Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Spirituality of Unlearning

- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday, a friend of mine who is beginning her final year of seminary training told me that she has “learned so much” in her years of theological education. I am happy for her and I am convinced that her many years of education will be beneficial to her and to the church. I also believe that (and I told her this) she will soon need to start unlearning some of what she has learned.

When I was talking with my friend yesterday I was immediately reminded of something priest and author, Anthony DeMello, once said about the spiritual life:

Where spirituality is concerned,
learning is all about unlearning -
unlearning almost everything you’ve ever been taught.
It’s all about unlearning and listening.

When I think about my spiritual path, I realize that my own years of theological study have been very helpful to me, but my knowledge and ideas about “God” and “faith” have, at times, been a  roadblock for advancing on the spiritual path. As I think about it, all my years of “study” have sometimes been an exercise for “gathering evidence” to help confirm what I already believe.

My ideas and beliefs about God, myself, others and the world make me comfortable and give me a sense of security and control, but they also leave me spiritually asleep and lead me into accepting the “delusion” that what I “think” about God and about everyone and everything is the way everything really is.

My education and my ordination as a priest in the Christian tradition have made me an “expert” in my field, but there is an inherent danger in being an expert - being an expert can make you dull, complacent and even arrogant on the spiritual journey.  Buddhists say that the ultimate goal of wisdom is to acquire a “Beginner’s Mind,” to get to a point in life where you can wake up every morning and look at everything and everyone for the very first time again, always open to fresh insights and new revelations.

There is a Zen saying:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert’s mind there are few.

I find great wisdom in this observation, that’s why I told my friend that when she gets finished with her seminary education she should begin to think about how to unlearn what she has learned.

Unlearning is not the same as doubting what you believe or denying what you have learned. Unlearning involves emptying your mind and letting go of the safe secure ideas you have been taught. Unlearning involves listening and making yourself available so that something new can happen in your life.

For the past several years my wife and I have been living in a desert region. Many people think of the wilderness as a very spiritual place and for me it is so "spiritual" because the desert is an ideal place to “unlearn.”

When I walk out into the wilderness, the utter silence and the lack of any familiar landscape in an endless terrain with no clear paths often leaves me frightened, disoriented and very much out of control. I become fearful because I’m not exactly sure where I am or where I am going; but if I am able to calm my fear and instead of running away, surrender to the silence, I always experience something greater than myself. The desert is a deeply spiritual place where you can “unlearn” and “listen.”  

Many times people turn to religion or embrace a spiritual path hoping to find comfort and security in their lives. I have come to the point where my faith-journey no longer offers me security but it does lead me into a place of wonder and amazement.  Following a spiritual path is like walking with confidence through an uncharted wilderness - it’s a wonderfully frightening thing to find a way to deeper peace.

Anthony DeMello offers this wisdom:

On a spiritual path it’s not that we fear the unknown.
You cannot fear something that you do not know,
nobody is afraid of the unknown.
What you really fear is the loss of the known.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Searching for the Truth

"The First Time Again -
- desert dawn -

In this autumn season as the desert temperatures have started to cool down, I notice that the trails around my house are getting pretty crowded once again. I see all sorts of people out hiking every day, some are there for exercise and recreation, others because they have come out to the solitude of the desert on a soul-searching quest, looking for the truth.

Many times I will see someone sitting alone under a palm tree reading a book or quietly resting. overlooking the wilderness with their eyes closed; but yesterday I observed something I had never before encountered – a young man was sitting on a rock in a lonely wilderness place vigorously pecking away at his laptop.

I wondered what that young fellow may have been doing as he typed away, was he conducting business or answering emails?  Then again, since he was sitting in the middle of the wilderness, I wondered if he may have been engaged in some sort of a Google Search, looking for answers to his questions, searching for deeper truth and greater wisdom:  “Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Is there a God?" 

It struck me that, more often than not, when it comes to finding truth and wisdom in our lives, the harder we look the less we find. You can “search” for (and often find) all sorts of answers with the stroke of  a computer key nowadays; but for the most part, finding deeper truth often means that we must sit quietly and wait for wisdom to come to us.  

As I sat watching that young man with his computer in the wilderness, I was reminded of something The Quaker teacher and author, Parker Palmer, once observed:

The human soul is essentially shy – just like a wild animal,
it will flee from the crowd and seek safety in the underbrush.
If we want to see a wild animal we know that the last thing we should do
is to go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.
But if we walk quietly into the wilderness and sit at the base of a tree,
breathing with the earth and fading into our surroundings,
the wild creature we seek will eventually show up.

Almost every morning I go out and sit in my garden as the sun is about to rise, and I have found that my best prayer is to just wait and see what happens. I try to clear my mind and I don't look for, or search for, or expect anything; but, if I sit there long enough I discover all sorts of revelations.  I notice a ray of morning sun hit the leaf of a tree and light it up with tender beauty, or if I sit quietly, the little desert hummingbirds nestled in the trees suddenly make their appearance and come out to the feeder and the fountain.  Sometimes a desert squirrel or a roadrunner hiding in the shrubs and cacti will even peak out at me.

If I sit quietly and wait, I almost always discover that I live in an enchanted land of truth and beauty and that I belong to it all and am never alone.

On his quest for enlightenment, the Buddha did nothing but sit under a tree waiting for 40 days, and with his mind emptied and his heart open, wisdom came to him and he was enlightened by truth. Jesus did the same thing when he went out into the wilderness for 40 days. He just sat there and waited in silence until truth came to him and he heard the voice of “God.”

As many of us look for answers and search for the truth, especially in these chaotic and more troubled times, we might all do well not to look so hard. Go find a rock, a park bench, a chair in a local Starbucks or a quiet place at home - unplug and clear your mind, and see what comes your way.

I am reminded of a wonderful Zen saying:

When you look for the ‘way,’ you become far from it.
When you seek the ‘way’ you turn away from it all the more.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Taking off the Shackles

 - a desert hummingbird -

Referring to what he imagined as “restrictions” to his unhinged campaign rhetoric, a candidate in the upcoming presidential election recently announced, “I have taken off the shackles and now I am free to do anything I want in order to get elected.” When I heard this announcement the other day it struck me that many people may understand the nature of “freedom” in this very same way: taking off the shackles so that you can do or say whatever you want.

Some (perhaps many) American citizens imagine that, because we live in this “land of the free” we are entitled to do whatever pleases us because we are “free from” the tyranny of restrictions. I can still very clearly remember growing up back in the 1960’s where the motto of the day was, “If it feels good, do it.” The hippie era may have ended long ago but, as I see it, the sentiment about doing whatever feels good still very much prevails.

Many people in this country have fallen into a trap of placing personal gratification as a high if not the highest priority in life, believing that our "freedom" guarantees that we should place no restrictions upon what we say or do in order to achieve that end.   So, in a political campaign (even if you are competing for the highest office in the nation) you should have the “freedom” to say or do whatever it takes to get elected.

Many people people see freedom as  a “green light” for climbing as far up the ladder of success as possible, regardless of what it costs to do so, even if the climb means crushing those who are on the lower rungs.

And yet, if you look at the record of history, any nation or culture that has defined freedom in this way, placing such an emphasis upon individual gratification and personal gain, has inevitably fallen into disaster.

As I see it authentic freedom has little or nothing to do with removing restrictions; instead, genuine freedom always involves accepting the burden of responsibility.

Several years ago the psychologist Eric Fromm offered a very helpful distinction between authentic freedom and what may appear to be freedom, but is actually not freedom at all. He defined “authentic freedom” as a “freedom for” and pseudo-freedom as “freedom from.”

Fromm suggested that any person or nation that selfishly sees freedom as a license for self-centered behavior (freedom from others) is not authentically free.  Truly free people act “for” others, on behalf of the common good, making choices to use their freedom to share one another’s burdens.

Interestingly enough, rather than understanding “freedom” as “taking off the shackles,” the existential philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, talked about the burden that freedom imposes upon our human condition. He said:

We are condemned to be free;
because once thrown into the world, we responsible for everything we do.
It is up to you to give life meaning.

In essence, freedom is the very hallmark of human nature. Every day we are free to make choices about how to act, what to think and what to do. Even people who are confined to a prison cell are still free to choose how to respond to to their plight in life, and even if we choose not to decide, to remain indifferent or apathetic, we still make a choice and our choice of indifference or inaction always an effect.

So since “freedom” is so innate to our humanity, the bigger question is how do we make use of our freedom, how do we handle the burden of responsibility placed upon us by that fact that we are free?

When Nelson Mandela was locked up for years in a South African prison he had lots of time to seriously reflect on what it might mean to be free.  But instead of just dreaming about the day when they would unlock his prison cell and allow him to go back home, he concluded that he could never be truly free without concern for the good of others. He even found true freedom by caring about the welfare of the guards who held the keys to his cell.  In fact, in many ways, locked up within a prison cell, Mandela discovered what authentic freedom really means. In his journal he wrote:

To be free is not merely to cast off chains,
but to live in a way that brings about the freedom of others.

In these last few weeks before the presidential election I hope and pray that true “freedom” may indeed be the “clear bell” that is sounded in this country from sea to shining sea.