Sunday, November 30, 2014

Yearning for One Another

"Great Mystery"

Yesterday I had the opportunity to watch the newly released blockbuster, Interstellar. Far from being a pleasantly diverting "science fiction flick," this is a 21st century movie that powerfully touches upon newly raised questions that are being explored by today's scientists-- questions about multiple universes, wormholes, quantum space, black holes, the relativity of time. 

I came out of the movie with my head spinning over just how little we human beings actually "know" about anything, and just how great a mystery life really is. 

There was one line in the movie yesterday that really stood out for me. Lost in the chaos of the great unknown riddles of the universe, something about the very nature of the human condition that emerged as a constant pattern running throughout all the chaos: "We human beings yearn for one another." We are genetically "wired" for transcendence. We pine and we long for connection to others and we are incomplete by ourselves. 

Interestingly enough, so-called "primitive" people understood something about this innate human yearning far before the dawn of the new age of quantum science. Primitive human beings were tribal. They didn't see themselves as separated individuals, but rather defined themselves as a relationship with others. Primitive peoples understood that they all belonged to one another and to a world of nature, and that it was all a great unknowable mystery. 

Burt today we have supposedly evolved into a more sophisticated species with knowledge far advanced beyond that of those primitive tribes of bygone days. The focus today is on the "evolved" individual, separated and distinct from other human beings. The ethic of our so-called sophisticated and advanced culture is that of self-gratification; and narcissism is often the order of the day. 

Many of the New Atheists of our day have also concluded that because of our highly developed and sophisticated science, there is no longer need for mystery because science can figure it all out.

Evolved humans are those who can "go it" alone and figure it all out by themselves?  Today's scientists might beg to differ. 

Maybe that's why I found a movie like Interstellar so fascinating because it pointed me to a deep truth that the more we know, the more we see how much we do not know.  

The greatest scientific minds of the 21st century have in fact conceded that they can make sense of about 5% of what makes everything tick, the rest is all "mystery" - wormholes, relativity, black holes, quantum space. And even scientists have figured out that the only constant in the midst of all this chaos is the "yearning of the human heart" - a yearning to be connected to other human beings.  

There is an ancient Taoist teaching from many centuries ago:

The universe and I came into being together,
and I and everything therein are one. 

We yearn for one another because we "are" one another. When we are separated from one another we are cut off from our true nature. We are all caught up in a great, spiraling, cosmic mystery that goes well beyond our human understanding. Everything  that "is" is fueled by love and another name for "Love" is "God." 

Primitive "tribal" people understood this eternal truth, the wisdom teachers throughout the ages understood this eternal truth. The Buddha understood this; Jesus understood it. Maybe the newly emerging scientists of our own day will help us all to see this ancient eternal truth yet once again.

Who knows, today's scientists may indeed be the new theologians of tomorrow?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Watching and Waiting

"Advent Dawn"
 - At the Desert Retreat House -

On the Christian calendar the season of Advent begins tomorrow. It's my favorite time of year; however, it is also a season that has been virtually lost in contemporary culture - even Christians rarely celebrate the "true meaning" of Advent.

For most people the "holiday season" has already begun - shopping, festive parties, brightly-lit trees, the "holidays" are in full-swing. Many contemporary Christian churches are already decorated with wreaths and bows, carol-singing every Sunday this month, along with Christmas pageants.  By the time December 25th arrives, Christmas is over and it's time to put away all the wreaths and lights. 

But it is not yet Christmas. It is Advent - a season not to be missed. 

From ancient times the Christian church had designated these four weeks before Christmas as the season of Advent; yet even those who do celebrate the Advent season often miss the mark about what this Advent season is really all about. They use this time as little more than an official countdown period - a time for "getting ready for the birthday of Baby Jesus." 

But this time of Advent isn't a season for getting ready for anything, nor is it a time for anticipating a future event.  The four weeks of Advent are a time for practicing the discipline of mindfulness - learning how to watch and wait in the present moment.

Henri Nouwen once said something that almost perfectly captures the spirit of Advent:

A waiting person is a patient person.
The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation to the full
in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.

"Baby Jesus" was born a long time ago. The past is the past and the future never happens, all we ever have is now; and it is only by paying attention to the "now" that we find the hidden beauty of every moment in every single day.  Advent is a season to practice the discipline of "paying attention."

You hardly have to be a Christian to "get into" the true meaning of Advent. In fact Christians can probably learn more about Advent from Buddhists than from other Christians. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness and meditation is an ideal discipline to be honed in these days of Advent. 

In fact, as I see it,  Advent is a season for anyone anywhere to practice - religious people, people on any sort of spiritual path, atheist and agnostics- there is something about Advent that applies to us all. 

In these frenetic and frantic December days, as people find themselves busier than ever, rushing here and there, so "caught up" in the many events of a holiday season, Advent gives us all a time to stop and take a breath. Light a candle, sit in silence, get off the "busyness treadmill" if only  for a few moments. In Advent we can all practice staying where we are fully present in the moment, alert, mindful and awake "in the full belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us."

These December days are perhaps the most beautiful time of the year for living in the desert -crisp, cool nights, radiant star-filled skies, a fire in the fireplace, brilliant sunlight and exotic winter flowers along the trails. It's such a magical and mystical time of the year, so much hidden beauty waiting  to manifest itself - it must be Advent.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday Frenzy

"Mountain Caves"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

The TV morning news show began today with images of "Black Friday Frenzy." Crowds of people who had camped out all night long to be the first in line trampling over one another as the store doors were opened, everyone jostling to take advantage of the big bargains on video games, grown men in a fistfight over the last available big screen TV, an obviously haggard looking young mother with her three kids in tow announcing that they had shopped all night yesterday and would shop all day today until the stores closed.

As I took in those startling images of "Black Friday Frenzy," it seemed like I was watching some sort of dystopian movie rather than a news report about the day's events. It reminded me of an apocalyptic horror film about a society that had gone mad, human beings afflicted by a mass hysteria, a buying frenzy that had turned them into zombie-like creatures who wouldn't stop their relentless pursuit for "more stuff" until all the stores had closed. 

Was it a news report I was watching this morning or was it a dystopian movie? Hard to tell I guess.

After turning off the TV, I walked into my front yard and looked out into the desert. The beautiful simplicity of the barren wilderness was such a dramatic contrast to those images I had just witnessed on the TV that, at first, it was hard to take it all in. So, I just sat in a chair and stared at the desert- it gave me such a sense of deep peace and serenity in the midst of all the chaos and the frenzy.

Wilderness caves dot the neighboring mountains just outside our home. I look at them every day, and every time I see those caves I think about my spiritual ancestors, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, who back in the 4th century lived in caves like those near me. 

Those ancient desert monastics had left all the trappings of church and society and moved out to the fringes of the culture to live simple lives following Jesus' "way" of kindness and compassion. They worked together and prayed together, treated one another with enormous respect and opened their arms in radical hospitality to all who might come their way.  They didn't hold tightly to doctrine and dogma and social status meant nothing to them. They had few possessions, but they had one another and they lived each day in the abiding Presence of God, and that's all they needed.  Their lives were abundantly rich, overflowing with a joy and with a peace that goes beyond human understanding.

This morning as I sat in my front courtyard and looked out into the desert, two wildly contrasting images stood side by side in my mind: human beings consumed by a Black Friday Frenzy who appeared to be less than human, and those simple desert monastics who lived such fully human lives.

I certainly don't plan to move out into the caves outside our house, but on this Black Friday the path I want to follow seems pretty obvious to me. My spiritual ancestors who lived in caves like these are pointing out the way.

The ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu, taught this simple wisdom to follow on the path of life:

Manifest plainness,
Embrace simplicity,
Reduce selfishness,
Have few desires.

If you ask me, this is a perfect motto for Black Friday. I'm planning on reciting it throughout the day. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pilgrims and Indians

"Spacious Skies"

On this Thanksgiving Day in America, I remember the story of the very first Thanksgiving as it was depicted in one of my childhood books. Happy looking, bright-eyed and well-fed Pilgrim settlers sitting alongside the Native Indians at a table laden with abundance. I also remember that the story in my book told of how generous those first White settlers were by inviting those poor Indian savages to join them for the feast.

However, looking at the historical record, that's not even close to being an accurate picture of life in those early days when White settlers from England occupied the lands of Native Peoples along the New England coast.  

In fact there could never have been a Thanksgiving feast, never a celebration of abundance, were it not for the unheralded generosity of the Native peoples. In fact, the Pilgrims would never have survived here, they would have died off soon after landing on these shores were it not for the help of the Indians. So, if anything, the Indians were the hosts and the Pilgrims, their guests, at that first Thanksgiving banquet. 

When the English settlers arrived to make a new life for themselves in the place they would call "New England," they were totally unprepared for how difficult and even treacherous this new land and their new life would be. The severity and harshness of the winter weather surprised them. They didn't know how to build proper shelter or wear protective clothing.  On top of that, the seeds they brought with them wouldn't grow in this climate, so food supplies became a serious problem.  And, if that wasn't bad enough, the settlers succumbed to all sorts of new diseases from which they had no immunity, and for which they had no medicines. 

Within a year of arriving on these shores, the Pilgrims were cold, starving, sick and dying. The prospects for their prolonged survival were slim to none; and then the Indians came to their rescue.

The local tribe of Wampanoag Indians had observed the plight of those foreigners who had literally invaded their land, and they took pity on them. They taught the White settlers how to hunt in the forests. They shared food with them and gave them seeds that would grow and could be farmed in this land. They taught the settlers how to build structures that would provide shelter from the elements, and they gave them home-grown medicines that would cure their bodies from disease. 

The Pilgrim immigrants quite literally survived because of the kindness and compassion of the Native peoples.  However, this is a story that is rarely told on a day like today when Americans sit down to eat their turkey dinners and perhaps remember a tale of a time long ago when supposed good-hearted pilgrims invited savage Indians to that first Thanksgiving feast.

Today I want to celebrate the "real" first Thanksgiving. It reminds me that this nation essentially grew out of the seeds of kindness and compassion, seeds sewn by native people among strangers in their midst.

So today I do more than give thanks. Today I renew my commitment to practice compassion and kindness in my life. I renew my commitment to embrace those who are different, to welcome the stranger with wide-open arms, and to extend kindness even to those who may be an enemy or oppressor. 

I do all this because, at the core, this is the "real" American way.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Always Thankful

"Blossoms and Thorns"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

A friend of mine was telling me about her family Thanksgiving custom. As they sit at the table for the big turkey dinner,  each person is given a little sheet of paper on which to list all the things for which they are thankful. Then, before the meal begins they all go around the table and everyone reads their "list of thanks." 

When I first heard of this custom I thought it was a nice idea - far better than a mumbled prayer before everyone "digs in." But the more I thought about this, the less I liked it. 

The truth is that most people are only thankful for the "good stuff" in life (often only thankful for the "really good stuff").  Most people are thankful for the things they want to happen to them - thankful for a nice home, a family, a good job, good health, thankful for the promotion, thankful for getting a good grade. 

Yet many times in life things happen that we don't particularly want to happen (like breaking an arm while walking your dog). On top of that most of the events in everyday life are pretty ordinary- work is often quite boring, the routine of everyday living is mundane. Washing clothes, paying bills and doing the dishes - hardly exciting or worthy of note.

My guess is that, at my friend's Thanksgiving meal, the people around her table probably won't be placing "boring work," "doing the dishes," "a head cold and a stuffy nose," or "a cancer diagnosis" on their "list of thanks" to be read before the meal begins. 

In the Christian scriptures, Saint Paul admonishes one of his churches:

Be thankful in all the circumstances of life

I think I finally understand what this means - it' s pretty good advice.

Very little (if anything) in this life is under our control. Life simply happens, and it often happens far differently than we want or expect it to happen.  Furthermore most of our everyday living is kind of lackluster and routine, hardly filled with action-packed moments notable enough to make it to a thanksgiving list. But the deeper peace of everyday living doesn't come about because life is so exciting and because everything has gone according to plan. In fact, we only find that deeper peace when we can learn to embrace and be thankful for life as it is rather than what we want it to be.

So, when Saint Paul admonishes his fellow Christians to be "thankful in all circumstances of life," I think he is telling them to"embrace all of life as it comes to you." I think he is telling them that we are never alone as we walk though the wilderness of life. We always have one another as we journey through life and the energy of God's Holy Presence abides among us in the good times as well as the bad times. So, always be thankful.

Be thankful in all the circumstances of life.

Something Thich Nhat Hanh once said comes to mind as I reflect on "being thankful."

Walk as if, in every step you take, you are kissing the earth with your feet.

I don't even want to think about my "top ten" list of thanks.  Instead I think I'll go out and take a walk this morning. Every step I take will be a prayer of thanksgiving as I kiss the earth with my feet. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Language of the Unheard

"Martin Luther King Jt. Monument" 

When I was teaching college courses in Interpersonal Communication, we would often deal with the subject of "conflict resolution," and I would always remind my students that many times when we find ourselves in conflicts and disputes with others, deeper, beneath -the surface-issues are almost always at play. So for example, a husband and wife may be engaged in a hot dispute over a seemingly little issue like putting the cap on the tube of toothpaste. When in reality,  the unresolved issue of the husband's infidelity is really what is flaming the fire or their rage.

Yesterday riots erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri after a Grand Jury failed to indict a White police officer for shooting a Black teenager. One astute commentator suggested that the rage and violence on the streets was being fueled by the "opening of old wounds" - that made a whole lot of sense to me.

One might argue that justice had been served yesterday - for months, a Grand Jury had listened to evidence and decided not to move ahead with any charges against the police officer. In fact, I just heard a report on our local station in which an older, White professional man expressed his indignation and confusion about what went on in Ferguson. He couldn't figure out why there was such anger, chaos and rage over the "no-indictment" verdict. In his opinion, "a fair legal process had been administered, justice has been served, so why can't they just let it go? "

I actually think the riots in Ferguson go way beyond a conflict over the indictment of one police officer. I think the riots have indeed sprung up out of old wounds that have been festering beneath the surface for years. The conflict yesterday may appear to be about Michael Brown and Officer Wilson, but the rage on the streets is really all about unresolved, underlying issues that have plagued this society since we first became a nation. 

Old wounds inflicted as far back as the time of slavery in this country have never been healed, the wounds inflicted on Black citizens who have been systematically treated like second-class citizens, as if their lives didn't really matter (certainly less important than the lives of the majority) - these are wounds that have been festering beneath the surface over these many generations. These are the wounds that were opened up yesterday and that's what all the rage is really all about.

Martin Luther King Jr. was arguably one the greatest apostles of non-violence the world has ever seen. His civil rights' marches and rallies for human dignity were bold and brave, yet always peaceful. And, while he never condoned violence, even Dr. King understood why people might riot and rage on the streets:

It is not enough for me to condemn riots. The intolerable conditions that exist in our society cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. 

A riot is the language of the unheard.

It seems to me that the law may have been accurately applied in a court room yesterday, but justice has certainly not been served. Justice will be served when the voices of the unheard are listened to by those who have a voice in this culture. Justice will only be served when people of goodwill are willing to sit together at a table of dialogue looking deeply into the healing of the old wounds. 

Until that time, my guess is that we can expect riots on our streets.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Known by a Thousand Names

"Following a Path"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

During this Thanksgiving time of year it is custom in many communities across the United States to gather together for neighborhood "Interfaith Services."  Jews and Christians, Muslims, Hindus Buddhists and Sikhs all sitting next to one another in churches, synagogues and temples for a traditional  hour of "Thanksgiving unity" - shared prayer, a few hymns, some remarks by the priest, rabbi or Imam.

Over my career I have attended many such Interfaith Services. The thing is that most people don't take it all that seriously- it's sort of a nice thing to be together with people of other religions for one hour a year, but it's even nicer to go separate ways when the service is done. I also know of a whole lot of strict "orthodox" believers of every stripe who are very much against gathering with people of different religious traditions. They fear that too much association and collusion with those who believe differently may "water down" and weaken the firm tenets of their own faith in which they so firmly believe.

I actually think that the future of religion in America depends upon "interfaith" collaboration and dialogue;" and in my own case, my Christian beliefs have been exponentially strengthened by the wisdom of many other spiritual traditions.

Not far from the Desert Retreat House there are a series of wilderness trails that lead up to a lush, cool mountain lake high up in the desert mountains. These trails actually all have the same starting point,  and although they will all wind up at the mountain lake,  the course of each trail is quite different from one another. One trail is fairly direct and the hike is quite moderate, another a bit more arduous, still another is very circuitous and should only be traveled by the most seasoned hikers. However, unlike other trails, this one passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the region.  And actually, just in case you didn't want to walk to the lake (or weren't able to do so), you could get on the highway and drive your car up there on a local road. 

None of these trails is either better or worse than the other -they are simply different, each with their advantage and disadvantages. And while there is one path I usually follow when I hike, I have at times walked along some of the other trails and enjoyed the different perspective each had to offer. Yet, regardless of the path, they all head toward the lake and in the end that's where they all wind up.

I think that the many different spiritual traditions are very much like these wilderness trails. There is
no best path, each can be very different from the other, each offers a different perspective; but in the end they all point to the truth and lead to wisdom.

Gandhi once observed:

Though we know God by a thousand names,
God is one and the same to all of us.

"God" is the energy of Love that flows through and weaves together everything that "is". There are indeed a thousand different ways of naming that energy, and a thousand different paths for "getting at" the Great Mystery that can never be understood or captured by strong unbending doctrines. Yahweh, Christ, Allah, the way the Buddha, the Tao, the gods of the Hindus- all names and paths on a road to the ONE.  

Religious people, spiritual people, believers and non-believers alike - we are all human beings, all of us on a path to Transcendence. Yes, there are at least a thousand names and "God" is the one and the same for all of us. 

A friend of mine just sent me an email containing a video of Josh Groban's new song, Thanksgiving. There is one phrase I especially like:

Even with our differences
There is a place we're all connected
Each of us can find each other's light

What a perfect season of the year for each of us to find each other's light.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Place at the Table

"At the Desert Retreat House"

Every year during this "Thanksgiving" season churches and charities take the opportunity to prepare a big feast for the poor and needy in communities across the country. 

I watched a news' story yesterday reporting on one particular Thanksgiving event "put on" by a local church. The parish hall was decorated in orange streamers, pictures of pilgrims on the wall, tables laden with turkey and sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and apple pie, and everyone partaking of the abundance -a meal especially prepared for those who could not provide such a feast for themselves. 

In the news' report yesterday, with the sights and sounds of all those "poor people" heartily eating in the background, a reporter interviewed the minister of the church providing the meal and asked why his church offered this annual community event? He quoted from a teaching of Jesus found in one of the gospels as a response:

Whatsoever you do to the least among you, you do to me.
Whatsoever you do not do to the least among you, you do not do to me.

I've been thinking about that pastor's response as to why his church offers that annual free Thanksgiving meal to poor people in the community.  Jesus did indeed teach his disciples to extend kindness and compassion to the poor and needy. In one sense feeding the hungry is like feeding "Christ" himself. But as I see it, while it is a generous gesture, an occasional meal distributed to the needy at Thanksgiving doesn't even come close to "getting at" Jesus' radical and revolutionary teaching about how to live in the "Kingdom of God."

In virtually everything he ever did, said or taught, Jesus took the status-quo culture of his day and turned it upside down. He painted a picture of a new world order- a new way of living in which everyone was to be afforded a place of equal dignity at the table of life - no second class-citizens, no outcasts. 

The gospels often portray Jesus at meals and parties (in fact he spent so much time at feasts and festivals that his enemies accused him of being a drunkard or a glutton). But the reason Jesus devoted so much time to eating, drinking and feasting was to paint a vivid picture of just how radical this new world order he proclaimed really looks. 

He would eat meals with the public sinners and social outcasts and enjoy feasts with the rich and the famous along with the poorest and the lowest. His table was an icon of what life in this new way of living might actually look like.

There is a beautiful passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that paints a tender and poignant picture of the kind of new world order Jesus came to proclaim:

The poor are lifted from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.
They sit in places of honor among kings and princes.

That's why I'm not so sure that a free Thanksgiving meal in a church hall even comes close to the new way of life Jesus invited his disciples to follow. A picture of poor people "in their place" with those who "have" the abundance watching on, and from time to time sharing some of what they have, - it just doesn't do it for me as a picture of what Jesus was talking about. 

Maybe a more accurate "snapshot' of Jesus' new world order might depict everyone sitting down at the same table together, the pastor of the church, the mayor of the city next to the single immigrant mother with her 5 kids, the millionaire who owns the mansion at the golf course sitting next to his gardener and groundskeeper - all sharing whatever they have, preparing the meal together, enjoying the meal together, and then getting up and everyone doing the dishes when it's all done- not just at Thanksgiving time but every day of the year.

You certainly don't have to be a Christian to benefit from Jesus' teaching about who is called to share the feast. The Thanksgiving season is a great time for us all to reflect on who is invited to the table of our own lives and where they get to sit. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mindless Clutter

"Utter Simplicity" 
- in my meditation garden -

Now that the so-called "holiday shopping season" has geared up into full-swing, I find myself being deluged with a barrage of endless ads offering those special "one-time" holiday deals. Every day the mailbox outside our house overflows with catalogues and flyers announcing the good news of deep discounts. My computer "junk box" is cluttered with scores of unsolicited offers, deals I can't afford to pass up.

Yesterday I was especially entertained by one particular "Black Friday" ad that arrived in the mail. Pictured in the ad was an obviously-satisfied customer pushing a shopping cart overflowing with bargains" stacked so high that the pile of stuff was taller than the lady pushing the cart. My immediate response to that image was, "What on earth is she going to do with all those things?"

That picture of the piles of stuff also made me think about my own many years of gathering more and more mindless clutter in my own life. 

Years ago when my wife and I were preparing our cross-country move from Central New York to Los Angeles, we decided that we would get rid of all the clutter we had accumulated over our many years of marriage.  At the time our boys were off to college, our nest was empty, so we decided to "clean house for our move out West. We had some garage sales; gave away old tools, unwanted clothing, cleaned out boxes of toys -no sense in moving all the clutter from one side of the country to the other. 

Years later as we prepared to make another move - this time from L.A. out to the desert where we now live, we realized that once again we needed to get rid of the clutter. Our desert home is far smaller than our Los Angeles residence and so we would have to "downsize." 

But in this process of downsizing, I came to the stunning realization of how much clutter had still remained in our lives. I thought we had gotten rid of it all years ago when we moved across country,  but I discovered that we still brought a lot with us - our garage, attic and basement was packed full of boxes that we never even opened after our last move - dishes, candles, books, kitchenware, small appliances, clothing and shoes, jewelry, camping gear that we hadn't even looked at for over 30 years.

So we had a bunch of yard sales and we donated to local charities, but in the end we discovered that we had accumulated so much clutter that we couldn't even give it all away. We wound up having to pay someone to haul away all the years of accumulated clutter stacked up high in piles out in our driveway. 

Author and ecologist Wendell Berry once said:

Don't own so much clutter that you would be relieved to see your house catch on fire.

I totally get what this means. 

Today I am thinking about shopping carts filled up with "holiday bargains" piled so high that you can't see around them, and I am wondering if this upcoming season may actually be a good time to get rid of all the endless clutter rather than accumulate more.

There is something very freeing about traveling lightly in life. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Danger and Opportunity

"Sunshine and Shadows"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Many years ago John F. Kennedy gave a speech in which he famously observed:

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.'
One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.
In a crisis be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity.

Over the past few days I have been thinking about the wisdom of this statement. I think it's true that times of crisis, difficulty and stress are indeed dangerous times, but they are also occasions for great opportunity.

I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and so I have been paying special attention to the barrage of recent stories and media images of a crippling snowstorm that brought Buffalo and Western New York to its knees over the past few days - images that are so very familiar to me.

Out here in the desert the average high has been about 75 degrees this past week- my neighbors tell me that they just can't imagine what it must be like to be covered under 8 feet of snow, freezing temperatures and howling winds, no electricity for days, all the roads closed. I respond by regaling them them with my own blizzard stories of days gone by where the snow level was so high that it covered the windows of my house and blocked all the doors.

I suppose that, by most standards, a debilitating blizzard is indeed a crisis fraught with danger - people get killed in storms like that, sometimes they even freeze to death in their cars stuck along the road. And yet I clearly remember one particular (and especially severe) Buffalo blizzard that, while dangerous, it also offered many opportunities for residents of the city to show kindness and compassion and to foster a sense of the common good. 

We were all in it together - the city had been shut down for days, stores were closed, no cars on the road. People were running out of food and my neighbors started to get real worried because they were unable to fill prescriptions or get to medical care. And then all of a sudden, in the midst of this growing crisis, it was as if some sort of light went on and we all somehow realized that we weren't going to make it through this mess unless we took care of one another. 

So, local restaurants opened their doors and started to serve free meals, neighbors went from house to house to check on neighbors and in some cases they got on snowmobiles and went out to get whatever medicines a neighbor might need, sometimes even transporting folks to a hospital.  All sorts of closed doors began to open up as people pooled resources, shared common meals and sat with one another before fireplaces - everyone "weathering the storm" together. 

My home town, Buffalo, calls itself "The City of Good Neighbors. Back when that blizzard hit us those many years ago, it was a city that had really lived up to its name. I fondly recall that "crisis" to this very day. For me it was a time far more filled with opportunity than with danger.

The "homespun" popular philosopher, Eric Hoffer, once said:

It still holds true that we are most uniquely human
when we turn obstacles into opportunities.

Every day each of us faces obstacles - sometimes small, sometimes obstacles of crisis proportion. But as I see it, if we pay attention, we will almost inevitably discover that obstacles are always occasions for reminding us just how interdependent we really are and just how much we all need one another. Every crisis is an invitations to compassion.

Whatever obstacle might come my way today, I will turn it into an "opportunity" for opening my life-doors to others, so that together we might "weather the storm."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Light Through the Crack

"A Broken Pot"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Having heard that I recently broke my arm, a friend of mine sent me this very touching email message yesterday:

The ancient Greeks believed that the gods wounded us 
so that they would have a way to enter our lives.
May your break be an unexpected gift that brings you peace and amazement.

I've been thinking a lot about that one little message - it brims with wisdom and insight, not just for me as I deal with the reality of living with a broken limb, but for all us, in the broken places of each of our lives as human beings.

We live in a culture of perfectionism. Many if not most people aspire to that perfect body with the perfect teeth and the perfect smile. The goal of life is to be the perfect student with the perfect parents in the perfect house with the perfect job. 

For many people, their religious beliefs and spiritual path contribute to this obsession with perfection. Many think that "God" expects them to be perfect - to love perfectly, always compassionate and kind, moral upright in every way. And so anything less then perfection is unacceptable - human weakness and brokenness are often hidden from others out of shame for not having lived up to the high standards.

But I think that we get it all wrong when it comes to the way in which we so highly prize perfection. 

For one thing "perfection" is an illusion when it comes to the human condition, There is no perfect parent or perfect job and no one has a perfect mind. No one is a perfect Christian, a perfect Jew, Muslim or Buddhist.

We human beings are a beautiful mix of our strengths and our weaknesses all rolled up into one another; and paradoxically, we need our shadows in order to be in the light.

Saint Paul beautifully expresses this paradox when he says:

In our weakness is our strength

Indeed when we realize our imperfections in life and face the places where we are broken and hurt, we become vulnerable, letting down the protected walls of our ego defenses, reaching out to others for healing. Oddly enough, love enters our lives most abundantly when we are broken enough to let it happen. 

So I've been thinking about my "broken arm."  I certainly did not want this, but it may indeed be an unexpected gift that leads to peace and amazement. I am unable to be rigidly independent during this time of my healing - I can't even drive a car on my own.  I have become much more vulnerable, so grateful for my wife ever at my side to assist me in the simple tasks of routine living, thankful for so many friends and acquaintances who have extended themselves to me during this time, beholden to the medical people who have been there to assist me in these days of healing. 

I don't at all believe that "God" broke my arm; but I am equally convinced that the "God," who is "Love," has seeped into my life through a crack in my bone.  

It reminds me of one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

No-Birth and No-Death

"Endless flow"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

As I celebrate my birthday today I am reminded of something I found in one of Thich Nhat Hanh's books,  as he meditates on a single sheet of paper and explains the Buddhist concept of "No-Birth and No-Death:"

Let's look at this piece of paper. It didn't come from nothing because from nothing you can't suddenly become something. Looking deeply into the sheet of paper, we can see the trees, the soil, sun, rain, and clouds that nourished the trees, the lumberjack and the paper mill. That is where the sheet of paper comes from. Taking the form of paper is only it's new manifestation, it's not really a birth.

And when you burn the paper it transforms into smoke, vapor, ash and heat into other forms.  So the nature of this sheet paper is 'no-birth and no-death.'

That's why, when we celebrate someone's birthday, instead of singing 'Happy birthday to you, it may be better to sing, 'Happy continuation day to you.'

I find great wisdom in this teaching. My birthday today is indeed an occasion for me to mark my continuation in the endless flow of life. When I came into this world on this day in November, I was already rooted in and sprang forth from an intricate web of living relationships. My life not only sprung forth from my parents but from all my ancestors who ever went before me and it was connected to everyone and everything with whom they were connected, including the world of nature. 

So in a very real sense, on that day in November when my life bubbled up into this earthly existence,  I was a manifestation of the web of life. "Life" continued in me on that day, and when I die I will return again into that endless flow.  Today is my "continuation day."

Today, I am also profoundly aware of my deep belief that "love" is the energy flowing at the core of all that "is." Love is the ONE that weaves the many together. 

Since "God" is "love," today I celebrate a great truth  - we are rooted in "God," we are connected in "God," we spring forth into life from "God," and we return back again to "God." 

It makes my heart sing!

I think about a favorite hymn, an old Quaker song that seems so appropriate for my "Continuation Day:"

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth's lamentations,
I hear the clear, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm 
while to the rock I'm clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing? 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fully Alive

"New Day"

The other day, as I opened my sock drawer, I had a vivid recollection of a former parishioner of mine many years ago at a church in Central New York. By the time I met this man he was well into his 80's, a quiet, quirky eccentric sort of guy who basically lived at the edge of poverty in a rickety old house. People from the parish would often bring him meals, sometimes used clothing.

One day I got a call that the old man had died. I was also told some rather astonishing news abut him.  Apparently, on the day the man passed away, his family came to his house and were rummaging through the drawers and closets of his little bedroom looking for personal affects. But what they absolutely never expected to find was what they saw when they opened up his sock drawer. It was filled with socks stuffed with cash - over $200,000.

When I first heard that story many years ago, it sounded so much like a Hollywood movie that I couldn't imagine it to be true - but true it was. 

I remember experiencing a mixture of sadness and maybe even anger when I heard about those socks full of cash. He had lived such a paltry life, so miserly and stingy, never a vacation, no nice dinners with his family, none of that money ever spent on serving the needs of others. As he went to his grave the old man left a drawer full of possibilities - maybe he was saving it all for a rainy day?

While I don't think there are too many people who are sitting on socks filled with hidden cash,  my guess is that there are a lot of folks nowadays who do indeed lead cautious, even stingy lives. In a time when the economy is weak and jobs are scarce people get frightened. They carefully cling onto what they have - not only to their money and resources, but they cautiously cling onto and hoard their life in general.  

The Buddha taught that "clinging" is a poison - a major cause of our human suffering. In fact we only find deep peace and only encounter our "true self" when we learn how to give our old "ego-self" away. The older I get, the more I see the truth of this wisdom. In my later years time is so precious to me, and I have come to the point where I don't want to hold on tightly to anything anymore-you'll never find cash hidden in any of my socks.

Back in the second century, Saint Irenaeus, a Patriarch of the ancient Christian church made this observation:

The glory of God is man fully alive.

I really love that phrase, "fully alive." For me, the fully alive person is the man or woman who isn't afraid to live generously, boldly and courageously - caution to the wind!

There is a note card in one of my drawers that pretty much says it all:

Dance like there's nobody watching.
Love like you'll never get hurt.
Sing like there's nobody listening.
And live like it's heaven on earth.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Highly Infectious

"In My Meditation Garden"

With the arrival of the cold and flu season, I've noticed that a number of public service announcements have been issued advising people on how to protect themselves from getting sick. Recently I watched a nurse addressing a classroom of elementary school kids, teaching them how to properly cover their mouths when they sneezed. She showed them how, without taking the proper precautions, one little sneeze can send out millions of tiny germs into the atmosphere infecting everyone around you.

As I watched that nurse's demonstration about "spreading disease," I called to mind a recent trip I took to a nearby Costco store. Costco: the "super" market of "supermarkets," the great cathedral of consumerism where you can buy anything your heart desires, a giant warehouse in which clothing is stacked up in piles on tables, where there are aisles of food right alongside other aisles where you can buy a vacuum cleaner, power tools or tires for your car.  Most of the time I try to avoid going to this store, the other day I remembered why.

After barely finding a place to park my car in the gigantic "stadium-size" parking lot, I finally made my way into the store. There are always a lot of people there, but the other day it seemed like the crowds were bigger than ever.  But when I walked into that store something seemed different to me - more than the hordes of people jostling this way and that in order to make their way through the overcrowded aisles, I could physically feel a sense of tension and stress that seemed to permeate the atmosphere. So I started to pay attention to what was happening. 

As I carefully observed my fellow shoppers I began to notice an awful lot of rude behavior going on. Some people were deliberately crashing their carts into others to get them to move along, other people were elbowing their way to counters of the "free samples" of food that were being offered. I even heard some shoppers utter a few nasty curses against people who were getting in the way.

The air was being "infected" by rudeness and it seemed to be spreading everywhere like an unprotected sneeze. So I intentionally decided that I would do my best to engage in acts of kindness as an antidote to the highly infectious spread of rudeness.

I made a deliberate effort to hold doors open for people, lots of smiles, I even volunteered to help  someone get an item from a higher self that she wasn't able to reach on her own.

While I have no definitive proof that my little act of kindness made much of a difference in that rather toxic atmosphere, I know for a fact that the people whom I touched appreciated my efforts - a smile always has a way of soliciting a smile in return. Besides, if rudeness is so highly infectious, why can't kindness be the same?

The Buddha taught:

Drop by drop is the water pot filled.
Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little,
fills himself with good.

It seems to me that we always have choices in the way we lead our everyday lives.  We can choose to drop a bit of kindness and compassion on the world in which we live or we can choose to infect it with self-centered rudeness.

Every drop counts.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Practice of Acceptance


All was going just fine yesterday morning - just as I had planned it. As usual, we began our day walking our dogs, blue skies, perfect temperatures, when suddenly our one big dog decided to go after another little dog along the trail. Suffice it to say that this didn't go well. As he lurched out at the tiny pooch I was pulled down and I hit the ground hard - so hard, in fact that I broke my right arm. In that one unexpected and unanticipated instance everything changed. It was off to the Emergency room, lots of pain, and now learning how to write this post with one hand.

I've been spending lots of time thinking about living with the frustration and the pain of a broken arm. For one thing it is teaching me to be grateful for all the stuff I take for granted in my life - it's amazing how much a "right-handed" person uses his right arm in the course of ordinary, everyday living.

The other thing I have been learning is a lesson in empathy. So many people struggle through life with so many disabilities, most far greater than a broken arm.  I have a new awareness of their plight and a greater sense of solidarity with them.

But I think that the most important lesson taught to me by what happened yesterday morning is a lesson in accepting what is. I think about the famous Serenity Prayer so often associated with various "12-Step" programs:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Yesterday as I sat in an Emergency Room I wanted things to be different -all my plans had been shattered; there is a bunch of stuff I will need to cancel over the next few weeks,  eating a meal  is complicated, taking a shower is a major task. Who knew that a broken arm could be so painful? But no matter how much I would like to wish it all away, it is what it is.  My right arm- the arm I depend upon for my ordinary living is out of commission; and for the next few weeks, I just need to live with this realty, to find serenity in accepting the things that I cannot change.

In his teaching about learning to live in the "moment" on the spiritual path, Eckhart Tolle makes this seemingly paradoxical observation:

Whatever you fight, you strengthen,
and what you resist, persists.

I find great wisdom in this. How foolish to resist life as it comes to you. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Patience is a Virtue

"In the Mediation Garden"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Throughout most of my life people have been reminding me that "patience is a virtue." My guess is that I have heard this admonition so often because I was probably one of the most impatient people anyone had ever come across. 

I never quite understood why being patient was so virtuous - why would waiting around doing nothing until the next thing happened be such a positive trait? Waiting in a doctor's office, waiting for the document to print, waiting for an expected phone call, waiting to see if I got the job I wanted -times when my blood pressure would always go up, stress, angst. So why on earth is patience such a good thing?

In my later years of life I am beginning to realize that patience has nothing do with waiting for the next thing to happen. When you "practice patience" you pay attention to what is happening in the "now."

Yesterday I learned again why patience is such a noble quality on the spiritual path. 

I am currently working on a project of developing a new podcast that I will add to my daily blog posts. Since I know almost nothing about how to do this, I found myself a mentor who is helping me out. Yesterday we were upgrading my computer with the software that I will need for this new venture - the downloading process seemed to take forever.  A message on one screen said the program would download in 20 minutes but it actually took 45 minutes,  and then another screen popped up with even more stuff to do. This went on for the better part of the afternoon. 

As I sat beside my mentor staring at the blank screen with all those messages informing us of how much longer we had to wait, I kept thinking abut all the stuff I still had to do that afternoon. I became very anxious, there goes he blood pressure again. My young mentor then turned to me and offered a little piece of "off the cuff" advice.  He told me to just be patient, "patience is a virtue."

There it was again, another reminder to me that this period of waiting wasn't a time for anxiously anticipating what was to come, but rather a time to pay attention to what is. So,  rather than nervously sitting and staring at messages on a computer screen, I found myself engaging in a wonderful conversation with my "tech guru."  We talked about what it means to be religious, to walk a spiritual path, what it means to believe or not believe in "God." It was a very rich conversation, so much so that when all the software finally did download, I wished it would have taken longer.

Eckhart Tolle says:

Whatever the present moment contains, 
accept it as if you had chosen it
Always work with it, not against it.

What a great definition of what patience is all about. The practice of patience is an "acceptance of the present moment as if I had chosen it, working with it rather than resisting it." 

Saint Augustine taught:

Patience is the companion of wisdom. 

Amen to that! 

Patience is indeed a virtue.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lofty Thoughts

"Reaching Upward"

While I very much enjoy writing a daily blog article, I also look forward to the comments I receive after I post it. Yesterday I engaged in a back-and forth online conversation that really forced me to think hard about what I had to say about the practice of compassion and kindness in everyday living.
A young man who read one of my articles specifically objected to and challenged one of Jesus' core teachings about meeting hatred with love.

Jesus said:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

My online friend told me that this teaching about "turning the other cheek" and "doing good to those who do you harm" was nothing but a bunch of lofty thoughts. He went on to say that people have to earn his respect and that he only respects people who respect him and is only kind to people who are kind to him. He concluded by saying that when you do good to those who do you harm you will always get hurt, manipulated and abused by your enemy. 

I  very much appreciated the honesty of what this man had to say to me. In fact I have little doubt that his voice was the voice of many if not most people in today's contemporary culture. Kindness and compassion are hard to come by nowadays, and the notion of blessing those who curse you is a foreign concept in a culture of self-gratification and blind ambition.

The online conversation with that young man yesterday challenged me. Do I really believe, and more over, do I follow the injunction about doing good to those who have done me harm? The more I thought about it, some of the things my online friend was saying made sense to me. In my experience there have been times when my compassion for another was thrown in my face - several occasions where I was used and manipulated by people to whom I showed kindness. I can recall a number of instances when people who were supposedly in need came to me seeking help, food or money, and I later discovered that they were basically "scamming" me.

So is all this stuff about "practicing compassion and doing good even to those who do you harm" little more than a bunch of lofty thoughts?

I pondered this question most of the day yesterday and I did a little menial review of my many life experiences - the people I have known, the things I have done.  Yes indeed I have at times seen the underbelly of life. I have encountered plenty of people who were cruel and mean-spirited, self centered and manipulative. I have also encountered many others who were kind, compassionate gentle and forgiving at the very core of their being. 

In  my own life, I have myself been mean-spirited and held plenty of grudges against enemies. I have also been compassionate, forgiving enemies, doing good to those who did me harm

And when all is said and done, I honesty believe that in the end compassion wins the day. 

The "kind" people I have encountered on my life-journey were always the ones who were the happiest in life and usually the most successful. In my own life, my greatest peace always came from my deepest compassion, from respecting the dignity of every human being, My own true happiness always came out of the times when I was able to let go of my grudges and return kindness for injury.

So no, I don't  believe these are just a bunch of lofty thoughts. The practice of compassion is very practical - it's a way of life that works.

The Buddha taught:

Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love.
This is an eternal truth.

Yes indeed, this is an eternal truth.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tearing Apart the Web of Life

"Infinite Relationships"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I am often disheartened by stories I read in the morning newspaper, but there was one particular story today that really got to me. Apparently there will be a new agenda item on the floor of the U.S. congress. Now that Republicans have control of both Houses, they have vowed to do all they can to fight against the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Although every reputable scientist in the world has made dire predictions about the environmental threats to the sustenance and sustainability of life on this planet, the new congress will now be engaging in a concerted effort to stop the already existing safeguards that limit pollution and control global warming. 

I can't imagine why the elected representatives of the people of this land wouldn't want to do everything in their power to keep planet earth alive for the generations to come, but there are obviously more pressing issues vying for their attention. 

Mega corporations and powerful oil companies have much to lose when restraints are placed upon how we treat the environment - "making a profit" seems to be more important than sustaining life and preserving a clean earth that our children and our children's children might inherit 

There are many people who might think that issues like global warming and environmental protection are political issues on the agenda of "tree-hugging" liberals. However, I actually believe that the protection of the natural world is essentially a spiritual issue that should be "front and center" in the mind of anyone on any sort of spiritual path. 

The American Buddhist teacher and author, Susan Murphy, puts it this way:

The earth sustains our life with its magical weave of infinite relationships - mutual dependency between all life forms and the elements that sustain them - water, air, soil, minerals, sunlight….
Some call this peerless magic 'ecology,' or 'nature.' I think of it as the grace that animates creation. 

Failing to trust and protect this perpetually self-renewing gift, attempting instead to exploit it as a bounty earmarked for our exclusive use, we tear the web of life apart. 

There are those who think of "God" as a distant deity who, from heavenly heights, looks down upon the created world.  As I see it, "God" is that intimate energy the flows in and through everything that has being, "God" is the ONE in the many, "God" is the grace that animates creation. And so when we pollute the air or destroy the oceans, we are polluting the body of "God" - we are tearing apart the body of "God."  

Many churches in this country and many public government buildings proudly display the list of the "Ten Commandments" written on plaques hung on walls.  Interestingly enough, the first commandment demands the worship of the ONE God, and prohibits the worship of idols - strange gods, false gods.  I can't image a more blatant disregard for this first commandment than worshiping the idol of the Almighty Dollar while destroying the body of "God."

After reading the news this morning, I immediately called to mind this line from one of the prayers of the church:

We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.

If my own "elected" government actively engages in actions that tear apart the web of life, it is perpetrating an evil done on my behalf.

I repent of it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Making Sacrifices

"Olive Branches"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Today is Veteran's Day in America, and the media is flooded with stories about the "sacrifices" of those men and women who have proudly served their country. 

As I read through some of these Veteran's Day stories in this morning's paper, it struck me that I barely ever hear the word "sacrifice" used in everyday conversation nowadays. It's a word that gets taken off the shelf, dusted off, and put into use on a day like today, and then it's put back in place until this time again next year.

I actually find it somewhat troubling that we don't talk much about "sacrifices."  I think it's a word that needs to be used much more in our own everyday lives. 

The word "sacrifice" essentially means "to give away something that you might like to keep for yourself, to act on behalf of another's welfare." My guess is that in a consumer oriented, individualistic culture of personal gratification, the idea of making a sacrifices on behalf of someone else is a somewhat foreign concept.

A few years back I was sitting at a local coffee shop in Hollywood writing my Sunday sermon. In the sermon I quoted law professor Stephen Carter's observation of what constituted a civilized society. Dr. Carter suggested that civilization is measured by the "sum of the many sacrifices individuals make for the common good." A society in which individuals ignore the common good and concentrate only on self-satisfaction is "barbarian," not civilized.

As I wrote my sermon about "making sacrifices," I noticed a group of young Hollywood writers at the table next to me working on a script for a TV show. I also noticed that they kept looking over at me, perhaps wondering if I was also writing some sort of screenplay - maybe I was their competition? Eventually one of the guys at that table asked me, "So what are you working on?" When I told them I was writing a sermon, they all stopped what they were doing and surprisingly wanted to know what the sermon was about?  I told them it was about "making sacrifices" and I quoted from Dr. Carter's analysis about what constituted a "civilized people."

At first these young Hollywood writers looked at me with blank stares.  I figured that they thought the idea of "making sacrifices" was probably a bunch of "pie in the sky" rhetoric with no application to the real world of "dog-eat-dog." But I was quite wrong. They were looking at me with those blank expressions because they had never really thought much about this idea of "sacrifice" before - astonishingly it was sort of a new concept for them. 

We then had a very fascinating conversation about the difference between a society of civilized people and a society of barbarians. They concluded they certainly lived and worked in a culture of barbarians,  and weren't at all sure that was such a good idea.

I think that Veteran's Day is a perfect time to lift up the word "sacrifice" and keep it out all year long as a guiding beacon for everyday living. Sacrificial living is not only at the heart of what it means to be civilized but it is at the heart of what it means to be on a spiritual journey. If I am awake to the truth that  everything and everyone belong to one another - all dynamically interconnected, then I am compelled to act accordingly. 

Spiritual awareness carries a moral imperative: tend to the needs of others, sacrifice self-interests on behalf of the common good.

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable..
Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice and struggle,
the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals 
who offer themselves for the good of others.
(Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr.)