are here to stay and when we see signs that this may not be the case, it's time for a facelift or some plastic surgery.

 As I see it, we cling so tightly to this life because perhaps we may imagine that if we cling tightly enough, everything we have will last forever - a false delusion if ever there was one.

Sunshades break, houses crumble to dust, kids grow up, careers end, bodies get old, faces get wrinkled, we all die, no one ever carts their bushels of money with them into the grave - and in the overall scope of things, this all happens rather quickly, in the blinking of an eye. 

At some level the thought of the "impermanence" of it all sounds somewhat depressing. But, as I see it, the realization that "everything breaks" is exceptionally freeing. It allows me to let go of the tight grip I have on my life, it gives me permission to give up that debilitating tendency to control it - to enjoy what comes my way and then set the moment free.

But there is yet another reason why I find such joy and freedom in the realization that "everything breaks."  When it breaks, all is not lost, something else remains.  This is the great paradox of the spiritual journey--brokenness is the doorway to wholeness.  When the ego breaks we find our "true self." When everything else in our life breaks and all is turned to dust, "Love" remains, "Love" never ends, "God" abides.  

Christians are now half-way through the Lenten season.  Maybe this is a good time to call to mind  how the season first began - ashes on the forehead and the words: 

Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

Maybe another way of saying this is: "Everything breaks." - not at all a depressing thought. In fact these are tidings of comfort and joy not just for Christians but for all human beings.

Good news- everything breaks!




Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"