Friday, October 31, 2014

Breathing into the Dark

"Hello Darkness, My Old Friend"
- Halloween at the Desert Retreat House -

It was about 4 o'clock yesterday morning when I suddenly woke up from a sound sleep - something was wrong, it was all very disorienting.  I then realized that somehow our electric power was off.  I hadn't before realized just how much light there was in our house during the night hours - lights from alarm clocks, a kitchen light, a bathroom and a hall night light. But now there was nothing, only pitch-black darkness along with the wailing sounds of coyotes howling in the mountains. To be honest it was actually kind of scary, even our "brave" dogs were snuggled up next to us in the bed. 

I decided to go outside to see what was happening and I discovered that the whole neighborhood had been affected by the blackout, it was total darkness everywhere, until I looked up into the desert skies.

The skies at night here are always amazing, but without any ambient ground light, I was able to see those night time skies as I never did before- a breathtaking, brilliant array of cosmic delight, so powerful that I could barely take it all in, and there wasn't even a hint of fear in the night. 

I remembered something I had read in Barbara Brown Taylor's book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She recalled her childhood memories of being so fearful of the night:

No one had ever taught me to talk back to the dark or even to breathe into it.
The idea that it might be friendly was absurd.

Yesterday, as I stood outside my house when the night was as dark as dark can get, gazing up into that "starry, starry night," I was indeed breathing into the dark, making friends with the night.

Today people everywhere are celebrating Halloween. When I was growing up I don't remember it being as big a holiday as it is today. But Halloween now seems to be somewhat equal to Christmas and Thanksgiving. Stores are all decorated for Halloween, parties, parades, adults as well as children all dressed as ghosts and goblins, zombies and vampires. 

Actually the origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celts who believed that this time of year was a "thin place"-  a time when the veil between the living and the dead was lifted for a night, when the spirits of the dead would haunt the earth. So the people would dress up like ghosts - they would dress up like the spirits of whom they were most afraid.  

I actually think Halloween is a great time for facing our own demons and making friends with the night. 

There is darkness and there is light in every single one of us. We walk through life with our better angels and we are also accompanied by the demons that come to us at night - our greatest fears, our weaknesses, our deepest doubts, angers and lusts, our times of despair, our sadness and our secret sins. 

And yet, we often hide from these demons or just pretend they aren't there - even though they are always walking alongside each of us in life's journey.  

So Halloween is a good time to "dress up like the demons," to acknowledge their presence and tell them that we aren't afraid of them. And when we do that, the demons are transformed. They cease to be wild beasts that scare us in the night. They can even become our friends. 

I think I'll turn off all the lights tonight and look up into the desert skies: 

Hello darkness, my old friend!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

May I Meet This Moment Fully

"Peace and Quiet"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

A few days ago we had to drive up to Los Angeles for some meetings - the experience provided me with some unexpected opportunities for spiritual insight. 

Life out here in the desert is about as far from life in a city like Los Angeles as you can possibly get. The city pace is loud, fast and furious, always "on the go." The desert is filled with an abundant silence, and the pace of life here is slow and calm.  And if you really want to get a feel of the pulse of living in this city, you need to drive on the many super highways for which Los Angeles is famous - eight lanes of traffic moving along at breakneck speed is enough to stress out even the most seasoned driver.

Of course "rush hour" is that one time of day everyone tries to avoid if it is at all possible.  When I lived in Los Angeles I was generally able to avoid the highways for the morning commute and the evening return, and I was grateful to be able to do so.

That's why, on our latest venture back to the city the other day, my wife and I had rather carefully planned the trip to avoid the dreaded "rush hour" traffic. All was working out just as we had planned until we began our return journey home. The entrance to the freeway we needed to take was blocked by a police car and a part of that freeway had been closed for an accident - this one seemingly unimportant incident literally turned all our plans into uncontrolled chaos.

Anyone who has ever driven on the freeways of Los Angeles will know that when a particular freeway entrance is blocked, it becomes extremely complicated to find another way on - even our GPS system wasn't much help. We found ourselves just wandering around in fairly unfamiliar territory until finally we were able to figure it out, but by the time we got back onto the freeway, guess what? We were in the middle of the notorious "rush hour."

There were six, sometimes eight lanes of bumper to bumper traffic which at times resembled an immense parking lot, horns honking, frustrated drivers weaving from lane to lane, various and sundry disabled cars pulled over, small accidents here and there. On top of everything else, the sun was setting and it was getting dark, making the driving even more treacherous. Then, if that wasn't enough, my car's air conditioner didn't seem to be working and it was hot and muggy outside. 

I just wanted it all to stop, to make it all go away. I kept thinking about the peace and quiet I had left behind in my desert home, longing for this trip from hell to come to an end.  I could literally feel my stress level going up and up, when I suddenly came to my senses and said to myself "you should read your own blog  - especially the posts about accepting the "present moment." 

Eckhart Tolle wisely writes:

What you resist, persists

As I was driving in that "rush hour" traffic I was doing everything I could do to foolishly resist and fight against something over which I had absolutely no control. There was nothing I could do to stop the dreaded "rush hour" from rushing right along. The air conditioner was broken and maybe I could get it fixed at some point, but at that moment it was broken. Furthermore, thinking about what I had left behind or about where I might be the next day provided even more resistance to what was actually going on in the present moment.

I then remembered something I had just read in a book of Buddhist essays. The author was talking about a time when she missed a flight and was extremely stressed out by her travels at a busy airport. In the midst of all the chaos she kept invoking a helpful little mantra especially as she ran into one frustrating delay after another:

May I meet this moment fully.
May I meet it as a friend.

The other day as we struggled our way through "rush hour," I began to silently recite this little mantra. I stopped resisting it and began accepting what was there, even greeting the moment as a friend. After a while peace and calm retuned again - maybe not on the road, but certainly in my mind. When we finally made it back home, I smiled as my wife turned to me and said: "You seemed pretty calm through all that." 

Many times the journeys we plan in life don't quite work out the way we might have hoped. Sometimes the traveling is easy, sometimes you get stuck in traffic, and that's just the way it is. I am learning more and more to embrace whatever comes my way:

May I meet this moment fully.
May I meet it as a friend. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Gift of Authority

"Bringing out the Best"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day as she was lamenting about hating her work because the boss is such a "brute and a bully." The conversation got me to thinking that, whether or not they mean to be, there are probably lots of bosses who bully those who are under their authority. I think that part of the problem is that people rarely reflect upon what having authority over others really means. 

Interestingly enough,  the word "authority" and the word "author"comes from the same root. Just as an author breathes new life into words, so do those in authority breathe new life into those entrusted to their care. 

I am hardly a chef but I do like to cook, and I especially enjoy cooking with various and sundry types of fresh herbs. While it may appear that when added to food, an herb "imposes" a particular flavor, the opposite is actually true. Any chef will tell you that an herb used properly actually "brings out the best" of the favors that are already in the food. 

When you put cinnamon on a baked apple, the sweet taste of the juicy fruit baking in an oven is wonderfully enhanced.  When you add a bit of tarragon to a chicken breast you actually get to experience what the chicken tastes like at its best, and if you add a sprig of dill to a salmon fillet, it comes to life. 

I think that someone who exercises genuine authority is like the cook who adds herbs to food, bringing out the best of what is already there. 

The "boss" who uses authority by imposing his or her will on others, forcing them into submission, is nothing more than a narcissist in boss's clothing - a brute and a bully. The "boss" who recognizes the gifts of those in his or her charge, urging them and empowering them to use their talents in the best way possible is a real "boss." (By the way, a real boss is almost always more effective) 

I like to think of "authority" as a gift, even a spiritual gift, given to someone to be used to build others up, and so I don't think anyone ever has authority "over" others. I think the gift of authority is given to us to be used "for" others - a precious gift to be used "on behalf of" the welfare of another.

In the Christian Gospels, Jesus often refers to his authority. In fact, in one place he boldly claims 

All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. 

There are also other places in the gospels where people recognize Jesus' authority, but they always see it as a different kind of authority than they are accustomed to seeing.  The people are used to their priests, scribes and doctors of the law lording it over them, dominating them, imposing their wills over them like brutes and bullies. 

But Jesus never comes across as a bully in anything he ever says or does.  He uses his considerable "authority" on behalf of others. He uses "all the authority of heaven and earth" to "bring out the best" in others, showing all who come his way how loved and lovable they already are. 

As I see it, whether you are a Christian, a religious person, an agnostic or an atheist  you can look to the example of Jesus as a perfect icon of what the genuine use of authority looks like. Jesus is an author and not an autocrat. 

I feel bad that my friend's boss is such a "brute and a bully" - maybe a class on cooking with herbs might help.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Radiant Tapestry

"Woven Together"
- along a wilderness trail -

The purpose of engaging in any form of "spiritual discipline" is to connect to greater truth and deeper wisdom. A spiritual discipline pulls us out of our limited ego-self into an awareness of transcendence.  
Of course, there are many spiritual practices like prayer and meditation that can help us do this. Yesterday, while reading some articles in the Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun, I came across a new spiritual practice for me, one that I had never really thought about before: the "Practice of Identity Action:"

Recognize that when you do anything, you are not, and cannot, do it alone, solely by your own power. Every action you ever take involves others and a world of support. You engage in the "Practice of Identity Action" when you become intentionally aware of this in whatever you do. 

Every morning, when I get out of bed I always start my day by drinking a cup of coffee. I normally do this mindlessly - I drink from the same mug, sitting in the same chair in the same place in my house. It is a morning routine to help me wake up. So this morning in light of my reading yesterday, I tried to be more intentional and aware of my routine morning coffee by practicing "Identity Action." 

I was actually quite amazed at what this simple act of mindful awareness elicited in me. I did indeed wake up to the fact that drinking a cup of morning coffee is not something I do alone. In fact I cannot drink it alone even though I'm the only one sitting on the chair with a cup in hand.

My awareness first went to the mug I was holding. I bought this from a local artist at a street festival, so suddenly he was sitting there with me this morning as were all those other people who produced the glazes he used on his pottery along with the people who made the kiln that fired up the clay. 

I then became aware of the coffee itself- all those hundreds of farmers who grew the beans and produced the coffee, airplane pilots and truck drivers who carried the coffee to the stores, those who sold me the coffee at the supermarket. I also became aware of the fact that there is no coffee without water, and so then I thought of the thousands of people involved in making clean water available especially out here in the desert. Now the web was getting very complex - lots and lots of people were sitting with me in my room helping me drink that simple cup of coffee.

Then my awareness focused on my own body sitting their on my favorite chair in my house. I became aware of the fact that my body is kept alive by the food I eat every day and of course there would be no food without the thousands, maybe millions of people who make that food available; and of course there are those who made the chair on which I sat and those who built the house in which we live. The more I thought about it, the larger and more complex did the web of interconnectedness expand  - all there with me, all of us sitting there together in that one simple act of drinking a cup of morning coffee.

It all reminded me of a little note card I keep in a drawer of my office desk that reads:

Pull any thread and you'll find that it's attached to the rest of the world

My morning coffee did more than wake my body up today; it also helped to wake up my mind and my spirit - that's what spiritual practices are supposed to do.

The contemporary theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, has so wisely observed:

Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars
and genes from the sea creatures,
and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin
in the radiant tapestry of being.

It's funny how drinking a cup of coffee can make you aware of this profound truth.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Live Your Life

"Sunday Morning"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

When Sunday rolls around I often think about people who are going to church on this day.  It seems to me that when it comes to religion and spirituality, people tend to get very, very serious. As a parish priest I would always find it somewhat entertaining to watch faces whenever I would stand in front of a congregation and say the words, "Let us pray"- immediately heads would bow, eyes would shut tight and faces would take on a very pensive, somber and sometimes even a foreboding look- after all this "God" stuff is pretty serious business. 

When it comes to religion and spiritual practice many people feel as if they have to get it right - the right doctrine, the proper prayers, carefully obeying all the rules, wearing the right vestments, using the proper meditation techniques, chanting the mantra in the correct way - it makes me tired just thinking about it.

It am reminded of one of my favorite stories in the Christian gospels. 

Jesus takes his disciples on a little hike and as they are walking along, the disciples are trying to get him to tell them what they have to do in order to be good disciples - they want to make sure they get it right. But, Jesus' response was probably a big surprise to them because he told them that they shouldn't worry so much about getting it right - he told them not to take themselves so seriously. As they walked along he asked them to observe the beautiful flowers growing in a meadow. He stopped and they all listened to the sounds of birds in the air and felt the gentle breezes blowing on their faces. He told them not to worry so much, not to be so anxious. He told them to trust the moment, to savor everything the moment has to offer.  By doing this they would indeed be his faithful disciples. It's a great story. 

The other day I came across a link sent to me by a friend of an interview from the NPR program, "Fresh Air." Radio host, Terri Gross, was speaking with the celebrated children's author and avowed atheist, Maurice Sendak. Since he is now getting up in years, Ms. Gross inquired about his life-experiences over his many years.  As he sat under an arbor of beautiful old maple trees in his back yard, he tearfully cried,  "I am in love with the world. so very grateful for my life, so abundantly thankful for everything and everyone that has ever come my way - the good as well as the bad. I am truly a happy old man." 

Mr. Sendak ended this very touching interview by sharing a piece of profound wisdom with his radio host as he quietly recited a little mantra: 

Live your life! Live your life! Live your life!

As I listened to this interview I found tears streaming down my face as I realized that this gentle man, an avowed atheist, had just offered me a powerful spiritual insight--saying almost exactly the same thing Jesus once told his disciples while walking in a field of flowers, listening to the birds of the air.  

Yesterday I sat with my wife having a quiet lunch at a local restaurant on a beautiful autumn day in the desert. I was savoring the food, relishing our conversation, fully embracing the gift of that moment together, and I kept hearing those words of that "atheist" who had offered such tender spiritual guidance:

Live your life! Live your life! Live your life!

When I come to the end of my days I want to be able to say, "I am a happy old man." 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Slowly Poisoned

"Red Sky in the Morning"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday at a High School in Washington State, a popular 14-year old boy carried a rifle into the school cafeteria and fired a bullet into the head of a classmate, instantly killing him. He then went on to shoot and seriously injure 4 other fellow students and finished his rampage by killing himself.

When I first heard this horrific story yesterday, I was stunned. I immediately turned on my radio and went to the TV to find more information - surely this was "Breaking News," all the media would be covering it.  But I had a hard time finding a report of this incident and when I finally did, I was even more stunned to see the rather  nonchalant manner in which the story was being reported - after all, this was just one more "school shooting" that we have become so accustomed to hearing about.

On the evening news last night there were the "typical" pictures of weeping students running from the school corridors, candlelight vigils with everyone holding hands and singing  "amazing grace"- just like all the other school shootings. A reporter astonishingly seemed to be giving thanks over the fact that this time only 2 children died and only 4 were seriously injured by gunshot wounds in the head.

As I listened to the news, there was no sense of moral outrage, no parents crying out for gun control legislation - just a sense of "acceptance" at it all - this is the way it is nowadays in America, and there is nothing we can do about it, so get used to it.

 Yesterday's news report left me in tears.  Have we become so desensitized, have our hearts become so hardened that we can hear about a 14-year old boy who brings a rifle to school and murders his classmates and just shrug our shoulders over it?

Buddhists talk about "three poisons" that cause our suffering and kill our spirits: "Greed, hatred and ignorance." All these poisons come from the narcissistic desires of a self-centered ego, a desire to be bigger and better than anyone else, a need to "cut off and cut up" anyone who stands in the way of "my" self-gratification. 

When I think about the almost-nonchalant acceptance of that absolutely horrific story played out yesterday in that school cafeteria,  I wonder if in fact it is possible for an entire culture to be slowly poisoned by greed, hatred, and ignorance of the truth that we all belong together and we all are responsible for one another's welfare? 

Of course, the thing about being slowly poisoned is that it all happens quite gradually.  Poison is injected into the system little by little and accumulates over time -  you aren't even aware that it's happening until it is too late.

It makes me think about the scientific principle known as the "boiling frog syndrome." It sounds kind of gross, but the fact is that you can put a frog into a pot of cold water - out of which the frog can jump at any time, then you can increase the temperature very slowly, degree by degree, until the water gradually boils. Failing to sense the growing danger, the frog gets used to the gradually increasing heat, and instead of jumping from the pot, ultimately boils to death. 

As I see it, the temperature is getting dangerously hot - time to jump out of the pot.

In this generation, we will have to repent 
not merely for the vitriolic words and actions
of the bad people,
but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Somehow this madness must cease.
We must stop it now!
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Embracing Simplicity

"A Single Blossom"

The other day I heard a very interesting report about the growing phenomenon of young Americans and Canadians who have converted to Islam and are now attempting to go to the Middle East and join radical militant organizations like ISIS. The report suggested that most of these so-called "Muslim converts" are actually not all that interested in Islam; rather, they convert and want to join up with fanatics like ISIS because their own even lives are so dull and unappealing.  They want more excitement in life. They are kids who have ben labelled "losers," and so they want more recognition and respect even if they are recognized and singled out because they have become vicious terrorists.

This story made me think about how the only people who seem to be recognized nowadays are either the heroes or the terrorists. We turn on the news and we hear all about the hero-policeman, the hero- firefighter, the hero-doctor putting his life on the line by treating Ebola patents in West Africa.  The others who are featured on the evening news are people like the young man in Canada who shot a soldier and then terrorized the Canadian parliament. Interestingly enough, people who knew this shooter said that he was always kind of a "nerdy" kid - a nerdy kid who had just converted to Islam and was on his way to Syria to join up with a militant group there.

Most people are not going to become terrorists today because they feel as if their life is stagnant and has reached a dead-end; however, in an age of "hero worship," I think there are probably lots of people who feel their life is far too ordinary. They feel "stuck in a rut,"sick of the daily routine, bored with what they are doing - certainly not the kind of people who will ever "show up" on an evening news report..

Several years ago, we attended our eldest son's college graduation ceremony, and I heard what was undoubtedly the finest commencement address I have ever heard in my life. The now-deceased chaplain of Harvard University, Dr. Peter Gomes, was the speaker that day as we all sat in an open-air stadium huddling under umbrellas as a light rain fell. 

In his speech, Dr. Gomes observed that colleges and universities from all across America  were gathering for similar graduation ceremonies on that day. He went on to surmise that in all likelihood the graduating classes were being told about their future greatness, how possibly a future doctor who will find a cure for cancer or maybe a future President of the United States might be sitting there among the graduates. Speakers everywhere were probably telling graduating seniors that the world out there is waiting with great anticipation for what you will bring to it. 

Gomes then went on, "What I want to say to you today is  'get real.' The truth is no one is out there waiting for you with bated breath, and I very much doubt any of you will find the cure for cancer or become president some day. You will all go on to lead pretty ordinary lives, to love and raise a family, put your kids through school, get up and go to work. Sometimes the sun will shine on you, at other times the rain will fall just like it is falling on us here today."

Dr. Gomes concluded by saying, "So go out from here and lead wonderfully ordinary lives, doing whatever you can to leave this world a little better than you found it." 

The stadium erupted in a prolonged standing ovation. 

The ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu offered this sage piece of advice for finding true happiness in everyday ordinary living.

Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, 
reduce selfishness, have few desires.

You don't have to be featured on a news report to live a full, fruitful and productive life. The true hero is the unsung hero - all of us ordinary people doing our best each day, hoping that what we do might just leave this world a little better place than we found it. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Fringes and the Core

"Off the Grid"
- our front yard -

The other day a friend of ours came to visit us. When he pulled up to our house and looked out onto the desert across the street, he said, "Wow, you guys are really off the grid here, aren't you?"  The fact that our house is set right up against the desert and the mountains does indeed make it seem like we do indeed live at the fringes of society, and for me, that's a pretty good place to be.

Paradoxically, many times in life the core is not at the center - you have to "go out to the fringes to find the core." New thoughts, new inventions, great scientific and medical discoveries came about as a result of a pioneering spirit, a willingness to move from the center of established thinking and to venture out into explorations at the edge. 

As I see it, this is especially true when it comes to religion, faith and spirituality. Often times core spiritual wisdom and truth is found, not at the center, but at the fringes. In fact when I look at all the great heroes of many different religious traditions, I always find them out at the edges of the establishment.

The Buddha was a wealthy prince who rejected his royal life and moved out to the edges of the culture, and here he found enlightenment. The great, fiery prophets of ancient Israel stood at the fringes of the established court, advocating for the outcast and the needy, reminding the kings who sat at the center that love of God and love of neighbor were at the core of what it meant to be a faithful Jew.  

In like manner, Jesus also preached at the fringes of the established culture of the empire and at the edges of the institutional temple religion of his day. He spent most of his time on the road, not inside a synagogue or a palace. He walked among the poor and ate with sinners, announcing the core truth that there are no outcasts in the Kingdom of God.

Saint Francis of Assisi, so highly revered by many different religious traditions, was also a "fringe person." He also rejected his wealthy established life and moved to the edges of the church and the culture, and there he found his core as he followed the "way" of Jesus.  The ancient Desert Monastics did exactly the same thing. When the established church was becoming too powerful and "too established," they moved out to the fringes and lived in simple desert caves away form cities and churches. They moved to the fringes in order to live a life at the core of Jesus' teaching -  a life of radical compassion and mutual respect.

Paradoxically, the core is often found at the fringes and not in the center. 

As I reflect upon my own life, I realize that for much of it I sat directly at the center of the established institution of the church, and in many ways it was simpler, easier and more comfortable to be there with all the reliable doctrine, the established rules and roles that fit me like a well-worn coat. But I have also come to believe that sitting comfortably at the center can also be a pretty stagnant place to be (at least it was for me) - sitting inside the walls of the church made it pretty hard for me to see the world beyond. I  had to move out to the fringes to get that view.

Zen teachers tell their students that wisdom comes when you can finally arrive at the point where you have developed a "beginner's mind." The wise person is one who has learned how to move away from the "tried and true," out into the uncharted realms of new truth and new possibilities. One Zen teacher puts it this way:

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert's mind there are few.

We live out here in the desert now, almost "off the grid," right at the fringes. The desert is not a great place to be an expert but it is a wonderful place to develop a "beginner's mind."

Sometimes you have to go to the fringes on order to find the core. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Grasping a Hot Coal

"Olive Branches"
- in my meditation garden -

The other day I listened to an NPR interview with a woman whose policeman husband was recently murdered by a disturbed young man during a bust. She talked about her uncontrolled rage over this senseless murder of her beloved spouse and how her friends comforted her with the assurance that this young thug would "rot in prison" for the rest of his life. The woman then went on to say that the image of this man suffering in jail offered her little comfort. In fact the more she thought about this guy "rotting in jail," the more anguish and rage she experienced. 

The one day a Buddhist friend took this bereaved widow aside and asked her a simple question, "Who is suffering more from your rage and anger, you or that guy in prison? You think about him constantly,  you are obsessed with resentment, do you think he even knows that you exist?"

The Buddha taught:

Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal 
with the intent of throwing it at someone;
you are the one who gets burned.

I have been thinking about that widow whose husband was so senselessly "gunned down." Of course she was in deep pain over her loss, but that question asked by her Buddhist friend was filled with wisdom. Who indeed suffered most from this widow's resentment, rage and anger - the woman or the killer in the jail? 

The grieving wife reported that she finally released her anger and when she did so, a heavy burden was lifted from her life.  

There is another Buddhist saying:

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemy.

In my reading yesterday I came across this wonderful story from some ancient Buddhist texts about a man who, for some reason or other, was very angry with the Buddha. One day he approached Buddha, screaming out in rage, rudely and harshly reviling him. 

Throughout the time that this angry man was waging his attack, Buddha simply sat quietly and listened, and then he asked a question of the man, "Have you ever offered food or drink to someone who came to your house?" The angry man replied, "Of course I have." The Buddha continued to ask, "If that person refused to accept your offer, to whom would that food and drink belong?" Now more angry than ever the man spit out, "Well it would obviously belong to me."  

Buddha then smiled and said, "Friend it is just so here and now. You come here and revile me but I do not revile in return. You harshly scold me but I do not scold in return. You abuse me but I do not abuse in return. So I do not accept from you what you offer to me and hence it belongs to you." 

I love this little story. Anger and resentment are like offerings or invitations placed before the threshold of our lives.  If we acknowledge that the anger and resentment has been placed there, but refuse to accept it, then it doesn't belong to us and we are set free.

Conquer anger by non-anger, conquer evil by good.
Never indeed is hatred stilled by hatred; it will only be stilled by non-hatred. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

From Tolerance to Respect

"Side by Side"
- Dawn at the Desert Retreat House -

Standing in the checkout counter at the local supermarket yesterday, I overheard two women before me in the line. They were lamenting the fact that the world nowadays seems to be getting more and more violent and they both agreed that, "What we need is more tolerance." When I heard that, I almost got into a conversation with them but decided a supermarket line probably wasn't the best place to engage in any prolonged dialogue about "tolerance." 

What I wanted to say was that "we don't need more tolerance, we need more respect." and there is a big difference between the two. 

It seems to me that when people see others as different, they often think of themselves as better - a truer religion, a better country, a better culture, a more civilized society.  Different and inferior others are then often demonized, or perhaps you might try to convert them to the right and truer way, and the third option is "tolerance." 

The word "tolerance" essentially means, "to put up with. So when we tolerate those who are different, we "put up with them" - which often means we ignore them, perhaps even avoid them in order to escape inevitable conflict.  "Tolerating" different others is sometimes a "politically correct"  smokescreen making it appear as if we are in relationship when in point of fact, we really aren't.

We lived in Los Angeles for almost ten years before moving out here to the desert. L.A. calls itself the most diverse place on the planet, and so it is.  People from almost every nation, every culture, every race and religion in the world live in that city. But for the most part, each of these different groups live in very specific neighborhoods composed of people who think, look, and believe alike - Koreatown, Thai Town, Little Armenia, Little Guatemala, the Jewish section, the Latino or African American neighborhoods, the gated all-white communities of Beverly Hills.

For the most part people don't openly fight with others n the different neighborhoods, they just basically ignore one another, and coexist within their own camps. They tolerate one another.

This all looks quite pleasant on the surface, all those many widely diverse groups living together and caring for one another in a vast city- but all that "tolerance" is also somewhat of a smokescreen making it appear that relationships exists,  which is often not the case.  

I personally do not value or prize "tolerance" as a virtue, and I certainly don't think we need more tolerance, I think we need more respect. 

I respect others when I recognize that my religion, my country, my culture, my race, my way of life is not better or truer or more exceptional  than those who are different from me---those who are different from me are simply "different." And the more I am able to "respect" the differences, the more I learn that we really aren't all that different after all. 

I have learned so much and my life has been so graced by those different others who I have not tolerated but respected. My own Christian faith has been powerfully enlightened by the wisdom of the Buddha, the poetry of the Islamic Sufi mystics, the deeply spiritual insights of Native American religions. I have even come to a clearer picture of what "God" is all about through "respectful" dialogue with atheists and agnostics.  My life has been wonderfully changed by trips to Asia, dialogue with African immigrants who were part of our church, living in a neighborhood so rich in Latino culture. 

None of this would have been possible if I had just tolerated those who are different from me.

 We don't need more tolerance, we need more respect. 



Monday, October 20, 2014

A Seven Generation Decision

"Rocks of Ages"

Now that the cooler weather has arrived, I find myself spending a lot more time outdoors walking on the many wilderness trails near our desert home. The other day as my wife and I walked in the wilderness, amazed once again at the beauty and splendor of the desert on a refreshing morning in autumn, we came across a sight that literally "stopped me in my tracks." 

In the middle of the trail lay a rumpled trash bag along with a discarded empty wine bottle - for some reason this sight had a deep visceral effect on me. It felt like such a sacrilege, such a violation of sacred space. I also felt that somehow I had been personally violated and stained by this disgrace. 

It all made me realize just how sacred and holy is this world of nature in which we live and just how very interconnected we human beings are with it. What happens to the earth does indeed happen to all of us human beings. Indeed, If the earth is trashed, polluted and dies, we are all polluted and we all "quite literally" die.

As I gazed at that trash bag and empty bottle I imagined someone who had eaten their lunch along the trail and then, once they had been satisfied treated the earth as a garbage can with not even a thought about how their carelessness might affect others who might come along on the trail after them.  It was such a powerful icon of the way so many people live today - immediate self-gratification with little concern for the welfare of others.

I especially thought about how that scene of the trash bag and discarded bottle is "played out" over and over again every day. The sacred earth is treated like a garbage can, oceans poisoned, air polluted,  forests laid waste. All done for the purpose of self-satisfaction, in the name of making a profit, and who cares about the generations that may come after.

I have been reading a beautiful new book by Buddhist author and teacher, Susan Murphy. In her book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis, Ms. Murphy takes a lesson from the Hopi tribe of North American Indians who believed that the "Great Spirit" flows in and through everything that lives and moves and has being. So they treated the earth as sacred and offered it the same respect as they offered to one another. Murphy writes: 

The North American Hopi way of approaching any big communal decision about how to treat Mother Earth is one that will seem strange, and strangely beautiful, to ears like ours so attuned to the urgent din of 'growth at all costs.' They would gather together and ask the question, 'What will this mean for the next seven generations?'

To fully ponder this question, the Hopi would close their eyes and reach deep inside to visualize the faces of those downstream from themselves - those unknown stewards of the earth yet to be born.

I have been thinking a good deal about this "seven generation decision," especially with regard to how we treat the sacred earth to which we all belong.  

Just imagine if the leaders in oil companies and the tycoons of mega industry would sit down together in making their big decisions. Imagine them looking deep inside and instead of thinking "growth at all costs," instead of strategizing over how they might "immediately" maximize the profit margin, they visualized what their decisions might mean for the next seven generations who might walk in the forests, drink from the rivers or swim in the oceans. Just imagine!

Who knows,  if they actually did this,  our offspring in the generations yet to come may actually have a planet to inhabit.

On our walk yesterday, we picked up the trash and cleaned up the trail, lots of people would be walking on it after us - just trying to do our part. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Practice of Gentleness

"October Dawn"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

We seem to live in such a compulsively "driven" culture - everyone so driven to succeed, driven by ambition, driven to perfection. As I sit in my desert garden on this refreshingly clear and quiet Sunday morning, I  think about people going off to churches everywhere, and I wonder if perhaps they are somehow striving for perfection - are they being "driven" by a desire to win the big prize that comes at the end of the journey?

As I look at my own life of faith, from my earliest days of childhood I was taught that Christians are supposed to "fight the good fight." We were taught to look at life as a war between the forces of good and the forces of evil. We were to perpetually do battle against the darkness in us, to fight against sin, to wage a war on behalf of the forces of light, always striving for perfection.  

I have come to see that you can get pretty exhausted, if not downright burnt-out when you are always doing battle in life. In fact, many people who think of their spiritual journey as "fighting the good fight"  often feel like they are losing the war because none of us is or ever can be "perfect" in any way, no matter how hard we may try.  We, human beings, are an odd if not beautiful mixture of light and darkness, prone to love and compassion; and yet all of us are wounded and worried, often succumbing to our self-centered impulses. 

I actually think that this "drive" toward perfection is not just limited to those on a Christian path, but in a "driven" culture such as ours,  I would guess that lots of people on many different paths see their  spiritual journey as "fighting the good fight."

Just yesterday I had an online conversation with someone who told me that she was an abysmal  "failure" at meditation.  She lamented the fact that whenever she takes the time to sit quietly and meditate, all sorts of random thoughts and worries creep up and invade her mind. In fact she confessed that her meditation time often elicited restlessness and worry in her.  In essence, she was telling me that she had failed at being a good soldier in her battle of "fighting the good fight."

My response was that it is impossible to fail in meditation. In fact I suggested that the very fact that worries, doubts, fears and failures had surfaced in her meditation time probably meant she was doing something "right" rather than doing something "wrong." Instead of running from her fears and hiding from her faults and imperfections, she was facing them, welcoming and befriending them. 

I also reminded my online friend of something Buddhist monk and Zen Master,  Thich Nhat Hahn, so wisely teaches:

It is important that you do not consider awareness to be your 'ally' called on to suppress the 'enemies' that are your unruly thoughts. Do not turn your mind into a battlefield. Opposition between good and bad is often compared to light and dark, but if we look at it in a different way, we will see that when light shines darkness doesn't disappear.  It doesn't leave. It merges with the light. 

To meditate does not mean to fight with a problem. To meditate means to observe. If you are restless don't judge it or try to destroy it,  just shine the warm light of your awareness on it.

Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches that on a spiritual journey perhaps the best thing we can ever do is to be gentle with ourselves - no feelings of failure because we have lost a battle in the good fight. Just be gentle with yourself, practice gentleness.

I think this is such profound wisdom and such sage advice.

Master Hanh observes that when you are gentle with yourself, 

You are yourself and you have acquired some peace,
It is this peace that makes a child love to be near you.

In my own life I have locked away all the armaments and declared an end to the war. I no longer fight the good fight. Instead I am practicing"gentleness"with myself.  I want that kind of peace that would make a child love to be near me.    

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Love of Money

"Generous Beauty"
- Autumn at the Desert Retreat House -

I have been reading James Riven's frightening new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, in which he documents the rampant greed that has been so widely manifested in the so-called "war on terror" in the United States. Billions and billions of unaccounted dollars have been spent to finance profiteering corporate executives, consulting companies, and secret government-sanctioned  programs that have had little or no effect on controlling terrorist threats, but have certainly helped an already-wealthy, bloated elite to become even wealthier. 

When I think of what those billions of dollars might have done to fund education programs, feed hungry people or fight Ebola, it makes me sad. It also makes me angry.

I've been reflecting on how poisonous greed can be for the health of the human spirit. There is something about money that is very seductive - oftentimes the more money people have, the more they want to accumulate it; and the harder it is to give it away. Money can be a debilitating, addictive drug that enslaves people, locking them inside their own narcissism, cutting them off from intimacy and relationship. 

Interestingly enough if you examine the teachings of Jesus, he has more to say about money than perhaps anything else he ever talks about.  Some may read what he has to say and come to believe that he told his disciples that they were to give away all their money and own nothing.  But actually, if you look more carefully at what he says, he never tells disciples to possess nothing.  Instead he warns them about the perils of wealth, the dangers of abusing and misusing money as a means of self-centered gratification.  In essence he teaches that you can possess money, but beware of greed.

There is a biblical phrase which is often misquoted as "money is the root of all evil." Actually the biblical phrase is:

The 'love' of money is the root of all evil.

If you love your money above all else in life,  you don't own your money, your money owns you - a sure path leading to a dead end.

The other day I came across a story about the legendary John D. Rockefeller Sr. who lived back in the early 1900's. By the time he was 50 years old he was the richest man on earth. He was also well-known for being miserly and it was said that his great wealth had been amassed by his unbridled and unrelenting greed. 

When he was 53 years-old, Rockefeller contracted a strange undiagnosed disease. His massive wealth guaranteed that he could have had anything he ever wanted, and yet he was only able to eat milk and crackers. His body was shrinking and he could not sleep.  He fell into a deep depression and his doctors predicted he would be dead within the year.

Then one night, looking at death in the eye, Mr. Rockefeller had this sudden revelation about the meaning of his life and the real value of his wealth; and he changed the course of the path he was on. He substituted greed and hoarding with generosity and giving. He established the renowned "Rockefeller Foundation," channeling his fortune into hospitals, research, mission work, caring for those in need. His contributions  eventually led to the discovery of penicillin, cures for malaria and tuberculosis.  By transforming his "greed" into "giving," he literally changed the world. 

Instead of living for one more year, John D. Rockefeller Sr. lived to the ripe-old age of 98 and he died a happy man.

A wise old Desert monk once told his young charge:

It's not possessing something that is harmful,
but being attached to it is the cause of suffering.

The Buddha said the same thing, so did Jesus - such great wisdom.   

Friday, October 17, 2014

Radical and Subversive

"On the Path"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Like most children who grew up in a Christian household, one of the very first prayers I ever learned was "The Lord's Prayer," - "Our Father." 

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

Over the years I probably recited this prayer over a million times - sitting alone in a church, at various services and public gatherings, driving in my car or taking a walk. This "Lord's Prayer" was just part of my DNA. Interestingly enough it wasn't until just yesterday that I came to understand just how subversive and even dangerous it is to recite this simple and apparently tranquil, calming prayer that I had first learned as a child.

In her new book,  Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Professor of Jewish studies and New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, offers this insightful commentary on those all too-familiar words of  The "Our Father" prayer: 

I do wonder, do all those who pray 'your kingdom come, your will be done,' really want a change of the status quo or are they pretty satisfied with the 'kingdom' we have here and now? Do they really want the time, as Jesus promises, when the first will be last and the last first, when we are assessed on how well we have loved our enemy and fed the hungry?

It's so interesting that after all these years of mindlessly reciting the "Lord's Prayer," I would be taught something of its real meaning by a scholarly Jewish rabbi.  

There is no doubt about it, Jesus was a revolutionary. In the eyes of the State he was a subversive radical who preached a dangerous message about living in the "Kingdom of God." His message turned the cultural norms of his day upside down. He boldly stood against any system that allowed the powerful to crush the weak, teaching that every human being has equal dignity, no one deserves more than anyone else, no hierarchy, no patriarchy, no class systems.  

He told those who would dare to follow him that they were to continue his subversive mission, to do their part in bringing about this "Kingdom of God" on earth - to be voices for justice and living signs of compassion, always welcoming in those who had been cast away.  In essence Jesus invited all who would follow in his path to be radical, subversive revolutionaries just like he was. 

It didn't take long for the revolution to get tamed by the dominant culture, for the teeth to be taken out of the tiger, as the revolution gradually turned into a church. In some sense the institutional church over the years has become much of what Jesus stood boldly against, so that now people like me can blandly mouth the words "Thy kingdom come" and have almost no clue of just how radically subversive those words really are. 

I actually believe any spiritual path is subversive and revolutionary. It always points in the direction of justice and compassion - the opposite direction of the comfortable status quo.

A question is asked of potential Christians as they are baptized. The question lies at the core of what it means to walk in the "way" of Jesus: 

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people 
and respect the dignity of every human being?

It seems to me that you don't have to be a Christian to answer "yes" to that question, nor do you have to be a Christian to proclaim:

Thy kingdom come!

Long live the revolution!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sin of Entitlement

"Standing on Level Ground"
- a field of cacti -

The announcement yesterday that a second Texas nurse had been infected with the Ebola virus set off a flurry of almost-chaotic activity - endless news reports about government efforts to contain the deadly virus, hospitals across the country engaging in Ebola drills, the President of the United States canceling his scheduled meetings so that he might meet with a special emergency team.

At the same time as all this near-panic activity was going on response to that second infection, the news also reported that in West Africa 10,000 people were expected to die from Ebola every week - oddly enough this catastrophic story didn't get a lot of coverage, and no one seemed to be too "worked up" over that news. 

While I certainly think we need to take precautions about a potentially deadly virus spreading through the population of this country, I also wonder why we are so worried about 2 infected people and almost  nonchalant about 10,000 people dying from Ebola every week? It all makes me question whether or not this isn't perhaps a manifestation of what I call the "sin of entitlement" that seems to be so prevalent in this county and this culture. 

Simply put, people with a sense of entitlement honestly believe that somehow they have a "right" to live a better, richer, and fuller life than others. 

Many American citizens who live in the 1% upper echelon are convinced that they are "entitled" to nicer houses, newer cars, better health care than the average citizen. Many people who lead "middle class" lives feel they are entitled to a better life than those who live in poverty. Educated people often feel entitled to more perks in life than those who have no lists of degrees to put after their names, and plenty of people feel as if their race or color or beliefs somehow place them in a "superior" category, entitling them to more than those in "inferior" categories. 

So I wonder if the relative lack of concern in this country over 10,000 Africans dying every week from Ebola, coupled with the frenzied activity over two infections may not be a symptom of that "sin of entitlement" that seems to be embedded in our culture. I wonder if, at some deep level there is the thought that "Americans deserve better care and are "entitled" to lead a healthier life than poor Africans in a third world country?"

 Because of the very narrow way in which the word is popularly used, I almost hesitate to use the word "sin" here. Many people think that a sin is "something one does or says to offend God." But the word "sin" has a far broader meaning - "a sin is something we might think or say or do that ruptures relationship."   

The whole of humanity, the world of nature, everything that "is" all belong together. We are all woven into a complex fabric of cosmic relationship,  and we are our "best" selves when we do our part to foster our common solidarity. We "sin" whenever we tear against the fabric -  you don't have to believe in God to believe in "sin."  

So, it's  pretty obvious to me that a sense of "entitlement" is a sin - perhaps a grievous sin.  Whenever any individual or group or nation or religious institution believes that they are superior to others and therefore entitled to a richer and fuller life than different others, it's a sin.

The Bible actually talks quite a bit about this sin without actually using the word, "entitlement." The  Hebrew scriptures as well as the Christian Gospels consistently proclaim and promote the dignity of "every" human being living in a just and compassionate society wherein all human beings stand on level ground -no one more deserving or less deserving. In fact, the strong are directed to lift up those who are weak. 

I think perhaps this one passage from the Hebrew Scriptures (The Song of Hannah) probably sums up what the entire Bible ultimately has to say about superiority and inferiority and entitlement:

My heart rejoices and exults in the Lord. 
God raises up the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash-heap
to make them sit with kings and princes
and inherit a seat of honor

None of us ever has a "right" to lead a richer, fuller life than any one else - entitlement is a "sin."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Sensuous Spirituality

"A Living Desert" 

A few days ago I came upon some recent scientific research that offered me a deep spiritual insight. 
A whole new avenue of physiological research is now focusing on the science of "smell" in human beings. Until only a few years ago "smelling" was considered to be confined to olfactory receptors in the nose, but scientists now have discovered that human beings have olfactory receptors throughout our entire bodies. In fact we have almost 400 olfactory receptors - in the heart, the kidneys, brain, colon, all over every part of the skin.

Furthermore it has been determined that various fragrances can actually "heal" sicknesses in humans - researchers and physicians are exploring the use of various odors in the treatment and diagnosis of disease - prostate cancer in men has been arrested by smelling violets and roses. 

Upon reading this very interesting new research I had a fresh new understanding of some of my heightened spiritual experiences when I walk the wilderness trails outside the Desert Retreat House. 

One might not imagine a desert to be a very fragrant place - not so.   Desert bushes, fragrant herbs, grasses, lavender and sage- the smells are quite abundant and also quite exotic. Yesterday, while walking one of the trails, I was overcome with the sweet smell of intoxicating fragrances - but it was more than odors my nose was smelling,  my entire body was tingling with sensations and my spirit was uplifted. I think I may now understand why. Those fragrances of Mother Earth were flowing in and through all my hundreds of "olfactory receptors," heightening my awareness of the world of nature, teaching me that everything and everyone is web of relationship. All the many are the "One." 

When I was growing up I was taught that my senses needed to be tamed or I would fall into sin.  I was warned that the flesh was an obstacle to the spirit and an enemy of "God."  But I have now come to see that the opposite is true. 

A spiritual journey of any sort is always a journey of relationships - forming relationships, growing relationships, healing relationships. "God" is not a distant, separated, super-person in the sky; "God" is the energy flowing in and through everything that is. "God" is the "One" in the many. But, without our senses we cannot be in relationship. Our senses pull us out of our isolated selves- our senses are the threshold into "God." 

We all breathe the same air; we feel another's presence when we are touched and embraced; we see the stars at night blazing in the cosmos and know that we are part of something bigger; we are connected to one another by tasting food while eating a common meal; and our entire body smells the fragrances of life,  connecting us to all that "is."

The senses are not the enemy of the spirit- the senses are the vehicles of the spirit. All spirituality is deeply sensuous.

People often limit their understanding of spiritual practice to the time they may spend in church or while engaging in a period of mindful meditation. I think any practice of "paying attention" to what our senses are experiencing is, in fact, a spiritual practice. 

The smell of coffee in the morning,  the fragrance of a glass of wine at an evening meal or  the scent of lavender while walking on a trail is as much a prayer as the words we might say in a church.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Discipline of Taking Time

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

A recent article in the New York Times reported some interesting psychological research about how people behave in art museums:

 Upon entering any vast art museum, the typical traveler grabs a map and spends the next two hours darting from one masterpiece to the next, often battling crowds, exhaustion and hunger.

Most people want to enjoy a museum not conquer it. Yet the average visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art. And the breathless pace of life in our Instagram age conspires to make that feel normal.

Upon reading this observation, I immediately thought of one of my own museum experiences at the Louvre in Paris where the crowds were so thick and the pace so frantic that we could barely even catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, much less enjoy it. People were literally "running" from masterpiece to masterpiece frantically and continually snapping pictures as proof that they had "been there, done that."  

I am also reminded of the way I would often approach our "family vacation time" in years gone by.  We would arrive at our destination and before we would even unpack our bags, I would have a map of the area out on the table along with a series of brochures detailing all the local sights so that I could plot out all the places we "needed" to visit and things we "needed" to do.  After all, we only had a week and so we should do as much as we possibly could in the little time we had. 

As I think about it now, I would often get back from those vacations feeling tired and exhausted, and going back to work was often a "vacation from the vacation."  

The museum research reported in the New York Times article  suggested that many people move at such a frantic pace while visiting an art museum,  and they feel so compelled to document it all by taking pictures, because they want to be able to go home and "brag" about where they have been. The frantic pace of flitting from masterpiece to masterpiece is fueled by a desire to be held in high esteem by others.  

The researchers in the Times' article concluded that the only way a museum can ever really be enjoyed is by slowing down and taking the time to "engage with the art."

If you do choose to slow down, to find a piece of art that somehow speaks to you and observe it for minutes rather than seconds, you will most likely connect with the art, with the person with whom you are touring the galleries, and maybe even with yourself, feeling refreshed and inspired rather than tired and exhausted.

It seems to me that this is good advice not only for touring an art museum, but for living the routine of everyday life.

When I look back at my younger years, I think perhaps that my frantic pace of life may indeed have been inspired by a desire to have others hold me in high esteem, "Look where I have been in my life, all the things that I have accomplished." 

When we went on a family vacation I probably did go home and brag about all the many places we had been and the great things we had seen; but in doing so had I sacrificed an opportunity for us to simply "be together" with one another, enjoying each other's company? 

In my later years I have come to think of "time" very differently than I once did when I was young. I have come to realize that time is indeed a precious gift that will someday come to an end.  But I have no desire to do as much as I possibly can in the years I have left. I don't have an endless checklist of places I need go, things to see, tasks yet to be accomplished. 

I have come to realize that I find my greatest joy and deepest peace when I am able to practice a "discipline of taking time," slowing down and "engaging the moment," whatever comes my way. It's just like slowing down in an art gallery.

From the "Sayings" of the ancient Desert Mothers and Fathers, comes this observation about "time"

An old monk once said,
'if you lose gold and silver, you can  find something as good as you lost.
But the one who loses time can never make up what he lost.'

All we ever have is "now." I do not want to lose this precious gift. I want to "enjoy life, not conquer it."