Monday, March 31, 2014

Comfort Zone

"A Magical Wilderness"

Yesterday while browsing through Facebook, I came across a picture shared by a friend of mine. It was nothing but a black background with two white circles drawn on it. One circle was quite small and an arrow pointed to it with the words, "comfort zone." Next to it was a much larger circle -  an arrow pointing to it read: "Where all the magic happens." 

That one little icon really spoke volumes to me. In my experience, I have indeed found that all the magic, the mystery and the wonder in my life has always happened whenever I have been bold enough to move out of my own little comfort zone in life. 

As I looked at that drawing yesterday, I immediately called to mind a time several years ago when we moved from the East coast to the West. My wife and I were well-established in our jobs and careers back East. We owned a nice home. All our friends, acquaintances, and colleagues were there. We were very secure and very comfortable.  We planned to stay right where we were until we retired.  But that's not how it all worked out.

After a long period of discernment, I accepted a call to a church in Los Angeles, California. We sold our home, said goodbye to everyone and everything that was familiar, packed the dogs into the car - "California here we come." 

If there was ever an instance in my life when I felt like I was really leaving my comfort zone, it was that September day when we got in the car and embarked on a 3000-mile cross-country journey. 

As my wife and I drove out of our comfort zone, all the magic began to happen. 

On our "road trip," we met so many wonderful people-strangers who instantly became friends. We saw so many beautiful places-the rolling fields of the midwest plains, the Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona. We spent our hours in the car laughing, talking, praying-filled with a sense of hope at what new ventures may yet be coming our way in life. It was really a "magical" time.

And now we have moved yet one more time out of the comfort zone. After ten years in Los Angeles, now in the later years of life, we have moved out to the desert.  

The Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron once said: 

To be fully alive, fully human and completely aware
is to be continually thrown out of the nest.

Out here in the wilderness, I begin each day "thrown out of the nest." It's not that I no longer believe what I once believed, it's just that I don't feel a need to cling to anything much any more. 

I don't cling to my old assurances and my comfortable  answers about "God" or "church" or "faith." I  no longer cling to my old self-aggrandizing assurances about who I am. I no longer need to plan out my life or career. At this stage of my life, I no longer need to strategize for the future; and I certainly don't wallow in remembrances of the good old days.

I get up in the morning and I am thrown out of my nest. Every day I move away from the comfort zone. I sit in my garden at sunrise with an uncluttered mind and I cry out to the Holy Abiding Presence: "I don't know anything, I control nothing."

So, let the magic happen!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Quick and Easy

"Cactus in Bloom"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday there was an article in the New York Times about a new "booming" business first begun in Rhode Island and now quickly spreading all over the country. The new company produces charm bracelets, bangles and necklaces that, when worn, provide spiritual seekers with a quick and easy fix for all their spiritual needs. 

The promotional literature for the company asks, "Do you want limitless power, limitless karma and limitless wisdom?" If you do, then all you have to do is buy the Buddha Charm Bangle, available for $28. The promotion goes on to ask, "Do you want divine direction and soulful enlightenment?' If so, they recommend the Saint Anthony Charm Bangle. How about a "union of masculine and feminine energy?" that's available through the "Star of David Bangle - also priced at $28.

In yesterday's New York Times article, the owner and founder of the company went on to explain,  
"Before any of these articles are sold in a store, every product is blessed by my priests and by my shaman friends." This is done to help assure that they will achieve the desire effects. 

So there you have it- wisdom, enlightenment, spiritual power for people of every religion, walking any spiritual path, and all available by simply wearing a $28 bangle blessed by a priest or a shaman. I suppose it's no wonder that the company is becoming a booming business, big enough to be reported in an article in the New York Times

Oh, would that it could be so easy!

When I read that story yesterday, I just sort of shook my head. It reminded me of those pills that people take to lose weight instead of going on a diet or visiting the gym - take a pill, off comes the weight, it's quick and it's easy.  But, of course it never works that way.  If you want to lose weight, you usually need to commit to an ongoing program of healthy eating. If you want to lose weight, you have to exercise every day on a regular basis. 

As I think about it, the quick fix "spiritual bangles and bracelets" fit right in with today's contemporary culture in general. We can strike a computer key or pop a pill and we expect instant gratification - quick and easy answers, instant solutions to all of life's complex problems.

When I read the article yesterday, I thought about some Buddhist monks I met when I visited South Korea a few years ago. They devote their entire lives walking a spiritual path in pursuit of deeper wisdom and enlightenment - hours of contemplation, prayer, and daily meditation. I remember them telling me how wisdom and enlightenment is an unfolding process for them, and that even after all their many years walking the path, they have only just begun the journey.

It seems rather incredible to me that someone might actually believe that by simply wearing a twenty-eight dollar bracelet blessed by a priest or a shaman, they might actually attain "limitless wisdom and soulful enlightenment." 

The cactus in front of my Desert Retreat House has bloomed in the springtime. It has faithfully endured the heat of summer and the cold winds of winter; and now in the spring, exquisite, beautiful yellow flowers have blossomed out of the rough, thorny bush. 

I look at my cactus and I learn from it. 

Every single day I get up out of bed and I begin the journey anew.  I sit in my garden and meditate and pray.  I try to lead a mindful life, awake and aware, trying to pay attention to the revelations of the moment.  I try to be a compassionate person in the way I live my everyday life. 

Sometimes I fail. Sometimes my spirit feels thorny -  dried up by the heat of the day or the howling winds of life that blow rough against me. But I try to be faithful and persevere through it all. There is an exquisite, beautiful flower in me blossoming out of the thorns into the bright light of a fresh spring day in the wilderness.

And so I walk the path of wisdom and enlightenment and even after many years, I have only just begun the journey.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Mask of Spirituality

"Twilight and Evening Bell"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

In my reading yesterday I came across something the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, said to the Christian monk, Thomas Merton, back in 1966:

We don't teach meditation to the young monks in our monastery.
They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.

That one little statement really took be back at first. I just didn't understand it. After all, isn't meditation supposed to calm you down. Wouldn't it be helpful for anger-prone, "door-slamming" young monks to learn how to meditate? 

Then it hit me and I suddenly realized the point Thich Nhat Hanh was making. Spiritual practices like meditation or various religious practices are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they may serve to calm and center a person. However, on the other hand they can be a mask behind which the ego can hide. 

Most of my life was spent in the church - at the heart of the religious institution.  As I reflect on it now, there is probably no better or more clever way to disguise a bloated ego or hide narcissistic tendencies than to be involved in a church and be publicly identified as a respectable and respected religious person. 

I have known plenty of people who are pretty nasty and sometimes quite bitter in their everyday lives - self-centered, angry, prejudiced, judgmental about others.  However, when Sunday rolls around, they walk in the doors of that church, kneel down, say their prayers, sing the hymns, and on the surface appear angelic - "picture perfect" examples of serenity and peace.   

In my experience I have encountered plenty of good religious people who disguise their narcissistic tendencies behind the mask of religious practices - some of them even wear vestments, dress in clerical collars, and preach in pulpits. 

If you aren't careful the practice of religion and engaging in spiritual practices can be dangerous to authentic spiritual growth. When we look like we are doing spiritual things, we can fool ourselves and fool others into thinking we are something we are not.  An authentic spiritual quest leading to enlightenment and deeper peace always involves compassionate relationships with others. A bloated,  protected, self-important ego cut off from others can never find that deeper peace. 

I think that this is why Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery will only teach "meditation" to young monks when they have learned to stop slamming doors. When that happens they are finally ready to begin the spiritual quest rather than hide behind a mask of spirituality.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about my own life over the years. I think I've done a lot of door slamming in my time -  cutting others off, celebrating my own self importance. As I think about it, there have been times (maybe many times) when I have been one of those overtly religious people who conveniently and cleverly hid my own narcissistic tendencies behind the respectable disguise of religion. 

Maybe when I was younger, like the monks in Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery, I wasn't yet prepared to let go of my own protected ego, not yet wise enough or ready enough for the spiritual quest.

I have moved out to the desert in my later years.  The ego doesn't thrive very well out here in the wilderness.  

I think I may now be ready to begin again. 


Friday, March 28, 2014

The Thought not the Thinker

"Buddha under an Olive Tree"
-my meditation garden-

Every morning, after I publish my daily blog post, I normally receive a variety of comments about what I have said. I always look forward to reading these comments throughout the course of a day. They often provide me with rich insights from a variety of perspectives. 

Yesterday someone posted a comment that really struck me as being exceptionally wise and very important. He said: 

We too easily remember the importance of the thinker 
while forgetting the importance of their thought. 

I've been doing a good bit of reflecting on this insight and I believe it is quite true, especially when it comes to faith, religion and the spiritual journey.

When you enter a Christian church, there are statues of Jesus everywhere along with various depictions of great saints- Mary his mother, the apostles. People kneel before the statues, some light candles, and they pray for favors of various sorts, "let me pass the exam, help me get the job, cure my disease." 

When I was in South Korea a few years ago, I was surprised at how some of the prominent Buddhist shrines reminded me of being inside Christian churches. There were buddha statues everywhere in designated little shrines. People were standing in front of the statues (sometimes even kneeling). Different buddhas were designated as being patrons for various causes. One statue was a buddha for "good fortune"- people were petitioning this buddha, "Let me get that job." Anther buddha was designated as a  buddha of "fertility." Women were praying that they might bear a child or praying for protection for their children.

As I see it, neither Jesus nor Siddartha Gautama would be at all happy about what goes on in churches and temples devoted to them. 

Jesus of Nazareth never asked nor did he desire to be worshipped by his disciples.  Instead Jesus taught disciples to listen to his words and follow in his way. He gathered disciples as a master would gather apprentices, teaching them a way of life brimming with unabashed compassion. 

In subsequent generations the official church made Jesus into the Lord Jesus Christ- not someone to follow, but a God to be worshipped - mighty and powerful, able to grant favors and make everything all better. 

Siddartha Gautama taught his disciples in the same way as Jesus did. He gathered apprentices around him and pointed them on a path toward enlightenment, showing them a "way" of leading an "other-centered" life brimming with unabashed compassion.

Siddhartha taught his disciples: "You yourself must strive. The buddhas only point the way."

In subsequent generations Siddhartha Gautama was exalted becoming the supreme Lord Buddha.

As my online friend so wisely said yesterday:  "We too easily remember the importance of the thinker while forgetting the importance of their thought."

In some sense it's much easier to exalt the great religious heroes:  the exalted wise Lord Buddha, the Lord Jesus Christ -King of heaven and earth. It's much easier to praise and honor them, light candles,  place all our cares and woes at the feet of their statues and then forget the importance of what the person depicted in the statue actually taught. 

If I can light a candle then walk out the door and do whatever I please in ordinary everyday life, it "gets  me off the hook." Someone far more powerful than little old me is in charge and he will make everything all better. 

As I see it neither Jesus, who became the Lord Jesus Christ, nor Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Lord Buddha, want us to be "let off the hook."  They came among us to point the "way." Any who would call themselves disciples must walk the path.

As I sit in my garden this morning, I gaze at my Buddha statue under the olive tree. I hear him tell me: "everyone must strive, the buddhas only point the way."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Practicing Reconcilation

"Springing Up"
-in my meditation garden-

Every day I hear stories about what is happening in Crimea and Ukraine. The rhetoric always focuses upon which side is right and which side is wrong in the conflict. I listen carefully to the stories and hear  words like revenge, retaliation and retribution.  The one word that I never hear in all the countless stories about the conflict in that region is, "reconciliation." 

Come to think of it, I rarely ever hear the word "reconciliation" used anywhere - not just on the news but in any corner of my everyday life.

I think the word "reconciliation" is rarely spoken and almost never practiced because it is such a hard thing to do and so counter-cultural to the norms of the everyday world. 

Most of the time when individuals, organizations, nations or peoples have disputes with one another, the first response is to "circle the wagons" and form camps surrounded by protective walls  - both sides believing they are right and the other is wrong. Most of the time the only way to settle the dispute is to do battle so that one side wins and the other loses. 

 In the end everybody loses in one way or other- victory at the expense of another is never really a victory at all. 

In my reading yesterday I was surprised to learn that the Buddha himself (along with some of his senior monks) devised a pretty sophisticated procedure for reconciling disputes among his monks - a practice that is still applied to this very day some 2500 years later. 

In the Buddha's plan, the practice of reconciliation may involve forgiving someone who has injured you. The practice of reconciliation may also mean that you ask for forgiveness.  But reconciliation is not the same thing as forgiveness. In the Buddha's plan, reconciliation is defined as "a return to amicability," re-establishing a broken trust. 

In Buddhist thinking there really are no "others." Each and every human being is a relationship. We are all "inter being." This fundamental principle is the foundation for any practice of reconciliation. If  people in a dispute know that regardless of how great the differences between them, everyone has mutual respect for one another, then reconciliation is possible. 

In the Buddha's reconciliation practice, the injured parties sit face to face with one another. Both sides realize that they think they are right, but with a "non stubborn" attitude they honestly share their ideas and confront their feelings. When appropriate they admit faults and offer forgiveness. They work at doing this for as long as it takes (sometimes it takes a long time and it is an arduous process).  In the end, any decision for resolving a dispute is made through a process of consensus (votes are never taken) so that ultimately everyone is satisfied with the decision - it is a return to amicability.

To this very day Buddhist monks like Thich Nhat Hanh continue to teach and apply this practice of reconciliation working with all sorts of groups and individuals in all kinds of opposing camps.  

The Buddha's practice of reconciliation is referred to as "straw converting mud."  Differences, injuries and disputes are not swept under the carpet (under the straw) and ignored. Instead straw is like a healing balm placed upon the wounds of injury so that everyone can walk on the straw and not get stuck in the muck and the mud.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about The Buddha's ancient process of reconciliation.  On the surface the practice of "straw covering mud" may seem somewhat "utopian"  -  a nice idea but not very practical in the real world of everyday life. However, the more I think about it, reconciliation is not only "practical" but essential in a society like our own where everyone seems to be in some camp or other, and the only way to prove who is right and who is wrong is on a battlefield.

In the Christian calendar we are well into the season of Lent. New life is blossoming everywhere in this Springtime season. Such a perfect time for practicing reconciliation. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Sense of Belonging

"Call of the Wild"
-A Day in Spring-

I don't think I have ever spent as much time outdoors as I do now that I live out here in the desert.  The wilderness is like a magnet to me, perpetually calling me out into the wild.  

Every single day, I pray outside. I go out into the desert and walk the wilderness trails. I rest outside, and I read and study outside. Most of the time we eat outside, not only at our home, but we also eat outside at most of the restaurants we visit. Other than sleeping, I spend most of my time outside.

Such a striking contrast to just a few years ago when we lived in Los Angeles where I spent most of my time indoors- inside sitting at a desk or in rooms for meetings, inside my house, inside my car stuck in L.A. traffic, inside the church building. 

Yesterday I was struck by something I was reading in a book by the author and spiritual director.  Richard Rohr.  He was talking about our ancient human ancestors - those people who first inhabited this planet earth before the dawn of "civilization."

Before 800 B.C. the thinking on the whole planet, no matter the continent, was invariably tribal, cosmic, mythic…Simply by watching the sky, birds and trees, the seasons, darkness and light, people knew they belonged. They lived in an inherently enchanted universe where everything belonged, including themselves.

Over the course of history, as "civilizations" grew and developed, people and nations became more and more autonomous.  Instead of understanding themselves as belonging to a tribe, people began to view themselves as separate individuals with egos that needed to be guarded and protected and gratified.  The natural world became more and more distant and removed from everyday life - the natural environment became little more than a resource to be used and more often abused for human advantage. As civilization advanced, people moved indoors spending most of their time inside their houses, buildings, schools, offices -  behind closed doors, inside borders and boundaries. 

In our own age, we have arrived at what is arguably the height of "individualism," especially in Western culture. Some commentators have noted that we are in fact a culture of "rugged individualists."

Some might say that we live in an advanced and sophisticated "civilization;" I actually think we aren't necessarily all that civilized at all.

I  long for the experiences of my ancient human ancestors- those uncivilized, unsophisticated, so called "primitive" people. I long for their sense of belonging to one another, belonging to an enchanted universe, belonging to the energy of that Abiding Holy Presence flowing in it all and through it all.

I long to be that "primitive." 

Last night after dark, a cleansing wind was howling through the desert canyons. I felt like I was being pulled outside to participate in it all. So I went outdoors, laid my head on a lounge chair, looked up and gazed into the "starry, starry night."   

Listening to the sound of the cleansing wind rushing through the palm trees and echoing off the mountains, enveloped by the overwhelming brilliance of a clear night sky in the desert, I experienced an overwhelming sense of being very, very small and yet also very, very big. 

My own individual ego-self is such a tiny, minuscule part of that great, mystical, enchanted cosmos, and yet "I" belong to it all.  Imagine, I belong to the universe, I belong to that cleansing wind. I belong to those shining stars and glowing moon. I belong to everyone on the planet. I belong to the Holy "One."  

I belong to "God." 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Beginner's Mind

"New Every Morning"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

It seems so odd to me that in my later years of life I feel as if I am constantly looking at things as if I am seeing them for the first time. I walk along a desert trail, camera in hand, gazing at the cacti in spring bloom - suddenly, it's a flash of insight."  

I've seen blooming cacti many times before, but not in this way. It's brand new to me.  There are other times when I might have a conversation with my spouse of many years or times when I read a scripture passage that I have read many times in the past, and again, it's a "flash of insight" - like seeing it again for the first time. 

Yesterday I came to some type of understanding of what these "flashes of insight" may be all about.

I was reading a book of Zen essays when I came across a term that I don't ever remember seeing before:  "beginner's mind."  In the journey of life, you enter into a new state of wisdom by adopting a "beginner's mind." 

The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki, described a " beginner's mind" in this way:

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything.
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities
but in the expert's mind there are few.

Treat every moment as your last. It is not a preparation for something else.

Actually I think Jesus taught his disciples something very similar when he sat little children and infants on his lap and told his followers to become like these little ones - wide open minds and wide open hearts. Jesus told his disciples that they would never be able to understand his new way of looking at the old world if they kept looking at the world with old eyes. 

Jesus was a Zen teacher inviting his followers to cultivate a "beginners mind."

Throughout the vast majority of my early years I had anything but a "beginner's mind."  I was an "expert." My expert credentials came out of my many years of  formal education and theological training. My extensive parish experience, classroom teaching, and service as a consultant qualified me as an "expert" in church, religion, spirituality.  

But I think it's really true that in the "expert's mind the possibilities are few."  The expert says,  "I've  been there and done that," so the possibilities are few indeed. 

It wasn't until I moved out into the desert and entered into these later years of my life that I came to realize," I really don't want to be an expert any more. In fact, I'm tired of being an expert." 

Yesterday I came to understand that I had finally come to a point in my life's journey where I was aware and wise enough to begin a new process of cultivating a "beginner's mind."  

Now flashes of insight come almost every day, and I am seeing it all again for the first time. 

I get up in the morning and watch the sunrise. I sit in this same exact place every day. I've seen the sun rise  hundreds of times- coming up over the eastern mountains. I've seen it all before, and yet it is new every morning.  

Basking in the excruciating brilliance of this new day in the wilderness, I call out to the universe. I sing out to the Holy Abiding Presence flowing in and through it all:

 "I don't know anything, surprise me!" 

I pray for the grace of a "beginner's mind." 

Monday, March 24, 2014

One Day at a Time

-in my meditation garden-

There is a little statue of a praying monk in my meditation garden. The monk sits across from me when I sit in the garden during my morning meditation time. I keep him there as a source of inspiration. 

Someone once told me that my statue of the praying monk made him envious:  "Sure wish I could be like him- not a care in the world." 

That one little comment spoke volumes to me about how people often think about the spiritual life or a spiritual journey. Many think that, when you connect with your spiritual nature, you are taken to a place where you have no cares or problems, no more suffering or difficulties. But, I don't think any spiritual journey eliminates the difficulties of life, it just helps us to face them. 

One of the Buddha's "four noble truths" is : "All life is suffering." This fundamental observation of the human condition isn't pessimistic or nihilistic. It isn't some sort of depressive admission that, at the core, life is misery. Rather it is simply a pragmatic observation that suffering is part of life - to put it another way, "suffering exists."

Several years ago, when I was a college chaplain, I was teaching a course using Scott Peck's popular book, "The Road Less Traveled." This book of practical wisdom begins with one simple little sentence: "Life is difficult."  That one sentence set off a howl of protest among my students at the time. 

They argued that life shouldn't be difficult. Some said that if you work hard enough you can make life easy, maybe even comfortable.  Others said that if you only had "God" in your life, He would take care of all your problems.  

I would guess that today (some 20 years later) those students may not be quite so sure about what they were arguing back then. 

The fact is that regardless of what anyone does or thinks or believes, "life is difficult," "suffering exists." I know of no person who "doesn't have a care in the world," regardless of how spiritual or faithful or prayerful they are.

People get sick, they suffer loss of relationships or lose a job. Financial difficulties come our way- problems at work, at school, in the home or neighborhood.

 I could sit here and spend my entire morning making a list of all the difficulties and problems in my life over the years. I could spend even more time worrying about what may yet happen in the days ahead as I get older. But what good would any of that do?

Suffering exists, life is difficult for all of us, but devoting my time and my energy worrying about past problems and fretting over the problems that may come does nothing to take away the suffering, it only makes it worse.  

Jesus understood this - he taught his disciples:
Do not worry about your life.
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.
Each day has enough trouble of its own

I sit in my garden this morning and look at the face of my praying monk sitting across from me. His face isn't that of one who "doesn't have a care in the world." On his face is a look of "serenity," and  I want to be like him.

So, I get up this morning and I take it "one day at a time," - whatever comes my way, all the joy along with all the inevitable difficulties. I may be able to change some things; however, most things will just happen regardless of what I do or how hard I work or what I believe. 

I take it "one day at a time" and even though I am well aware that "suffering exists," I also know that I am never alone. After all, I am connected with everything that is. A Holy Presence flows in and through it all.  So here, this morning, "present" in the moment, I embrace what "is" with a sense of serenity. 

I look across at my praying monk. I hope I am looking into a mirror. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Knee Deep in the River

-A Desert Canyon Waterfall-

Almost every day I talk about the abundance of riches I experience living out here in this beautiful desert wilderness. It looks so empty, but it is filled with life - brilliant sunshine, majestic mountains, pristine blue skies, hummingbirds in my garden, flowers blooming on cacti, a night so clear that it seems like day, even a waterfall in a high canyon flowing out toward the desert floor.  

In my life in the desert, I try to live every day by cultivating an attitude of mindfulness, paying attention  to the revelations that constantly bubble up out of each moment in this beautiful wilderness. 

In response to my posts, I often get inquiries like the one I received yesterday form a man who said that he could understand how I might find deeper peace and spiritual refreshment living in a place like I do.  But he went on to say that he lives about as afar away from a Desert Retreat House as you can possibly get. He lives back East - in a high-rise apartment in a big city. It has been a long, cold, lonely, icy, snowy, winter, which has left him feeling pretty "dried up." 

So while spiritual refreshment may be possible in this beautiful desert wilderness, he wondered how any of my experiences could possibly apply to him and his life?

What a great question.

I answered that man by telling him that, as far as I was concerned, you didn't have to live in a desert like I do in order to be in a beautiful wilderness. We all live in that wilderness- wherever our feet are planted is a beautiful life-filled wilderness.  

It's more about paying attention to it all - learning to bask in and relish the revelations of the moment wherever we might happen to be.

I've been thinking about my conversation yesterday. My guess that my "dried up" friend  is "legion" -he is the voice of many people living everyday lives in today's world.

I think there are lots of people who feel isolated, alienated and pretty "empty" nowadays-  cooped up in offices, cubicles, or inside houses or cars all day long-  minds cluttered, hearts closed, doing almost everything they possibly can to avoid being mindful in the moment rather than embracing it.  It's a perfect formula for emptiness -  a path that inevitably leads to that dead-end feeling of being "dried up." 

Yesterday I asked my online friend a few questions: Do you ever intentionally spend devoted time to enjoy the presence of other people in your life? How about going to a church, a temple or maybe a daily period of quiet meditation every morning? You don't have to live in a desert for that, the corner of your room would work just fine for that.  

Or how about reading some books by great authors, some poetry, going to an art gallery? And when you go outdoors, do you pay attention to the beauty you can encounter? After all  the sun rises and sets even in big cities, birds sing even in city trees, the stars and moon come out at night;  and now that it is springtime, flowers are blooming up out of the snow even in the coldest and iciest places on earth.

I'm not much of a country music fan, but a few years ago I came across a song that really spoke to me: 

I guess we never learn
We go through life parched and empty
Standing knee deep in a river and dying of thirst.

What a perfect icon for so many people who may get up this morning feeling parched and empty, dried up, suffering from the effects of a long, cold, lonely winter- standing knee deep in a river, and dying of thirst.

Whether living in a desert or near an ocean, in California sunshine or in a high rise apartment in a big Eastern city, each and every one of us lives in the beautiful lush wilderness called  "life." We are all connected to one another, all the many are connected to the One. The Holy Abiding Presence is a river of life flowing in it all and through it all.

We all stand knee deep in the river, but you have to take the time to stop, stoop down, and drink deeply from it if you expect to quench your thirst.

As I sit in my garden this morning, I hear the refreshing gurgling of my fountain, and I watch the birds drinking from it. It reminds me of that river of life flowing in me and connecting me to everything and everyone.  I sit back and drink it all in.

Such an abundance of riches bubbling up into a beautiful wilderness.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Keeping It Simple

-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Every day I try to spend some time engaging the various social media, but I find that I have to restrict the time I spend, not because Facebook or Twitter or Google+ are so addictive; but rather because it really tires me out to spend too much time at the computer in these various venues.

Yesterday I just sat and watched the Twitter feed for about ten minutes or so, and I suddenly realized why all of it makes me so weary. In those ten minutes, I was bombarded (maybe even assaulted) with endless information - a constant array of "tweet" after tweet on every imaginable topic for every conceivable point of view. Tweets about politics, current events, religion and spirituality, relationship advice, personal enrichment advice, sports commentary, constant advertisements popping up selling me the pills I need to make the headache go away - all this in ten minutes of endless 140 or less character tweets. 

I've been thinking about my Twitter experience yesterday. It is an icon, a perfect illustration of  everyday life in today's contemporary culture - chaotic, frenzied, directionless- where so much information has become too much information.  

It seems to me that there are any number of ways in which people try to cope with the chaotic buzzing of everyday life. Some people anesthetize themselves to drown out the noise. Some people do not cope at all, they just wander around in the mess. Others try and seek direction. 

Some people turn to "God"or to religion to find some direction in life. For some this works, for others it leads to a dead end because religion just seems to make life even more complicated - all the many complex theologies and laws of the many brands of religious traditions seem to add yet another layer to an already complicated world of "too much information." 

Others may turn to some alternative path of "spirituality" to find direction and to get their bearings.    Some read "self-help" books. When I went to and searched for "self help" books this morning, it yielded over 200,000 results -yikes so much information, which one to choose?  

And what happens when the yoga mat is put on the shelf and the 15-minute meditation is finished - then it's back out into the world and once again immersion in all the noise and chaos  - here come the tweets?

In the midst of all my reflections on chaos and complexity yesterday, I stumbled across one of my favorite quotes from the Dalai Lama.  I am very attracted to the teaching of the Dalai Lama and to the wisdom of Buddhist monks like Thich Nhat Hanh. I think I am so attracted because their teachings are always so simple-so very simple and yet so very profound. 

In one simple sentence, the Dalai Lama summarizes the "one" piece of advice anyone ever needs to hear in order to find some direction in a confusing world of noise and chaos.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

To be honest, I think this pretty well summarizes the core teaching of every single one of the major religions. It summarizes the direction of all the many various spiritual pathways available today.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, new age spiritualities of every stripe and kind, all come down to this "one" simple profound teaching:  If you want to find direction through the chaos of life- practice compassion. It's as simple as that.  

Basically this is the only tool any of us ever need in our toolbox to help us make it through it all: Don't walk alone, align yourself with others, make their needs your needs.

If I take a few steps outside my house, I find myself standing in a vast untamed wilderness. For me that wilderness is a perfect symbol of living everyday. It just seems all too immense to even stand in the midst of it, let alone to walk through it.  But I have a compass in my hand, and it always points me in the direction of "compassion." 

So I don't  wander aimlessly around and I don't go to bed exhausted because I cannot find a way.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reclaiming the Erotic

"Intimate Beauty"
-in my meditation garden-

Yesterday I came upon the word "erotic" used in reference to "spirituality." At first it seemed odd to describe spirituality as erotic. That word "erotic" has been severely hijacked by our contemporary culture. Nowadays the word "erotic" evokes images of pornographic movies and massage parlors. Eroticism involves sex.

The fact is that, in its' original use, the word "erotic" was a term that applied much more to the spiritual life than to one's sexual life.  

"Eros" is an ancient Greek word that means "desire." It is a word that has often been used by contemplative monks, Christian mystics and spiritual seekers throughout history, to describe the quest for deeper peace. "Eros" is:

The longing to share in the life of the "other."

The "other" might be another person, it might be a place - the natural environment, or it might be "God."

At its very core, the spiritual life is erotic. A spiritual journey is a journey of desire to go out of the confines of my own isolated "self," and to be intimately connected to something or someone beyond my own individual isolation. 

As I think about it, reclaiming the "erotic" may indeed be a life-saving task for human beings living in our contemporary culture. 

As I see it, even in an age of such advanced technology when we can sit in front of a computer and with the flick of a key be connected to the entire world community, we are perhaps more isolated from one another than ever before in human history. The paradox is that our technology connects and disconnects us both at the same time. 

People sit at a computer or peck away at an iPad, browsing the web, doing business, chatting with friends, but at the same time we sit in isolation - alone at a desk, in a cubicle, within the confines of our own homes, apartments or work places, never actually seeing or touching another human being face to face. Some people rarely even go outdoors except to get into a car, and they almost never go out into the wild to bask in the beauty of the natural world.

Our isolation and alienation reinforces the myth that we are separate individuals who live within the confines of our own impermeable borders.  And so people define themselves dualistically and they think in terms of borders and boundaries: "I" am separate from "you."  There is "me" and there are "others" apart from "me." 

But the truth is that there is a deep "erotic" longing in every human heart. We long for connection with the "other." In some very real sense our longing is a realization that in truth there are no "others." The borders and boundaries are very porous and permeable. Everything and everyone is a complex web of interconnectivity- rigid borders and defined boundaries are all artificial. And so we long to experience that connection. 

We long to share in the life of the "other" because we are the "other."  

"Reclaiming the erotic" may indeed be the saving grace of our alienated and isolated culture in these times.  

Every day I sit in my garden and I practice "eros." It is such an erotic time for me. I see the sunrise and listen to the songbirds; I smell the new buds of the springtime flowers and I experience an intimate connection with all of it - and I long for more.

It reminds me of one of the most erotic poems I have ever read, written by the celebrated environmentalist, John Muir:

The sun shines not on us, but in us.
The rivers flow not past, but through us,
thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Throwaway Culture

"Simple Beauty"
-along a desert trail-

Yesterday, as I was leaving a local restaurant, I saw someone emptying out trash into a huge dumpster in back of the building, and I was immediately reminded of a story that had been haunting me all day long - a story I had read in the Los Angeles Times about a prostitute who had been murdered. 

The morning paper featured a picture of the murdered young woman. She was only 21 years old and looked more like a little girl than a woman with her curly blonde hair and freckles and big blue eyes. 

She had been pretty much on her own after her dad died when she was a young teenager back in a little town in Oklahoma. Then she made her way out west. Every day the body of this beautiful young girl was bought and sold on the streets of the big city, until one day her luck ran out and she was brutally murdered.  

Her naked body was discovered in a dumpster- thrown away like a piece of trash. 

Such a profound tragedy.

The story struck me deeply - a stunning icon of the "throwaway culture," so characteristic of  contemporary society.

We eat in "fast food"restaurants and when we are finished, we throw away all the paper and the plastic and the uneaten food - into a trash can, out into the dumpster.  When a relationship doesn't seem to be working out, the first response is often to throw it away.  Old people and poor people, homeless people and sick people often just get thrown away when they are too much of a bother.

I recently had a very troubling conversation with someone who is about to lose his job. He was depressed and despondent, not so much because he was about to be unemployed; but because he felt he had been used, saying: "For all those many years I was always told how valuable I was as an employee, but the minute they thought I had nothing more to give them, they just dumped me."  

Yesterday I walked a wilderness trail pondering the tragedy of a "throwaway culture," and I thought about how "God" is the great ecologist. 

In nature, nothing ever gets thrown away. The leaves of a tree fall to the earth and die to become  nourishment for the new life that will sprout forth again from that same tree when it blooms in the springtime. In nature nothing ever gets thrown away - "God" is the great ecologist.

In my walk yesterday I came across what looked like a dead old bush. The desert is full of shrubs like that. But when I examined it more closely, that tree wasn't dead at all.  It was filled with life and energy and in a few short weeks it will likely be covered with blossoms. What a tragedy it would be if someone came along, and thinking the old bush was dead, cut it down and threw it into a dumpster.

On this first day of Spring I think about the "throwaway culture" in which I am immersed.  This is a good day to ponder how good an ecologist I am. Today is a day to reflect on how well I take care of the natural world. Today is a good day to ponder how I care for my relationships. 

This first day of Spring is a sacred opportunity for me to celebrate my place in a universe that never throws anything away. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Change Your Minds!

"The Wilderness in Bloom"

Fred Phelps died the other day. Most people have no idea who he was, but some of us will remember Fred and his band of disciples from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas as some the most notorious hate-mongers this nation has seen in a long while. 

Phelps and his entourage would travel across the country, picket signs in hand, spewing vile, judgmental, anti-Gay rhetoric, promising that the wrath of God would be poured upon Gay people and threatening anyone who supported or welcomed Gay people that they also would forever burn in hell. 

A significant portion of the congregation of the church I was serving in Los Angeles were Gay and Lesbian. And so, several years ago Fred and his gang made their way to L.A.,  and they stood outside the church loudly protesting our "sin" of embracing Gay and Lesbian people into the congregation. 

I thought I was going to be angry at this horrible man and his angry followers but when I saw them as they marched along the sidewalk outside the church yelling about the wrath of "God" and screaming about how much God hates people who break God's law, I felt nothing but sorrow and pity for them.

 How sad, depressing and even frightening it must be to live with an image of "God" as a violent and vindictive and hateful judge who is out to get you. 

As we began our Sunday service on that day of the protest, the voices of the Westboro Baptist "church" could be heard screaming at us from outside on the sidewalk.  Over and over again they were chanting the word "repent."  

I knew that, in their minds, they were warning us to repent of our wiliness to embrace Gay people lest we incur the wrath of God. But, I thought to myself those poor folks out there have no clue whatsoever about what they are chanting - not a clue about what that word "repent" actually means in the Gospels that they supposedly follow. 

The Greek word "repent" is best translated as "Have a change of heart, change your minds completely!" Jesus would often tell people to repent. What he would actually say was "Repent and believe the good news." 

In fact, "repentance" is at the core of Jesus' teaching. He was always telling people to totally change their minds about how they understood "God," and how they viewed themselves. He told them to change their minds about how they viewed and treated other people. 

Jesus preached to folks whose image of God was that of a distant and demanding judge who rewarded law-keepers and punished law-breakers. Jesus preached to folks who lived in a culture dominated by the rich and the strong - a culture in which some people belonged and a bunch of other people were thrown away as outcasts. 

So Jesus taught people to "repent," to change their minds about God, to radically turn the culture of dominance and exclusion upside down.  His message was that "God" is an abiding presence of unbounded love and that every human being has equal value and should be treated with unbridled dignity and embraced with uncompromising hospitality.

Repent!  Yes indeed "repent!"

It seems to me that the season of Lent and Springtime is a wonderful opportunity to do some repentance-some mind changing. And you certainly don't have to be a Christian to repent. 

In fact all of nature is calling us all to repent - to change our minds.  

What had appeared to be dead and barren earth suddenly springs into new life. Tulips peak up out of the snow covered frozen-winter earth, trees and bushes in dry rocky desert soil bloom into millions of  bright yellow blossoms. 

In this season of Lent and Springtime, nature tells us to "change our minds!" There is no death, there is only life. Everything that exists is flowing with the abiding energy of love - an energy that weaves the many into the "One." 

Repent! Yes indeed "repent!" 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why Religion?

-Springtime in the Wilderness-

I have been discovering something interesting about myself over the past several months. Every once in a while I will get this "flash of insight" - often a rather new idea about something I've thought about and taken for granted all my life. Yesterday I had one of those insights.

In some form or another I have always been connected to a religious institution.  For most of my life I've been pretty much at the center of it all in my capacity as an ordained priest.

For years now, religion in America has been on a very slippery slope. Affiliation with churches and synagogues (and even mosques) has drastically declined. This is especially true among younger people in  the population ( the "Millennials") who often see themselves as "spiritual" but hold the religious institution in disdain - often viewing religion as an obstacle to authentic spirituality.

Over the past few years I have been observing how religious leaders are trying to cope with this severe  decline. 

Some hide their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge a problem even exists. However most have recognized the severity of the problem, and are involved in a wide variety of programs, campaigns  and schemes for reinventing the church or reviving the synagogue  - all aimed at making the institution more attractive and accessible especially for younger people. Contemporary music, less formal worship settings, gatherings in pubs are a few of the many efforts to reinvent a dying institution.

Now to my flash of insight about it all.

Yesterday there was an article in the New York Times describing a "revitalization" program aimed at younger folks in the Jewish community who are disaffiliated from the synagogue. At first reading, the article looked like more of the same stuff that every declining religion seems to be doing. Instead of meeting in a synagogue, the congregation gathers in a wine bar, the service is more informal, the music more contemporary, etc. etc. 

I was just about to let out a big yawn when I came across something the young rabbi of that congregation said. He described an awakening he recently had when he asked himself a core question, "Why do I even care if the synagogue survives? Why even bother with religion?  Then, he had a flash of insight" 

Judaism, like all religion, is not the bottom line.  Thinking that Judaism or any religion is the end goal misses the point. I'm practicing Judaism because I was born into it and I think it's got a deeply profound ancient and relevant toolbox for leading a meaningful life.

But, the end goal of my religion is not to be a good Jew but to learn how to be a better human being.

For me this "hit the nail on the head."  The rabbi's insight was especially meaningful for a guy like me who has been so steeped in (and maybe stuck in) the religious institution for so many years. 

I am a Christian, and for most of my life I lived under the impression that the goal of my connection with the church was to help me be a good Christian.  I was a leader in the church. I preached sermons and conducted worship and developed endless programs so that I might help other people to be "good Christians." 

But I think the focus was all wrong. I think the rabbi from the New York Times' article got it right -  the goal of any religion is not to make people more religious- the goal is to help them become more fully alive human beings. 

The end goal of any religion- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, what have you--is not to get people more committed to that particular religion. All religions are toolboxes for people - helping them to be better human beings who can go out into the world and make it a better place.

If religious institutions honestly expect to reinvent themselves for the 21st century, this must be the starting point.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Hearing Voices

"A Still Small Voice"
'just before sunrise in the desert'-

People who claim that they are "hearing voices" are often diagnosed as suffering from some type of mental illness, and that may well be the case. Yet the stories about the great prophets, saints and wisdom teachers of all the major religious traditions tell of the many times when these great men and women "heard voices," and I don't think they were all mentally ill. So what are these stories all about?

Abraham heard the voice of God calling him and because he listened to it, the three great Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) were born.  And then there is the story about Moses who heard the voice of the Holy One out in the wilderness, and yet another story abut the prophet Elijah who listened to wind in a cave and in the wind he heard the "still small voice" of God.  The prophet Muhammad also heard the voice of God while living inside a desert cave.  Jesus went  out into the wilderness and he heard voices.  Mary, his mother heard the voice of an angel and so did shepherds in a field on the night Jesus is born. Francis of Assisi heard a voice telling him to rebuild the church, and Mahatma Gandhi talked about the voices he had heard as he engaged in his mission as a servant of justice and peace.

I actually believe these great prophets and teachers did indeed hear voices - not human voices whispering or thundering actual words, but voices nonetheless.  The stories about "hearing voices" are powerful metaphors about people with uncluttered minds and open hearts who pay attention to what is being revealed to them when they are fully awake and fully present in the moment.

Every moment is a sacred moment. Every moment is charged with the energy of Holy Presence.  The stories about the great prophets, saints, and teachers of old "hearing voices" teach each and every one of us that we can also "hear voices" when we also are awake and paying attention to the the revelations of the moment.

I "hear voices" every day in my life out here in the desert.

My favorite times of the day are just after the sun goes down when it is not yet dark, and then again just before the sun comes up when it is not yet fully bright. I have been thinking about why these are my favorite times. Is it because of the array of colors in the sky silhouetted against the mountains are so exquisitely beautiful at sunset and sunrise? 

As I reflect on it, while the beauty I "see" with my eyes draws me into those moments, what I "hear" with my ears is even more of a magnet for me.

Before moving out here, I was surrounded by palm trees. The street where we used to live was lined with pam trees, our backyard had palm trees in it.  However, I never paid any attention to those trees and to the sound the wind makes when it blows through them. 

 Since I've been out here in the desert, I do nothing but pay attention to that sound.  

In the desert, the wind always picks up just as the sun goes down, and it picks up again just as the sun is about to rise in the morning.  Sometimes the wind is little more than a gentle breeze, sometimes a roaring gale. 

The sound of the wind blowing through the palm trees around my house is a sacred sound, so hauntingly mystical that I simply cannot put into words.  The sound is indeed the voice of "God."  

Every evening as the sun goes down and in the morning when the sun is about to rise, I go outside and pay attention. I listen to that sound.  I hear voices. It is my favorite time of day. 

The wind in the palm trees blows gently this morning - a still small voice. The voice of Holy Presence is singing a song of life to me, assuring me that I am not alone and that everything that exists is "One."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Burden of Law


Yesterday I listened to a TED talk on our local NPR station. It was a program about how laws and regulations have become convoluted and out of control in today's overly litigious American society. 
We have more laws today than at any time in our history. Today, the United States has more people incarcerated than any other country in the world. 

The speaker told the story of a recent incident where a man suffered a heart attack in front of a local fire station. Instead of rising to his aid, the firefighters and emergency medical technicians stood at the firehouse door and watched the man as he was writhing in pain on the sidewalk. The law prohibited them from assisting that man until "911" was first contacted. 

So, someone called "911" and an ambulance was dispatched; but the ambulance went to the wrong address, and in the end, the man died -  all along there was a building full of rescuers who could have saved his life, but were unable to do so because they were restricted under the burden of the law. 

In the program yesterday, the speaker said something that really struck me: "Laws are supposed to help us take good care of one another in a society. They aren't supposed to be a wedge that keeps us apart or a burden that weighs us down." 

It's Sunday morning. Many people from all over the world are attending some type of church today. And because it is the season of Lent, many people will also be hearing about "laws" on this day -  supposedly the Lenten season is a time for those who break the laws of God to repent and confess.

On the flip side, a whole bunch of other people will not be going to church today. They have given up on religion (or never turned to it in the first pace) because religion is perceived as an impediment on a spiritual journey. They have rejected the religious institution with the burden of all its many laws, imposed upon believers - laws that must be followed in order to gain favor and avoid punishment.

This morning I am thinking about laws and recalling the story in the Hebrew scriptures about how the Jewish people first became a nation. With Moses in the lead, they wandered though the desert on the way to the Promised Land. 

The people in the desert were presented with 2 laws for their journey.  First of all they were told to trust in the all abiding Holy Presence to lead them on the way. Second, they were told to take good care of one another and help each other along on the journey. That's it- just these two laws as guidelines for the way through the wilderness. 

As I think about the Hebrews on the journey to the Promised Land, I am again reminded of what that TED speaker said yesterday about the purpose of any laws in any society, how laws are supposed to help us take good care of one another. They aren't supposed to be a burden or a wedge to keep us apart. 

In the case of ancient Israel, their 2 laws eventually expanded into 10 laws, that ultimately were expanded into 613 laws regulating every aspect of how people were expected to think and behave, even how they were to eat and how they were to dress. The law that was supposed to set people free to help each other along the away turned into heavy burdens that weighed people down and kept people apart.

Interestingly enough, when Jesus came along he basically said, "Let's get back to the basics - back to those laws to follow on this journey through life: "Trust in the Higher Power to guide you on the way and don't just worry about yourself, be compassionate and help each other out along the way."  

Somehow his followers in subsequent generations have often ignored his teaching and churches have become institutions for making laws and enforcing laws that put burdens on people weighing them down and keeping them apart. 

The spiritual journey is a way of liberation - it provides us a pathway for entering into relationships, connecting with "God," and bonding with our fellow human beings. Moses knew that, Jesus knew that, so did the Buddha and so did most of the other great wisdom teachers of all the major religious traditions.   

It's the people that have come along in the generations after them that seem to have gotten it all wrong. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Practicing Wisdom

"Blossoms in the Desert"

The word "spirituality" has become very popular. In fact every day I come across articles about "spirituality" - on websites and in blogs, in books I read, or in newspapers. There is a great deal of interest in "spirituality" nowadays.  

I have also noted that almost every single time I read something about "spirituality," I also come across another word: "wisdom." Somehow a spiritual path should lead a person to greater wisdom. A spiritual person is a wise person. Spiritual teachers are wisdom teachers. 

While I fully agree that spirituality and wisdom go hand in hand, I have often wondered what that word "wisdom" really means.

At some intuitive level, I think I am able to recognize wisdom when I see it. For one thing, I know what "wisdom" is not. "Wisdom" is not the same thing as "intelligence." I know some really, really smart people who I would never think of as being "wise." I also disagree with the belief that "wisdom comes with age." I know plenty of older people who are rather mean-spirited and crotchety - a far cry from "wise."   

But when it comes to  articulating what "wisdom" actually is, I start to falter a bit. That's why an article I came across yesterday in the New York Times was so helpful and insightful to me.

Apparently the concept of "wisdom" has now become a rather hot topic in scientific research.  The article I read yesterday talked about some of that research and summarized what scientists and social scientists are saying about the characteristics of "wise" people." Some of these qualities of wisdom include: 

Wise people demonstrate a willingness to embrace failure along with success.  No human being is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. In fact sometimes failure in life is often a great teacher. 

Wise people are empathic. The gaze of their life is not focused only on "self" and personal gratification. Wise people try to see the world from the vantage point of others and are concerned about the needs of others.

Wise people are comfortable with ambiguity. They aren't rigid in how they think or behave. They don't see the world in "black and white." Instead of thinking in terms of "either-or," they think in terms of "both-and." 

Wise people live simply. They don't necessarily shun comfort, but they don't want nor do they desire  excess.

Wise people are compassionate. They show others authentic kindness. They promote the welfare of others without expecting anything in return. 

I have been reading and re-reading these few simple yet quite  profound "characteristics of wisdom." They have been so very helpful to me in articulating that which I previously could only grasp intuitively. 

But more than helping me to get a better grasp on what "wisdom" is and what it means to be "wise."  I am now able to see that I can actually work at developing "wisdom. "  I can "practice wisdom" in my life as a spiritual discipline just like I "practice meditation " every day.   

Just because I'm older doesn't guarantee that I am wiser.  In this season of Lent, in this springtime season for celebrating new life,  I want some new life to spring up in me. This is a great time to  "practice wisdom."