Saturday, October 31, 2015

Embracing the Night

"Darkness in the Desert"

As October comes to an end and the nights grow longer in the Western hemisphere, people everywhere gather together to celebrate the annual festival of “Halloween.”

Growing up as a boy I don’t remember Halloween being as big a holiday as it is today. The kids in my neighborhood used to dress up in some “home-made” costumes, go out for “trick or treat,” then we’d all return home to eat the candy and, for the most part that was it –that was all there was to “Halloween.”

But today, the Halloween festival has turned into a mega-holiday almost equal in importance to Thanksgiving or even Christmas. Stores and homes sport Halloween d├ęcor, there are parties and parades, haunted houses, and everyone seems to get dressed up for the occasion, not just kids but adults as well.

Tonight is the night when people frighten one another, a time to engender a fear of the night, a night full of vampires, zombies and cemetery creatures who come out to destroy living souls. Halloween: the scariest night of the year.

Interestingly enough the origins of Halloween can be traced back centuries to a festival of the ancient Celts who believed that this time of the year when the nights grew long was a “thin place,” a time when the veil between the world we can see and a world that is beyond our sight was very “thin and porous.” The ancient Celts gathered together during these longest nights to embrace the darkness not to fear it – the dark night was a mystical opportunity, a threshold for entering into a deeper experience of transcendence.

It’s interesting to me that in our own day, most people associate the spiritual journey with light rather than darkness. We talk about the “light” of faith or the “enlightenment” of wisdom; and yet when I look at the teachings of the great sages of history I discover that “darkness” may be a better icon for the spiritual quest than “light.”

Every great teacher of wisdom talks about the importance of entering into the darkness on the journey of faith. The more a person progresses on a path of wisdom the less one knows, as one progresses toward the truth, the light of “understanding” grows dim.

The 16th century mystic, Saint John of the Cross, talks about a Dark Night of the Soul that people inevitably enter as they progress along a path of wisdom in their quest for “God.”  Many think that St John is saying that when you search for God, before God is found, everyone must first go through a period where they experience God’s absence. I actually think he means more than that.

We enter the Dark Night of the Soul when we walk the path of wisdom and come to a point at which we have run out of answers and clear definitions about God, when we are no longer able to explain or to “figure God out.” When that happens it’s a dark place, and it’s kind of frightening to be floundering around in the darkness devoid of all our glib answers and clear-bright directions; but when we enter into the Dark Night we often find that we are in a place where we can experience the deepest truth.
In her wonderful book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, offers this insightful commentary about the meaning of the Dark Night of the Soul:
When we can no longer see the path we are on,
 when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us
or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are
then and only then are we vulnerable enough to surrender to God’s presence
This remains true even when we cannot discern God as being present.

I wake up every morning just when the dawn is about to break over the eastern mountain skies; but at this time of the year dawn comes later and so when I get out of bed it’s still too dark to even get a glimpse of daylight in the sky. So this morning, on this festival of Halloween, I went outside, opened my arms and embraced the night. The moon was brilliant and skies were blazing with a million stars illuminating the desert floor. The night was so bright that it seemed like day–such a “thin place.”

Saint John of the Cross once said:

On a spiritual path, 
if you want to be sure of the road on which you tread,
you must close your eyes and walk in the dark


Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Joining The Dance

"Like the First Morning"
 -At the Desert Retreat House -

People often think that we have no change of seasons out here in Southern California –there are no autumn leaves or winter snows, it’s always “warm and sunny,” especially out here in the desert where it is supposedly always “hot and sunny.” But nothing could be further from the truth, the desert where we live has many variable seasons. In fact, just this morning the world of nature was teaching me that a new season had arrived and I was invited to go outdoors and step into its wonder.

When I woke up this morning I knew something was going on outside because I could hear the sound of the howling winds rushing through the canyons and sweeping through the desert floor and all the chimes and bells around our home were loudly ringing in the blowing wind, announcing that a new time had arrived.

 As I walked outdoors into the all-familiar garden in which I sit every single morning of every single day, somehow everything looked and felt new and different to me. The air was crisp and cool, the color of the morning sky took on a different hue, the garden fragrances were different. It was obvious to me that the desert I greeted yesterday morning was not the same as the one I greeted today - a new season had arrived, an early-winter was in the air. It all felt so fresh and pristine - “morning had broken like the first morning.”

As I sat in my garden and listened to the wind chimes as they announced the arrival of a new day and a new season, I called to mind something the Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chodron, once so wisely said:

To be fully alive, fully human and completely awake is to be
continually thrown out of the nest.
To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land,
to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.
To live is to be willing to die over and over again.

In a very real sense this is precisely what I experienced this morning – this is the lesson the world of nature was teaching me when I walked out into my garden on this new day in this new time. Everything that “was” yesterday had died and today something new had been born, who I “was” yesterday had died and today I had been born anew.

The Buddha taught that everything is impermanence – nothing, utterly nothing ever stays the same. What was, no longer is, and what will be has not yet come about, so all we ever have is now. When I am able to fully understand the impermanence of life I am much more able to embrace the moment – and only by “embracing the moment” am I able to be fully alive.

I am reminded of something Alan Watts once said:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it,
move with it and join the dance.

Today when I walked out into the new day of a new season everything was dancing. The palm trees were bending in the wind, the birds were fluttering around, desert bushes and flowers in my garden were dancing in a circle as the morning clouds went skipping by - all moving in step to the sound of the wind and the chiming of the bells.

As I stood there in the midst of that cosmic dance I could have been afraid of what was happening. I might have closed my eyes and wished everything was the same as it was yesterday, perhaps fearing that the high wind would do some damage. I also might have wished the wind might stop its fearsome blowing; but instead I chose to join the dance.

I swayed and I moved and turned around in circles, plunging into it, moving with it it and joining the dance.

It was a moment of being fully alive.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mindful Breathing

"Holy Ground"
- At the Desert Retreat House -


Yesterday I came across an article about mindful breathing – a story about being aware of every breath you take in and breathe out as you sit quietly and meditate. Actually I think this well- intentioned article totally “missed the boat” by essentially suggesting that mindful awareness of breath is a “relaxation technique,” it relieves stress and calms you down.

As I see it mindful breathing is far more than a stress reduction technique. In each breath we take we breathe in the universe and when we breathe out we connect ourselves with the cosmos. Far more than a technique for relaxation, “breathing” is a holy action, awareness of breathing is a way to be in tune with the fact that we belong to everything and everyone.  

I remember a fascinating scientific article I read a few months back about the “argon atoms” that we breathe in and breathe out in every single breath we take:

Every saint and every sinner of earlier days and every common man and beast
have put ‘argon atoms’ into the general scientific treasury.
Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper,
from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, 
and from the recitations of the classic poets.
The next breaths we take will sample
 the snorts, sighs, bellows, shrieks cheers and prayers
of all who came before us from as far back as prehistoric times.

I am actually quite moved by this observation. When we inhale we “literally” breathe in the cosmos, all that ever was, all our ancestors who have gone before us as well as everything that “now” exists; and when we breathe out we each put something of ourselves into that wonderful and sacred cosmic mix.

It’s no wonder to me that many if not most spiritual and religious traditions have emphasized the holiness of breath.

The word for breath among the Navajo people is “Holy Wind” which is literally translated as: “the wind of creation that pervades the cosmos.” In the Hebrew scriptures, “God’s” prevailing spirit is likened to a “Holy Breath.” In the Christian tradition, after his resurrection Jesus breathes his Holy Spirit upon the world and he proclaims that this spirit will be always among us. And of course, Buddhists over the ages have focused on “mindful breathing”- not as a relaxation technique but as a vehicle for connecting our minds to universal awareness

A while ago I read about some Hebrew scholars who claim that, in the Bible, the revealed name of God, Yahweh, is actually a reference to breathing.

According to the biblical account, Moses goes up a holy mountain where he encounters the Holy Presence of God as a “Burning Bush,” and Moses asks if  “God” has a name. The answer that comes back to him is Yahweh.  People often translate this “name” as “I am who I am,” but many say that this word Yahweh actually cannot be  translated because it is not a name so much as it is a description of the process of breathing.

I breathe in Yah and I breathe out Weh. The first breath any of us ever take is Yah  and our last breath is Weh. The name of God is the sound of breathing.

Today as I sit in my garden I am keenly aware of my breathing. I breathe in Yah and the universe fills me up -  I breathe in those atoms of my ancient ancestors, I inhale the planet over the ages, I breathe in the cosmos.  Then I slowly and mindfully breathe out Weh, and I connect my “self” to the great mystery of it all, exhaling “me” into all that yet will be.

Breathing is such a sacred act.