Thursday, April 30, 2015

Full of Emptiness

"The Wilderness"
- Outside the desert Retreat House -

It's only the end of April but the temperatures have already pushed up into the tripe digit range,  and so under the baking heat of the noonday sun, that vast space of wilderness terrain just outside my house seems emptier than ever. 

Looking out into the wilderness on my morning walk yesterday I thought to myself, "This place really is an ideal icon of what a spiritual journey is all about."

In the English language (and in Western culture) the word "emptiness" has a very negative connotation. An empty stomach, an empty bank account, an empty house, even an empty space on a wall conjure up images of a void that cries out to be filled. And so, the first response to emptiness is usually to do something about it, to fix the problem, to replace what is missing and fill up what has been emptied out.

When I think about it, our human hunger for "God" is also a form of emptiness. Human beings seek transcendence. We often feel unfulfilled and empty in life and so go out on a spiritual journey as we  seek wisdom, deeper truth, greater meaning. 

Yet, despite our constant attempts to fill up all the empty places in life, we often remain rather unsatisfied. A bank account may be overflowing, the refrigerator filled to the brim, a person can have ever creature comfort ever desired and yet somehow it just not enough- something is still missing. 

Even our quest to fill up our hunger for God often goes unfulfilled regardless of what we may do. People may read volumes of theology books, memorize the scriptures, fill their minds with words and ideas, perhaps consult with a clergy person or a spiritual guru, but somehow the emptiness still remains. 

I have come to believe that maybe the very emptiness we experience in life may actually be a symptom of the fullness that we seek.

I am reminded of the life of the great mystic monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote volumes of books filled with spiritual guidance. When he first began his career at the monastery his books were replete with theological language, scripture quotes and references to church doctrine;  but the older he got and the more advanced on the spiritual path, he became less and less concerned with words and ideas. Toward the end of his life he would just go outside his little hermitage in the mountains and quietly sit, basking in the glory of a summer's day, listening to the sounds of the wind in the trees.

Although he was a Christian monk, Merton was highly influenced by a Buddhist wisdom that celebrates "emptiness" rather than shrinks from it.  For the Buddhist, achieving "emptiness" is a higher level of spiritual awareness. When your mind is clear of all ideas and the slate of all your explanations has been wiped clean, there is nothing left but emptiness. So, all you can do is "sit and stare," wide open to the present moment, experiencing life as it is and not as you think it should be, enlightened by the great mystery that everything and everyone belong to one another. 

One week before his untimely death in 1968, Merton was visiting a monastery in Sri Lanka, and as he gazed upon the many Buddha statues in the shrine, he had a moment of intense spiritual revelation.  It was the culminating point of his long and fruitful spiritual journey. 

Looking at those Buddha figures I was suddenly. almost forcibly,
jerked clean out of my habitual, half-tied vision of things,
and an inner clarity became obvious and evident to me--
everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.
I don't know when in my life I have ever had a such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity.

As I see it, the desert wilderness where I live is such a perfect icon for the spiritual path precisely because it is so full of emptiness - so wild, untamed, unable to be controlled, understood or analyzed,  devoid of any creature comforts, so many spaces not filled in. 

All I  can do is sit and stare into the wilderness; and when I am willing to just just that, and I take it all in, it always reveals a greater truth to me. 

The "God" I seek is way beyond what I think "God" is. 

Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Returning Violence for Violence

"Meditation Garden"
- The Desert Retreat House -

A very striking picture was featured on the front page of our local paper yesterday - a young African American man stood in front of a burnt-out CVS pharmacy that had been destroyed during the rioting on the streets of the City of Baltimore holding a sign that read:  Can you feel the pain yet?

The placard was obviously intended to make a statement about the purpose of the violence and devastation that racked the city of Baltimore - a response to the death of Freddie Gray. 

Over the past days, many people in the African American community had expressed their frustration and anger over Mr. Gray's brutal death at the hands of White police officers  - the street riots had  been organized to protest the bitter way in which police have violated Black people in that city and in cities  all across America. 

And so the streets of Baltimore were filled with angry young African Americans who could no longer contain their rage and frustration - it spilled out onto the streets, taking the form of looting, arson, attacks on police and the destruction of property. 

Somehow these blatant acts of violence were supposed to punish the city that had supposedly condoned the injustice against the African-American community- that's why that young man held the sign: Can you feel the pain yet?

And yet, as I saw that young man holding the sign as his neighborhood stood in tatters behind him,  I wondered who it was that would feel the pain he was hoping to inflict on his city? It certainly would not be the police or the politicians or majority culture that would feel the pain. Most of them don't even live close to that neighborhood.

No, the people who would feel the pain most were that young man holding the sign along with his family and his friends and neighbors. They would no longer be able to shop at their new CVS to fill their prescriptions -lots of new buildings and apartments heralding the rebirth of that neighborhood marked for urban renewal were now reduced to piles of rubble and ash.  Who indeed was feeling the pain? 

I can totally understand the frustration of that man holding that sign. I can empathize with pent-up rage over grave injustice, and I am very sympathetic to those people who feel they have been backed into a corner and now need to do something about it.  But, that man standing on the street with the sign was a perfect example of just how foolish violence and rage are as responses to a world of injustice.  

The Buddha taught:

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

That young man holding onto the placard asking if his city felt the pain yet was such a perfect icon of the Buddha's  teaching. That poor guy was holding onto a hot coal hoping to throw it at someone and he was the one getting burnt. 

Back many years ago when Dr. King preached his gospel of non-violent protest, he told his followers:

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

I suppose these words sound a bit Utopian and unrealistic to the ears of those who may feel they are being violated and oppressed and yet, as I see it,  these sentiments are about the most practical advice anyone might ever hear as they press their case in the cause of justice. 

In the end, only love can drive out hate. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

LISTEN: Images of God

What does God look like? We experience God everyday, and in every breath, with every sound. Today's episode, "Images of God" from The Desert Retreat House.

Every Tuesday I bring you a new meditation or talk via my studio in the desert.  A podcast to take with you on the road and in your week when you need a little time away. Desert Wisdom broadcasts weekly and is available on iTunesStitcher, and always at my webspace,

Facebook | Twitter | iTunes | Stitcher

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Necessary Virtue

"Silence of the Stars-
- night in the desert- 

I spent the weekend making a rather feeble attempt at honing my photography skills by attending a workshop on taking pictures of the nighttime desert skies.  For me, this experience was a genuine lesson in humility - not just because it made me realize just how little I know about photographic art and how much I have yet to learn, but primarily because it gave me a new appreciation of just exactly what it means to be "humble" on a spiritual journey.

Many people avoid the word "humility" when describing necessary virtues for a spiritual path. The word "humility" is often misunderstood to mean "humiliation."  It is supposed that a humble person is one who thinks of himself as being inferior to others, less than others, and why would anyone want to feel that way about themselves? Perhaps this is why "humility" is one of those spiritual virtues rarely talked about and certainly not desired.

But humility is not the same thing as humiliation. The word "humility" comes from the Latin word "humus," meaning "earth." Some people say that a humble person is "down to earth," actually I think it means more than that. A humble person knows that she is "one-with the earth," a humble person knows that he belongs to the universe. Humility is indeed a necessary virtue on the spiritual path. 

The Buddha taught that the idea of a separated, isolated ego is nothing more than an illusion. All being is "inter-being." and everything (including every single person) is woven together in a dynamic web of interaction. A humble person is one who is enlightened about this eternal truth.

Last weekend, I learned a lesson about humility under the night skies in the desert - there is perhaps no better place on earth to feel so small and yet connected to something so big. I can't imagine how one can stand under the desert stars and feel either self-important or isolated and alone. 

Our photography workshop was conducted in a very remote location in the High Desert region of Joshua Tree National Park. I am already quite familiar with the silence and with the brilliance of the  desert skies at night because I live in a desert, and yet this experience was even more intense over the past weekend. The thundering silence of the night was even more deafening and the brightness of the stars was even more brilliant - breathtaking, transporting and transcendent. 

As I stood in reverential awe under those night skies, I immediately called to mind one of my favorite quotes from the British adventurer, D.H. Lawrence, who spent time exploring the desert wilderness and described his experience of the skies at night:

Stained by the dew, we were shamed into pettiness by the
innumerable silence of the stars.

What a wonderfully apt description of what it feels like to be in the midst of such a vast and uncontrollable wilderness and stand beneath the glowing planets, the stars without number, the infinite array of galaxies all swaying and circling in a cosmic dance.  It really does "shame you into pettiness." For me, the experience was hardly humiliating, but it certainly was humbling. I was such a little speck of dust in the vast scope of it all and yet unimaginably I was also part of it, intimately connected to it. 

Interestingly enough, humility is a virtue that opens the door of greatness to us. 

As I stood out there in that starry-starry night,  I thought about how Jesus always talked about "losing your self in order to find your self."  I was losing my "self" in that desert night and in doing so I was indeed finding myself.

Priest and author, Anthony DeMello says:

To lose the self is to suddenly realize that you are something other
than what you thought you were.
You thought you were the center,
you thought you were the dancer
you now experience yourself as the dance.

None of us is a dancer, we are all the great cosmic dance -  and the name of that dance is "God."

Listen to my podcast" 'Desert Wisdom"

Saturday, April 25, 2015

I Don't Need It, But I Want It.

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

Yesterday the long-awaited "Apple Watch" made its way into the retail stores. If you have at least $400 to spend (up to as much as $17,000 for the gold-plated edition) you can equip your wrist with a watch that essentially functions as a mini Apple computer. You can watch movies on your wrist, browse the web, an endless flow of emails at your constant beck-and-call, instant access to your phone. 

Personally, I can't imagine anything I might desire "less" than to have a computer constantly strapped to my wrist - my life is already far too consumed with constant contact with my electronic devices; but this is certainly not true for lots of other people. The lines outside Apple Stores across the country weaved around the block yesterday as people waited anxiously to purchase their brand new watch - some even slept overnight to be the first in line.

The evening news report last evening featured an interview with one of the people who had been waiting in those long lines to purchase his long expected computer wristwatch. He was asked why he was willing to wait for hours for this device - the reporter asked: "Do you need this watch that badly?" The young man's response spoke volumes:

I don't need it but I want it.

As I listend to that interview it struck me that perhaps that man's response has become the new motto for today's consumerist culture, where immediate gratification seems to be the order of the day: I don't need it, but I want it.

As I heard this comment on the news yesterday, my life sort of flashed before me. I remembered a few years ago as we prepared to leave Los Angeles and move out to our home in the desert. We had so much "stuff" in boxes throughout our house that we literally couldn't even give it all away as we downsized our life to move out to our smaller desert residence. There were unopened boxes of dishes and plates, clothes that had been hardly used and shoes barely worn, books and magazines barely cracked open, old computers, TV's and video games - how was it possible that we could have accumulated so much stuff over the past 30 years or more? 

What we couldn't sell we gave way and what we couldn't give away we had hauled away in a big truck.

I think of something the Psychiatrist, Eric Fromm, once said about how "greed" is so insidious and so infectious to the human spirit:

Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort
to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.

I wonder if this definition of greed is another way of saying: I don't need it, but I want it.

My life nowadays is much simpler. In fact the simplicity of my life has been an important factor influencing the way I walk the spiritual path.  I try to live it with a lot less clutter in my mind and more room in my heart. I still have plenty of books and do lots of reading and studying but there is much less thinking that goes on in me nowadays and a lot more listening:

Many generations ago the mystic philosopher, Meister Eckhart, observed:

God is not found by adding but by a process of subtraction.

I actually have come to believe that the farther I go on the spiritual path, the less baggage is necessary or even desired - that's why the desert is such a wonderful icon of the spiritual journey. It's way too hot out here and the terrain is far too tough to carry all sorts of equipment with you when you walk in the wilderness. You have to travel lightly - and so it is on the spiritual path.

Maybe that's why Jesus admonished his disciples who were about to go out onto the road to advance the mission of the kingdom of God:

Take nothing for the journey - no staff, no bag, no money, no extra shirt

Sounds like wise advice to me. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Love That is Not Love

"Bathed in Light"
- in my meditation garden -

This morning I came across an interesting if not disturbing article in the New York Times observing  how family life and child-rearing in contemporary Western culture has adopted an ethic of meritocracy rather than being guided by a generous ethic of love. 

The article suggests that,  what appears to be parental expressions of love for their kids may not be love at all. Many families today (especially middle class families) live under the umbrella of a  "culture of meritocracy." Parents spend a great deal of time nowadays, much more than in the past,  investing in their children's skills, always working at building up their kids' resumes even from a very early age. 

The article suggests:

Parents steer their children toward  behavior they think will lead to achievement. 
Parents glow with extra fervor when the child studies hard, practices hard 
wins first place, gets into a prestigious college. 

This sort of love is merit-based, it is meritocratic affection
 It is not simply: 'I love you.'
It is, 'I love you when you stay on my balance beam.' 
I shower you with praise and care when you're on my beam

These parents unconsciously regard their children as some sort of art project, 
insisting their kids go to college and have good jobs 
that will give the parents status and pleasure,
that will validate their effectiveness as moms and dads.

As I reflect on this rather troubling article, it dawns on me that it is rather easy for narcissism to be disguised as love. If an act of kindness or generosity done on behalf of another is done out of self interest (I treat you this way because of what I can ultimately gain from doing so) that is not love at all even it may look like love. 

After all, by definition "love" is a gift, love is "grace" - something done on behalf of another, done  for another's good. 

Thomas Merton once observed:

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves
and not to twist them to fit our own image.
Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves in them. 

It seems to me that if children grow up in a culture of meritocracy they come to believe that the only way to be loved, the only path to self-worth, is by meeting the expectations and demands others place on them.  

I think a lot of people today suffer from living in a culture of meritocracy - so many people seem to be always performing to win the esteem of others, never or rarely having ever experienced the life giving energy that genuine love can offer. 

It makes me wonder if some people really have not known "love" at all but only that which is disguised as love.

As the sun rises on my desert garden it bathes everything in its light - the tenderly beautiful flowers, the hard-skinned, thorny ridden cacti; it even bathes me in the bounty of its brightness. It is a beautiful icon to me of the nature of genuine love that shines on every part of who we are, showering everything in its light -the good, the bad, the beautiful and ugly, the fruitful and the barren, the successful and the imperfect. 

It is only when we are bathed in genuine love that we can feel utterly honest and totally accepted come what may. 

"God" is "Love," and where there is true Love, there is God. 

Listen to my weekly podcast:"Desert Wisdom"

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Making Decisions

"A Refreshing Fountain"
- on a hot desert day -

When we moved out to the desert a few years ago, one of the very first things I noticed were the numerous beautifully constructed fountains that adorned the center squares in all the various little desert communities throughout the region. I quickly learned that desert residents build these fountains to provide some welcome relief and refreshment in the midst of the scorching desert heat.

Many times I have gone into our little neighborhood town square on the days when the temperatures have become especially oppressive, sitting in front of our beautiful fountain, I listen to its gurgling and rushing and feel the cooling water spray on my face. It has always reminded me of a descriptive line of Christian poetry that refers to "God's" presence as sweet refreshment here below, solace in the midst of woe.

A few days ago I heard some very discouraging news. Because of the very serious drought affecting all of us in Southern California, the public fountains throughout the desert communities will be turned off until further notice. On a hot day in the desert I will no longer be able to go into town and delight in that fountain of sweet refreshment that I had taken so much for granted up until now.

Our local news has been inundated with stories about the drought, staggering pictures of long-established lakes, rivers and reservoirs, now turned into dried up areas of cracked and barren dust. They tell us that unless we make some serious efforts at preserving our water supply, the day will come when we turn on the tap and nothing will flow out - pretty scary.

There was a story on the news yesterday - a desert resident was discussing how he is "doing his part" at conserving water. He takes a bucket into the shower with him and uses the water that is collected to irrigate his plants-- the experts say that everyone of one us should now do something as simple as that, it will all make a difference.  But, the reality is that every one of us will not do something as simple as that. Many people will just sit back and pretend that nothing is happening and nothing is wrong. 

A I drove through one of my adjacent neighborhoods, I passed by a house with a lush green lawn that was being watered by a host of tiny sprinkler hoses, all pumping out powerful sprays of rich clean water onto its turf. In fact, there was so much water on that lawn that it was flowing out into the gutters on the street and almost flooding the neighborhood.  As I witnessed this decadent abuse of precious water in the midst of a drought, I also thought about that man who takes a bucket with him into the shower so he can collect the water for his plants. 

The fact is that we all make decisions in life and often times our decisions are "non-decisions." The theologian Harvey Cox once observed;

Not to decide is to decide

Rivers and lakes can be drying up, the water supply can be seriously threatened, public fountains can be turned off and we can decide to do so something about it or we can decide to ignore it all, and decide "not to decide"  - either way, "deciding" or "not deciding" are always decisions.

Every day each of us makes all sorts of decisions in life and we also make all sorts of non-decisions. 

The way in which we treat our life, the way we treat a world of nature, the way we treat other people- these are all decisions we make. We can recycle, maybe try to drive less and walk more, preserve the water supply wherever we may live, or we can choose to ignore it all. We can care for our relationships, tell our kids we love them, thank a spouse or a friend for doing an expected errand, give a word of encouragement to a fellow employee for doing a good job, or we can choose to ignore them and do as we please. Either way, these are all decisions we make every day.

The problem is that if we decide not to decide for any length of time we may just find that one day the refreshing fountain we have come to take for granted may no longer be there.

Today I am thinking of all the decisions I make every day and also of all my "non-decisons." It seems to me that I better go and find a bucket to take with me into the shower. 

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Holy Day

"Earth Day 2015"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I always thought that Earth Day should be treated more as a "holy day" rather than a civic holiday. It is a day for all of us, spiritual, religious, believers and even non-believers to be reminded of a truth that the universe in which we live is so wonderfully mysterious, pulsating with a common energy that connects everyone and everything and weaves it into a complex web.  For me, this energy is the abiding presence of "God."

Every day as I walk out into the vast wilderness where I live, I am made aware of that Holy Presence flowing in the world of nature - in the desert sands, the towering mountains, the desert bushes, cacti that bloom in the spring, in all the creatures of this earth, in me and in you.  We all belong to each other - the world of nature outside of me isn't outside of me at all. Everything that exists is one body, and that body is literally the very "body of God."  

A story is told about the Christian missionaries who came to the New World to convert the people of this strange, foreign land.  But, upon arriving in North America, they were none too pleased to discover that the Native Peoples were indeed already a very spiritual people with a keen awareness of a Holy Presence abiding in and through the world of nature. 

The Native Peoples believed that the Great Spirit was present in the rivers and mountains, the forests and the trees, plants and animals, and in all the people who walked the face of this earth. So when they prayed, they focused their gaze upon Mother Earth - they prayed to the abiding spirit incarnate in this holy planet.

This practice of praying to the earth infuriated those early Christian missionaries. Obviously these Native Peoples were pagans, misinformed savages,  because everyone knew that Jesus lived up in the heavens sitting on a throne at the right hand of God. So they forced the natives to abandon their indigenous religion and accept their European Christian faith. From now on, "true prayer" was to be directed  to a distant God enthroned up in heaven.

As I think about the missionaries bullying the original people of this continent to accept their European brand of religion, I wonder who it was that actually needed conversion? As I see it,  the Native peoples had it right all along. "God" is not a distant king in a faraway land but an intimately abiding, living presence, an energy pulsating in and through the beauty of all creation. 

Gazing upon the earth to pray rather than looking up to an unreachable heaven is a noble gesture and sacred practice. 

I once came upon this Prayer to the Earth from the tradition of the Ute Tribe of North American Indians. It seems like a perfect prayer for Earth Day.

Earth teach me stillness, as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle that soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation, as the leaves that die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration, as the seed that rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself, as the melting snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep in the rain.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

LISTEN: Earth's Crammed With Heaven

When is the last time you stepped on holy ground? It might have been yesterday, or even this morning...

From the desert, Dr. Paul invites you to listen to Desert Wisdom.

Every Tuesday I bring you a new meditation or talk via my studio in the desert.  A podcast to take with you on the road and in your week when you need a little time away. Desert Wisdom broadcasts weekly and is available on iTunesStitcher, and always at my webspace,

Facebook | Twitter | iTunes | Stitcher

Monday, April 20, 2015

Frittering Away

"Spring Blossoms-
- along a wilderness trail -

Today I was thinking about those personal demons that continue to prevent me from living my life to the fullest, standing in the way of my own spiritual well-being. As I reflect on this, I can almost immediately identify one particular "demon" as an especially troublesome culprit for me on my spiritual path: I "worry" a lot - in fact, I "worry" too much.

Interestingly enough,  I rarely worry about the big stuff in life - I don't allow my self to be consumed  or overwhelmed with fears of impending disasters, terrorists attacks, the collapse of the world market. No,  the kind of worries that plague me are those everyday little worries that show their ugly heads in the ordinary routine of life. 

There is a better word for the kind of worries that taunt me, a word that is rarely used nowadays: the word is "fret." The word "fret" is an old English word meaning, "to devour, to eat away and gnaw at," and that's exactly what my everyday worries do to me. They nibble away and gnaw at the well- being of my everyday existence.

As I think about it, my list of things I fret about is actually fairly extensive. I fret about the stuff that breaks down at my house - a broken hose, a faulty appliance.  I fret about the fact that I have to replace the tires on my car and that I need to drive to LA tomorrow, and I worry about how bad the traffic will be or of it will rain in the mountains as I make the trip?  I also find myself fretting about my health at times- I've been a little dizzy lately.  I even fret about my dog who seems to be limping a lot nowadays. 

The more I think about it, the more I realize that there are probably hundreds of little everyday "fretting demons" gnawing away at my equanimity - and my guess is that I'm not the only one these demons visit. 

The Dalai Lama teaches:

If there is no solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it.
If there is a solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it.

I think this is wise advice. 

When I spend my time fretting,  I am in fact "frittering my life away." squandering my time and spending useless energy worrying about a problem that can either be solved or maybe can't be  solved- either way, worrying about it does nothing to make it better.

It's no surprise to me that,  while walking in a field of spring flowers,  Jesus would stop his disciples in the midst of all their fretting about what may happen to them and what the future might hold, and tell them to look at the flowers, listen to the birds and "chill:" 

Will your worrying about the future add even one second to your life? Of course not!
Do not worry over tomorrow - for tomorrow will worry about itself.

Mark Twain once said something that I can really appreciate now in my later years of life:

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, 
but most of them have never happened. 

It seems to me that recognizing the demons that plague us on the journey goes a long way at exorcising them. It makes no sense to fritter away my time by fretting every day. 

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Misuse of Mindfulness

"Fresh Start"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday while reading an article in one of my Buddhist periodicals, I came across something that really made me stop and think. The article suggested that nowadays the word "mindfulness" is used pretty regularly in our everyday conversations - the practice of mindfulness is not only socially acceptable but highly desirable, primarily used as a technique for stress reduction in a busy and chaotic life.   

Little children in elementary school are taught how to practice mindfulness, employees in high stress jobs, politicians and CEO business execs are trained in the technique of learning how to sit quietly, take some cleansing breaths, and without distraction, be aware of what's happening internally and externally in the moment. The problem is that the practice of "mindfulness" as it was originally used in the Buddhist literature goes well beyond promoting a convenient meditation technique or stress reduction practice. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is a "way of life."

Yesterday's article suggested that the English word "mindfulness" is not actually a very faithful translation of the original word that is far better translated as "paying attention."  The Buddha taught his disciples that the path to mindfulness involved "paying attention." He taught that everywhere you are, in everything you do, in every moment in which you find yourself living every day, clear your mind and pay attention - the more you "pay attention" the more you will become aware of and enlightened to the truth that everything and everyone all belong to one anther.

Interestingly enough 500 years after the Buddha, the 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers conducted their entire lives under the rubric of one guiding principle: "Paying attention."

 New monks who entered the ancient community were told that above all else they were to cultivate the habit of "paying attention to life." The Greek word for this was prosoche - another definition of prosoche was deep watchfulness.  

Yes, 500 years after the Buddha, Christian monks in another part of the world were taught that deep peace and ultimate wisdom came from the "practice of mindfulness" - not a stress reduction technique but an overall attitude of deep watchfulness in every moment- watchful and attentive at work, at rest, at prayer, at play, eating a meal or sitting alone on a rock, in the heat of day, in the cool of night - deeply watchful. 

Abba Antony who is credited as being the "Father of ancient desert Christian monasticism" would teach his monks to:

Live as if you are dying every day

While this advice may sound somewhat morbid to our Western sensibilities, what Antony was really teaching was a method for cultivating deep watchfulness every day.  He taught how to live every day without spending time or energy thinking about what went on yesterday, without fearfully or anxiously thinking about what yet ought to be.  Antony taught his monks to approach every new day as a fresh start, a new beginning in which your mind and heart were so open, so free and so trusting that you lived fearlessly - ready to greet God at any moment. 

I often find myself falling into the trap of thinking that the 10 minutes of meditation I spend every day is what "practicing mindfulness" is all about.  Yesterday's  article was a helpful "wake up call" for me - an important reminder that if I am to be a mindful person, I must cultivate a life of deep watchfulness in the way I live every day. 

Out here at the Desert Retreat House, I am especially paying attention to the advice of Abba Antony, my spiritual ancestor.  I will try to live today as if I am dying.

French philosopher and Christian mystic, Simone Weil, once said:

The highest ecstasy is attention at its fullest.

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Beginning of Wisdom

"Full of Wonder"
- Moonrise at the Desert Retreat House -

For some reason or other, over the past several years I have found local "coffeeshops" to be places in which I learn a great deal about life - they are my classrooms and my great cathedrals. My experience at a coffeehouse yesterday was no exception.

As I sat in a corner sipping my iced tea I noticed a little toddler a few tables away. He was there with his mom who was busy talking on the phone while her child was left to his own devices. The longer I sat (trying not to stare too much) I realized that a great drama was unfolding before me, a life-lesson about our human nature.  

Whenever the door to the coffeeshop would open, the little child would gleefully run toward it and gaze in wonder. He watched carefully as the door opened and closed, following its every move,  listening intently to the little squeaky sounds the door was making. And every time that door would close the little one would stand in its wake and giggle as the warm breeze brushed against his face.  

A I observed this little boy joyfully experiencing the wonder of a simple door opening and closing,  I found myself almost envying him, "ahh to be able to see the world with awe and wonder once again."

Rachel Carson once said:

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and enchantment.
It is our misfortune that for most of us
that clear-eyed vision, that instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring,
is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

Yesterday as I sat and watched that child I thought about how my many years of education and my adult predisposition to figure out and to control everything had kept me from experiencing a world as fresh and beautiful, full of wonder and enchantment. 

Socrates said:

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom

As I watched that little one in the coffeeshop I thought to myself that maybe that small child was actually wiser than me. Looking at the world in wonder he experienced a great mystery - beautiful movement, enchanting sounds, a springtime breeze caressing his face.  He opened his heart in wonder and wisdom rushed in to claim his existence. I want to be wise like that again. 

What I learned yesterday in my coffeehouse classroom has helped to clear my mind and be sure that my heart is always open to the revelations of every moment.   After all, I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth out here in the desert. 

As the moon rose up over the mountains in the desert skies, piercing through the palm trees and reflecting in the olive branches, I looked at it in wonder and realized that perhaps, even after all these years, I am now at the beginning of wisdom.

The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu once saud:

From wonder into wonder existence opens up.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Long and Winding Road

"Mysterious Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Every evening around dinner time, one of our TV stations regularly airs a commercial that never ceases to bring a smile to my face. It is an advertisement by a local doctor promising to help you get rid of all those unwanted pounds by using some newly developed laser surgery techniques - no dieting and no exercise necessary. The commercial features testimony from some satisfied (and now-slim) clients who claim to have gone to the doctor, then just sat back and "watched the pounds melt away." 

I suppose this might offer a nice alternative to the hard work of going to a gym every day or watching  out for all those extra carbs and calories - the problem is of course that life is rarely that easy and all those extra pounds never simply melt away.

I find this commercial quite entertaining because it is so very iconic of the culture of "instant gratification" in which we live.  Take a pill, press a key on the computer, Google an answer,  and "presto" you get what you need - "no muss, no fuss."  

In today's culture it comes as no surprise to me that so many people also approach the spiritual journey with the same mindset as someone who goes to a doctor, sits back, watches and then expects the extra pounds to melt away. Many people go to church, say a few prayers, meditate on a mat, read a few books, engage in some random acts of kindness, and then sit back and expect enlightenment and awakening, truth and wisdom to happen.  But, like all the rest of life, it is never that easy.

Jesus compares the spiritual path to a "hard to travel," narrow road that goes against the grain of popular culture, the Buddha talks about the many stages of awareness on a long road of enlightenment, mystics and poets like St John of the Cross liken the spiritual journey to an arduous climb up a long ladder- the higher up you get, the less you know what you are doing and where you are going.  

The road to deeper peace and greater truth is a road in the wilderness - a wonderful adventure along an unmarked and often bumpy path.

I am reminded of something the Psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck,  once said:

Life is difficult...
and once we try know that life is difficult, life is no longer difficult.
Life becomes a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. 

For me, there are some days when I feel like I have made some great progress along the winding road of wisdom, days when I feel like the distance between my humanity and abiding divinity is as thin as a mere veil -  and there are other days when the space is very thick. There are some days when I feel I have been drawn out of myself, connected, and belonging, while there are other days when I feel alone and locked inside my ego. There are some days when I am kind and generous and there are other days when I am selfish and sullen.

On my journey there are times when I feel like I have taken two steps forward on this winding path, and then the next day it's a step backward; and yet, now in my later years of life I have come to see that all of this is OK. 

Since I know that life is difficult, it doesn't actually seem that difficult. My spiritual journey is not a task to be accomplished, not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived - so I just go with the flow. 

I love the homespun wit and humor Anne Lamott brings to her understanding of the wilderness path:

The road to enlightenment is long and difficult 
so you should try not to forget to bring snacks and magazines. 

The way to truth is never quick and easy but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it along the way.  

Listen to my podcast:"Desert Wisdom"

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Cultural Icon

"Desert Stillness"

This morning just before sunrise, it seemed especially quiet and still here at my desert home. As I sat in the silence I smiled to myself thinking that in a few short hours, just a few miles away from me 100,000 people will be invading this little piece of desert land to gather for a second week of of what has been called the biggest music event in the USA, "The Coachella Music Festival."

Huge crowds of mostly younger people (who have paid almost 400 dollars apiece for a ticket) will spend the next three days listening and dancing to an unending stream of rock, rap, hip-hop, electronica and hipster bands performing on multiple stages out in the middle of the desert wilderness, and even though the venue is located almost 8 miles away from my home, the volume is often set so high that I can sometimes hear these sounds even from that distance late into the night.

People from all over the country and from places throughout the globe come to this world famous event - ordinary folks and famous celebrities mill around in the crowd. The Coachella Music Festival has been called a "cultural icon"  - and I suppose it is just that.

As I think about the music event near me, I wonder, if indeed this is such a cultural icon, what exactly does it say about the cultural it represents?

I was at a store the other day and overheard the conversation of two people who had been in attendance at the festival, stocking up on supplies for the coming night.  One young woman looking kind of weary and worn asked her companion, "Aren't you tired, we hardy slept all night?" The other answered in response: "Oh, I'm used to surviving like this, always doing stuff on almost no sleep."  

When I heard her say this, I thought that this was probably a perfect description of why this music festival is such a cultural icon,  a very apt description of a culture of "survival" - getting by every day,  always busy doing stuff with little or no rest.

I actually find it very odd and extremely ironic that the Coachella festival would be held in a place like a desert - a place that is so empty and so incredibly silent. People come out to the desert to sit in the emptiness and to bask in the silence, finding this such an ideal place to clear away all the clutter from their constantly engaged minds, opening their spirits to a higher power, a place of deeper transcendence.

I think of something the Sufi poet, Rumi, once wrote

Let silence take you to the core of life.

People come out into the fringes of the silent desert on order to enter their core. 

The highways into the desert are clogged with traffic today as hordes of folks flock out into the chaos of the next few days. I guess they all come here because the weather is hot and always sunny,  and the towering wilderness mountains are kind of pretty as a backdrop of to all the loud sounds and frenetic activity. I do wonder however if any of these folks will actually pay attention to those majestic mountains, or smell the freshness of a desert in the spring, or hear the plaintive sound of a mourning dove as it pierces the silence of the dawn? 

As I sit in my desert garden I think perhaps I hear some of the distant sounds coming from that iconic music festival, maybe drums beating or the sound of a bass. 

Author and spiritual director Thomas Keating once said:

Silence is the language God speaks and
everything else is a bad translation

I have nothing against the sounds of a music festival -  I hope they all have a good time. But in all honesty I much prefer to be sitting here listening to the language of silence.  

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Most Personal Most General

"Desert Beauty"

Many years ago, while serving as a priest in a parish back East, I would regularly visit a much -beloved parishioner who had been afflicted with a debilitating cancer that left her with only months to live.  This woman was one of the "pillars of the church," always present every Sunday, active in all the activities of the church; and now that she was dying, her fellow parishioners came to think of this "holy woman" as a "living saint" - at the threshold of meeting God face-to-face.

While I enjoyed our regular conversations when I would visit and pray with this "living saint," there was always something missing- she always seemed somewhat aloof and distant, like she was holding something back. 

One day as we sat and talked she suddenly burst into tears and cried out, "I am such a fraud, people think of me as a saint but I'm not even close to being that. I am so filled with doubts, so many fears, so many regrets over my life and I am filled with rage at God because I don't want to die yet." 

With tears running down both our checks I held her hand and assured her that as far as I was concerned, this was the first meeting I ever had with her where she wasn't being a fraud.  This was the  first time I had ever spoken to that person who had been hiding behind a carefully constructed veneer.  I think we were both crying more out of joy than sorrow at that moment - she had finally found her soul.

Of course this dying woman had doubts, rage and fear, who wouldn't in a situation like hers?  None of us is a living saint, in fact, it's exhausting to try to live up to that moniker. We are all broken human beings and it is precisely this brokenness that makes us all so beautiful.

This morning I came across some of the homespun wisdom of author Anne Lamott as she recently recounted what she has learned about life now that she has moved into her later years.  She made me think about that parishioner of so many years ago:

Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared,
even people who seem to have it more or less together.
They are much more like you than you would believe.
So try not to compare your insides to their outsides.

Many people see other people who seem to "have it all together" and then look at themselves in shame over how messed up they are - this is especially true in churches and in religious organizations where the standard of moral excellence seems to be set so high. 

Over my many years in the ministry I can't begin to recount the times parishioners would come to me confessing their feelings of guilt and failure as they sat in a pew next to their fellow upstanding church-going citizens: "If they only knew the truth..if they could look deep into my soul they wouldn't even want to be sitting here next to me." 

But the "truth" is that each and every one of us is indeed "screwed up, broken, clingy and scared" --that's the real truth. The successful neighbor, the role-model mother, the student athlete, the priest, rabbi, imam, even the bishop with a pointy hat standing up in front of a congregation preaching a sermon - everyone of us of are broken and flawed, and it is only when we hide behind the veneer of our own perfection that we are really being a fraud.

The psychologist Carl Rogers once observed;

That which is most personal is most general.

There is so much wisdom in this - at the most intimate and personal places deep at the core of our life we are imperfect and messed up;  and our "warts" are the marks of our shared humanity. 

When we are vulnerable enough to admit and even share that most personal and yet most common place in us, we find deep peace and great beauty.

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

PODCAST: Wasting Time

Time spent in this lifetime is so short. What do we choose to do throughout it?

Today's program from the desert, "Wasting Time"

Every Tuesday I bring you a new meditation or talk via my studio in the desert.  A podcast to take with you on the road and in your week when you need a little time away. Desert Wisdom broadcasts weekly and is available on iTunesStitcher, and always at my webspace,

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Monday, April 13, 2015


"Sunrise and an Olive Tree"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I found an article in this morning's edition of the New York Times to be very insightful as columnist David Brooks reflected on what he called, The Moral Bucket List:

There are two sets of virtues, 
the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.
The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace.
The eulogy virtues are the ones talked about at your funeral -
whether you were kind, brave, honest, faithful, and capable of deep love. 

The article went on to say that many of us spend the vast majority of our time cultivating our resume virtues with far less focus on what may be said of us in a eulogy at our funeral--the problem is that the eulogy virtues are ultimately what bring us the greatest happiness and deepest peace while we are still alive. We would do well to cultivate those "eulogy virtues" - they should get top priority on our moral bucket list. 

As I think about it I guess that I have spent most of my adult life writing a resume in one form or another -  always looking for that next and bigger opportunity, thinking about all those skills and experiences that qualify me for it, figuring out what I might yet have to do to hone my talents and tailor my experience so that I could best climb the proverbial ladder of success.

I am reminded of something Thomas Merton once said:

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

At my funeral my guess is that, if someone gives a eulogy, they probably aren't to going to praise my computer skills or organizational abilities. Hopefully I will have done enough with my life  to be remembered for my deep love.

In this morning's article, the author offered this wise insight:

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions.
Be true to yourself.
This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self.
But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking,
what do I want from life?
They ask,
what is life asking of me?
How can I match my intrinsic talents with the world's greatest needs?

I was really struck by that word "vocation" - we hear a lot about careers, we prepare resumes, and endlessly engage in job searches, but there seems to be little if any talk about a "vocation." 

Some people may say that a vocation is what God is calling you to do with your life. While that may be the case, I think a vocation is the stuff we do in life that helps us to develop those "eulogy virtues."

Educator and spiritual teacher, Parker Palmer, once defied a vocation as

That place in life where your deepest gladness and the world's deepest hunger meets.

As I reflect on it, I don't actually think that a job, career or even one's life-long work is necessary that  place in life that is a "vocation" - sometimes a job is just a job.  Even to this very day when I am no longer in the business of building my career, I am still very much involved in finding and living into my vocation in life. 

Whenever I am in touch with a passion that pulls me outside my own self and allows me to extend my talents, my skills and my gifts for the good of others, I am in a place of vocation. Every day I am called to live out this vocation- to be in touch with those places of my deepest gladness and to be aware of the hunger in my world that can be filled by that gladness. 

It's the beginning of a new day and a new week- what a great opportunity to work on my moral bucket list -to develop my "eulogy virtues" by the way I live my life today. 

Listen to my podcast:"Desert Wisdom"