Friday, May 26, 2017

The Breath of God

"Holy Wind"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Out here in the desert we rarely get any rain at this time of the year; however, this is a season when the setting of the sun ushers in strong winds the blow throughout the mountain canyons and onto the desert floor. Last evening, I sat outside just as the sun was disappearing behind the western mountains and the winds were so gusty that I thought I would have to come inside. Instead, I planted myself firmly on the ground and deeply breathed into the powerful beauty of those mighty winds.

As I took those deep breaths I was reminded that the ancient Navajo word for breath is holy wind. A more careful rendering of this definition is: The wind of creation that pervades the cosmos. In a very real sense those ancient people understood “God” to be the wind that blows and the air we breathe.

Nowadays, when many people use the word “God” they think of a “man” who lives up in some distant place - a king, a judge, a heavenly father; but if you examine the images “God” in many of the ancient scriptures and teachings throughout most world religions,  “God” is often referred to as The Wind that Blows, The Air We Breathe.  

In the Christian tradition, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared among his disciples as a Holy Spirit, depicted as a powerful wind blowing through the room where the disciples were gathered together and, to this very day, many Christian hymns reflect this scene by referring to the Holy Spirit as the Breath of God. Similarly, in the Hebrew tradition, “God” is often referred to as Ruah: a breath of air, a holy wind, sometimes blowing mightily, sometimes gently whispering. And of course, 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.

A while back our local NPR station featured a Ted Talk that has continued to stick 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.

In one particular segment of the program, a biologist talked about the air we breathe:

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

Last evening as I breathed in and breathed out while those powerful winds blew through the desert, I realized that 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 is and ever yet will be. Imagine that: “God” is as intimate to us 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.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Making a Big Difference

"Simply Beautiful"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

It’s “Graduation Season” in America as students across the country assemble on football fields and civic centers, don their caps and gowns and prepare to move on to the next phase of their lives.

I just finished reading a newspaper article that featured excerpts from various commencement addresses given by several prominent speakers over the past few weeks.  Interestingly enough, for the most part, most of the speeches all contained the same basic message.  The eager audience of college grads were told that now it was their turn to go out and “make a big difference” in a world that was waiting for them.

It strikes me that this may not be very helpful thing to say, in fact, this may even be some dangerous advice to give to the Class of 2017.

While in school, many people have grandiose visions about what they might do after they graduate - perhaps they will find a cure for cancer or land the CEO job in the big corporation?  But, of course, for the most part this isn’t what happens. Regardless of how much education someone has, for most of us life is fairly mundane and ordinary.

Unfortunately because we dream about making that “big difference” in the world, the ordinariness of the everyday routine is often quite disappointing and “boredom” can quickly take over; yet, it is precisely in the living of our ordinary, everyday lives that each and every one of us can indeed make a big difference in the world.

I am reminded of a New York Times Op-ed piece written by the columnist, David Brooks, who reported on a recent survey in which people were asked to describe how they found meaning and purpose in their lives. Many said that after they finished school and went about the everyday business of routine living, they discovered that it was the “small stuff” in life that really made the big difference. Many said that they they ultimately found meaning and purpose in life by pursuing “a small, happy life.”

In his column, Mr. Brooks observed:

there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances
that, if explored, provide meaning in life –
everyday chances to be generous and kind.
Spiritual and emotional growth happens in microscopic increments.

The big decisions we make
turn out to have much less impact on life as a whole
than the myriad of small, seemingly insignificant ones.

My guess is that many of the graduating students in the Class of 2017 may think that their lives will not matter all that much unless they can find their way to the top of the ladder of success,  perform open-heart surgery, sit in the corner executive office or preside from the bench of the court. But as I see it, a mom who packs her child’s lunch and sends him off with a smile or an employee who offers an encouraging word to a fellow worker may be making a very big difference in a world that is often loveless and unkind.  

When we give up our need to be perfect and to be better than others, when we surrender our need for greater power and more control, when we let go of our grandiose ideas about what we will accomplish in the world and simply make ourselves available to the experiences of life in service to one another, we are then ready for tranquility to seep into our souls and here we find that peace that surpasses all understanding.

Monday, May 22, 2017

I Honor You

- in my meditation garden -

Over this past weekend I had the great privilege of officiating at the wedding of a wonderful young couple who are friends of mine. The entire ceremony was exceptionally touching and I was moved to tears when the bride and groom looked at one another while exchanging wedding rings, saying:

With all that I am and all that I have,
I honor you

I’ve been thinking about why that one simple phrase was so very striking to me and realized that I was probably so moved by it because I rarely if ever hear people say words like that to one another nowadays, to say “I honor” you is about as counter-cultural as you can get in our contemporary society.

I listen to the news, browse the social media or hear conversations in restaurants and stores and I hear plenty of people telling others how much they dishonor or disdain them. I hear people mocking others, judging, condemning and attacking. I can barely connect to the internet before drowning in a sea of hate speech. So, to hear the words “I honor you” was so refreshingly beautiful as to move me to tears.

The other thing that struck me about that one little phrase was the use of the word “all” as the bride and groom gave each other rings and pledged to “honor” one another with all they are and all they have.

I suppose that, from time to time, many of us may show respect or express affection for others but so often this respect is very “conditional.”  Many people will say kind words or do good things for others if they feel the other has “earned” their respect. People also “honor”” others because they think that they will eventually be able to “cash-in” on their good deeds or kind words. They do good for another with the prospect that the other will eventually return the favor, they are kind to others because this is a good way to “network” in the ongoing struggle up the proverbial ladder of success. 

But that’s not what I heard at that beautiful wedding the other day when the bride and groom pledged that they would honor one another all the time, without counting the cost - in good times and in bad, in success and failure, when the other person seemed worthy of honor and respect and even when the other person seemed unworthy.

As I see it, “honoring one another always,” may indeed be a key spiritual discipline not only to be practiced by a bride and groom but by any one of us on any sort of spiritual path. Imagine what our world might look like if we might all be guided by the principle of honoring one another with all we are and all we have, all the time - honoring those we like and respecting those with whom we disagree, honoring our spouses, children and friends and also honoring foreigners, enemies and those who do us wrong, honoring the rich and famous and honoring the poor and defenseless?

In one of his epistles, Saint Paul writes to a newly emerging church and admonishes them for judging and competing with one another. He tells them that on a spiritual path, there is only way way to win the prize:

Love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.

What a radically counter-cultural concept” - the person who honors others the most is the “big winner” in life.