Saturday, February 18, 2017

Turn the Other Cheek

"Deep Peace"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I had a lengthy conversation with a friend of mine who was having an especially difficult time understanding one of the more challenging teachings of Jesus:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’
 But I say to you love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

In light of all that has been happening in this country over the past year, my friend was finding it hard to accept this particular teaching. He told me that he has been infuriated over what he sees going in in this nation –a rising tide of hatred, bigotry and prejudice that has been so prevalent in the past few months. He asked, “Does Jesus really expect us to turn the other cheek in light of all this? Shouldn’t we be resisting the haters, fighting against the bigotry? Does Jesus really expect us to be little more than ‘wimpy’ doormats allowing others to step all over us?”

I told my friend that I don’t think the teaching about “turning the other cheek” has anything to do with being a doormat to be stepped on in life.  Actually this teaching is about letting go of the desire for vengeance and retribution, it’s a teaching about “going higher” when others “go lower;” and, in fact, it offers some very practical advice for resisting evil and standing up to prejudice and hatred

I am reminded of the story of Nelson Mandela as he languished in a South African prison, put there because of his resistance to the oppression of “apartheid.”  In his journal, Mandela wrote of how he hated his cruel, “white” guards who had deprived him of his freedom and kept him captive. He dreamed of getting revenge against them, getting hold of a gun and shooting them all to death.

Then one day Mr. Mandela realized that his hatred and his desire for retribution was keeping him captive more than the prison cell to which he was confined. So he released his desire for revenge, he “turned the other cheek,” and his spirit was set free.

While in prison, Mandela wrote:

Resentment is like drinking poison
and hoping it will kill your enemies.

Nelson Mandela began to “pray for those who persecuted him” and discovered that he could “love his enemies” even if he didn’t particularly like them and even if he resisted what they stood for. In the end, “love” was ultimately the victor.

Today we live in a culture and a country where other people are either our “friends” or our “enemies” and those who are perceived as enemies need to be obliterated, crushed and destroyed. As I see it, this is “dead-end” thinking because no one ever wins when everyone is dragged down to wrestle in the mud.

This reminds me of another story:  

Like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. was also vilified, beaten and imprisoned because of his resistance during the struggle for civil rights in this country. But Dr. King was indeed a follower of the Way of Jesus and so he knew what it might mean to pray for his persecutors, love an enemy and turn the other cheek. He knew that revenge was poison for the soul and that when you respond to hatred with more hatred you only make the hatred grow.

From his prison cell Dr. King wrote:

Hate cannot drive our hate, only love can do that.

There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.
When we discover this truth we are less prone to hate our enemies.

As I see it, this is wise and profound advice for all of us who live in our own times when you are either an enemy or a friend. Now more than ever, this may be a good time to lean what it means to “turn the other cheek.”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ordinary People

"An Ordinary Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

My “fitness goal” is to walk at least 45 minutes every day.

For the most part I make a daily trek along one of the many desert trails near my house, but yesterday I decided to change it up a bit and so I took my daily walk in the local neighborhood where we live.  It’s almost-perfect weather out here in these days of early spring – yesterday’s moderate temperatures, sunny skies and gentle breezes enticed almost everyone to go outdoors and walk, ride their bikes or work in their gardens.

I’m not exactly sure why, but at one point in my walk yesterday I stopped looking at my watch and trying to meet my 45-minute “fitness goal.” I just started to pay much closer attention to what I was experiencing with every step I took. I suddenly became keenly aware of a neighbor quietly and carefully tended to the roses in front of her house and as I passed her by I was struck by the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers. A few steps farther on I heard the sounds of men working on the construction of a new house and it all sounded like an inspired symphony to me - the pounding of hammers, the grinding of electric saws, the quiet conversations as the men spoke to each other in Spanish. 

As I walked throughout the neighborhood yesterday, almost everyone I passed smiled and nodded, many commented on the beautiful weather. It was all very uplifting to me and it suddenly struck me that all these very ordinary people leading their routine lives in just another ordinary day weren’t ordinary at all. When we pay closer attention to every step we take, the ordinary always becomes extraordinary.

I am reminded of an interview I once heard on Krista Tippet’s NPR radio show, On Being. Ms. Tippet was interviewing singer and songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, who was explaining how she only writes songs about ordinary people living everyday lives because that’s where she finds the holy and the sacred:

I write a lot about finding something extraordinary in an ordinary day,
maybe even something sacred in an ordinary day.
I think there is a longing for that kind of acknowledgement,
that our daily lives are wondrous,
and they’re valuable,
and they’re honorable.

Right now, at this very moment all sorts and types of ordinary people everywhere are leading routine lives in just another ordinary day. Some are at work or at school, others are doing household chores or taking care of their kids. Some are driving in their cars to get to their next appointment. Some are in big-city offices, others are working on a farm.

For the most part, my guess is that almost everyone on this ordinary day are trying to accomplish some sort of goal, meet some deadline, arrive at a destination. But my experience yesterday taught me the importance of taking a breath and stepping away from the task of meeting some future goal. When we pay attention to the ordinary moment we will always find the beautiful, the holy and the extraordinary. 

One of my favorite articles from a Buddhist magazine I often reads puts it this way:

It turns out that when we 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.
We notice more – a whole world of miracles unfolds without end
as we become available to it.

It’s about time for me to go out for my 45-minute walk. I’m no longer thinking of this as a fitness goal; rather, this is my daily invitation to see a whole new world of miracles unfolding as I make myself  “available” to it all.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sending Flowers

"Valentine's Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Today is Valentine’s Day.

In the past I never paid all that much attention to this particular holiday. In fact, when it came to celebrating Valentine’s Day, I was sort of cynical about it all. Flowers, candy, cards and candlelit dinners in a fancy restaurant – one more opportunity for corporate America to make some extra cash by marketing another artificial “Hallmark Holiday.” 

But, I’ve begun to change my thinking.  In fact, this year especially, I have come to believe that Valentine’s Day may actually be an important holiday for all of us to celebrate.

Over this past year people everywhere have been inundated with strident words and ugly images of conflict and and fear. The social media has been on fire with unrestrained, vulgar personal attacks in this contentious political climate.  The news has been filled with stories of violence, terror, reports of a resurgence of racism and prejudice.  In fact, I have come to the point where I can barely turn on the evening news and I hardly ever browse the social media because I almost can’t bear all the bad and ugly stories and I am getting very weary of having my senses regularly assaulted by all the nasty tweets and snarky Facebook posts.

Sometimes I feel as if our “spiritual” air has been so polluted by all the hate speech, insults and fear-mongering that our very “souls” are being slowly poisoned.  The problem is that we have breathed this poisoned air so long that many of us have gotten used to it and are no longer able to discern just how rancid it smells - that’s why I think a holiday like “Valentine's Day" may be so valuable for our spiritual health.

On this day people all over America (and in many parts of the world) send out a different kind of energy into the spiritual atmosphere. Today people will hold hands and embrace, speak gentle words, they will send flowers, give cards and have intimate dinners with their special “valentines.”  It’s almost as if what happens on this day provides somewhat of an “antidote” to all that poison we have been consuming in such large doses over this past year.

I am reminded of one of my favorite Zen wisdom sayings:

I play with flowers and the fragrance clings to my clothes.

Instead of wallowing in the foul-smelling muck and mire that has been polluting the atmosphere, today people play with flowers and the sweet-smelling fragrance of the flowers freshens the air and clings to our clothes.

This morning as I glanced at my Twitter feed and browsed the Facebook posts, in addition to the expected bad news I also saw all sorts of good news. People were sending out tender greetings to their “loved ones” and everywhere I looked I saw pictures of flowers and images of hearts as the word “love” permeated the atmosphere.

Maybe we need to celebrate Valentine's Day more than once a year?

Happy Valentine’s Day!