Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Discipline of Disagreeing

"Sunshine and Shadows"

A few nights ago I watched a TV news report about the current controversy over the patriotism of NFL players who refuse to stand during the national anthem at football games. The TV story focused on a group of fans “protesting” outside the stadium. On one side, the protesters were denouncing players who would not stand and on the other side, the protesters were defending those players who “took a knee” during the anthem. I actually found the images of this protest to be frightening and also emblematic. It wasn’t frightening because these people disagreed with one another, the scary part of it was how they disagreed.

As they stood outside the stadium people on opposing sides were stridently shouting each other down.  One person in particular was screaming, “I hate you, I really hate you” and someone on the opposing side responded by yelling back, “you are disgusting.” It struck me that these people on the different sides didn’t  know one another, they had never even met or had any  conversations with one another and yet they were able to tell each other how much they hated the other or how disgusting they were.

Unfortunately, I think this incident is probably quite iconic of our common life in a society that is so divided nowadays. We live in an age of clearly delineated “identity politics.” Many if not most of us has “sided” with similar others and locked ourselves inside a camp of fortified walls. Of course each separate camp is absolutely sure that they are right and the “other side” is wrong and so when we disagree over matters like patriotism or race or politics or religion we are sure that someone from a different camp must be “wrong” or perhaps even “evil.” For this reason, we can hate another or think someone from the other side is disgusting without ever having met them or talked with them or before we really know what another person actually thinks.

A few days ago I came across a very helpful article in the New York Times, suggesting that, if our culture is to survive into the future, we need to learn how to disagree with one another. Of course we live in a culture in which people will inevitably hold opposing ideas and opposing ideologies (after all that’s what living a democratic society is supposed to be all about); and yet, there is an “art” of healthy disagreement, an art we seem to have lost in this era of identity politics. The Times article offered this insight:

Disagreements should arise not from misunderstanding
but from perfect comprehension;
from having thoroughly chewed over the idea of your opponent.
In other words, to disagree you must first understand well.
You must listen carefully to the other
and be wiling to grant an adversary moral respect,
even allowing for the possibility that
you may even be persuaded by what the other person has to say.

I think of the many times I have observed “disagreements” aired in a wide variety of social media platforms where “disagreements” almost always take the form of “personal attacks,” sometimes vicious and degrading personal attacks leveled against others on the “opposing side.” I almost never hear people actually “listening” to what someone else might be saying, sure that they know what opponents think even before they speak. So, I am seriously convinced that we would all do well to learn how to disagree with one another with an open heart and an open mind.

As I think about it, “disagreeing” can be a necessary discipline to be practiced on any type of spiritual journey. Almost every spiritual path promotes and prizes the “dignity” of every human being. If we disagree with one another while yet respecting and promoting each other’s dignity, we are on the path of truth.

I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite Rumi poems:

Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field,
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Work-Week Spirituality

"An Ordinary Day"
-At the Desert Retreat House- 

When I woke up this morning I caught myself lamenting over the fact that it was already Monday and so the weekend was over. The thought struck me that I probably wasn’t the only person singing the “Monday Morning Blues” today.

I am reminded of something I came across a while ago in one of my Buddhist magazines:

People who work from Monday to Friday
often think that they have to wait
until the weekend to be happy.
After five days of suffering through work
they try to make up for it with two days of being happy.
What kind of life is that?

I know plenty of people who pretty much hate their jobs and so they dread the beginning of a work-week and even people who like the work they do often “just can’t wait” for the weekend to come along. Many people work almost incessantly during the week, from early morning until 8 in the evening and sometimes later than that, and then when they get home there are the texts and emails that still need to be answered. Even if you aren’t getting up to go to work or to school, many people may still find Monday somewhat depressing because it signals a time for getting back into the everyday, ordinary routine.

My guess is that lots of people live their everyday lives stuck in the rut of relative boredom and so they set their gaze upon some future prize - a weekend, a vacation, an upcoming holiday or party. Unfortunately, when that longed-for future event finally arrives, when the future becomes the present, many times it is a disappointment, just another opportunity for “looking forward to” something better to happen in the days ahead.

The problem with the always “looking forward mentality” is that it often robs us of the opportunity to experience the wonder of each present moment.

I am reminded of a great Zen story about a group of young novice monks in a Buddhist monastery who were really looking forward to the visit of a very famous teacher who was scheduled to come and live among them as a mentor and teacher for a week or so.

The monks had eagerly awaited the master-teacher and they had been preparing for his visit for many weeks; but when the day finally came for the teacher’s arrival, the monks were severely disappointed because he never showed up. In fact, they waited all week long and the teacher still never arrived, and the longer they waited for him the more frustrated and angry the young monks became, deprived of a great opportunity to be taught by such a renowned master.

Eventually, after a week or so, the old master finally showed up at the monastery. The younger monks angrily lashed out at him, didn’t he realize he was supposed to spend the week with them as their teacher? When they asked him where he had been, the old master simply smiled and said:

First I went following the fragrant grasses.
Now I return chasing falling leaves.

In point of fact, even though he wasn’t with them during the week, the master had indeed been teaching the novice monks. He was teaching them a lesson about enjoying what the present moment has to offer. He was helping them to face the demon of “always looking forward to something better yet to come.”

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Merton wrote this in his journal:

Finally, I am coming to the conclusion that
my highest ambition in my life
is to be what I already am.

Maybe this is exactly what Monday morning teaches me as I begin again to attend to the ordinariness of my daily routine. I am called to practice a “work-week spirituality,” called to be what I already am.   

Friday, September 22, 2017


- At the Desert Retreat House -

Some people may think that we don’t have any change of seasons in Southern California (especially here in the desert); and while the leaves don’t change colors and snow never flies, it’s not perpetually summer out here and the seasons most definitely change. 

Yesterday afternoon, great gusts of wind roared through the desert canyon where we live and I went outdoors to take it all in. I could feel that “change” was in the air.  It was as if the world of nature was looking at the calendar and, “right on schedule, it was ushering in a brand new season.  

After the stifling triple-digit heat of this past summer months (which kept me indoors much of the time), I went outside this morning and discovered that air was delightfully cool and even crisp. The position of the rising sun, the colors in the sky, the fresh smell of the morning were all signs that told me Autumn had indeed arrived.

This morning as I sat outside to greet the dawn, I thought about “changes in the air” and I  experienced the very familiar feeling that I often get when I become aware of change in my life -  a strange and wonderful mixture of trepidation coupled with a sense of adventure.

It’s certainly much easier to stay within the comfort zone of our lives and so when we feel as if we are being pushed or pulled out of the “zone,” most of us tend to get a bit nervous.  We all develop our routines in life, the routines of work and school, shopping, eating, going to the gym,  and our routines can be good because they offer us a sense of stability in the chaos of everyday living. On the other hand, our routines can quickly turn into ruts and rob us of all the new and fresh possibilities life offers us each and every day. This is true for everyday living and perhaps even more true for the spiritual journey.

It seems to me that, for the most part, “all the magic” of life almost always happens outside the narrow confines of our comfort zone.

I am reminded of something Buddhist teacher and nun, Pema Chodron, once said:

To be fully alive, fully human and completely aware
is to be continually thrown out of the nest.
To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land,
to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.

This new Fall season reminds me once again that everything and everyone is impermanent, a constant process of change, always becoming something else. If I am to be fully alive and completely aware, I must approach each day with an uncluttered mind and an open heart awaiting all those new possibilities that will be manifested to me even in the most ordinary routines of everyday life.

Author and teacher, Alan Watts, once said:

The only way to make sense out of change
is to plunge into it,
move with it and join the dance.

It’s a new day and a new season, time for “all the magic” to happen.

Shall we dance?