Sunday, January 31, 2016

Failure is Not an Option

"Snarled, Thorny, Beautiful" 
  -along a wilderness trail- 

This morning I came across an article in the New York Times about why “highly-gifted” child prodigies exhibit very little creativity and often engage in careers that offer very minor contributions toward making this a better world.

These children have astronomically high IQ’s. They can play Bach by the age of 4, speak foreign languages fluently by the time they are 8 years old and have mastered calculus by the time they are 6. The thing is they are so perfect that their parents and teachers never allow them to make any mistakes. Failure is not an option, and because of this they never learn how to do anything original with their lives. The article observes:

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies
but rarely compose their own scores.
They focus their energy on consuming scientific knowledge,
not producing new insights.
They conform to codified rules rather than inventing their own.
Practice makes perfect but it doesn’t make new.

I recently heard a story about Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb. Apparently Edison failed almost 1000 times before he finally succeeded at his invention.  Imagine it, 999 attempts, almost a thousand miserable failures over an extended period of time; and it was only the 1000th attempt that he finally got the bulb to work - the rest is history.

As the story goes, soon after the success of the light bulb was revealed to the general pubic, a French reporter asked him, “Mr. Edison, how did it feel to fail 999 times?” Edison replied, “Young man I have not failed 999 times, I have simply found 999 ways to create a light bulb.”

If Thomas Edison had lived in our own times he would have probably been fired from his job after a month or two for his astounding inability to “produce.” There is no place in this culture for anyone who constantly makes mistakes – especially for people who are gifted and talented. And yet it is through making mistakes, through 999 failures that creativity springs up and invention is given birth.

As I see it, this “glorification of perfection” is perhaps even more widely exacerbated when it comes to the spiritual life. Somehow whenever “God" gets involved in the picture, failing and making mistakes is never on the menu.  Many believe that “God” expects people to “always do the right thing,” obey all the commandments, follow the laws of the church or temple, failing to do so is a sin that demands punishment.

Even for those less “religiously” inclined, spiritual pursuits are often viewed as a journey to perfection. Meditation, proper breathing without distraction- these are the demands of the spiritually disciplined, and failing to perform these disciplines properly is often seen as an embarrassing flaw.  

I actually think that failure and making mistakes is innate to our human condition. In fact, for me, the great paradox of all life is that the way to be happy and fully alive is to recognize and embrace our inherent imperfection.  

When we embrace our own mistakes and learn to live with and forgive our own failures and the failure of others, we find what it means to be a human being.  

Priest and author Richard Rohr once observed;

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.
The demand for the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good.

In today’s “failure is not an option” culture, I think people tend to be way too hard on themselves.  Maybe this is a good day for each of us to give ourselves a break. We are all   “imperfectly beautiful”- that’s how “God” made it all.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Breath of Fresh Air

"Mystic Moonlight"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night- this rarely happens to me, I usually sleep the night away. As I lay in bed trying to figure out what it was that roused me from a sound sleep, I realized that a bright full moon was shining just outside my window bathing me in its midnight rays. I also realized that a wonderfully refreshing breath of cool fresh air was gently blowing over me through my open window. We are at the cusp of springtime out here in the desert, and I wondered if I was breathing in those first breaths of spring?

As I lay awake in bed last night, I basked in the brightness of the mystic moonlight and deeply breathed in and breathed out that refreshing spring-like air. I was keenly aware that I was intimately connected to an energy far greater than my own tiny little self. I felt as if I belonged to the universe - to everything and everyone in it. As I lay wide awake in my bed I was breathing in “God” and breathing out into “God.”

A few months ago our local NPR station featured a Ted Talk that has really stuck with me. The program featured a series of lectures by various scientists who talked about the ecology of the natural world - how all things, all creatures, all people are dynamically interconnected into one living breathing organism.

One particular segment of the program especially struck me as a biologist talked about the air we breathe:

Take a deep breath, the yogis had it right.
Breath does indeed connect us in a very literal way.
Take a breath and as you breathe in, think about what is in your breath.
There, perhaps, is the carbon from the person sitting next to you,
Maybe there’s a little bit of algae from some nearby lake, river or beach.
There may even be some carbon in your breath from ancient dinosaurs,
and there could also be carbon that you are exhaling
that will be in the breath of your great great grandchildren
The air we breathe connects us all the time

When many people use the word “God” they often think of a “man” who lives up in some distant place - a king, a judge or a ruler; but in fact if you examine the images in many of the scriptures and teachings of most of the world religions, a common way of imaging God is: the air we breath.  

In the Christian tradition, after his resurrection, Jesus appears among his disciples as a Holy Spirit, the “Living Christ” is depicted as a powerful wind blowing through the room where the disciples are gathered together. In the Hebrew tradition, “God” is often referred to Ruah: a breath of air, a holy wind, sometimes mighty, sometimes gentle. Similarly, a Navajo word for “God’ is Holy Wind: “the breath of creation that pervades the cosmos,” and over the ages, Buddhists have concentrated on awareness of one’s breath as a means of being grounded in and connected to the greater universe.

Last night, bathed in the midnight moon, breathing in and breathing out, I was literally breathing in “God” and breathing back out into “God.”  I was breathing in all that ever was, breathing in everything that is, and breathing back into all that ever yet will be. Imagine that: “God” is as intimate to me and you as the very air we breathe.

I am reminded of something the poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, once wrote:

Whoever breathes the most air lives the most life.

Spring is in the air out here in the desert, I can feel it in every breath I take. I’m going to spend the day trying to take some very deep breaths so that I can live the most life.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Practice of Civility

"Clean and Clear"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

This morning when I got up I was inundated by story after story about last night’s Republican Presidential Debate. It all got to be too much for me and I had to turn off the news and put down the paper.

I think we all should be able to disagree with one another and I’m all in favor of lively debate; but disagreement and debate don’t equate with vile insults and personal attacks. That’s why I had to stop reading and hearing about what went on yesterday – the plethora of uncensored personal attacks and “over the top” insults that were being hurled about were just too much for me to bear. I felt somehow as if the air was being polluted and poisoned and I was suffering from its ill effects.

The more I think about it, insults, personal attacks and hate speech seem to be a common commodity in our culture nowadays, especially in this election season. I hardly have to listen to a presidential debate to find all the ugly words people use against their fellow human beings, all I need do is to read one of many available “twitter feeds,” and I  am quickly immersed in all the muck and the mire.

I recently came across this Letter to the Editor published in the New York Times under the title, Bring Back Civility:

We as a culture have grown coarser and cruder in tone,
in many respects our nation has ruptured with civility.
The advent of digital communications has allowed us to engage in
consequence-free hostility –
hostile messaging, abrupt emails, and caustic online posts
have normalized an uglier and less empathic side of human behavior
and colored our politics and entertainment as well.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of civility – treating one another with common courtesy and respect even when we disagree. It seems to me that the practice of civility is a necessary condition for a healthy society and civility is most definitely a necessary discipline to be practiced on any spiritual path toward deeper peace and greater truth.

A few years back, Law Professor, Stephen Carter, wrote a book about our contemporary culture in which he argued that the growing lack of civility toward each other in this country is a slippery slope leading to our downfall and eventual decay.

Professor Carter told of a time back in the 19th century before the advent of automobiles and interstate highways when the primary mode of travel for most people in the United States was by train. Back in those days, unless you were extremely rich you rode on trains that looked like “cattle cars” – unadorned boxes on rails equipped with nothing more than hardwood benches.

The reason traveling together worked as well as it did back then was due to the fact that everyone understood their obligation to one another as they sat side by side crammed together shoulder to shoulder on those rows of benches on crowded trains.

As a matter of fact, most people back then owned a little travel guidebook that spelled out proper behavior while traveling on the railroads. The book advised: whispering, loud talking immoderate laughing and singing should not be indulged by any passenger. The guidebook also advised train conductors to rebuke anyone who indulged personal preferences at the expense of other passengers.”

Maybe we need another such guidebook to be distributed among all our fellow citizens as we travel through life together in these chaotic contemporary times. At the very least we need to reclaim the importance of practicing civility - treating each person with dignity and respect whether or not we agree with them or even like them.

There is an ancient Hebrew proverb:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Now more than ever we need to use our words to create life and not to bring about death and destruction.