Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Practice of Becoming Invisible

"A Fragile Ecosystem"

My wife and I live in a desert, a place considered by many to be a spiritual environment. Many biblical stories take place in a desert setting and to this very day people go out into the desert wilderness to spend time away in personal reflection and meditation. 

Every morning I hike along one of the many trails around our house that lead out into the deep wilderness, but yesterday I was suddenly struck with an awareness of exactly why a desert is indeed such a spiritual place, Yes, the vast wilderness and towering mountains elicit a sense of transcendent majesty and the silence is always profound, but what makes the wilderness particularly conducive to spiritual awareness lies in the fact that a desert is an extremely fragile ecosystem.

Environmental scientists tell us that in a fragile ecosystem, even the smallest changes in temperature, amounts of water, sunshine, wind velocity and a host of other environmental factors have a significant impact on the entire system. This is true because, in a fragile ecosystem, everything in the system is profoundly interdependent. Everything belongs together - no one single element stands out in importance, every single element is as important as the other.

When I hike out into the wilderness, it seems like there is nothing out there but endless horizons of dry sand and piles of rocks; and yet, this is a place that is literally teeming with life, most of which is hidden from and practically invisible to the undiscerning glance of the naked eye.

On my recent hike I became acutely aware that the desert was replete with living creatures of every sort and type - insects and ants, roadrunners and rabbits, hummingbirds and bats, snakes, bees and lizards; and yes, there are people here also.  The desert floor is covered with seeds and bushes, trees and cacti that will blossom overnight with just a sprinkling of rain. The morning sun, the blazing skies of night, the wind howling through the canyons - everything swings and sways together in a vast and breathtakingly beautiful cosmic dance. 

One of the books I’ve read on desert spirituality explains something of why a desert is such a spiritual place:

Deserts confront us with a vast horizontal edge,
a horizon of emptiness in which we find ourselves absorbed and lost.
The desert is intrinsically hostile to the ego.

This is indeed the spiritual lesson the desert teaches – it is a place for discerning the cosmic dance, a place that is hostile to the ego.   

The fragile ecosystem of the wilderness teaches an enduring spiritual truth: nothing and no one stands out as being more important or more valuable than anyone or anything else - life is sustained and thrives only in a climate of mutual interdependence.

The author and poet, Akko Bush, has suggested that the spiritual journey is a process of learning how to become invisible:

Becoming invisible doesn’t mean that we deny creative individuality,
nor does it mean that we must relinquish any of the qualities
that make us unique, original, singular.
Rather becoming invisible is an insight 
that we are of a larger world,
giving us fuller appreciation for our place 
in the greater scheme of things.

Throughout most of my life I devoted myself to finding ways in which I might “stand out” and be noticed so as to make my way up the ladder of success. The desert is a place where I am now learning how to become more and more invisible.  I am learning that I don’t have to stand out to find happiness, I don’t have to prove my importance in order to experience esteem, I don’t need to perform every day as if I am an actor on a stage seeking the applause of the audience.

The more I am able to shrink my ego, the more I find my true self. The more invisible I become the more I realize just how valuable I really am.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Holidays and Holy Days

"We shall overcome"
- Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House -

Today is a national holiday in the United States, a celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

My guess is that many people will hardly give a thought to the memory of Dr. King today, many will spend this “holiday” as a day-off from work, perhaps catching up on some neglected household chores; and yet, I like to think of today as a “holy day” rather than a “holiday.” Today offers an opportunity for believers as well as non-believers throughout this country to do some deep soul searching into the nature of our common life. This “holy day”  provides us with a “Dr. King Lens” for looking at ourselves and it invites us all to work toward building a just and compassionate society. 

In the course of my life I have enjoyed the great blessing of visiting many holy shrines and sacred places.  I have stood in Buddhist temples in Asia, visited noble cathedrals and renowned mosques in Europe and the Middle East. I have been to the places where Jesus preached and stood on the hill where he was crucified.

There is one shrine, however that holds a special place in my heart - the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis Tennessee. It is located in a building that once was a dingy little traveler’s lodge known as the Lorraine Motel and it was on the balcony of this motel that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on an April day in 1968.

Several years ago I was in Memphis and visited the Civil Rights Museum. I expected that, like any ordinary museum, it would be a place filled with artifacts and stories commemorating all the many events of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Little did I know I would actually be going to a sacred shrine. 

A visit to the Civil Rights Museum follows along a very specific path. You are led though a variety of exhibit halls commemorating key events like the March on Selma. There are pictures and film clips of the “Freedom Riders” and artifacts from the Montgomery Prison where Dr. King wrote his renowned letters. The visit to the “museum” ends on a second floor balcony directly in front of what was once Room 306, the actual spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was so brutally assassinated on that fateful day in April.

I vividly remember standing there on that balcony of the “Lorraine Motel,” it was such a “thin space” where a veil was pulled away from my consciousness as I was drawn into an experience of transcendence, a place where the holy and the ordinary almost perfectly coincided. I remember looking around me, noticing how everyone on that balcony with me stood in reverent silence, some people knelt, some sobbed, others wept openly. It was such a holy place and I remember it well on this “Holy Day.”

Today, as we celebrate “Martin Luther King Day,” we are a nation and a world that has been brutally torn apart by our culture wars,  we are a society in which blatant racism and unvarnished disrespect for human dignity have once again raised an ugly head on our city streets and in the halls of our most hallowed institutions. More than ever we need to turn to the life and teaching of Martin King Jr., to remember what he said and emulate what he did. The future of the nation may well depend upon how willing we are to honor this “Holy Day.”

During my visit to the Civil Rights Museum, I picked up a brochure that collected some of the most salient and memorable teachings of Dr. King and every year I look at those teachings when Martin Luther King Day comes along.  I hope and pray that all people everywhere might take these words to heart -  now more than ever:

Hate causes a person to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful.

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

In this generation we will have to repent not merely for the vitriolic words
and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Those who accept evil without protesting against it are cooperating with it.

But even in the midst of all the chaos, I refuse to believe that humankind is
tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.
I refuse to believe that the bright daybreak of peace can never become a reality
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

Yes, I still have the audacity to believe that
we shall overcome!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Artisans of the Common Good

"A Web of Relationship"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I was driving my car on a busy highway near where we live.  Although I was maintaining the speed limit, the driver behind me apparently thought I was going too slow and so he pulled into the other lane and then cut me off, almost crashing into me. Then, to make matters worse, he did the same thing to the next car in line but that driver decided to strike back. Both cars were now traveling at top speed, honking their horns, cutting each other off, barely missing one another, motioning to one another to pull over so that they could “fight it out.” It was one of the worst cases of “road rage” I had ever witnessed and I cant stop thinking about how unsettling and dangerous that incident was.

A few weeks ago, in his New Year sermon in Vatican City, Pope Francis made an astute observation about how the simple act of driving an automobile can have a major impact on the health of a society. Drivers who treat one another with courtesy and kindness help contribute to how compassionate a society is,  drivers who are rude and who lash out in revenge at other drivers contribute to the overall violence and chaos of a culture. In fact, Pope Francis suggested the simple act of driving a car by everyday ordinary people molds a society as much if not more than the high level politics and posturing of those few who are at the top rungs of a society.

Francis suggested that each and every one of us is an “artisan of the common good.” Every day we each design and craft the nature of the world in which we live.  I totally agree with him.

We make choices every day. We choose what we eat and drink, we choose to sit quietly and meditate or we choose to be so constantly busy that we have no have no time for reflection. We choose to forgive an injury or we chose to lash out in anger. We choose to reconcile or we choose to hold grudges and yes, we choose how we will drive our cars.

We are, after all, an interconnected web of relationship, and so whatever we choose to say or do not only effects our small circle but it inevitably resonates and reverberates far beyond our own individual selves. An act of kindness is infectious and so is a word of anger or act of revenge.

I remember coming across an op-ed column a while back in the New York Times:

Everywhere there are tiny, 
seemingly inconsequential circumstances in life
that, if explored, provide great meaning 
- everyday chances to be generous and kind.
The big decisions we make
 turn out to have much less impact on life as a whole
than the myriad of small and seemingly insignificant ones.

I find great wisdom in this observation.

Jesus talked about building a just and compassionate society and suggested that every time we engage in a single act of generosity we are planting a tiny little mustard seed that ultimately grows into a large tree:

The Kingdom of God is like
a mustard seed that someone sowed in the field;
it is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown
 it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.

The Buddha taught something fairly similar when he said:

Do not underestimate good.
Drop by drop the water pot is filled.
Likewise, one who is wise is filled with good,
gathering it little by little

The simple act of showing another driver courtesy and kindness on the road is a mustard seed that becomes a tree, a drop of water that fills the pot of “good.”  We are indeed all “artisans of the common good.”