Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poverty and Abundance

“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:1-4)

Recently, my sister, Carla, wrote a post on her blog which was titled A Call to Action. It’s a wonderful meditation on the activity of love. She writes:

“If your partner is ill, love is a call to action. Love wakes parents up in the middle of the night. It caused a man I know to risk tenure because his mom was sick half way across the country in Cleveland. It invited my friends to discover the bottomless depths of their generosity and compassion. Yes. Yes. Love is not so much a feeling as an alarm bell, a runner's gun, a reminder that we are only as good as the good we do for one another.

Love is not so much a feeling as a call to action.”

Regular readers of this blog will know that my sister has ALS. Carla faces everyday with the knowledge that her time for action in this world is limited. She cannot use her legs or her hands. She has round-the-clock caretakers who wash her and feed her and get her dressed. And yet, through all this, she remains a woman of action.

Carla is endlessly creative. She has turned her confrontation with death into a work of art. She writes a beautiful blog. She doesn’t just use a wheelchair, she transforms it. She has decorated it, and the van in which she now travels, with colorful, funny, completely irreverent, and appropriately inappropriate images of her experiences.

In recent weeks she has been putting together her latest brainchild—a pinup calendar featuring regular people with ALS in provocative poses to raise money and awareness for ALS. It’s going to be called the Always Looking Sexy Calendar, and even though she is confined to a wheelchair and tires easily, Carla has coordinated the activity of models and photographers, printers and publicists from different parts of the country to get this project completed for the holiday season. It would be a daunting project for someone with full capacity and energy. Like many creative people, she’s a little crazy, but this allows her to throw herself into such a project and make it happen.

Whenever I read the story of the widow’s gift from the Gospel of Luke quoted above, I think of my sister. Whatever she does, she gives it all she has and all she is. She lives what she writes – that love is a call to action. One of the things that she loves the most is life itself, and her creative activity is one of the ways that she cares for life.

Last winter, after my wife had come home from the hospital following emergency surgery, Carla offered to come out to help take care of our family. She was already in a wheelchair and had very limited mobility. “I can’t do much,” she said, “but I’ll do whatever I can.” She didn’t have much she could do, or much she could give, “but she out of her poverty put in all she had.” She’s crazy like that.

And isn’t that the point of the gospel story? The widow’s poverty—like my sister’s—is, in reality, abundance because it is full of love. The abundance of the rich, really poverty if it is devoid of love.

I remember when I was a little boy getting into situations which seemed to me at the time scary or panic-worthy, like having soap in my eye that stung me, or getting my pants leg caught in my bike chain that I couldn’t get out so I was unable to get back home to safety. I remember in those situations crying and calling for help. Inevitably, it was Carla who would appear out of nowhere to see if I was okay. Rarely, did she get angry at me, but with simple caring and compassion she would rescue me and bring me back home.

In stating that love is a call to action, Carla has touched on the thing that Karen Armstrong finds is the root of all the major religions, that is, compassion:

The religions are forms of ethical alchemy, if you like. That you behave in a compassionate way and this changes you. Why? Because all the great masters of religion tell us that what keeps us from a knowledge of the divine, from — which has been called variously God, Nirvana, Brahman, the sacred — what keeps us from this ultimate reality is our own egotism, our greed, that often needs to destroy others in order to preserve its sense of self, or even just to denigrate others. What compassion does, it makes us dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there. And it's this that they all teach leads us into the presence of the divine.”

Carla’s version is immediate and imperative:

“If you knew you were going to die, who would you want to be with and how would you spend your time together? What are you waiting for? From my vantage point I can see that there is no time to delay -no time to deny the people we love of our time, our attention or our action.”

Carla’s love is an active love. I have known it from the time I was a small boy. For this I am grateful. For this I am blessed.

I love you, Carla.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Grace Deeper Than No

“It’s whether you say yes or no to the serpent, to the adventure of being of alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Last week I attended a beautiful Vespers service at my church. Dimmed lights, silent reflection, and quiet music set the mood for a meditation on the 23rd psalm. The minister took the image of the cup that runneth over as the focus of his talk. He read a quote from Martin Luther that I haven’t been able to track down, but it spoke of the grace that comes when we stop resisting the troubles and difficulties that are a part of life, when we stop saying ‘No’ to hardship. There is a Grace that is deeper than that No, says Luther, if only we are able to affirm all that happens to us, good or bad.

In the quote, Luther describes his own experience of being “crushed in the spirit.” By enduring his anguish, by surviving it, but, more than this even, by saying Yes to it and affirming his suffering, he discovered that Grace awaits on the other side of such pain, and he knew the experience of the overflowing cup talked about in the psalm. Listening to this meditation, I was moved by the idea of a Grace deeper than No, which I take to mean that to resist a part of life is to resist the whole of life, and that pain and sorrow are not barriers to living, but are also bearers of life’s secret.

When I was in theater school, we would take classes in improvisation. One of the cardinal rules of improvisation is that you can’t say No. That doesn’t mean that you can’t actually use the word no, but that you must avoid blocking the suggestions made to you by the other actors. So, if someone says, “Gee, your sex-change operation went really well,” you can’t say, “I didn’t get a sex-change operation!” You would have to go with the suggestion. In other words, you have to adapt. But it is about more than that. To say No is to cut off the creative possibilities of the moment. As Keith Johnstone, an improvisation teacher and the creator of Theatresports, once put it, “There are people who say Yes and there are people who say No. Those who say Yes are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say No are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

Saying No, or blocking, is not just a problem in improv, it is a problem in life. In many ways, we have become people who are unwilling to suffer any kind of discomfort, let alone pain and suffering. Our collective mantra has become “I can’t deal with this,” or sometimes, “I don’t need this right now.” And yet we don’t always get the option to decide whether we will deal or not.

There have been many times in the past two years when I have been confronted with the question of whether I could deal, whether I was willing to face pain and loss. After my wife, Allison’s, cancer treatment was done, and she began to look and feel healthy and whole again, I realized I was having trouble opening up to her and allowing myself the emotional intimacy that was always so easy and natural for us. I had come too close to losing her and I recognized that in opening up to her, I was recommitting myself to the possibility of experiencing that agony again.

I have experienced something similar with my sister, Carla, since she was diagnosed with ALS. Beside the instinct to be near her and get every moment I can with her, there is a counter instinct in me to stay away. Pain in this situation is not just a possibility. It is a certainty. And something in me wants to run far away from it. With both Allison and Carla, there is a strong No in me that does not want to have to feel my grief. But, the thing is, the alternative is unacceptable, because it would mean not having the experience of loving and being loved by these two incredible people in my life. It would mean saying No to happiness and joy. I believe that there is a Grace deeper than No.

In my work as a psychotherapist, and in my personal experience, it has become ever clearer to me that one of the most important qualities a human being can develop is the willingness to tolerate pain and suffering. I have found that a person who has a capacity for grief usually has an even greater capacity for joy.

To deny pain and suffering is to deny life. It is to choose a less than human life. Because there is no life that will be free of difficulties, that will be spared the encounter with sorrow. To accept this is not to give in to despair. Quite the opposite. It is to develop an important strength, a strength born of an honest vulnerability. And this becomes a doorway to joy, because when we are faced with loss we remember that each moment is a gift. Life is a gift. Love is a gift.

This is not just a nice idea. It is literally true. We do not and cannot will life and love into existence. They are given as part of the condition of existence and it is our task to learn to receive them. And this is the heart of the matter. To receive these gifts means that we agree one day to let them go, to give them back, to lose them. This is what it means to say Yes to the adventure of being alive. Yes is a small word, but its implications are immense. To accept love means to accept loss. To fully accept life means we must fully accept the fact of death. But the opposite is also true. If we accept loss, we will know love. If we allow death, we will truly be alive. It is only in saying Yes that we finally come into the fullness of our true being.

Saying Yes takes courage. It takes courage, says Paul Tillich, simply to be. It can be a trial and a sacrifice, but the reward is great. Deeper than No is Grace. Passing through pain we discover joy.

At Vespers, as the minister spoke, I knew that this was a service I needed to hear. I knew as I heard about the Grace beyond No, that I was blessed to know love that caused me pain, and to know pain that taught me also about joy. At the end of the service, the sanctuary was lit only by candlelight. Everyone lingered a while in that glow, in the still silence, before, one-by-one, we each got up to leave. I wandered out into the cold, dark New England night thinking about Allison, and Carla, God, my life. At that moment, I was the cup that runneth over. Everything seemed to be exactly in its place.

If you had asked of me anything that night, I would have had only one answer: Yes, yes, yes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wrestling With Joy

"If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us... We are far too easily pleased." ~ C.S. Lewis

A friend posted this quote on Facebook and I felt it added such a great new dimension to the topic of rewards that I had to pass it along.

Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are often imagined as populated by figures such as the prudish moralist or curmudgeonly ascetic who are concerned that somebody somewhere might be having a good time and are out to put a stop to it. But this remark of C.S. Lewis turns the whole thing on its head.

It's not that we are creatures carried away by our desires. Rather, our desires are "weak." We are "half-hearted." We don't want enough! Is it possible that we talk about pursuing happiness, but are really seeking something less? We look for admiration. We want to be entertained. Many just want to be numb and not feel at all. For me it's comfort (which includes all of the above) for which I trade the possibility of joy.

The poet, Rilke, knew that we asked for too little. He wrote:

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.

So many live on and want nothing
In another poem he uses the image of fighting, but the message is the same. We set our goals too low:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I don't know why "we are too easily pleased." Rilke suggests that our perspective is too narrow. We want to reduce the "extraordinary and eternal" to a manageable, consumable size. But if the joy that is offered us is truly infinite, we need to take on some of the quality of that larger world. When we "let ourselves be dominated," we grow. Rilke goes on to say that being defeated by the eternal changes us at a fundamental level. We become ready to give up the ambitions of the ego and to accept the promises of the Spirit:

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Letting go of our "half-hearted" wants can sometimes feel like a defeat. But perhaps it is our little self that is being overcome to make way for a much larger life.

I, for one, am ready to stop wrestling with infinite joy. It's time to cry "uncle!"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Following After Rewards

“to the humble and faithful, to those with compunction and devotion, to those anointed ‘with the oil of gladness,’ to the lovers of divine wisdom who are enflamed with its desire, to those wanting to be free to magnify the Lord, to be in awe of him, and even to taste him.” ~ Bonaventure (from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism)

PsyBlog has an interesting article on how rewards can have a negative impact on motivation. The article points to research that shows that when people are engaged in an activity they like, their interest in continuing that activity will diminish as soon as they start to expect a reward for doing it. At first this seems counterintuitive. Surely, if you like doing something and you get a reward for it, that should increase motivation. Shouldn’t it?

The problem is that when rewards are introduced, it doesn’t so much add motivation as shift it from one location to another. That is, an activity that used to be fueled by an intrinsic motivation—you just liked doing it—is now driven my extrinsic motivation—the external reward. In other words, pleasure becomes associated less with simply doing a particular activity, and becomes attached to the reward itself.

The authors of the article suggest some other reasons to be wary of rewards:

“Not only this but rewards are dangerous for another reason: because they remind us of obligations, of being made to do things we don't want to do. Children are given rewards for eating all their food, doing their homework or tidying their bedrooms. So rewards become associated with painful activities that we don't want to do. The same goes for grown-ups: money becomes associated with work and work can be dull, tedious and painful. So when we get paid for something we automatically assume that the task is dull, tedious and painful—even when it isn't.”

Back in July when I entered into the Beliefnet blogging contest, I did so because I loved writing, and I loved exploring the idea of God and of religion. It was a chance for me to engage in the “love of divine wisdom.” It was for me a form of prayer and devotion, a way to focus my thoughts and feelings about God, not to mention a chance to think about and share my enthusiasm for the works of people like Rilke, Rumi, Abraham Heschel, Carl Jung, Paul Tillich, and Alan Watts. A chance to dive into the scriptures of the Great Traditions and be enlivened and enriched.

I was honored and excited to win the contest. It was truly a thrill. It is a great gift to be recognized for doing something that you love to do. It is a great need that we all have to be seen, to be given some kind of positive mirroring, to have the things we offer be received and welcomed. I will always be grateful that I had a moment of having those needs met through the writing of this blog.

But rewards also have consequences.

Somewhere along the way, my enthusiasm for writing was overshadowed by my concern for the aftermath of the contest. Where was the blog being promoted? For how long? The fact that it was being promoted at all created such a pressure to come up with new material that my inspiration all but dried up. Then the blog stopped being promoted and my desire to write all but vanished. A lot of this was exacerbated by some miscommunication with the Beliefnet staff, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, left me feeling hurt, abandoned, and a little resentful. (This has all been cleared up, by the way. The people that I have dealt with at Beliefnet have been very helpful, very professional, and very gracious. I’m aware that the feelings I experienced are in large part due to my own psychology, of which I’ll spare you the details.) In short, my thoughts and feelings about this blog became distorted and disconnected from the simple joy I experienced when I first started writing it.

And that brings me to the quote from the mystic, Bonaventure, with which I prefaced this post. When I read this quote it reminded me of the things that initially inspired me to write. These posts are my acts of devotion, and this quote highlights all the qualities that I want to be present in my writing – humility, joy, desire, freedom, and awe. I want this blog to “magnify the Lord,” and, yes, I hope through my writing “even to taste him.”

And so I rededicate myself to writing as an act of love, as an act of devotion, as an act of prayer, and as an act of play. I want to remember the intrinsic pleasure that I get from engaging in these extended meditations and allow that to be my motivation to create. Of course, I still like recognition and I still like rewards. But I believe the true “oil of gladness” with which we are anointed comes from within, and being connected to the world within, teaches Jung, gives a person dignity and certainty in this life.

That said, I still want you to like it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Thing You Fight The Most

“The Holy One directed his steps to that blessed Bodhitree beneath whose shade he was to accomplish his search. As he walked, the earth shook and a brilliant light transfigured the world. When he sat down the heavens resounded with joy and all living beings were filled with good cheer. Mara alone, lord of the five desires, bringer of death and enemy of truth, was grieved and rejoiced not. … Mara uttered fear-inspiring threats and raised a whirlwind so that the skies were darkened and the ocean roared and trembled. …

The three daughters of Mara tempted the Bodhisattva, but he paid no attention to them, and when Mara saw that he could kindle no desire in the heart of the victorious samana, he ordered all the evil spirits at his command to attack him and overawe the great muni. But the Blessed One watched them as one would watch the harmless games of children.”

~ from Buddha, The Gospel by Paul Carus

Jungians love parallels. We love myths and stories that seem to have strong parallels in the stories of a different, or several different, traditions. When there are clear similarities between different stories, we think, “Here is something true.” For Jungians, such a parallel is a validation of the psychological truth of a story. This way of thinking is similar (though, not identical) to the search for replication in the scientific method. The results of a scientific experiment are considered valid if they can be replicated in further experiments. In the study of myths and stories, when distinct traditions show a strong correspondence of image and theme, it suggests that these stories describe an important universal truth about the human experience.

It’s not that individual differences between religious and mythological traditions and the stories they tell are not important. Far from it. It’s just that when there is a striking similarity between stories, it’s a signal to pay attention, a signal that says here is a truth about human experience that has such an intensity to it that very different peoples of very different backgrounds and beliefs have felt it necessary to make a record of it. As Jungians we think, “Wow. Human beings all seem to tell stories of a god or gods (for instance). God is clearly a central concern of human existence.”

The story quoted above is an account of the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment and his subsequent temptation by Mara, “lord of the five desires.” There is a parallel to this Buddhist story in the Christian tradition. Jesus, having just been baptized by John, having just seen the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove, and having just heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my beloved Son,” is driven by the spirit out into the wilderness where he is subjected to a series of temptations by Satan.

In both of these stories there is an event in which the transcendent or divine order breaks through into the ordinary realm. “A brilliant light transfigured the world” or “the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended.” Both stories tell that the divine realm responds approvingly. In the Buddhist tale we read, “the heavens resounded with joy.” In the Christian tale, God himself declares that he is “well pleased.” And in both of these stories, this transformative and transcendent event is followed by a kind of negative movement. The devil—Mara or Satan—tries to undo what has just happened.

These stories describe the defining, transcendent moments in the lives of Buddha and Jesus, but they also present an image, albeit on a cosmic scale, of both the gifts and the perils of the spiritual path. It is hard to imagine that these accounts with their heaven-rending imagery could have anything to do with the lives of ordinary human beings. Let’s face it, very few of us will ever attain the status of a World Redeemer. Ordinary, everyday enlightenment is tough enough and will probably elude most of us on this go around. Jesus and Buddha both seem to brush off the devil without much effort, but if even these transcendent figures must face temptation, how much more will this be the case for those of us struggling on The Way.

Years ago, I was the supervisor of an after-school daycare program. Anyone who has spent any time with large groups of children knows how hard it is to maintain order and, even more, to maintain one’s cool. I would often get disturbed at how often I would lose my temper and act in ways that continue to embarrass me almost twenty years later. Many times I would promise myself that today I would be “totally zen.” I was not going to let little things bother me and I would remain calm and collected. Without fail, it was on those days that the kids would be particularly bad—screaming, hitting, fighting. It was as if they knew I was trying to stay cool and decided to put me to the test. It was a test I rarely passed. Usually, before the day was out, I’d be shouting, too, yelling crazy things like, “If you don’t pick up that Lego you’ll never be allowed to play with any of the toys ever again!”

Today, I am very conscious that there is, too often, a discrepancy between who I imagine I am during times of prayer and meditation and who I am at other times. The phone rings, but I refuse to answer it because I don’t want anyone disturbing the “spiritual” state that I have just achieved in my meditation. Or, I am sitting in prayer, asking to be a force of love in the world and my daughter calls me, demanding a drink of milk, and I growl at her, “I’ll be there in a minute!” Hardly the voice of love. Or, I will be tempted away from meditation and prayer altogether by the TV, the internet, or some compelling new app on my so-called smartphone, eventually crawling into bed with a vague feeling of emptiness and disappointment. These things are relatively minor, it’s true, and there are other, more serious things I do that I am not proud of, but I’ll spare you a lengthy confession.

Alan Watts once said that a person must be very careful about making New Year’s resolutions because the devil would be sure to find out about it and put a stop to it. It seems that our best impulses are always in danger of being cancelled out by our worst impulses. The early Desert Fathers of Christianity used the image of a war with one's own heart. Some schools of Buddhism have pictured a whole universe of demons that must be overcome on the spiritual path.

In Jungian psychology, it has been observed that the first “layer” of the psyche that must be worked through is usually the personal unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that Jung termed “the shadow.” The shadow includes all those aspects of someone’s personality that are not compatible with the image that they have of themselves. For those whose interests tend toward the spiritual, this is often some form of aggression or anger that does not fit in with the conscious idea a person might have of being a peaceful or loving person. Jung once famously said that enlightenment is not achieved by imagining figures of light, but of making the darkness conscious.

And maybe this is the important point in the stories of the temptations of Buddha and Jesus. They tell us that temptation is a constant presence on the path to enlightenment and the greater the light we may attain, the greater the shadow will be. Even the great World Redeemers are not free from temptation. If we do not stay conscious of our darkness, we may never experience our light. How many times must we see a “family values” advocate, like Mark Sanford, admit to an extra-marital affair, or a corruption crusader, like Eliot Spitzer, become corrupted, before it becomes clear that the things we fight against in others might best be addressed in the privacy of our own hearts?

“You always become the thing you fight the most,” says Jung.

It’s not that I believe that we should all feel ashamed about our human failings, but simply that we should admit and accept that we have them. I believe it is important to try to be good, but dangerous to believe too much in our own goodness. Acceptance of our own darkness makes us more compassionate to the darkness in others. And in my own life, I know that when I let go of my airy self-righteousness and get back down to the solid ground of compassion, I feel I am getting closer to the light.

I figure it was not for nothing that when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he made sure that they included the phrase, “lead us not into temptation.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Place We Cannot Breathe

Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

(Ecclesiastes 7: 3-4)

Today marks the first anniversary of the day that my wife discovered a lump in her left breast. Since last year’s Labor Day, I have watched Allison undergo two surgeries, eighteen rounds of chemotherapy, and thirty radiation treatments. It was only last month that the whole year-long process finally came to an end.

Because I was needed at home to take care of Allison and our two kids, it was almost impossible for me to take the time to visit my sister, Carla, who lives in California, and who was diagnosed with ALS almost two years ago. I have watched from a painful distance while my beautiful and irrepressible sister has all-too-rapidly lost more and more control over her own body.

This has been the year that I became acquainted with sorrow.

I have learned two things this past year. First, I have come to know first hand the sustaining power of faith. To watch the two women that I love most in the world suffer the way they have, and to be helpless to rescue them from what they’ve had to endure, has been unbearable. At times, I have been deeply depressed. Throughout this year I have had to find a way to keep going, despite the desire to pull the covers up over my head and disappear.

I am a psychotherapist and my job is to care for people who are in emotional pain. I would take care of people all day, come home to take care of Allison, be the primary caretaker for our kids on those days when the nausea was so bad, my wife could barely lift her head off her pillow, and try to maintain for my kids an energy and a routine to make sure that their lives stayed stable and secure. When I could, I would try to be there for my parents and my brother as they worked to come to terms with their grief over Carla’s illness.

I tell all this, not to complain or feel sorry for myself, but to give a sense of how completely overwhelming it all was, and how impossible it was to manage all this on my own meager emotional resources. What kept me going through all of this, as I said, was faith. More precisely, it was the practice of faith that I found sustaining and nourishing. Prayer, meditation, lectio divina, weekly attendance at church—these activities often left me refreshed, re-energized, and even, at times, happy. I have come to understand that faith is not so much a system of beliefs, as it is an engagement with life and its source; a relationship with God that you work on, as you would with any relationship. Through my practice of faith I have discovered a place where I am not alone, where I am enlivened, where I am restored.

The other thing that I have learned is the truth of the verse quoted above from Ecclesiastes. Sorrow, or grief, as paradoxical as it may sound, is a more certain path to happiness than is mirth.

This verse is not saying that it is wrong to be happy, or to laugh or have fun. It is saying that as a means toward a full and honest engagement with life, mirth is insufficient. Mirth as an approach to life tends to deny the struggle and the darkness that is a part of being alive. As a result, those who rely solely on mirth become more susceptible to that darkness. The reason this is so is because difficulty and sadness come into every life and mirth is simply unprepared to do that kind of emotional heavy lifting. The capacity for sorrow or grief, on the other hand, does not deny the possibility of happiness. On the contrary, grief can teach us the preciousness of life and, therefore, it creates the possibility for true joy. Here is how the poet, David Whyte, images this idea:

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

One of the things that I admire about both my wife and my sister, is that they have the courage to confront their griefs and, as a consequence, they are two of the most vital and joyful people that I know. At her last doctor’s visit, Allison was told that her status was N.E.D., that is, no evidence of disease. She is trying, however, to learn how to live in her new reality as a cancer survivor, a reality that will require her to be ever vigilant about her health for the rest of her life. Grief and mortality are realities from which she will never be completely free, even at those times when they recede so far in the background as to almost disappear.

ALS is a fatal disease from which my sister will not recover. She faces her reality with an honesty that is raw, heartbreaking, inspiring, and frequently funny, in her amazing blog, called Carlamuses, that chronicles her experiences. This is how Carla describes life with ALS:

“You aren’t either in an untenable situation that you can’t imagine anyone else being able to bear, or in a situation where your circumstances allow you to see what a miracle life is and what a blessing it is just to be alive, sucking oxygen on this gorgeous planet. They both exist for me everyday, albeit the percentage of frustration has definitely increased as the disease has progressed.”

If there were a way for me to take away the sufferings of either of these amazing women, I would do it in a second. But that is not possible. What is possible is to not hide from my sorrow and grief over them, because to do so would be to hide from them as well. By allowing my grief, I also allow love to be present. And I allow myself to be present to the two of them right here and right now. Yet, even though I believe that the capacity for sorrow gives one access to joy, it does not mitigate that sorrow. Suffering is still suffering. It does mean, however, being more completely and authentically alive. And though it may seem an obvious thing to state, I think it needs to be said that while we are living, it is so important to be alive.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

To Sleep Perchance To . . .

Who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.

~ Rumi

Last night I was watching an episode of Nova ScienceNow about sleep. One of the studies that they reported on showed a strong link between learning and sleep. The study showed that the learning we do during the day is consolidated and strengthened during sleep. So, when people learn a simple action, like typing a particular sequence on a keyboard over and over again, and are asked to perform that sequence as quickly as possible, they eventually hit a natural plateau at which point they can’t type any faster. After a night’s sleep, when they are asked to perform the sequence again, they begin the task typing at a faster pace than the one at which they had stopped the night before. Somehow, during sleep, the ability to perform an action just learned is improved. Some kind of practice, some kind of learning, is taking place while we sleep.

That, in itself, is pretty amazing, but I found myself wondering, “Who is doing the learning? Who is doing the practicing?” It’s not the person. At least, not the part that we would recognize as the person—the conscious, willing, striving, reflective, rational part of the person. In fact, the person doesn’t even know it’s happening. You could say it’s the brain, but that doesn’t really explain anything. How does the brain know to do that? Is the brain conscious of what it’s doing or is it just an automatic process? But if it’s just an automatic process, how could it have such a clear and meaningful effect on our conscious existence? Is there another consciousness beyond our daytime consciousness?

As a Jungian, I shouldn’t find this idea very surprising. Jung was very clear that our consciousness was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The rest of the iceberg is the vast realm of the unconscious. Even though I am a Jungian by training and by temperament, sometimes these ideas reassert themselves with their original force and impact. The sleep study explored on Nova does not, necessarily, prove that there is an unconscious, but it gives pretty compelling evidence in its favor.

So much of what happens in the mind and the body happens without the participation of consciousness, of the ego. “I” don’t heal my own cuts and scrapes. “I” don’t digest my food. “I” don’t make my dreams or consolidate my own memories during sleep. At times, it seems like the ego is, at best, capable of assisting natural processes that are occurring on their own, or, too often, interfering somehow with those processes. Much of the time the ego is simply an observer of what is happening in body, mind and soul. (The role of observer is probably an extremely important one, related to assisting the natural processes, but it is too humble and passive for us in this day and age of grandiosity).

I don’t have any earth-shattering conclusions to make about all of this, except to say that if the brain, or the unconscious, or the soul, or whatever you want to call it, is so powerful, then maybe learning to get out of the way is the most important thing that we can do for our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. This is hard to do, since the ego tends to prefer to harbor grandiose fantasies about itself. We like to believe that we are the masters of our own fates. But as the Tao Te Ching teaches:

The reason you have trouble is that
you are self-conscious.
No trouble can befall a self-free person.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Believe In Music

All the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives—stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God. (2 Chronicles 5:11-14)

Many years ago, when I was a student in theater school, we had an instructor who taught us his theory of the “levels” of drama. The first level was that of ordinary, naturalistic activity. At this initial stage the action on the stage is indistinguishable from everyday life. Out of this level proceed the next two stages of increasingly heightened reality (I don’t remember all the specifics. Like I said, it was many years ago). Finally, in certain instances, the “fourth level” is reached. At this level, naturalistic action is not sufficient to convey the significance of what is being portrayed.

In a Shakespearean performance, for example, an actor may suddenly step out of the scene and address the audience with a powerful and poetic soliloquy. In a movie, it might be a montage sequence, the juxtaposition of various scenes and images usually held together by a pronounced soundtrack that communicates the unifying mood or theme. But, the medium par excellence of the fourth level is the musical. Whenever the action of a musical reaches a particularly heightened point, someone breaks into song.

Something like this happens in the passage from 2 Chronicles. Solomon and the Israelites have completed the building of the temple of God. Overcome with joy and gratitude and reverence, they break into song. A good friend of mine, who identifies himself as an unobservant Jew who is into God, explained to me once that, “The ancient Israelites used to break into song when they experienced God; it is the perfect expression for the indescribable encounter with the Divine.” But in this scene, things do not stay at the fourth level. The song the Israelites sing is not just the expression of religious feeling. It is an action that causes the Divine to manifest. The fourth level here gives way to the fifth, sixth, seventh and beyond.

It is not the appearance of God that causes the Israelites to burst forth in this great musical performance. It is the love of God, the giving of “praise and thanks to their Lord,” that causes God to manifest. Hundreds of trumpets, cymbals, harps, and lyres, along with countless voices, join in unison to sing thanks to God, at which point “the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.”

Too often, our religious discourse takes place on the lower levels of our human drama. We are far too hung up on the activities and carryings on of our fellow humans, that it seems we forget that religion should be more about eternal matters than temporal ones. We fight about what to believe, how to believe, whether to believe. I wonder where God goes when we start yelling at each other? I doubt at such times that he appears in a cloud of glory. My guess is he vanishes like a wisp of smoke.

Notice the detail of the story describing how, when God’s glory is present, the priests can’t do their job. “Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.” God, it seems, is not as interested in our ritual observances as we are in performing them. It is not the forms of our worship and belief that are essential, but the quality of our singing, the fullness of our praise.

Music is one of the ways we sanctify the moments and events of our lives. Whether there be a wedding, or a funeral, or a birthday party, music is a signal that what is taking place is special, set apart from everyday life. Music and song can also be a way to elevate the everyday—it can transform a mundane moment into a joyous occasion. Think of the excitement that comes over a group of people when a favorite song comes on and a spontaneous dance party suddenly takes place.

Often, when I am stuck in a dark mood, the only thing that will shift it for me is to put on some music. What works for me is usually some bourbon-soaked torch song by Frank Sinatra. I’m not trying to make my feeling go away, but to raise it to a different level, to give it meaning, to find the holiness in heartbreak, so to speak, and the sacred in the sad. I believe that we are each building a “temple of the Lord” and that temple is our lives. And the more we can let each moment “sing”—whether it is a song of pain or a chorus of joy—the more we invite the Divine into our lives.

To this end, the Sufi poet, Rumi, offers this advice:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I Can't Get No Satisfaction

“The aim of Jewish piety lies not in futile efforts toward the satisfaction of needs in which one chances to indulge and which cannot otherwise be fulfilled, but in the maintenance and fanning of the discontent with our aspirations and achievements, in the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction.”

~Abraham Joshua Heschel (Man is Not Alone)

Religion is a strange thing. It has a tendency to take our common and accepted values and subvert them. It challenges our collective assumptions and finds our usual aspirations and desires wanting. Often, because of this tendency, people judge religion to be repressive and restrictive, a means of exercising oppressive control over the hearts and minds of its adherents, and desiring to do so over non-adherents. And it is true that there are elements within the religious world whose mode of expression is repression and condemnation. There are those who interpret the subversion of social norms in terms of a war against the prevailing culture.

At first glance, the quote above from Abraham Joshua Heschel might seem to belong to this category. Is it really true that all our efforts toward the satisfaction of our needs are futile? Is Heschel right when he states that we are able indulge our needs, but that ultimately they cannot be fulfilled? Is there anything inherently wrong in seeking the satisfactions of such things as position, wealth, sex or fame? Where do these things fit in the economy of the spirit?

A closer reading, however, finds that there is no condemnation of the “satisfaction of needs,” no denouncing of our “aspirations and achievements.” Heschel is not issuing a moral injunction against the pursuit of desire, he is suggesting that there is a deeper and greater value in discontent, in dissatisfaction, and in longing. It is not that seeking satisfaction is wrong, it’s just that it’s fleeting. He is reminding us that satisfaction as a goal in itself, as an end, is ephemeral and “futile.” This knowledge still exists in our common speech in phrases like, “Money can’t buy happiness,” “Fame is a vapor,” “All good things must come to an end,” and “Success is journey not a destination.” The Rolling Stones apparently knew this truth when they sang “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Who knew that song contained such spiritual truth?

It is no secret that our contemporary culture is geared toward the gratification of desire. Our whole economy is based on it. We are consumers who are constantly encouraged by advertisers and marketers to try new and different means to satisfy cravings we may not even know we have. There are so many things to do and to try and to buy that, to a large extent, we have lost the ability to just be. The ability to satisfy almost any need, almost instantaneously can seem like a great thing. However, there is evidence that one of the most important qualities we can develop as human beings is the ability to delay gratification and it seems likely that our prevailing situation has, to a large extent, eroded that ability for many of us.

The religious view, as articulated by Heschel, goes even further than this. He advocates, not just delayed gratification, but “the maintenance and fanning of discontent…, of a craving that knows no satisfaction.” I don’t believe that what is being promoted here is any kind of unhappiness or misery, as if the way to God was through some kind of suffering asceticism or mortification of the human will.

I think the relevant analogy here is the state of being in love. When we fall in love we are filled with a longing for the other. It can at times be painful, but it is a sweet pain and we would never wish it away. Even when we are with the one we love, we feel we can’t be close enough to our beloved or know enough about him or her. Joy and pain somehow intermingle, and our longing for the other can never quite be satisfied even when our beloved is near.

The religious masters of this experience are the Sufis. The Sufi shaykh Jami teaches that “The heart that is free of love-sickness isn’t a heart at all. The body deprived of the pangs of love is nothing but clay and water.” The poet, Rumi, puts it like this:

the longing you express
is the return message.
the grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.

A slightly more sober version of this idea might be image of the empty vessel of Taoism. A bowl that is full, like a desire that is satisfied, has lost its dynamic power. Nothing else can happen. But it is in its emptiness that the vessel is useful. It has the power to receive. And maybe that is the secret of the unsatisfied yearning. Though we are filled with longing, we are emptied of self, ready to receive something of the Divine.

I believe that we are changed by love. Our meeting is like that of the ocean and the shore. We come together for a time, sometimes with passionate intensity, sometimes soft and gentle. And just as the shore takes on a new shape when the tide recedes, some things washed away, some new object—a shell, or a lost treasure—left behind, so are we, in the ebb and flow of love, painfully and beautifully, made new. I believe that this is the kind of encounter that Heschel is inviting us to with God. To open ourselves by expanding our yearning and our need, to meet life with a transforming love, to be slowly changed into an image of the Divine.

And I believe God is a Stones fan and that he loves to sing these lines: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why Do We Believe In God?

"Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid." ~ Satoshi Kanazawa (Psychology Today)

Recently, I stumbled upon an article on the Psychology Today website, called Why Do We Believe In God. It is a year-old entry in a blog entitled The Scientific Fundamentalist and can be read by following these links: Part 1 and Part 2.

The author, Satoshi Kanazawa’s argument rests on Error Management Theory, which basically states that the human mind has evolved to make decisions, even when faced with uncertainty and too little information. Simply put, the human mind will choose between two possible errors by deciding on the one with the fewest negative consequences.

The example used is a man who strikes up a conversation with an attractive woman he has just met. Apparently, men are wired to interpret this kind of interaction in their favor. That is, even in the absence of any real evidence, men assume they are going to score. Why? Because, if they are right they get to have sex. If they are wrong, at worst they experience rejection. If, on the other hand, men assumed that they weren’t going to score, being right might mean they protect their egos, but being wrong means that they miss an opportunity for sex, and therefore for potentially passing on their genes. And we all know, of course, that the sole purpose of human life is to pass on our genes, as if the whole of existence were some kind of genetic thrift shop.

Error Management Theory says that given these two possible errors, human beings—in this case, men—will make the least costly error. In the example given, getting rejected is less costly than missing a chance for doing the horizontal gene swap. Kanazawa then goes on to apply this theory to the belief in God. He states that religious people tend to commit the “error” of attributing intention to certain forces of nature and interprets his observation this way:

The cost of a false-positive error is that you become paranoid. You are always looking around and behind your back for predators and enemies that don’t exist. The cost of a false-negative error is that you are dead, being killed by a predator or an enemy when you least expect them. Obviously, it’s better to be paranoid than dead, so evolution should have designed a mind that overinfers personal, animate, and intentional forces even when none exist.

The author takes the example of a bush on fire and suggests that you could understand this to be the cause of an impersonal force—lightning—or you could interpret this (erroneously, of course) as the cause of a personal force, that is, God. It is as if Kanazawa has never heard of the concept of metaphor, not to mention that he misreads the Old Testament story. The bush is not simply a bush on fire, the significant detail is that despite the fire, the bush did not burn up.

Finally, he offers his conclusion:

In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid.

So, belief in God (and, really, any kind of religious belief is implied in this article), serves no real purpose because it “is not adaptive.” Ultimately, it is a kind of outgrowth of paranoia, which is adaptive because it protects us from potential natural “predators and enemies.”

I really don’t know where to start with this stuff.

First of all, apparently, “scientific fundamentalists” tend to read religious statements in as literal a fashion as do religious fundamentalists. Given their preference for the concrete, they fail to see that the image of a burning bush refers to something that cannot be formulated in words and concepts. That something is given metaphorical dress, allowing some aspect of the experience to which it points to be communicated. And even if the story of Moses encountering an angel of the Lord in a fire in a bush were understood in a literal way, surely one has to consider all the details described in the encounter. You can’t just say it was a bush on fire and ignore the part of the report that explains that the unusual thing was that the bush was not consumed by the fire. Science would never (or should never) allow some facts to be admitted for consideration while other facts are willfully ignored. Unless of course, it is dealing with religious statements, it would seem.

Then there is Error Management Theory itself. I don’t really know much about this theory, so all I can really comment on is the use to which it is put by Kanazawa. He declares, “One of the great features of Error Management Theory is that it can explain a wide variety of phenomena. It is a truly general theory.” Kanazawa starts with the assumption that religious belief is an error and then uses this general theory to show why humans make this error. The problem is that you can do this with anything. You could, for instance, say that humans are prone to making the error that science accurately describes the nature of reality and then go ahead and use Error Management Theory to describe how we continue to believe in the scientific error. All you’ve done is what Kanazawa has done, which is find a way to explain your personal biases. This theory doesn’t prove that belief in God is an error, it has to start with that premise in order to have anything to say at all.

Let me be clear, I do not in any way believe that the scientific method is erroneous. Clearly, human beings have derived immeasurable benefit from the increase in knowledge about how the world works that science has given us. I think the use of science to explain things that are outside of its capacity to explain, such as religious belief and experience, is definitely erroneous. And, I think Kanazawa’s argument is not only erroneous, but totally useless.

Science and religion point to different aspects of experience and they do not have to have an antagonistic relationship. Science wants to understand the causal relations between things in the physical world. Religion seeks an encounter with the mystery of life. Science adds to our collective knowledge and gives us concepts and language to communicate that knowledge to each other. “Religion,” says Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “begins with the sense of the ineffable, with the awareness of a reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our concepts.”

I do not know why human beings, including myself, believe in God. All I can do here is to assent to another statement by Rabbi Heschel:

“To assert that the most sensitive minds of all ages were victims of an illusion; that religion, poetry, art, philosophy were the outcome of a self-deception is too sophisticated to be reasonable. Bringing discredit on the genius of man, such an assertion would, of course, disqualify our own minds for making any assertion.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Receiving Heaven Like a Child

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” ~ Heraclitus

Last night as I was putting my daughter to sleep, I read her the story of Cinderella. These days Annabel, who is 4 ½ , lives and breathes Cinderella, and so I read her the same story every night. As any parent with young children knows, evenings after the kids are in bed are precious times to reconnect with one’s self and one’s spouse. And so I was looking forward to finishing the book, turning off the light, kissing my little girl goodnight, and heading downstairs to be with my wife, to think and say and do adult things. In other words, I had an agenda.

My daughter, on the other hand, had no agenda. She was not thinking of or planning anything else beyond our reading the book together. Actually, reading is not the right word. Living the book might be more apt. At every page, and sometimes at each sentence on the page, Annabel would interrupt me to launch into an elaborate commentary, an extended imagining of the world of Cinderella and it’s many intersections with her own life: why mice make better friends than cats, what makes stepmother’s mean, how rags can become gowns, and which people in her life she would cast in which roles.

As long as I was focused on my goal of finishing the story, this beautiful play of the imagination was lost on me. It was an obstacle to my fulfilling my agenda and I was growing more and more impatient.

And then I noticed what was going on. I had a goal. She did not. Time was passing for me, my evening was speeding by. But time did not exist for her, her world of imagination was growing and expanding and she was caught up in a kind of eternity, an enchanted world of which we grown ups proverbially bemoan the loss. “Time is a game played beautifully by a child.”

Perhaps, I thought, if I could set aside my goal-oriented consciousness, I might be able to recover some of that expansiveness that she seemed to possess so effortlessly. I tried, with some limited success.

This morning it was my son, who is 2 ½, taking on the role of spiritual guide. It was just the two of us awake and he wanted to do a puzzle together. We pulled out an alphabet puzzle with pictures drawn on each piece to indicate it’s letter. An octopus was curved into the letter O, piano keys shaped into a P, a quail standing awkwardly in the shape of a Q. Again, I fell into an agenda—finish the puzzle. Atticus had a different idea. He wanted to take all the pieces and put them into piles, then gather all those piles into one big pile. Then he found a container and put all the pieces in the container. And finally, one by one, he would pull them out and quiz me on each letter, explain how it was upper case and not lower case, describe the picture on the puzzle piece and inform me how a quail was a kind of bird, but not a chicken, which is also a kind of bird, and so on. I don’t remember if the puzzle ever was completed, but I remember not caring anymore as I let myself get lost in this beautiful boy’s exploration of letters and words and ideas.

Alan Watts, in one of his lectures, says that when we equate life with a journey that has a goal and an end point, we have distorted the act of living. He says that music or dance is a better analogy because there is no goal involved beyond the playing of the music or the dancing of the dance. Children know this instinctively. When my daughter repeats the story of Cinderella over and over again, it is not because she is in a rush to get to the “happily ever after,” but because it is a good story, a captivating piece of music, a merry dance. Telling the story is the happily ever after.

Jesus said to his disciples, Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Maybe this is the quality that he was talking about, the ability to enter into a state of consciousness so completely, so joyously, and with full commitment. Maybe he is reminding us that the kingdom of God is less of a goal than it is a state of consciousness. Maybe he wants us to be as absorbed in that state as my daughter is when she twirls around just like Cinderella at the ball.

Maybe what God wants is for us to join him in a dance.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Finding Home

This is an excerpt from my new favorite podcast, Speaking of Faith. Krista Tippet, the host of the show, interviews Diane Winston, who teaches media and religion at USC. In the interview they discuss TV, and the way that shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica have become modern-day parables:

Winston: I think those characters on Lost, like the characters in Battlestar Galactica are addressing a fundamental question which is "How do I get home?"

Tippett: Right. Right. And what is the meaning of home?

Winston: And what is the meaning of home? And that's the question of The Odyssey, it's the question of the Exodus story, it's the question of The Wizard of Oz. I think it's a question that all of us have and that's why those characters are so appealing to us, because they mirror some of our questions about it.

When my first child -- my daughter Annabel -- was born, I discovered that I finally possessed something that I never realized I had been missing, but that I had been searching for most of my life. A feeling of home.

Not only had I not known it was missing. I hadn't known until I found it that I had been looking for it. It was as if, having received this incredibly precious gift, I suddenly became conscious of my prior lack, like receiving the answer for a question that I hadn't known I was asking. It was kind of like that feeling I sometimes get when leaving the house -- that I've forgotten something, but I don't know what it is, and I wait by the door until it hits me that I'm missing my keys, or my wallet, or something else, only I'd been having that feeling for almost thirty years and had learned how to completely ignore it. But, all at once, there I was, holding my beautiful girl in my arms, and I knew two things: 1) that because of my parents' divorce, I had felt homeless ever since I was 11 years old, and 2) with the birth of my new family, I was finally home.

It seems to me that the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of home?” has two components. The first part of the answer, I believe, is that home is other people. In my case, that means, primarily, my wife, Allison, and my two kids. When I am weary and wasted from my engagement with the world, it is Allison I need to get to in order to find rest and get oriented again. The night of her emergency surgery when I thought that I was going to lose her, everything I thought was stable and real flew apart. I remember, the next morning, leaving her still unconscious in the ICU with a breathing tube down her throat and driving home to see my kids. I could barely function and felt like I was losing my mind. I had no idea how I was going to keep going, until the moment I walked in my house and saw my kids. Being with them and knowing they needed me helped me get mentally and emotionally organized again. Being their Dad gave me purpose, focus, determination. Home is other people. My kids were my home and I was theirs.

And home is not just other people in the family. Our neighbors and friends responded to our family crisis with incredible generosity and support. Meals were dropped off, laundry was picked up, snow was shoveled, groceries were bought. Suddenly this little town to which we moved two years prior, and in which I’d always felt a bit of stranger; suddenly this town was our town. Our home.

The first part of the answer addresses being home in the world. The second part of the answer, being home in the universe.

It has always been obvious to me that God exists. I have never been certain about any religion’s particular claim to God, but of his existence I have felt sure. I know that is not the case for others, so I say that as a statement of personal experience, not with the presumption of a definitive truth. But I have never been able to conceive of a random and meaningless universe. For me the frontiers of human knowledge have always been suffused with mystery and not mere void.

I can’t really say why I feel so certain about the existence of God, except to say that I have always felt at home in this life. In my human relationships, I have, at times, felt homeless, lonely, abandoned. But, at a fundamental level, I have rarely felt I was alone. Not 100 percent of the time, of course, but even in my most desperate loneliness, I have carried an almost elemental feeling of belonging. Like the psalmist in the opening of Psalm 90, I can say, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

The early Christians as exemplified by Paul, in his second letter to the Ephesians, experienced their budding religion as a home in God, as “God’s household” built on the foundation of Christ:

“You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2: 19-21).

But finding a home in God is only the first step, as the next verse reveals: “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2: 22). For Paul, a person finds a home in God, so that God can make his home in that person.

I think this is an amazing idea. God wants to make a dwelling for himself in human beings. Maybe -- just as my kids and I needed each other to hold on to a sense of home -- maybe there is a mutual need between God and human beings. And why not? Maybe that’s what this whole experiment of humanity is about – a place for God himself to find home. Whatever the case, it seems that whether we are dealing with our relationships with other people or our relationship with God, home is a kind of mutual creation that grows out of the relationship itself.

And maybe the way we find home is by becoming that home for one another.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

From Songs of Kabir

O SERVANT, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque:
I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies,
nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me:
thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.
Kabir says, 'O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath.'

(translated by Rabindranath Tagore & Evelyn Underhill)

I am a restless person. In that, I am really just a man of my time.

This is, to be sure, a restless age. We live in a time when anything we want is available to us at a moment’s notice. We live in an “on demand” world. TV, iPods, the internet, smartphones—all these devices enable us to have any momentary whim satisfied in an instant. It is my belief, however, that this does not bring us any real comfort or satisfaction. I believe it causes agitation and anxiety.

At least, that’s the case for me. I like to think of myself as a patient person. I have practiced Tai Chi, meditation, and prayer. I study and practice Jungian psychology. And despite all of this, I remain a restless person. I have forgotten how to sit still, to wait, to be bored or impatient. Whenever I have a free moment, I jump on my computer and begin to surf the ‘net. Once I’ve made a pass through my usual bookmarks, I get stuck. I don’t know what to Google next. I think to myself: “What am I looking for?”

If my computer is not at hand, I reach for my cell phone. I just bought a new Palm Pre and I love it. With one device, I can place a phone call, check my email, surf the internet, look at photos, watch videos, listen to music, and read a book. However, I come up against the same problem. Often after about five minutes of flicking and scrolling on my smartphone, I’m at a loss for what to do next. Again, I think, “What am I looking for?” Or, perhaps I find myself driving in my car with some free time to spare. Quite often I'll have the feeling that I want to buy something, but I won’t be able think of anything I want or need. “What do I want, what am I looking for?,” I wonder.

In the poem above, Kabir teaches that “What am I looking for?” is the wrong question. It is not the what that is important, it’s the where. “O Servant, where dost thou seek Me?”

I tend to interpret my restlessness as a feeling that some Thing is missing. And so, I begin seeking for that elusive Thing. But my seeking only increases my restlessness. And if, by chance, I find The Thing that interests, excites or entices me, well, I might like it, I might be happy with it, I might even have fun with it, but usually it doesn’t serve to make my restlessness go away.

Again, my mistake becomes clear in the light of Kabir’s poem. The Things I seek are something other, something external to me. I am looking outside myself when what is missing is actually much closer by. “Lo, I am beside thee.” My restlessness is a spiritual restlessness. And I suspect that at the heart of our current age there is an almost universal spiritual unrest. And just as I cannot satisfy my spiritual hunger with the daily bread of technology and consumerism, Kabir teaches us that this same hunger is not quelled by any particular belief, creed, or ritual. “I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash.”

I don’t think Kabir is stating that there is anything inherently wrong in the temple or the mosque, or, we could add, the church. I think he is saying that God cannot be found in any of those places unless we have first become aware of the presence of God in our own lives, in our minds and hearts. “If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.” I think what Kabir is saying is that we must have an experience of the divine before we can “find” God. God is not to be found in the church, the temple, or the mosque, unless we take Him there with us, so to speak.

From a slightly different angle, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book, Man is Not Alone, puts it this way: “In formulating a creed, in asserting: God exists, we merely bring down overpowering reality to the level of thought. Our belief is but an afterthought.”

Over time, I have become more and more convinced that the primary religious statement is “Be still and know that I am God.” I am far from being an enlightened being—as I said, I am a restless person—but I know that my most meaningful moments have always been moments of stillness. Whether in meditation, or work, or an afternoon spent playing with the kids in the backyard, the decisive factor is the extent to which my mind and my heart are quiet and stilled from their usual longing and clutching, fear and anxiety.

Stillness and centering have always been understood as the essential means to finding God, or Ultimate Reality. Almost every tradition has some form of meditation. Rather than taking the attitude of the seeker, meditation puts the practitioner in a receptive position. Whether one practices Dhyana, Vispassana, Centering Prayer, or Taoist Standing Meditation, one of the main goals is to let go of the striving ego and simply experience the divine energy. It suggests that the path to experiencing the Ultimate is, in a sense, to stop seeking and be found. Perhaps this is what Kabir is talking about when he says, “God is the breath of all breath.” No need for seeking because God is right here, closer than you can even imagine.

I guess this suggests that I need to learn that God isn’t waiting for me to find Him. Maybe He is waiting for me to stop moving around long enough to recognize that the divine presence is all around me and within me. And if this is the case, then maybe that original question not only is not about what I’m looking for, it’s not even about where I’m looking for it. Maybe the reason I can’t find what I’m looking for is that it can’t be found. There is nothing to look for and nowhere to look for it. It’s already here looking for me.

This is a wonderful poem by David Wagoner that expresses exactly this idea. It is a poem taken from a Native American teaching story about what to do when you are lost in the woods. As the poem so beautifully describes it, the goal is to stand still until you can be found.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.