Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Everyday Miracles

"A Sacred Moment"
- in my meditation garden -

I sat quietly yesterday, tucked away into a little corner of a restaurant eating my lunch.  As I read a book on my Kindle, oblivious to the outside world, a little girl with twinkling eyes and clothed in a flowered dress stood directly in front of me, staring and smiling. I’m not sure why, but little children often stop and stare at me (my wife says it’s because they think I look like Santa Claus); but whatever the reason, I always find such encounters to be sacred moments, little miracles in my ordinary day.

I used to think that a miracle was some kind of supernatural occurrence, something well out of the ordinary.  Someone is cured of cancer and that’s a miracle, Jesus turns water into wine and that’s a miracle, Moses parts the Red Sea and that’s a miracle. I have now come to believe that miracles are nothing like that.

As I see it, a miracle is a little doorway that often opens to us, a window into our everyday life allowing us to look into the “really-real” world of our ordinary routine, showing us that we all live in a world of extraordinary beauty and wonder every minute of every day.

The sun rises in the desert skies - and that’s a miracle. Two fiends embrace, enemies are reconciled - and that’s a miracle. An innocent child with a flowered dress stands before me and smiles with twinkling eyes - and that’s a miracle.

I am reminded of a wisdom saying attributed to the Buddha:

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly,
our whole life would change.

I find a profound truth in this one simple sentence. Over and over again I have discovered that, whenever I am roused out of my distractions in life and pay attention to the miraculous revelations of the moment, my life changes - always.

Yesterday, a few-second gaze of a sweet little child was, like any miracle, life-changing for me.  No, I didn’t go home and sell all I have to feed the poor, but because of the miracle of that single moment I became a bit more “enlightened,”  a bit more aware of my connectedness to the world outside my own self-centered ego, a bit more gentle and little more kind.

So today I will try to be more aware of the ordinary miracles of my everyday life, more attuned to the doors of revelation that are always opening to me and more willing to walk through those opened doors.

An ancient Zen master once said this of his everyday life:

When happy, I go alone into the mountains, such joy.
I walk until the water ends and sit waiting for the hour when the clouds rise.
If I happen to meet an old woodcutter, I chat with him,
laughing and lost to time.

Such a wonderful “miracle” story.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Make it All Better

"Abiding Presence"
- Morning at the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I had a wonderful conversation with a former parishioner - a young parent who came to me asking for some advice. Now that my wife and I have raised our own children and have moved into that next phase of becoming grandparents, I was asked to look back on our experiences and share the greatest challenge we faced as parents. The thing that surprised me most about this complicated question was how quickly I was able to answer it:  “For me, the hardest part of parenting was not being able to fix my kids’ problems, my inability to take away their pain.”

As I reflected back upon those years when our now-adult children were growing up,  I conjured up all the many times when the kids got sick or injured or when they were sad or had problems in school or problems with relationships.  Many times they would come to my wife and I and in essence ask us to “make it all better,” take away the pain, make the problems go away.

The truth is I wanted to do that, and if I could have waved some magic wand I would have;  but it doesn’t work that way.  We could and did help them out by giving advice, taking them to a doctor, sometimes offering resources; but for the most part, all we could do most of the time was to “hold their hands” through it all and let them know that we were with them and they wouldn’t have to face the chaos of life alone – to this very day we still do that with our kids.

When I was asked that “parenting” question the other day, I thought about something I read a while ago by the theologian, Daniel Maguire, in his book Christianity without God;

It is an alluring and adolescent temptation for the likes of us to imagine
a divine superbeing with parental passions
who is both omnipotent and all merciful
who will make everything ‘right’ on earth as it is in heaven

From my very earliest days as a child I was taught that “God” was my “Heavenly Father” and that when I was in need or trouble I should come to “Him” with my needs and “He” would make it all better. As I have matured on my spiritual journey I no longer think that’s who God is or what God does.

If I think about “God” as a “parent,” I imagine “God” as an “Abiding Presence" - that energy of love flowing in us all and through us all, and it’s up to us to make our lives better and to make this world a better place.

Our oceans and our air are being poisoned and the climate is less and less hospitable for human life. The world is racked by poverty, war, hunger and injustice. People suffer from addictions and disease and rampant consumerism continues to eat away at the very fabric of our civilized society. There are lots of things about this world and within our own personal lives that are broken, in chaos and in need of fixing.

And so its not only comforting but also rather convenient to imagine “God” as a benevolent parent - come to “Him” and he will make it all better; but it not only doesn’t work like that, it’s actually a rather childish and even dangerous way to think about “God” in this way – it gets us “off the hook” prompting us to shirk our own responsibilities hoping that the “Heavenly Father’ will somehow be able to fix it all for us and make it all better.

I am sometimes amazed and always saddened when I hear the prayers of people who come to church or to a temple or a mosque asking God to end the drought, to bring peace or end terrorism in the world, and then they go home and ignore the environment, create chaos and make their own wars in their homes and offices and as they walk out the doors of the church they step over that hungry man living on the street.

The Buddha taught:

However many holy words you read,
however many you speak,
what good will they do if you do not act upon them?

God isn’t the Daddy in the sky who is going to make it all better- it’s our job to do that.

God abides - among us through it all.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Paying Attention to Life

"Wonder and Awe"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

After dinner last evening as I was “killing some time” by watching a rather mindless TV show, when I heard my wife call out to me: “Quickly come here, you have to see this!”  At first I was a bit annoyed at the interruption, but when I went outdoors and we looked up into the star-studded desert skies,  I almost melted at the “awesome” beauty of an eclipsed “supermoon” hanging like a jeweled ornament in the star-studded desert skies. If my wife hadn’t interrupted my “mindlessness" by calling my attention to the skies, I would have missed it all.

That experience last evening gave me a flash of insight as nature once again was teaching me an important lesson about mindful living and reminding me to pay attention to my life as it is revealed to me in each and every present moment.

It’s interesting to me that throughout most of my life I believed that somehow my various spiritual practices were supposed to help me withdraw from the outside world. I always went inside a church to pray, shutting the doors to the world that went on outside those doors, and when I would pray I would always close my eyes.

In fact to this very day I have to fight against old habits when I go out to my garden for my daily time of quiet meditation. I have to fight against the idea that meditation somehow helps me to withdraw from the world so that I might enter a place inside myself. I actually think the path of my meditation pulls me in the opposite direction. 

Sitting quietly I unclutter my mind so that, grounded in the moment, I can pay attention to the world, aware of life as it happening.  

Buddhist author and ecologist, Susan Murphy, offers this extremely insightful understanding of what meditation and mindful living is ultimately all about:

Meditation is the act of paying reality the courtesy of wonder,
a curiosity that is sometimes called non-judgmental attention,

Yesterday as I gazed in awe and wonder at that moon in the desert skies, I became very acutely aware that “meditation” is not something I do in my garden every morning -  it is a “way” of living life. Rather than frittering away my life by “killing time” yesterday reminded me once again to live life by paying closer attention to it – to whatever comes along.

When I pay attention to my life I don’t always encounter breathtaking beauty in clear cosmic skies, sometimes the skies are dark and stormy, sometimes life is filled with chaos, angst, sickness and sadness- but I must try to pay attention to it all, because every moment has something to teach me.  

I must pay attention to the darkness and the dryness that inevitably comes my way and give it the same degree of attention I give to the beauty and the light. When I do this, I am always given what I need to live fully and to grow in the way of wisdom and truth.

Susan Murphy also says this of living everyday:

Don’t miss anything.
Everything counts, everyone counts.
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you.

I don’t do a lot of my praying inside churches anymore these days; and most of the time I go outdoors to meditate. I always keep my eyes open.

The poet Emily Dickinson once said:

Life is so astonishing,
it leaves very little time for anything else.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rock Stars and Spiritual Gurus

"The Buddhas Point the Way"
- in my meditation garden -

Today is the final day of the Pope’s visit to the United States; and I must say that I have been truly amazed at the amount of media attention this event had garnered in this country and in the world-wide press. Over the past six days it was literally impossible to turn on the news, read a paper or browse the social media without encountering some image of Pope Francis, speaking to Congress, preaching a sermon to throngs of people, riding in a parade through Central Park to the adulation of adoring crowds.

Personally I think it’s been pretty great that the media have been so saturated with “pope images” and “pope-speak” for the past days - such a refreshing antidote to the strident, poisonous “Trump-style” rhetoric that has infested the public square in recent months; but there is also a darker side and an underbelly to the kind of pubic visibility rustled up by the visit of this Pope.

Every day, vast crowds of people mass together waiting in line, camping out at a curbside for hours, just to catch a glimpse of the white-clad pontiff as he passes by. He has become a veritable, spiritual “rock star” for many (and not just for Catholics). Over and over again I have heard people on the news who tearfully proclaim that “looking at the Pope’s face is like looking at God and when they see the Pope passing by they are seeing the face of Jesus.”

Interestingly enough, when I read the Christian Gospels and pay attention to what Jesus taught, I discover that Jesus saw his himself as a guide, not a destination point. In Jesus’ own day, many adoring fans came out to see him, to catch a glimpse, to listen to a sermon he delivered to throngs of people assembled on the hillsides.  And yet, never at any time do I hear Jesus ask anyone to kneel down and worship him - instead he asks people to follow him.

Jesus pointed the compass of his life in the direction of compassion, forgiveness, mercy and inclusion and he told all those people who came out to “catch a glimpse” of him that they should go back home, out into their everyday lives, and do what he did by pointing their own moral compasses in the same direction as his.

It is much easier and far simpler to offer adulation to spiritual gurus like popes, priests, rabbis or imams than for each of us to walk the path ourselves. But the sage and guru is only the guide and never the destination.

Many people on various spiritual paths often imagine that their own leaders are worthy of adulation because they are “ordained” people who have somehow earned a degree and achieved greater holiness. And yet, holiness is never something anyone earns, deeper wisdom and knowledge of the truth is never something that comes along with a certificate achieved at the end of a course of studies.

I think of something Alan Watts once said:

I have always found that people who have quite genuinely died to their old false self
make no claim of any kind about their own part in the process.
They think of themselves as lazy and lucky, and if they did anything at all,
it was so simple that anyone else cold have done the same,
for all  they have done was to recognize a universal truth of life.

To the genuine sage, mystic, buddha, enlightened one,
the notion that he or she attained this state by some special capacity of their own
is always absurd and impossible.

Several years ago I visited a very famous Buddhist shrine in South Korea and I was rather surprised (maybe even shocked) to discover that the walls of the shrine were covered with hundreds of “Buddha” statues of various shapes and sizes. When I asked why there wasn’t one central image of the Buddha to be worshipped, I was told that the many 
“buddhas” serve as a reminder that all of us are called to be “buddhas”- enlightened ones who have come to understand that we all belong to one another and that our mission on earth is to treat each other with compassion.

The many buddha-statues in that shrine were images of all of us standing in the shrine- each of us called to be a buddha.

If anything, the Pope’s “now ending” visit to America should serve to remind us all that we are all “buddhas” (enlightened ones), all of us are “christs” (anointed ones), all of us are popes and priests - all called to be enlightened by truth and to make this world a better place.

There is a passage from the Buddhist scripture that I have thought of from time to time these past few days whenever I have seen an image of the Pope passing by:

Everyone must strive, the buddhas only point the way.