Monday, July 31, 2017

Communion With All that Exists

"Sitting on Level Ground"
- in my meditation garden -

My wife and I were having lunch in a local restaurant yesterday when a large group of people came in and sat at a long table that extended the length of the entire restaurant. We learned that this group often comes to lunch at that restaurant after attending a Sunday Morning Service at their church; yet, what was especially striking to me was not how large, but how incredibly diverse the group was. Sitting together at that one table were black, brown and white people, there were babes-in-arms as well as some elderly folks with walkers. Some people in the group were wearing designer clothes and others were dressed in old jeans. No one sat at the head of the table and there were no assigned seats - everyone sat at a place of equal dignity, visibly enjoying each other’s company.

My wife and I both remarked at how uplifting it was to see that display of beautiful diversity. We also remarked at how unusual it was to see such a display in everyday life.

In this desert valley where we live, I can drive a few short miles away from my house and pass by a gated community with million dollar mansions and lushly tended gardens and a few more miles beyond that, I can drive by migrant camps populated by farms workers who pick local crops and live in dilapidated shanties. It is always such a vivid reminder of the “have” and “have-nots” in our society.

The more I think about it, I suspect that many of those who “have” believe that they deserve more than those who “have-not.” Citizens feel they are entitled to “more” than immigrants or foreigners, rich people generally feel entitled to “more” in life than poor people, educated people feel they deserve “more” than those who never went to college. Many white people feel as if they deserve more than black or brown people, and lots of men believe they are entitled to “more” than women.

I suppose that this is why I was so struck yesterday by that long table with all those different people siting together at a place of equal respect. It was so counter–cultural and it was, for me, an icon of what spiritual-well being is all about.

When I examine some of the core wisdom of most of the major world religions, the idea that some people are better than others and deserve more than others is always seen as a toxin in the spiritual life. Jesus core message promoted the dignity of every human being. He taught that we all stand on level ground, we all sit at a place of equal respect at the table of life and no one deserves more than anyone else. Likewise, the Buddha taught his disciples to offer open-hearted respect to everyone and everything that has being and he warned his followers that craving for more and better is a poison for the soul. He said:

From craving is born grief.
From craving is born fear.

I am reminded of something I came across written by a retired Jesuit priest who wonderfully articulated the core of what it means to be a fully-alive human being:

We need conversion from the prevailing consciousness
that views reality in terms of separateness and hierarchy.
We need to end the worldview that structures reality
into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate
We human beings cannot be fully ourselves
without being in communion with all that exists.

When it comes to the banquet of life, there is no head table, we are all sitting together at a place of equal dignity and we will never find greater wisdom or a deeper peace until we can all live everyday lives that model and foster this reality.

As I think about it, I suppose I was so moved by the sight of those different people eating together at that one, long table yesterday because I was looking into the face of what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” I was looking at a picture of what it is like to be “fully ourselves.”  

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Spirituality of Doing Nothing

- At the Desert Retreat House -

In the middle of this busy vacation season, an article in the “travel section” of the New York Times offered some advice about how to best prepare for a summer vacation.  When I first saw the article, I was expecting to find various “tips” about how to pack a suitcase or perhaps how to find the best hotels; instead the article suggested that if you really want to enjoy your time away this summer, you need to prepare for it by practicing how to do nothing.

While it may seem odd, this advice actually made a great deal of sense to me. Most people nowadays have a very hard time “doing nothing,” especially when they are on vacation. I know plenty of people who come back from their vacations more stressed and tired than before they went. They return home feeling a need for a “vacation from the vacation.”  \

As I think about it, I remember many family vacations in my own life which were anything but restful. Every morning was devoted to busily planning each day’s events so that we could “get in” as many activities as possible. Then, of course, there was the constant activity of moving around from place to place – always “on the go.”  Even when we may have “done nothing” but sit on a beach for a day, I would often be thinking about work I had left behind or planning for events I would be facing when we got home; so, when I was “doing nothing” I was still “doing something.”

This is why that article about preparing for a vacation made such sense to me.  Before going away on a vacation you have to learn what “doing nothing” is all about and then spend some time practicing it.

The article suggested:

Letting go is something you have to practice on a daily basis.
This entails being deliberate, at some point in each day,
about shifting out of the work mode and keeping the eternal to-do list at bay.
Maybe you can turn off your devices for an hour or two, or
take a walk or sit at your desk and close your eyes for 10 minutes,
or practice some kind of meditation to slow the mind.

As I think about it, the practice of “doing nothing” is not only helpful for planning a vacation but may also be very helpful on a spiritual journey. Many people approach their spiritual life with a long “to do” list in hand, lots of “stuff” that they need to “get in” – going to church, saying all the right prayers, spiritual reading, engaging in a daily meditation time with all the proper breathing techniques. On a spiritual path, many people find that they must always be “doing something,” and when that happens it’s pretty hard to sit in the moment with an uncluttered mind and “take in” all the revelations the moment has to offer.

I am reminded of an article from a Buddhist magazine written by a Zen monk who talked about the Zen spiritual practice of “sitting and staring.”  In this practice you find a quiet place, clear the mind, and you do nothing, you just “sit and stare” - no prayers, no meditation techniques, no requited reading.

In the article the monk observed:

Lots of folks may think that they have better things to do
and better things to think about
rather than doing nothing.
But when I “sit and stare”
I am paying attention to my life
and when I do that I always discover something truly wonderful.
Our regular ordinary lives are incredibly joyful-
amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly joyful.

It seems to me that this summer vacation season is a really good time to more carefully develop a “spirituality of doing nothing.”  Maybe summertime is a good season to learn how to “sit and stare.”

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Praying for Favors

- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I was in church this past Sunday and during the course of the service the congregation was invited to “place their petitions before Almighty God.” Prayers were subsequently offered for the sick and suffering, for this nation and the world, for leaders and those who hold authority over others.

Last Sunday, as these prayers were “voiced” I wondered what it was that people thought they were doing? Were they “praying for favors,” submitting petitions to a distant “Almighty King” capable of either granting or denying the requests? My guess is that this is precisely what many people thought was going on as they “placed their petitions before Almighty God;” but I must say that I was totally unable to identify with this image.

I never imagine “God” to be a distant king who sits on a heavenly throne looking down at lowly subjects as they come begging for favors. Instead, I imagine “God” as an all-abiding, intimate Presence at the heart of everyone and everything that “is.”

I also have another problem with “petitioning God” with prayer requests. In my experience, when people make their divine requests they are often hurt and even angry if “God” doesn’t answer them favorably. They wonder why God ignored or denied their petition?  Did they do something wrong, are they being punished?

On the other hand, as I listened to all those offered prayers last Sunday, I also realized that I didn’t want the prayers to stop because I do believe that praying is important and it makes a difference. I just redefine what praying means.

Priest and author, Richard Rohr, has some wise insight about “how” pray works and “why” praying has effects. Rohr suggests that when we move away from an image of God as a distant, controlling power and redefine God as the abiding energy in whom everything and everyone is interconnected, the whole idea of “prayer” takes on a whole new perspective. Rohr further suggests that the discoveries of today’s new scientists who talk about the principle of quantum entanglement may help us get a better idea of what “prayer” does.

All reality is nonlocal, in other words
things can affect one another
despite distances or time space coordinates.
Nature is not composed of material substances
but deeply entangled fields of energy.
The nature of the universe is undivided wholeness.

When we pray for one another, the prayer “disturbs” the entangled field of energy (like throwing a little pebble into a pond as the ripples spread throughout the entire body of water.) “God” is the energy of Universal Love in whom we are all connected. Our prayer is a pebble thrown into that “field” of love.

So yes, I do think we can and should pray for one another and I also believe that our prayers have effects. They stir up the energy, they make a difference and you can be an agnostic and maybe even an atheist and still "pray" for others when you think of prayer in this way.

The ecologist John Muir once said:

Pull on anything at all and
you will find it connected to everything else in the universe.