Friday, July 27, 2018

What Do I Really Know?


“I want to know all God’s thoughts; all the rest are just details.” Albert Einstein

People have been telling me what to think all my life. Starting from the moment of my birth, and continuing throughout my long life, voices of “instruction” have been aimed my way. Much of it has been well-intended: to keep me safe; to inform and strengthen my decision-making; to open me to new experiences; to inform me of what has been and what now is; to give me the skills to provide for my own existence. Yet some of it was not so well-intended: to keep me within societal norms; to keep any of my differing thoughts safely at bay; to fulfill others’ needs of me for their own benefit. Yet all was given “for my own good.”

My teachers came in varying forms. Parents explaining the world; older siblings passing on their learnings; school teachers offering static facts across a variety of subject areas; employers dictating what will be produced, and when and how; religious figures defining a specific moral code, reinforced by an unseeable – and therefore unquestionable –greater authority. And so on.

It is a structure well-honed over millennia. The process starts at birth, delivered by authoritative figures. The instruction, and our passive acceptance of it, is ingrained in us before skeptical resistance in this education has a chance to develop. We go along with it because it is the accepted process for living, the way to get along with an often seemingly hostile environment. Besides, there are times when we need information, and proactively seek it out.

The problem is that, while we are continually taught what to think, we are rarely taught HOW to think – i.e. “critical thinking” that challenges accepted beliefs. Complex issues are thereby reduced to incomplete simplifications. Our teachers rarely confess that what they are teaching us is predominately limited to what they had been previously taught – information passed down generationally over time. Even as broader information has continually been made more accessible over the centuries, we remain far too unaware of divergent opinions and experiences that offer alternative ideas to our set learnings. It is too often easier to settle into any available handy truth rather than making the effort to know many expanded Truths and their nuances.

Over time, the lessons embed themselves deeply within us, familiar friends to console our minds as we encounter a bewildering array of questions and challenges every day. We hang on to the lessons tightly, while the source of them fades from memory. The teacher’s lesson morphs into OUR lesson, rather than beliefs reflecting our own discovery of them. Until one day we open our internal ear to hear that quiet voice inside that asks us, “Really? Is that what YOU truly believe? How do you know it to be true, rather than assuming it to be so? Whose thought are you really thinking here?”

The world has much to teach us. Indeed, learning is the principal reason we are here as human beings in the first place. It is easy and comforting to hang our truth on a readily accessible hook. But real Truth is revealed against a backdrop of genuine personal thought. Thought that starts with no preconceptions, and proves itself in the outcomes we see in our own personal experience. Whether or not we may have been encouraged to “think for our Self,” we will find very little Truth without deep introspection. How many once rock-solid scientific, societal, and religious Truths have ultimately fallen by the wayside over time?

We strive to live an ethical life guided by deeply seeded principles, while also pursuing a continual quest to refine and expand those principles. Ultimately, we come to realize that what we know, we know only in this moment. We come to know that our knowing is only temporary; there is always more to learn about all things. We come to know that much of what we know we have borrowed from others – memorized, not discovered. We come to know that what we truly know for our Self is dependent upon how much time we spend in the pursuit and endeavor of discovering our true ideas. What do we truly know – and believe – for ourselves? We know we do not yet know. We pursue answers continually fueled by our curiosity. In that pursuit, we find joy in our unknowing.

“Let your … beliefs come from your traditions, family, ancestors, opinions, writings, reasoning, or a captivating spiritual teacher. All of these can help inform you. But when you see all of these things in action, and you see good results flowing from them, such that in your own heart you know directly that these things are good – only then should you adopt such teachings as your own.”
“Lesson from the Teacher Buddha,” #35, by Randy Bell

©   2018   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Logical Trail To Untruth


When I was a high school senior a few eons ago, I needed to select a science course for my schedule. Biology and physiology were never my thing (then or now); dissecting a frog held minimal attraction for furthering my education. However, I did enjoy chemistry, and was good with math. So I opted for pre-engineering physics, taught by retired athletic coach John Thompson.

Our pre-engineering physics course was built upon posing a problem statement which was then to be “solved” by applying applicable laws of physics combined with deductive (“logical”) reasoning. Work through the step-by-step path, one statement at a time, and it will necessarily lead you to the right answer. For each such problem I was given, I would dutifully walk through the logic trail, confident in my disciplined thinking, and thereby ultimately arrived at the answer. Except that as often or not, it would not be the “right” answer – i.e. Coach Thompson’s answer. Even though my steps were impeccably logical on their face, I would nevertheless often wind up on my own island of reasoning, waving to my classmates faintly visible on Coach Thompson’s distant shores.

What happened to my navigational compass? I finally determined that my “errors” were not in my application of logical thinking, a process that orderly connects one thought to the next in a controlled and disciplined manner. Rather, the problem would inevitably be in the scope of my inputs. I would fail to include the consideration of some causal or relevant factor, or would not include all of the physics laws that were applicable to the problem. Yet working with what was within my scope of view, my conclusion – my answer – was in/of itself perfectly “correct.”

In the immediacy of that high school moment, my primary focus became doing what I needed to do to pass the course. Thanks to the good graces of Coach Thompson, I did manage to get enough right answers a sufficient number of times to get a “B” grade. Unsurprisingly, I did not grow up to be a physicist or an engineer.

It was only years later that I realized the larger significance – and lesson – of this experience. In the comfort of logical conclusion, our personal fear is reduced; our desired surety of the future is similarly assured. Yet there truly is something called “false logic,” which on its face sounds like a contradiction of terms. If we choose to, and especially if we (knowingly or unknowingly) actually have a pre-determined conclusion of where we wish to arrive, we can most certainly create a sensible, logical, beautiful, seemingly inarguable, and elegantly constructed rationale to get us there. We can control that journey simply by limiting the scope of the input factors we select to consider in plotting our journey of thinking. They may be inputs we are aware of but simply deprioritize or turn a blind eye to. Or we may limit our inputs to our existing personal experiences and accumulated beliefs; we make no genuine effort to challenge those beliefs or to gain wider experiences and new information about the subject matter. But by such limiting, we leave ourselves open to arriving at the very false truth we were seeking to avoid in the first place.

By instinct we are prone to be “lazy thinkers,” content in remaining in our own truths and continually utilizing our skills to reaffirm what we already believe. “Logical thinking” is highly prized in Western culture, both for our own decision-making and for judging the decisions of others. But it will only lead us safely through the thickets of the mind if we do our proper homework, do the advance reconnoitering of the breadth of the territory we intend to pass through. It demands that we first search out and accumulate broad and varying information before we map out our step-by-step path to conclusion. And then to hold that conclusion very lightly and skeptically, understanding all too well the potential shortcomings and fallacies that often underlie our supposedly logical reasoning.

Then there are those delicious times when we choose to rest our mind and put it temporarily on the shelf. We discard the logical path altogether because we sense it is not the best path for us after all. The call to the illogical path may not feel the safest and surest, but it can oftentimes be the most interesting, most creative, most instructive one to follow. Those are the times that intuition, our inner voice, and our wisdom sense of “just knowing” jumps us over the logic trail altogether, and forcibly pushes us into that place we simply need to be.

“Don’t believe everything you think.”
-Pema Chödrön, Tibetan Buddhist teacher

©   2018   Randy Bell             www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com


Monday, March 12, 2018

What I Can Do


“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can still do some things.
Just because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
—Edward Everett Hale, UUC minister

There are many times on our life when we feel overwhelmed. Sometimes it is when difficult things happen to us directly, and we know not why nor how to extricate ourselves from their power. Other times it is when we look at our surrounding environment, and feel powerlessly unable to make a difference. We may see so much that is wrong, so much that is in opposition to our values, and is destructive to that which we hold dear. We wonder, what can I do? What difference can I make? In a world of seven billion people, our individual self is a pitifully-sized army. How does one move a mountain when one can only lift a small stone?

We start by questioning our own view. Is that which we are protesting against, or advocating for, truly what we believe? If so, is that truly in our best interest, versus just being stuck in our old unquestioned thinking? Not all that looks “bad” is bad; not all that looks “good” is good. If we get clarity and pass that first step, our next question is, is it right for all others in all circumstances at all times? We are not they; their life is not our life. Is life a competition of winners versus sinners, or is life a cooperation of companionships walking in and out of our life?

Assuming we make it past this self-discussion, what do we do, if anything? Is doing “something” worthwhile, is it worth the perhaps seemingly futile effort? The answer is almost always “Yes” – IF our efforts are truly for the greater good toward others rather than just a cover story for our personal good. It is a Yes that begs for realistic perspective, which thereby obligates us to position ourselves properly and humbly.

“How can I help?”

Ram Dass, Buddhist teacher

Human beings are an impatient species. We are truly in a hurry to reach an endpoint and “change the world” from our own efforts. Action taken; objective accomplished; off to the next righteous goal. Yet the reality is that, in the larger scheme of things, we can each alone do very little on our own in this one lifetime. Lasting societal change and improvement in our human interactions take many lifetimes to accomplish. That is why human history teaches us that much of today is yesterday, and it has been this way throughout the human story. Only the dates, places and faces are changed.

Yet in other ways, things are different for more times, in more places, for more people. The march of civilization is a long march, but it is always moving forward, even if it is in a slow-time cadence with many left turns and temporary “about faces” along the way. In the larger course of time, our life is barely one half-step in that long cadence.

Our life can seem as of supreme importance; our lifetime a vast expanse of time. Yet our life is a speck in the mosaic of human history, a blip in God’s hourglass and calendar. So do we do nothing, out of despair that we cannot do it all? No, we simply acknowledge that we are that one slow cadence step, one more link in that necessary chain that drags human civilization along to its next milestone. We find our little spot in this landscape. We plant our seed to be grown there. Someone else may have to come along in a subsequent lifetime to water and fertilize our planting. A further somebody else may get to enjoy the forest that comes forth from our seedling. Some will find their place illuminated in the spotlight; most will toil in quiet anonymity. Understanding the inherent limits to our outcomes will keep all humble, but not prevent our making the effort.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees
whose shade they know they will never sit in.”

Greek Proverb

We place just one brick onto that rising cathedral that humanity is building. We place just one stone in the footpath to the future. It truly is about the journey, not the arrival. Our entire life is but one step in humankind’s journey – importantly unimportant and significantly insignificant. With these understandings, we give what we can, where we can, when we can. In that, we find peace and comfort. It is in the giving itself, from a pure intention, that we achieve. Just as the Universe intended.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Talmud

©   2018   Randy Bell             www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Change Others, Change Us


“God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”  Qur’an, 13:11

We spend a good deal of our time and energy trying to make an impact on our surroundings. Perhaps it is even more so in these days that seem so difficult to find our proper place in the world, a sense of alignment with our values and our aspirations and our beliefs, and our connection with a Power greater than ourselves. We may seek to make our impact in our role as a parent responsible for a growing child. Or as a career person responsible for the well-being of our colleagues, or the quality of products and services delivered to customers. Or as an aid or charity worker bringing assistance to human beings, creatures of nature, or to our physical environment. Or as an educator or spiritual teacher bringing knowledge or opening creativity to growing minds and hearts and souls. Or as an activist seeking justice in the rules and mechanisms of our society and governments in the face of conflicting views about what that justice should look like.

Unquestionably, there is much suffering that exists in the world today. The degree of suffering varies widely across the globe and across social groupings. It ranges from desperation for basic food and shelter and clean water lost in wars, to the never-satiated pursuit of extreme wealth to accumulate more “things” for their own sake.

In our efforts to make an impact of some kind in some sphere of endeavor, our view is typically outward. “They” must be supported; “they” must be changed; “they” must be reeducated; “they” must be redirected. The “they” that we rarely see in our eyes is the “they” that is doing the seeing – that “they” in the mirror. We are so often blind to the most significant “they” that there is: ourselves. Significant not because of our supposed importance, but because it is the one place where we are capable of making the biggest impact of all – and likely one of the places that needs our foremost attention. Yet it is also the place where we erroneously convince ourselves that there is the least need.

How many of our beliefs are not truly our own, but have been simply copied from others over time, without proper questioning? How limited has been our life experiences in the context of all the cultures and adventures that exist within the world? How narrow is our perspective in light of over seven billion people and 200+ nations across the globe? How much of what we believe is because mom / dad / our community or a strong role model / mentor said it was so, versus what we have seen and experienced directly? When we can come to accept that our reality is not all of reality, it opens the door for us to make one of the biggest impacts of all – transmuting our limited self to our expansive Self where true insight and happiness await.

This is not to say that our efforts to impact the world are not worthwhile or appropriate. Quite the contrary. We should certainly continue to contribute positively what we can for our companion human beings, for our community, and to the lives and fulfillment of our neighbors. But such happens best if we have first brought the honest and needed change to ourselves that is calling us. For it is in living a life exemplifying change that ultimately has the real potential to bring change in “they.” Before we attempt to clean the houses of others, we should be sure that we have first tended to the cleaning of our own house as well. Have we the courage to encounter and see ourselves for who we truly are?

©   2018   Randy Bell             www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Living Our Spiritual Choices


The New Year’s holiday is traditionally a time to pause and consider our Life’s journey. In my blog posting “Reflections and Resolutions” (1/13/2017), a set of questions was offered for reflecting on where we have arrived at this point in our life, and where we need to go next.

Similar questions can be considered in the pursuit of our spirituality. Each day we continually face choices. These choices provide us with opportunities to demonstrate whether our religious faith consists of simply re-verbalizing scriptural and pastoral words that we have been trained to speak, or reflect a genuine and substantive religious path. Perhaps we might ask ourselves:

·        Given the choice to be kind or cruel to another person, do we choose kindness – regardless of how that person chooses to treat us?

·        Given the choice to listen to or talk at another, do we choose to listen deeply to them regardless of our own story waiting to be told?

·        Given the choice to extend a helping hand to someone in need or to ignore them, do we choose to offer help regardless of any test of “worthiness?”

·        Given the choice to tell the truth or to lie, do we choose to tell the truth even as we find a way to avoid being unnecessarily hurtful?

·        Given the choice to let people live their life or to interfere and push them to live the life we would prefer for them, do we choose to extend to them the freedom to be who they truly are – as long as their life does not tangibly harm us or unduly thwart our own choices?

·        Given the choice to provide opportunities to others or to shut them out, do we choose to extend our achievements so as to also advance their aspirations?

·        Given the choice to share credit for our successes or claim credit solely from our own efforts, do we choose to acknowledge all those who helped us in our life travels in ways both large and small, directly and indirectly, known and unknown?

·        Given the choice to welcome strangers in our midst or to isolate them from our company, do we choose to extend hospitality to those who may find their way into our presence?

·        Given the choice to be cautious in our judgment of others or to judge them based upon our flimsy knowledge of their full story, do we choose to strive for compassion regarding their circumstances while acknowledging our own shortcomings?

·        Given the choices to love or to hate, to trust or be suspicious, to see what is before us or to be blind to it, to adapt to change or to resist it, which do we choose?

How we live our life and the actions we take, in concert with the lives of others, matter far more than what we say. Our choices may be difficult to effect given our particular circumstances, but they are likely clear in the conclusions we should reach. We are called to live our life well. Whether we do so or not is our choice.

©   2017   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Pastoring The Social Issues


Early in 2017, I was fortunate to share a long overdue cup of coffee with an old friend. She is a formally ordained minister, currently serving effectively in an institutional role rather than a congregational pastor role. Given our shared concerns about the future into which our country was heading, she posed the question, “What do you think should be the role of ministers in these difficult times? Many ministers are struggling with that question today.” I had no immediate answer, but promised I would give it some thought – not expecting that it would take a year to properly develop such thoughts!

I am not an ordained minister (although I do provide spiritual direction and counseling to individuals). Therefore I cannot reflect on her question from firsthand ministerial experience. Instead, my response must come from imagining the perspective of one who is a congregant looking for religious guidance in these difficult times. That necessarily divides the response into two settings.

Ministers not serving in a congregational role focus on the collective, and plead the case for general agreement on various religious positions. They argue the theology, adopt or change the canonical rules, advocate the policy positions, march in – if not lead – the demonstrations, and run the many support ministries and religious advocacy groups. In doing those activities, they demonstrate the qualities of respectful dialog and compassion for others of differing views. It is critical that they serve as role models for uncompromising ethical behavior, act consistently between their institutional agenda and their private lives, maintain civility in the interactions among all involved, while keeping a critical balance between their religious beliefs and their secular actions. They pastor by their actions.

Billy Graham, the “Pastor to the Presidents,” once confessed that letting his ego be stroked by succumbing to the aura of the presidency, getting overly involved in political activity, and thereby falling into the trap of thinking too much of himself, was one of his biggest mistakes as a minister. When the religious role morphs into a secular political one, the moral case for religious authority progressively collapses. Only a weak minister seeks to achieve through secular laws what s/he cannot achieve through moral persuasion. When that line is crossed, both the minister and the church ultimately lose.

Those ministers who serve a pastoral role with a congregation focus on helping the individual, without prejudice to where it may lead. Political and the social arguments are all around us, and these pastors can provide a safe and special place to help us find our way through the secular morass. Our governmental, social and spiritual issues are serious. They challenge each of us to determine how we are to act from an ethical, values, and character basis. These determinations need to be nurtured by our understanding of human history, by our personal experience, and by religious input. It is to contribute to this nurturing that a congregational pastor can be vitally important. But how should one minister in this situation? And what ministering does the congregant rightly expect?

The pastor’s role is not to be the script writer for a congregant’s life, answering directly the “what should I do” questions, telling him/her what to believe and what actions to take. There are already too many people telling each of us what to believe and do, adding to our individual confusion. For it is in the very struggle of trying to answer the political / social / religious questions that one’s spiritual growth occurs. Being simply told what to believe or do lets the congregant off the hook of responsibility for that learning process, thereby stunting his/her potential spiritual growth. Instead, it is about sitting with that person as s/he goes through the struggle for answers and decisions. Examining or interpreting the many options and conflicts in the scriptures. Working side-by-side through the differences of opinions and perspectives that exist. Reviewing the life examples of relevant and significant historical figures for clues to living one’s own life. From that, pastor and congregant then arrive together at some sort of conclusion. These functions emerge as the unique value and contribution of the pastoral minister. It is an unrelenting focus on the individual journey, wherever it may lead, whether done 1-on-1 or in a congregational setting.

What is important is that the congregational role and the institutional role remain quite distinct. Spouting institutional positions from the pulpit, and glossing over or not acknowledging the unspoken concerns of the congregant, is not helpful. It trivializes the congregant’s important struggle of trying to figure out “the right thing to do” amidst all the surrounding noise and confusion. Placing that congregant between the institutional position and their own deep sense of Self is neither religious leadership nor congregational compassion. Such strife inevitably leads to the situation of today where many individual churches and their members are in conflict among themselves as well as with their governing institutions. Being a minister is not an easy role to fulfill. Nor is navigating a personal path through these difficult times easy for the congregant.

©   2017   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot,com


Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Flower Garden Of Humanity

According to scientists who study these things, there are over 60,000 primary forms of vertebrate animals on earth, well over a million invertebrate animals, and over 300,000 plant forms. There are currently over seven billion human beings living on earth. These seven billion are commonly divided into four primary races, subdivided into around 30 racial subgroups, spread across more than 5000 ethnic groups, speaking 6909 recognized living languages (Scientific American).

While exact statistics on these classifications can vary from source to source and scientist to scientist, it is nevertheless unavoidable to conclude that the number of categories of earthly life can be staggeringly overwhelming. And that is before you get to the detailed level of the individual element in any category – e.g. seven billion unique human beings. In the midst of such numbers and unique individuality, it can be easy to ask: Why do all of these variations exist?

Is not one form of a cow sufficient to provide the milk and meat needed to feed our bodies? One form of bee to fulfill the need for pollination? One form of grain sufficient to provide us with the carbohydrates needed to fuel our body? We respond by saying NO, that all of our available variations in milk products, meats, fruits, honeys, and breads give us great pleasure in our lives. They open us to seemingly endless possibilities of tastes, experiences and memories. Pity those who never move beyond their childhood diet!

As it is with our sources of bodily support, so it is also with people. God created the conditions for these many ethnic groups and their distinct cultures, placed them into vastly different landscapes and climate conditions, gave them an indigenous diet and culture, and encouraged them to create their own spiritual interpretations and stories to explain it all. It was done precisely to illustrate the vast scope, forms and potentialities that make up all of Creation. By their very existence, these differing forms tell us that there is no one way, no single form, exclusive to any aspect of Life. Our individual “I’s” are not the standard model, but merely one example.

Each living thing has a particular functional role to perform within the organized structure of Creation. But each simultaneously shows us how many possible shapes, opportunities, and manifestations of a single idea can flow out of God’s imagination. I am a white male living a lifetime in America. My life reflects all of the structures and cultural experiences and geography that living in America confers on me. Yet with a simple flip of a Universe switch, I could just as easily be a female; a Tibetan, a German, a Peruvian, an Australian, a Japanese, or a Nigerian; or a very different product living somewhere else in America. My life experiences, and therefore my opinions and perspectives shaped by them, are unique only to me. But would I still be the same ME even if my appearance and circumstances were different? Does our outer form substantially change our inner being?

As humans, we live as distinct individual beings. Yet we are also a connected part of an inter-dependent whole across the planet. We are one individual, yet simultaneously part of one family of many members. We spend much of our time focused on our differences among each other, and those differences often frustrate if not frighten us. We protest, “Why can’t ‘they’ be like us in their thinking, actions, institutions, culture, religion?” Sometimes our protests even lead us to violence. God answers us: “Because you are not the whole world. ‘They’ exist to constantly remind you by their very presence that Creation is bigger than just you and your circumstances. You are only one example of Creation; they are examples of many other possibilities, any of which could have been you. Each is perfect in its own way, so embrace them all even in your differences. They are as much YOU as you are.”

As long as we see THEM as “other,” and reject them for their otherness, we reject the whole purpose of Creation. When we subsume ourselves to that great Creation, we do not lose ourselves as we may fear. Instead, we open ourselves to all the possibilities that exist for our own life, and see the scope and richness of beauty that is Creation. By recognizing our smallness, we fulfill our bigness. Our little piece of Life is miniscule, and that recognition allows us to see not differences, but options and “could have been’s” from which our life has been carved out. When we encounter “the Other,” our job is not to try to change them, deny them, ridicule them, see them as lesser to us. Our job is to see God’s creation in them: no better or worse than ourselves; just a different unique tree in the expansive human forest. In that forest, we embrace rather than reject; feel excitement rather than fear; see possibilities for ourselves rather than judgements.

Creation did not make us so different just for its amusement, or to make us fearful of each other, or to simply delight in driving us crazy. It was certainly not to create a competition among us for “who’s right.” Like all of creation, it was done with purpose. It was to show us all the “rights” that can exist in the world, how many potential paths of living are possible, and that they can all coexist side-by-side. Thereby, we are reminded that all we are, all we do, is just one piece of the Universe’s mosaic. Thereby, these differences require us to encounter choices and make decisions – our decisions – about which road out of the many we will follow. These options allow us to feel the joy of being a part of the overpowering palate that God has provided, within which our one life plays out. Seeing that breadth; living fully in harmony with it; subsuming our Self to this whole, while simultaneously finding fulfillment in our One Self. This is God’s daily gift, yet challenge, to us: to revel, celebrate and wonder at the vast scope of human possibilities.

In our home gardens, we intentionally plant a variety of flowers – different colors, sizes, shapes and species. They bloom at different times, require different care, complement and enhance each other’s presence side by side. It is a festival of nature at its best, illuminated in a bouquet of color. We love each plant on its own, yet enjoy a visual feast and satisfaction from the integrated totality of the garden. So it is with God: loving each created human for his/her individuality, yet receiving great joy in the blended aggregation of humanity. Can we not be as God and share fully – with overwhelming joy – in our geographic, racial, gender, cultural and social diversity?

©   2017   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com