Monday, June 30, 2014

Catching a Glimpse

"A Splash of Morning Sunlight"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

It's Monday morning and people everywhere are beginning the work week. Lots of folks got up this morning mulling over their plans, plots and strategies for the week to come, thoughts about upcoming meetings or classes, checking on the calendar, lists of tasks to be accomplished, maybe answering some emails.

As I sat in my garden on this Monday morning for my usual quiet meditation time, I got to thinking about the flurry of activity that was going on all around me as people were plotting the course for the upcoming week, and I immediately called to mind a lesson I learned a few months back when I was taking my photography class. 

I enrolled in the class because I wanted to get some tips about how to use my new camera, hoping to get some photo-snapping pointers, and while I did learn some photography pointers, I also discovered that I was actually enrolled in a spirituality class, and the lessons I learned will stick with me for the rest of my life.  

The instructor in that class was a crusty looking character, a big guy with a long scraggly beard and a baseball cap who looked more like a mountain man than a photographic artist, but he did have some astoundingly beautiful desert photos in his portfolio, so one day I asked him what he did to take such great photos. I asked my question because I was hoping to get some practical advice from him that I  might be able to use- how to get the proper lighting, how to figure out the best camera settings.

He looked at me rather bemused and I will always remember his wise simple answer to my question as he said, "You've just got to pay attention." He didn't talk about the proper technique or mechanics of good picture taking, instead he simply told me to "pay attention."  He went on to say that, when he walks in the desert he always has his camera in hand, and he just watches and waits. Sometimes he catches a glimpse of "beauty" - a moment of revelation, and when that happens he snaps a photo. 

I realized that my photography instructor was essentially teaching me a lesson about the spiritual practice of "mindfulness," and I found it more than coincidental that he used the words "pay attention" in his answer about how to take a good picture. 

The ancient Christian desert monastics (who I hail as my spiritual ancestors) used the same exact words, "pay attention," to describe their life of contemplation in the wilderness. They got up every morning, went out into the wilderness of a wild, untamed, stark, beautiful desert, and they  "paid attention." Without dwelling on the past or plotting for the future (in fact with no thoughts at all),  they just "paid attention" to the present - in the moment. With uncluttered minds and open hearts they embraced the revelation of what "is,"and in the moment they saw the face of "God." 

Ever since I took my photography-spirituality class, I've been keeping my camera close at hand and doing my best to practice the discipline of "paying attention." 

On this Monday morning I have no plans in mind. After all, I don't want to miss what life may have to offer me this day. 

As the sun began to rise this morning, one brief and fleeting moment of revelation came to me - a flicker of morning sunshine on a green desert shrub. It was so exquisitely simple and so elegantly beautiful that it took my breath away. That splash of flickering sunlight on a single green branch only lasted a few brief seconds, and the sun would never shine on that branch in exactly the same way ever again for all eternity; but because I was "paying attention," I caught a glimpse of "beauty unveiled," and I snapped a photo. 

This morning I took a picture of the face of "God." 






Sunday, June 29, 2014

To Thine Own Self Be True

"Sunrise in the Garden"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

A very touching story was featured last Friday on NPR's "Morning Edition." For the past few days I've been seeing this story shared and re-shared over the various social media, so I guess many people must have been moved by it, and I can understand why. 

A 70 year old Gay man told a story of a time when he was a teenage boy growing up in the 1950's in a rural farmland community of Washington State. At that stage of his life, this man was not yet aware of the fact that he was Gay - but apparently his dad had it pretty well figured out. 

One day the dad, who was a dairy farmer,  showed up at the boy's school play wearing his dirty farmer jeans and boots. When he saw his dad looking like a crusty old farmer, the boy was ashamed, and he hid in a corner of the hall to avoid his dad as he passed by.  Then on the way home the father confronted his child, asking him why he was so ashamed of his dad's dirty dairy farmer clothes that he had to hide in a corner so as not to be seen with him. 

The dad went on to tell his son that he was proud to be a farmer and that he wasn't afraid of dressing like one no matter what other people might think. Then, knowing full well that his son was Gay (which was a rather remarkable accomplishment for a 1950's farmer), this remarkable father gave his son a piece of advice that would still be remembered when that boy was a 70 year old man:

Now, I'm gonna tell you something today, and you might not know what to think of it now, but you're gonna remember it when you are a full-grown man: Don't sneak.  Because if you sneak, like you did today, it means you think you're doing the wrong thing. And if you run around spending your whole life thinking that you're doing the wrong thing, then you'll ruin your soul.

The story of a dairy farmer in the 1950's telling his Gay son to be proud of who he is and not to sneak is so tender that it brings me to tears, and it is so profoundly wise that I can't help but keep reflecting on it.

As I sit in my garden on this Sunday morning, I think about all the many people who will be off to church today. Many people who will sit in pews and feel that they aren't  living up to the high standards and moral expectations demanded of good church-going people.  Some may feel like they are a fraud,  sitting in a church full of those people. And so they will hide their secret sins, sure that they would be scorned if they were ever exposed. 

Others will avoid a church (or a synagogue or temple) or they may have abandoned any form of religion altogether because they feel the same way - that they aren't good enough, unable to live up to those high moral standards demanded of them.    

But, as I see it, what happens in churches on a Sunday morning is an icon of what happens far too often in everyday life. We live in an age where it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what someone really thinks or really feels because everyone is always "tailoring" their image so as to be liked or accepted or respected by others. 

Politicians see which way the wind is blowing and "take a stand" accordingly. People at work say whatever they think the boss wants to hear.  Even friends hide behind layers of pretense putting on whatever face seems to get the most approval from others. Lots of people think of themselves as flawed and imagine the rejection of others if they were ever to be exposed.  As I see it, there are plenty of people (not just Gay people) who hide themselves deep inside all sorts of closets of every shape and kind. 

I think there is a lot of "sneaking" that goes on today, and it's ruining people's souls.

In my experience when human beings are vulnerable enough with one another to be who they are and share what they really think, they almost always find a common ground. We all share the same flaws and so there are no secret sins. There are no better people or morally superior people or holier people or more socially acceptable people, there are just "people"- all of us walking together in this beautiful struggle of our human existence, all of us eminently worthy of unlimited respect and equal dignity. 

It's a glorious sunrise in my desert garden and my mantra for this new day is:

To thine own self be true!







Saturday, June 28, 2014

Spiritual Dullness

"Inspiration-
-in my meditation garden-

Although I live in a somewhat remote desert, every day I make a concerted effort to keep myself informed about what is going on in the rest of the world by "taking the pulse" of the culture.  I spend intentional time with the social media, read newspapers, listen to call-in talk shows on the radio, watch TV news. I read social commentaries, talk to people online and pay attention to overheard coffee shop conversations.    

As I see it, my daily articles about "spirituality" would be little more than pious platitudes without  some idea of current events and prevailing attitudes. 

Yesterday an op-ed piece in the New York Times really made me stand up and take notice. In his article titled, The Spiritual Recession, Columnist David Brooks makes this observation about life in contemporary American culture:

The nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing. Democratic vistas give way to laissez-faire fatalism: History has no shape. The dream of universal democracy seems naive. National interests matter most.  Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. 

I paid such close attention to this article because it rings so true to me.  When I "take the pulse"of what I see going on in the world every day, I feel somehow that life in general has become somewhat "stingy and small" - Nasty petty politics, leaders have grown small, many people have circled the wagons only admitting like-minded people into the circle - no foreigners allowed,  immigrants keep your distance. 

But as I reflect on it, I wonder if this "spiritual recession" may even run deeper than the loss of faith in an American dream. 

Nowadays more and more people have cut themselves off from affiliating with any sort of religion - this is especially true among younger people. Churches that were brimming with people 50 years ago are now filled with empty pews. And while I can fully understand why someone might turn away from organized religion to seek some deeper alternative path to the truth, many if not most of the people who have abandoned religion are no longer on any path to greater wisdom or greater truth.

I listen to and talk to lots of people every day who tell me that they don't have a clue about why or how their life has meaning, and that's ok for them -  Their goal in life is just to "get by" every day.  

Others I talk to (mostly online) have embraced some form of a "new atheism," often using tired, limp and essentially uninformed arguments about science and the scientific method. They look only for hard, cold facts for the living of their lives. But of course, people who only look for hard, cold facts often turn out to be hard, cold people. 

As I think about it, the prevailing spiritual dullness may be able to be explained by one word: "inspiration." So many people nowadays are just simply not inspired by anything or anyone anymore. And if inspiration is the cause of the problem of the spiritual malaise, inspiration may also be the cure.

We have to find ways of inspiring one another once again. 

We need to read poetry and sing songs and look at beautiful art. We need to spend time looking at flowers and walking in wide open wilderness spaces. We need churches and preachers who will open doors to explore the great unfathomable mystery of "God" instead of wasting energy and time inventing gimmicks to pump up membership rolls.  We need to look at science not as a depository of hard cold facts but as a doorway to the infinite - a threshold into a mysterious world of quarks and swirling, untamable atoms, infinite unnamable galaxies all in a vast, complex, "luminous" web of inexplicable interconnectivity. 

The very survival of this nation and this culture may depend upon awakening a new age of inspiration. 

It's time for the spiritual recession to end.  








Friday, June 27, 2014

Artificial Borders

"A Vast Wilderness"
-in the high desert region-

With all the conflict going on in Iraq, there have been copious amounts of recent news stories and commentaries about that very volatile region of the world. Yesterday I came across one particular article suggesting that one of the problems in the Middle East is that citizens of nations like Iraq, Iran and Syria are living in "fake countries."  

At first I thought this was rather harsh and insulting. After all, I sure wouldn't want someone to tell me that I was living in a "fake country;" but the more I read the article, the more I understood the point the author was trying to make.  

One hundred years ago, Iraq, Iran and Syria didn't even exist in their present form. At the end of World War I, Britain essentially carved up what was once the Ottoman Empire and imposed artificial borders, parceling out the land, dividing and separating close-knit tribes of nomads who had previously wandered in a vast desert wilderness. So in that sense, these Middle East countries are "fake countries."

This all makes a good deal of sense to me. After all, I live in Southern California - not that long ago this was Mexican territory. Then in the 19th century, as a result of some "wheeling and dealing" along with a battle or two, one day a border line was drawn, protective fences were erected, and now it's the United States on this side and Mexico on the other side. 

This morning as I sit in my meditation garden for my time of reflection, I look around me and realize that I am "locked up" within boundaries of fences and walls - all the homes in the neighborhood where I live are enclosed within walls that form inner courtyards and private patios. But 100 years ago none of these walls were here,  it was all a vast unmarked wilderness belonging to no one. 

Gradually developers came into the region, and they parceled out the land into neat little packages, drawing up artificial borders within which homes were built. So now, I can sit within these walls and  believe that I actually "own" this little piece of property carved up from the vast wilderness territory. The walls around me keep me artificially divided and falsely separated from my neighbors on every side. 

As I think about it, all borders, walls and fences are artificial - they are human constructs.  When we live within artificial borders we are always in a "fake country" - such a powerful lesson for the spiritual journey of every human being.

I call to mind the Buddhist wisdom that there is no such entity as a separated, isolated, individual ego- there is only "inter being."  The idea that an individual can be isolated and unrelated to all other beings is a myth and a false illusion because we are all a web of relationship. We can put up walls, erect protective borders, divide ourselves from one another with high barbed-wire fences. We can hide within the protective walls of a narcissistic, self-important ego, but that's all artificial - it's living in a "fake country."
  
There are no foreigners or foreign lands, no strangers or different others with some on one side and others on the other side of the fence. We are all a tribe of nomads wandering through life together in a vast desert wilderness that no one owns or possesses.  

I am reminded of a well-known poem by John Donne, written in the early 17th century.  Its language is a bit dated but its sentiments are wise and profound:

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if any manner of thy friends or thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.










Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

"Beautiful Imperfection"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

In my daily blog articles I often talk about the stunning beauty of the desert where we live, usually posting a picture of the wilderness outside our home. The other day, referring to one of my pictures, someone asked me, "Why do you think the desert is so beautiful when it's just a pile of endless rocks, sand and stoney mountains? 

I've been thinking a good deal about that very "loaded"question. My guess is that the desert probably doesn't meet popular or acceptable standards for beauty. Lush green forests, a fawn standing by a gently flowing mountain stream, or perhaps ocean waves lapping against a white sand beach as a sailboat passes by at sunset - now that's a "perfect picture of beauty."

 But this is exactly why I think of the desert as being so stunning - the desert is beautiful because it isn't "picture perfect." It is dry and rocky, mountains so steep that some are impossible to climb, unbearable heat on a summer's day, and yet it is also excitingly wild and utterly expansive - the spanning vistas riddled with cacti and smelling like lavender. It is beautifully imperfect - a daily reminder to me of what it means to be a human being. 

An op-ed article in today's New York Times made me think about the lesson that my "less-than-perfect" beautiful desert teaches me. The article referred to the myriad of self-help advice books on the market in today's popular culture:

Most advice, whether on love or business or politics, is based on the premise that we can just will ourselves into being rational and good and that the correct path to happiness is a straight line..you turn yourself into a superstar by discipline and then everything will be swell.

The article goes on to suggest that this is not how human beings work. There is no path of any human being that follows a "perfectly" straight line achieved through discipline or by following the recipe of some magic formula for success: 

Human beings are 'crooked timber.' We are to varying degrees foolish, weak and often just plain inexplicable and always will be. As Kant put it: 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.'

As I see it we can never really be truly happy if we think the path to happiness flows in a straight line. We can never find deeper peace by defining of our humanity in "either-or" terms: Either we are good or we are bad, beautiful or ugly, smart or dumb, strong or weak.  

Every human being is all of the above. We are not "either-or," we are "both-and." We are a mixture of light and shadows, and that wonderful, messy mix is exactly what makes the "picture" of our human condition so stunningly beautiful - so beautifully imperfect. 

Sometimes people turn to religion or walk on a spiritual path in order to achieve perfection in life. They think that their religious beliefs and spiritual practice will provide disciplined formulae that lead to the living of perfect flawless lives. As I see it, people who look for that straight-line path of perfection will ultimately wind up in a dead end. 

It is only when we are able to acknowledge our "crooked timber nature" that we can be vulnerable enough to accept and forgive our mistakes, sometimes even find amusement in our foibles, and enjoy the ride that takes us every which way without ever going in a straight line.  














Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ignoring What Doesn't Matter

"Summertime"
-Just Outside the Desert Retreat House-  

In the spring when the wildflowers bloom and all the trees, shrubs and bushes go into blossom, it's sometimes hard to know that I live in a desert. But when summertime comes, all the blossoms disappear and the wildflowers are gone.  Day after day there is not a cloud in the sky as the temperatures linger in the triple digits in the heat of the noonday sun. In the summertime there is no doubt that I live in a desert terrain- barren, stark, wild, vast and utterly beautiful. 

My wife and I took a little jaunt up to Los Angeles last weekend.  The city was such a stark contrast to what we see every day in our desert life - the fast pace and the "hustle and bustle" of life in a city,  the oppressive traffic, the rumbling subways, the endless corridors of tall buildings. I've lived in cities all my life, but we had become so used to our wilderness environment that on that weekend in Los Angeles, it took us a while to adjust to being back in the city once again. It was such a powerful lesson in the sharp contrasts between city life and desert life. 

This morning, at the beginning of another hot summer day, I look out into the vast desert wilderness just across the street from our home, and my mind immediately goes back to those 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers who abandoned their lives and livelihoods in the city and moved to the fringes of society -  out into the neighboring deserts of Egypt and Palestine in order to live a life of quiet contemplation and compassionate community with one another.   

Those ancient Christian monastics moved to the desert to embrace a simple lifestyle, following the "way" of Jesus. They came to the desert to pay attention to what was important and to ignore what doesn't matter. 

Back in the city, many of those ancient desert monastics had been people who enjoyed a life of fairly high repute and social status. They lived their lives according to the norms of society - competition, strategizing, planing for success. Back in the city, the official church was being established - a newly emerging institution of Christendom that was becoming more and more like the kind of empire Jesus had rejected, as popes and priests, the rich and the powerful living the high life lorded it over the weak and marginal.

So they moved away from it all, away from all that the "city" represented - out into the stark contrast of wilderness living. 

Their new life in the desert was a contemplative life, characterized by a disciplined practice of mindful awareness. The stark, empty, wild and untamed geography of the desert offered a constant invitation for these monastics to become like the stark desert - emptied of ego and ambition, devoted to compassion and service to one another. And in the emptiness, they discovered fullness- a deep peace and a rich abundance of Holy Presence.

I look to my spiritual desert ancestors as a model, an icon and a guide for my own life journey. In fact,  I think every spiritual path of any kind involves both paying attention to what is important and ignoring what doesn't matter.

I have come to understand that I am unable to pay close attention to what is important to me in life unless I honestly name what is unimportant. 

I no longer need or want the glib praise of others so that I can feel that I am successful - being held in high esteem by others is no longer important to me. Also, when I consider my life "back in the city," I recognize that I was consumed by strategizing, competition, and career building -that's no longer important me. I would often spend my time thinking about what "was" or "what might have been if only," I have come to realize this was a total waste of energy.  And while I am still connected to the official institution of the church, the politics and power plays that go with that territory are no longer important to me. 

I have moved away from the "city" out into the wilderness of the desert.

At the beginning of this hot summer day as I look into the wilderness outside our desert home,  I vow again to ignore the unimportant and pay attention to what counts- to shrink my self-important ego, to be as emptied as the barren desert wilderness staring me in the face.  

As the day begins I commit myself to mindful awareness, to be awake to the revelations of what "is," my heart open to the mysterious, wild and untamed energy of life flowing in and through it all - the name of which is "God." 













Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Alienation

"Belonging Together"
-a day in the desert-

The other day I came across a wonderful wisdom saying from the Sufi tradition:

Know that all that is,
is nothing more than that which veils God.
If it were not for your alienation,
you would look upon God face to face.

When I look back at the earlier part of my life, I would never have been reading the literature of Islamic mystics. I didn't even know what a Sufi was back then. But more importantly, I can honesty say that  back in my younger years, I wouldn't have had a clue about what this Sufi poet was actually saying here. 

As a young man and newly ordained priest, steeped in the theology of a Western Christian tradition, I was very familiar with the concept of  "alienation from God." I had learned that "sin" alienates us from God. I had come to believe that "God" is an almighty person, out there, apart from me, and "sin" is an offense against that person. Sin puts up a wall between me and God, and of course no one wants to be alienated from God. So, the way to tear the wall down was to confess and repent- say "sorry, I won't do it again, I'll try to do better next time."

But I have grown into a new wisdom in my later years, and with this new wisdom I think I can now finally understand what the Sufi poet meant when he said, all that  "is" veils God, and that we could see God face to face if we weren't so alienated. 

I no longer think of "God" as a person out there, apart from me down here. I have come to understand "God" as an abiding Presence, an energy flowing in and through all that "is." I have come to understand that there is no isolated "me," - everything and everyone all belong to one another, all part of the great flow of life, all swimming together in that river of "God."   All that  "is" veils "God." 

Sometimes the space is thin and I am aware of the flow of life, and aware of the abiding Presence in the midst of it all.   At other times I retreat into my own selfish ego, putting up thick walls of self-importance, fooling myself into thinking that "I" am the focus of life. And whenever I do this, I am alienated and estranged  from "God." Indeed if it were not for my alienation I would see "God" face to face.

When I read this Sufi wisdom saying the other day, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite stories told by the mystic monk, Thomas Merton, who describes a moment of epiphany for him - a time when, in the midst of ordinary everyday living, the thick walls of his alienation fell down and he saw "God" face to face:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were strangers. It was like waking up from a dream of self-isolation. Yes, the whole illusion of a separate existence is a dream. 

This sense of liberation from the illusion of separation was such a relief and a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud to think that such a commonplace realization made me feel like I was holding the winning ticket to a cosmic sweepstakes.

As I begin a new day here at my Desert Retreat House, I pray for the walls of alienation to come tumbling down. I am eager to look upon the face of  "God." 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Truth? What is Truth?

"The Sun and the Moon on a Clear Desert Day"

I had a rather lengthy online conversation with someone yesterday who took exception to my use of the word "truth" in one of the articles I had posted.  "There is no such thing as truth," he claimed. "Truth is nothing more than perception - what an individual or a group claims and agrees upon as being real."

This young man's objections almost perfectly defined the postmodern position of our contemporary culture in which everything is seen as being "relative," and truth is a product of perception. 

I have been doing a lot of thinking about my conversation yesterday, asking myself that age-old question: "Truth? What is truth?" I actually think that many things people claim as true are indeed nothing more than agreed upon perceptions and interpretations of reality.  For example, some people believe it's true that men are superior to women, or that certain ethic, racial or socioeconomic groups are inferior to others, that one nation is superior to another, or that one religion has more truth than another. 

But I also believe that there are some universal "Truths" about the meaning of life that do apply to all beings over all times, and that this "Truth" exists apart from human perception or interpretation. 

I have long been interested in how parallel the teachings of the Buddha are to the teachings of Jesus. Even though they lived in two very different parts of the world separated in time by 500 years,  the core message of what they both taught is essentially the same if not extremely similar. In fact there is so much similarity that there has often been speculation that maybe Jesus had been influenced by Buddhist teaching -perhaps he had contact with traveling Buddhist monks.

The Buddha taught:

There are three things that cannot long be hidden-
the sun, the moon and the truth.

The enlightened Buddha had come to experience the "Truth" that all beings are interwoven, interconnected, inter-related. The idea of a separate isolated individual is a myth, and whatever you do to any other being you do to your "self;" and so we find meaning and peace in life by living with compassion. 

Five hundred years later,  Jesus would also point a "Way" to the "Truth"  in his teachings about the "Kingdom of God." He proclaimed the "Truth" that we are all "relationships"- everyone and everything is a web of relationship.  He announced the "Truth" that there are no superior or inferior human beings and that the way to a peace that surpasses understanding would be found in living a life of radical, "no-holds barred" compassion, respecting the dignity of every human being. 

I don't believe there is even a hint of evidence that Jesus was influenced by Buddhist teachings learned from visiting monks.  Instead, I think that both Jesus and The Buddha taught such an obvious parallel message because they both had uncovered a universal "Truth" about the fundamental meaning of life -  "It's all about relationships." We are relationships. When you break and rupture relationships you suffer, when you maintain, nourish and heal relationships you find a deeper peace. 

I believe that at some deep level every human being understands something about this universal "Truth," even though they may hide from the "Truth" by hardening their hearts or cover it over by narcissistic behavior - what is true about life is true. 

There are three things that cannot long be hidden,
the sun, the moon and the truth. 















Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

"Nightfall"

On this beautiful, bright, sunny Sunday morning, I am thinking about darkness and night - probably because yesterday the summer solstice arrived in the Western hemisphere, signaling the return of the darkness and the gradual lengthening of the night.

Most people associate darkness with sadness and melancholy. Many are even afraid of the dark, turning on every available light and locking all the doors at the first sign of twilight. But the fact is that, like all animals, human beings need darkness to survive. Without darkness and night, our body rhythms are thrown out of whack.  The nighttime with its darkness and shadows is also important for our psychological well-being. 

An article in yesterday's New York Times suggests:

Human beings need the shadow world, those things that cannot be easily explained, those things we suspect or imagine but do not know, and all those other areas of our lives that are defined by their gradation of uncertainty. Such ambiguity plays an important role in human thought and perception.

I believe that this shadow world of darkness and night with all its uncertainty and ambiguity also plays an important role on the spiritual journey.

We often talk about spirituality as a journey to the light- a path to enlightenment.  The great paradox is that one cannot walk toward the light without entering into the darkness of mystery and uncertainty. 

Saint John of the Cross, the renowned 16th century monk and mystic, writes about "the dark night of the soul" as a necessary pathway to the experience of love and light. He suggests that the dark night of "nothing," "no answers" and "unknowing" is a great gift for the spiritual seeker, liberating us from the limited and limiting ideas we have about "God," freeing us from undo "attachment" to doctrine, dogmas and spiritual practices. 

St. John says that our "bright and clear" certainties about "God" are in fact substitutes for "God." The pathway to the transcendent is a shadowy, mystical path into unexplainable mystery. John says:

We are never in more danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor celebrates the darkness of her spiritual path and praises the shadows she has come to embrace along her way to the light.  Her wisdom rings so profoundly true to me as I walk my on my own path at this stage of my life.

After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to 'nothing.'  There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea steering by stars. Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides great relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.

I love waking up in the morning, sitting in my garden as the bright sun dawns over the desert,  but I love the nighttime just as well. In fact I need the night - I cherish the shadows and the uncertainty of it all. 

When night falls, I turn off the lights. I walk out into the desert or sit quietly outside my home, relishing the mystical light of moonlight and starlight in the blazing cosmos above, casting unnamed shadows on the earth below. I love the profound stillness of the desert at night, interrupted by the howling of coyotes, the sounds of hooting owls, bats flying through the night skies, the mysterious rushing of the wind sweeping off the mountains. 

The nighttime of darkness and shadows teaches me that there is no permanent place to safely settle. I will always be steering by the stars. My spiritual path is a wonderful, mysterious journey into the dark as I walk toward the brightness of the light. 

The nights are getting longer. "Hello darkness, my old friend!" 






Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sacred Spaces

"Joshua Tree"
-in the upper desert-

The Joshua Tree National Park is perhaps the most wildly beautiful place I have ever been. It's located in the upper desert not all that far from where we live, and we try to get up there as often as possible to take advantage of the pristine beauty of this natural wonder - the hundreds of miles of seemingly endless boulders and sand, rock mountains and desert plains, exotic looking "Joshua" trees springing up everywhere for as far as the eye can see. The place has an "other worldly" feel to it. When I drive or walk through this exotic region I often feel like I have somehow been transported to another planet.

Yesterday I read an extremely disturbing story about an upcoming move that will severely pollute this pristine Joshua tree region, and many people are "up in arms" about it.

After two years of wheeling and dealing,  a business conglomerate of billionaire" "venture capitalists" have finally managed to obtain a license to build a hydroelectric plant in the open pits of an old iron mine located just at the fringes of the national park. While this venture  will certainly make the billionaire owners even richer than they already are, environmentalists of all stripes warn that this will severely deplete and even poison the water supply and harm the wildlife in the park.

In a region already severely affected by the California drought, water will be pumped up out of a desert underground aquifer in order to construct this new business venture - water that would have otherwise supplied 40,000 homes for an entire year will instead be piped into this project.  It is also believed that the process will result in toxic leakage that will actually foul the aquifer, and on top of all that, pumping all that water into the old mines will change the balance of nature in the park, posing threats to the survival of several species of desert wildlife.

My guess is that, unless you live nearby, this story of the "rape and pillage of a national treasure like Joshua Tree National Park will likely have little impact on most people. It is a local story about a local national park and won't have any effect on "me." 

For many people, the natural world is something "out there" that exists for the benefit of human beings.  Only left-wing "tree-hugging" environmentalists are concerned with issues like oil drilling, the destruction of the rainforest. and the pollution of the oceans and of the air we breathe.  

As I see it, our relationship to the natural world is vital if we are to ensure that there will be a world left behind for those that come after us.  But I think it goes beyond that. Our relationship with the world of nature is a necessary component of any spiritual path.  Paying attention to and caring for the world of the "wild" is a spiritual discipline - just as important as going to a church or temple, saying prayers or meditating on a yoga mat.    

Author and poet, William Kittredge once wisely observed:

We evolved in nature. Isolated human beings from the natural world for too long and we start getting nervous, crazy, unmoored, inhabited by diseases that we cannot name, driven to thoughtless ambitions and easy cruelties.

The world "out there" apart from "me" simply does not exist. All beings, all people who walk the face of the earth, animals and oceans, the air we breathe, desert boulders and Joshua tress - all woven into a common fabric, a web of relationship. We all belong to one another. 

So when the pristine beauty of a natural wonder in a Southern California desert is debased and contaminated because of human greed, we are all affected by it - the interwoven fabric of all life everywhere is stained and ripped apart.

Wendell Barry once said:

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places 
and desecrated places.








Friday, June 20, 2014

A Map is Not the Territory

"Wilderness Path"

The desert wilderness outside our home is riddled with an abundance of hiking trails. In fact if you are adventurous enough you can hike from one end of the valley to the other, over steep mountains and though miles of rocky sandy terrain.  Some of the trails are clearly marked, but for most of them you need some sort of a trail map to help guide you along the way. 

The other day as I came across a whole drawer full of trail maps that we have used from time to time in our jaunts into the wilderness, it struck me that, while the maps are helpful guides, they can't even begin to capture the experience of actually walking along those wilderness trails.

How can a map show you what it's like to look out at the vast expanse of the desert valley floor while standing on top of a mountain? How can a map even come close to capturing the profound silence that thunders in your ears as you hike deep into the desert, or the experience of being stopped in your tracks by a herd of longhorn sheep standing in your path?  How can a map capture the experience of walking through a field of wildflowers, the sight of blooming cacti, blossoms on bushes as the desert bursts into spring?

As I looked into my drawer full of maps,  a phrase I have used many times in the past came to my mind

The map is not the territory

As a college professor I would frequently remind my students that the words we use are nothing more than "maps." And maps are not to be confused with the territory to which they point. 

My office in my home is stacked up with books full of millions of words,  my kindle is so full of books that I wonder if I am getting to the point where I will someday run out of available space. When I sit at my desk the stacks of books that surround me offer me some comfort, like a well-worn sweater or a favorite old shirt. Many of these books have been with me for most of my adult life. They are filled with words about "God" and "church," "religion," and "faith,"and it would be so easy for me to live in the world of these comfortable words. 

But I have come to realize that these books of words are nothing more than maps, of little or no use unless they help point me to walk into the territory where, with an uncluttered mind and open heart I give my "self" to the mystery, to the experience of a Holy Presence that cannot possibly be explained away by a few paltry words. 

Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Christian theologian of the 13th century- arguably the most notable, most prolific and most influential theologian and philosopher ever produced by the Western church. He wrote commentaries, manuals, treatises, and guides systematically defining everything you might ever want to ask about God and the relationship of God to humankind.  

At the end of his life, lying on his his deathbed surrounded by his stacks of all the many books he wrote, Aquinas pointed to them and said that they were nothing but a pile of "straw." All the great systems of theology he devised  (still read to this very day) were little more than "maps," feeble attempts to help point to the great undefinable, unnamable mystery we call "God." 

It reminds me of one of my favorite Zen sayings:

Truth has nothing to do with words.
Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky.
Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger.
The finger can point to the moon. However the finger is not the moon.
To look at the moon it's necessary to gaze beyond the finger.

I think I need to dig out one of my maps and do some hiking in the wilderness today.







   

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Boredom

"Ordinary Beauty"

I was talking to a friend the other day and I asked how he was doing. "Oh, the same old, same old," he replied, "I guess I'm kinda bored." I wondered how many people might say exactly the same thing when they feel stuck in the "same old, same old" in their everyday routine of life? My guess is that lots of people might complain that they are "kinda bored." 

When people become routinely bored, they normally do whatever they can to distract themselves - rise above the boredom. If they are bored at work, they might do some web browsing or take a coffee break. Bored at school - text a friend.  Sometimes when people are bored they go out and buy something new for themselves - a new pair of shoes, new clothes, something new for the house. Boredom demands that you find something else to do, somewhere else to go, anything to alleviate the boredom of the routine of everyday life.

But of course, the new clothes get old pretty fast, you can only buy so many new pairs of shoes before the closet gets too full; and  after a while even the web surfing and the texting become pretty routine, so even the distractions from boredom become "kinda boring." 

But as I think about it, the ordinary everyday routine of life is exactly the place where we can find deepest peace and most joy if we just stop running away from it all and learn to embrace what "is" instead of always looking for something more. 

Back in the 17th century a simple, fairly uneducated French monk by the name of Brother Lawrence lived what would appear to have been a very boring life. Every day he would follow the routine schedule of monastic prayer and study, and then morning, noon and night he would go into the monastery kitchen and prepare the daily meals for his fellow monks, day in and day out, making soup, peeling potatoes, washing grimy pots and pans - talk about a "daily grind."

But Brother Lawrence found great joy and deep peace in this ordinary routine. He experienced a deep sense of Holy Presence while he sat in his kitchen and peeled potatoes and scrubbed pots.  In fact his kitchen became as important to him as his chapel.   

Brother Lawrence wrote a little book, The Practice of the Presence of God, which ultimately became a Christian  classic, still read by people all over the world. His advice: "Don't run from the ordinary, embrace it, every act is a holy act, every place is a holy place, every moment a revelation of divine presence" 

I am reminded of something Thich Nhat Hanh once said about the joy he finds in the simple task of  "mindfully" washing dishes - feeling the warmth of the water, the texture of the pot. 

I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have
were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath.

I think about my own daily routine in my ordinary life here in the desert. Whenever I start to feel "kinda bored" and want to run away from the moment, I call myself back into it. I am trying to "practice the presence of "God," -mindfully embracing what "is" and open to the revelation that will come to me in that embrace. 

I sit in my garden at sunset, my camera is never far away from me. It's just another ordinary evening. But then I become aware of a simple green branch on our lemon tree in the garden. It catches a golden ray of setting sunlight as the mountain glows in the background - such incredible beauty, such a holy moment. 















Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Practice of Solitude

"Radiance"

A recent article in the New York Times talked about the value of "solitude" in the workplace,  suggesting that the current emphasis on doing everything in "groups" may in fact hinder productivity.  Brainstorming, discussion groups, leadership conferences, collaborative experiences  - this is the way people do business nowadays, and any person who wants to be alone, think alone or work alone is labeled as a recluse, a loner or an eccentric.

The article went on to report some interesting research about "being alone," suggesting that "in solitude much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched."

The Times' article got me thinking about the practice of solitude on the spiritual journey. In this era of collaboration and groupthink I wonder if the value and importance of "being alone" may be underemphasized or perhaps seen as an inferior practice to activities like going to church, praying together, or doing service projects together? As I see it, there is a place for both. 

After spending several years of living in community with his fellow Trappist monks, Thomas Merton requested permission to live alone as a hermit in a little house up in the hills above his Kentucky monastery.  Paradoxically, he wanted to live alone because he desired to be in deeper relationship with his brother monks.

Merton's desire to live alone in order to be in relationship is precisely the paradox of any contemplative life. The practice of solitude does not remove the contemplative from the world but immerses him or her into an experience of deeper relationship. 

The Buddha sat alone under a Bodhi tree for 40 days and 40 nights, mindful, awake, in the moment, and as he did so he entered into a state of "enlightenment." In his solitude he experienced a deep truth about the relational nature of all beings - there is no isolated self, no different others, everything and everyone is a dynamic relationship. His contemplative "solitude" was a threshold for him to enter into this profound sense of relationship.

In similar fashion, after Thomas Merton moved into his hermitage he wrote many beautiful descriptions in his journal about how his solitude did indeed bring him closer than ever to those brothers in the monastery down the hill. His mindful solitude brought him to a place where his "ego" had literally  melted into the world in which he lived.

Merton's later journal articles written just before he died beautifully and powerfully express his experience of "belonging" to everything and everyone - a growing sense of "oneness" with all beings who are all part of each other and all connected in the ONE.  

As I think about my own journey, I certainly don't think I need to go off to one of the caves in the mountains above my house and live as a hermit, but I do think the "practice of solitude" is a necessary discipline along the way. My road to "enlightenment," calls me to spend quiet times alone in mindful meditation and contemplation, awake and present in the moment. 

I am called to do this not because I am a loner or aloof, or because I want to escape from the world. I do this because I want to embrace the world ever more fully.

Last evening I sat alone in my garden as the sun was setting. The eastern mountains were radiant, glowing in the light as the sun was setting in the west. In my moment of solitude I recalled a Taoist wisdom "saying" that seemed to wonderfully describe something of what I was experiencing:

The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountains and me
until only the mountains remain.





Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Living in the Shadows

"Darkness and Light"

Yesterday I watched a sad and frightening CNN news report about the brutal tribal war now emerging in Iraq. Four young soldiers were forced to kneel in the sand and they were then executed by being shot directly in the face with an automatic rifle. The act was so violently cruel that it could not be shown on TV. Horrified by the story, the news reporter commented that such a heinous and brutal act could only be perpetrated by someone who was "intrinsically evil." 

The reporter's comment made me stop and think, "Is it true that people who commit horrible, barbaric  acts of violence against other human beings are somehow "intrinsically evil?" After all, if someone is "intrinsically evil," it means that a propensity toward evil is somehow in the person's very nature- they were born this way, it's genetic.  

But then I started to think about other acts of brutal violence human beings committed against one another over time -the Christian imperialist conquerors "slaughtering" the native peoples of South America - mass murder in the cause of conversion and in the name of Christ. I thought about Southern plantation owners viciously beating their slaves within an inch of their lives, sometimes beating them to death because they dared to disobey the master's orders. I also thought about white-hooded lynch-mobs in places like Mississippi, "stringing up"  their fellow citizens from a tree because they didn't like the color of their skin.

And when I think about all this brutal violence, I ask myself, "Were all these people who did all these horrible things to their fellow human beings "intrinsically evil?" Was there something in their very nature that propelled them to commit these acts- something over which they had no control because it was "intrinsic" to them? 

My answer is "no," I don't think so.  In fact, I don't think anyone is "intrinsically evil."  However, I do think many people live in "ignorance" and they often act out of their ignorance.

The Buddha taught that "relationship" and not evil is "intrinsic" to human nature - everything and everyone is woven together as one dynamic web of relationship. He taught that the idea of a separated and isolated ego-self is a delusion. There are no different others, and so whatever any individual does to others they do to themselves.  

The Buddha also taught that "ignorance" is a lack of understanding of this "intrinsic" nature of the human condition. A person who is inflicted with ignorance lives life in the shadows, in darkness, unenlightened by the truth. 

Acts of violence against others are always done out of "ignorance"because what you do to others you do to yourself.  

The Dalai Lama wisely teaches: 

All suffering is caused by ignorance

So, when I think of the historical record of the many acts of brutality perpetrated over the ages, or when  I hear contemporary news stories about barbaric cruelty in Iraq or in Syria or Nigeria, or when I hear about heinous school massacres, drive-by shootings and child abuse, I don't believe that people who do these things are intrinsically evil. I think rather that they do these things because they are living in the shadows- "ignorant" of the truth about our human nature, the truth that we "are" one another. 

The good news is that since not one of us is "intrinsically evil," those who live in the shadows can be brought into the light. And in my heart of hearts, I do believe that when all is said and done, in the end love will win the day. 








Monday, June 16, 2014

A Worry-Free Zone

"Beginning Again"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

I recently had a lengthy conversation with someone who told me that she is "always worried." In fact she worries so much that she finds it hard to get to sleep at night. I asked her if she was in touch with her constant anxiety, and she had a ready answer. 

She told me that several years ago her life had "fallen apart" - she had no sense of direction, a long-time relationship had ended, her health was failing. Then things got better for her - she went back to school, started going to a gym, made new friends. But now she fears she may be relapsing -  she isn't eating well again, the sense of losing direction has returned, and she's worried about it. In fact she worries all the time and so she can't even get to sleep at night. 

As we talked with one another, I immediately thought of something author and spiritual director, Ekhart Tolle wrote a few years ago in his book, The Power of Now: Fear and anxiety is always a product of remembering the past and thinking about the future. 

This is exactly what was happening in the life of that young woman. She was always "thinking." She was thinking and remembering what had happened to her in the past and thinking about the same things (or worse) being repeated again in the future - that's why she was "always worried."

In his book, Tolle talks about the "domination of an unobserved mind." Many people are victims of this  domination. They are unaware of how much they think about past and future. They are unobservant of how much and how often their mind is so constantly cluttered and preoccupied with past thoughts and future worries. And so the unobserved mind dominates their lives, trapping them in the grip of relentless anxiety. 

But the truth is that there "really" is no past, and the future simply does not exist in real time.  These are all artificial constructs- products of thinking. Tolle wisely observes: 

Life is now.
There never was a time when your life was not now and there never will be. 
Nothing ever happened in the past, it happened in the now.
Nothing will ever happen in the future, it will happen in the now.

My conversation with that young woman who is always worrying gave me pause to reflect upon my own life.  I am well aware of just how much I have allowed myself to be the victim of the dominance of my unobserved mind. It's so easy to fall into the trap of treating past memories or future projections as if they are really happening. I do it all the time. 

So nowadays I am doing my best to live my life by embracing the "Now," and I find that I don't have a lot of trouble getting to sleep at night. 

I try to be more observant of my mind; and whenever I fall into the "thinking" trap of worrying about a past that no longer exists or being anxious about a future that will never come, I try to refocus my energy.  I "check" that voice of memory and those thoughts of days to come, and I bring myself back to "now." 

I try to focus on where I am and what I am doing "now." I try to focus on the big things and on the seemingly little things of everyday life as it happens in the "now" - the rays of a morning sun reflected on a garden gate, the fluttering of hummingbird wings, the texture and taste of the food that I eat. In all things, doing my best to embrace what is "now."

 And the more I am able to so this, I am coming to discover a great wisdom:

The "now" is always a "worry-free zone"










Sunday, June 15, 2014

Be a Man

"Tenderness"
-in my meditation garden-

Today is "Father's Day" in America - a day on which all the rigid stereotypes about what it means to "be a man" are brought into the spotlight and given center-stage.  

On "Mothers Day" the qualities of femininity are celebrated- gentleness, compassion, kindness,  tenderness, forgiveness.  Many Americans celebrate "Mothers Day" with flowers and family brunches, often in some elegant restaurant setting.

On "Fathers Day" we highlight the supposed qualities of masculinity- courage, boldness,  taking control and making decisions - men are the risk-takers. This day often finds families in back-yard barbecues where "Dad" throws around the football and cooks up some "masculine" kinds of food like steaks that are cooked rare. 

I actually find these feminine-masculine stereotypes to be fairly ludicrous and perhaps even dangerous. It teaches boys that to "be a man," they need to be rough, rugged, take charge types who should not show emotions or express tenderness. After all, "men" are supposed to maintain a certain distance and aloofness even with their children and families, as a way of enforcing discipline and garnering respect - let the women and the mothers do the nurturing.  

These stereotypes often keep men locked up and alone within a self-important ego as they keep others at ams-length on a life-journey that must be travelled hand-in-hand if deeper peace is ever to be found.   

I actually believe that kindness and compassion have little or nothing to do with femininity, and boldness and courage are hardly masculine traits.  In fact it's risky business to be vulnerable enough to be in touch with how you feel and willing to express that to another. It takes courage to be tender, compassionate and a loving person especially in a "me-first" culture.  Forgiving another is "hard work" and only the bold have enough stamina to break out of a self important ego and give themselves for the welfare of others as nurturers and reconcilers in families, with friends, with strangers and even with enemies. 

On this Father's Day as I think about what it means to be a "real man," it gives me pause to reflect instead on what it means to be a "real human" - fully human and fully alive. 

There is a passage from Saint Paul's famous letter to the Corinthians. This "Canticle of Love" is popularly read at Christian wedding ceremonies,  but I think the qualities of "true love" elaborated in this canticle can be applied not just to Christians or to believers, or to married people, or to women or to men.  This is what it means to be human - fully human and fully alive:

Love never gives up on others.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always 'me-first,'
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Aways looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end. 


Happy Father's Day!





    

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Negotiating Meaning

"God"
-in my meditation garden-

Yesterday I listened to an interview in which two Iraqi citizens were discussing the rising military tensions in their country. The discussion got pretty vehement as they expressed their opinions- one person said, "What's going on in our country has nothing to do with religion," -  while his fellow countryman argued, "it has everything to do with religion." As I continued to listen to the interview, I quickly came to understand that these men were using the word "religion" in two very different ways. For the one man, "religion" was a spiritual path, while the other understood religion as a political institution. Yet because they were using the "same" word, they assumed they were talking about the "same" thing.

 It makes me think about how important it is for us to understand words, language and how we communicate if we are ever going to be able to enter into any sort of reasonable and respectful dialogue with one another.

Most people think of communication between human beings in a very mechanistic way. Communication  between human beings is understood as the transfer of information between senders and receivers. One person, (the sender) has an idea, packs up his ideas into words, and transfers those ideas to another person (the receiver) who unpacks the ideas.  This may be exactly what happens with computers, but when it comes to people, nothing could be further from the truth.

Words by themselves have no inherent meaning at all; and even though we may use the same words, everyone brings his or her own baggage, understanding and experience to every single word and gesture we use when we communicate with one another. This is true from the most concrete to the most abstract level of language.

I talk to you about my "dog" and as I do so, you bring all your "dog" baggage to this word. I love my dog; he is sweet and cute, but you may have been bitten by a dog and you fear dogs and can't stand to be around them. So we may be using the same word but bring very different meanings to it.  

So in a very real sense whenever we interact with one another, we are "negotiating meaning" not transferring information. In every interaction we all bring our own experience and understanding to the negotiating table of everyday life and attempt to arrive at some shared meaning. Sometimes people will negotiate similar meanings; sometimes they will use the same words, but the words will have such very different meanings that the negotiations won't be all that successful. 

In my daily blog post I often use words like "God" or "religion," and I am virtually assured that every day some person or other will read these words and will launch an attack against me, especially in the online world, filled with so much anti-religious animosity. 

Almost every day someone will (sometimes very angrily) ask me, "How can you be so childish as to  believe in a superman deity in the sky?"  Or they will lash out, "Look at the pain religion has caused by launching wars, persecutions, inquisitions?"

In all these cases, there is an inherent assumption that since we are using the same words (God, religion) we are talking about the same thing, but in fact we are using the same words very differently. 

I use the word "God" and I mean "an Abiding Energy of Love,  a Holy Presence flowing in and through all things, not a man in the sky. I use the word "religion" as a word to describe a "spiritual pathway" and not an ethnic or political institution.  

Interestingly enough, when I am able to actually have an online dialogue with people about "God" or about "religion," we often discover that we both don't believe in the same thing, and that the "God" I believe in may not be that unreasonable after all.

Just because we use the same words doesn't mean that we are talking abut the same thing.  









  

Friday, June 13, 2014

One Hand Clapping

"Beyond Reason"
-Sunset at the Desert Retreat House"

In one of my favorite Zen Koans, the master asks his student, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The student desperately tries to come up with answers but his rational skills get him nowhere. Finally the student realizes that there is no answer to the question and when she realizes this, the student is on the road to enlightenment." 

The purpose of a Koan in Zen practice is to teach seekers not to be dependent on "reason." The way to enlightenment cannot be "figured out."  There are no easy answers to ultimate questions.

In our own day in Western culture "reason" and "thinking" are very highly prized. We are, after all, products of the age of science. We live in an era of great technological advancement and so we believe that there are answers for every question. We have figured out how the human body works. We have built cars that can drive themselves and computers that can do everything from cooking breakfast to designing skyscrapers and launching satellites that orbit around the globe. 

But the truth is that "reason" and science can only take us so far in explaining and controlling who we are and what makes us and our world "tick." The quantum physicists and new scientists of our own day confess that even with all our advanced technology, we can figure out and explain only about 5% of how the universe works, the rest is mystery - "dark matter" that goes beyond human comprehension.

We live in a cosmic world of multiple unknown galaxies, and we have very little conception of how "time" works. Even at the tiniest subatomic levels, we find a world of chaotically churning, wildly exploding atoms and quarks that defies easy answers and cannot be contained by rational thought or explained by scientific method. It's a mystery. 

There is another Zen story (one of my personal favorites):

A student asked the teacher "What is the true Way?" The teacher answered, "The everyday way is the true Way," to which the student replied, "Can I study it?" The teacher sat quietly and then responded, "The more you study it, the further you will be from the Way."

Now confused, the student asked the master, "But if I don't study it, how can I know it?" And the master answered,  "The Way does not belong to things seen, nor to things unseen. It does not belong to things known, nor to things unknown.  Do not seek it, study it, or name it. To find yourself on it, open yourself wide as the sky."

We all want to know the "Way." We want to figure out who we are, what makes us all "tick, how the universe works. We all seek a way to deeper peace. We desire a connection to transcendence. We want answers to those ultimate questions about who "God" is,  and does "God" exist. 

Science has no answers to these ultimate questions neither does religion. In fact, most of the questions we ask have no answers.   

Most of my life,  I have been looking for the answers. I have studied psychology, sociology and philosophy. I have been a life-long student of theology in order to answer the questions about who I am and what the world is all about and who God is.  It's only now,  in my later years of life that I have finally come to understand the wisdom of the old Zen master, "The more you study it, the further you will be from the Way." 

Life is a mystery. The world is a mystery. "God" is a mystery.

So I sit in the desert, and every day I do my best to live with the mystery and pay attention to the revelations of the moment, opening myself as "wide as the sky."