Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Spirituality of Playfulness

"Fluttering Wings"
-in my meditation garden-

For the past year, the Desert Retreat House has been a "virtual reality" - an online place for people to visit and spend a few moments of reflection and meditation by reading a daily blogpost and sometimes making comments.  

I will continue to write the blog "online," but now I am trying to discern how to expand the Desert Retreat House beyond the social media, into a real-life community of people who gather together face-to-face. 

My hope is that here in the midst of this fiercely beautiful desert we might be able to form some sort of contemplative community grounded in a "desert spirituality" - informed by the teaching of the ancient desert monastics, rooted in the Christian (Anglican/ Episcopal) ethos, deeply sensitive to the wisdom of other religious traditions especially Buddhism.  Interested folks might gather together on some sort of regular basis here in a desert setting for silence, meditation, teaching, praying together, sharing our stories. 

I have been "playing" with this idea of a desert contemplative community for some time now, and more recently I have expanded my thinking to seek the advice of others and to garner the support of the local bishop. The responses of friends, colleagues and local authorities have been wonderfully surprising to me. Not only have I been encouraged to pursue this, but a common theme has been sounded by everyone whom I have approached about this project.  

They have all  counseled me to be "playful" -"try a bunch of stuff, see what works, and learn from what doesn't work" - seek out some creative meeting spaces like gardens and patios that look out at the mountains, shady spots along the wilderness trails. Be flexible on days and times for gatherings, don't be too heavily program-oriented. - "try a bunch of stuff; see what works; and learn from what doesn't work."

This encouragement and permission to be "playful" has really struck a chord with me. 

Like many people in organizational structures, most of my life in previous days was spent on developing carefully planned strategies (especially in proposing new projects).  My head spins when I think about the number of long-range and short-range strategic planning committees I have sat on for the churches and schools I have served over the years. 

There was a five-year plan, a ten-year plan, a business plan, a contingency budget, long lists of goals, mission statements, and expected outcomes. Sometimes these strategies were helpful, most of the time, after five years I would look back at the five-year plan and discover that little if anything of our careful strategies and proposed outcomes ever really came to fruition - it sounded good on paper.  

As I look back at it now, I wonder why we were so afraid of being "playful" - so fearful of trying a bunch of stuff and just seeing what bubbled up. I think maybe it's because no one (myself very much included) wanted to fail or make mistakes.  Failure would be a flaw. Failure would be taken as a sign of incompetency, and so there was little room for playfulness.

Priest and author Richard Rohr wisely observes:

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right

I think there is a great truth in this. When I am playful and "try a bunch of stuff," there will be lots of failures -many things that won't work. This teaches me that I am not in control - no matter how important I may think I am, I can't make things happen just because "I" want them to happen.  

The more my ego shrinks the farther along I am on the road to enlightenment.

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right

So I'm in a very playful mood nowadays - scattering lots of seeds on the rich and rocky desert ground out here, then sitting back and seeing what may or may not take root. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Climbing the Ladder of Success

"Surprise Me!"

Every once in a while I will come across a poem, a picture, or phrase in a book that will just sort of leap out at me, begging to catch my attention. Yesterday I had such an experience while reading one of the journals of the priest and monk, Thomas Merton.  One simple phrase literally stopped me in my tracks. 

When ambition ends, happiness begins.

I had seen this quote many times before but never paid much attention to it in the past.  I think maybe I just didn't understand it, or maybe I didn't believe it.  After all, what's wrong with setting goals in life and having dreams?  But it struck me yesterday that to be ambitious is quite different from having dreams and hopes for the future. 

Thomas Merton was a Christian Monk but he was also a Buddhist practitioner, and I think the Buddhist teaching about "craving" best explains why you can't be happy until you give up being ambitious. 

The Buddha taught that "craving" is a poison  - a great (perhaps the greatest) cause of human suffering. Craving is purely an act of a bloated ego and it stems from a sense of exaggerated self- importance. I "crave" when I am consumed with plotting and planning to get the bigger and better - the more prestigious job, the more exalted promotion, a house in that better neighborhood.  

Consumed by craving, people will often do whatever is necessary to get what they want, even if it involves crushing and stepping on other people who might be getting in their way. 

Another word for "craving" is "ambition."

When I am infected with the poison of ambition,  I cannot possibly live in the present moment and experience the joy of life as it "is," because I am always geared toward making life become what I want it to be.  Ambition is the fuel of narcissism - the food that feeds a bloated ego.

In another passage, Thomas Merton also pointed out:

People may spend their whole life climbing the ladder of success,
only to find out that when they get to the top,
their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

I know many very unhappy people who have finally "made it." They have reached the pinnacle of success. They have become the envy of everyone at the lower rungs of the ladder. And yet, when they finally get to the top, they find themselves asking, "Is that all there is?"   All the carefully planned ambitious strategies, the life-long climbing up the ladder, stepping over and sometimes stepping on those on the lower rungs, and there at the top rung, they discover that their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

I think I may actually be somewhat of an expert when it comes to talking about "ambition." Throughout much of my life I was one of the most ambitious people I knew.  Now in my later years I realize how ambition was always a cause of ultimate suffering for me. Merton was right

When ambition ends, happiness begins. 

I sit in my garden and greet the morning sun, "happy" to be paying attention to the glorious revelations of the moment, awake to life as it "is" not as I want it to be.  

I begin my day as I begin everyday - opening my arms, I call out to the Universe:

Surprise  me! 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fully Human

"Bold and Beautiful"

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Maya Angelou yesterday, and I have been trying to get in touch with why she had such an impact on me. Yesterday I came across something she once said, and I immediately realized why I was always so drawn to her. 

I work very hard, and I play very hard.
I'm grateful for life - I believe life loves the liver of it.
I live it.

If ever there was a person who loved life and lived it fully, it was this remarkable woman who grew up  in an Arkansas cotton field, experienced all the humiliation, prejudice and degradation the "Jim Crow" South had to dish out; and then went on to be a world renowned poet, author, teacher and mentor.  

Maya Angelou was a dancer, a singer, a street car conductor, a magazine editor, a friend and associate of the most eminent African Americans of the mid-20th century, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was a well-respected college professor with a string of honorary degrees from various universities. She was a renowned poet and accomplished author - reading one of her poems at the inauguration of President Clinton. She spoke six languages, and before her death, President Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award on her (the country's highest civilian honor).  

Talk about a full life!

I've been thinking about what it means to live a life that's full, and I look to Maya Angelou as a model and an example for my own life.  

Lots of people today live life very cautiously. They carefully plot out their futures, surround themselves with like-minded people, protect and guard their resources.  For many people, life is predictable and controllable. They may be stuck in a rut but at least the rut is comfortable and familiar.  Living like this, the world is very small and life is pretty empty.     

When I look at someone like Maya Angelou, I see someone who lived a big, bold, risky, generous and adventurous life.  She embraced pain and failure as widely as she embraced joy and success, and even in the midst of all the darkness and the suffering, she always claimed the light. She lived with hope knowing that in the end love always wins the day.

It seems to me that you can only live a full and bold life by living with hope - freed from the grip of fear, giving up the ego's careful control, embracing all the surprises life might have to offer.

I will miss the "fullness" that Maya Angelou brought to the human family and always look to her as an example of how to be "fully alive." 

I call to mind something that the Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron once said:

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake 
is to be continually thrown out of the nest.
To live fully is to be always in no-man's land,
to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.

I sit in my garden as I usually do, greeting the sun at the beginning of a new day. Yesterday is past, tomorrow never comes.  All I have is now and it's all brand new.  

So I open my arms to all that "is" - open to the pain, the sorrow, the failure, the joys and the successes of living every day.  And I live in hope because I truly do believe that love abides, and in the end love does conquer all. 

I'm grateful for life - I believe life loves the liver of it. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Winding Path

"Desert Highway"

Yesterday I made a trip over to San Diego which necessitated travel over a high desert mountain.

The highway I was on follows along a trail carved out by the early native peoples and settlers in this region. It is full of hairpin curves that twist and turn as they wind a way up the steep mountain. 

Traveling on this highway yesterday, I never quite knew what to expect - sometimes the cars in the oncoming traffic came squealing around a curve almost veering into my lane. At times the sun would get into my eyes making me feel like I had little control as I negotiated those treacherous twists and turns. 

And yet the trip up the mountain was so exhilarating. The higher I would climb, the more beautiful were the views, the sun glistening on purple stone rock towering over the valley below - so magnificently vast that I couldn't see where it all ended and where it all began. 

As I made my way in the wilderness, up the mountain, over that winding path, I thought to myself, "what a perfect icon of the journey toward wisdom." 

Every human being seeks wisdom and is drawn to search for transcendence in life. Some people choose to find meaning in life by following a path of religion. Many expect the "religion road" to be direct and rather easy to travel -follow the prescribed rules, say a few formulaic prayers, go to church once in a while and "check-in," and you reach your destination: "God." 

Others may follow along spiritual paths that are less religious and yet at times just as formulaic - sit on a yoga mat for 10 minutes every morning, count your breaths, use a mantra, keep focused, and you get "enlightened" - rather direct and fairly easy. 

But the road to wisdom never follows such a quick and easy path. Every authentic spiritual pathway is a road up the mountain, and mountain paths are never direct or easy to travel. 

My mountain path yesterday was an icon of the spiritual journey. 

The road I traveled yesterday was first carved out by the ancestors. So it is the case that all spiritual paths were first carved out by the ancestors - the "way" of the prophets, the "way" of the Buddha, the "way" of Jesus.  I follow the way of Jesus and I also pay close attention to other teachers who have carved out a path of wisdom through the wilderness. The Buddha is always close at hand for me. 

My wilderness path up the mountain yesterday was filled with unexpected hairpin curves that had to be carefully negotiated. Sometimes my eyes were blinded by the sun, and it often was often kind of scary going around those treacherous turns.  So it is on the spiritual pathway

A spiritual path never follows a straight line because life never follows a straight line.  Life is difficult, troubles comes my way.  I am sometimes filled with doubt, lose hope, and I am overcome by fear. Life is filled with unexpected turns and hairpin curves. 

But I stay on the path, and I pay close attention to where it leads me because the path gets me through it all. The path may be difficult but it never leads to a dead end. It leads me up onto the other side. 

And as I stay on the path and climb up the mountain, the views are spectacular and the higher I climb the more beautiful is the view. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mending a Broken World

"Many as One"

The word "holiness" usually conjures up all sorts of images- a priest in a long white robe saying lots of prayers? A monk meditating in a temple garden? A great biblical hero enthroned in a stained glass window in a church? 

Actually for me, when I think of "holiness," priests saying prayers, and stained-glass images aren't what immediately come to mind.  

For me, "holiness" is another word for "wholeness."  

A holy person is a "whole person" - someone who is not cut off, but lives life as a relationship. A whole person does not hide within the walls of a self-important ego but is aware of the truth that we all belong to one another -we are all a web of relationship. And so, a holy/whole person values relationships, fosters relationships, and when relationships are ruptured, the holy person becomes a reconciler and a restorer. 

This morning I am thinking about holiness and wholeness because I am still reeling from a horrific event that occurred a few days ago here in California. The images still continue to haunt me even in my sleep. A few hours up the coast from me, there was another shooting in the public square in a college community near Santa Barbara. After stabbing his roommates to death, a young student barely out of his teens armed himself with three semi-automatic weapons and went on a drive by-shooting rampage on the streets of this upscale college town, randomly killing three fellow students who just happened to be in a local 7-11, and seriously wounding and maiming many others before he finally shot himself to death.

A news report I was listening to yesterday said that the shooter was "insane." He had been treated for serious mental health issues for many years. In fact, he had posted a wide variety of "U-tube" videos online before the shootings occurred, clearly demonstrating that he was indeed troubled, disturbed, "insane." 

As I reflect upon it, I have concluded that the shooter wasn't the only insane one here. As I see it everything about this entire incident was insane - it was all so broken and so unholy. 

Another news report yesterday featured an interview with the father of one of the girls who had been murdered. He was devastated at his loss - literally a "broken" man. I have a son in graduate school here in California. I just simply cannot even imagine what it would be like to learn that my son had been shot to death by a random "insane" shooter driving by on the streets. It would break me into pieces-drive me insane. 

I also think about how insane it is that we continue to value and protect and uphold gun use laws in this country, especially in light of all the insanity of the shootings over the past years. 

For the life of me I cannot fathom how that young man, who has been treated for mental illness all his life goes onto the social media and makes a series of very public statements in expressing his rage over and over again, can walk into a gun shop and with no difficulty whatsoever purchase three semi-automatic weapons. I think perhaps this is the most insane thing of all. 

So there has been a lot of insanity over the past few days out here - so much brokenness. It has been an unholy time. And so this is indeed a season for reconciliation and restoration.

There is a wonderful practice in the Jewish mystical tradition. It is called "Tikkun Olam"-the practice of "mending a broken world." According to this tradition, it is the duty and responsibility of every human being to do his or her part to repair any fracture, rupture or brokenness they encounter in everyday living. 

I will most likely be unable to personally help pick up the pieces of those many broken lives in that college town up north from me.  All I can do for them is cry along with them because we belong to each other.  And then I can look to my own life, pledge myself once again to live a life of holiness, and then do what I can in my everyday living to mend a broken world. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Civilized People

"Liberty and Justice for All"

A few years back I gave a sermon at a wedding, suggesting that the success and longevity of any marriage is marked by the degree to which the couple are willing to "make sacrifices" for one another's welfare. Marriages are most successful when couples focus on what they can give to and not what they can get out of the relationship. 

I actually thought that what I was saying about marriages was "common sense." That's why I was so surprised and even shocked by some of the comments and questions raised at the reception after the ceremony. A number of people (especially younger people)  came up to me and told me that they never thought about marriage like that before. In fact the very use of the word "sacrifice" was pretty foreign-rarely used in everyday conversations. 

I suppose that shouldn't have surprised me all that much. After all, much of today's popular culture is fairly self-centered. Personal gratification and self satisfaction are very highly prized in today's society. At best, everyday life becomes somewhat of a negotiation process -relationships with others (even marriage) are a "50/50 proposition" in which "I'll do good for you in exchange for you doing the same (or better) good for me."  We live in a culture where happiness is promised to those who have the most; and those who have the most often show very little concern for those who have the least.

The idea of making sacrifices for others, focusing on the welfare of another without negotiating how it will benefit my own personal gratification is a rather foreign idea for lots of people today. 

Today is Memorial Day in America- a day on which we remember the "sacrifices" made by those who have fought in the nation's wars.  Today also affords me an opportunity to reflect on the "sacrifices"  all civilized people everywhere are called to make. 

Several years ago Yale Law Professor, Stephen Carter, wrote a book in which he raised a question about what it is that makes any nation "civilized." He concluded that "civilization" is characterized by:

The sum of sacrifices for the common good.

In a civilized nation, the flow of life is not inward with the goal of self-interest and self-satisfaction in mind. In a civilized nation, the flow of life is "outward" with the welfare of the common good in mind, and individual citizens sacrifice their own personal needs in order to achieve that goal. 

To the degree that citizens live sacrificially, the nation is civilized. To the degree that citizens are unwilling to be concerned for the welfare of others, the nation is little more than a collection of barbarians.

On this day, many American citizens will look to a flag and pledge allegiance to a nation of "Liberty and justice for ALL." I think this is a noble pledge for any civilized people anywhere. And yet I am also reminded of something Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

Human progress is neither automatic or inevitable.
Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice.

Memorial Day is a good day for Americans and for citizens of all nations to reflect on how civilized  they are. The lesson of history is that "barbarians" never survive the test of time.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Fear of Change

"A New Day"

I have been closely following Pope Francis' trip to Israel and Palestine; and I am deeply impressed by his peacemaking efforts in that "war-weary" region of the world. 

I was in Israel several years ago and I had an opportunity to speak with many Israelis as well as many Palestinians - that's why I say it is such a "war-weary" region. The conflict there has been going on for decades and "constant" underlying tension prevails still-  fear of bombings, attacks and reprisals. In my visit there, I found that people were weighed down and weary under the burden of it all. 

I say that I have been impressed with Pope Francis because it seems to me that he is one of the few people who have tried to honor and respect all the various people on all the sides in this conflict.  He is traveling with an Imam and a Rabbi at his side - symbols of goodwill, also serving as his advisors. He is visiting Palestinian refugee camps and meeting with Palestinian officials. He is also visiting Israel and Israeli officials, even laying a wreath at the tomb of the "Father" of present-day Zionism. 

One might think that these peacemaking efforts would be welcomed with open arms in such a war-weary region, and yet the Pope has met with all sorts of resistance as he reaches out with love and respect to both sides of the opposition.  Palestinians are incensed that the Pope would lay a wreath at the tomb of a sworn enemy. Israelis are "up in arms" at Francis' open embrace of people they deem to be terrorists.

In a somewhat off-the-cuff, unscripted remark yesterday, the Pope said something that helped me understand what may be at the very core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact it may be at the core of every conflict.  During a speech he was giving Pope Francis stopped, as he looked up and sighed: 

God protect us from the fear of change!

I've  been reflecting on this one little comment. It seems to me that people really do want peace. Of course they do - they are tired and wearied by "battle."  But what people do not want is "change." And that's exactly what the pope's peace-making efforts are stirring up-  he is stirring up a climate of "change."  

In order for peace and reconciliation to actually take hold anywhere, "everyone" has to change. It seems to me that the fear of change may indeed lie at the heart of all human conflict. We get used to "wallowing in the mud," stuck in our own little ruts in life.  Even when staying stuck there weighs us down and makes us weary, we'd rather stay there than move into unknown territory.

The Buddha taught: 

All things are impermanent.
When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.

Constant change is in fact at the very definition of existence. Physicists as well as philosophers teach that "being is becoming." Nothing is ever static or stays the same.  Our  resistance to change and our desire to keep things as they are is a pure act of the ego-a feeble attempt to control that which can never be controlled.  

When we embrace the truth that life is change, we do indeed turn away from suffering. 

God protect us from the fear of change!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Smaller, The Better

"Tender Beauty"
-in the meditation garden-

As I went around watering some of the pots in our garden yesterday, I noticed that one tiny little flower had sprung up from a bristly cactus. The little flower was so simple, so small, and so tenderly beautiful. It grabbed my total attention, and I had to simply stop and gaze at it. That one tiny cactus flower became an icon for me of what a "spiritual" journey is all about. That one little flower pointed a "way" for me. 

As I see it, the direction of any spiritual quest usually runs directly against the grain of popular culture. On my spiritual journey, I find that I am always "going against the traffic," which is probably why the spiritual path is often the road less traveled. 

We live in a culture driven by the ethic of "the bigger, the better." We are told that success and happiness are gained by going up the ladder. We strive to attend bigger and better schools and colleges so that we can land bigger and better jobs that will allow individuals to have more and more control,  and this will lead to bigger bank accounts, so that we can live in bigger and better homes and have all sorts of bigger and better "stuff."  

The road of everyday popular culture flows in the direction of the "ego."  It's no wonder there are so many narcissists around today.

But I know lots of people on that road to "bigger and better" who are ultimately quite unhappy, often kind of empty.  When you live your life within the walls of your own ego, there aren't many other people around to live life with you- it's a pretty lonely place to be. The fact is that the road to "bigger and better" very often leads to a dead-end. 

The path of the spiritual journey moves in the opposite direction. The road signs along the way of this path read: "the smaller the better."  Paradoxically, when the ego is "smaller," life actually becomes "bigger and better." 

Living in a desert has been a great gift to me - it has helped point me in the right direction, down a spiritual path.  It has been said that the desert is not a place for the "ego" to thrive. I totally understand what that means. 

At this time of year the desert bakes in an afternoon heat of triple digit temperatures. And so, sitting outside at night is such a refreshing treat. Last night I sat outside in my garden. The desert sky at night is always breathtaking for me - the endless array of planets and stars lighting up the night skies with a brilliant display of cosmic energy. It's always so overwhelming to me.

As I sat under the stars last night, I was reminded of something the British adventurer D.H. Lawrence once said as he camped under the light of the desert skies:

In the naked desert's night we were stained by the dew,
and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silence of the stars.

That's what the desert does for me; it shames me into pettiness. It shrinks my own sense of self importance. It reduces my false sense of being so "big;" the desert is so big and it makes "me" realize "I" am so small. 

And when that happens I actually become "bigger and better." My own small self melts into something beyond me.  It draws me out into the endless flow of life and makes me know that I belong to it all, and "I" become at ONE with the many and realize that the ONE is in the many. 

A little tiny simple tender cactus flower yesterday was another one of those guideposts given to me as I walk this journey of the less traveled road. It was pointing me in the right direction

The Smaller, The Better. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Discipline of Touch

-along a wideness trail-

As I was browsing through yesterday's New York Times, I was shocked and saddened by a story about abandoned babies in Athens, Greece.  The economic crisis that struck that country a few years back has  forced many families to literally abandon their infant children. Apparently this has now become a crisis of epic proportion because hospitals cannot adequately care for the large numbers of these "cast-away" babies. 

Yesterday's story featured a series of heartbreaking pictures that I could barely look at because they were so excruciatingly sad. Scores of infants, all lying alone in their little beds with hardly anyone to care for them - it was all so distressing to see. 

But the thing that was most heart wrenching to me was the close-up pictures of these abandoned ones.  Babies who were 3 months old or 9 months old looked as if they were elderly men and women. Their legs and arms all bloated, skin wrinkled, little toes and fingers were all gnarled and twisted. They just didn't look like babies. 

The thing is that the doctors and nurses understand exactly why this is happening. The problem is that no one is touching or holding these little babies - no moms or dads or grandmas and grandpas, not even nurses or attendants because there are just too many babies to hold, to cuddle, to gently touch.

As I think about it, there is no time in life when human beings are touched and held more than when we are infants. From the first moment a newborn enters this world he or she is held and touched and cuddled - the touching connects us, assures us, comforts us, lets us know that we are not alone. 

Without the touch of other human beings, those little babies lying alone in their beds are literally  "shriveling up and dying." 

It all makes me realize just how much a sense of "being connected" is at the very core of our humanity. We are not isolated individuals. We are a relationship, and from the very first moments on this earth we need to be "in touch" with that relationship,  or we shrivel up and life drains out of us. 

Every day I write a blog post about some aspect of "spirituality." The story of those infants has deepened my awareness that, in essence, spirituality is always about experiencing our interconnectedness.  Spiritual practices are tools, vehicles, pathways to help us to be connected and feel connected. 

I sit in my garden every morning for a time of solitude, silence and meditation. While this seems like a time of going inward, it is actually a time of going outward. My meditation time heightens my awareness of relationship - relationship with the wilderness, relationship with all the people I know, or don't know or will never know. 

So it is with all spiritual disciplines - prayer or study, meditation in a church or sitting on a yoga mat - all opportunities to help us connect and feel connected.

As I reflect on those untouched babies alone in their beds, I also realize that "touching" is in fact a "spiritual discipline." -maybe even a "vital" spiritual discipline. 

While touching can be used to control, dominate or seduce, touching is also a way in which we human beings connect with one another. Hugging and cuddling, holding hands, a pat on the back, a healing hand laid upon a head, shaking hands and offering a greeting of peace -  it all fosters the flow of life and keeps us from shriveling up.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

True Believers

-In the High Desert"

Several years back the social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, coined the term "True Believers" to describe people who rigidly cling to their beliefs and ideas and are fanatically committed to a cause. "True Believers" are so rabidly committed to their view of things that they will do anything to defend their positions and will not budge an inch to change their rigidly-held perceptions. "True Believers" are so tightly wound that they think any slight change in any part of their beliefs will destroy the entire system. 

As I read the papers, listen to the news, and observe the social media, I think there are an awful lot of "True Believers" around today. This seems to be a growing cultural phenomenon. 

Religions of all sorts are replete with camps of "True Believers." Christian fundamentalists claim that Jesus is the only way to the truth and stand in judgment against any who might find another path.  Muslim extremists in places like Sudan are convinced that Islam is the only way, and so a 27 year-old pregnant mother is condemned to be hanged because she has deviated from the "true faith" of Islam and converted to Christianity.

There are also a number of "True Believer" atheists nowadays as the tide of "new atheism" spreads though out the culture. Every day I browse the social media and I often try to engage in a conversation with atheists, but find it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so. So many self-identified atheists are absolutely and rigidly certain about what they do not believe.  Oftentimes their judgments against believers is based on a very myopic understanding of what faith in "God" is all about, but they simply refuse to entertain the possibility of dialogue. 

And of course, "True Believers" can readily be found in the halls of congress nowadays. Everyone seems to have retreated into their respective camps of certainty and rigidity- Tea Party Conservatives and Libertarians, Establishment Republicans, even Liberal Democrats, each camp sure that they have it right, that they have found the way. And so, they rigidly hold onto their views and are often are so  fanatically committed to their causes as to preclude even the possibility of dialogue or compromise. 

And now there is a new venue in which "True Believers" are "popping up." For me, this is the scariest place of all. 

As I see it, the "University" is bestowed with a sacred trust in this culture. Places of higher learning are venues in which many different people with many different points of view are given open access to air their positions so that a dialogue might take place and wisdom might emerge.  However during this graduation season the "True Believers" phenomenon seems to be rearing its ugly head in those hallowed halls of higher learning. 

An editorial in this morning's Los Angeles Times suggests:

On college campuses all over the country, the classes of 2014 have distinguished themselves like none before - many by chasing away their commencement speakers.

All across the nation, speakers invited to give commencement addresses have been disinvited because some students have lodged vociferous protests that the chosen speakers are too liberal or in most cases not liberal enough - their politics are wrong. And so rather than listening to someone who "may" possibly hold a dissenting point of view, graduating classes across the nation are closing the door and turning their backs, only willing to listen to those who think in the same way they do. 

In my heart of hearts I really am convinced that there are many paths to wisdom and no one possesses the truth. I also believe that we find deeper truth when we are willing and able to enter into dialogue with those who may appear to be different -wisdom emerges in the differences.  

As I see it, civilized people are "seekers of wisdom." Barbarians are guardians of "the true and only way."  

We can all hold onto our beliefs without becoming "True Believers." 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Turning the Other Cheek

"Late Spring Wilderness"

In my reading yesterday I came across something Ken Keyes once said a few years back:

More suffering comes into the world by people taking offense
than by people intending to give offense.

I find a great deal of wisdom in that statement, and it gives me pause to do some self-reflection.

Throughout most of my life I was a pretty "thin-skinned" type of person. It didn't take much to offend me, and I was always on the alert for anything I perceived as a "negative" judgment against me. I pretty much wanted other people to always think well of me,  and whenever it seemed like someone didn't, I immediately went into a defensive posture.  After all, I had "my honor" to defend. 

As I think about it now, many if not most of the time, I exaggerated "perceived" attacks against me.  In fact, I have now come to realize that, for the most part, people were hardly ever thinking about me at all. 

Yet, even when people did intend to "give offense," my defensive responses always made matters worse. My defensiveness was in fact the beginning of a "Ping-Pong" match. I would negatively respond to an "insult;" an of course, this put the other person on the defensive, often leading to a further attack. And thus the battle had begun. 

More suffering comes into the world by people taking offense
than by people intending to give offense.

I have come to believe that "taking offense" is always an act of the "false self" - the "ego." It's almost impossible for the "true self" to be offended.  Whenever I feel hurt or used or rejected by what another person said or did, it is my ego that takes offense - an ego that pays so much attention to what other people think, an ego that believes others are always paying attention to "me." 

But my "ego" is not my "true self." My isolated separated ego is, in fact, a myth and a delusion. My true self is a relationship with others. My true self can't be offended by others because there are no different others. "I am all those others and the others are me." 

A profoundly wise teaching of Jesus comes to mind:

You have heard that it was said,  'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

It took me a real long time to understand this teaching and to accept its wisdom. It always sounded kind of "wimpy" to me - why should I allow other people to step all over me?" But Jesus was a great wisdom teacher. He understood the difference between the "false self" and the "true self." He knew something about the greater suffering brought into the world by people taking offense.

"Turning the other cheek" is always a better response when your "ego" has been offended. 

An ancient 4th century desert monk put it this way:

Evil cannot drive out evil. If anyone hurts you, 
do good to him and your good will destroy his evil.

Turning the other cheek is a "powerful" way of taking offense. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wisdom of the Elders

"Golden Sunset"
-in the desert skies-

A local NPR talk show yesterday featured a program about growing old in America. With the aging of the "baby-boomers," this is becoming a hot topic nowadays, and several people "called-in" to the program expressing their opinions. 

One woman in her 50's talked about how fearful she was of getting older - vowing to do anything she could to keep looking young as she aged.  Another man (maybe in his 20's) expressed his anger over the fact that there were "too many old people taking up space nowadays." He suggested that these "old people" need to "make room " for younger generations. One other woman suggested that older people aren't honored and respected enough in this "youth-oriented" society.

I found myself essentially disagreeing with all those callers yesterday, and so I've been spending some time reflecting on the phenomenon of growing older. I actually think the problem today is that, while there are plenty of older people, there are not many elders in the culture, and there is a big difference between the two.

First of all, I don't believe that someone should be honored and respected just because they have turned 60 or 70 or 80. I know plenty of older people who are more narcissistic in their later years than they ever were when they were younger. They have convinced themselves that they have lived long enough to have "figured it all out" and that people should now listen to them. 

When I was a parish priest there were far too many older people who had decided that they wanted everything to be just like it was in the "good old days," often standing against any attempts at change or innovation. I personally know or have observed many older people who are pretty cranky, petty and cantankerous, especially if they don't get their own way. 

So I don't think people should be honored, respected or looked up to just because they have reached a certain age. But I do think there is an important role for "elders" to play in the culture 

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, priest and author Richard Rohr  makes this astute observation:

Our elderly are seldom elders. When they are true elders we fall in love with them

Elders are not narcissistic older people who want the world to act according to their standards. 

Elders are people who have grown into their later years (their second half of life) and have come to a new awareness -  all the answers and all the certainties of their earlier years have dissolved into a pile of dust. An elder is one who has evolved into a wisdom of "unknowing." 

Elders are people who  have lived long enough to finally have what Buddhist's would call "a Beginner's  Mind." Elders with a "Beginners Mind" were once the experts but they don't want to be experts any more. Their expert answers of the past don't work for them anymore. They are comfortable with doubt, always open to mystery.  Elders have come to recognize their own imperfections and failings in life and they have forgiven themselves for their past faults. And so, they don't expect perfection in anyone else and are willing to forgive others just as they have forgiven themselves. 

Now that I am in the "second half of my life,"  I sure don't want to be in the driver's seat anymore, but hopefully I have become an "elder," (at least this is my goal). So I think I might now be a good passenger who could offer some wisdom and even good advice along the way. 

Our elderly are seldom elders. When they are true elders we fall in love with them



Monday, May 19, 2014

The Narrow Path

"A Wilderness Trail"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Just across the street from our house there is a tiny little entrance path leading to the desert floor. The branches of a low-hanging "smoke"  tree form an arch over the narrow pathway,  so I literally must squeeze through the entranceway, making it all the more stunning when I make it through and find that I am suddenly in the middle of "paradise."  I never fail to stand in reverential awe at the vast expanse of a boundless desert, so stark and yet so beautiful with wildflowers and bushes blooming everywhere at this time of year as purple stone mountains tower in the distance.

Whenever I pass through that tiny little entranceway,  I always remember something Jesus once said to his disciples:

Strive to enter through the narrow door.

Nowadays people may hear those words without grasping their profound wisdom.  This teaching all sounds rather obscure.  But if you had lived back in Jesus' time, you would have immediately understand what he was saying.

Back then, there were two ways you could get entry into a city like Jerusalem. One entranceway was through the main gate through which most people traveled. Every day vast crowds would make their way into the holy city through the large wide-open gates of the main entranceway  -  soldiers on horses clad in their armor, temple priests in their royal garb, merchants with carts laden with wares for sale in the marketplace, pilgrims with purses full to "shop the day away." 

But there was also another, little-used entranceway- a tiny narrow doorway through which only one person at a time could barely squeeze though.  It was impossible to haul in any of your "stuff" if you entered through this narrow door--no horses, no armor, no carts nor purses full of things. 

Jesus told people that if they wanted to gain entry into that place of deep peace, a place of light and new life, they needed to enter through the narrow door. In order to do so, they would need to leave behind all their stuff in life. Leave behind the "old self" so that they could find the "new self" on the other side.

The Buddha taught this very same wisdom: the spiritual path is a "narrow path." 

The Buddha was a great worldly prince who left it all behind in order to walk the narrow path of enlightenment. He taught his disciples that they must also become "detached" if they wished to walk  that narrow path. They too would need to leave all their "stuff" at the doorway.  

He taught them to leave behind all their desires and cravings for the bigger and the better and the newer. He taught them to leave behind all their ambitions, their need for social status. Leave behind  obsessions for having all the answers to all the questions. He taught them not cling to possessions and to let their minds be always in the present, detached from the clutter of future planing and memories of the past. Do this and you will find that you are on that narrow path. 

Walking the narrow path of enlightenment, the ego is left at the entranceway and the "true self" is found on the other side - everything and everyone all belonging to one another

Almost every day I squeeze through that tiny little entranceway that leads to the stunning wilderness on the other side. I have memorized a Sufi prayer, and I often recite this as a mantra whenever I make my way onto that narrow path:

Give me 
Deep thoughts
High Dreams
Few Words
Much silence
The narrow path
The wide outlook
The end in Peace.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Blowing in the Wind


At this time of year it is almost a "given" that the day will begin and end with howling winds rushing through the desert canyons. As I woke up this morning, I could hear the roar of those winds announcing the rising of the sun. They sound fierce and frightening. They also sound exciting, so full of life and energy as they dance around the desert floor - the wind chimes around my house ringing out loudly to signal their arrival (the desert isn't a place where you are likely to "sleep in" even on a Sunday morning).

The blowing wind makes me pay attention to something we all take for granted. It focuses me on the  air we all automatically breathe in and breath out every moment of every day in order to keep alive. As I sit here at daybreak listening to the wind rushing over me, I am paying attention to the air I breathe. 

I remember a recent TED talk given by a prominent biologist. 

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

There are thousands of books about meditation and contemplation - even more "self help" books offering various techniques for stress reduction.  In every one of these books there is always some sort of advice about "breathing techniques."  Advice on how to focus on the in-breath and the out-breath, advice for counting the breaths  - a whole array of "techniques"to help you focus while meditating, and to feel more tranquil and less stressed out.  

But I think "paying attention to breathing" is far more than a stress reduction or meditation "technique."   The very air we breathe literally and physically connects everything and everyone that ever was, is, or ever will be. 

When I pay attention to the air I breathe, I am being mindfully aware of the universe. The simple act of breathing that we all do every moment of every day in order to keep alive is always a "cosmic" event. 

Maybe that's why I have grown to love those moments when the winds come rushing into the desert at the break of day. They are the winds of life ushering in the universe, a love song sung by an Abiding Holy Presence, flowing in it all and blowing through it all. 

As I sit in my garden, the winds are swirling and dancing all around me on this Sunday morning. They are singing that terrifying beautiful song of "life." As I breathe in, I breathe in all that "is" -  the mountains and the skies, the spring blossoms along the wilderness trail, all the desert creatures who walk and crawl and fly all around me. As I breathe in, I breathe in my loved ones, neighbors, strangers I have never met in so-called "foreign lands." 

I breathe in all that "is," all that ever "was" and all that is "yet to be." 

As the winds of life blow into me, I also breathe out into them - my breath, my carbon, out there into the vast sea of cosmic interconnection. My breath, a breath that may be inhaled by my great great grandchildren some day, long after I am gone. 

I am overwhelmed by the thought of it all as I find myself humming an old Bob Dylan song,

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Indeed, it is!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Culture of Perfectionism

"Perfect Simplicity"
-in my garden-

It's "Graduation" season, and all across the country students are hearing speech after speech wishing them well and launching them into the world. In my web browsing yesterday,  I came across an excerpt from one of those many commencement speeches, but there was something about one of them that really made me stop and pay attention to it.

The speaker concluded her address by quoting from something author Anne Lamont once said:

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you are 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn't go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?

It's going to break your heart. Don't let this happen. 

When I read this yesterday I thought that this may be the best piece of advice those graduates might ever hear in their lives.  I sure wish someone would have said this to me when I was sitting in those chairs graduating from college or high school (or from seminary). Instead the advice I usually got was, "If you can't do it right, don't do it at all."

In my later years of life I now wonder what "doing it right" actually meant?  

We live in a culture of perfectionism. If you get a "B+" it's not as good as an "A,"so work harder. Every day we are inundated with images of that perfect body, the perfect teeth, the perfect skin and perfect hair.  The perfect athletes are on the field or the basketball court. The perfect family with the two kids and a dog live in the perfect house with the two-car garage.  But for most of us, we can never even hope to achieve those heights of perfection, and so because we are less than perfect we either live lives of quiet disappointment or perhaps we don't even try.

I think of my own life growing up as a boy in school. I always thought I might like to paint pictures, but I wasn't anywhere near as good an artist as some of the other kids in the class and my teachers made sure I understood this, so I never even tried.  I thought I might like to play on a team, but I was pretty uncoordinated and was basically that kid who was the last to be chosen for the "dodge ball" game. So I mostly just sat on the sidelines because I didn't want to show how less than perfect I was. 

Throughout most of my life I was taught to be a people pleaser - always striving for a "perfection" - a  perfection that never even existed.  Other people were always defining what it meant to do it "right," and if I couldn't do it right, I wouldn't do it at all. 

Thankfully a lot has changed for me in my later years.

The Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello once said:

After I turned 20 I worried endlessly about how people were evaluating me. Only after turning 50 did I realize that they hardly even thought of me at all.

In my later years, it's not so much that I don't care about what other people think of me,  it's just that I now realize other people aren't even paying that much attention to me at all.  They never did, but my big ego never allowed me to understand that in the past.

I have "turned my back" on a culture of perfectionism.  I want to spend my days living a "big juicy creative life." 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Untroubled Hearts

"Peace in the Valley"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday as I watched the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial Museum at "Ground Zero" in New York City, I was flooded with an avalanche of vivid memories. 

Most people can tell you exactly where they were when those planes flew into the twin towers killing all those people on that fateful day in September 2001.  The church I was serving at the time was in mid-state New York, and so several of my parishioners did business in New York City. Some would regularly go to the World Trade Center. 

I was in a meeting in my office on that September day. My secretary knocked at the door and told us that that we needed to end the meeting and come watch the news being reported on the TV. I still remember sitting in horror as the drama of that morning unfolded - planes deliberately flown into the towers, people jumping to their deaths in panic. I had personally been in those mighty towers many times. It was so excruciatingly painful to watch them collapse into a heap, crushing everything and everyone within them and around them.

Then came the news of other planes of mass destruction crashing into a field in Pennsylvania, still another flown into the Pentagon.  Would the White House be next?  

Our church was located somewhat near a major Air Force Base, and so as we watched these horrible events taking place on the TV screen, we could hear fighter jets roaring overhead - deployed into battle. We also learned that the President had been taken to an underground bunker. 

It really felt like we were at war. And, very honestly, I was afraid. I was very afraid.  

Like many communities in America, on the evening of September 11, we all gathered for a prayer vigil in our church.  Word about the vigil had spread mostly through word of mouth and a through a few radio announcements, but I wasn't sure if anyone would even show up for this obviously spontaneous and unplanned event.  But when I went into the church, the place was packed, standing room only  - not only members of the church, but also people from throughout the entire neighboring community.  We needed to be together with one another on that night.  

In the middle of the prayer service, I realized something.  There was still much to fear. We were all profoundly sad over the devastation and loss of that day, still very unsure of what 9/11 might mean. A war seemed like a real possibility.  But, in the midst of all the horror, chaos and danger, I also realized that I was no longer troubled and I had a sense that most of the people in that room that evening also left with untroubled hearts.  

We were with one another. We had one another. In the midst of our gathering there was a sense of an abiding power of love connecting us all, a Holy Presence weeping with us, comforting and consoling us, a Power of Light that would not ever abandon us even in the darkest days. 

Nelson Mandela once wrote: 

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear
but the triumph over it.

At a prayer vigil on the evening of September 11, 2001, I also learned that same lesson about fear, courage and triumph. 

Before he left this earth, Jesus gave some parting words to his fearful disciples. He told them:

Do not let your hearts be troubled!

He didn't say, "Never be afraid!" He didn't say, "I am going away but don't worry. I'll take care of everything for you from now on."  No, his parting words were, "Do not let your hearts be troubled," a powerful message not just for Christians or believers but for every human being.

In the midst of all the inevitable chaos that comes our way, we have one another, we take "refuge" in one another, and the power of love will never let us go. 

So we can live with courage, triumphing over fear. 

We can live our lives with untroubled hearts. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Living in a Delusion

"Waking Up"
-in my meditation garden-

I was sitting alone in a local restaurant having lunch yesterday as a man and a woman at the table next to me were engaged in a very vociferous conversation. While I'm not exactly sure what they were arguing about, one particular phrase really stood out as the man pointed a finger at his companion and shouted, "The problem is that you're delusional. You live in your own little world."  

He may not have realized it, but that man was actually touching upon a profound wisdom taught by the Buddha some 2500 years ago - the problem with a lot of people is that they are "delusional."

Over the past several years, I have learned much from Buddhist wisdom, but I find the teaching about "delusion" to be especially insightful.  According to Buddhist teaching, there are "three poisons" that cause human suffering: "greed," "hatred,"  and "delusion" (which is also translated as "ignorance.")

When people are delusional, they are unaware of (ignorant of)  the truth about life and about themselves. They fool themselves into thinking that there is a separated individual ego. They ignore, deny or are unaware of the truth that everything and everyone is interdependent. People are delusional when they hide within their false sense of "ego" and fail to live in harmony with others. When people are delusional, they live in their own little world. 

The Buddha taught that delusion is "the greatest cause of our suffering"- a suffering which is self-inflicted. 

I am very fond of the story of the awakening of Siddhartha Gautama who would later become "The Buddha."  As a young man Siddhartha was "delusional." He was a prince who lived with all the creature comforts the world could offer, but he was unhappy and troubled. At some deep level he knew that there was more to life than the life he was living. And so he began his journey into enlightenment.

As the story goes, Siddhartha Gautama sat under a Bodhi Tree for 40 days and 40 nights. He sat with an uncluttered mind and open heart, sitting in silence, paying attention in the moment. Under that Bodhi tree his eyes were opened and he woke up from his delusion. As he stepped out of his own little world, Siddhartha Gautama became "The Buddha." 

I recently read this wonderful summary of Buddha's experience of waking up:

He saw, not only with his mind but with his whole being, just how the world and human existence in it worked, how everything was in a constant process of interconnected movement, how suffering is caused when humans greedily try to break the interconnections and hold onto things just for themselves, how suffering can be stopped through letting go not just of selfishness but letting go of the very self in compassion for all beings.

My guess is that there are lots of people in the world today who "zone out" with eyes glazed over when they hear the word "spirituality." 

I talk to plenty of people who think that conversations about "spirituality" and spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation have little or nothing to do with ordinary people living everyday life- at work or school, at home or on the marketplace. "Spirituality" has no relevance to the lives of people in a restaurant having an argument at lunch.   

And yet, narcissism is the plague of contemporary society.  Lots of people today are delusional, and many live in their own little world. The direction of the lives of many is "inward," constantly feeding an already bloated ego-an ego that doesn't even exist. And so, every day people drink the poison of delusion, and every day they inflict suffering upon themselves. 

A spiritual quest is not an "ivory tower" journey. It is a path for living every day, awake to the truth about our human condition. The spiritual path is a "way" out of suffering, a path for breaking down the walls of our own little world. 

I look at the Buddha in my meditation garden. He beckons me to sit next to him and become a Buddha too.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Restless Boredom

"The Noonday Sun"
-in the triple digits-

Summer arrives early in the desert. By the time mid-May rolls around, the afternoon temperatures soar up into the triple digits as the desert bakes in the heat of the noonday sun. 

I've been thinking about my spiritual ancestors, those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers - ancient  monastic communities who lived in the middle of the desert and devoted themselves to prayer, study and to faithfully following the teachings of Jesus. These ancient desert monks had quite a bit to say about the baking heat of the noonday sun,  for it was during these hot afternoon hours that they felt especially afflicted by what they referred to as the "noonday demon," whom they named "acedia." 

The word "acedia" is somewhat difficult to translate. It literally means "to have no care." A better translation is "apathy," or better yet, "restless boredom."

Influenced by the oppressive heat of the baking afternoon sun, the desert monastics would often be overcome by a sense of restless boredom - bored with their work, bored with their prayers, bored with the routine of daily meditation, bored with their study, and bored with one another. They often felt a restlessness rise up within themselves - eager to escape the boredom, to find something else to do, other people to be with, other places to live, far away from the emptiness of the fierce desert terrain. . 

I find one particular description of "acedia" to be amusing and insightful as a 4th century monk describes what the "noonday demon" looks like:

As the monk reads he yawns plenty and can easily fall asleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a while. He then wastes his time counting the pages of the book, ascertaining how the book was made,  finding fault with the writing and design. Finally, he just shuts the book and uses it as a pillow.

I guess I find this passage so entertaining because the monk in the story could be me.  I am often afflicted by that "noonday demon" of "acedia." I sometimes find it hard to focus when I meditate or study. I get bored when I engage in the same routine day after day. I often feel restless, wondering what my next project should be. 

Yes, I can certainly understand how the triple digit heat of a desert day would make a person pretty lethargic, apathetic, bored- ready to shut the book and use it as a pillow.  

Actually, I think the experience of "acedia" is common to anyone on any sort of spiritual journey. I often hear from people who tell me how hard it is for them to focus during their meditation and prayer time - how difficult it is to maintain a daily spiritual practice, especially after they have been engaging in these practices for a while, and it has all become so routine. 

But "acedia" doesn't just afflict the spiritual journey.  Lots of people experience "restless boredom" every single day - tired of the same old job, tired of the same old daily routine, tired of the same old relationships. When the "noonday demon" strikes," people get restless. They want to move on to something newer, bigger, better.

The ancient monks told one another that the way to ward off the oppression of "acedia" was to "persevere." Stick with the routine that makes you feel bored and restless. Just keep "doing it"- don't run away from it.  

One of the "Mothers" of an an ancient desert monastic community admonished her young nuns:

Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk and the nun grow cold when they go from one place to another."

In another story, a young monk, bored, restless and afflicted by the "noonday demon," came to an Abba and asked him what he should do?  The wise old Abba told the young monk to go back to his room and just sit there,

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

What great advice, not just for 4th century monks and nuns, but for any one of us who find ourselves  tired of the same old routine - tired of the same old people. When the noonday demon shows up and we feel a sense of restless boredom coming on, don't run away from it, escaping into something new and different, bigger, better, more exciting. Stick with it!  Just do it! 

Ultimately the eggs you are sitting on will hatch and your cell will teach you everything.