Monday, September 30, 2013

The Air We Breathe

A Crystal Clear Autumn Day

Autumn is a season that teaches me exactly why I choose to live in a desert. For me, there is no more beautiful place on earth than the flowing desert Fall landscape - the crystal clear blue skies and warm (but not hot) temperatures. Most of all, the air in Autumn seems especially exhilarating. Somehow everything just smells healthy and fresh, clearer than ever. 

Every day I try to sit quietly and meditate - mindful in the moment, concentrating on my breathing.  Meditation in this Autumn season is particularly wonderful as I sit in my garden and luxuriate in the  breathing in and breathing out of the desert air. Maybe that's why I was especially struck by a radio broadcast I heard the other day about the air we breathe.

I was listening to the weekly broadcast of NPR's "Ted Talks." The show was titled, "Everything is Connected." It featured several scientists who talked about the ecology of the natural world - animals, forests, the flow of rivers, the behavior of humans  - all interconnected as one living and breathing organism.

One segment of the show especially struck me - a  biologist spoke about the air we breathe:

Take a deep breath, the yogis had it right - breath does, in fact, connect us all in a very literal way. Take a breath now and as you breathe, think about what is in your breath. There, perhaps, is the CO2 from a person who may be sitting near you. Maybe there's a little bit of oxygen from some algae on a beach not far from you. It all connects us in time. There may even be some carbon in your breath from the dinosaurs. There could also be carbon that you are exhaling now that will be in the breath of your great, great, great grandchildren.

I found myself deeply moved by what this scientist had to say. I had never before understood the profound significance of focusing on my breathing as I sit and meditate. I thought of "breathing" as a meditation technique -  a way of helping me to relax and focus. Now I have come to realize that the very air I breathe is literally and physically connecting me to the universe of all that is, all that has been and all that will be. 

Far from being a meditation technique, the focus on breathing is a focus on the dynamic interconnectivity of everything and everyone - not just in an abstract world of ideas, but in a real world of physical reality.

Today as I sit in the dawning rays of the rising morning sun, the air seems especially fresh to me. 

As I breathe in,  I am keenly aware that it's not just "air" I am taking into my body. I am breathing in
the universe. I am breathing in the ocean to the west of me. I am breathing in the trees and desert flowers. I am breathing in all the creatures who walk along the desert floor and inhabit the mountain caves - the hummingbirds swarming around me, my dogs sitting faithfully by my side.

I am breathing in those people who inhabit my life - my beloved spouse, my friends, all the people in my neighborhood. I am also breathing in strangers I have never met, people who I have counted as my enemies, those who live in distant "foreign"lands. 

Today as I sit and breathe, I become aware of the reality that I am physically breathing in all those who have gone before me on this earth - the great biblical heroes, prophets, priests and kings.  I am breathing in Jesus the Christ, the Buddha, the Prophet Muhammad. 

Today as I sit in my garden, I am also aware of my breathing out. As I breathe out I am placing something of me into the mix of it all. The air in my body expelled into the vast sea of the cosmic web of interconnection. The air i breathe out to be breathed in by my fellow humans in my own time and in the generations yet to come.  

As I breathe it all in and breathe it all out, I am keenly aware that there are no "others" after all. 

There is only "us"- all of us, in the very air we breathe.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

True Religion


It's Sunday, and over this weekend many people all over the world practice their "religion." Many other people will want nothing at all to do with any anything that even comes close to being "religious."

When I was growing up, the neighborhood kids used to ask each other: "What religion are you?" In my neighborhood there were only two answers: Catholic or Protestant. The kids in my neighborhood expected and generally looked forward to the standard Sunday morning ritual:  You put on the nice clothes, headed off to church, and then went to breakfast. I clearly (and fondly) recall those many Sunday mornings. 

Nowadays the question isn't "what religion are you?" but rather, "Are you religious?" More and more today the answer to that question is a resounding "no" (often followed by the corollary "but I am spiritual").

For many years now, social commentators have been tracking the decline of religion especially in Western cultures. 

In Europe, the decline is particularly evident. On a given Sunday morning only a small fraction of the population will pack up the family and head off to church. On any given Sunday, European churches are populated by mostly gray-haired people -  many are elderly women. This is particularly poignant given that Europe was once the very bastion of Christendom. 

And while the decline in religion is less evident in America, multiple surveys and an abundance of sociological research suggest that it's just a matter of time before religion in America looks way more like the way it's looking in Europe..

The very use of the word "religion" has taken on some very negative connotations in popular culture in America nowadays (especially among younger people). If you answer "yes" to the question "are you religious?" you are viewed as a simpleton - someone who accepts childish answers to the complex questions, someone who has abandoned logic, science or reason, someone who is dismissive of those who are different and judgmental of those who color outside the lines of life.  

Actually, I think the current declining trend in religion and the groundswell of hostility toward religious people can be a good thing. Today's religious crisis confronts religious leaders and religious people with a need to seriously re-examine, re imagine, and maybe even re-create what religion is all about. 

The current decline in American religion is an opportunity for religious folks to articulate what "true religion" is all about. 

The word "religion" comes from the latin word "ligare,"meaning "to connect." Just as ligaments are the tissues connecting the body's bones, so does "religion" function to connect people. "True religion" connects people in common beliefs, common values, common mission - true religion connects and weaves people into a community. 

In fact, all the great religions of the world are based on the core value and core identity of being "connected".  Compassion lies at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and all other "religions." True religion does not cut people off or divide people into camps.  True religion is never judgmental or arrogant or dismissive of others who are different.

So I am not at all distressed by the trend of decline in religion today. In fact, I am encouraged by it.

Today, more than ever, religions are given a "holy opportunity" to take a good close look at what they stand for and who they are and what they do. The decline in religion today can be a life-savng catalyst, forcing dying and decaying religious institutions into asking the important core questions that can breathe fresh new life into old tired answers. 

Instead of trying to convince everyone that their religion is the true one, religious people today must now ask themselves if their religion is a "true religion."

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Great Divide

a high mountain - a deep desert canyon

We live in a very beautiful home set in the midst of the vast desert of the Coachella valley. We are surrounded by mountains and are treated daily to the most beautiful nature sights one could ever imagine; and yet, by some standards, our home is rather modest- certainly modest when compared with some of the incredibly elegant desert resort estates that are not all that far away from where we live.

Almost every day, my wife and I drive by one especially stunning resort just a few miles away from our home. It is surrounded by a protective wall - gates and guards. You can peer a bit beyond the gate and, from a distance look into the estate with its stately mansion-like homes, lemon and orange groves, a man-made lake, fountains and flowing streams, a lush green golf course - all this in the middle of a dry, hot desert. 

One day, not so long ago we drove up to the guard at the estate entrance and asked if we might just drive around to get a better, close-up look. We were promptly turned away - "Sorry, members only." 

I had a visceral response to being kept outside the gate looking in. I had a gut-level experience of the great divide that exists between the "one-percenters" and the rest of us "poor slobs." As I sat in my car prohibited from entering into the land of the "rich and famous," I thought about some of the teachings and the parables of Jesus who talked about a "great chasm" between  those who "have" and those who "have not."

Living here in a desert of mountains and canyons, you are reminded daily of deep chasms and great divides.  As I sat outside the gates of those resort estates, I felt that deep chasm between me and those who were on the other side, and I didn't at all like being numbered among those who "have-not."  

But then, only last week, I had an experience of what it is like to be on the other side of the great divide.  

If you drive 30 or 40 minutes east of the beautiful gated estates, you find yourself in a part of the desert that seems hardly habitable - and yet many people live there. By and large, these people are Mexican immigrants (the border is only an hour or so away), many are illegal, many are migrant farm workers. They live in shacks and trailers in the triple digit desert sun, barely able to squeak out an existence. 

There actually is a desert lake near to where these folks live, but this lake is polluted and it is filled with poisoned fish.  Nonetheless, every day you can see the folks with their hooks and poles standing along the shore, pulling in the poisoned fish as the entree for the family supper -making a choice between getting sick from poisoned fish or going to bed hungry that night. 

Last week, as we were driving through this decimated, desolated community, I also had a visceral sense of the "great divide" and the "deep chasm" -  the "haves" on one side and the "have-nots" on the other. Only this time I was on the side of the "haves" looking out at the "have nots" who stood longingly looking at me on the other side of the gate.

When Jesus talked about the deep chasm, he also taught about filling it in - turning life into a level plain for everyone, where there are no chasms that divide and no gates to keep people out. 

I often wonder how to do that.

I ask myself, "What on earth can I possibly do with my one little life that can have even a slight effect on filling in the great divide?" And I always come up with basically the same answer, "When you stand at the cliffs of the great divide, vow again to live your own life with greater generosity and re-commit yourself to a greater practice of compassion." 

When I see the great divide and stand at the cliffs of the deep chasm, I commit again to be a person with an open-gated life - to share the resources I have, to share my gifts and talents rather than horde and protect them, to look for the places in life where I can live sacrificially and give myself for the welfare of others."    

When I try to intentionally live an open-hearted life of generosity, maybe the locked gates are opened just a crack, and a pebble or two falls into the canyon leveling out the great divide. 

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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Glass Half Full

autumn brilliance

There certainly has been a lot of things swirling around in the world over the past few days. As I read the paper and listen to the news I think to myself, "So is the glass half empty or is it half full?" Do the events of the past days point to new life and hope, or are they portents of a nation, a society and world on the brink of ultimate disaster? 

From one point of view, the glass is certainly emptying out - nothing but more misery on the horizon. The conflict in Egypt still flares, and in Syria, millions of refugees continue to flee from their homeland. In Kenya- there has been the senseless, brutal mall massacre with a warning that a U.S. mall may be the next terrorist target, in the United States Capitol - the Navy Yard shootings, and a congress so dysfunctional that some politicians would rather shut down the government and disable the economy rather than support the presidents's health care program. 

I could easily see how one might look at the world and see an empty glass- causing people to live everyday life with fear and trepidation over when the "next shoe will drop." 

But there is another side to this coin, and another way of looking at the glass. For me, I actually think the glass of life is half full (and getting fuller). Even amidst the chaos and destruction, I see signs of life and hope everywhere (and I am not an eternal optimist,  nor have I ever been "a pollyanna" in my view of the world).

Just a few weeks ago the war drums were sounding; and the world was on the brink of war- an inevitable American bombing of Syria. Yesterday journalists and pundits were shaking their heads in amazement over the fact that, not only were bombings diverted, but the United Nations Security Council came to an unprecedented agreement over a peaceful settlement with Syria over the removal of their chemical weapons. 

Just yesterday, sitting face to face in a meeting room at the United Nations, high level American and Iranian officials also had an "unprecedented" conversation about a nuclear arms treaty. Again, the pundits and the journalists were shaking their heads in amazement. That kind of reasonable dialogue between Iran and the U.S. hadn't happened in 40 years (not since the Iranian "Hostage Crisis").  Social commentators referred to yesterday's talks as a "milestone."

The pope has also weighed in recently- tipping the scales toward the "half-full glass" view of the world,  when he said that the church needs to be more concerned about love and less obsessed by dogma, doctrine or moral teachings.

Every day I get out of bed and go out into my everyday world, and of course, I find people who are obnoxious and self-servng.  But I also encounter plenty of other people of good will - people who care about others, people who are kind and willing to help their fellows make a path through the wilderness of life. And, on the whole, I'd say the people of gentle, good will outnumber the self-consuming takers and haters. 

MartinLuther King Jr. once said:

The arc of the moral universe is long, 
but it bends towards justice.

I think there is great wisdom and ultimate truth in Dr, King's teaching.

I personally do not believe in some anthropomorphic, superman God watching over us and shielding or protecting us from evil, chaos and harm. But I very much believe that the direction of the universe does indeed bend towards love. I believe in an abiding Holy Presence, an energy of abiding love connecting  us and flowing in and through us- drawing us into ultimate harmony. The pattern in all the chaos is "love" - a love that will not let us go. 

I have no doubt that there will be more disasters, wars, shootings, acts of terror and destruction in the days ahead. But the scales are tipped - the arc of the universe is bent toward love. 

The glass is half-full and it's getting fuller.

So, I am not afraid. I can live with courage. I am a person of hope.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Embracing Failure

a dead tree among flowering bushes
-along the wilderness trail-

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, "Losing is Good for You," offered the following piece of advice to parents whose children are signing up for "back-to school" sports' programs:

Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: "Which kids get awards?" If the answer is "Everybody gets a trophy," find another program.

The article goes on to report recent research suggesting that, when everybody gets a trophy -when the message is always about how "talented and smart a child is," kids will inevitably "collapse at the first experience of difficulty and, demoralized by their failure, say they'd rather cheat than risk failing again."

I think there is an important message here, not just for school children and parents, but for us all.

Many years ago everyone was reading a very popular bestselling "self help" book titled,"Im Ok, You're Ok." The book was all about building up self-eseteem - its underlying premise was that everyone is smart and talented and we should do everything we can to praise and celebrate the gifts in our own self and in others.  At the time I thought it was a pretty good book. I have come to think it may be one of he worst books I have ever read - its premise potentially quite harmful.

Like any popular theory, there is a kernel of truth about the importance of building up "self-esteem." Generally speaking, it's probably a good thing to honor and celebrate our own and one another's gifts.

But there is also an inherent psychological as well as spiritual danger inherent in all this business about everyone always being "ok". The fact is that sometimes, "Im not ok and sometimes you're not ok." We all make mistakes. We all fail. This is what it means to be a human being.  And if we don't recognize this truth, we shall indeed "collapse" when failure comes our way.

As I see it, the inability to embrace or recognize failure and flaws has deep spiritual consequences. The belief that "I" can do no wrong" is a pure act of the ego, and inevitably leads to arrogance and pride. If I can do no wrong, "I" don't need to depend on or be connected to anyone other than my "self" - not even God.

The related corollary is that, since we all do fail and because we are all flawed, when "I" do inevitably fail and when I ultimately do make mistakes, I feel a need to defend and draw into my own "ego" to protect my pride. I hide my (inevitable) failure from myself and from others because I don't want others  to think less of me (maybe I don't even want God to think less of me).  I shrink from and hide my failure in order to preserve my "self esteem".

I think this self-esteem business in way over-rated in our culture today. I also think it can be dangerous for our mental and spiritual health.

I sometimes hear people talk about "learning from your mistakes. "This is often translated as "yes, we make mistakes, but when you fail, correct what you did wrong, learn from it so you can then move on to be that perfect flawless person you are meant to be".   The idea of "learning from your mistakes" (understood in this way) is yet another technique for building up a bloated self-sufficient ego.

I say instead:  embrace your flaws, embrace your mistakes, embrace failure.

When "I" fail (not if I fail), I recognize that I am not perfect, I am flawed, I make mistakes. I am not always OK and you aren't either. I am a human being.

Failure provides me an opportunity for reaching out to others, seeking help, asking forgiveness.  Failure provides an opportunity for grace.

It's true, you know,  sometimes losing is good for you. 

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Unashamed Fidelity

morning mountain majesty

In my earlier years I was taught that the "primary" purpose for getting married was to produce children. I no longer think this is true. I think that "primarily" married people serve as living icons - reminders of what it means to be enlightened and fully human. 

I firmly believe that the isolated, individual self is (as the Buddhists say) an illusion and a myth.  Human beings "are" a relationship - interdependent and interconnected.  Married people are living reminders of who we are at the core:  They are linked together-the two as one, working for the welfare of one another, surrendering their own self interests for the good of each other, committing to relationship in good times as well as in bad times.

Over the years I have seen many married people who have served as wonderful icons of what it means to be "fully human," and I have been grateful for the inspiration of their married lives.  Most recently one particular couple has deeply inspired me as a perfect example of marital love. They just happen to be two men.

These men are long-time friends of my wife and I - former parishioners. They have been together as a couple for more than 25 years, and now that the marriage laws have changed in the State of California  have decided to "officially" recognize their already-existing union; and they have afforded me the great honor of presiding at their upcoming wedding. 

A few days ago our friends came out to the desert so that we could plan their marriage service. These men are long-time-committed Christians. To me, they have always served as a model of what Christ-followers should be. They live lives of radical hospitality - generous with their service to others,  willingly sharing their resources. So, of course, their marriage ceremony will be a Christian liturgy held in the church. 

When our friends joined us to plan their wedding, they came prepared with all sorts of background material that they had gathered-services and prayers recently written and also prayers and blessings which are ancient. 

While we may think that same-sex marriage is new to the 21st century, the fact is that there exists a wide variety of official Christian services for the "blessing of same sex unions" dating back to the 5th and 6th century, coming out of the Byzantine church as well as the church of Western Europe. 

As we sat down together to prepare the liturgy, my friends showed me one particular prayer from a 12th century Vatican (yes, I said Vatican) blessing of same-sex unions. The prayer bowled me over with its tender beauty:

O Lord, our God, bless and consecrate these thy servants 
who love each other with a love of a soul.
Grant unto them unashamed fidelity and sincere love.

My friends told me that they especially liked this prayer because of the use of the word "unashamed." They have never been ashamed of their love for one another and now they will proclaim their soulful and unashamed love in the sight of all their family and friends - blessed by the church and recognized by the State.

My wife was in the kitchen when she heard them say this. She came into the room, tears streaming down, which of course got me going also. I can't remember a time when I saw a couple so unashamedly faithful and sincerely loving- what a great icon of being "fully human."

There are many politicians and religious leaders today who lament the legalization of same-sex marriage. They claim that this will destroy the institution of marriage and tear apart the moral fabric of society.

I'd like them to meet my friends.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Body of God

The Salton Sea

This past Sunday we packed up the dogs and drove down to the Salton Sea- about 45 minutes from where we live. I'd guess that most people have never even heard about the Salton Sea, even though it is the biggest lake in the State of California (35 miles long and 15 miles wide). 

The"sea" was created by floodwaters back 100 years ago. The Colorado river overflowed its banks and its waters ended up in an enormous basin, creating a breathtakingly beautiful lake in the middle of a desert.

Fifty years ago, the Salton Sea was a popular tourist destination. It had been stocked with fish and it attracted bird life from all over the planet. It was a hotspot for speed boaters, campers, and vacationers. Its shores were dotted with restaurants and hotels often visited by Hollywood celebrities.  At the height of its popularity, the Salton Sea State Park was visited by more people than Yosemite.

But the sea gradually started to die from an imbalance of salt and major problems with water intake and flow.  Now, dead fish line the shores. The birds are going away.  The water is murky and it smells horrible. All the hotels and restaurants have closed and only a handful of people live nearby (even fewer come to visit). 

Our trip down to the Salton Sea last Sunday was heartbreaking. There was only one other car in a vast parking lot of the once populated visitor center. We  walked along the shore, stepping on dead fish, assaulted by the odor. As we looked out at the incredible beauty of a sea on the desert floor, I felt tears welling up in me. I have visited many sickbeds before - held the hands of many who were dying, and it felt like that as I stood on that shore.  I was at the sick bed holding the hand of a living, breathing, profoundly beautiful organism that was dying -  alone and abandoned.  

When we came back home, I looked up something I once read - remarks made by Chief Seattle (1894) as he explained how Native American people understood the natural environment. 

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, the sap which courses through the trees, every clearing and humming insect is holy.  The rivers are our brothers. The air is precious for all things share the same breath. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. 

When the European Christian missionaries came to America to "convert" the Indian "savages," they found that when the native people prayed, they set their gaze upon the sand and the rivers, the trees and mountains. They were praying to the God who flowed in and through it all, connecting it all together. 

The missionaries chastised the native people for praying in this way. They taught them to look up into the heavens when they prayed, for that is where God lived - up above and beyond, looking down from a distance. I think maybe it was the missionaries who were the savages. The Indians had it right all along. 

As I stood at the Salton Sea last Sunday, I realized that I was standing on Holy Ground. Everything and everyone IS the "Body of God." Everything and everyone is connected with the energy of divine and holy presence. 

As I stood at the abandoned and suffering Salton Sea, my tears flowed because the "Body of God" is being crucified. 

Chief Seattle also said:

Man did not weave the web of life - he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Unknown to Me

fog in the mountains

This morning I was thinking about a revelation I had a few days ago. No, the heavens didn't open, and I didn't hear a voice thunder from the clouds.  But I did have a revelation, and I learned something about myself that I never knew before.

When I was teaching courses in Interpersonal Communication, I used to use a tool for enhancing self-understanding and self-disclosure known as the "Johari Window." The window could be divided up into various segments. In one section you could write down some things about your self that you were willing to reveal to others, in another section, you could write about those things that you kept hidden from others. 

This self-disclosure tool also encouraged reflection on things about yourself that are unknown- not things you keep hidden from others; rather, things about yourself of which you aren't even aware. 

The other day I had a revelation- and some unknown things about myself came to light.

Several years ago I had an ongoing debate with a colleague who was an African-American. We were (and still remain) very good friends, but we disagreed on one major point. I never thought of myself as racist in any way. I have always considered myself to be totally respectful of the differences in others- without prejudice. My colleague would always challenge me on that perception.

She would tell me: "It is impossible for you to be totally without prejudice. You are a White, educated,  privileged male, and whether you realize it or not, those factors will always cloud how you look at others." 

I have finally come to understand what this colleague of mine meant, and I have also now come to agree with her. 

For the past few weeks we have been doing some renovation work at our home. An old bathroom has been remodeled - the shower rebuilt. The guys who did the remodeling were big, bulky, Latino men who spoke highly-accented English. 

When the work first began I didn't think much of what was involved. They would just come in, lay some tile, change out some fixtures and we'd be done. I thought I might even be able to do it myself if I had the time or if someone could teach me what to do. 

It took about two weeks for the work to be finished and during that time I realized that the men who were remodeling our bathroom were not "grunt laborers" (as I had previously judged) but they were, in fact, mathematicians and artists. The blend of various shapes and colors they helped us choose as they worked with us was a work of art. The intricacies of tile design was a work of art. In order to tile a shower wall you need to meticulously apply geometrical principles so that everything fits together. 

I was amazed and awed to watch them work with such care, precision, and aesthetic sense. 

It all turned out beautifully thanks to the trained artisans and mathematicians who put it all together - and herein was my revelation.

When these guys first showed up at my house, I saw them through some very clouded and even racist filters. They were big, bulky, Latino men, hardly able to speak English, who drove an old white van filled with tools and supplies. Through my clouded "white, educated, privileged male" filters, I saw them as "workers" - "grunt laborers," but in fact they were "accomplished and trained artisans" with skills and sensibilities that far exceeded what I would be able to do.  

My encounter of the past days has taught me an important lesson. I will always see the world through the filters of my experience, training and background, but I think my revelation has taught me to be less quick to judge. 

I am very grateful for those astute artisans and mathematicians who spent some time with us over the past weeks. They have helped me to take one more step toward practicing what I preach - "respect the dignity of every human being."  

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Autumn Blossoms

a desert bush in bloom
-Autumn in the Desert"

There was a saying often used by the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers - advice given by the elders to the younger monks:

Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything

These 4th century monks had moved out into the desert in order to more intentionally live according to the teachings of Jesus. They lived in community with one another, and their life was simple if not austere-living in small caves ( cells). Their desert location was empty and vast. Some might say their environment was "fierce" - nothing but rock, sand, baking sun, and crawling creatures to greet them every day as they rose for prayer and work. 

They also believed that, beneath the seemingly empty, sandy, rocky, fierce surface, an abundance of life was teeming in and through it all.  And so, like the Buddhist monks of another culture and tradition, these desert Christian monks taught one another to live "mindfully" -  pay attention to where you are, be aware in the moment, and you will be taught everything you need to know: "Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything."

Over the past few days I have come to a deep new realization of what those monks taught one another about mindful living in a desert environment.

We moved out into the desert before the onset of the harsh summer months and quickly discovered that  it's not easy to live in a desert in the summertime.  In fact, many of my neighbors pack up and move away to "greener pastures" and cooler temperatures from June until October. Every day the temperature hovers in the triple digits. Most desert flowers and trees are dormant in these months and so the sandy and the rocky soil seems more pronounced than ever- as they glow white in the noonday heat.  You can't really do much outdoors during the day, and so you have to strategize ways for keeping cool and restricting activity to early morning or later evening. The desert is a harsh place to live in the summertime. 

And here we were, all summer long - out in the midst of it all for these past several months.  And, I am so very glad we stayed here because "I have been sitting in my cell and my cell has taught me everything."

Yesterday, as I sat in my garden at daybreak, watching and waiting, it was as if some type of cosmic switch was flipped, and the desert was told "it's Autumn!" It literally seemed as if, overnight, everything had suddenly changed. 

I sat in my garden and the temperature hovered around 70 with no hint of a triple digit forecast.  The air smelled different, the sky looked different. There were more birds singing - butterflies flapping their wings.

However, the biggest surprise of all came when we ventured out into the desert for a hike along a wilderness trail. We hadn't been able to do this in the summer months. it was too hot.  So when we finally did make it out onto the desert floor, I was flabbergasted to discover that  the desert actually blooms in the Autumn.

Having come from back East, I always thought of Autumn as being a season for dying. The leaves turn gold and fall from the trees, flowers die, the ground gets cold as winter advances. But not so in the desert - Autumn is a time for life to once again spring from the rock and the sand. The bushes along the desert trail were budding with bright yellow flowers- desert  trees blooming in shades of pink and red.  It was an incredibly life-giving experience. My cell was teaching me everything.

The fierce desert landscape of nothingness and barenness has taught me a lesson about life. Even when life seems most fierce, when we bake and wither in the rocky soil, abundant life abides and we are never abandoned.  A Holy Presence, a Universal force, "God" is always flowing just beneath the surface of the landscape. Some might say "grace abides." 

The desert also teaches a lesson about "mindfulness" - watch and wait, be patient, be present to where you are, be mindful in the places and moments in which you find yourself. Don't run away - "trust" that eventually, even when life is most fierce and the hot sun is baking down, the desert will bloom again.  In fact, the most beautiful flowers bloom in the driest of times. 

Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything 

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Liberty and Justice for All

Front Courtyard
-The Desert Retreat House-

It was very disheartening to read an article by David Firestone in the New York Times in which he reports about a rally held yesterday by House Republicans after they had voted to defund healthcare reform. Firestone referred to the rally as "ghoulish." 

The gathered-together lawmakers had just voted to keep tens of millions of people from getting health insurance. They had also voted to continue the sequester; and so millions of Americans will be prevented from receiving public housing subsidies, Head Start seats, and unemployment benefits. On top of all that, the day before they had voted to cut food stamps for almost 4 million low-income Americans. 

Yesterday they all gathered together yesterday for a 'ghoulish rally" to celebrate it all. The rally was boisterous and loud. A party atmosphere prevailed - lots of back-patting, loud cheers and lengthy periods of applause. You could hardly even imagine that the partygoers at that rally had just voted to inflict so much pain on the poorest, neediest and the most marginal of their fellow citizens whom they had sworn to represent. 

I wonder if those congress people might have ended their rally by placing hand over heart and pledging allegiance to a nation dedicated to the principle of "liberty and justice for all?" 

I think about all the many people in this land walking on various spiritual paths who will be engaging in their spiritual practices this weekend- going to mosques and temples synagogues, churches, sitting in a garden, meditating and praying. I think about all this in light of what happened at yesterday's "ghoulish rally." 

After all, Islam is very clear about caring for the needs of the poor. God is compassionate and followers of Islam are called to be compassionate. Muslims fast for a month to remind themselves of the needs of the poor and hungry. Muslims are also expected to give a percentage of all their resources to care for the needs of the poor.

The Hebrew tradition is steeped in the principles of social justice. Hebrew prophets like Amos railed against  kings and princes and temple leaders who "trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land." Concern for the needs of the sick and the poor is at the core of Jewish belief and practice to this very day.

Jesus told his disciples: "the way you treat the poorest and the neediest is the way you treat me," and devoted himself to the establishment of a just and compassionate world where everyone has a place of equal dignity. 

And just yesterday, amid the hoots, hollers and applause up on Capitol Hill, in Rome the pope was telling Christians that disciples should put care for the poor and marginalized as the top priority for those who would follow Jesus.

The Buddha taught that everyone is interdependent and interconnected. The Buddha lived among the poorest of the poor and he taught his followers: "Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick." Buddhists vow to respect and honor all beings.

On this weekend as millions of people throughout the land walk their spiritual paths, the echoes and cheers of a "ghoulish rally" that celebrated the trampling down of the poor and the casting away of the sick and needy, should sound loudly in our ears, and touch us deeply in our spirits.  

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Sea Change

a new day

This morning, as I watched a new day dawning,  I wondered if people are ever aware of significant historical change when they are living in the midst of it -as it happens. I wondered, for example, about that crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago who were listening to a speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. Did they realize the significance of those words, "I have a Dream" echoing and rippling out into the ages?

I think that the impact of most major "history-changing" events are like a tsunami - an earthquake that happens in the deep sea, but the impact of it isn't felt until later - when the roaring waves rush up to the surface and pound onto the shores. 

This morning as I watched a new day dawn, I wondered if maybe a "tsunami" happened yesterday,  and most people aren't yet quite aware of the significant impact it will have?

Yesterday, Pope Francis made some incredibly significant statements. He said the church is far too "obsessed" with issues like abortion, contraception, homosexuality and gay marriage. He articulated a vision of an "inclusive" church- a big wide tent under which everyone can gather (not just Catholics, not just Christians, not just believers). He criticized the church for putting dogma before love and for prioritizing moral doctrine over serving the poor and marginalized. 

I think maybe an earthquake happened deep in the sea of the culture yesterday, and we haven't yet quite understood or yet felt its impact or historic significance. Dare I say it, I think that maybe there has been a "sea change."

There are over a billion Catholics in the world. On top of that, billions of other people pay attention when the pope speaks. While some conservative Catholics are saying that the pope has not changed any of the teaching of the church, I think they are dead wrong. I think that what the pope said yesterday is a significant change in what the church teaches and what the church stands for -a major change, a sea change.

The words of Pope Francis yesterday fly in the face of strident moralists who stand in pulpits and denounce gay and lesbian people, condemning them to damnation.  I think the words of Pope Francis yesterday fly in the face of those who claim that the elimination of same-sex marriage must be the primary objective of the religious institution. 

I think the pope's words yesterday throw down the gauntlet to all religious institutions throughout the world - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim- everyone, everywhere. "Do not put dogma before love.   Do not obsess on morality and fail to make caring for the poor and the marginalized as your main focus." If you ask me, these are "sea-changing"words.

Interestingly enough, yesterday as the interview with the pope was hitting the news and lighting up the social media,  U.S. House Republicans passed a bill that would drastically cut federal food stamps. If passed, this bill would exclude 4 million Americans from receiving the kind of aid that is needed to have enough food to eat. Imagine it, 15% of our fellow citizens live in poverty, and many people in a land of "liberty and justice for all" go to bed hungry every night. 

Could it be that those words of Pope Francis might even ripple into the halls of congress - care for the poor, reach out to the marginalized, let everyone have a place of dignity at the table of life? It may be wishful thinking, but one can always hope.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013


the harvest moon- peace in the desert

Last evening a harvest moon rose over the desert.  It was one of the most beautiful and peace-filled moments I have ever experienced out here - a soulful sense of heaven and earth, everything and everyone, all moving together in one harmonious flow. 

As I sat in the peace-filled light of a moon that had turned the night into day, I was also struck by a sense of darkness - a feeling of also being torn apart.  The senseless gun violence once again repeated in Washington DC this week is a symptom of a soul-sickness that has infected this nation. Every time these violent acts occur, the fabric of our soul becomes more and more frayed.

The "soul" of any individual is not something inside a person. Our soul is our relationship. We are a complex web of relationship - created as harmony, designed to be in harmony. When that relationship is violated and torn apart, we lose our soul. 

An op-ed column in this morning's New York Times laments the "ghastly ritual" that keeps repeating itself in this country:

Another mass shooting. Another round of shock, sadness and outrage. Another pitched discussion about rights and responsibilities, mental illness and background checks. And then nothing.

When 1000 people were murdered in Syria, we were ready to go to war to stop future killings. When 3000 people were crushed in the bombing of the Twin Towers on 9/1l, we did go to war. And yet, an estimated 8,255 people have died in gun violence since the Newtown massacre on December 14, 2012, and nothing is done about it.  

Apart from the "mass shootings" that are reported in the national news, heinous acts of gun violence occur every day in virtually every part of the nation. Just yesterday, one person was killed and four were injured in a grocery store shooting in Stockton, CA;  an 8 year old girl was injured by a drive-by shooting in Shreveport, LA; a 17 year-old boy was shot by a fellow student in Peoria, lll; a 67 year-old man was shot and killed while waiting for a bus in Chicago - and this is just a partial list (just from yesterday alone). 

The "ghastly ritual repeats" itself every day in this land and nothing is done about it. We are suffering from a debilitating soul-sickness that needs to be healed, because left untreated the sickness is fatal.

The latest chatter on gun violence in America has focused on "mental illness." The pundits and the politicians are now claiming that since most of the shootings have been perpetrated by mentally ill people, guns should not be sold to mentally ill people (as ridiculous as this sounds, even this proposition is getting resistance from the gun lobbyists).

In some sense, I believe that the whole country is suffering from a form of mental illness when we witness the daily repetition of this "ghastly ritual" and do nothing about it.

Albert Eistein once said:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I think maybe we are all suffering from a soul-sick "insanity."

Marin Luther King once said:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period was not the strident clamor
of the bad people,
but the appalling silence of the good people.
Dr. King also said:

Somehow this madness must stop!

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013


morning sun on the mountains

I have discovered that one of the most interesting parts of writing a blog is the responses I get to what I have written. Almost every day I engage in some sort of online conversation with people about what I have written -sometimes affirming, sometimes asking questions, sometimes challenging my ideas. 

Recently I have noticed a pattern emerging from several blog responses, and the pattern is somewhat disturbing to me.   

Many times I will hear people respond to me by saying something like, "well, maybe that's the way it is,  but there is nothing we can do about it. War happens, violence happens, injustice happens, people are oppressed, racism exists, people suffer - but that's just the way it is; it's always been that way and there is nothing we can do to change it." This kind of response is worrisome to me because it is so very "fatalistic." 

"Fatalism" is a belief  that everything that happens has already been predetermined and cannot be changed." For some reason, I seem to be interacting with a lot of fatalistic people nowadays, and the most disturbing thing about this is that most of my fatalistic blog responders tend to be younger people. 

I think we fall into "fatalism" by confusing  the difference between "control" and "influence." I personally believe that we cannot control anything in life, but we can and do influence everything. 

The attempt to control life is a pure act of a bloated ego. Whenever "I" decide that life should proceed according to "my" agenda, I will always be sorely disappointed. I cannot control  how others think or feel or what they do. I cannot control world events. In fact I cannot control any event - I have no control over everything that will happen in my life today. 

But in saying this I am not being fatalistic because I don't think that anything that will happen today is preordained and unchangeable. In fact "everything" I say and do influences the whole world because everything and everyone everywhere is dynamically interconnected - a complex cosmic web of interdependence.

As I have reflected on it, I think people are "fatalistic" because at some level they aren't in touch with the realty of this dynamic interconnection. 

This morning as I was thinking about today's post, I looked up and saw a bowl of peaches, and I had this stream of consciousness reflection about how those particular peaches got to be sitting in that particular bowl at that particular time. 

I thought about the thousands of interrelated events, choices and transactions that influenced those peaches getting into that bowl - the choices people made to buy a peach farm and plant a peach seed, the weather conditions as the peaches were growing, the lives of the farmers who harvested them, the truckers who delivered them, the store owners and employees who sold them. Then there is the bowl that holds them and all the interrelated transactions that produced that glass bowl, and of course I had to drive to the store to buy them in a car, etc. etc. etc.

Anyhow my point is that everything that happens is always the result of dynamic complex interrelationships - the result of multiple factors and multiple decisions. So, everything I do and everything I say does indeed influence everything and everyone everywhere, because it's all connected.

A nasty comment or a gentle word of encouragement in everyday interactions will influence many outcomes in a multiplicity of ways, reverberating everywhere in ways that we will never know about or even be aware of. The choices we make never control the outcomes in life but they always influence them.

The psychologist William James once said:

Act as if what you do makes a difference- it does

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013


a way in the wilderness

I'm not a big fan of the Miss America Pageant, and I never pay attention to it - never,  that is,  until this past Miss America Pageant. It really got my attention. 

Twenty four year-old Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America on Sunday evening. Ms Davuruli grew up in Syracuse, New York. ( I lived and worked in Syracuse for many years before coming to Los Angeles.)  Nina graduated with honors and holds a degree in cognitive sciences.  She plans on studying to become a physician like her Dad, and she will use her pageant earnings to achieve that goal.  Nina Davuluri is an "icon" of what it means to be a "wholesome" American, and that's precisely why she was chosen to be "Miss America, 2014." 

The thing is that Mis Davuluri happens to be an Indian-American.  Her skin is not "white" and she has a "foreign-sounding" last name, and because of this, the instant she was given the title of "Miss America" the internet was flooded with vitriol against her. 

"Twitter" lit up with hateful attacks viciously spewed out against the dark-skinned young woman with a foreign-sounding name. Many tweets expressed dismay that a Muslim was chosen to be Miss America (by the way Ms. Davuluri is not a Muslim). In tweet after tweet she was called an Arab, an Egyptian and a terrorist. Some of the "tweeters" expressed outrage that a woman like her (a Muslim terrorist) could be crowned as "Miss America" so soon after the anniversary of 9/11.

I must say I'm usually not all that surprised when I see the sinister side of humanity rear its ugly head. I've had plenty of experience with people who are outrageously judgmental. But somehow, this particular dish of ugliness served up on the internet really got to me. 

For one thing, most of those vile and nasty tweets were posted by younger people, and in my naiveté I thought most younger people in this country had moved beyond such racist, biased thinking. The other thing that got to me was that, on social media sites like "Twitter," people are free to say what they really believe - no conventional "filters" are applied. So is this what so many people really believe? 

An editorial in the LA Times pretty much articulates what I think and it helps me to "get at" why I have been so bothered by Sunday night's "Twitter" orgy.

This retro ritual (Miss America Pageant) has provided us with a window into the present-day United States, where ignorant and/or uneducated Americans lurk, spewing hate and nonsense with reckless abandon.

It really frightens me to think that those Sunday-night tweets were a window into the present-day United States.  

Buddhists teach that "ignorance" is a lack of understanding of the ultimate truth about our human nature. An "ignorant" person is not yet aware that we are all "inter-being"- all interdependent and interconnected. An ignorant person is unaware of the realty that there are no different "others" - no foreigners - there is no separated "I" - there is only "us."

Buddhists also teach that ignorance is the cause of our suffering. 

There are lots of people who suffer today - lost in the wilderness along the path of life. 

My response to all the suffering  will not be despair but "compassion." I feel compassion for those who suffer because of ignorance, and I recommit my life to carving out a path to the truth- a way in the wilderness.   

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Monday, September 16, 2013

A Simple Life

-in my meditation garden-

As I sat quietly in my garden this morning, gazing at the sculpture of Saint Francis, framed by budding Hibiscus flowers, I thought about where I was at this time last year, and realized how radically different my life is today compared to only a year ago. In just a few months, I went from living a life of extreme complexity to living a very simple life. 

Last year I was living in a big city and noise occupied every moment of my day - the noise of cars, the hustle and bustle of people jostling about, the noise of a jam-packed scheduled from morning until night, the noise of meetings and appointments, phone calls and emails.  Last year my mind was filled with the noise of planning and preparation - strategizing agendas. Then suddenly it all changed. 

Today I sit in utter silence. The sun is about to rise. I watch the hummingbirds drinking from the fountain and feel the cooling breeze, a welcome relief before a triple digit desert day. I have no particular agenda in mind for today. I will write and read and walk the desert trails. I enjoy living with my wife, playing with my dogs in the pool, and visiting with the new friends we have come to know living here in the desert. 

My life has changed significantly.

The thing that has probably changed most for me in my new and simpler desert life is that I now find myself more and more able to live in the "moment" -  open to what "is" as opposed to remembering what "was" or planning for what will "be." For me, this has made all the difference in the world. 

I remember something Marie Howe, the State Poet of New York, once said about the simple things of everyday life - you become a poet when you become aware of the events of everyday moments in ordinary life. The poetry of life is always found in the "moment" - in the simple and in the ordinary.

I came back from the store yesterday. It was lunchtime, and my wife had prepared a little salad accompanied by a dish of fresh strawberries for us. As we sat down to eat the meal, I was very aware that we both were taking great delight in the simple pleasures of ordinary life.  Eating a dish of strawberries was a moment filled with poetry. 

In my garden reflection this morning I thought to myself that although I did lead a very complex life in days gone by, I didn't have to live that way.  I could have taken more time for silence. I could have practiced a more mindful and simpler lifestyle, even in the midst of my demanding schedule and complicated life. I just chose not to do that and it was a bad choice. 

I wondered if maybe I chose to lead such a complex life as a way of protecting my own ego. I could hide my "self" within the noise of life - hide within the busyness of the schedule, hide in the false illusion that "I" was the one in control as I plotted and planned and strategized. I now wonder if I chose to live with all that complexity and with all that noise as a way of protecting myself from being present in the moment; because when I am mindful in the moment, I am always connected to everything and everyone outside my self. 

Living simply and living in the "moment" is essentially alien to the  bloated and protected ego. 

I'm humming that beautiful tune from Leonard Bernstein's Mass:

Sing God a simple song, lauda laude
Make it up as you go along, lauda laude
Sing like you like to sing, God loves all simple things.
For God is the simplest of all,
For God is the simplest of all. 

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Other Way Around

Sunday Dawning

As I sat in my garden in the Sunday morning dawn, I thought about all the "soul-searching" that has been and will be going on this weekend. Friday, mosques were filled with soul-searchers. Yesterday the synagogues and temples were filled with the faithful celebrating Yom Kippur. Today soul-searching Christians flock to churches. And on top of that, there are the millions and millions of soul-searchers who are on a spiritual journey but are not part of any religion - sitting on a yoga mat, or on a mountain top, or in a garden at sunrise mindfully meditating. 

As I see it, in one way or another all "soul-searchers" set out on a spiritual journey in order to connect with "God;" God as Allah, God as Yahweh, God as revealed in Jesus, God as Cosmic Energy, God as universal Abiding Presence - all the many and varied types of soul-searchng journeys going on this weekend are essentially quests for a connection to "God."

In my sunrise meditation this morning, I thought to myself, maybe we've gotten it all wrong. Maybe  this soul-searching business is the other way around. Maybe soul-searchng isn't so much about our quest for God, but is really "God" searching to be connected with us.

In my reflection today I recalled some biblical pictures of God that Jesus once painted. He told his disciples that God is like a woman who lost a coin and then frantically searches for the coin and cannot be contented until she finds it. 

Jesus also paints a picture of God as a shepherd who has one hundred sheep, but when one of the sheep gets lost, the shepherd  immediately leaves behind the other ninety-nine and passionately looks for the lost one - the search goes on until the lost sheep is found. 

And then there is that familiar picture of God as a father whose disobedient, prodigal son has betrayed,  left home and abandoned him; but the father never gives up on his boy. Every morning at dawn the father goes to the front gate of his house and he looks for his lost son, and when the prodigal child slinks back home because the money has run out, the father wildly and passionately runs out to his once lost child and embraces him without condition and without reservation.

These are the soul-searching images that come to mind as I sit in my garden in the dawn's early light on his Sunday morning. 

This weekend - at this very moment-  I along with billions of my fellow human beings in this world are soul-searching- on some sort of "spiritual journey." This morning I have decided that, while I may think that I am on a quest to seek out God, in essence it's the other way around. My search for God, is actually God's search for me.

 Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, the Cosmic Force, the abiding Holy Presence is not indifferent to the human soul. God is constantly seeking to embrace and envelop us -no one, no thing ever thrown away or  abandoned. 

"God" wants us more than we want "God."

Praying in a mosque or in temple, synagogue or church, meditating while sitting on a mat or on a mountaintop, we may think that we are seeking union with God, but it's the other way around. God is the one doing the seeking out -  in our soul-searching, we make ourselves available.

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