Saturday, February 28, 2015

Absolutely Certain

"Wide Open Spaces"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday it seems as if the whole world was asking the same question: "Is it blue and black or is it gold and white?" It all started out in the social media as a picture of a dress was posted with a one simple question about it's color.  Some people saw it as black and blue, while others looked at the very same picture and saw gold and white; and the world-wide media virtually exploded with this apparent anomaly. People everywhere talked about being "weirded out" when one person saw one color and the person sitting next to them saw something completely different. 

Having taught several courses for many years about how differently each of us perceives the same world, I wasn't all that surprised by this phenomenon. The scientific fact is that there isn't some objective world outside of us that we can either see as it really is or see it incorrectly. What we see and perceive is a combination of the data available to us and what our brains do with it. We are all something like artists painting a picture of the world we see, and no two people paint the world exactly alike. 

And so to the question "Is it black and blue or gold and white?" The answer is "yes." 

I think that what I found most interesting in that "dress seen 'round the world'" yesterday, was how adamant people were about how right they were and how wrong others were who perceived the colors of that dress differently from themselves. 

Thousands of tweets and online comments (many from well-known celebrities) boasted that the color was "obviously" blue and black or "obviously" gold and white. I was especial amused by a caller on a local NPR radio show who announced that she couldn't possibly imagine how anyone could look at that dress and see its colors as blue and black. I am looking directly at the picture right now she angrily shouted into the phone, and I am "absolutely certain" that it is gold and white.

I'd like to think that yesterday's famous dress picture might serve as a reminder to all of us that there is "absolutely nothing" about anything we think or say or see that is "absolutely certain." It's so very easy to fall into the trap of believing that "my way" is the true way,  my religion is the correct way,   my atheism is the right way, my country is the correct political system, my view on immigration or race is the correct way.

Yesterday's dress is a reminder that instead of asserting how correct we are and how wrong someone else is, we might instead accept the truth that all of us are different, and then go on to maybe even learn from each others' different ways.  

Two different people sitting side by side look at the same picture, one sees "blue and black,"  the other  "gold and white"  Which one is right?  The answer is "yes." 

Understating this is the beginning of dialogue.

A line from one of my favorite Sufi poets, Jalaluddin Rumi, says it all for me:

Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing
there is a field
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense. 





Friday, February 27, 2015

The Ethics of Eating

"Wildflowers"
- along a wilderness trail - 

The other day my wife and I were eating lunch at a local restaurant, and when the meal was finished, our waitress commented on the fact that we ate everything on our plates, "You guys must have really liked the food."  My wife and I get comments like this all the time and I have often wondered why a server almost inevitably makes a comment if we eat all the food that we ordered? 

The other day at lunch my wife suggested that I pay attention to the other diners- many if not most of them were literally throwing away half the meals they had ordered. So is it any wonder that a server might be quite surprised that we left our plates clean - must be that we really liked the food?  The truth is that both my wife and I grew up in households where you weren't allowed to leave the table unless your plate was clean. At the time I thought it was a silly rule, I have now come to see the wisdom of this practice. 

As I read this morning's New York Times I was immediately reminded of my "clean plate" practice. In a very informative article titled, Food Waste Grows with the Middle Class, I learned of the escalating phenomenon of discarding uneaten food especially in this country.  In fact it is estimated that a staggering amount of one-third of all the food produced in the world is left uneaten. The article went on to explain:

The food discarded by consumers and retailers in the most developed nations would be more than enough to sustain all the world's 870 million hungry people.

Unfortunately most of the uneaten food goes to landfills where it decomposes and produces the dangerous greenhouse gas methane, significantly contributing to the global warming threat.

The article made me very aware of just how much we take our food for granted - we have so much of it that we can readily throw it away and think nothing of it as millions of people throughout the world  starve to death. We can send back plates of half-eaten food or throw out leftovers in the refrigerator and the significance of doing this means nothing to us; and without thinking twice, the local supermarket can discard yesterday's produce into dumpsters where is trekked out to landfills, significantly contributing to the pollution of the planet.

So the way we treat food and the way we eat food is most definitely a spiritual concern and it poses a serious ethical problem,

Christians are now celebrating the season of Lent - a time in which many people abstain from food. For some it is a time of fasting, for others it is a time when they don't eat meat. I wonder if this Lenten season might also be a time for every one of us on any spiritual path to focus on the food we throw away.  Eating less food or fasting or abstaining from certain foods may indeed be a spiritual discipline but so is "cleaning your plate" and  only ordering or buying the amount of food that you know you can consume. 

When we think about the big massive problems confronting the world today like war or violence or global warming, most of us throw up our hands wondering what one single individual can possibly do to help change any of it. Maybe one less pile of food scraps thrown onto a landfill can actually make a difference. And if we all were more careful about how we eat we may indeed change the world, making the planet a safer place for the generations yet to come. 

The Buddha taught:

As from a large heap of flowers many garlands and wreaths are made
so by one mortal in this life there is much good work that can be done.



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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Earth's Crammed with Heaven

"Afire with God"
- in my meditation garden -

Every day as I sit at my desk in my office I can look out into my beautiful meditation garden- an olive tree, a bubbling fountain, fluttering hummingbirds, flowers and plants and a large bush of bright red bougainvillea blossoms. To be honest, while working at my desk I often don't pay all much attention to the garden in my view,  but yesterday when I looked up something caught my eye- something looked different. 

I suddenly realized that overnight, the bougainvillea bush had gone into full bloom and I was overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of it all - the stunning, brilliant red flowers set against the backdrop of the majestic stone mountains in the horizon. It really was breathtaking.

How could I have possibly been pecking away at a computer (writing a blog about spirituality), almost missing such an indescribable spiritual experience?

I immediately called to mind one of my favorite quotes by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.

In my life I have often experienced transcendence in places that are designated as being "sacred" - beautiful churches, great cathedrals, holy temples, and I have also experienced the awesome mystery of Holy Presence in a common bush afire with God. There is no difference between the sacred and the secular, my garden is as much a temple as those buildings of stone and stained glass windows.

I think of something author and poet, John O'Donohue, once wrote in his book, Beauty:

Sometimes the urgency of our hunger blinds us to the fact that we are
already at the feast.
To accept this can change everything; we are always home, never exiled.
Although our minds constantly insist on seeing walls of separation,
in reality most of the walls are mere veils.
In every moment, everywhere, we are not even inches away from the Holy Presence.

I think that people do indeed hunger for "God" - the deep desire of every human heart is to be pulled out of our tiny little "ego" into a sense of transcendence.  I also think it's true that while we may be on a spiritual journey eagerly searching for truth and wisdom, we are "already at the feast." In the everyday routines of our ordinary lives, in the mist of the most mundane things we do and see each day, we are already at the feast - separated from the Holy Presence by only a mere veil; however, we need eyes of awareness in order to realize it, otherwise we may just "sit around and pluck blackberries." 

My experience yesterday again called my attention to the importance of "paying attention" in everyday living. It reminded me of the importance of cultivating a mind that is awake and alert in every single moment of every single day so that I am always prepared to see "even the most common bush afire with God."













Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Theory of Everything

"Connections"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House - 

In light of the recent Academy Awards, we recently viewed that wonderful screenplay, A Theory of Everything, a story about the life and work of the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking. Throughout the movie Professor Hawking is depicted as a man on a passionate quest - searching to develop that one, simple yet elegant equation that can literally explain "everything." 

As I watched that movie the other day I wondered if, in fact, Professor Hawking's goal hasn't already been achieved? It seems to me that the one "theory of everything" has indeed already been articulated. 

Long ago as Jesus taught his disciples that in order to find your "self" you have to lose your "self," in order to discover your "true self," you have to abandon your "false self." Or, perhaps using more Buddhist language we might say, "in  order to find your "self" you have to lose your ego," to realize that the idea of a separated individual self is a false delusion, because in truth everything  and everyone is connected - everything and everyone all belong to one another. This is indeed the simple and elegant equation that explains everything. 

This theory of everything is not only confined to the realm of wisdom teachers or religious beliefs.  Today's contemporary physicists, neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists have all come to this same elegant, simple theory about everyone and everything: we do indeed all belong to one another in one interconnected, complex web of being. Unselfishness is innate to our biological nature, and compassion and concern for others is at the core of our essential human happiness,

Thomas Merton puts it very simply and very elegantly:

Selflessness is my true self

The problem with this theory of everything is that it goes against the grain of almost every single thing most of us have ever been taught in a "me-first" popular culture in which ego-gratification is so highly prized.  Priest and author Richard Rohr puts it this way:

Most of humanity is so enchanted with its False (concocted) Self
that it has largely doubted and rejected - or never known - its True Self.
And so we live in anxiety and insecurity.
We have put so much time into creating it that we cannot imagine 
this False Self not being true - not being 'me.'

In one sense it's kind of scary to think that "me" is a relationship with you and with everything that is "not-me;" and once a person comes to a realization of this truth, the direction of one's life necessarily takes a sudden shift away from padding and protecting the non-existent ego toward sacrificing one's own needs on behalf of the good of others. And yet, as scary, as difficult and as countercultural as this may be, it is the path that leads to peace because it is a path that flows according to an explanation of everything. 

I am thinking about that well-known and often quoted Prayer of Saint Francis - what a beautiful, simple "equation" for explaining a theory of everything - an elegant "formula" for finding the way of peace:

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord; union...
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.




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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

LISTEN: "Paying Attention"

During this season of self and universal reflection, it can be a good time to "find your footing" for the moment you are living in.

Listen to this week's web radio program of "Desert Wisdom." Please share, rate and tell me what you think at DesertPaul.com.

You can always subscribe on iTunes, or on your mobile device with Stitcher.


The Megamansion Syndrome

"Elegant Simplicity"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I just finished reading an article about the growing trend of building "megamansions" in the suburbs of Los Angeles that stretch west out toward the Pacific Ocean - not more and more big houses, not even more mansions, but more and more megamansions. 

I was especially struck by the description of one of these "homes" set high on a hill overlooking the ocean - 28 bedrooms, 32 baths, 2 separate guesthouses and a 15-car enclosed garage with a tiled floor. The entire complex is located within the confines of a guarded, protected, gated community, and on top of that it is also surrounded by an actual water-filled moat (just like in the Middle Ages).

The article I read today showed some pictures of what was referred to as the "entertainment room" of this megamansion- a huge glass-enclosed patio lounge with an ocean view and a full bar that looked more like a hotel lobby than a room in a house; however, the thing that really bowled me over was the owner's remark about his entertainment room (yes, only one person lives in the entire complex):  "I hardly ever use this room because I rarely entertain, but it's nice to have it just in case I ever want to use it." 

What a perfect icon of what amounts to as a sure-killer on a spiritual path. Everything about this place reeks of isolation and separation from others- a protected gate, a moat around the house, guesthouses that would never be used by guests, even an entertainment room that would never be used to entertain others (but nice to have around just in case). 

The whole point of a spiritual journey is to be in relationship, to foster and maintain relationships with others, to heal and reconcile relationships with others. You can't do that very well surrounded by a moat. 

While most every person I know, myself included, will never have to worry about the spiritual hazards of actually living in a megamansion, I am also convinced that regardless of our social or economic status in life we are all subject to the sway of a "megamansion syndrome" in today's popular culture - the desire to acquire and attach ourselves to more and more stuff, to hide and insulate a bloated self-important ego within guarded gates surrounded only by all the things we have accumulated in life.  

Some interesting research that was recently reported in the Journal of Psychological Science concluding that more and more people today are becoming victims of "mindless accumulation," defined as " a deep rooted instinct to earn and accumulate more than can possibly be consumed even when this imbalance makes us unhappy."

I am relatively convinced that people who live in the megamansions of West Los Angeles may likely be the victims of mindless accumulation, but so are those people who have closets full of clothes or shoes or watches that they cannot possibly ever wear, or refrigerators full of food that they almost always throw away (but it's nice to know you have all this just in case you ever need it.) 

Christians are in the first phases of the Lenten season - a great time for anyone on any sort of a spiritual path (Christian or not) to take stock of how the "megamansion syndrome" may have affected our own lives, a time to examine those places where we may have fallen victim to that debilitating condition of "mindless accumulation." 

This is a time for some spiritual spring cleaning - a time to give away the things we do not need,  but keep around because it's comforting to know we have them. This is a great time to look at our own resources and see if any of what we have might be shared with those who have less. This is an appointed time to look at what we eat or drink or purchase and see if we really need to be consuming that much or if maybe we are just mindlessly accumulating "way more than we need even when the imbalance makes us unhappy."

Lao Tzu once gave this advice for the spiritual journey: 

Manifest plainness
Embrace simplicity
Reduce selfishness
Have few desires.

Such an important teaching for the Lenten season - powerful wisdom to help ward off the "megamansion syndrome."



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Monday, February 23, 2015

A Wonderful Life

"Fully Alive"
- Dawn at the Desert Retreat House -

I just read an article in the New York Times about a man who taught meditation techniques for many years who was involved in a tragic plane crash which almost killed him a few years ago - the crash left him seriously disabled with burns over much of his body. In the article I read, I was quite struck by something this teacher said about what he ultimately learned from the tragedy he had endured:

When I got home from the hospital I found that in my healing and recovery, I was having a difficult time meditating - mostly because I was dealing with me wanting my old life back. So I had to relinquish this desire to get my old life back and when I was able to do this I was finally able to experience my new life, which while somewhat different, has proved to be quite wonderful.

I find that I can't stop thinking about this one little observation - it rings so clear to my own life experiences.

There are many times when I find myself dusting off memories about the "good old days," those wonderful experiences of times gone by - vacations with my family when our boys were children,  or that cruise my wife and I took sailing through the Greek Islands for our wedding anniversary. I also fondly recall those times when we sat around the dinner table in our home with good friends or sometimes with students talking well into the night, or those many thin-place experiences while I was a parish priest presiding at a service or leading a spiritual retreat. 

Oftentimes, when I drift back into those vivid memories of days gone by, I find myself falling into the trap of wanting my old life back again - yearning to go back in time to repeat again those exciting, tender and rejuvenating experiences. 

This morning as I read that article, I had a sudden flash of insight about those "wonderful times" of bygone days. Ironically the very thing that made these past times so wonderful was that in every instance I am able to recall, I was always fully alive and engaged in the present moment when those events occurred. I was fully engaged with friends around a table, fully engaged with my spouse or children on a vacation or sailing on the seas, fully present in those thin-space moments of life.

I guess this is the great paradox of it all:  While you obviously can never repeat the past, in a sense you can repeat the "wonderful moments" you experienced in the past by living fully engaged in wherever you find yourself in the present moment. 

I am reminded of something Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron, once said:

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be
continually thrown out of the nest.

Every single day I am thrown out of the comfortable nest of my old life, and each new moment is alive with possibility. 

Every day my new life always proves to be "quite wonderful."  










Sunday, February 22, 2015

And the Award Goes To

"Early Spring"
- along a wilderness trail -

We used to live very near Hollywood - in fact at the end of our street you could see the massive "Hollywood" sign towering over the city of glitz and glamor below. During this time when the "Academy Awards" were given out,  it was virtually impossible to drive up into the Hollywood neighborhood because most of the streets were closed as people from all over the world came to camp out at the "red carpet" (sometimes for days), hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite celebrity as they breezed on by on their way into the award ceremony.

Today is the day when the Oscars are awarded and millions of people from all over the world will be watching their TV sets, eager to see the rich and the famous as they gather for this monumental tribute to the people who seem to have "arrived" in life.  

Many social commentators suggest that average people are so enamored with celebrities because somehow they are able to live their rather dull and uneventful lives vicariously through them. A famous actress all decked out in a designer dress, expensive jewelry on her way to dine with all those other famous people, possibly to receive a world renowned academy award - a perfect icon of what all the ordinary people siting on the sidelines of life only dream they might be. 

I personally think that all this "celebrity worship" may also be a very telling indicator of how lots of people approach the living of their every day lives - actors on a stage competing for the great honor, for the adulation of others, somehow hoping that some mythical award will go to them - always listening for the applause of the crowds as they compete for the award for the best mom or the best employee, the best student, the most pious Christian.   

I think about something Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello, once said:

After I turned 20 I worried endlessly about the impression I made 
and how other people were evaluating me.
Only sometime after turning 50  did I realize that
other people hardly even thought of me at all.
So often people presume themselves to be the center of everyone else's attention
performing to an audience that isn't even there.

On this Academy Awards' Sunday I sit out here in my desert home and I am again reminded of my spiritual ancestors - the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers. They removed themselves from the center of power in the church and renounced the norms of the popular culture of their day by moving away from the city to live simple lives in desert caves in order to follow the Gospel of Christ more authentically. 

The world they left behind valued the esteem of others as a highly-cherished prize, but those desert monastics found deep peace in renouncing that kind of world. They recognized the truth that not any one of us is ever on the center stage in life and they discovered that their worth did not depend upon the favorable responses of other people. No one among them was a celebrity, each was valued with equal dignity from the wise old abbot to the fledging novice monk.

Paradoxically these desert monks eventually came to be regarded as "spiritual rock stars" by the people who remained behind in the cities.  These monastics got a reputation for being genuinely happy human beings who had found a way of peace.  And so, often times people from the city would go out to the desert to seek out some of these monks - something like trying to catch a glimpse of a celebrity.

There is a rather humorous story about one such attempt at celebrity sighting that seems especially appropriate to be told on this day when the Oscars are awarded. 

A Magistrate from the city came looking for the wise old abbot Moses. He came across an old man sitting on a rock and asked the man if he might know where Abba Moses might be foiund.  The man told him. 'Don't waste your time looking for Abba Moses - he is a simpleton and a fraud, none of the things you imagine him to be.' So the magistrate marched back into the city sure to tell others what he had learned.

When he got back home someone asked the magistrate if by any chance the man he talked to sitting on the rock happened to be a tall black man?  'Well yes he was,' replied the magistrate, who was then told, 'that old man on the rock was Abba Moses himself you were speaking with. You met the saint at his best.'



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Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Reason for Hope

"Blossoms"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

For the past weeks the news has been filled with dark stories about "Islamic Terrorists" who burn people alive and behead Christians.  And now in Europe we have been hearing about  a new wave of anti-Semitism that seems to have crept into the continent and many Jews are leaving in reportedly "record numbers" to seek safety in Israel - so much bigotry, intolerance and hatred all seemingly centered around religion, adding fuel to the fire of the argument that religious belief is and has been the source and cause of violence throughout history. 

Last Saturday, a synagogue was bombed in Denmark by a so-called "Islamic terrorist," killing and wounding Jews in the congregation--reports of this atrocity flooded the news; however, my  guess is that most of us won't hear about what is happening this Saturday when more than a thousand Muslims in Oslo Noway will ban together to form a "ring of peace" around a local synagogue. Candles in hand, they will surround the synagogue as their Jewish sisters and brothers gather inside to pray on the sabbath - a sign of solidarity and  protection against violence.

On a Facebook page promoting this event the Muslim group explained its motivations for forming this "ring of peace": 

Islam is about protecting our brothers and sisters regardless of which religion they belong to. Islam is about rising above hate and never sinking to the same level as the haters. We who are Muslim want to show that we deeply deplore all types of hatred of Jews.

In the middle of all those stories about the fringe minority of Muslims who have engaged in acts of bigotry and violence, I was very heartened to hear about this story of the ring of peace. It filled my heart with hope.

I remember something Martin Luther King once said:

Only in the darkness can you see the stars

Yes indeed there has been a lot of darkness in the events of the past weeks as the ugly face of intolerance and violence has raised its ugly head in the the form of ISIS. And then in the midst of all the deep darkness, thousands of stars came out, peace-loving Muslims surrounding a Jewish synagogue with a "ring of peace." 

As I see it, stories like this happen all the time although we often don't hear about them. 

Whenever darkness or terror and wanton destruction are manifested, the true quality of the human heart always shines through. There will always be terrorists, bigots and haters but at the core of the human heart is a basic decency - at our core we are people of goodwill. 

So I have a reason for hope. 

For me hope is not some wishful thinking that maybe things will "hopefully" get better. Hope is a sure and certain trust that ultimately the goodwill of our better angels will prevail even when the demons seem to have won the day. 

I wish the news reports would show the stars when they come out in the darkness. 



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Friday, February 20, 2015

Deep Breaths

"Fresh Air"
- Springtime at the Desert Retreat House -

Apparently "road rage" is now becoming a growing phenomenon on the highways of Southern California, and so I guess I wasn't too surprised yesterday that a local NPR radio program offered some advice for how to deal with anger while driving your car. The program featured a prominent Los Angles psychiatrist who suggested that if you get cut off by another driver and you feel a surge of rage coming on, "take a few deep breaths and keep focused." 

I thought to myself how interesting it is that people who are stressed out are most always advised to take a few deep breaths in order to settle down. After all, concentrating on breath is a fundamental technique for all practices of mindfulness, yoga, meditation. Somehow deep breathing does indeed help to ground us. 

Of course there are plenty of physical explanations for why a strong dose of oxygen might help reduce stress. I also think that taking deep breaths has a very definite spiritual component, and so yesterday after listening to that road-rage program, I went into my files and listened again to a podcast of a TED talk I heard last year given by a prominent biologist:

Take a deep breath, the yogis had it right - breath does in fact connect us in a very literal way. Take a deep breath now and as you breathe, think about what is in your breath. There, perhaps is the carbon from the person sitting near you. Maybe there's a little bit of oxygen from some algae on a beach not far from you. The air we breath connects us all the time.

There may even be some carbon in your breath from the dinosaurs. There could also be carbon that you are now exhaling that will be in the breath of your great, great grandchildren.

I found this insight to be incredibly moving and profoundly wise. 

We breathe in and out every single moment of every single day and never even think about what we are doing. When in fact in every breath we take we are being connected to the cosmos - to everything and everyone who ever was, who is, and yet will be. 

I think that's why deep breaths ground us and settle us. A deep breath helps us find our place in the larger scope of things - each and every one of us is a tiny speck in the universe and yet so powerfully and wonderfully connected to it all. 

It is no wonder that the Hebrew scriptures often refer to "God" as "breath." The Christian scriptures, likewise refer to the Holy Spirit as the breath of God. The risen Christ is depicted as appearing to his disciples, breathing on them and saying: "Receive the Holy Spirit," - the spirit dwelling in and among us is in the very air we breathe. 

In every breath we take we breathe in "God" and then we breathe "God" back into it all. 

There is perhaps no more beautiful season than springtime in the desert. This morning when I walked into my garden to greet another day I could literally smell how fresh and pristine the air was - so full of life.  I took a few deep breaths and was almost moved to tears to think that I belonged to it all.  




Thursday, February 19, 2015

Earthen Vessels

"Pottery Shards"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Twice a week I receive physical therapy for my now-healing broken arm. Over the past few weeks of therapy I have noticed that whenever I enter the "therapy" space, I somehow feel like I am entering a church.  Yesterday, in particular, I was struck with the fact that all those people with broken arms and broken legs, perhaps some with broken spirits surrounded by all the many therapists helping us to heal and be well was an almost perfect icon of the human condition. 

As my therapist massages the soreness out of my broken arm yesterday I thought about how, in the Bible, human beings are often referred to as "earthen vessels." Obviously they didn't have aluminum or cast iron pots back when the various Bible stories were written, the pots and pitchers were all made of clay - clay pots are beautiful but they can be easily broken. By referring to human beings as clay vessels the many biblical stories offer insight and wisdom about our human condition- we are beautiful and yet we break easily. 

Whether or not we want to admit it, brokenness is part of what it means to be a human being. At times we have broken bodies, at other times our hearts are broken or our spirits are crushed. We also live in a world of broken and fractured relationships, lost love, disputes even among friends, the rich and the strong divorced from the weak and the poor, broken bonds between nations and peoples, violence and wars. 

And, although we are broken, we human beings also have the capacity to heal one another.  In fact the very best healers are often those who are able to recognize their own brokenness. As I see it, the primary task of any spiritual journey is not to simply lament our broken human condition but rather to do what we can to heal that which is broken.  On a spiritual path we are called to be "wounded  healers."

I am reminded of the wisdom of the ancient Hebrew "Kabbalah" mystics who tell a story about the origins of creation. In the very beginning, the energy of "God's" light was contained in a vessel, but the vessel was broken. It was smashed into tiny little pieces that were scattered across the universe -shards of "God-Light" spread throughout the cosmos.

According to Kabbalah wisdom, over the course of time, human beings have been charged with the task of picking up those scattered pieces of God-Light and piecing them back together again.  To this very day, faithful Jews are encouraged to engage in the everyday practice of "tikkun olam" - acts of mending a broken world. 

I think that each of us, regardless of the path we are on,  is called to the practice of "tikuun olam" called to be repairers of broken vessels.

When we reconcile a ruptured relationship, when we practice compassion and everyday kindness, when we are merciful and forgiving, when we help the poor and do our part to relieve the suffering of the needy, when we help to heal our broken planet or when we work for justice and peace, we are in fact mending this broken world - collecting shards of scattered "God-Light" and piecing them back together again. 

In the Christian calendar the season of Lent has begun. What a perfect time to recognize how beautiful we are and yet how easily broken; and what a wonderful season to be wounded healers as we pick up the broken pieces and make the vessel whole again.






Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Remember You are Dust

"Spring Flowers"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

If you happen to go out to a store or to the gym or to a restaurant today you may well discover all sorts of people walking around with smudges on their faces, not because they forgot to wash their face this morning but because today is Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar.

Millions of people from all over the world will walk into a church today and as ashes are rubbed onto their foreheads they will hear these solemn words spoken to them:

Remember you are dust,
and unto dust you shall return.

Honestly I used to think that Ash Wednesday was a pretty gloomy day if not down-right macabre with all that talk about returning to dust. Who wants to be reminded that we are all going to die? And on top of all that, Ash Wednesday also carried the additional baggage of "warning" people that since they are going to die, in the time they have left, they should repent of their sins if they expect to go to heaven when death finally comes.

My guess is that a lot of people think of ashes and warnings about death as being pretty somber, gloomy and even kind of scary - I have come to embrace a whole different understanding of it all.

I am reminded of something I recently read in one of Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh's, books as he reflects on the earth and the dust of our common humanity:

You are made of water. If you remove the water there is no 'you' left.
You are made of earth. If you remove the element of earth from you, there is no 'you' left.
You are made of air, without air you cannot survive. 
If you remove the air from you, there is no 'you' left.
You are made of light, without sunlight you cannot survive,
and you know that the earth, as well as yourself,
is made of stars.
On a clear night you can look up and see that you are the stars above.

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

I actually think these words of wisdom from a Zen Master may well express the essence of the Christian Ash Wednesday message - a message directed not just to Christians but to every single human being, reminding us that we are not isolated separated individuals, we are all far more than the tiny body we normally think of as our "self,." We are all part of something bigger, more cosmic and transcendent.  We all belong to the cosmos, and "God" is the abiding energy that connects it all. 

The ashes of this day remind me that we came from "God;" we abide in "God;" and we return to "God." 

Maybe we should all rub a smudge of ash and earth on our faces on this day regardless of the path we are on in life so that we can all walk around and remind one another of this profound truth:

Remember you are water.
Remember you are earth.
Remember you are air.
Remember you are sunlight, and

Remember you are stardust and to the stars you shall return.

Nothing gloomy about that!













Tuesday, February 17, 2015

LISTEN: "Angels & Demons"

A listening companion to today's Desert Retreat House post, an episode from my free weekly podcast, Desert Wisdom entitled "Angels & Demons."

As the Lenten season is upon us, we remember that we live among angels and wild beasts of our time, and even demons.

Are you giving something up for lent? Why not add something in its place? My gift to you these next six weeks are these free short meditations on our daily lives through Desert Wisdom. They are free to subscribe/download on iTunes, on your mobile device using Stitcher, and always on my webspace DesertPaul.com.

If you're a listener, drop me a line would you? I'd love to hear from you. You can contact me on my site at DesertPaul.com.

Peace,

Paul


Give it Up

"A New Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

As I browsed through my news feed on Facebook this morning, I was especially struck by a rather plaintive post from one of my friends: "My life is so stuck in a rut, I need inspiration. Can anyone give me a word of encouragement?" So I began to think about what word of encouragement I might be able to offer to this Facebook friend, when I was suddenly struck by the fact that tomorrow is the beginning of the Lenten season on the Christian calendar.

When I was growing up I was always encouraged to "give something up" for Lent. Actually I was told that it was necessary for me to do this - we had to report what we were giving up for Lent to our classroom teacher.

In my case I usually gave up eating candy for the forty days of Lent - I actually didn't like candy all that much so it wasn't all that hard to give it up; however, I also wondered why it was even necessary to make these so-called Lenten sacrifices. Would giving up candy or sweets, or refraining from alcohol, or giving up eating meat somehow make God happy? 

This morning when thinking about my "stuck in a rut" friend,  I remembered those days in the past as I gave up stuff for Lent, when I was struck with the realization that the real purpose of Lent is to help people "get out of the rut" they may be stuck in on their spiritual journey. So maybe that's what we all might do for Lent- give up being stuck in a rut.  

I recall something the well-know psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck once wrote:

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur
when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled.
For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort
that we are likely to step out of our ruts
and start searching for different ways 
or truer answers.
I find great wisdom in this.

My guess is that any single one of us (myself included) may at times have been able to join the lament of my Facebook friend this morning and cry out, "My life is so suck in a rut." In fact, in some sense there are always some areas of each of our lives where we may feel bogged down, perhaps dried up, unable to go deeper on our spiritual journey as we seek deeper truths and greater wisdom.  And yet, as painful as they may be, these bogged-down places indeed may be great gifts. When we are in a rut at least we know where to look to see how we can move on - we are "propelled by our discomfort to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways and deeper truths." 

It may be that alcohol or some other addiction is the rut in which we are stuck, so Lent may be a great time to give it up. It may be that a need to constantly worry keeps us stuck in a rut - always "spinning our wheels," expending useless energy over things that happened long ago or will never happen in the future, so give it up. It may be that a desire to accumulate more and more things has somehow bogged us down, so give it up. We all know the ruts we may be in- give them up for Lent. 

Lent is a season of Spring, a season for a new day on the spiritual path. 

You don't have to be a Christian or a believer to celebrate Lent. 





Listen to my weekly podcast: "Desert Wisdom"







Monday, February 16, 2015

Faces

"A Web of Relationship"
- along a wilderness trail -

Several years ago as the internet was beginning to take such a center-stage in the everyday life of popular culture, I had pretty much convinced myself that the new age of electronic technology and social media would be a tool for creating a new world-wide spiritual revolution.  Spirituality, after all, is an awareness of our dynamic interconnectedness. The enlightened person is one who experiences all being as "interbeing," so what better way for human beings to connect with one another than through a "world-wide web?" 

Over the years I have come to seriously re-think the value of social media and digital communication  as tools for enhancing spiritual awareness. In fact I wonder and worry if our new age of electronic technology has the potential to divide us more than to connect us? 

The kinds of base, crude and cruel communication that has emerged in social media is quite disturbing to me.  One commentator has referred to the barrage of tweets, posts, reviews and online comments as "consequence-free hostility." People can attack other people, humiliate them, threaten and debase others and it all can be done very anonymously; and in most cases no one ever really knows who you are and there are rarely any social consequences for what is being said. 

In a very thoughtful article in this morning's New York Times, titled: The Epidemic of Facelessness,  author Stephen Marchie helps explain why so many people disconnect from one another rather than connect when using digital communication. He suggests that the problem lies in the fact that we can't see each others' faces when we communicate online. 

This morning's article cites some recent neuroscience research about how human beings need and use our faces to empathize with and connect with one another:

Through imitation and mimicry, we are able to feel what other people feel. By being able to feel what other people feel, we are also able to respond compassionately to other people's emotional states. The face is the key to the sense of intersubjectivity, linking mimicry and empathy through mirror neurons. 

This all makes so much sense to me. I know in my own personal experiences that whenever I ever have any type of conflict with another person I have always done my best to set up a "face-to-face" meeting. It is much harder for people to be bitter and contemptuous to each other when they look at each other face-to-face- it's far easier to spew out bitterness in an email or an online comment.  

When we don't see the face of another we can easily forget that the other is in fact a fellow human being. 

The truth is, however, that digital communication is here to stay. In fact in the days ahead human beings will be less and less likely to communicate face-to-face as more and more people work from home, take courses online, shop online, maybe even go to church online. So it seems to me that we need to develop a new spiritual discipline for the use of digital communication - a new ethic for  how we can connect with one another when we cannot see each others' faces.

The article in the Times this morning offered this piece of helpful advice:

In a world without faces, compassion is a practice that requires extra discipline..we need a new art of conversation for the conversations we are having - the first rule of this must be to remember that we are talking to human beings, and so:

Never say anything online that you wouldn't say to someone's face, and conversely,
don't pay attention to what other people online wouldn't say to your face.

I actually think this is great advice - a good first step in developing a "spirituality of the internet."  Who knows, maybe our electronic technologies may yet be that tool for a spiritual revolution. 












Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Frantic Pace of Life

"Savoring the Moment"
- Stunning Sunset at the Desert Retreat House -

The desert where I live is usually one of the most peaceful and tranquil places on earth. In fact, that's the reason so many people come here - to engage the silence and the solitude of a desert landscape. The problem is that,  at this time of year,  there isn't much silence and not a lot of tranquility to be found out here. 

The entire Coachella Valley desert is a beehive of activity in these months of the "vacation season."  Our population more than doubles with tourists who come here to  "get away from it all," and to escape the harsh winter snow and bitter cold of the places where they live. And this is one of the busiest weekends of the season with more than 10 different fairs or festivals for people to attend- art festivals, a county fair, a bicycle race- so many things to do, so many places for a tourist to visit while here on vacation.  

Usually I am not all that affected by the number of tourists in town; however, yesterday I found the frantic pace of frenetic activity to be kind of oppressive. Everywhere I went people seemed to be rushing around -  I sat in a coffee house and the couples at the table next to me were busily studying brochures and making lists of the events they planned on attending this weekend. At the supermarket people were asking the cashier for advice about what they should go to see while staying out here. The local highways were crammed with stop-and-go  traffic, and at times I thought I was back in L.A.

My wife and I decided to go to one of our favorite restaurants for lunch yesterday - a very pleasant  outdoor cafe with tables set under the shade of tall magnificent date palm trees. When we almost couldn't find a place to park we knew we were in trouble but it got worse as we walked up to the entranceway of the restaurant and were almost pushed out of the way by a mom tugging at her daughter and urging her to "hurry up" so that they could be at the head of the line of people waiting for a table. 

Needless to say we decided to find some other place for lunch - an "out of the way" place we knew would be well off the tourist grid,  and when we got to the restaurant we both looked at each other and breathed a collective sigh of relief - so glad to be out of the hectic pace, far away from all those frantic people on vacation. 

It was then I was struck by the irony of it all. Don't people come out here to change the pace of life, to rest and relax, to escape from the "rat race?"  I learned an important lesson - finding peace and rest may be helped by geography, but certainly isn't guaranteed by it. 

It made me wonder if all those people who came here to escape from the "rat race" didn't in fact bring the "rat race" along with them? You can go on a vacation and escape from the ice and cold back home, but you can never escape from your mind.. 

In his book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

We are always running, running, running, even in our sleep we are running...we cannot enjoy life if we spend all our time and energy worrying about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow.

In everyday life we are always looking for the 'right' conditions that we don't yet have to make us happy and we ignore what is happening right in front of us. We wait and hope for that magical moment - always sometime in the future -when everything will be as we want it to be, forgetting that life is available only in the present moment.

After lunch yesterday my wife and I made our way back home, sat quietly in the shade and read a book. Then as evening approached we went out onto our patio, sipped a glass of wine, and reverently watched a stunning sunset - the desert sky was painted in glorious shades of amber, purple and rose and the entire valley glowed in a mystic light. 

Life is available only in the present moment 









Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Greatest of These is Love

"Valentine's Day, 2015"
- in my meditation garden -

Every year when Valentine's Day comes around I find myself experiencing some mixed feelings about the occasion. In one sense I think it's a great thing to devote a day for people to express sentiments of tenderness and intimacy toward one another. On the other hand, I fear that Valentine's Day only contributes to an already-misguided popular notion regarding what true "love" is all about. 

Love goes beyond romantic feelings of intimacy and it is certainly more than infatuation or desire for another. As I see it, all those chocolate hearts, the roses and the romantic candlelight dinners have the potential to trivialize and even obfuscate the cosmic nature of love - the most noble of our human qualities.

I think perhaps that many people often confuse their "love" of another with their "need" for another - and herein lies the problem because the two are not the same. 

The Dalai Lama once wisely said:

Remember that the best relationship is one in which 
your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.

I think that a lot of people find themselves in relationships with others to get various needs met in life, physical needs, emotional or psychological needs - being in a relationship means that you don't have to figure out who to take to the party. People often are in relationships because they want to experience those nice feelings of tenderness and romance. But far too often, when those needs are no longer met, the relationship is terminated - like a business deal gone bad. So, from my point of view relationships that are primarily based on getting needs met are not really "love" relationships.

Throughout my career I would often provide counseling to couples who were planning to get married. At which time, I would always do my best to dispel the prevailing myth that marriage is a "50-50 proposition of give and take," -- that as long as both people meet each other's needs equally well in their life together, the marriage will last. 

Interestingly enough most of the research about love and marriage contradicts this popular myth, suggesting instead that a marriage works best when it is a 100% proposition. To the degree that both people in the relationship are committed to giving themselves 100% of the time toward promoting the welfare of the other,  a marriage is most likely to succeed. 

I actually think that whenever we do anything to promote the welfare of someone else we are "loving" that person - no matter who they may be or how we feel about them. We may feel tenderly toward another or may not even like another, but when we give our self to promote the other's well-being,  to alleviate their suffering, help them to achieve happiness, find joy and comfort in life,  we are in fact "loving" them. 

Today I reflect upon one of the most beautiful and wise statements about genuine love that I have ever encountered - Saint Paul's famous "Canticle on Love" found in the Christian scriptures. While this passage is often read at Christian weddings, I think the wisdom of these verses supersedes any particular religion or belief and provides an insight into the nature of true love that we all might place on the table next to the candles and roses and boxes of chocolate on this Valentine's Day 2015:

Love is patient, love is kind. 
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love. 









Friday, February 13, 2015

On a Quest

"La Quinta Cove Path"

The neighborhood where we live out here in the desert is known as the La Quinta Cove -a magnificently beautiful area nestled right up against the Santa Rosa Mountains and right at the edge of a vast desert wilderness. And what makes living here even better is that there is a 5-mile path that runs along the fringes of the cove. The trail is lined by wilderness bushes, desert cacti and exotic trees and as you walk the path you can gaze up at the towering mountains and look out into the miles of wilderness on the desert floor. It really is like walking through paradise and I hike along that pathway every day.

In the summer months I am often the only person on the cove path, but at this time of the year there are almost too many people on the trail as crowds of tourists flock into the area escaping from sub- zero temperatures and mounds of snow in other places in the country, out into this 80 degree climate of sunshine and blue skies as the desert blossoms into spring. 

I've been told that throughout this weekend there are literally no hotel rooms available throughout this entire region. So I guess I wasn't  all that surprised by what I encountered yesterday as I walked along my favorite path through the cove.

In the many surrounding hotels tourists are given literature about what to see in the area,  and a "walk along the path through the beautiful La Quinta cove" is high on the "to do list." Yesterday I saw many tourists walking on the path with their hotel literature in hand, and at least twice I was stopped by people asking for directions about how to get to the La Quinta cove. With all the patience I could muster up I would smile and say, "You are already here in the cove, you are already on the path." I couldn't help but laugh as one lady looked up from the map on her brochure and said, "Yeah,  I guess this really is a beautiful place, isn't it?"

I recall something the American Buddhist, Lama Surya Das, one said:

Whatever we are looking for is already right here.
We are usually elsewhere - that's the problem. 


Yesterday's encounter with those tourists already on the path was such a great lesson about looking and searching and seeking - so many people looking for something more, something bigger and better and newer, so many people on a spiritual quest searching for God, for transcendence, for deeper truth and greater wisdom in life. The lesson I learned yesterday is that whenever any of us find ourselves on any sort of spiritual quest, all we need do is stop looking at the maps and look up to find that we are already here -- what we seek is where we are. 

You don't have to come to a beautiful desert paradise to find beauty, to meet "God"or to encounter transcendence because every moment of every single day and in every single place in which we find ourselves is filled with beauty and abundant in Holy Presence. Driving in a car on a busy city street, walking through the piles of snow, sitting at a computer in an office, at a desk in school, or standing at the kitchen sink we can find that "everything we are looking for is already right here in the present moment as long as we are not elsewhere."

I'm thinking I may send a copy of my post today to the local chamber of commerce. 











Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Moral Compass

"No Roads, No Maps"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I was talking with a retired High School teacher yesterday who, when he discovered I was a priest, asked me, "Since so many young people today no longer go to church, where do they find their moral compass?" I thought it was an excellent question and I told him I wanted to think about an answer and would talk with him about this the next time I saw him.

The fact is that, at least in days gone by, conversations about morality and ethics were for the most part confined to the realm of religion. When I was growing up I was given a pretty extensive laundry list of what was right and what was wrong. In one sense I was given a moral compass; however, the problem was that I was never really taught "why" doing one thing might be right and another thing might be wrong. All I was ever told was that you were supposed to behave morally because this is what God expected of you. 

If you did the right thing you would be rewarded and if you did the wrong thing and committed a sin, you displeased God and would be punished.

Many people today have rejected this idea of a judgmental God who demands certain behaviors, and lots of others have even rejected the very idea of the existence of God. So, in a sense, like my retired teacher friend, I also wonder where people today get their moral compass and if they even have one? Do they find moral direction in conversations with their families, in their places of work, in their public schools and colleges, in conversations with their friends? My guess is there is little if any "right and wrong" conversations in many if not most of these circles, but maybe there should be.

A few years ago the Dalai Lama wrote a very insightful book titled, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, in which he makes a very convincing argument for removing conversations about morality out of the purview of religion and into the realm of everyday secular life. He suggested that every human being shares a common humanity and that there is a "moral compass" in the very DNA of our shared humanity.  He writes:

Fortunately, there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields suggesting that, even from the most rigorous scientific perspective, unselfishness and concern for others are not only our own interests, but in a sense innate to our biological nature...interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection and warmheartedness -- or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.

When viewed through the lens of religion, morality often has a very judgmental tone - do good and avoid evil or suffer the wrath of God.  But if we can come to the point where we understand moral behavior as "doing the right thing in order to survive and thrive as human beings in this world," then morality becomes a compass, pointing a pathway to well-being, deeper peace and fuller life. 

My desert home is located just outside some pretty wild territory, and the deeper you go out into the wilderness the more you discover that are no trails -  just lots of vast unmarked space. So, unless you walk with a guide or have a compass in hand you will surely get lost. In fact just yesterday I saw a rescue helicopter flying overhead out into the wild to pick up a man who thought he could negotiate the wilderness on his own.

Somehow I think life is like that. If we want to make our way through life's wilderness we cannot do it alone, and we always need to walk with a compass in hand - a compass that points us in the direction of kindness and compassion, forgiveness and generosity, and turns us away from greed, malice, violence, hatred and bigotry.

You don't have to be religious to find your moral compass, you don't even have to be a believer, all you need to do is be a human being.

I think I'll send my post today to my retired teacher friend and see what he has to say about my answer to his question. 



Listen to my weekly podcast: "Desert Wisdom"