Monday, June 26, 2017

Speak the Truth in Love

"A Hot Summer Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

It's always pretty hot in the summertime out here in the desert where we live; but over this past week we have been breaking all the records. An “extreme heat warning" has been issued and afternoon temperatures have reached (and even exceeded) 120 degrees. These extremely hot desert temperatures coupled with gusty winds have set up the perfect storm for roaring blazes up in the mountains overlooking our valley and in regions throughout Southern California.

Living in California has helped me to to understand that firefighters here never actually try to “put out” the blazing fires that regularly sweep through the mountain forests; rather they work to “contain” them, to control their spread. Sometimes they even have to start smaller fires along the periphery to combat the main blaze. 

I have also learned that these mountain blazes aren’t necessarily seen as a bad thing here; rather they are understood to be a necessary part of the natural pattern - without these “cleansing” fires, the forests would become wild and chaotic and new life could not emerge.

I have always said that the world of nature is a great teacher, forest fires burning in the  desert mountains are no exception. They teach me a lot about the value of looking at life and sometimes “allowing it to burn.” This past week as the temperatures scorched the desert valleys and fires blazed in the mountains, I reflected on the nature and value of “conflict” in our lives and on a spiritual journey.

It seems to be that lots of people nowadays are “figuratively” living under an “extreme heat warning” as the simmering flames of conflict have often erupted into full-blown blazes. So many of us seem to be extremely divided by politics, ideology, race, religion and ethnicity. I have heard several reports about “one-time” friends and even some families who now avoid one another because they just don’t want to get into heated political arguments.

Like many people, I have always been someone who was afraid of conflict and I would avoid it all costs. In fact I spent way more time and energy than I should have putting out fires whenever they erupted - an argument at a meeting, a disagreement with a friend, an acquaintance, a parishioner. As I think about it, I avoided conflict because I wanted others to “like” me and I thought that engaging in a conflict would diminish my chances of being liked.

I now think that maybe I would have done better to let the fires burn and to manage them. Instead of avoiding conflict I probably should have embraced it and allowed new life to emerge from it all.  If I did that I may have found that more people would have “loved” me.

Several years ago, the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote about what he referred to as “pseudo-community” in human relationships. He specifically described how groups often “pretend” they are getting along with one another in order to avoid the pain of conflict:

The essential dynamic of pseudo-community is conflict avoidance.
Group members are extremely pleasant with one another and avoid disagreement.
People, wanting to be loving, 
withhold the truth about how they really feel in order to avoid a confrontation.
The group may appear to be functioning smoothly
but individuality, intimacy and honesty are crushed.

Dr. Peck suggested that it’s only when people can trust one another enough to be able to honestly disagree that authentic community can emerge.

Lots of people believe that conflict is a sign that a relationship is deteriorating; however, if the flames of conflict are managed properly, the opposite can be true. Conflict can be symptomatic of a new relationship emerging – a relationship where there is enough trust to allow for disagreement. A therapist friend of mine suggested that embracing and managing conflict is like “mining gold beneath the burning lava.”

In one of his epistles, St Paul advises:

Speak the truth in love

I think this is excellent advice. We grow spiritually when we are in healthy relationships with others and relationships grow and develop when “inevitable” conflict is welcomed and managed. Whenever we speak our truth, even when the truth hurts, if we speak it in a spirit of love and respect, love will grow.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Spirituality of Human Contact

"Side by Side"
- on a wilderness trail -

Prompted by Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods, a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times warned: “Don’t buy groceries from a robot.” The article went on to talk about the growing trend toward increasing automation not only in grocery stores but in most arenas in which we might conduct business everyday, in malls, at a gas station, even at restaurants and coffee shops.

Beside shopping online, many of us now use the "self-checkout" counter at a store, thus eliminating the need for cashiers and nowadays there are a growing number of restaurants where you can order a meal using a computer at your table and then pick up your food from a “personalized cubby” located inside the restaurant without ever having to talk to a waiter or waitress.

The Times article suggested that our ever-decreasing contact with other human beings can have serious repercussions for our well-being.

As I think about my own everyday routine, I look forward to interacting with the always-friendly cashiers at “Trader Joes” and with the “baristas” at our local Starbucks who know me by name and even know what I usually order before I even ask for it. I would very much miss this kind of contact if it all became automated and I had to deal with robots instead.

There are many people who think of themselves as “individuals” separated and apart from other human beings; but the truth is that we are all dynamically interconnected and so when we have “contact” with other people (not just machines or computers) we are, in fact, in touch with the very core of what it means to be human. We need this kind of human contact for our spiritual and emotional health and welfare.

I am reminded of something the Dalai Lama (who is a scientist) once said:

There is a reasonably substantial body of evidence
in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields
suggesting that even from the most rigorous scientific perspective
we are all connected.
Interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

I am also reminded of a wise observation once made by Benedictine monk and teacher, David Steindl-rast:

We are born as individuals and we become persons, laboriously so.
We become persons through our relationships with others.
Interrelationship is what defines you as a person.

When I talk with the cashier at the market or order a meal from a waiter at a restaurant,  I foster my sense of interdependence and I feel more fully human. In fact, I become more and more a “person.”

So, I think it may be good advice to heed that warning in the New York Times article: "Don’t buy groceries from a robot.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Heat of the Noonday Sun

"120 Degrees"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Summer has now officially arrived and an “extreme heat warning” has been issued for this desert region where we live. In fact, yesterday afternoon the outdoor temperature got up to a scorching “120” degrees and when I finally mustered up enough courage to make my way out to the usually-crowded gym, I discovered that there were only five other people in there with me. In this kind of weather no one wants to move around – myself included. When it gets this hot out,  all I want to do is sit in a chair inside my house with the air conditioning at full-blast.

Yesterday as the afternoon temperatures kept climbing, I went home and tried to motivate myself to read a book or maybe to meditate, but found I was too lethargic to do anything at all. It reminded me of a piece of wisdom taught by the 4th century Christian desert monks who moved away from their homes in the cities to live in a region very similar to the one where I now live.  They devoted the themselves to prayer, work and study and to more carefully follow the teachings of Jesus.

Interestingly enough, these ancient “Desert Mothers and Fathers” actually had quite a bit to say about living under the scorching heat of the noonday sun, observing that during the “sizzling” afternoon hours as the desert baked in the sun, they felt particularly afflicted by what they called a “noonday demon” which they referred to as “acedia.”

While the word “acedia” is somewhat difficult to translate, in general it means restless boredom, lethargy, apathy

Under the rays of the summertime sun these ancient monastics talked about how bored and lethargic they all became - no one wanted to move around or to do anything. They became bored with their prayers, apathetic about their work, lethargic when it came to studying, they even became easily bored with one another. Afflicted by the “noonday demon” of “acedia’ many monks talked about how spiritually restless they became, eager to escape to a better place far from the dry emptiness of the fierce desert terrain.

I find one particular description of “acedia” to be quite insightful if not amusing:

In the heat of the noonday sun
as the monk reads, he yawns plenty and can easily fall asleep.
He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms.
He stares at the walls and then goes back to his reading for a little while.
He then wastes his time counting the pages of the book,
sometimes finding fault with the writing or the design.
Finally he just shuts the book and uses it as a pillow.

I find this depiction of “acedia” so entertaining because the monk in that story sounds a lot like me.

Actually I think that, from time to time, many if not most people are afflicted by a “noonday demon” as they make their way along a spiritual journey and you don’t have to live in a desert when its 120 degrees outside to experience this affliction. There are many times when we just don’t feel like praying or meditating and when being kind or compassionate becomes a real burden.

But acedia doesn’t just influence people on a spiritual journey, lots of folks experience a sense of “restless boredom” in their routine of life - tired of the same old job, bored with their everyday tasks, tired of the same old relationships. Like those 4th century monks, when tempted by the “noonday demon” we also want to escape, to move on to something bigger and better and newer.

The ancient “Desert Mothers and Fathers” told one another that the best way to fight off the “noonday demon” was simply to persevere, to persist in the everyday tasks of ordinary life.  If those monks were around today they would tell us that when we don’t feel like praying or studying or working, when we are bored by living into our routine, when we don’t feel like being kind or compassionate, do it anyway!  Soon the “noonday demon” will leave and a sense of peace will return.

The English poet, Samuel Johnson, once said:

Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.

It’s supposed to get up to 120 again today. There are lots of books I want to read.