Friday, July 31, 2015

Everything Belongs

"The Many are One"
 - sunset in the desert -

The desert where I live may be oppressively hot in the triple-digit temperatures of a summer afternoon; but we continue to live out here because it is probably one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth.  The thing about the desert that I find particularly beautiful is its “wildly expansive” space. I stand outside my house and I can see for miles, the terrain seems boundless, endless. I look up and the skies at night are cosmic - the desert is a great place to regularly experience the “big picture.”

Last night, a violent thunderstorm moved into the region above some of the neighboring mountains; so together with my son who is here visiting us, my wife and I went outdoors to experience what was going on. When we looked to the east, the night skies were perfectly clear, a gleaming array of stars, the moon brightly shining and a gentle breeze was blowing through the palm trees.  But, above the horizon of the western mountains lightning violently and continuously flashed in the sky as loud claps of thunder and the sound of gusting winds roared through the neighboring canyons - clear skies and stars, gentle breezes, destructive lightning and roaring wind - it was an experience of cosmic “totality” and the best part of it was that we belonged to it all.

Last night as we stood in the midst of that swirling flow of nature, I felt more than simply “connected” to it, I knew I was part of it.  I was but a little speck, but I was not, nor ever could be separated from the whole. The many were One – all that ever was, is, or would be, everything belonged together. Experiences like last night are what keep me living here in the desert.

Priest and author, Richard Rohr, observes:

Before 800 B.C. the thinking on the whole planet was invariably
tribal, cosmic, mythic.
Simply by watching the sky, birds and trees, the seasons, darkness and light,
people knew they belonged.
They lived in an inherently enchanted universe where everything belonged,
including themselves.

I think that those ancient people who we sometimes refer to as “primitive,” “uncivilized,” or “unsophisticated,” may not have been so primitive after all.  Our ancient ancestors had a sense of the “big picture” because they lived in the midst of the “wildly expansive” world of nature; and when you live in nature, you very quickly discover that you belong to nature - that everything belongs to everything else.

It seems to me that in our contemporary culture of advanced technology, as we sit alone, indoors at desks, frittering away our lives at a computer screen, we may indeed have lost this ultimately vital awareness that we are all part of an “inherently enchanted universe where everything belongs.”

The poet William Kittredge said this about the isolation of a life divorced from the world of nature:
We evolved in nature.
If you isolate human beings from the natural world for too long,
we start getting nervous, crazy, unmoored,
driven to thoughtless ambitions and easy cruelties.

These summer months seem to me to be a perfect time for us all to reclaim some sanity, to unplug, get outside and connect to a world of nature once again. No, more than “connect” to it, to become aware that we all belong to it – everything belongs.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Firmly Planted in the Chaos

"Deep Roots"
-palm trees in the wilderness -

Every Thursday I attend a weekly Yoga Class. I always look forward to this experience not only because it helps my body but because it is also a time that feeds my spirit. Our yoga instructor knows a lot about how to “do yoga,” but he is also a spiritual guru of sorts who regularly helps those of us in his class to connect the various yoga practices with deeper spiritual awareness.

Almost every Thursday we start class by being asked to take a few moments and look at our feet to be sure we are well-grounded. While “being grounded” is somewhat of a yoga cliche, a necessity for properly engaging the poses, my instructor always reminds us that being “firmly-grounded” is a staple of the spiritual life.

A few weeks ago our teacher talked about how an electric current needs to have a “ground wire” for the energy to be used effectively – otherwise the current will run rampant and cause damage or injury. He explained that when we look at our feet to be sure we are “well-grounded,” we physically and spiritually plant ourselves firmly in the energy of the earth so that this energy can strengthen us and give us vitality.

Scientists tell us that the entire cosmos can be understood in terms of being grounded in energy. The universe “is” a flow of chaos and patterns – everything that exists is chaos, wild and uncontrolled energy,  but the chaos of the universe also has order to it - there is some degree of stability in the ongoing, swirling process of chaos. The chaos is like an electrical current that flows at the core of existence and we are all “grounded” into that current.

This morning as I sit in my meditation garden and prepare to head out to my yoga class,  I take off my shoes and look at my feet firmly planted in the chaos- I am “grounded.” I am connected to all that has gone before, all that now is, and all that yet will be.

As I firmly plant my feet on the ground of choas, I am connected to my ancestors, all who have gone before me.  I am also connected to my family, my friends, acquaintances, strangers, and even to those who may count themselves among my enemies - I am connected to all the people of all the nations. I look at my feet firmly planted on the ground, and they connect me to the chaos as it swirls wildly into the future and so I am grounded in the presence of all that will yet come after me.

Who would have imagined that the simple act of looking at my feet might be able to offer me such a powerful moment of awareness.

All around my house and throughout the entire desert region where I live, palm trees grow in abundance – everywhere you look you will find palm trees growing.  The thing about palm trees is that they have roots that extend deep into the ground and spread out in an extended, intricate pattern – some say that the roots of the palm tree are as big as the tree itself. The roots allow the trees to tap into sources of underground water even in the driest and hottest summer days. The roots also keep the trees firmly planted so that no matter how powerful the gusts of wind might blow in the desert, the trees wilt not topple over.

These trees are firmly planted in the chaos. This is what makes them vibrant and keeps them alive – yet another great lesson the world of nature teaches me about my own spiritual life.

The Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, is often quoted as saying:

Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet

These are powerful word of wisdom for me. It reminds me that, not only do I need to look at my feet and stay grounded in the moments of quiet meditation in my garden or while taking a favorite yoga class; on my spiritual journey I must also “stay grounded” at every moment of every single dy.

In every step I take I remind myself that my feet are planted in the chaos - “grounded” in the energy of the universe – another name for that energy is “God.”

With every step I take I am rooted in “God,” in whom we live and move and have our being, and so with every step I take I kiss the earth with my feet.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Uncommon Wisdom

"Blossoms and Thorns"
- surprising beauty on a desert day -

The other day I found myself standing in the “Self-Help” section of a local bookstore and noticed that several titles in this section were categorized under the label: “Popular Wisdom.” For some reason that category struck me as being particularly odd. For the most part, books in the “popular wisdom” section offer readily-available, quick and easy advice about how to find happiness and success in life. In fact, there are volumes upon volumes of “advice books” popularly available nowadays - ten steps to a more vibrant personality, the 7 easy ways to shed unwanted pounds, the 5 keys to growing a more effective church.

The thing is that, at least from my experience, there is nothing about “wisdom” that can ever be “achieved” by a quick and easily-accessible formula, and wisdom isn’t ever some “thing” you can ever gain through “self-help” no matter how many books you may read.  I think that’s why the idea of “popular wisdom” struck me as being such an odd category in that bookstore - true wisdom is often quite contrary to commonly-held popular ideas.  For the most part, wisdom is quite uncommon.

A few thousand years ago, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism observed:

The words of truth are always paradoxical

Richard Rohr, a contemporary Christian priest and author, said just about the same thing:

I am convinced that all true spirituality has the character of paradox to it,
precisely because it is always holding together the whole of all reality,
which is always both/and.
A paradox appears to be a contradiction, but it is not contradiction at all.
Paradox admits that every profound truth is countered by another.

I imagine that there are a lot of people nowadays who don’t even know what a paradox is and have a very difficult time thinking paradoxically. And yet, the more I think about it almost all spiritual wisdom is “uncommonly paradoxical,” and very often goes against the grain of popularly-accepted ideas.  A few examples immediately come to mind:

We are strong when we are weak

Our mistakes and failures allow us to recognize imperfection as innate to our human condition. When we embrace rather than hide our weakness we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to reach out to others and in these healing relationships we find enduring strength.

Be empty in order to be full.

When our minds are uncluttered, free of our own quick and easy answers, we have made a space for a wisdom that is greater than ourselves.

We find direction by embracing the questions.

There is no quick and easy road on the path of wisdom.  We find a deeper truth and a greater wisdom by “loving the questions” of life and by learning to live with the ambiguity and impermanence of whatever answers we might come up with.

Less is more

The less we cling onto and horde away, the less we desire and crave, the greater freedom we experience.  Perhaps another way of saying this is, the more we accumulate (ideas, things, ambitions) the greater the suffering, the less we accumulate the less we suffer.

In order to find your self you have to lose your self

In one sense this is probably the ultimate wisdom from which all other wisdom flows. We find our true self when we abandon what we popularly think of as our self. When we break out of the bonds of a bloated, isolated, protected ego and extend our lives in relationship and live for the common good, we become our “self.”  Paradoxically speaking, the best way to help yourself is not though “Self-Help.”

Wisdom is uncommon and truth is paradoxical – that’s probably why the way of wisdom is very often a road less traveled.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Language of Spirituality

"Painted Sky"
- Sunset at the Desert Retreat House -

In an online conversation with a young atheist yesterday, I was asked how he could possibly have a serious conversation with “people like me” who believed that the world was created  in 6 days by some superman in the sky? Well, of course, I don’t at all believe that this is how the world came to be (I pretty much ascribe to a scientific “Big-Bang” theory); but because I am a priest, a religious person, my online young atheist friend figured I must be “one of those people” who believes the stories the Bible tells - like the one about the world being created in 6 days.

Yesterday’s entire conversation actually pointed out a much deeper issue for me - when it comes to the language of spirituality and religion, we may use the same words but we often do not speak the same language and so do not at all understand one another. This is especially true in dialogue between atheists and people of faith.

As I see it, language about “God”, faith, belief, religion and spirituality always involves metaphor and poetry; and a lot of people today hardly even know what a metaphor is and are unable to recognize metaphor when they see it, thinking instead only in a language of fact and description.

As I see it, it is virtually impossible to understand the Bible (or the scriptures of almost any faith tradition) without realizing that it is filled with an abundance of “stories’ written over a thousand years that are always rich in metaphor, much more prone to poetry than to history.

A story like the one about the earth being formed and fashioned in the six days of creation is a beautiful poem celebrating the harmonious splendor of creation,  a story like the one about the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, or the one in the Gospels about Jesus walking on water and calming a turbulent sea are all rich metaphors told to inspire and strengthen faith, to give hope and provide guidance for the living of everyday life in our own time and place.

In the Buddhist scriptures angelic creatures sing in the sky announcing the birth of the baby Buddha as the stars dance around in a blinding cosmic array- the same kind of stories are told about the birth of the baby Jesus, beautiful awe-inspiring poetry.

These stories are not meant to be hard-core history, factual descriptions of long-ago events. The language of these stories, like all the language of religion and spirituality,  is a language filled with the rich, enchanting, mysterious and wonder-provoking language of metaphor and poetry, a language that transports us into the indescribable mystery of transcendence. And if you take this language too literally, you will inevitably miss its richer meaning.

I walk outside my house at sunset, look up at the desert sky and exclaim that the sky is “painted in the colors of the rainbow.”  Obviously I don’t think that an artist actually took up a brush and painted the sky - it would be ludicrous to make such a claim and it would be difficult to have a serious conversation with anyone who actually believed this was literally true.  Instead the use of poetry and the metaphor about painting allows me to express a deeper experience of beauty in that desert sky, a beauty that cannot possibly be captured with the language of scientific explanation.

I am reminded of something the theologian, Dan Maguire, wrote in his recently-published provocative new book, Christianity without God. He makes an interesting observation about how fundamentalist believers as well as hard-core atheists often fall into the same camp in their inability to recognize and appreciate metaphor as the language of spirituality - especially “metaphor” as found in the scriptures.

Fervent atheists often join faithful believers in reducing
the infinitely varied and image-rich narratives in the scriptures to a literal reading
as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism.
Anti-poets take teaching like ‘paradise,’ “exodus,’ ‘incarnation’ and ‘resurrection’
and downsize them as if they could have been caught on film
and featured in a documentary.

It seems to me that we will only be able to have a “serious conversation” with one another when we can agree on the poetic and metaphoric nature of our biblical and spiritual language. Otherwise we will be constantly arguing about how silly it is to believe that these events really happened.

The summer sunset really was magical here the other night- God must have been working overtime painting such a beautiful sky.