Friday, March 31, 2017

The Illusion of Borders

"No Fences, No Gates"

I just noticed that the New York Times now features a regular weekly column published under the heading: This Week in Hate. Every week there are so many instances of violence, prejudice and bigotry in this country that the newspaper feels it needs a regular venue for reporting the atrocities of these ongoing occurrences – a pretty sad commentary about our national life in our own contemporary times.

Yesterday’s article reported on an incident in which a young “American” mother was shopping in a supermarket while speaking Spanish to someone on her cell phone. A fellow shopper accosted this woman, angrily telling her: “Go back to your own country, I just can’t wait ‘til they deport you.”

Newspaper columnist, Roger Cohen, recently made this astute observation about life in contemporary America:

Once unsayable things can now be said everywhere.
‘Go back to where you came from, you don’t belong here’
has become the phrase du jour

In yesterday’s news article I was also struck by the response made by the woman who was maligned in that supermarket as she turned to her attacker and said: “My family has been in this country before it was even this country.”

Indeed the woman who was denigrated for speaking Spanish on a cell phone was an American citizen who was born in California and her ancestors had lived here for generations - from the time when when California was still part of Mexico.  On top of that, she also had Native America heritage in her family lineage, and so she was far more original and native to this land than her attacker in that supermarket who told her to go back to her own country. How ironic!

As I think about it, while I happen to be an American citizen living in California, the place where my house now stands was actually Mexico just a few generations ago and with the stroke of a pen the land then became part of  the “good old U.S.A.”  And even before it was was Mexico, the land on which my house is now placed belonged to the native Indian peoples who originally settled this territory of the Southern California desert. So, in a very real sense, I am the interloper here.

Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, once observed:

You are me and I am you
Isn’t it obvious that we inter-are?

As I see it, all borders are artificial, they are nothing more than “human constructs.” The truth is that we all live together on common ground, no one is a stranger or a foreigner and there are no different others because we we all belong to one another.

We all live on a very small and ever shrinking planet, we “are” a web of interconnection and what happens to any one of us happens to us all. We “inter-are.”

Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador once said this about his native land:

You cannot reap what you have not sown.
How are we going to reap a harvest of love in our community
if we only sow hate?

In an age where a national newspaper feels compelled to report the multiple incidents of “hate” perpetrated every week in America, this may indeed be the question we all need to ask ourselves in our own country nowadays.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Joy of Being Ignored

"Vast Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Now in my later years of life, I have come to realize that, like many people, I spent the first half of my life walking around with an invisible sign hanging from my neck that read: pay attention to me!

As I little child I thought of myself as the center of the universe. Then, over my years a student I wanted my teachers to recognize me for my great accomplishments so that I would advance in my education. Later, as a college professor I wanted everyone to value my competence and excellence as a teacher and as an ordained priest I did my best so that that others would pay attention to my many gifts as an accomplished preacher and administrator so that I could build my career and move up the ladder of success as my life life progressed. Thankfully, all that has changed now in my second half of life

In this season of early springtime, the evenings here in the desert where we live are especially stunning. The air is cool and the skies at night seem to be brighter than ever. Last evening as I went outdoors and gazed in wonder at the clear-bight nighttime cosmos, it struck me that in my later years I have been given the gift of being able to remove the heavy burden of that “pay attention” sign - it has been a refreshing spiritual relief for me.  I also realized that living out here in the desert has been a great help in allowing me to do so.

When I look up into the stunning splendor of nighttime skies or when I hike out into the vast, silent horizons of the desert wilderness I always feel so small and tiny standing in the midst of such great enormity; and yet paradoxically, I also feel so tenderly connected to it all.  Yes, living here has given me a sense of belonging to the universe, an intimate connection to the beautiful, totally wild and uncontrollable world of nature - it has also helped me realize how relatively unimportant “I” am in the larger scope of things.

One of my desert wisdom books explains why this happens:

Deserts confront us with a vast horizontal edge,
a horizon of emptiness into which we find ourselves absorbed and lost.
The desert is intrinsically hostile to the ego,
threatening to swallow it up in its endless expanse of nothingness.

The ancient 4th century Christian monastics known as The Desert Mothers and Fathers left the cities where they had once lived and moved out to live in little mountain caves in the vast desert wilderness of Egypt and Syria. They did this in order to grow in wisdom and to learn how to be more faithful followers of Jesus. In their various writings they would often say that the greatest gift given to them in their desert life was what they referred to as The Gift of Indifference.

In the desert they leaned that, while they were valued and significant, no one of them was especially important. In fact, the great spiritual joy they found in their life in the desert was to learn that, as individuals, they were essentially ignored.  Each person was simply part of the vastness of it all, embraced by an all-abiding Holy Presence but never the singular focus of attention.  The desert is “intrinsically hostile to the ego” and when the ego doesn’t thrive, the true self can blossom.

But of course you don’t have to live in a desert to appreciate the value of this “gift of indifference.”  In fact this gift may lie at the very heart of everyone’s spiritual journey.

My book about desert wisdom puts it this way:

So often people presume themselves to be at the center of everyone else’s attention,
performing for an audience that isn’t even there.
Their chief loss in the process is missing
the gift of blessed indifference that was being offered to them all along.
We are saved, in the end, by the things that ignore us.

I have spent way too much time and energy in my life weighed down by the burden of that “pay attention to me” sign, always imagining what other people were thinking about me and then acting accordingly. The narcissist in me had convinced myself that “I” was important enough for others to be constantly paying attention to what I did. But the truth is that, for the most part, most of the people I know or have ever known hardly, if ever, spent much of their time thinking about me at all.

The realization that “I” am being ignored is such a joy to me. “We are saved, in the end, by the things that ignore us.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight

"Walking a Labyrinth"
 -Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Over the past few years I have felt a growing attraction to the practice of walking in a “labyrinth” as a prayer and meditation tool. Nowadays labyrinths have become quite popular and are often employed as a spiritual practice in both Eastern and Western traditions. You can often find labyrinths on the floors of churches or temples and even in the public squares of towns and cities.

A labyrinth is actually a very ancient symbol for the spiritual journey, a symbol for the path into the core of one’s deepest center.  A labyrinth is designed as a series of circular and spiral paths that look something like a maze and when you walk into a labyrinth you sometimes feel as if you are walking in circles because there is no direct path to the center.  Sometimes it also feels as if you have come to a dead-end on the path, but there are no dead-ends because each ending always opens to a different path until ultimately you arrive at the center. Walking on a labyrinth provides a  wonderful, visceral experience of the direction of any “way” of wisdom.

While I find myself very attracted to walking a labyrinth, I haven’t done so in quite some time because I haven’t been able to find any labyrinths out here where we now live. But something happened a few days ago that changed all that.   

I was out hiking in the wilderness area just outside our house, walking along a very familiar and well-worn trail, when suddenly I noticed a tiny, little, almost-invisible path veering off the trail and so I decided to follow it to see where it may lead. To my great surprise it led me to a wonderfully constructed, very elaborate labyrinth designed out of rocks and stones in a wide open space on the desert floor just outside our house. I had passed by that area hundreds of times while hiking along the well-worn, familiar trail but I never before noticed the labyrinth. It was hidden in plain sight and in order to discover it I had to walk off-trail and follow a “road less traveled”  – what a wonderful and poignant spiritual lesson.

I am reminded of a little Zen-like saying I keep on my desk:

Everything you are looking for is already right here.
You are usually elsewhere.

This was the spiritual lesson I learned in my discovery of the labyrinth that I was looking for in my life out here. There was one in my own back yard but I didn’t expect it to be there and and my journey along the safe and all-too familiar path prevented me from seeing it.

As I see it, my labyrinth discovery is a lesson for any single one of us on any sort of spiritual  journey.  We all get up in the morning and expect the same old routine to repeat itself over and over again in day-after-ordinary-day as we walk along the beaten-path of our lives. Our minds are filled with our well-worn ideas and glib certainties about what we will find in the ordinary world in which we live; and yet, there is hidden treasure and extraordinary beauty just waiting to be discovered in the everyday places of life - at work at school in the market, at a restaurant, in Starbucks and in our own back yards. When we are willing to veer off the certitude of the beaten path, and with uncluttered minds and and open hearts pay attention to every present moment, it is amazing what wonderful surprises may come our way.

I have been back to the wilderness labyrinth several times now, in fact just yesterday my wife and I walked the labyrinth and as we did so we noted that we were the only one’s there.  We could see all sorts of people out walking on the designated trails but no one paid any attention to the hidden treasure of that labyrinth hiding in plain sight. Now that I know it’s there it’s way easier to find and my guess is that the labyrinth will now become an important tool in my spiritual practice.

I am reminded of a line from a Robert Frost poem:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Taking that less traveled path does indeed make all the difference, all the difference in the world.