Monday, March 27, 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight

"Walking a Labyrinth"
 -Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Over the past few years I have felt a growing attraction to the practice of walking in a “labyrinth” as a prayer and meditation tool. Nowadays labyrinths have become quite popular and are often employed as a spiritual practice in both Eastern and Western traditions. You can often find labyrinths on the floors of churches or temples and even in the public squares of towns and cities.

A labyrinth is actually a very ancient symbol for the spiritual journey, a symbol for the path into the core of one’s deepest center.  A labyrinth is designed as a series of circular and spiral paths that look something like a maze and when you walk into a labyrinth you sometimes feel as if you are walking in circles because there is no direct path to the center.  Sometimes it also feels as if you have come to a dead-end on the path, but there are no dead-ends because each ending always opens to a different path until ultimately you arrive at the center. Walking on a labyrinth provides a  wonderful, visceral experience of the direction of any “way” of wisdom.

While I find myself very attracted to walking a labyrinth, I haven’t done so in quite some time because I haven’t been able to find any labyrinths out here where we now live. But something happened a few days ago that changed all that.   

I was out hiking in the wilderness area just outside our house, walking along a very familiar and well-worn trail, when suddenly I noticed a tiny, little, almost-invisible path veering off the trail and so I decided to follow it to see where it may lead. To my great surprise it led me to a wonderfully constructed, very elaborate labyrinth designed out of rocks and stones in a wide open space on the desert floor just outside our house. I had passed by that area hundreds of times while hiking along the well-worn, familiar trail but I never before noticed the labyrinth. It was hidden in plain sight and in order to discover it I had to walk off-trail and follow a “road less traveled”  – what a wonderful and poignant spiritual lesson.

I am reminded of a little Zen-like saying I keep on my desk:

Everything you are looking for is already right here.
You are usually elsewhere.

This was the spiritual lesson I learned in my discovery of the labyrinth that I was looking for in my life out here. There was one in my own back yard but I didn’t expect it to be there and and my journey along the safe and all-too familiar path prevented me from seeing it.

As I see it, my labyrinth discovery is a lesson for any single one of us on any sort of spiritual  journey.  We all get up in the morning and expect the same old routine to repeat itself over and over again in day-after-ordinary-day as we walk along the beaten-path of our lives. Our minds are filled with our well-worn ideas and glib certainties about what we will find in the ordinary world in which we live; and yet, there is hidden treasure and extraordinary beauty just waiting to be discovered in the everyday places of life - at work at school in the market, at a restaurant, in Starbucks and in our own back yards. When we are willing to veer off the certitude of the beaten path, and with uncluttered minds and and open hearts pay attention to every present moment, it is amazing what wonderful surprises may come our way.

I have been back to the wilderness labyrinth several times now, in fact just yesterday my wife and I walked the labyrinth and as we did so we noted that we were the only one’s there.  We could see all sorts of people out walking on the designated trails but no one paid any attention to the hidden treasure of that labyrinth hiding in plain sight. Now that I know it’s there it’s way easier to find and my guess is that the labyrinth will now become an important tool in my spiritual practice.

I am reminded of a line from a Robert Frost poem:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Taking that less traveled path does indeed make all the difference, all the difference in the world.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Craving and Desire

"Who Could Ask for Anything More?"
 - springtime in the wilderness -


In his newly-published book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari observes that contemporary people (especially in so-called advanced societies) are almost obsessed with achieving a sense of happiness and well-being in their personal lives. He also notes that, even though there have been tremendous technological, medical and sociological advances over the past years, people today still report that they are unhappy.

People who live in societies like America or Japan or Europe generally have enough food to eat, they don’t die in the streets from uncontrolled diseases and they enjoy many if not most of the “creature comforts” life has to offer;  and yet, the suicide rates in these countries is far greater than in poorer nations and it has grown exponentially over the past decades as many people report that they are dissatisfied with their lives.

In his book, Harari suggests that “expectation” is the reason so many of us who are so obsessed with happiness essentially remain unhappy - the more we achieve, the more we expect to achieve. He observes

We become satisfied when reality matches our expectations
The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon.
Dramatic improvements in conditions
such as humankind has experienced in recent decades
translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment.

It just took a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful.
How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?

Long ago the Buddha taught that “craving” and “desire” were poisonous to spiritual health and the causes of human suffering and pain. He said:

From craving is born grief.
From craving is born fear.

Desire is the cause of suffering.
When you stop desiring you stop suffering.

Perhaps we all need to heed this ancient wisdom now more than ever in our own contemporary times. When we always “crave” the bigger, better and the newer, the better car, the newer iPhone, the bigger house, the better job, more agreeable neighbors, when we are always desirous of something more, we will inevitably miss the joy of what is

As I see it, when we give up our need to be better than others, when we surrender our need for greater power and more control, when we let go of clinging to our rigid ideas and glib assurances and simply make ourselves available to the experiences of life in service to one another, only then are we ready for happiness to enter into our lives.

A while back I came across something the Dalai Lama once said – a wise and profound observation about why so many people aren’t “happy” nowadays:  

Human beings sacrifice their health in order to make money.
Then they sacrifice money to recuperate their health.
And then they are so anxious about the future
that they do not enjoy the present.
They live as if they are never going to die
and then die having never really lived.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Good Soul

"Cosmic Splendor"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

As I sat in our local Starbucks yesterday,  I overheard someone compliment her friend by telling her that she had a good soul. For some reason that phrase stuck with me and got me thinking about what it might actually mean to have a good soul. As a matter of fact, I wonder what it might mean to “have” a soul at all?

As I sat there in Starbucks I recalled what I was taught about my “soul” as a young boy attending our local parish “Catholic” school. I clearly remember seeing a picture of what my  “soul” actually looked like depicted in my catechism book: a glowing, little, clean white  “heart” residing someplace within the center of my body. I was taught that I would have a “good soul” if I kept my inner heart clean by not committing sins and that I would have a dirty soul if I did bad things. I was also taught that when I died my good soul would be released to go back up to God or my bad soul would be sent down in the opposite direction.  

Since  my own childhood days I have come to think of “soul” very differently.

As I see it, the soul is not some separated substance we possess within us. Soul is the “spark of transcendence” shared by each and every person, connecting together everything and everyone else in the universe. My soul is the dynamic web of relationship with everything and everyone that is. 

I am reminded of a line from C.S. Lewis:

You don’t have a soul.
You are a soul.
You have a body.

Author and teacher, Eckhart Tolle, says something very similar:

You are the universe expressing itself as a human for a little while.

As I see it, we don’t possess good souls nor do any of us posses bad souls; instead, we are either aware of our “soul” or we ignore it. In other words we are aware that we are relationships or we hide within the illusion of an isolated, protected ego.

I don’t hear a lot of people talk about “soul” nowadays, maybe the word sounds too religious and carries too much baggage for some people. But as I see it, we all would do well to talk about our “soul” much more often. In fact, maybe we all need to rediscover our soul, rediscover the truth that we are more than bodies, that we are more than our tiny little egos with all our petty desires. The universe is in us and we all belong to one another and so whatever we do to others we do to our self and whatever we do to the world of nature we our self – this is what it means to rediscover the soul.

A recent New York Times article describes the human person in this way:

The human body is sacred.
It’s not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells.
Human beings don’t just live and pass on genes.
They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset
and experience the transcendent.
The body is material but surpasses the material
It is spiritualized matter.

When we rediscover our “soul” we realize that we all are spiritualized matter and you don’t have to be a Christian or a religious believer of any kind in order to come to this awareness.