Monday, October 16, 2017

The Poison of Fear

"Dawn in the Desert"

After church yesterday I had a rather lengthy conversation with a group of people who all agreed that they had come to the point where they now hesitate to look at their smartphones or turn on the radio or TV when they get up in the morning because they fear they will be confronted by some new catastrophe that happened overnight.

My guess is that lots of people live with an underlying sense of ongoing fear, always on-guard, waiting for some foreboding danger that may happen at any time. People fear the next incident of a “Las Vegas” type shooting, they fear nuclear arms escalation, perhaps they are afraid that another natural disaster like a hurricane may strike. Some people are afraid of getting on an airplane or going to the mall or even going to a restaurant because this might be the scene for the next terrorist attack.

The other day the New York Times published an interesting article about the devastating effects fear and anxiety can have upon the health and wellbeing of our ordinary, everyday living:

Fear pushes people to adopt a defensive posture in life.
When people feel anxious and fearful
they’re less open to diverse ideas and opinions
and less forgiving and tolerant of those they disagree with.
When people are afraid they cling to the certainty of the world they know
and avoid taking physical, emotional and intellectual risks.

When I think about today’s society so infected by defensiveness and divisiveness, so intolerant of those who are “different,”  I wonder if this is a direct result of the pervasive sense of fear that holds so many of us hostage every day.

Fear keeps us from living our everyday lives in joy and with peace. A sense of prevailing fear forces people to withdraw into isolation, into their own self-barricades, within the confines of guarded egos cut off from others - a sure way to poison the spirit and destroy the soul.

I am reminded of an article in one of my books of Buddhist essays. It provides a very helpful insight and offers an antidote to the fear-filled poison that seems to be so profoundly infecting so many of us.

There is no secure or unchanging ground
and we make ourselves safe only when we see and accept the truth that
 life is utterly spontaneous and impermanent.
When it is time to laugh, we laugh.
When it is time to weep, we weep.
We are cheated of nothing in life except that
 from which we withhold ourselves by egos narrow bounds.
These bounds were made to break if we ever hope to be whole again.

As I see it, lots of people fool themselves into thinking that life on this earth is never ending, stable and permanent and that we are able to control almost everything that happens; but the truth is that we can control almost nothing and everything in life is impermanent - a process of endless change. When we are able to live into this truth, fear loses its grip on us. 

Interestingly enough, there is no phrase that is used more often in the entire Bible than the words: Do not be afraid. The Bible never says that there are no problems and all the danger is gone; instead, the Bible constantly teaches:  Do not be afraid! The spirit of "God" abides among us in the midst of all the chaos and we have one another as companions on life’s journey. Love is the energy that rules the universe. Do not be afraid.

Today when I woke up, without hesitation I looked at my smart phone and turned on the news and then I went went outside. The sun was rising and a gentle breeze was blowing at the dawn of a beautiful day in the desert. So I opened my arms and I opened my heart, ready to embrace whatever comes my way.

I am not afraid.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Embracing Emptiness

"Abundant Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -


Now that the days are turning cooler, I am able to resume my daily walks out on the wilderness trails near our house. When we first moved here I was actually somewhat frightened when I would walk out into the desert because the space is so empty and so vast – it all made me feel so out of control. I also discovered that the farther I would venture out into the wilderness, the more silent everything became. In fact, at times the silence was so intense that it was too much for me to bear and I would find myself quickly retreating back to the safety of my house.  

Yesterday as I walked out into the desert, I realized that a shift has happened in me. I have now come to the point where I embrace the emptiness and welcome the profound silence.  The desert has become a very spiritual place for me - an icon of what a spiritual journey is all about.

In the English language (especially in Western culture) the word "emptiness" has a very negative connotation. An empty stomach, an empty bank account, an empty house, even an empty space on a wall conjure up images of a void that cries out to be filled. And so, the first response to emptiness is usually to do something about it, to fix the problem, to replace what is missing and fill up what has been emptied out.

As I think about it, our hunger for “God” is also a form of emptiness. The human heart longs for transcendence, we earnestly desire to be connected to that which is beyond our own tiny little self. At some core level when we feel “empty” we often set out on a spiritual journey, seeking to be filled up with greater wisdom and deeper truth. 

Yet, despite our constant attempts to fill up all the empty places in life, we often remain rather unsatisfied. A bank account may be overflowing, the refrigerator filled to the brim, a person can have every creature comfort ever desired and yet somehow it just not enough- something is still missing. 

Even our quest to fill up our hunger for "God" often goes unfulfilled regardless of what we may do. People may read volumes of theology books, memorize the scriptures, fill their minds with words and ideas, perhaps consult with a clergy person or a spiritual guru, but somehow the emptiness often remains unfulfilled. 

I have come to believe that maybe the very emptiness we experience in life may actually be the fullness that we seek.

I am reminded of the life of the celebrated mystic-monk, Thomas Merton, who throughout his life wrote volumes of books replete with an abundance of spiritual guidance. In the earlier days of his monastic career, Father Merton’s books overflowed with carefully crafted theological language, scripture quotes and references to church doctrine;  but the older he got and the more advanced on the spiritual path, he became less and less concerned with words and ideas. Toward the end of his life he would just go outside his little hermitage in the mountains and quietly sit, basking in the glory of a summer's day, listening to the sounds of the wind in the trees.

Although he was a Christian monk, Merton was highly influenced by a Buddhist wisdom that embraces "emptiness" rather than shrinking from it.  For the Buddhist, achieving the state of "emptiness" is a higher level of spiritual awareness. When your mind is clear of all ideas and the slate of all your explanations has been wiped clean, there is nothing left but emptiness. When you are empty you are wide open to the present moment, available to experience life as it is and not as you think it should be. Emptiness is the doorway to enlightenment, the awareness that everything and everyone belong to one another. 

One week before his untimely death in 1968, Thomas Merton was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, and as he gazed upon the many Buddha statues in the shrine, he had a moment of intense spiritual revelation.  It was the culminating point of his long and fruitful spiritual journey. 

Looking at those Buddha figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly,
jerked clean out of my habitual, half-tied vision of things,
and an inner clarity became obvious and evident to me--
everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.
I don't know when in my life I have ever had a such a sense of
 beauty and spiritual validity.

As I walk out on desert trails each day, I think about Merton’s experience in that Buddhist temple and it deeply resonates with me. The wilderness is such a perfect icon for the spiritual path precisely because it is so full of emptiness - so wild, untamed, unable to be controlled, understood or analyzed, so many spaces not filled in; and yet, when I am able to surrender to it all, willing to embrace the emptiness and listen to the thunderous silence. I always feel a connection beyond myself.  It is an experience of transcendence, an experience of the great Mystery we call “God.”

The "God" I seek is way beyond what I think "God" is. 

Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

Of course, you don’t have to live in a desert to embrace emptiness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Religious Bullies

"Earth Teach Me Stillness"
- At the Desert Retreat House -


The second Monday in October is “officially” designated as "Columbus Day" in the United States. When I was growing up I remember how much I looked forward to “Columbus Day.” I vividly recall the colorful stories we were told in school and at church about the great hero, Christopher Columbus, that brave, adventurous explorer who sailed across the ocean in 1492 and "discovered" America, bringing civilization to the savages and the light of the Christian gospel to the pagan Indians who were living in spiritual darkness.  

Many years later, this second Monday in October has taken on an entirely different meaning for me. Contrary to what I was taught as a child, I now realize that the stories we were told were not only one-sided but historically inaccurate. Apart from the fact that Columbus never actually landed in what we now call America, the truth is that native peoples living on these shores were already quite civilized, and long before any missionaries showed up at their doorstep, they already enjoyed a deep and profound sense of enlightened spirituality.  

Over many generations indigenous "Indian" tribes had believed that a Great Spirit flowed in and through the world of nature, the energy of "God" was dynamically and intimately alive in everything and everyone. They believed that we all "belong" to the earth - the Great Spirit flowing in soil and trees, rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and that same spirit flowing in and through all people. When they prayed, they didn’t look up into to a distant “God” who lived up in faraway heavens; instead, they focused their gaze upon Mother Earth - the place in which "God" intimately abided. 

In a very real sense, Columbus didn't "discover" anything, and in many cases those Christian missionaries who set sail for the new world of the Americas were often little more than "religious bullies" determined to impose their limited view of the truth on an already-spiritual people. In a very real sense those “missionaries to the pagan peoples” could have learned much from the wisdom of the indigenous tribes if their minds were open enough to do so.

As I reflect on it, the practice of “religious bullying" still continues to this very day.  In our own times there are many people who firmly believe that their "way" of understanding truth is the right and only way and everyone else is wrong. Many religious people are so sure they have found the only true way that they make it their mission in life to make sure everyone else follows the same path so that they will all arrive at the same “truth.” 

In our own day, even some atheists have fallen into the trap of becoming “religious bullies” of a sort. Many contemporary atheists "firmly believe" that anyone who does not profess their view of who and what “God is not” is obviously uninformed and wrong. 

I am reminded of something priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, once said:

The supreme challenge is to see God’s image
 in one that’s not in our image,
for only then can we see past our own reflection in the mirror
to the God we did not make up.

On this "Columbus Day" I want to learn the lessons of history by celebrating the fact that we can all learn from one another – believers and non-believers alike.  I want to celebrate “Columbus Day” by looking at the bigger picture that I was unable to see in my years growing up. No one has "possession" of the only way to truth and certainly no one ever has the right to “impose” their path on others.  

I came upon this "Prayer to the Earth" from the tradition of the Ute Tribe of North American Indians. It seems like such a perfect prayer for "Columbus Day," and reciting it is my way of repenting for the “religious bullying” of my spiritual ancestors in my own Christian tradition:

Earth teach me stillness, as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation, as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration, as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself, as the melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep in the rain.