Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Discipline of Vulnerability

"Desert Cactus"
- flowers and thorns -

Every evening, during the local news report I see the same TV commercial sponsored by “Perfect Smile Dentistry.” As the name suggests, a local “cosmetic dentist” promises to design a “perfect smile” for anyone who might take advantage of his services. The dentist shows “before and after” pictures of a patient - in one photo we see teeth that are crooked, jagged and covered in ugly stains and then in the next picture, the same patient sports a “perfect smile, glistening white and without any flaws whatsoever. All made possible thanks to the cosmetic magic of the miracle-worker dentist.  

Whenever I watch that TV ad, I am inevitably struck with how phony and fake that “perfect smile” looks.  I’m a big fan of good dental hygiene, but no one has teeth that white and so perfectly formed. In fact, that so-called “perfect smile” comes off as being somewhat ludicrous to me.

We live in a “culture of perfectionism.” We want the perfectly tailored gym-body, the perfectly coiffed hair, flawless skin and perfect teeth, the perfect job, the perfect family and the perfect house.

As I see it, this “culture of perfectionism” is perhaps no more clearly manifested than in the realm of religion and spirituality; but unfortunately, this need for perfection is perhaps the greatest pitfall anyone can fall into on any type of spiritual path.

Many people sit in a church and look up at stained glass pictures of great saints or perhaps they sit in a temple and gaze upon a statue of the Buddha in all his enlightened splendor and think that truly “spiritual” people are supposed to be just as perfect as all those holy saints and gurus. Many people believe that “God” expects them to live a “sinless” life and those who do not meet these high moral standards are unworthy believers who will ultimately be punished.

I know plenty of religious people who go to church and hide behind the expected perfect smile of a supposedly flawless life, too fearful or ashamed to embrace their “less than perfect” qualities, their doubts, mistakes, failures or their secret sins.

The problem is that, while we so highly prize flawlessness, when it comes to the human condition, “perfection” is an illusion and when you aspire to perfection on a spiritual journey, you inevitably fall under the sway of that illusion.

We are loving, compassionate and forgiving and we are also judgmental and spiteful, we have faith and we also have our inevitable doubts, we are hopeful and yet we despair, honest and yet we deceive, we live in the shadows and we live in the light.  Each and every one of us is a wonderful mix of light and darkness all rolled up together and paradoxically we need our shadows in order to walk in the light.

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

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

As I think about it, the goal of any spiritual journey is not to achieve perfection but rather to practice a “discipline of vulnerability.”  When we embrace our weaknesses and imperfections rather than hide from them, when we trust enough to become vulnerable by letting down the protective walls of our ego and when we reach out to others for healing, we are on the spiritual path.

Oddly enough, love can enter our lives most abundantly when we are broken enough to allow love to enter in, and so our vulnerability and not our perfection is the prize virtue on a spiritual journey.

In the Christian Scriptures Saint Paul says:

In our weakness is our strength.

The author, Paul Coelho, says something very similar:

The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Words That Break Your Bones

"A Broken Vessel"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

When I was a young boy, a school bully decided he didn’t like me and so every morning he would get on the school bus, stop at where I was sitting and loudly proceed to barrage me with insults and threats. Eventually the bullying got to me and so I decided to report this to my mother who told me I should just ignore him. I also remember her quoting a phrase that I would often hear from time to time when I was a child:

Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.

As much as I tried to ignore that bully, I found that my daily encounter with him was doing more than making me fearful or depressed, it was making me physically ill. When I developed a skin rash and stomach problems, my parents eventually intervened and the bullying stopped - my rash cleared up and my stomach aches went away. I learned that the little childhood phrase about sticks and stones was actually a lie. Names can hurt as much as sticks and stones, in fact names can break your bones.

The other day I came across a fascinating article in the New York Times that explored how the words we use can actually inflict physical harm. In the article, When is Speech Violence? Psychology Professor, Lisa Feldman Barrett suggested:

Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system.
Words can make you sick, alter your brain,
kill neurons and even shorten your life.

Professor Feldman-Barrett went on to explain how “bullying” words cause stress and when stress is prolonged and becomes chronic, it causes physical distress. She also went on to explain how this phenomenon might be particularly relevant in the “antagonistic” culture of our own contemporary times:

What’s bad for your nervous system
are long stretches of simmering stress,
that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain.
In today’s political climate,
groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another.
It is a climate of rampant bullying in school and on the social media.
This culture of constant, casual brutality
is toxic to the body and we all suffer for it.

I can very much empathize with this sentiment. In fact, there are times when I refuse to turn on the news or browse through Facebook or Twitter. The constant barrage of insults and name-calling that originate from all sides of the political and social spectrum are, at times, just too much to bear. They make me feel ill, my stomach hurts and I’m afraid I’ll get a skin rash from all the poison.  

I’m not at all saying that we cannot or should not disagree with those who hold different opinions or ideologies from our own. In fact, rigorously debating and challenging an opponent can lead to greater mental, physical and spiritual health. I am saying that we need to learn how to disagree with dignity rather than resorting to wrestling in the mud - mudslinging always makes us sick.

There is an ancient Hebrew proverb found in the Bible:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

In our own day we would all do well to be careful about our words. Use the power of the tongue to bring about life rather than death.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Always a We and Never a Me

"A Web of Relationship"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I was having lunch with a friend of mine the other day. As soon as we sat down he excused himself to go and “wash up” before he ate, telling me: “Gotta be sure to wash away all those nasty germs.”  

It’s probably a good idea to wash your hands before you eat, but my guess is that most people think about “germs” and bacteria as being harmful and foreign to human life; and yet, the scientific data suggests that human beings are only able to survive on this planet because of our constant and dynamic interaction with the trillions of microscopic cells that live in our bodies and in every other life form in the universe. 

In his book, I contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, Professor Ed Yong (who is a microbiologist) points out that the human body contains more microbes than human cells. In fact, there are more bacteria in our stomach than there are stars in the galaxy. Furthermore, through our skin and various external organs like the eyes, nose and mouth, each of us interacts with the trillions of other microbial systems that exist in other people, in other animals, in the air, the ocean.

Without this dynamic web of universal symbiotic interaction, life could not be sustained.

Yong observes:

When we look at beetles and elephants,
sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends,
we see individuals working their way through life
as a bunch of cells in a single body,
driven by a single brain and operating with a single genome.
This is a pleasant fiction.
In fact we are legion, each and every one of us,
always a ‘we” and never a ‘me.’
As the poet, Walt Whitman, once wrote:
‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’

As I think about this mind-expanding scientific observation, I am struck by the fact that this is precisely the wisdom offered by the great mystics and spiritual teachers throughout history, far before the age of quantum physics and microbiology.

Jesus taught that we find our “true self” when we become aware of the truth that we “are” our relationships. Likewise, the Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree and he found “enlightenment” as the veil of his ego was torn away and he realized that there is no separated “I,” there is only a “we,” a dynamically interconnected web of interaction.

Professor Ed Yong observed that, “unaware of our dynamic relationship with a vast unseen world of microbial life we tend to see the world through a keyhole.”  I think he’s right and I believe that this is exactly what the mystics and teachers of all the many spiritual traditions have always maintained - the goal of any spiritual journey is to move away from looking at the world through a keyhole and finding a grander view of life.

If we fool ourselves into thinking that our own individual, separated ego “is” who we are, we narrow our vision and we miss the glory of it all - always a “we” and never a “me.”

Rumi, the 13th century Sufi Poet, once wrote:

The whole universe exists inside you.
God writes spiritual mysteries on our hearts
where they wait silently for discovery