Saturday, January 31, 2015

Love is My True Identity

- in my meditation garden -

Many years ago I began reading the works of the celebrated monk and author, Thomas Merton. He was  a "mystic," a "contemplative," a "poet," deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and yet profoundly influenced by Buddhist teachings. Thomas Merton opened my mind as well as freed my soul to see and understand "God" and my relationship to "God" in fresh, new and different ways.   Brother Merton would have turned 100 today and he continues to influence me at this stage of my life as much if not more so than he did when I was much younger.

As I think about the the writings of Thomas Merton on this his 100th birthday, I quite vividly recall the very first time I read something he wrote  - it literally changed my worldview:

To say that I am made in the image of God 
is to say that Love is the reason for my existence,
for God is Love!

Love is my true identity.
Selflessness is my true self.
Love is my true character.
Love is my name.

When I first read this many years ago it was as if "scales fell from my eyes." In an instant I moved away from understanding God as a divine super being up in the sky into understating "God" as the universal energy of abiding love. It was a major breakthrough for me.

Like most children raised in a Christian household, from a very early age I was taught that human beings were made "in the image and likeness of God." In order to explain just exactly what that meant, my elementary school religion teacher brought in a picture of of Michelangelo's famed "creation fresco" painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. 

There it was in living color for all of us to see - an actual picture of God, a wise old grandfather with flowing robes and a long beard reaching out and touching life into the extended finger of Adam, the first man. And indeed it was true, Adam was a spitting image of God. He was younger than the old man, no doubt inferior to him,  but you couldn't help but recognize the family resemblance. 

And yet, throughout the scriptures, we are told that God is "Love," - not a distant super hero living far away, perhaps accessible, but still distant. No, God is Love -abiding Love, intimate Love, passionate Love flowing in us and through us.  And once you accept that truth everything changes in an instant.

Yes I very much believe that we human beings are "made in the image of God." In fact I believe that everything that "is" reflects "God's" image - the earth and the sky, birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and the flowers growing in my meditation garden, all images of God -all beautiful reflections of the universal abiding Holy Presence of Love. 

Love is my true identity.
Selflessness is my true self.
Love is my true character.
Love is my name.

Happy Birthday Thomas!





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Friday, January 30, 2015

Deep Listening

"Rain in the Mountains"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House"

I woke up this morning to a sound that I rarely hear out here in the desert. A light rain was falling and I was hearing the sound of raindrops on my window.  As I sat there in the utter silence, listening to the gentle rain, I reflected on the importance of "listening" - a prized virtue on any spiritual path.

Buddhists don't talk so much about the value of listening,  but rather the importance of "deep listening" on a path of enlightenment. 

It seems to me that in the popular culture of today's busy world, most people are so preoccupied with their own thoughts that they hardly do any listening at all - let alone "deep listening." So many people are always so busy, emails and iPhones, pecking away at a computer - everyone so involved in their own thinking. People often "hear" but hardly ever take the time to actually "listen" to a world outside of themselves.  Even in quiet times, when sitting alone, people often find themselves engaged with their own thoughts-focusing on their worries and regrets or planning for the days to come. 

"Deep listening" begins with "clearing one's mind" so that you can actually listen to sounds other than your own ideas,  and then actively listening for those sounds available in the present moment. 

It seems to me that "deep listening" is best done in silence -without music in the background without the sounds of a computer humming or a TV set droning - just sitting in the sounds of silence.

Zen master and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, observes:

Silence is often described as the absence sound and yet
silence is a very powerful sound.

Here in the desert, the time just before dawn is perhaps the most silent time of the day. This morning when I woke up I began my "deep listening" by paying attention to  the sounds in the silence- the ever so gentle sound of raindrops splashing on my window pane, the chirping of the birds waking up to greet a new day, the sound of the wind rustling in the palm trees. 

Then my "deep listening" went even deeper as I carefully listened beyond the sounds to the powerful sound of silence thundering beneath it all. The silence spoke so loudly to me - it was the humming of the universe, the "Om," the sound of Holy Presence singing a love song at the dawn of a new day.

Thich Nhat Hanh also said:

When you've been able to still all the noise inside of you, 
when you've been able to establish silence, a thundering silence,
you begin to hear the deepest kind of calling within yourself.

Such profound wisdom.

Of course, you don't have to live in a desert to engage in "deep listening." Get unplugged, go to a quiet place, clear your mind, and listen, listen deeply - you may be surprised at what you will hear.







Thursday, January 29, 2015

Religious Claptrap

"Morning Dew"
- Springtime at the Desert Retreat House -

I was very impressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during his recent visit to New York City. In a sermon delivered at Trinity Church on Wall Street, Archbishop Justin Welby, symbolic head of the 80 million member worldwide Anglican communion, had this to say:

Jesus challenges every assumption about society. 
He does not permit us to accept a society in which the weak are excluded,
whether because of race, wealth, gender, ability or sexuality.
When I boil down the old sermons I have heard so often growing up, all they effectively said was:
'Wouldn't the world be a nicer place is we were all a bit nicer.'
This is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept.

I thought this was a pretty powerful statement especially coming from such an icon of organized religion as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I looked up the word "claptrap." It is defined as "pretentious and even nonsensical speech designed to win the applause (claps) of an audience." The more I thought about it, there is a lot about "religion" nowadays (not just Christianity) that may well fall into the category of claptrap. Many religions have been co-opted by the status quo; congregants are urged to accept the norms of the given culture and then try to be just a little bit nicer to each other. "Don't rock the boat too much, don't say or do anything that anyone will find offensive, just be a little nicer."- sentiments like this are indeed designed to get the applause. 

However, when I examine the radical (at-the-root) teachings of most major world religions, I find anything but an acceptance of the status quo. The fiery prophets of the Hebrew tradition railed against their kings and princes, demanding justice and equality for the weak and the poor and for those who had no voice. Many prophets were stoned for their impudence.  

And of course this is exactly what Jesus also did, he railed against the empire of exclusion and domination, opposing the state and the institutional religion of his day that excluded the weak and exalted the powerful. He turned the societal norms upside down and leveled the playing field by devoting his entire life and teaching to lifting up the lowly to sit in places of honor "alongside princes and kings." Jesus was crucified for being so subversive. 

The Buddha was likewise just as radical in his life and teachings. He was a wealthy prince who gave away his earthly status teaching his followers to walk a path of enlightenment - everyone and everything all interconnected in a wonderful web of relationship. Enlightened ones treat all beings with equal reverence and respect.

And yet today people come to a church or a temple and listen to pleasant sermons dripping with sentiments about being a little nicer, or they sit on a mat and meditate in order to relieve some stress, and all along the gap between the rich and the poor, the strong and weak becomes wider and wider.

This is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept. 

I have a little note card on my desk that reads:

The purpose of religion is to
comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

If there was less "claptrap" today, maybe religion might be taken more seriously.








Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New Podcast, "Desert Wisdom" - now on iTunes!

For my blog followers! I'm very excited to announce a new endeavor on this path, and one I look forward to sharing with all of you, and many more.

Today begins my new weekly podcast, "Desert Wisdom." This will be a wonderful chance to "talk" with all of you, and extends the possibilities for us to interact and create new ways of thought and discussion. You can also visit my new webspace, www.DesertPaul.com

Listen to the first episode below! You can also subscribe on iTunes: http://bit.ly/1JIyo8u


Finding Yourself

"First Blossoms"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

A couple days ago it rained in the desert. So when I went out for my regular "wilderness walk" yesterday, to my great delight I discovered that the rain woke the desert up.  The bushes were turning green and the first blossoms of spring were appearing - it was such a pristine and exhilarating sight. 

As I walked along the trail taking in the fresh smells of early spring, I saw a young man in the distance - quietly sitting alone on top of a rock looking out at the vast wilderness. Lots of people come out into the wilderness to sit on rocks, to do some serious soul searching, to find themselves, to discover who they really are. In my heart I wished that young man well in his soul-searching quest.

When I got back to my house yesterday I came across this enlightening passage from Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh's, new book, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise: 

When you ask the question, 'Who am I?' -- if you have enough time and concentration, you may find some surprising answers. You may see that you are a continuation of your ancestors who are fully present in every cell of your body. If you remove your ancestors and your parents there is no 'you' left.

You may also see that you are made of elements like water. If you remove the water from you, there is no 'you' left.  You are also made of earth. If you remove the element of earth from you, there is no 'you' left. You are made of air - you need air desperately; without air you cannot survive. So if you remove the element of air from you, there is no 'you.' And then there is the element of heat and light in you. You know that you are made of light, without sunlight nothing can grow on earth. And you know that the earth, as well as yourself, is made of stars. On a clear night you can look up and you can see that you are the stars above.

You don't have a separate self. You're not just the tiny body you normally may think of as 'yourself.'

As I read and re-read this wonderful piece of wisdom, I thought about that young man sitting on the rock out in the wilderness, perhaps asking that question, "Who am I?" I half thought about making a copy of this passage and taking it to him. 

Lots of times when people ask the "who am I?" question they come up with some pretty small and often myopic answers. They focus on their tiny body or see themselves as isolated individuals - defining themselves by their jobs, careers, or roles they play in life. Sometimes they answer the question by thinking about their inmost thoughts or deepest secrets. 

 But the answer to the question, "Who am I?" is far more than that one little story we may tell ourselves about who we really are - the answer to that question is cosmic.

I am my relationships. I am water. I am earth. I am the air I breathe. I am sunlight and I am stars. 

This is who I really am. 









Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Practicing Equanimity

"Rock Solid"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I turned on the TV last evening only to discover the frantic, even panicked "Breaking News" announcements warning of the history-making blizzard about to hit New York City.  CNN featured nonstop coverage of the impending doom, more than three feet of snow, hurricane-force winds. Reporters were interviewing anxious citizens as they waited in long lines outside supermarkets to "stock up" on the necessary supplies they would need to survive the coming storm. Store shelves were emptied out, the New York subway system shut down, streets abandoned, bridges closed.  

The CNN news anchor said that this was such an important story that they would be limiting their commercial breaks so as to help people prepare for the upcoming disaster that was already being labeled, "Snowmageddon."

As it turned out, everyone seriously over-reacted - New York City got a few inches of snow and life has pretty much returned to normal. 

Sitting in her apartment surrounded by boxes of batteries, gallons of drinking water and several flashlights, one New Yorker was interviewed on the morning news today saying that she bought enough food to feed an army in preparation for "Snowmaggedon." She will try to freeze what she can but guesses she will probably have to throw most of it away.

As I see it, the whole event yesterday was just another indication as to how much "angst" there is in today's society - the ongoing possibility of terrorism on an airplane or in a mall, the possibility of yet another school shooting, who knows when the "next shoe will drop?" An underlying anxiety seems to buzz around beneath the living of everyday life, and so when the possibility of a history-making blizzard looms, it immediately becomes "Breaking News," the dreaded impending disaster is about to hit. So the angst is ratcheted up and people go out and buy enough food to feed an army for a blizzard that's suppose to last a day or two (and then never even happens).

I think we would do well to inject a good dose of equanimity into today's angst-ridden culture.

The idea of equanimity may perhaps be a foreign concept to many people in popular Western culture.  While equanimity is a spiritual practice taught in all major world religions, it is perhaps most widely discussed in Buddhist literature. In fact, Buddhists embrace the practice of "equanimity" as one of the four major virtues to be practiced in the spiritual life - equal to the practice of compassion and kindness.

I particularly like a definition of equanimity that I came across a few years back found in a book written by a Benedictine nun (Sister Macrina Wiederkeher):

Consider the word 'equanimity.' It is an excellent word.
The dictionary will probably tell you that it means calm composure.
But here is a far better definition: 
Equanimity is the stability of mind that allows us to be present with an open heart
to everything that comes our way,
no matter how wonderful or how difficult.

We live in a world where good things happen right along with the bad. Of course troubles will always come our way- sometimes even disasters may strike. Maybe we can prepare for a blizzard by buying a flashlight or a few extra cans of food, keeping off the roads or closing schools, but after that "what happens will happen."  

When we refuse to allow our lives to be plagued by a constant sense of abiding angst and impending doom,  and with open hearts simply allow ourselves to be present to what is, "no mater how wonderful or how difficult," we are practicing equanimity. 

The practice of equanimity helps us to live our lives boldly and with confidence I think we may all need a good dose of equanimity nowadays. 










Monday, January 26, 2015

Dry Spells

"Before the Bloom"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I had a conversation with someone who told me that for the past 20 years he has been meditating every day and he has never before felt as spiritually dry as he does now.  Every day he sits quietly, mindfully meditates, sometimes tries to pray, but he feels nothing- only boredom and dryness.  He asked me if I had any thoughts about his predicament and my immediate response was, "Maybe you are at the threshold of some new spiritual growth in your life - just keep at it." 

In his book, Bread for the Journey, Priest and author, Henri Nouwen, once offered this wise piece of advice:

It is a great grace to experience God's presence, 
but when we don't experience this presence it doesn't mean that God is absent. 
It often means that we are being called to go deeper in our spiritual life.
It is precisely in times of dryness that we must hold onto our spiritual discipline
so that we can grow into new intimacy with God.

We live in a culture of "instant gratification." We take a pill and expect the sickness to go away, press a button on a computer and all the answers are there, so my guess is that we may expect the same thing to happen on a spiritual quest in our lives. We expect that times of prayer, meditation or solitude should yield instant results - noble feelings, mystical experiences of transcendence into thin places. And while this does happen from time to time, there are many times when we may feel more absence than presence along the "way." 

So I think Henri Nouwen gives some wise advice when he suggests that in times of dryness just keep doing what you have been doing. Keep on mediating, keep praying, keep going to church or a mosque or a temple or whatever it is that you do as a spiritual discipline. The dry times are often holy times when we are at a threshold of new growth and new life. 

The desert in which I live is a great place to learn something about spiritual dryness - endless miles of dry sand and rocky stone and rarely a rainy day. I look out onto the dry parched land and wonder how it is even possible for palm trees to grow there or bushes to blossom. And yet just beneath the surface of this arid desert land, a great underground aquifer flows, springs of life-giving water flow.

Every once in a while, especially in springtime, I will walk out onto the desert floor and to my delight discover that the parched wilderness has gone into bloom overnight - spring flowers bursting out everywhere, blossoms on trees that seemed long-dead. When that happens, of course, it's a mystical moment, a thin place moment filled with a sense of Holy Presence. 

But, of course, the desert doesn't bloom every day. In fact for the most part it's all pretty dry. So I just learn to embrace the dryness knowing that I am standing on a stream of living water.

Almost every day I recite one of my favorite Buddha teachings as a mantra to begin my day:

Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet.
Do your work with mastery.

Wise advice for the good times as well as the bad times, the lush times as well as the dry times. 

So I just "keep on keepin' on." 




Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Artist in Everyone

"Golden Drops of Sunshine" 
- Morning at the Desert Retreat House -

At this time of year many outdoor "Art Festivals" are hosted throughout the desert region in which we live - yesterday my wife and I attended one of them. I always enjoy seeing such a wide array of various artistic creations, paintings and sculptures, pottery and weaving - displayed by artists from all over the United States. But, for me, my favorite thing about going to one of these Art Festivals is the opportunity it affords for personal interaction with the various artists, talking to them about their work. 

Yesterday I was particularly taken by the "paintings" of an artist from Oregon - actually I'm not sure they were even pantings, at least not in the traditional sense. In fact, when I first encountered his art I was somewhat disoriented because it seemed to be telling so many stories all at the same time. From one perspective the paintings looked medieval, but it also looked modern even futuristic. A vast array of faces were also prominent in the paintings- many different people from all sorts of cultures and climates of many different shapes and sizes which was somewhat disconcerting and yet comforting all at the same time - nothing seemed neatly connected and yet at the same time everything seemed harmonious.

Seeing me struggle to find a coherent meaning in his work, the artist approached me and with a big smile on his face asked, "So, what are you seeing?"  I told him that I couldn't answer his question, "I see lots of stuff and I can't figure out what you are trying to do in the painting."   He then said, "Then I guess I have been successful" and went on to explain that he creates his art so that people can learn how to look at one world through many different lenses- after all, that's what artists do, they see the world through many different lenses -it's never neatly connected but it's always harmonious. 

That artist from Oregon went on to tell me that his mission in painting is to bring out the artist in all of us.

My conversation yesterday reminded me of something I once read about "creativity" in a book of Buddhist essays:

Creativity often seems like an unusual gift that few people
are born with or manage to acquire,
but creativity is accessible to everyone.
It naturally arises from your basic nature if you are open to it.
Creativity is something to be uncovered not something to be wished for

Many if not most people get used to seeing the world through one lens - that's probably why everyday, ordinary life is so boring for so many people.  They get up every day and engage in the same old routine, living into that same old story they have always told themselves about who they are and what the world is all about. 

And yet, every moment is a new moment full of surprises and brimming with beauty if you have the eyes to see it, if you allow your creativity to arise from your "basic nature."

I got up this morning and sat in my garden. I sit in this garden every day-the same old routine.  But this morning I just happened to catch the glint of the morning sun on an ordinary bush, drops of gold were resting on a leaf, radiant beauty, vibrant energy.  I was looking at the same old world through a different lens, bringing out the artist in me and in doing so, I was looking into the face of "God." 














Saturday, January 24, 2015

Homecoming

"A Wilderness Place"

The other day, I was asked a most interesting question. Knowing full well that we live out here in the Sonoran Desert of Southern California, an online friend inquired, "So where is your home?" I think he was probably asking me about where I was born and raised, but the truth is that I was really taken back by his question, and I was unable to answer it. 

There are many places I might call home. I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York but we lived in the Syracuse area for many years. Then my wife and I moved to Los Angeles and now we live in the desert of the Coachella Valley.  In some sense I can say that each of these places are "home" for me and in another sense none of them are.  

It seems to me that this is an apt description of the paradox inherent in the lives of each and every one of us - we are always at home and yet always on the journey, both at the same time.

I am reminded of something Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, once wrote:

With every step I arrive at my destination.
Home is where your feet are.

Like many of Master Hanh's teachings, these few little lines are full of profound wisdom. 

Some people say that home is where your heart is -  home is that place you cherish most, perhaps the place of your most cherished memories. But the more I think about it, "home" is more about where your feet are rather than where your heart is. We find our home in every step we take - in each and every moment, in whatever place we may happen to find ourselves. Every step we take is a homecoming and then we move on to take the next step and find another home. 

This all leads me to try to be awake in the moment, alert in the present, because this present moment is indeed my destination. And yet, I never own the ground on which I stand, I don't cling to any moment or horde it as if it were my own. Time moves on, I move on - on to that next step. 

I am always at home and yet always on the journey. Such is life.

Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, makes this observation:

Most of us spend so much time thinking about
where we have been or where we are supposed to go
that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are.
When someone asks us where we want to be in our lives,
the last thing that occurs to us is to look down at our feet and say:
'Here, I guess, since this is where I am.'

I hope I have a chance today to talk with that friend who asked me where home is for me. I think I may have come up with an answer. I will look down at my feet and say:

"Here, I guess, since this is where I am." 












Friday, January 23, 2015

Beneath the Surface of Life

"Profound Mystery"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

In this morning's New York Times I came across an extremely interesting observation about today's popular culture (especially in the West). The article suggested that the everyday lives of many people nowadays are lived "on the surface," with little or no reflection about how they understand the "real" meaning of life. We skim across the surface without ever reflecting on what is underneath. 

Many people today keep themselves very "busy" in the ordinary routine of everyday living -  busy at school, work, shopping, busy at home surfing the web, busy texting, busy watching the big game. Many people use the  busyness of everyday living as an excuse for not taking time to stop and reflect on their values and beliefs, their worldview, whether or not they have a moral compass in life or in what direction their compass points. 

I actually think there is great wisdom in this observation and I also believe that this is perhaps why so many people nowadays feel lost, alone, maybe even abandoned. This is what happens when you try to navigate through life without a rudder or an anchor to help keep you grounded and focused.

When the New Year dawned a few weeks back, lots of people sat down and made a list of resolutions to be acted upon in 2015. My guess is that many of those resolutions have already been abandoned - trips to the gym have been suspended, it's back to the old diet.  And so before January comes to an end it seems to me that rather than make more resolutions, we might all do well to take this time at the beginning of a new year to go beneath the surface of our lives and ask ourselves some probing questions that might help direct the course of our path for the year to come. 

The New York Times article I just read posed some very interesting "beneath the surface" questions, and this morning I have been sitting here in my meditation garden reflecting on them:

Who or what matters most to you?
What are your deepest values?
What makes your life really worth living?

In some sense I think abut these questions all the time - I write a daily blog that attempts to "get at" some of these questions, scratching beneath the surface, looking for deeper truth and greater wisdom. However, I also realized today that I must be careful not to answer these probing questions too quickly or too glibly. 

So today, before this New Year isn't so new any more, I am taking time away from the busy routine of my own life to ponder these questions anew, clearing away how I may have answered these very same questions last year. After all, much has happened in a year, the world is different and so am I. 

Who are what really matters to me? What are my deepest values and what makes my life really worth living?  

It's a great way to begin another year. 




Thursday, January 22, 2015

Procrastination

"Today"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

This morning I was saddened to hear of the death of Marcus Borg -a well published scholar of religion who changed the lives of many people by his plain-spoken teachings about Jesus, the Bible, the nature of faith and, more recently, the relationship between Jesus and the Buddha. I was lucky enough to personally know Professor Borg and had several occasions to be with him and, at times to seek his counsel and advice. 

After hearing of Marcus' death this morning, I went online and read some of his more recent blog posts - one in particular, was very striking to me, an article about "facing death." I realized that I am continuing to benefit from the wisdom of this very wise man:

Procrastination: living as if we have an indefinite amount of time and therefore can put off 'really living' until some future time. A vivid awareness of one's own death, its certainty and uncertainty, can end procrastination and impel us into the present- to live each day as if it were the last and yet also the first in a life that may have many years left.

The earnest awareness of our own death is the master teacher, teaching us how to live. Without it, we risk frittering our lives away.

I find so much wisdom and truth in these few little sentences. Of course we all know that we will ultimately die some day and yet we often act as if the day will never come. Somehow we sweep the ultimate reality of death under the carpet of our everyday existence- people don't want to think about dying, it is frightening and macabre to many.  Even older people imagine that they have plenty of time left to do the things they want to do in life until it's all over.  

But the truth is that, tomorrow never comes for any of us - all we ever have is today, now, this day, this moment in which to live our lives as fully alive as we possibly can. 

I am reminded of a wisdom "saying" from teachings of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers:

An old monk once said,
'If you lose gold or silver, you can find something as good as you lost.
But the one who loses time can never make up what was lost.'

Marcus Borg was the kind of guy who didn't "lose time." He embraced the moment, and lived fully alive, touching the minds and hearts of many. I hope to do the same in my life. 

Today I am vividly aware of death- not a vague concept but a certain reality. Death is indeed the master teacher, and there is nothing like this awareness to put an end to procrastination.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cleansed by Tears

"A Thin Space"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I read a story about the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines. During an open-air Mass attended by millions of people, a little 12 year old girl who had once lived hungry and homeless on the street, tearfully asked the Pope why God would allow innocent children to suffer? I was very taken by the Pope's obviously emotional response:

Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question.
Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry, 
those who are discarded cry.
But those who are living a life that is more or less without need don't  know how to cry.
There are some realities you can only see through eyes that have been
cleansed by tears.

I found a profound wisdom in this response to that little girl - tears are often a sign that we have entered into a "thin space" where the veil between humanity and divinity is but a breath apart. When we are totally self-sufficient we don't need anyone other than ourselves; but when we are in need, when we suffer, we become vulnerable-- opened to the care of others, opened to the energy of "God," the abiding Presence in our midst.

As I see it "God" is not a divine super being who causes suffering or allows it to happen. However, when we are in pain, when we are in a dry place, when we have hit the bottom in our lives, and we cry; "God" cries with us - "God" in the tears. I think the Pope got it right when he said that "there are some realities you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears."

My spiritual ancestors, the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers, were very fond of their tears--they cherished tears, in fact they prayed for the gift of tears. 

"Penthos" is the Greek word that often appears in the writings of the desert monastics, translated as "a profound piercing of the heart that wells up in tears." This gift of "Penthos" can not be manufactured or engineered or even planned- tears happen when you enter into thin spaces in life. Tears spontaneously bubble up  from the deepest part of our humanity, like a spring of refreshing water gushing up into the driest desert places of our lives.

In our own culture tears are not so highly prized- we often comfort those who are afflicted by telling them "not to cry." We learn to hold back our tears because they are a sign of weakness- especially among men. 

 As I sit here in my Desert Retreat House this morning, I want to reclaim "cleansing tears" as a spiritual gift. I open my heart to "Penthos," a piercing so profound that it wells up in tears. 

There are some realties you can only see through eyes that have been
cleansed by tears.








Monday, January 19, 2015

I Have a Dream

"Perfect Harmony"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I was in New York over Christmas, visiting the newly opened 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan. The place was literally packed with people from all over the world come to pay tribute to those who died when those two towers came crashing down, and to view first-hand the tragic effects of terrorism. 

I remember one particular conversation I overheard as I stood there on that holy ground of the memorial. Observing  the hordes of people as they stood silently and tearfully before the twisted girders and pile of rubble that once was the mighty twin towers, she looked up at her daddy and asked, "I don't understand why this place is so special." 

My first reaction to what that chid said was incredulity- of course this is a special place, it is holy ground. But then I realized that this little girl wasn't born yet when the events of 9/11 happened. And that is precisely why a museum and a memorial such as this are so important- to remind us all and teach our children about what went on that day in September 2001, so that they can carry with them a vivid picture of what happens when violence and hatred hold sway.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I recall that conversation last month in that memorial. Many people today weren't even alive when Dr. King preached and wrote and marched - that's why we need this annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Day - not only to keep his memory alive but to keep his dream alive.

I am old enough to remember that day when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out at the national mall teeming with people from all across the nation- people of all races, all sizes and shapes, ages and beliefs. I remember his booming voice announcing his prophetic vision- his powerful hopes and dreams for the unity of all human beings:

I have a dream that in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves 
and the sons of former slave owners
will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood...
And so let freedom ring from every mountainside..and when we allow freedom to ring..
we will speed up the day when black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles,
Protestants and Catholics,
will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,
Free at last. Free at last. 
Thank God almighty we are free at last.

I recall hearing that speech all those many years ago. There wasn't a dry eye in the crowd as people thundered their approval. It was all so breathtaking, as if somehow Dr. King had tapped into the mind of "God," painting a picture of how everything is meant to be - a perfect harmony with equal dignity for everyone. 

My guess is that had he lived long enough, Dr. King may well have expanded his dream to include not only Protestants and Catholics joining hands but Muslims and Buddhists, Jews and Palestinians, Gay people and straight people all holding hands together, all in harmony with the world of nature.

When I think about Dr. King's dream and look at our war-torn world of violence and division, when I think about how we have torn apart the planet and abused the world of nature,  I am tempted to think that his dream was little more than fantasy.  Yet, "deep in my heart I still do believe" that Dr. King's dream is indeed "God's" dream for us.  It is the vision of Jesus and the vision of the Buddha. It is a dream about who we really are and about all we are yet capable of becoming. 

So I hold up that dream this day and pledge to do my part to make it a reality.

I am reminded of a proverb in the Hebrew Scriptures:

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

Today is a day to keep the dream alive until indeed we are free at last, free at last! 






Sunday, January 18, 2015

Not a Victory March

"Darkness and Light"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend many people will be going off to view the popular movie, Selma - a story about the celebrated civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that took place some 50 years ago.

I just saw a TV news report about a group of local college students who had organized a march from their campus to a nearby movie theater as a way of commemorating what happened in Selma- a good thing to do on the way to see the movie. As the students marched together along the street, some were locking arms, everyone was smiling and waving, passing cars were honking their horns. It looked like a homecoming parade, the kind of thing you do when the team wins the big football game.

As I watched these students "marching together" I wondered to myself if they thought that what they were doing even remotely resembled what actually happened in Selma some 50 years ago - after all none of these marchers were even alive back then.  

In fact my guess is that many people today may think of the Selma march as some sort of grand parade. The popular pictures of the famous Selma march usually depict Dr, King walking arm in arm with noteworthy religious leaders and civic authorities leading a procession of thousands of people from all across America. As they walked across the Selma Bridge on their way to Montgomery, everyone is singing together, "We shall overcome," "My eyes have seen the glory...his truth is marching on." 

Many people today remember Selma as a glorious "victory march" that led to the establishment of voting rights for African Americans and a new sense of justice and equality in the country. 

The truth is that a few weeks before this celebrated victory parade, there was another march in Selma only that one wasn't anywhere near as victorious.  

When Dr. King eventually walked across that bridge along with those thousands of people, they were all protected by the Army and the National Guard.  However, that's not what happened to those first protesters who walked across that bridge just a few weeks earlier. That first Selma march was marked by extreme violence - it was brutal and bloody. The protesters were repelled by powerful fire hoses set on them, they were attacked by police dogs, beaten by policemen, thrown into prison - some were even killed. 

And yet, it was this "first" Selma march that woke people up to the brutality and injustice of what was going on in the South. People across America were appalled at the pictures and news reports of what happened on that first march - it was a call to action. There would have been no grand parade with Dr. King at the lead, no thousands of protesters from all across America, no voting rights, no greater justice were it not for those who sacrificed so much a few weeks earlier in that first Selma march. 

I am reminded of a lyric from one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs:

Love is not a victory march,
it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.

As I see it, any spiritual path follows the path of love and so it will almost always go against the grain of popular culture. The spiritual path leads in the direction of compassion, equal justice, human dignity. However, the popular path flows in the direction of self gratification where those who "have" lord it over those who "have not." The two paths will inevitably clash. The path of love is not a nice parade, and while we may sing Hallelujah along way, the price of victory is never easy. 

If we walk along the path of love we should expect opposition from the status quo. If we march along  the way of love,  police dogs and prison cells may be the toll we pay for walking on that path; and if that doesn't happen, maybe we are going in the wrong direction.   






Saturday, January 17, 2015

Apprentices

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

I am very fortunate to have found someone out here who I can really call upon when we have work to be done on our desert home. I rarely have to call a plumber or an electrician or even an appliance repairman.  I just call upon one person who truly fits the bill, "Jack of all trades." He has done everything for us from repairing our air conditioning to laying bathroom tile, fixing broken plumbing and refinishing our kitchen chairs.  

The thing about this "master craftsman" is that he never shows up alone. Whenever he comes to work on any project, regardless of how small or how large, he aways brings along a few apprentices who come along and watch what he does in order to learn how to do it themselves. 

My "master craftsman" was here just a few days ago along with two young apprentices. The one fellow pointed to the "master" and told me,  "I have learned so much by hanging out with this guy."   When I heard this,  I immediately thought that this was probably something the disciples of Jesus (as well as the disciples of the Buddha) might have once said, "We have learned so much by hanging out with this guy." 

When I read the stories of Jesus found in the gospels I discover that one of the very first things Jesus did when he began his ministry was to gather "disciples" around him -these disciples were essentially his apprentices.  He doesn't sit them down in a classroom to lecture them and rarely ever preaches them a sermon, he just asks them to "hang out with him," to accompany him on his travels around the region. In fact most of the gospel stories are stories about Jesus on the road walking along with his apprentices, showing them the "way" so that they might see what he does and then go and do the same.

The apprentices watch the master as he embraces little children, lifts up the poor, feeds the hungry and heals the sick. As they walk along the road with him they see that no one is ever cast away, everyone who comes upon the path is always welcomed with open arms- even pagans and gentiles and those who were told that no one else wants them.  

Then at the end of his journey, Jesus tells his apprentices that they are now ready to be masters themselves - to go out and continue that work he had begun, the work they had learned to do so well by "hanging out" with Jesus along the way.

Yesterday I came across this observation on a Facebook post:

When I read the Bible I count 87 times when Jesus tells his disciples,
'follow me.'
There wasn't one time when he ever told them,
'worship me.'

Tomorrow morning when Sunday comes along, millions of Christians from all over the globe will go out to some sort of church; and in sometimes elaborate ceremonies, they will sing hymns of praise to worship Jesus as the heavenly king. 

As I see it, it's way easier to worship Jesus than it is to follow him.



  






Friday, January 16, 2015

Emptiness

"Vast Spaces and Empty Places"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I attended a seminar the other day conducted by someone who lives in New York City. In my conversation with him he asked me if it takes a while to get used to living in a desert? He went on to say, "I'm a city type of guy and to be honest, the desert scares me - so much emptiness, nothing but shades of brown, miles and miles of sand and rocks and mountains."

I immediately empathized with what this New Yorker was saying. In fact the first time I ever drove into this desert topography I also found it quite stark and kind of scary. I remember the first time I walked out into the wilderness - the vastness of the space was overwhelming, the silence so thundering.  I wondered why on earth anyone would actually want to live out here, but now that I actually do live here I have come to understand that the desert is an icon of the spiritual journey and an ideal place for soul-searching. 

"Emptiness" is at the heart of any spiritual quest.

I am reminded of an often-quoted Zen koan about the university professor who visits the Zen master seeking to learn the way of wisdom. The wise old master serves tea to his guest, pouring the tea into the professor's cup until the cup overflows and the tea pours onto the floor, prompting the professor to rebuke his host: "Can't you see that my cup is overfull and no more will go in?"

"Just so" said the master, "like this cup you are also full of your own ideas, opinions, judgment and speculations. How can I point you to the way of greater wisdom unless you first empty your cup?"

The word "empty" often carries a rather negative connotation in popular culture.  On the spiritual journey "emptiness" is a necessary virtue to be prized and cherished. 

The desert is an empty place- an ideal place to be entered with an empty cup- an empty mind,  an empty spirit, willing, open, awake and available in order to be filled up.  

Back in the 14th century an "anonymous" English mystic wrote his now-famous work, The Cloud of Unknowing.  He suggested that any attempt to know "God" is automatically doomed to failure because "God" can never be understood, categorized analyzed or defined.  The road toward knowing "God" is through unknowing:

God is a desert to be entered and loved, never an object to be grasped or understood.
In the end we are no more able to possess God than we are able to possess ourselves. 

Many people come out to the desert to do some soul-searching, to find God in their lives, to get in touch with their true self. They sometimes come armed with books and journal articles, filled with ideas, bogged down with their theologies and psychologies, their opinions and their speculations about the meaning of life and the nature of God.  They bring along with them books filled with prayers. But the lesson of the desert is to empty it all out. When you come into the desert you must be as empty as the wilderness, no roads, no maps, just vast spaces and empty places and a thundering silence. 

I'm still scared of the desert. It's always kind of frightening to be out in the wilderness -a feeling of being out of control.  But of course you need to give up control if you ever hope to experience a connection to a transcendence beyond the self-centered ego.

The wisdom of the desert insists on simply being present in a silence that goes beyond words, and in the emptiness the cup of life is filled. 

Of course, you don't have to actually live in a desert to approach life with an empty cup.  










Thursday, January 15, 2015

Practicing Unselfish Joy

"In My Meditation Garden"

I began today like I begin almost every day, greeting the sun as I sit quietly in my meditation garden. This morning a memory of something that happened yesterday came into my mind -another of those flashes of insight that I have come to value so much in my desert life. 

My wife and I were having dinner with some dear friends who are "world travelers." We spent a good deal of time listening to their stories and viewing their photos of a recent very adventurous trip they took to South America - the stories they told were exciting and the photographs breathtaking.

This morning when thinking about last evening, my insight was that throughout the evening I was genuinely happy that these friends were able to enjoy that experience. There may have been a time when I might have been somewhat envious - I wish I could do stuff like that. There may even have been a time when I would have  been somewhat bored with stories about other people's great adventures in life. Yesterday I was just plain happy that these good friends were able to enjoy life so wonderfully on that trip.

I recently came across a word in the lexicon of Buddhist spirituality that I had never heard used before. The word is "Mudita," roughly translated as "unselfish joy." 

Mudita: taking delight in another person's success, wellbeing or good fortune.

"Mudita" is a virtue to be cultivated and practiced on the spiritual journey, and I can clearly see why this "practice" paves the way for deeper growth along the way.  

If I hear of someone else's success, witness their happiness or listen to the exciting stories of their life adventures and resent or begrudge their good fortune, I am acting out of my own narcissism. However, If I can genuinely feel joy over the happiness of others, I honor and foster relationships - and being in relationship is what being on a spiritual journey is essentially all about. 

Although Saint Paul probably never heard the word "mudita" in his day, his celebrated "Canticle of Love" certainly gets at the heart of what "unselfish joy" is all about:

Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love isn't always 'me first.' 
Love always looks for the best.

Maybe "love" is another word for "mudita." 

So this is my insight at the beginning of this new day- I vow to be more mindfully aware of the good fortune of others and whenever I witness it, to make their joy my joy. I will practice the discipline of "unselfish joy." 


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ordinary Holiness

"A Sacred Moment"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to come across a wonderful interview recently featured on Krista Tippett's radio show, On Being. Ms. Tippett was speaking with the Quaker singer and poet, Carrie Newcomer, who I must admit I had never heard before. I have now become a big fan.

In the interview, Ms. Newcomer talked about her songs and poetry as celebrations of the holiness and sacredness of everyday life. Her music is not overtly religious and she never uses words like "God" in her poetry, but it is filled with a sense of transcendence and it is deeply spiritual.  

In the interview, Newcomer said that she gets inspiration for her music by simply paying attention to  the everyday moments of ordinary life:

I write a lot about finding something extraordinary in an ordinary day.
Maybe even something sacred in an ordinary day.
I write about it a lot and I think there is a longing for that kind of acknowledgement
that our daily lives are wondrous. 
And they're valuable. And they're honorable.

We often think of holiness or sacredness as being confined to a particular time or space in our lives.  We sit in a church, a temple or a mosque and that's a holy place. We dedicate a quiet time of the day for meditation and mindfulness, and that's a holy time. But I think Carrie Newcomer is right when she says that our everyday moments in our ordinary lives are places filled with wonder. Each and every moment of our ordinary existence is radiant with the energy of Holy Presence - it's all a matter of paying attention to it.

I actually believe that going to church, saying prayers or taking time to meditate provide us with "opportunities" for training ourselves to be more mindful in those everyday moments of life. When I sit quietly for 10 or 15 minutes, paying attention to my breathing, aware of what is happening "now," I am, in a sense, practicing for everyday living, practicing for paying attention in the supermarket, practicing for paying attention while I drive my car, eat my lunch or walk along a wilderness trail.

At the conclusion of the interview I heard yesterday,  Carrie Newcomer read one of her poems:

Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
three things that i am grateful for,
All the significant insignificant, extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It's a small practice and humble,
And yet I find I sleep better holding what lightens and softens my life.
Sunlight and blueberries,
Good dogs and wool socks,
A fine rain,
A good friend,
Fresh basil and wild phlox,
The song that always makes me cry no matter how many times I hear it.
Your quiet breathing,
The frost patterns on the windows,
English horns and banjos,
The smooth glassy calm of the morning pond,
An old coat, a new poem.

And after three things, more often than not,
I get on a roll and just keep going, naming and listing,
Until I lie grinning,
Blankets pulled up to my chin,
Awash with wonder at the sweetness of it all.

Our ordinary lives are sacred and holy. They are indeed "wondrous, valuable and honorable."










Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Shirking Responsibility

"Perfect Harmony"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

In my reading yesterday I came across this very thought-provoking observation by the theologian, Daniel Maguire:

We are a spoiled species that seems hell-bent on wrecking the earth that cradles us
and are well on into the demonic suicidal project.
It is an alluring 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

I have come to the point in my life where I never pray for divine intervention any longer - petitioning "God" to fix all the problems in my life and in the world. For one thing I don't think of "God" as a divine superbeing regardless of how nice or how benevolent "He" may be. When I use the word "God," I think: "Abiding Presence" - an intimate life-giving energy at the core of all that is. 

I believe this Holy Presence is indeed with us but I don't believe in a"God" who fixes or makes it all better - I think that's our job as human beings.

In fact when I read Daniel Maguire's observation yesterday I was suddenly struck by the fact that praying for God to make it "right" may even be a dangerous thing.  

The oceans and air are being gradually poisoned. The climate is rapidly changing, making it harder and harder for life to thrive on this planet. The world is racked by war, poverty, hunger, inequality and homelessness. People suffer from addictions and broken relationships as rampant consumerism eats away at the very fabric of our civilization - no doubt about it, there are many things about this world that need repair, reconciliation, healing, cleaning up. 

But there is a real sense in which asking some benevolent outside superpower to make it all better is a "cop out"- it gets us "off the hook," it is an excuse by which we human beings can shirk our responsibility to care for the earth and hold one another up.

I am always amazed when I listen to some of the more vociferous conservative evangelical preachers bemoan the fact that America is becoming a godless nation, urging everyone to get down on their knees and pray; and then they publicly ridicule the dangers of climate change and condemn efforts at cleaning up the air or ocean as bad business for a capitalist agenda. 

I have often shaken my head in church when people have petitioned God to restore peace in times of war or terrorism and then those very same people go home and beat their kids or gossip about the neighbors they sat next to in church when those prayers were being said.

Daniel Maguire suggests that it is adolescent to think of God as a daddy who will make the world "right" if we just ask him to do so. I agree.

The world is made better by each and every one of us assuming our moral responsibility to make it better -by voting for people who will promote ecological healing, by recycling our trash, by conserving water, by our own everyday personal acts of compassion and kindness, by our efforts to reconcile broken relationships. These are our responsibilities as human beings. 

"God" is with us - "God" can't do it for us.  


Monday, January 12, 2015

Freedom From and Freedom For

"Blowing in the Wind"
 - At the Desert Retreat House -

I saw this posting on someone's Facebook page yesterday:

On the day 12 journalists were killed by religious extremists,
24, 000 children died due to poverty.

I found this one little phrase to be very thought-provoking.

The killing of the French journalists has elicited a visceral, world-wide response over the value of "freedom of speech." Yesterday, millions of people gathered in Paris (and throughout many major cities around the world) to protest the brutal killings of the journalists, expressing outrage over any oppressive system that might limit freedom by evoking fear. 

And yet, where was the outrage over the deaths of 24,000 children who also died that day throughout the world because they were poor and hungry or homeless?  Were most people even aware that these deaths occurred?  Who was marching on their behalf? Who was taking to the streets vowing that these deaths from poverty would never happen again?

Several years ago, the psychologist, Eric Fromm wrote about two kinds of freedom; "freedom from" and "freedom for."  Oftentimes people define freedom as "freedom from" - freedom from constraint, freedom from external interference that prevents you from doing what you want and when you want to do it.  And so people often assume that if they live in a "free" society they should be able to do or say anything they want to do without anyone stopping them from doing so. 

And yet "freedom for" is indeed another type of freedom - the freedom to share resources, to use gifts and talents "for" others - on behalf of another's good, on behalf of the common welfare.

It seems to me that "freedom from" must always be tempered by "freedom for" in any civilized society if it is to be truly free.  

True freedom goes well beyond the lack of constraints. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the freedom to live where you want, maybe buy a house or own a car - of course these are freedoms that we all enjoy.  

But true freedom is also a "gift" that we are given so that we can build one another up and share each other's burdens without restraint or external pressure to do otherwise. And any society that doesn't use this gift of freedom in this way is surely on a slippery slope.

I am reminded of something Nelson Mandela once said:

To be free is not merely to cast off chains,
but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others.

I was very moved by the rally on the streets of Paris yesterday- world leaders walking arm in arm, citizens on the street raising their voice on behalf of "freedom," vowing never to be silenced out of fear.  I deeply respect their voices so loudly raised on behalf of those 12 journalists who were killed.

I also pray that the people of the world might walk arm in arm and raise their voices just as loudly on behalf of those thousands of children who died that day due to poverty.