Saturday, December 31, 2011

Seven Virtues of a Spiritual Life - Wisdom

There are, I believe, seven core virtues that we see in those who live a truly spiritual life: Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, Trust, and Wisdom.

The truly Spiritual Person is not defined by the clothes and accessories she may wear.  She is not proven by her quoting of spiritual texts.  The Spiritual Person is not qualified by the certificates on her wall or the number of workshop receipts in her desk drawer.  The truly Spiritual Person may look very different from others or live in a special enclosure; or she may look like everyone else, undistinguishable in appearance, living among us out of the spiritual spotlight.

Yet when we encounter a Spiritual Person, we somehow just know that we are in a special presence.  We sense in that person all of those spiritual virtues discussed previously - Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, and Trust.  But we sense them not as separate distinguishable qualities, but as somehow all blended together into a larger whole.  Each virtue interacts and melds with each other, informing and shaping and expanding, smoothing the edges and sharpening the content.  All so effortlessly, naturally, without effort, without pretense.  They are “just there” because they are all fully genuine.

In their sum, yet another virute emerges – Wisdom.  The Spiritual Person knows that ultimately it is in Wisdom that we most closely approach our godliness, and it is Wisdom that we are here on earth to develop.  Wisdom is not a “smart.”  It is a knowing derived from thoughts, moving to action, generating reflection, interpreting to learning, repeated in a continuous cycle in every moment.  Learning feeds the Seven Virtues of the Spiritual Person; the Seven Virtues nurture and give life to the Spiritual Person.

The Wisdom of the Spiritual Person is shared, not held jealously within.  This Wisdom is not loud, not pushed out to where it is not welcomed, not overbearing.  It is given when asked, a gift given freely and lovingly, selective to be exactly right for only this person in that particular moment.  Once given, it is turned loose, left to flower or wither in the recipient’s own spiritual soil as appropriate.

In the Spiritual Person, Wisdom is easily recognizable.  It speaks from a depth and breadth of experience and understanding; it is not shallow, superficial, cursory or flippant.  This Wisdom is consistent, oblivious to current time and fashionable circumstances, yet always thoughtfully growing, never completed.  This Wisdom is always mindful of its consequences and impact, spoken fully in this moment but drawn from a lifetime of continual learning.  This Wisdom is at the core of the truly Spiritual Person.

The Spiritual Person is potentially each of us.  We have only to listen to our Wisdom and let it grow in every moment, intertwined with all of the other Virtues.  We let these Virtues grow until they envelop our every thought, our every word, our every action, in every circumstance, inclusive towards all people.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Seven Virtues Of A Spiritual Life - Trust

There are, I believe, seven core virtues that we see in those who live a truly spiritual life: Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, Trust, and Wisdom.

Trust is a quality we apply to a variety of objects: people, including close family/friends, casual acquaintances, and unknown faces that nevertheless still impact our lives; institutions with whom we engage, some of our own choosing and some not; our near and tangible environment within which we live; and a more distant, intangible spirit which envelops all that enters our life.  Many of us can recite a substantial list of people and instances where we believe our trust was betrayed, our expectations of people or events were not met, perhaps resulting in our perspectives about life and how we would live it being significantly altered.

For the Spiritual Person, such a list of the “untrustworthy” is likely quite short.  For the Spiritual Person has learned that untrustworthiness is not really a measure of others; rather, it is a statement of the perspective we have of the people and things that surround us.  For the Spiritual Person, Trust is not about whether people have lived up to our expectations of them; it is about why we chose to put that expectation on them in the first place.

People are who they are; institutions are what they are; nature is what nature is; God is what Spirit is.  Yet we spend much time and effort seeing these objects as we would like them to be, not as they are.  We put undue trust in things without taking the time to understand the nature of what these things truly are, and therefore whether our expectations (trust) have been properly placed.  People are normally not untrustworthy.  In fact they rarely act outside of their true character.  It is we who did not have correct insight to understand what that character truly was so that we could put appropriate expectations upon them; to understand and trust that they will act exactly as they are conditioned to act, from their own sense of self, not the sense of our self.

So we build homes on island beaches, ignoring the reality of nature’s hurricanes.  We blindly put our trust in corporations who act out of their own profit interest instead of our service needs, or in church leaders who molest children or embezzle donations.  We tell secrets to a known gossip, or try to change a spouse to fit our needs.  We expect God to provide us with a right life, and then continually put ourselves in harm’s way, risky ventures, or destructive actions.  And then we deem people, institutions and God as untrustworthy for not delivering a life that they never promised, for not meeting our expectations that they did not agree to.

We create our expectations.  When we take the time to genuinely walk in another’s shoes, to understand that being or thing fully from the inside, then our Trust can be properly placed.  For the Spiritual Person, Trust is anchored in Truth, not fantasies.  This is not a cynical Truth, but a demand upon us to take responsibility for our expectations of others.  Only when our Trust is well-founded can we live positive lives that can embrace without fear all the things that come to us, rather than shutting down, withdrawing, or being stuck in our angers from our disappointments.  Through Trust, the Spiritual Person does not live in phobic anxiety about all the presumed dangers waiting to befall, but lives confidently and openly knowing that all that comes to us is right in that moment – a rightness perhaps not apparent except in retrospect.

As with most all things for the Spiritual Person, Trust begins and focuses inside.  Trust is not a tool to control, manage or rate others.  Trust is a tool for enlightening ourselves, always grounded in the Truth of all things.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seven Virtues of a Spiritual Life - Commitment

There are, I believe, seven core virtues that we see in those who live a truly spiritual life: Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, Trust, and Wisdom.

Commitment is not about being visible to others once a week in church, synagogue or mosque, though such attendance can be spiritually informative.  It is not about the rote recitation of memorized phrases learned over time, though such recitations can spiritually reinforce us.  It is not about speaking prayers at mealtimes or bedtime, though such dialogs can enable us to speak the thoughts or concerns that we have in our hearts.  It is not about sitting in quiet meditation, though such reflection can strengthen our focus and understandings of ourselves and the world within which we live.  It is not about the jewelry or the artifacts on our bookshelves or altars, though these can serve to continually remind us throughout the day as to where we need to shift our attention.

The Spiritual Person likely performs or evidences many of these things as well as others.  But she understands that while these things can be helpful tools in her spiritual life, they do not in and of themselves create or evidence a true spiritual life.  Nor do formal robes, college degrees, official titles or religious standings – which often interfere with living a true spiritual life.

For the Spiritual Person, it is the ongoing commitment to living spiritually that is of true importance.  It is simply the commitment to live each day, and each hour of that day, spiritually first and secularly second.  To follow where heart and soul lead, with the courage and determination to make the often difficult spiritual journey.  To not be pulled astray and blinded by the demands, peer pressures, momentary attractions and egotistical drives of our secular life.  It is continuously remembering and living what is truly important in human life.

Life is both a spiritual and secular existence; one does not preclude the other.  Secular success can be a viable and acceptable part of one’s life, but only when it is achieved secondarily to and within our spiritual framework.  Whatever opportunities and resultant successes and rewards may come to the Spiritual Person, he remembers his values first, his overriding commitment above all to fulfilling his understandings of his God.  We were once told to “Give unto Caesar (the secular world) what is Caesar’s, and give unto God what is God’s.”  I would only add to that wisdom, “And give to God first.”

Commitment does not require one to withdraw from the secular world, to live only in a spiritual cloister.  Rather, the commitment within the Spiritual Person is to simply live true to herself, start each thought from a spiritual foundation, and ensure that each action thereby reflects her truest belief.  If conflicts arise, the secular needs always give way to spiritual consistency.  For it is in the consistency of the Spiritual Person that we see commitment fulfilled, rather than spirituality exercised only when easy or convenient.  For the Spiritual Person, the spiritual and secular life are one, both designed and lived so as to support each other; therefore conflict between the two does not arise.

When all things in life are understood to be divine, the commitment to live in a spiritual way, all and every day, becomes surprisingly easier.  The Spiritual Person commits to just doing what is right.  All of the time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Seven Virtues of Spiritual Life - Humility

There are, I believe, seven core virtues that we see in those who live a truly spiritual life: Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, Trust, and Wisdom.

Humility is not about being passive, a wus.  It is not about being a doormat.  It is not the false modesty that speaks loudly of taking no credit, all the while silently taking full credit in one’s heart.  It is not about giving in the expectation of subsequently receiving, making payments attached to a string marked “IOU.”  It is not about doing acts of goodness with the intention that goodness will therefore come back to us.

For the Spiritual Person, humility is saying and doing simply for the sake of saying and doing only what needs to be said or done.  There is nothing more attached to the words or the actions beyond what they inherently are.  The Spiritual Person gives advice only because advice is requested; opinions are given without regard or concern whether the advice is ultimately followed or not.  Nor does the Spiritual Person presume that her thoughts are any better than any others’; they are simply perspectives at this moment in time from one’s cumulative experience.  The Spiritual Person knows that her experiences, and therefore her perspective, will continually change, so one’s truth is open to change and is not necessarily better than others.  If perspective is not asked for, the Spiritual Person is comfortable in her silence.

The Spiritual Person acts when action is called for, but he knows that not all situations call for engagement.  Some things are best left to others; the Spiritual Person does not need to be in the center of the attention.  When he is truly secure within himself, he does not have to be in the spotlight.  He is content in the back of the room, going about the business to be done, accomplishing by encouraging the work of others.

Yet when the occasion demands, the Spiritual Person willingly steps to the forefront.  Humility does not preclude action, but only ensures that our actions are honest to their intentions, not to our glory.  When action brings great achievement or public notice, the Spiritual Person accepts her role in these results.  Yet she knows that she was only a part of the cause, that the light of fame is a very short-lived candle.  So her values and directions are unswayed by such acclaim, nor are they an intoxicant for more such applause.

The Spiritual Person always remembers that he is an interconnected being who accomplishes nothing on his own.  Even when one is the hub of movement, the wheel does not turn without the axle, spokes and rim turning together.  One gets to the front of the line only by the help of all those standing in that line.  There are many along life’s way who give us assistance, inspiration, teachings, working partnerships, and other contributions to the mutual product created.

Humility is simply remembering all those who made possible what we are, while never forgetting who we truly are.  A unique being, yes, but one who finds accomplishment due to circumstances, the gifts of others, a little luck, and divine grace.

As the Taoist says, “This is the way of heaven: do your work, then quietly step back.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Seven Virtues of Spiritual Life - Forgiveness

There are, I believe, seven core virtues that we see in those who live a truly spiritual life: Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, Trust, and Wisdom.

Forgiveness is a tough challenge for most everyone.  An unarguable ideal, yet a difficult step.  Life can be cruel at times, filled with assaults – intended, accidental or coincidental – on our sense of self and who we are.  Those assaults create deeply felt hurts that can stay with us for decades; the deepest hurts come from parent(s) to child, the next perhaps between spouse or siblings – those whom we look to trust the most.  Depending on our own fragility of self, ignoring or being unaffected by those hurts can range from easy to seemingly near-impossible.  If we are able to get past reacting to the hurt itself, we are then still left with managing our feelings about the “perpetrator” of that hurt, whether they be a person, animal, or the nature.  All very complicated and demanding.

Yet the spiritual person manages to achieve a state of forgiveness regarding these hurts and their perpetrators.  First by depersonalizing the hurt.  That which we take so very personally is often very impersonal to the perpetrator.  The spiritual person realizes that that person’s action is that person’s; we are just a supporting actor to someone else’s life drama.  The drama could just as easily have been directed to any number of other players.  We are just the handy and available object as much by happenstance as any other reason.  That which seems so very much about us is often not really about us at all, it is about them.  So the spiritual person removes him/herself – physically, mentally, emotionally as necessary – from being a captive audience to this drama.

The spiritual person also sees his/her own culpability in life’s hurts.  We find it hard to acknowledge that often our own carelessness, actions, or bad decisions helped to put us into precarious situations, perhaps unwittingly inviting our calamities.  Perhaps we blindly made the choice of an inappropriate spouse, went to work for a bad boss, chose to build a home in a flood plain, or opted not to do the scheduled car maintenance.  The spiritual person understands and identifies those ways in which s/he often unknowingly contributed to that which befalls us.

The spiritual person looks at life’s negatives from the long view and sees the long-term result of today’s hurt.  There is always some form of a positive outcome from every seemingly negative activity in our life.  It is only when we see that long-term positive outcome and move into its opportunity that the pain can begin to diminish.  As long as we remain fixated on the hurt or keep ourselves mired in a hurtful environment, we remain stymied.  The spiritual person focuses on the positive redirection in life that has potentially occurred, and is thereby able to move to a new place.  The spiritual person is able to actually say “thank you” to that perpetrator for actually causing or helping to move to the new place one needed to be.

Hence forgiveness occurs.  The spiritual person knows that to be unforgiving is to continually reinjure and mire one’s self far more badly than the perpetrator originally did; that perpetrator has likely long since moved on, while we have held on.  In truth, forgiveness is not about ignoring the reality of the perpetrator’s act; it does not say that the action was inconsequential, painless, or permissible to have done.  Forgiveness simply says that one understands how this action could have come about from understanding realities of the perpetrator’s own life.  Forgiveness is to see our hardships as simply life lessons waiting to be learned, a forceful call to move from where we are to where we need to be.  To forgive may or may prove useful to the perpetrator, but it is vitally important to the spiritual person, who forgives freely for his/her own benefit.  We forgive ourselves for letting that perpetrator negatively affect us and for allowing an emotional bondage to be created between us.  The spiritual person simply breaks that bondage, and thereby moves effortlessly into his/her new unencumbered future.  And thereby leaves the past in the past.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Seven Virtues Of A Spiritual Life - Lovingkindness

There are, I believe, seven core virtues that we see in those who live a truly spiritual life: Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, Trust, and Wisdom.

Lovingkindness broadly includes three particular attributes: non-attached love; compassion; and kindness.  For the spiritual person, “love” is not simply of the Hollywood-esque romantic kind, although candlelight dinners, hand-held walks in a park with one’s mate, or holding an infant quietly in your arms are still part of life’s treasures.  These are very direct forms and expressions of love which give immediacy to our feelings of connection to individuals outside of our own selves.

Rather, lovingkindness is of a much bigger scope for the spiritual person.  It is a love that extends to all people, all sentient beings, whether they be in one’s field of vision or well beyond.  It is a love that exists regardless of how other people may have chosen to live their lives – whether it be the same as us or different, or whether their wealth, accomplishments or practices reflect our aspirations for ourselves.  It ignores differences of race, gender, ethnicity, and culture.  It is a love that is nurtured and encouraged from the outside; but such is not required because it is love that is rooted deeply inside in the blood wells of one’s own heart.

Lovingkindness does not see others through rose-colored glasses, or sees only what one wishes to see.  Quite the contrary, lovingkindness is brutally honest and unadorned in its objectivity.  Yet it truly allows us to “love our enemies” as Jesus asked of us, because it has no enemies.  When this love sees actions in another that are unhealthy to that person’s inherent goodness or destructive to the well-being of others, the spiritual person intervenes and says “no.”  “Love the person, resist the actions,” as the Dalai Lama instructs us.

Lovingkindness simply transcends what it sees, and the spiritual person focuses on the spirit and commonality that exists within us all and binds us together.  There is no thought about loving another only if that person becomes as we might wish them to be, or acts as we expect of them.  There is no attempt to substitute another’s life for our own, to live vicariously through them.  The gift of spiritual love is a gift of freedom to others to be as they inherently are, to fulfill their life’s path and the opportunities given to them.  We are not here to direct their path; the spiritual person opens doors for others, packs their lunch, and sends them on their way with unrestricted support.  If each path allows for walking together for a time, then we revel in the joy of our time together.  And if not, we revel in what time we did have together, without regret or loss.

Lovingkindness is enhanced by compassion.  The spiritual person sees and feels the sufferings of others, and is not blind to their pain.  We connect with them through their difficult times, be it a quiet thought in our minds or active engagement or intervention in their struggles.  But we remain always conscious that it is their struggle, not ours.  We do not seek to substitute ourselves for them, nor transfer their problem to become one of our own.  We do not seek to aggrandize ourselves by taking on a “noble cause”; we do not lose ourselves into another’s life.  The spiritual person is always grounded in knowing who s/he is.

What we truly feel in the presence of a spiritual person is simply kindness.  We feel welcomed into his/her presence, knowing that they are fully engaged and attentive to us in that moment.  We are completely accepted and tolerated by them.  They are helpful without being overbearing.  Our boundaries are opened by them, not closed.  And always, they expect nothing in return.  “Loving” - “Kindness” is personified in the spiritual person, who pulls our best self into full presence.  And the only thing asked of us is to be, and give, lovingkindess in return.  Pay it forward in kind, to the benefit of all others.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seven Virtues of Spiritual Life - Patience

There are, I believe, seven core virtues that we see in those who live a truly spiritual life: Patience, Lovingkindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Commitment, Trust, and Wisdom.

We all understand patience on one level – the simple ability to postpone a need for instant gratification or response.  I choose to not buy what I cannot afford until the money is saved.  I do not scold my child at my first irritation at his/her unruly conduct, but deal with that child first as a human being simply lacking understanding.  I do not speak out harshly at an employee’s unintended error, but use that opportunity to teach and counsel to a higher level of performance.  We resist our first impulse, reach for a higher response, and thereby create an action of greater value to ourselves, and very often to others.  An immediate stimulus does not lead to an immediate response; instead we choose the response we will make.

Patience asks us to see and think in the long view.  In the very broadest view.  In God’s view.  God may have made the heavens, earth, humankind and all of nature’s creations and forces in only seven days, but that is thankfully not the standard of accomplishment asked of us.  Our days are much shorter in scale, our potential for accomplishment similarly reduced.  Patience measures human civilization in thousands of years, tens of thousands of ancestral generations, and understands all of the difficulties and hardships that have filled all of those many lives. 

Human existence remains imperfect even after all of this time, experience, and the many lessons both learned and not yet learned.  It will remain imperfect long after I die.  But maybe just a wee bit less imperfect if I can make just that slightest difference in the piece of the world that I occupy, in the people with whom I come into contact.  I will not single-handedly change the world, but I can single-handedly add one small stone to the aggregated mosaic of human evolution.

Patience gives me the understanding that the decisions and the actions that I take are important, but only so much so.  My impact on my child’s life is huge, yet also very limited.  My happiness is important, but can be satisfied by so many smaller moments and fewer things if I am patient enough to accept things as they come.  The life road that I travel seems endless on my clock, yet is a mere blip in Time’s calendar.  I understand that my journey, while rich in memories, will ultimately take me only so far from where I began at birth.  When I am tempted to frustration, or even anger, at the events of my surroundings, Patience restores my sense of grounding and straightens out many of the curves in the road.

So in Patience we expect far less from moment to moment; expectations of myself, of others, of the collective institutions of our human society.  In Patience we live less hurriedly, decide more thoughtfully, move less rushed, yet waste less time.  We make the most of each moment, knowing that our moments are limited.  We appreciate the good when it occurs, and leave the shortcomings to another day, another generation, perhaps another lifetime of our own.  Patience knows that what is lacking today will be corrected tomorrow, or in someone’s tomorrow, as we continually try and try again.  Until it is ultimately made perfect within God’s expanded pacing of Time, and through God’s unlimited Patience with us, which we seek to emulate in ourselves.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Soul of an Indian

“We have a religion which has been given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children.  It teaches us to be thankful, to be united, and to love one another.  We never quarrel about religion.”  (Red Jacket, great orator of the Seneca tribe.)

Ohiyesa (1858-1939) was a Santee Sioux mixed with Anglo ancestry, born into the Dakota Native-American community.  Upon converting to Christianity, he added the Anglo-American name Charles Alexander Eastman.  Eastman attended various mission and preparatory schools, went on to attend Beloit and Knox colleges, graduating from Dartmouth College.  He then went on to medical school at Boston College (now Boston University) and became the first Native American to be certified as a European-style doctor.  He then served as a physician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including attending to the wounded after the massacre at Wounded Knee.  In the late 1800s through the early 1900s, he became a nationally known writer and spokesperson regarding Native-America history and experience, serving on various human rights panels and as an advisor to Presidents regarding Native-America issues.  He continually attempted to bring cultural understanding between Native- and non-Native-Americans.

Toward these efforts at understanding, in 1911 Ohiyesa/Eastman published “The Soul of the Indian,” an attempt “to paint the religious life of the typical American Indian as it was before he knew the white man.”  Though I have never before given over one of my postings to another writer, for this one time I offer you these selected excerpts from “Chapter 1 – The Great Mystery” from Mr. Eastman’s book.  Written exactly 100 years ago in a different time and circumstance, from a vantage point of several hundred years of cultural assault and deception, yet rooted in a heritage of a communal life deeply interconnected with a greater spirit and nature’s offerings, I present Mr. Eastman’s thoughts without further unneeded words from me.

***
“The original attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the ‘Great Mystery’ that surrounds and embraces us, was as simple as it was exalted.  To him it was the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction in this life …

The worship of the Great Mystery was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking.  It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration.  It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker.  None might exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another.  Among us all men were created sons of God and stood erect, as conscious of their divinity.  Our faith might not be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any unwilling to receive it; hence there was no preaching, proselyting, nor persecution, neither were there any scoffers or atheists.

There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature.  Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical.  He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky…  He needs no lesser cathedral! 

… The Native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and simplicity.  They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury.  To him… the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation.  Furthermore, it was the rule of his life to share the fruits of his skill and success with his less fortunate brothers.  Thus he kept his spirit free from the clog of pride, cupidity, or envy, and carried out… the divine decree – a matter profoundly important to him.

It was not, then, wholly from ignorance or improvidence that he failed to establish permanent towns and to develop a material civilization…  All who have lived much out of doors know that there is a magnetic and nervous force that accumulates in solitude and that is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd.

The red man divided mind into two parts – the spiritual mind and the physical mind.  The first is pure spirit, concerned only with the essence of things, and it was this he sought to strengthen by spiritual prayer…  All matters of personal concern… were definitely relegated to the plane of the lower or material mind

The rites of this physical worship were wholly symbolic, and the Indian no more worshiped the Sun than the Christian adores the Cross...  The Sun and the earth… were in his view the parents of all organic life... Therefore our reverence and love for them was really an imaginative extension of our love for our immediate parents …  The elements and majestic forces in nature [Lightning, Wind, Water, Fire and Frost] were regarded as spiritual powers, but always secondary and intermediate in character.  We believed that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possess a soul in some degree…  The Indian loved to come into sympathy and spiritual communion with his brothers of the animal kingdom, whose inarticulate souls had for him something of the sinless purity that we attribute to the innocent and irresponsible child... While he humbly accepted the supposed voluntary sacrifice of their bodies to preserve his own, he paid homage to their spirits in prescribed prayers and offerings.

With his limited knowledge of [science and] cause and effect, he saw miracles of life in seed and egg, the miracle of death in lightning flash and in the swelling deep.  Nothing of the marvelous could astonish him…  Let us not forget that, after all, science has not explained everything.  We have still to face the ultimate miracle – the origin and principle of life!  Here is the supreme mystery that is the essence of worship, without which there can be no religion… [we] behold with awe the Divine in all creation.

There was undoubtedly much in primitive Christianity to appeal to [the Indian], and Jesus’ hard sayings to the rich and about the rich would have been entirely comprehensible to him… It is my personal belief, after 35 years experience of it, that there is no such thing as 'Christian civilization.'  I believe that Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable, and that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is essentially the same.”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Companionship Of The Rain

I love the rain.  I have loved it starting as an infant and so throughout my life.  As I sit on my front porch and watch the dark clouds of another summer afternoon rain drift in slowly over the mountains, I am reminded yet again of the depth of that very personal connection.

Over the centuries, the sun has been a primary object of worship and respect by myriad cultures.  Given the power of the sun, its primary position in the orbits of our solar system, and its light that allows us to see and grow, perhaps that attention is appropriate.  But as warm as its rays are to our physical body, the sun is emotionally quite cold – notwithstanding the quiet, gradual calling of a new day at sunrise, or the spectacular blast of brilliant colors across the sky at sunset.  Conversely, as cool as the rain is to our physical body, it gives us a unique warmth to our emotional being, wrapping itself around us in a protective and reassuring womb.  The sun and the rain are fully unified in their own uniqueness, but each interacts with us in its separateness.

The rain distinctly changes with each season in very noticeable ways.  It has a smell unto itself, which differs from season to season if not from rainfall to rainfall.  You cannot hold the rays of the sun in your hand, but raindrops are visible to the eye and tangible to the touch.  And the rain usually comes with friends: the wind, which may present itself in many different forms and personalities; the thunder, announcing itself with an undeniable presence; the lightning, whose great electrical charge manifested across the sky affirms the awesome power of Nature within the Universe.

A rainfall may be quiet, falling benignly on grounds and roofs.  It may be boisterous, hurling itself almost sideways into nooks and crevices once thought tight and secure.  The rain may be here for only an instant, as a sprinkle or a downpour.  Or it may be a long, uninterrupted affair, soaking deeply into the ground for the ultimate nourishment of all, concurrently inviting us to an afternoon on the couch with a friendly book we have been waiting to read or a late-morning extended sleep.  Taken to excess, the rain can become a destructive force to beings and objects in its path.  But that is often because we have tried to build and live foolishly obliviously to the reality of rain’s potential.

The rain illustrates the completeness of the cycle of creation.  It falls, it is accumulated and/or absorbed, it nourishes, it returns to the sky, ready to begin its cycle anew.  Just as our lives begin, mature, are spiritually nourished, and then end and return to the Source.  When the rain comes, so also comes the reminder of God’s existence in all things.  Some days it is the quiet, protective warmth of God.  Other times, it is the reminder of the strength and power of God made abundantly clear.

Each of us needs to find that individual reminder of life’s greater Source.  In the listening to and watching of the rain, we are reminded that we are not alone.  We exist within a context larger than ourselves, a context that surrounds us, envelops us in its presence.  And when we are apt to forget our connection to the many and the greater, the rain comes again.  Just to remind us. To remind us that God’s love continually falls all around and on us every moment.  It is as visible as the rain, if we just open ourselves to see and feel it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

From Hope To Certainty

At a spiritual gathering I was attending a couple of years ago, a group discussion centered on Faith and why it was important in our lives. One person answered that “Faith gives me a reason to Hope, and Hope is a very important part in my life.”

Her comment led me to think more about the idea of Hope and where it can take us. Faith, hope and charity are often referenced together when talking about the great values of our human lives. Hope can certainly provide us with a bridge across our periods of discouragement, fear, despair and many crises. When the negative events of life begin to dominate our view, and we begin to doubt either the worthwhileness of life, the betterment of our circumstances, or the goodness of our neighbors, Hope helps us transcend that bleakness and instead see a different vision in our mind’s eye.

Hope can replace negativity with positivity. It can help us see a present unhappy circumstance as only temporary, not permanent. It can allow us to seek out the better side of humanity that we know exists even in the midst of our inhumanity. It can make it possible for us to see the muddy stream, yet be aware that the mud only masks the clear water that contains it. Hope can translate the small events and painful circumstances of our day into a more desirable context and larger purpose that makes today more comprehensible, and for “tomorrow to [truly] be a better day.”

But Hope is not a goal unto itself, nor an endpoint. It is a vehicle for us in traveling our spiritual journey, but it is not our destination. Ultimately, Hope seeks to be transitory, to be replaced by Certainty. Faith is the starting point, the foundation of what we have come to believe. Hope is the vehicle that moves our beliefs into those things positive in our lives, transcending the stifling negatives. But Certainty grounds and underpins our Faith with conviction, a true knowing that validates our faith, without doubts. It is not a certainty that leads to arrogance, nor a disrespect of the beliefs of others. It is not a certainty that locks us into place, leaving no room for spiritual growth, learning, expansion or higher knowledge. It requires no speeches, no outreach to convince others of our rightness. It is a quiet Certainty, an unthreatened calmness of spirit that need not be proved nor justified to others. It is a Certainty reinforced by the larger truths unfolding in one’s life in spite of all the bumps, distractions, and seeming temporary setbacks.

It was only partially important what the great spiritual teachers said to us over the centuries. It was also the clarity and conviction behind those messages that mattered. It is in Certainty that our Faith is truly fulfilled, that Hope is realized, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming doubt. Of this I am certain.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Peace Be Within you

“Peace be within you.” That is my wish to you expressed upon greeting or departing.

“Peace be with everyone.” That is my wish repeated in the course of daily prayer ritual.

It is said with an understanding that peace is not the absence of turmoil surrounding our lives. Or the concerns and fears that sometimes invade our inner space. These things are all too real a part of being alive on this earth.

Rather, it is a peace that takes these discomforts in stride, in balance. We feel pain when we are hurt, but do not unnecessarily add to that pain that is. We feel disappointment when expectations go unrealized, but are cautious and wise enough to not set expectations unrealistically or inappropriately, even as we do and should pursue great dreams.

It is a peace that understands that our life exists not in a vacuum, dictated only by our demands and intentions. Rather, we live interdependently with all other people, beings and elements of nature. So our peace is directly interdependent with our relationships and respectfulness of all such beings. It is a wisdom that knows our peace with others must first allow those others to fulfill their purest destiny free of our wants of them. That their life may be called in a direction that we might not have chosen for them. There can be no world peace without national peace without extended-family peace without peace first and foremost within ourselves.

It is a peace that knows there are some realities, if not laws, that make up nature, our earthly environment, and our human responses. We often foolishly attempt to conquer those realities of nature with our dams, our beachside or ill-constructed homes, our inadequate levees, our ocean-front nuclear power plants on seismic fault lines, or our drilled holes in deep waters. When these systems fail, our peace does not allow us to blame nature. In peace we accept our unwillingness to live in harmony and respect with Nature’s goodness and power as a primary cause of our misfortune.

Most significantly, our peace comes from simply knowing that there exists a reality, a force, a cause that is always bigger than just “I,” even if it is beyond our capacity to fully understand, to know, to adequately name. In our faith within such peace, all incomprehensible things are made comprehended, all unknowns are known, all questions are answered, all non-sense made sense. Even if it must wait for its time.

Peace be within you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March Awakening

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (Ana├»s Nin)

In ancient Rome the month of March was designated as the first month of the year. It was the time when the cold and wet of winter began to abate. From the sleep of winter’s rest, the stirrings of a new round of growth begin to be felt, seen and smelled. The coverage of snow over the ground gives way to the sight of green earth (though family and friends in New England might question this timing!). Spring, and a new cycle of life, arrive. Unfortunately, for those ancient Romans spring also meant that it was time to begin new battlefield campaigns that were intended after the winter weather’s interlude; hence the name “March” was derived from their god of war, Mars. God’s time of birth was also Man’s time of destruction.

Somewhere along the line, as calendar structures were manipulated, January became seen as the new start of the year. A shame. March has the sense of starting, of beginning fresh, of planting new seeds for growth. March should be the time when we make our new resolutions, setting new intentions and directions, rather than in the middle of winter’s oppressiveness. Winter is our time of rest from our previous efforts; spring is our time to begin a new round of efforts to plant, nurture, grow and harvest.

The seeds we plant can be physical ones, set into the ground, resulting in food for our bodies, visual treats for our eyes, or new tools by which nature continues Her never-ending reproductive cycle. But the seeds can also be the ideas and plans we have for creating new physical structures or conceptual entities. Or perhaps most importantly, we can plant new seeds (i.e. intentional steps) for our own personal growth in spirit, character and wisdom.

It is certainly easier to stay in a kind of spiritual winter, perpetually at rest, in a kind of detached slumber from life and its creativity that calls to us. But living a true spirituality is like everything else in life. It requires intention. It requires planting new seeds for food rather than living off of old, deadened growth that has run its course. It requires the water and fertilizer of outside nourishments in order to grow to fruition. It requires vigilance and protections against destructive elements which will otherwise compete with if not defeat our spiritual crop. If, in spite of all the weather and attacking pests, insects and disease, we somehow manage to grow our spiritual plantings to full maturity, we then need to harvest it. Celebrate it, honor it, and unabashedly feast upon its reward.

Stepping out of the darkness of our winter cave can be scary; the bright glare of spiritual sunlight can be blinding at times. But in the hibernating darkness of the cave we wither, living off our old accumulated fat. In the warm sun we are renewed and live life fresh again, fueled by Purpose and nourished by a knowing Faith.

Happy New Year! What spiritual seeds are each of us planting for this year’s harvest?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Passing Into History

There was a small news article that passed by recently. Perhaps you noticed it, but likely not. It was a notice that Frank Buckles, then of Morgantown, WV, had died. I had not heard of Mr. Buckles before reading that article. But the significant point of this particular obituary was that Frank Buckles, age 100, was the last known American veteran of World War I. (2 other veterans from Great Britain still remain alive.)

Each death is a moment in time, and a point in life, worthy of noting. A person moves from one phase of existence to another. We feel joy for the new opportunity that person is now receiving, and – depending upon the circumstances – perhaps relief for the end of their immediate suffering. We feel regret, if not pain, at our end of earthly connection and loss of future interactions with that individual. We take some moments to reflect on the life that person lived: the benefits they gave to others, the ripple effects of their life, the impacts of their actions. Likely their life had consequences far beyond their own recognition; hopefully most of those consequences were for the betterment of others.

All these thoughts fill our minds at anyone’s death, no matter how well or not we may have personally known them. But some deaths may bring an additional recognition to us. Their passing is not only a personal individual loss, but also simultaneously a greater collective loss. The loss of one person has become a loss of a group of individuals – a passing of an era, a way of life, a collective experience. It is a moment when a personal memory, or a personalized relationship to our past, moves from a present connection into “history.”

When Frank Buckles died, hundreds of thousands of our (great-)grandparents moved from our living memory, a sense of live connection to our inherited story, into the permanent time capsule of “history.” No one is left to speak live of that event; no one is left from that group to show up and march at the veteran’s parade. A generation is now gone. “The Doughboys” cede way to “The Greatest Generation” – the next group now working its way ever more quickly into history.

As a Civil War history buff growing up in the 1950s, I remember being similarly struck by the deaths of the last Union and Confederate veterans of that war during that decade. The people and events I had been studying seemed so ancient; yet there were still these two people who had lived then, could still talk about that great event – until that absolute finality of their deaths. At that moment, the voices of hundreds of thousands of casualties and survivors went forever quiet. Nothing was now left except the history books, the letters, the gravestones, and the many granite memorials inscribed “Lest We Forget.” “Living history” moved to just “history.”

Time passes; and at certain points, time closes a door. Frank Buckles reminds us to pause and consider each life’s passing for whatever larger theme that life represents beyond that one individual, the bigger stories that each of us is a part of. And perhaps we should consider what each life represents before it dies – the impact, the relevance, the worthiness, and the meaningfulness of each of us in each day that we live.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Call To Prayer

Over the years, I have often had difficulty with the idea and practice of prayer. Virtually all spiritual practices include some form of “prayer” in their ritual and expressions. Prayers may be a very personal statement &/or request to that which one calls God (by whatever name); or a similar expression to one’s spiritual master (e.g. Jesus, Muhammad, a Buddha); or to the broader universe, angels, or spiritual teachers of no specific name. Or perhaps a statement directed to no one in particular – simply an expression of belief or hope with respect to humanity in general.

Broad-based statements expressing hopes for the well-being of humanity, or more specific pockets of people (e.g. disaster victims, emerging nations, or our country recovering after 9-11) has generally seemed appropriate to me. The broad audience that is the object of my prayer seems to inherently help me maintain my humility within my request.

It is prayers of intercession – praying for outcomes and actions directed to others – and prayers for a change in my circumstances or direction, that feel awkward to me. Prayers to change the course of the lives of others, or to try to focus God’s/Universe’s heightened attention to their needs, seems somewhat presumptuous (if not arrogant) of me. I may feel very sympathetic, if not empathetic, to the needs of someone else. When I pray to end that person’s suffering or adversity, how can I know what is truly “best” for that individual in God’s eyes, or what “contract” has already been established between his/her soul and God? How much of my expressed wish for that person is really more towards comforting me and reducing my suffering over that person’s circumstance, versus understanding that God has a greater good intended for that person that I cannot see from my more limited earthly view.

Similarly, when I pray for my own needs, how well do I truly know that Pathway A is preferable for the deepest aspirations of my soul than Pathway B? Am I praying to accomplish my plan, or to fulfill God’s better intentions for me – intentions likely beyond my recognition. This seems even more confusing when I read that “God knows [my] needs even before I do.” If that is so, why do I even need to make a request if God is way ahead of me already?

In the end, I believe that I do not pray to God to cause anything to happen that God is not already doing anyway. Nor does God need my help in becoming attuned to someone else’s need for divine comfort and help. God is already fully on top of this situation. Rather, the act of prayer forces ME to attune and focus MY self to other people’s circumstances, or to my own thoughts. It helps ME to catch up to where God already is. It is MY attention that needs awakening and focusing, and it is in prayer that my spirit is alerted to the task at hand.

Once I catch up, I put myself in a right position to think, speak, and act as God is already doing. In truth, I am not really praying for God to do anything. I am actually praying to bring the God that is inside of me to fulfillment. To come one step closer to seeing and understanding as God, to partner in God’s divine work, and thereby to help God to live on earth through me. It is not God’s light that we seek to call to shine; it is already doing so always. Rather, it is our own light within waiting to be called to shine. Pray to God, and by so doing, pray to myself.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Just Do

Just Do.

Do what is in your heart.
Do for the pure sake of doing.

Not with a planned intention, or expected outcome.
Certainly not for the thanks or the approval of others.
These simply muddle, confuse, and weaken the doing.
Rationale can help clarify.
But we can rationalize anything we have predetermined to do.

The Grand Plan is no plan.
The Doing of that which is right to do in this moment is sufficient.
The Purpose and reason will be clarified and made known to us later.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

All Within Spirit

“I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.” (John Donne)

I have been a “task” person all of my life. Long working days, juggling multiple tasks concurrently, deeply focused, committed to completion. “Doing things” has easily consumed my attention, my energy, my time.

Unfortunately, for many of us “spiritual time” is not one of our “tasks.” We may know that we need to spend time in spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, reflection, discussion, ritual, journaling, or just walking quietly within nature’s beauty. But it is not specified as a task to be checked off, a responsibility promised to others, a time deadline to be met. We usually say that when we get some “spare time” we will go off and give our spiritual practice its few moments, typically on our Sabbath day. We promise to fit it in where we can “tomorrow.” But most often tomorrow never becomes “today.”

What we overlook is that we continually separate our spiritual practice from the other items on our daily to-do list, rather than envelop those to-dos within our spirituality. We see those other tasks as obligations to fulfill, things to do, routine mundaneness that we just “do.” Yet in fact those things we do are a significant expression of who we are, who we have chosen to be. What we do, and How we do it, demonstrate to ourselves and others what we have become, how we have developed, the path we have chosen. As such, they express our current being, our spiritual self as well as our human self. Everything we do is an expression of ourselves. The question is – what does our daily life say about our spirituality and spiritual expression?

All our daily tasks can be done as ends unto themselves, devoid of life and spirit. Or they can be done infused with our sense of spiritual self; as actualizations of our beliefs and character; as free expression of the breadth of who we are in our souls; as a vehicle for God’s presence in, and passage through, us. Every interaction with the people we encounter is a challenge and opportunity to fulfill our true beliefs about humankind and our place in it. Do we show ugliness and separation to others, or extend joy and open embrace to them? Everything that we do is a challenge and opportunity to our sense of purpose and the care we bring to extending Creation. Do we show indifference and carelessness to what we do, or inject a loving intention of beauty and benefit to all that comes from our efforts?

Yes, we need to allow for specific times dedicated to our spiritual reflection and renewal, breathing life into our connection with God and the Universe. But it is also in the meals that we prepare, the plants we place into our gardens, the people that we encounter and speak to through the day, the materials we produce at our desks and on our computers, that we can – and should – affirm and express our spiritual being. It is by surrounding all that we do within a spiritual context that we have not just a spiritual moment, but truly lead spiritual lives.
Prayer for Work
Dear God, please be with me in this work that I do today. Help me to remember that my work is more than just my intentions, my needs, and my ambitions. Let me be guided by your wisdom and intentions. Help me to be mindful of what I am doing, patient in my efforts, and honest in my motivations. Help me bring beauty and love for others into all that I do. Let my full potential be realized through these opportunities that you have brought into my life. Let me find my true purpose within the fulfillment of your greater plan for all that I do.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Connecting With God

When I was a very young child, I experienced a recurring nightmare. I would see myself flying through the air, suddenly landing in a sandy desert with no life – human or vegetation – to be seen. I was all alone in that desolate place. Then my observing eye, like a movie camera on a studio crane, would begin to move away from me, slowly pulling back while looking down on me. As I remain fixed in a tight ball in the center of this scene, the “camera” would continuously draw back and take in more and more of the desolate space surrounding me – the panorama steadily expanding, my form and presence steadily diminishing. I became smaller and smaller, gradually disappearing into a tiny dot on that vast landscape. Just before fading away completely, I would awake – screaming in terror. It was a terror not from fear of physical danger. It was a terror of separation, of disconnection from everything around me, of fading into inconsequence and nothingness. Of ultimate aloneness.

While perhaps less graphically illustrated to others, most people live an unseen inner life of similar experience – emotionally disconnected from and in fear of our surroundings, feeling that we are totally on our own for what happens to us and what we may/may not achieve. We walk among the people and the things of our surroundings, never fully reaching out and truly connecting ourselves to them. Our reaction to that deep sense of aloneness or alienation drives us in many confused directions, more often expressed not as our fear but as our continual “search for inner peace” – a peace that seems highly elusive.

This is where God comes in. Our inner being truly knows that there is some form of a Creative Force, greater than ourselves and beyond what we can see and envision, who has generated all that surrounds us. We are a product of that Creation; both we and our surroundings are all from that Source. We are all part of one greater whole, as one atom links to one cell links to one arm links to one body links to one community of people, sentient beings, and things that links to one universe.

We seek a peace, an accommodation, a connection with all those things we walk beside but do not really touch – an end to our aloneness and separation. Yet it is only when we cease seeing these things as “separate” that connection occurs. It is when we focus on the body of Spirit’s creation that our one atom of life then finds its connected place, its home of peace.

Our peace, our connection to Life, comes up through Allah and back out again. Connecting to Yahweh is connecting to Life. It is a connection we do not have to seek or find; it is already there, and has been with us since our birth. The One is always there with us, in us, encompassing us. We need only to invite our Mother-Father God in to our cognition, our hearing, our understanding, our feeling. That is why making time and effort for our spiritual life is so important. It is not a side venture to our lives; it is our life. The peace we seek awaits us when we commit to renewing our connection with Spirit that we have always had. In that reconnection, our individual self also becomes our Oneness with God and all things.

(Excerpt from forthcoming book A God Connected Life by Randy Bell)