Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Lessons Of The Manger

The Winter Solstice.  A celestial moment of nature that reverses a course into greater darkness and instead begins to move us into an expanding light.  A winter time of intended quiet and rest to prepare us for an energetic awakening in the spring.  A spring awakening when, like the trees, flowers and plants, we blossom into the fruits of our intended purpose.

Christmas Day.  For many people, it is a time set aside to honor the birth of Jesus and the spirituality embodied within him.  A time for many to reflect on, and recommit to, the spiritual part of their life.  It is a date that not coincidentally falls just after the Winter Solstice.  As nature begins its annual renewal to a new flowering, so also our spirituality needs a continual renewal in order to fully flower.  For roots to plant deeper, for stalks and trunks to grow higher, for branches to reach out further.

Most people are fully familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the New Testament Gospels.  It is told beautifully and inspiringly; the public and religious celebrations enacted for Christmas can be quite moving to mind and heart regardless of one’s particular religious beliefs or affiliation.  But as one focuses attention on the celebratory displays, the religious stagings, or loses oneself in the unbounded gift shopping that has come to so consume Christmas, do we take advantage of the occasion to contemplate the spiritual meaning of all of this?  The lessons being made available to us to ennoble our Spirit?  They are relevant and universal lessons drawn from the symbolism of the manger birth itself, lessons regardless of one’s particular faith, perhaps less obvious and often lost amidst the noise of celebration.

The first lesson of the manger birth is that it required a journey to be made.  A taking leave from the ease of a known home, familiar people, and safe environment.  A long and difficult journey made in order to arrive at a new place where the Spirit could make itself known.  So also are we required to make such a journey away from our familiar environs and connections in order to find our true spiritual place.

The second lesson of the manger birth is that the spiritual self had to be awakened and birthed in order to be made real.  The potential for our spiritual presence may always be within us, but its realization must be enacted, must be born from seeding, a gestation, and nurturing.  As we must give a birthing to our own spiritual life after much preparation and with difficult effort.

The third lesson of the manger birth is that spirituality arrived, and was born into, a world of simplicity.  No riches were required; no exultant setting needed.  Our spiritual life lives in an uncomplicated, unadorned place, surrounded by and grounded to Nature’s essence; a simple manger, a bed of straw, swaddling clothes for warmth, in a barn surrounded by animals of help and sustenance.  We can choose to bring luxury into our lives – our own forms of gold, frankincense and myrrh – but we know that they are not required.  Unbounded love, quiet peace, and simple contentment are the true gifts that come from our spiritual being.

In respect for whatever may be your traditions and beliefs, may such gifts be a part of your spiritual birth at this Christmas time.  Peace be within you always.

©  2013   Randy Bell

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Being Who You Truly Are

“To thine own self be true.”   (Shakespeare)

Such a seemingly simple request made of us.  But like most spiritual ideals, often so very difficult to actually pull off.  Living genuinely in the truth of who we are sounds desirable on its face, but how often do we truly live in such a manner – even when we pretend we are?

The first hurdle is knowing, in fact, who “I” actually is.  Most of us live in an unconscious reaction to our entire life catalog of events, thoughts, experiences, and interpretations-in-the-moment – a catalog that predominately resides hidden and mysterious in our minds.  A catalog which then requires considerable time and effort to uncover, strip away, re-think, and then apply into our current life.  Until then, we spend a majority of our time believing we know what we are about – thoughts, values, ambitions, religious beliefs, etc. – but in fact living out a pre-rationalized path we have made up to conveniently fit our history.

Our second hurdle is knowing what we have truly learned and concluded on our own for ourselves.  As opposed to beliefs which are simply echoes of those who have had significant influence on our life experiences, and their interpretations of our experiences.  Or who taught “the facts and the truths” to us, an unquestioning listener, who rarely directly challenged and analyzed the veracity of those teachings.  In which event we never quite figured out whether those teachings were truly thereby our own, or just the convenient cloning of someone else’s thoughts.

The third hurdle is the dominating weight of the society in which one lives, whether it be a religious, cultural, political, social or geographical group.  Peer pressures to get along can be an overwhelming force on even the strongest of individuals.  “Fitting in” is a natural desire as another way of defeating our fears of being lonely, of being disconnected from our surroundings.  Acceptance of us by many others seems to also quantitatively affirm “I” in spite of our own self-doubts.  But such group approval comes at a severe personal price, for a society can be very unforgiving when its boundaries are crossed.  So we have to continually ask ourselves exactly who it is that our society is approving – our true self that is being reflected into the world, or a disguised self reflecting a portrait spray-painted onto us by society like so much cultural graffiti.

Discovering who the true person is that resides inside of us is a challenging endeavor.  It is a spiritual journey, a personality journey, a journey of discovery about one’s self and Life itself.  We use the discovery tools of differing viewpoints, other religions and cultures, other geographies; we explore the thoughts and experiences held deeply in the recesses of our minds.  Given what we discover, and understanding that we are now called to live radically differently, it is also a journey mainly for the fearlessly committed.  Because it is highly unlikely that the “I” that we discover bears much resemblance to the “I” we have comfortably known.  Once one starts such a journey, and thereby tumbles down the rabbit hole into one’s own true self, one will likely never be the same, never see one’s self the same way, and never able to go back to the old self again.  Old affiliations no longer work, and a different set of people and environments are required to give support to that newly rediscovered self.  It is a long and continuous journey, with occasional companions coming alongside into our life for a period and then leaving again.  But it is essentially a journey that must be walked alone.

The Buddha forewarned us that many will start such a journey, but few will succeed.  And Jesus consistently warned that the spiritual life – being who you are, with God – would always be a difficult one.  But when one’s life ends, who is it that will then be presented to the Universe: the culturally created “I,” or the true “I” of Being?

© 2013   Randy Bell

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Extended Thanks

Thanksgiving Day.  A holiday.  A gathering of friends and family, rarely spent alone.  Feasting on foods of all tastes and colors spread thickly across the table – yet always leaving room for the gluttony of desserts still to come.  The sights and sounds of football games either supplementing or distracting from the meal and the company.  The continuing sounds of conversations, reminiscing, catching up, reacquainting.  Or increasingly instead, people heading out the door for holiday Friday shopping now regrettably moved up into Thursday; buying toys for loved ones trumping time spent actually being with and connecting with those loved ones.

In some instances, a few people will pause to reflect on the bounty and blessings that this day, this meal, this gathering represent.  Thanksgiving has its spiritual component, but it is also a secular, very American, holiday open to all citizens regardless of their ancestral heritage or religious affiliation.  A cooked turkey knows no prejudice.  All of us were once outsiders, with recent or distant family who traveled to these shores for a multiplicity of reasons and ambitions.  We each continue those travels in a spiritual search for universal connection and personal fulfillment of our unique potential.  We thereby pause to express our thanks to those who make our travels possible.

It is perhaps easy to sit at dinner and give gratitude to those close to us gathered at our table.  Certainly we should give thanks to those who are near and dear to us.  It is perhaps more difficult to remember and acknowledge those many others who are not at our table, the forgotten ones who are nevertheless an important part of our life’s journey.  Instead of focusing on the usual smiling faces of our dinner companions, perhaps it is of the faces of those who are far removed from us that attention should be directed.

The farmers and grocers who labored to make available all the food that now sits before us on this Day.  The military and public service people who give us the ability to come together to eat safely in our homes – many of whom are thereby unable to share a table with their own loved ones.  All of the service providers and retailers who help us get through our day and accomplish our many required tasks.  The people who buy the goods and services that we create and thereby sustain us.  Our workmates – peers / subordinates / supervisors at many levels – with whom we are interdependent and labor together to fulfill our work within a Purpose.

The teachers who inspired and challenged us to do bigger things, think bigger thoughts.  The mentors who believed in us and took time to listen and give us worthwhile guidance.  The spiritual teachers, both long past and present, who help us find the real person that lives within, and assist in our connection to the greater Universe.  Our neighbors, far and wide, often faceless and voiceless, whose presence and great diversity keep our vision broad and our ego humbled.

On this Thanksgiving 2013, may we remember and give thanks to that extended family of humankind of which we are most fortunate to be a small part.

© 2013  Randy Bell


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worrying About Worrying

“I have had many problems in my life – most of which have never happened.”  So said that great observer and commentator on the human condition, Mark Twain.  With spot-on accuracy.

Like many other human traits, worrying in moderation can be a helpful human exercise.  A small dose of worry can cause us to pause and consider the many potential outcomes of our actions or the events that affect us.  It can give us time to properly strategize our actions, and have alternative plans on the ready should problems arise.  But when worry crosses a very real boundary, when we spend too much time worrying about too many potential negative circumstances, when worry prevents us from moving forward with the business of our lives and our own fulfillment, then our worry has become unhealthy for us.

Everything we do in life carries unforeseen risks.  Using a little bit of worry to identify and reduce the number of those unknowns can give us forward-moving confidence.  But when excessive worry morphs dreams into “that’s impractical” and therefore are not pursued, our worry has exceeded its benefit and needs to be suspended to another time.

We worry about our children and whether they will be safe.  Our country and whether it will survive the tensions within.  The health of our family and friends and whether they will avoid sickness or death.  Losing our job, or our house being damaged by a storm, or our car going kaput one dark night on a lonely stretch of highway.  Whether gremlins lie in wait for us underneath our beds.

Worry is simply another manifestation of our fears.  Fear is a difficult emotion for most of us to admit – to ourselves and to others.  So we give our fear the more acceptable label of “worry.”  And if we so choose, we can martyr ourselves by spinning our worry all the way around to be a supposed testament to our strength of character, not a flaw of our weakness.

We call our fear the more socially-acceptable action of “worrying.”  Thereby, we disguise and paper over that underlying fear.  And we claim for ourselves an undue moral superiority that our worry about others supposedly demonstrates our concern for the welfare of humanity.  But what the worry in fact exemplifies is a lack of Faith, an absence of Trust.  We lack Faith that there is a greater Universal force surrounding ourselves that is consistently leading us to that other place where we need to be – leading us through recurring bouts of upheaval by bouncing us off the bumper guards of Life.  We lack Trust that most of what we fear will in fact not happen to us; the sky is really not preparing to fall upon us.  And if it should, that in the broader scheme of things we will ultimately wind up in a far better place, however difficult may be the journey to that place.  A place which our worst-case worry will never envision or take us to.

When our worry arises, we need to ask ourselves five questions: What is my underlying fear from which this worry comes?  What is the realistic probability that it will actually happen?  What is the worst real permanent damage that could befall me that I cannot handle?  What would be the potential good to me should this actually happen (and there is always a potential good!)?  Therefore, in which right place should I put my constructive energy?

As the Serenity Prayer says, change what you can, accept what you cannot, and know which is which.  In the face of Faith and Trust, worry dissolves into confidence about our future within Life’s Purpose.  And what I do know in my heart is that while some outcomes of our worry may prove difficult, those outcomes are always within our capacity to manage.  Of that, I have no serious worry.

©2013   Randy Bell

Monday, November 4, 2013

Death And Renewal

In late October, we had an atypically early blast of cold winter weather with a dusting of snow.  24 hours later, the large, beautiful hydrangea flowers were no more, their leaves now a sad, wilted green.  The leaves on the trees had turned brown and were quickly falling to the ground – the denuded trees now showing only the skeleton of their trunk and branches.  Yet as I saw this recurring cycle of nature’s dying, I also remembered that next spring those hydrangeas will be back, as colorful as ever.  The stumps of the trees I had to cut down this summer will sprout new shoots of saplings to replace the majestic trees that are no longer as they were.  And all the grass and brush that I spent hours mowing will reappear, awaiting their next round of required landscape maintenance.

In all of nature, “life” blooms, and then expires – whether by damage or by just plain aging.  It is then renewed into a more highly developed form of its old self, or instead into yet another incarnation altogether.  Where there is not renewal of that original life, there is likely a renewal of a life that is adjacent to that death.  As when a leaf disintegrates into the dirt as fertilizer for the tree.  Or ground up cornstalks become food for cattle.  Nothing truly ends; but every thing changes.

My mind turns to reflections on death as I pass through certain milestones of my aging.  50 years ago on a hot summer evening in May, my classmates and I graduated from high school.  We were now ready to go out, face the world, and live the expected vision of our lives.  Just six months later, I was a typically confused college freshman eating lunch in the dining room of my fraternity house, when the news came that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  An hour later, sitting in my Freshman English class on that Friday afternoon, together we heard the shocking confirmation of his untimely death.

The memory of that moment, and all of the subsequent moments that followed over that long weekend, are deeply etched into my conscious memory.  They are always with me to this day, recalled with little effort.  Just as my father remembered sitting in a restaurant eating lunch when the news came over the radio of the death of Will Rogers in an Alaskan plane crash.  Or as my two now-grown children likely remember their very personal day on 9-11.  Kennedy’s death, and the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy five years later, irrevocably changed me.  Their deaths were also my death – the death of my innocence, the death of the protective cocoon of my small-city southern upbringing.  But those deaths in turn served as a rebirth for me - a new person of different beliefs and a broader understanding of human reality.  Just as I would be renewed (“born again”) and recast numerous times over the course of my ensuing life.

Death is not a singular event at a singular moment in time.  Death is a series of events occurring at irregular points in time that lead to constant change and renewal.  Just as Buddhist enlightenment or Christian encounters with God is not just one moment of instantaneous transformation, but a constant sequence of smaller insights and shifts that collectively take us to a new place, continually becoming yet another version of our prior selves.

Regardless of our age, we have already been through death many times over.  It is the separation that occurs when our grown children leave home.  When we leave our colleagues at an old job that no longer fits us.  When we move ourselves to an unfamiliar locale, away from all that we have known before.  When we necessarily discard a previously held idea or belief that is proven to be invalid.  When we surrender yet another self-illusion and its resulting arrogance.  When we enter a new stage of our chronological life.  When close friends and family leave their current existence and “pass on.”  Each of these transformative events, however sad in the moment, concurrently renews us for our next phase of life.

Nothing in nature stands still.  Life is always moving to “the next.”  But it is a physical law that nothing can move forward until it turns loose of where it is, what it is holding on to.  This is a spiritual truth also.  If all of the death that we see in nature is simply a stage in transition to something new, why would we presume that human life has been created any differently?  In truth, “death” means simply that what was no longer exists; what will be is just beginning.  As unknowing as we may be about what our next renewal will be, we can be confident that we are in fact being renewed into that which is most appropriate for us.  Just as in all of Creation.

© 2013  Randy Bell

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Alone Not Lonely

“If we don’t know who we are, we will never know how we ought to live.”  (Reverend Billy Graham, evangelist))

Alone.  Being alone.  Being alone in silence.  For many people, these three phrases strike immediate anxiety, if not fear, in their minds.  But alone is not lonely.  Being alone is not being lonely.  Being alone in silence is not being lonely with no interaction.  Lonely is that state of feeling separated from Life and its component parts, along with a defeated sense that this separation has been forced upon us by negative events or circumstances.  Alone is a quiet calmness where we take a selfish and likely infrequent time to rediscover and better understand our inner being.

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.”  (Ram Dass, Buddhist teacher)

Some say that “experience is the best teacher.”  And most of us typically spend each day having a succession of experiences.  One chore, one task, one to-do, one responsibility continually after another.  Experiences that we also usually feel are required of us, unwilling to acknowledge that a significant percentage of these experiences have been voluntarily chosen by us.  Many of these chosen experiences are in fact designed to keep us too busy to acknowledge our deeply underlying loneliness.

Truthfully, experience is not the teacher.  It is the input for teaching.  A child who places her hand on a hot stove will immediately know that that stove is hot and can burn her with great pain.  But no “lesson” has been learned until experience is followed by contemplation and reflection.  It is in the pause that follows that burning that she learns a) a stove can be either hot or cold, b) a hot stove can cause you pain, c) a cold stove has no impact on you, and so d) you need to test that stove before touching it.  Such experiences → contemplation and reflection → learning can only happen when we are alone, in quietness, absent from the accumulation of more experiences.

“Quiet people have the loudest minds.”   (Stephen Hawking, scientist)

This is why we pray and/or meditate.  To voluntarily call ourselves into a time of aloneness, into quiet.  That we might escape our unending experiences for a time, and thoughtfully reflect upon the experiences we have already had.  To learn the many great lessons available to us in order to better understand the world around us and within us.

“Be still, and know that I am God.”   (Psalm 46:10)

We sit alone in quiet.  But we are not really alone.  We are in the company of that very real self that lives within us, but is so often forgotten.  In our quiet, the only new experience we have is the getting to know of that real self.  Whether we sit alone for minutes, for hours, for a day, or for many days.  This quiet can be the loudest sound we hear.  Aloneness can be the greatest company for us to be with.

“To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul.  To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.”   (Deepak Chopra)

© 2013   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Touch Of Connection

Have you ever observed closely how people tend to greet each other?  Typically there is an awkward momentary hesitancy as each person tries to determine the proper gesture for each particular situation.  Sometimes it is just a nod of the head.  Oftentimes, for both genders, it is with the traditional outreach of the right hand – a centuries-old demonstration that says “I come in peace, and my right (sword) hand contains no hidden weapon intended to harm you.”  Or, increasingly, a hug is exchanged.  Many of those hugs – intended to show affection and make physical connection – are in fact entirely perfunctory, with little real human connection effected.  Often, primarily with men, the hug is accompanied by loud, forceful slaps on the back as if to reassure everyone that one’s manliness has not been lost.

The point of these observations is that they are examples of the awkwardness and hesitancy we feel when trying to connect ourselves to the vast world surrounding us.  The Universe, and Life in all its forms, is so vast, so all-encompassing, and so overwhelming vis-à-vis that little speck called “me.”  When proportions become that disproportional, we do what we always do: pull back.  We separate and distance ourselves from that which seems so unknowable.  We shrink away from the fearsome power of all these forces upon us.

Yet separation itself creates its own fear.  When we feel truly “alone” in this world, we also feel that we are completely on our own for our very survival.  Deep down we crave a sense of belonging, of connection, of being part of all that vastness, even as we may shy away from it in the moment.

Hence our need to touch.  To literally touch the world.  To place fingers, hand or body up against the forms of life that surround us.  Because when we touch, we can find reassurance from our fears.  And the sense of belonging once again within the overall Universe.

The feel of a summer breeze blowing through our hair cools us and awakens us.  Sitting in a calm, meandering stream relaxes us and cleanses us.  When the sun shines on our body we are warmed and feel secure.  The touch of a tree’s bark reminds us of how each thing in the Universe is given appropriate means of protection, and has the potential to live a long and productive life.  A gardener’s hands digging in the dirt yields a true sense of understanding of how nature works.

But it is in the touch of one human being with another that we become most connected.  A human being can be incredibly cruel to other human beings.  But in reaching out to take someone’s hand in yours, or the simple gesture of a hand on another’s shoulder when they are feeling tense or threatened, or giving the genuine wrap-around hug that says “everything is OK and you will be supported when you are hurting” – it is in these simple moments of touch that aloneness dissolves, that connection is made, that inner peace is achieved beyond what words alone can express or achieve.

Perhaps this is why so many people admire Native-American spirituality, which is rooted in respecting and connecting with all of Life’s forms.  It is a oneness that breaks down our usual sense of separation.  In our own spirituality, it is the almost-silent touch of God that reconnects us to our shared essence.  If all of creation is God’s creation, then we have been given the capability to touch that creation in some manner or another.  To understand and know things not by sitting on the sidelines as we too often do, observing (or ignoring) Life from a safe distance.  To know by direct experience.  To know the rain not by viewing it outside through the windows of our home, but to know it by standing in it as a child does, or at least extending a hand into it, and thereby making rain a shared, connecting experience.

To touch one another in a genuine spiritual embrace is to touch Life is to touch Creation is to touch the Universe is to touch God.

© 2013 by Randy Bell

Friday, August 23, 2013

Leaving Fear Behind

An 8/14/2013 posting on my companion blog “Thoughts From The Mountain” discussed “Where Fear Takes Us.”  These are the deep fears we have that drive us to disconnect ourselves from friends and loved ones simply due to “failed expectations.”  That pass up reasonable risks for career and personal advancement.  That avoid traveling to new places out of fear of an unknown danger in an unfamiliar setting.  That avoids the insight into our deeper self that we need to do in order to grow spiritually and mentally.  That posting illustrated that the real tragedy of the Trayvon Martin killing was how a growing surrender to one’s darkest fears can lead one into an ultimate and unanticipated course of negative action.  Action that damages not only the fearful perpetrator, but also potentially those innocents in surrounding proximity and beyond.  In response to this posting, a reader wrote to me to ask, “So what is the opposite of fear, in your opinion?  Faith?  Love?  Peace?”

Each of those suggested words (as well as others) has valid elements towards keeping our fears in check, if not dissipated.  Hope gives us motivation and direction, but it is a transitory state.  Love and Peace are outcomes of a non-fearful state of being, but they are not in and of themselves vehicles for arriving there.  Faith helps to move us away from fear, but something more is required to be in place for Faith to be effective.  That extra something is the certainty of absolute Trust.

I have written about Trust before, most particularly in a 12/10/2011 posting as part of a series on “The 7 Virtues of a Spiritual Life.”*  When we are looking to turn away from the door that leads to our deepest fears, it is through the door of Trust that we walk.  A door that leads not to a dark alley of confusion and harm, but to a bright staircase that leads us to our higher and truer self.

This is not a blind Trust that is given to ourselves or others at face value.  It is a Trust built upon a full knowing of Truth.  It is not a Trust built upon what we would like our friends, institutions and life itself to be or how we would like them to perform, but a fully informed and fully realistic understanding of how these things truly are.  We see Life not through a cloudy fog of misperception, but through acute and clear lenses.  We do not need to create fearful images of things as they are not, because we can Trust things to be as they intrinsically already are.  And what they are always has elements of good, and a catalyst for spiritual growth and learning.

We experience fear when we close our eyes and minds to the Truth of “what is.”  We experience disappointment when we build our expectations based upon our fears instead of that Truth.  We build Trust when we align our expectations with realities.  For real Trust is not just Hope, it is a deep Knowing of what life – people, nature, God – is truly about.  And a knowing that every thing that comes to us comes in multiple layers.  In my home, the whole Universe appears to be centered about me; in the Universe I am but a small, minor spec from a distant star.

“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.”*

How we decide to apply these ideas to our fears is ultimately how we decide to live our life.  It is from passing through the door of Trust that we can then appropriately move through the next door to Love.  Where there is not Trust – in ourselves, in others, in nature, in God – there cannot be genuine Love.  Love without judgment, conditioning, or restrictions.  When we can Trust that the object of our love is exactly as it is, only then can we give that inclusive and unbounded Love toward all things that is as God loves.

*(Complete series available as free digital document from McKee Learning Foundation.)
© 2013 by Randy Bell

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Experience As Teacher

We Americans are a people infused with curiosity.  And usually also very short of patience.  These traits lead us to continually wanting to know more, but also wanting to learn that new thing as quickly as possible.  With no mistakes made along the way.  And the way we are taught to learn – starting in early childhood through beginning adulthood – is very specific: sit quietly and attentively at a desk; listen to someone in authority tell you what you supposedly need to know; then read more about the topic in a book written by another “expert.”  Thanks to all that knowledge pouring in, you then know what there is to know.  Your brain is now full and properly trained.

We take essentially the same approach with our personal efforts in spirituality.  In our desire to be more spiritual, or to live a more spiritual life, we turn to teachers – a priest, rabbi, minister or imam – for instruction and spiritual knowledge.  To answer for us What is spiritual Truth and How do we achieve it?  We read books one after another, whether paperbound, e-books  or audio tapes.  We go to special workshops to hear featured lecturers, whether in-person, in videos, or on Webcasts.  We sometimes even echo the marketing lingo – “this (book, speaker) changed my life!”  The brain becomes saturated with all this information.  But yet we are not satiated.  We somehow do not feel as though we are “there” yet.  So we read one more book; we listen to one more speaker.  We think even harder about all that we have heard and read, yet our search continues.

Books are a wonderful thing.  I have many of them.  A truly inspirational speaker projecting love, wisdom and truth can impact us greatly, inspire us forward in our spiritual journey.  As a spiritual writer and teacher, I hope that I am contributing something worthwhile to someone’s spiritual journey, however small a part.  But in truth, is all of this continual searching, jumping from one resource to another, helping us find what is actually right in front of us?  Our brains feel full.  But what about our hearts, and our souls?

True spirituality is not a way of thinking.  It is a way of being.  The brain may sometimes open some spiritual doors for us.  But it is in the body and the heart, moving into everyday action, that our soul finds its spiritual home.  It is when we leave the spiritual classroom, and begin to live the spiritual truths, that we find our spiritual place.  We put the brain aside, because if we continue to try to feed it, we find its appetite unquenchable.  Instead, we must leave the comfortable familiarity of the books, and the teachers, and live God’s truth in the world all around us.

They are simple Truths.  Be kind to one another.  Be kind to yourself.  Protect and care for all that God has provided to us.  Revel in the natural overwhelming beauty that so completely surrounds us everywhere.  And just love God.

In the end, it is not about arguing dogma, rationalizing the logic of the brain, observing religious rituals.  Those are just tools, not targets.  It is simply learning the spiritual lessons from living the simple spiritual life.  We will never find our spirituality in our minds.  We will only find it in the awe and embrace of the unquestioning heart that sees and accepts the majesty that envelops us.  Hence Jesus’ challenge: to be reborn spiritually so as to see the world as from the innocent, trusting, and believing eyes of a child.  God, the most complex entity that exists, is just that simple.  We can only know that by our experience of it.

“I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.”      (Confucius)

©2013   Randy Bell

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Being As Purpose

In the formal Mission Statement of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, CO, it says, “The monk’s life is based more on how he lives than on what he does, and how he works more than what that work is” (italics added).

We all wear many hats and hold many labels simultaneously during the course of our lives.  We rush about everyday trying to find the necessary time to fulfill each of these multiple roles.  We struggle to determine the proper manner in which we will realize these roles.  We often work to find worthwhile meaning in these roles as regards our well-being and self-satisfaction.  And when we fail to find sufficient self-satisfaction, we typically simply take on even more roles – often without discarding any old ones.

Underneath all of this frenzy is a continual search for Purpose in our life.  We sense the nagging feeling of Why Am I Here in this life?  What am I supposed to be doing with it?  What is my Purpose and Calling for my time on this earth?

In our search for answers, we usually focus on What we do, trying to find that “one, specific, overriding thing” outside of us that we should be “doing.”  Most of the time, it is an elusive search.  Elusive because the answer to our Purpose is not in the “out there doing.”  It is to be found in the “within of being.”

“Being” is about how we live, how we think, how we act towards others and to all of creation around us.  Being is how we feel, and how open we are to experiencing those feelings.  Being is having a connection with all that which surrounds our life, regardless of its seeming pleasure or discomfort in the moment, and having a full participation and engagement with it.

When we have quiet clarity inside of us about our Being, then the specifics of what we select to do in the outside world is less important.  How busy we are is less important.  How “successful” we are by traditional external measurements is less important.  Rather, success is realized by how grounded we are in our true self.

Our purpose in Life is simply to Live This Life.  To experience it however it comes to us.  To learn and to grow by life’s teachings.  And then to use that learning to give back to Life.  God does not generally care what we do for our “job” or “career” as long as we are learning and growing well by our experience.  No job is too mundane or beneath us if we do it properly.  No role within society is more exalted than another.  All work is both our teacher and our gift to others.

Instead of agonizing over trying to find our Purpose and Calling, we should instead look to live in simple openness and responsiveness to the calls that come to us.  To seek out many doors, knock on them, and pass through the ones that open to us.  Our life is a trial and error existence, a constant experiment, always fluidly in motion down a curved path not a straight one.  So we choose to move through Life as it comes, as God sends it to us.  It is in that movement itself that we find both God and our True Purpose.

©2013 Randy Bell

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Dark And The Light

Dark.  The word itself often triggers a sense of apprehension, of dread.  It suggests the things that go bump in the night, the scary creatures hiding under our bed.  It is a covering blackness that hides the potential danger and evil that threaten our well-being.  It calls up the shroud of the grim reaper, the time when the evil-doers work their destructive havoc.  It represents the dark corners of our mind, the black holes that live in our hearts.  Yet in the dark we also obtain some relief from the never-ending demands of our working hours.  It is in the dark where we find our rest.  The rest necessary to sustain our bodies and calm our minds.  The fuel to recharge our creativity.

Light.  The brightness in our life.  The force that dispels the totality of darkness that would otherwise envelop our life.  The light awakens our mind so that it can fulfill its creative purpose.  The light gives warmth to the body as well as comfort to the soul.  We arise with the morning rising of the light, and then rest with its evening setting.  Yet with too much light we can suffer sunburn – or worse, skin cancer – so even the positive energy generated by the light still needs limiting.

The dark and the light need each other to mutually define themselves and give purpose to each other.  In the dark, we know our world by touch, smell and hearing, envisioned by the imagination of the mind.  In the light, we know our world by sight, envisioned then by the rational thought of the mind; touch, smell, and hearing diminish as tools for our “knowing.”  In the dark, we create.  In the light, we try to understand.

In a battle for supremacy, the light usually wins.  The dark requires the totality of its being to accomplish “darkness.”  But light dispels that darkness by the mere flicker of a small candle.  A sliver of moon in the sky.  The flame of a single lit match.  Though surrounded by darkness, that candle, moon or match flame will break through the dark, expose our surroundings, and show us all of the directions that are available to us.  Where we may have been hesitant to move in the total darkness, a simple burst from a small light allows us to move on to the next place in our journey, without fear.  We see where we need to go.

It is perhaps thusly that “the light” plays such a prevalent role in the ritual of our spiritual traditions.  Spirituality has a great affinity for the stillness of the dark, because in the dark there is calm, there is rest.  And it is in the calmed and rested mind and spirit that one can best hear God and connect to God’s Universe.  But it is in the light that we can then see best our direction out of the blindness of our dark.  We need not the full light of day for the rational logical mind to guide us.  We need merely the small light of the candle to allow the trusting, intuitive mind to move forward appropriately in quiet humility and confidence.

In the dark we are enveloped by the incomprehensibly vast existence of the Universe.  In the small candlelight that penetrates that dark, a spiritual path is illuminated very narrowly.  And we see our narrow individual path that we follow to God.

©2013 Randy Bell

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Bow To Bowing

What a marvelous little thing a well-placed, properly-intended bow can be.  There is the royal bow, the deep bending at the waist or the full curtsy to bended knee.  But these are intended as a sign of subservience or allegiance that acknowledges a supposedly superior one.  Those are the secular expressions of separation that some people incorrectly ascribe to all forms of bowing.

But then there are the bows not of separation and subservience, but of unity and equality of being.  The bow that, for a moment, returns us to the desirable state of proper humility.  Because arrogance is one of the greatest hurdles to insight and internal peace, and humility is a key to opening that spiritual door.  In this context, the small humble bow can make such a large impact.

The Buddhist and the Hindu place open palms together, with fingers pointed upward, in front of the heart.  The separate parts (the two hands) join together into one wholeness (the form).  She bows slightly from the waist to another, or to nature’s creations, not out of inferiority but in equality.  This gesture can be for one to honor and appreciate the other: the teacher honors the student who honors the teacher.  Through this simple gesture, she can express, “The Divine Light in Me honors the Divine Light in You.”

The Muslim can drop to his knees and touch head to ground.  By this action, he can also reaffirm a lack of personal arrogance or superiority – another form of expression of personal humility shown before God and all humankind.

The Catholic can genuflect before the image of Christ in the sanctuary (or elsewhere).  It can be an intended “interruption” and refocus as she mentally hustles mindlessly from current task to the next to-do item.  The genuflection can remind her to always stop and remember God and the spiritual in the midst of one’s earthly travels and distractions.

The Christian, both Catholic and Protestant, can bow his head, using only a slight movement of the body.  That slightest of motion can be a historical protest to the old royal subservient bow, while subversively acknowledging instead a power far greater than any royal.  Combined with the joined palms of the hands, he can come quietly into prayer – a prayer not of request, begging or supplication, but of communion and connection – the unity of the hands acknowledging the unity of God and God’s creations.

The bow, however specifically performed, is intrinsic to most all branches of spiritual expression.  Done mindfully and intentionally, it can be an expression of outreach to one’s God / Nature / Universe.  To all living things.  To one’s self.  It says to the object of our attention that, “I see you.  I acknowledge you.  I respect who and what you are.  And I give thanks to and for you.”

When we bow to honor another person or thing, we simultaneously bow to honor ourselves.  Namaste.  Gassho.  Amen.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Religious Radicals And Terrorists

There are many tragic stories that have come out of the recent Boston Marathon bombing.  Stories that cause us to quietly contemplate the numerous events such as this, and whatever larger lessons we need to draw from their occurrence.  Lessons in the positive power of government and law enforcement working in cooperation, demonstrating public service at its best.  Stories of selfless heroes, rushing into potential harm’s way to help strangers in need.  These are the good stories we etch into our minds and speak of to others.

Then there are the other things we say that betray our real intentions.  I have written before that “words matter.”  They matter because words create images and impressions either for ill or good – depending upon the degree of thoughtfulness and the intentions of the speaker.  One of the worst of the thoughtless use of words is the media’s and public’s overuse of the terms “radical Islamist” or “Islamist terrorist” as they speculate on the bombing perpetrators’ sick motives.

Islam is a religion.  Islam is not a person.  Just as Christianity and other religions are a religion, not a person.  One who follows Islam has a different name – i.e. “Muslim,” one who “surrenders unto God” (as we all might well do).  Just as a follower of Christianity is a Christian but more appropriately a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, an Episcopalian, an Evangelical, etc.  These are the actual people.  People who interpret and practice what and who they believe across a wide spectrum of words and actions regarding themselves and their fellow human beings.

When we accuse someone who makes extreme statements, or takes violent actions against innocent people, as being an “Islamist radical or terrorist,” we inherently (and inappropriately) confuse the religion with the individual.  An individual who has perverted an expansive religion into a misrepresented personal belief.  Islam did not call for those bombs on Boylston Street to be set.  Rather, two young, disaffected men compensating for their self-perceived inadequacies struck back to make a public, attention-getting statement – as is the case with virtually all terrorists and mass shooters.  But when we paint them with a broad “Islamist” brush, we betray the message of love and peace in the Qur’an nearly as much as those two men betrayed it.

For whatever reasons of history and cultural bias, we seem to find it easy to incorrectly link the religion of Islam with its disaffected radicals.  But we are self-servingly reluctant to apply the same reflex to disaffected Christian radicals and terrorists.  We are quick to criticize Muslim fundamentalists, even as we willingly accept Christian fundamentalists all around us; yet both are extremely rigid interpretations of their core religious teachings.  But what else can you call a North Carolina legislator who recently proposed that Christianity be declared the official state religion?  Or the callous Westboro Baptist Church members who picket funerals of innocent victims and servicepersons as being “an affront to God?”  Or the several Christian shooters and bombers who have killed supposedly “to save lives” from abortion doctors?  Or the Catholic Oklahoma City bomber who killed adults and children as a protest against the government?  Or the bigot who indiscriminately killed peaceful Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin?  Or the small-time minister in Florida who burned the Qur’an to protest Islam and incited ill-will the world over?  Or the Fox News commentators whose continual anti-Muslim rants – done to bump up their ratings – fall just a hair short of being legally classified as “hate speech.”  These people claim a Christian affiliation, purporting that their acts and statements are done “in God’s name.”  But theirs is a God most of us do not recognize.

If we insist on speaking of “Islamist radicals and terrorists,” then let us similarly label the many “Christian radicals and terrorists” who live among us.  Let us at least be consistent in our verbal slandering of good religions and good-hearted people because of the inexplicable and despicable acts of miscreants.  Or better yet, let us just leave religion out of our terminology altogether, and simply call all purveyors of hate what a Muslim acquaintance called the 9-11 perpetrators several years ago: “These people are just a bunch of thugs.”  No religion has a monopoly on thugs.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Doer Of Good Deeds

In the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” the Tin Man laments that he has no heart.  Just a hollow, empty echo results when one taps on his metal chest.  To compensate for that and grant him his wish for a heart, the Wizard gives him a heart-shaped watch as a Testimonial recognition to his being a “Doer of Good Deeds.”  Good deeds are what a good, warm heart does.

This is a message echoed fully in most all religions.  Be generous to the poor.  Support the widows and the children.  Assist the labored with a relieving of their heavy load.  Give to charities.

The payoff for all these good works of the heart comes in the next life, or the afterlife.  In Islam and Christian teachings, we are given the image of the heavenly ledger where our actions – our good and bad deeds – are recorded through our lifetime.  If the “net balance” of good deeds outnumbers the bad, then the door of heaven will be opened for us.  Similarly, for the Buddhist, good deeds accumulate “merit,” resulting in good karma from this life transferred to our next rebirth into a higher, more realized form.

But is the doing of good deeds enough to warrant such future rewards?  I think not.  It is very easy to put a check to a favorite charity in the mail.  To volunteer at the hospital, AIDS clinic, or museum for a day and then return to the protective safety of one’s home.  To be a tutor or mentor to a schoolchild, particularly for an orphan.  Or to set aside your own personal ambitions in order to give a greater opportunity to your child.

All of these actions, and similar others, certainly constitute being “good deeds.”  But if they are done, or given, without the packaging gift of the heart, then they are a hollow gift.  As hollow as the chest of the Tin Man.

Good deeds given from the heart means that we are truly connected to the recipient of our action.  They are not a nameless, faceless being to us.  Even if we do not know them personally, we create a representative vision of them as we drop the dollar bills into the Christmas red bucket of the Salvation Army.  We give of ourselves without a need, or even a desire, for acknowledgment or recognition.  No need to sign our name over the door of the new building or the memorial plaque.  As the Taoist says, “do your work quietly, and then step back again.”

We do our good deeds with no expectation or demand for an equal return.  There are no IOUs in truly good deeds, no reciprocal contracts.  As Jesus explained to us, a large gift made with no sacrifice means less than a small gift of great sacrifice.  Good deeds are a one-way gift, with no chains of obligation attached.  The gift of “freedom” is always embedded in a good work.  Yet we also know fully in our hearts that “we reap what we sow.”  That “what we send out comes back to us many-fold.”

Good deeds are not deposits made into our heavenly salvation accounts.  They are not design fees for shaping our rebirth.  True good deeds are simply expressions of what is already perfect in our own heart – the very Buddha-nature that already resides in each of us, waiting to be realized.  They are simply the ways that we find to express our best feelings toward one another, towards all living things, without keeping score.

Good deeds are the way we emulate God, through realizing that piece of God that is already in us.  In our generosity, truly good deeds are the gift of our expression that we give to ourselves.  So that when we tap on our chest, we do not hear the empty echo of the Tin Man.  Rather, we hear the warm gong of God’s voice speaking within us.  To us.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Words And The Messages

There are four great Master Teachers who have most extensively influenced religious thought in this world: chronologically, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad.  In each case, I find it beyond “coincidence” that none of these four wrote down their own teachings.  Moses and Buddha were each raised in royal households; Jesus spent formal study with rabbinical teachers in the synagogue.  These three Teachers were clearly literate and their lack of writing is presumed to be by deliberate choice.  Muhammad was an uneducated trader, though his wife and family had benefit of literacy.  His non-writing was structural, not chosen.

The result is that, in all instances, their great teachings come to us as a recaptured oral history, written down by their followers as remembered details.  In some instances this occurred hundreds of years after the fact.  As important as their teaching mission for God was, why were these teachings left to such chance, such potential for ambiguity and therefore misunderstanding or misrepresentation?

Language is an imperfect art, and is anything but a definitive way of accurately communicating a thought between two people.  Communicating a thought accurately in written form, without benefit of inflection, body language, tone or immediate give-and-take feedback is even more difficult, creating even greater opportunities for mis-communication.  Virtually all of the written teachings from each of these four Masters came as notes from their public talks, not from meticulously thought out creations of the scholarly written word.  In public discourse, these Masters could rely on all the verbal nuances to accompany their teachings.  In such settings, they knew that their listeners would be focusing on the comprehensive purpose, finding the overall point, of their message, not analyzing and agonizing over each tiny word particle and its many potentially shaded meanings.

Which is just what we see happening today.  Academic scholars, religious school instructors, and clerical leaders spend untold hours debating word etymologies and arguing over “precise” meanings and their diverse interpretations.  It is as if one particular word or phrase – likely translated through multiple languages several times over – is thought to hold the key to ultimate spiritual meaning.  Meanwhile, the real point of simply “be kind to one another” gets lost in the analytical exercise.  These Master Teachers spoke of spiritual forests; people today often fight about religious trees.  Which is why those Teachers avoided the temptation of the written page, knowing that such exercises would be best left to their followers to come.

When we do reading meditation, we avoid such limited wordsmanship.  We return to, and hear anew, the original lessons these Teachers spoke to us.  We read slowly, deeply, and repetitively enough so that we give up the words.  Instead, we listen to the sentences, hear the paragraphs, and then finally understand the meanings that these Teachers gave to us.  Words are the gymnastics of the mind.  The paragraphs are the messages of God.  Listen for the real point.  Consider that point deeply.  Thereby, walk a step closer on the path to being as One with God.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Man + Woman

Have you ever wondered why God created man and woman as separate beings from each other?  Thousands of centuries have been spent with these two forms trying to understand and coexist well with each other.  So it might be understandably tempting to think that God could have come up with a less difficult arrangement for being one “human being” rather than two subdivisions.

The obvious difference in the genders is the sexual one, which provides a specific method for reproduction.  But in the Jewish-Christian heritage, animal life came before human creation, so it seems that human reproduction was simply patterned after our animal predecessors.  Besides, God is more than smart enough to have come up with a different form of reproduction without separation if so desired.  Especially given that reproduction and birth occupy such a small portion of our lifetimes.  Once birth occurs, “Mr. Mom” has repeatedly shown that child-raising can be adequately accomplished by either gender.  So one assumes that there has to be a larger reason than just reproduction for there being “man and woman” instead of one singular “human.”

When we think about all the things that make up Life and human existence, the range of component elements is beyond our comprehension.  What can be seen, felt, experienced, thought, understood and formed is endless.  Therefore what constitutes being human is an endless definition with few boundaries.  If our purpose in life is simply to fully experience and learn what all of Life truly is, to thereby be able to see and know as God sees and knows, then this vast breadth of “being” outstrips the capacity of most of us.  So God created “gender” to make the task of “experiencing human” a bit more manageable for us.

God made man and woman separately in order to define human beings more clearly.  So the human essence could be seen more clearly and thereby better explored.  The human is a complex being, with a makeup that is almost beyond the ability for an individual person to assimilate and manage.  It is potentially too overwhelming to people, particularly so in primitive human beings.

So specialization was in order.  The singular human was separated into the two more manageable parts of man and woman.  Two parts into which those many human aspects could be reduced into a more workable number so as to be lived out, explored, experienced, and perfected more fully.  And since many human aspects also have what appear to be their “opposite” aspect, these seeming contradictions could exist in the separate “man and woman” forms with reduced internal conflict.

Man and woman exemplify the seeming contradictions found in our separateness.  Yet all aspects exist in both man and woman.  By bringing these two beings into juxtaposition, they can provide the means by which we discover all human aspects within our own self.  As our collective humanity matures more and more – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – the separation between genders becomes more blurred.  Each gender is able to understand the other’s aspects even more, in turn allowing each person to grow within him/herself.  It is a growing that continues until that ultimate time when separation is only in the physical; the spiritual separation is no longer needed.

The sexual act may be primarily about reproduction of the species.  But it is also the means by which humans can bridge their separation, understand the essence of each other, and merge those together even if only in the moment.  That physical union must suffice until one reaches the ultimate spiritual reunion of all human aspects within one’s own self.

It is in the union of our separateness, the union of that which we think of as “male” and as “female,” that humanness is formed.  The dichotomy of our separateness yields into a comfortable paradox that makes up part of our full humanness.  And it is in becoming fully Human that we also find God.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Cherry-Picking Morality

Charlie Fuqua was a Republican candidate for the Arkansas legislature in November 2012.  In a book he had written prior to the campaign, he called for parents to put their rebellious children to death as punishment, thereby serving notice to all children to “give proper respect to their parents.”  Fuqua based his proposal on Deuteronomy 21:18-21 / Leviticus 20:9 in the Old Testament which in fact specifies such punishment.  Even in today’s conservative Republican Arkansas, this was deemed over-the-top rhetoric.  Fuqua lost handily to his Democratic opponent, garnering only 30% of the vote.

As incomprehensible as Mr. Fuqua’s story may be on its face, it nevertheless highlights one of the larger problems we have in today’s political and religious debate in America.  Deuteronomy is the last of the first five books of the Old Testament which comprise the Jewish Torah – its most sacred text.  The Torah enumerates the Laws (Instructions) of human conduct, stated as being given from God through Moses.  In the 12th Century, the Jewish rabbi and scholar Maimonides extracted an authoritative list of 613 such commandments covering a vast range of topics ranging from one’s relationship with God, rituals and observances, and managing the circumstances of one’s daily life.  These 613 Commandments can be exhausting in their scope and detail.  But the larger question highlighted by Mr. Fuqua’s pronouncement is the relevancy of these religious laws written 3000 years ago to our lives in the 21st Century, and how these particular laws apply to the Jewish and Christian religions of today.

Some of the Commandments are clearly not applicable today because they focus on situations which no longer exist.  But what of the remainder covering many situations implicitly condoned by having rules to govern them but rejected by our social norms today?  Do we really choose to execute people for the numerous situations specified in many of these commandments?  Many Americans are highly opposed to what they understand about the strict cruelty of Shari’ah Law practiced in some Islamic-based countries or tribes.  But do those same Americans understand that many of these Shari’ah Laws have their precedence 1500 years earlier in the Old Testament – rules carried from Leviticus into the Qur’an reflective of Muhammad’s admiration for the Jewish religion?

A number of books, articles, and theses attempt to grapple with how the Mosaic Laws apply or not to Judaism today.  Similarly, there are volumes of torturously and numbingly convoluted arguments about how Christians are or are not bound by these laws, reflecting Christianity’s continuing 2000 year struggle with its Jewish heritage.  Most of this intellectual argument centers around the idea of a “New Covenant” from God through Jesus to replace the Old Covenant of Abraham and Moses – even though Jesus never claimed an intention to replace the existing law but only to “fulfill” it – i.e. fulfilling it by embodying the old law and demonstrating the heart of it by his own words and actions.

This is the slippery slope we cascade down when we try to have it both ways: to pick and choose what articles of our religious dogma we elect to adhere to, YET claim that our choices are still “God’s Law.”  Questioning and working through a set of spiritual beliefs is an expected obligation in Buddhist practice to ensure that one’s beliefs are truly one’s own, not simply an imposed imprint of parental or cultural teachings.  In the Catholic Church, decrees from the Pope are considered theologically to be final, unarguable, and beyond selectivity.  Yet in America (and increasingly in Europe) devout congregants are making many self-selected decisions about religious and secular moral obligations.  In Protestantism, the very existence of its numerous denominations reflects a need to discern selected beliefs from a body of teachings or the myriad interpretations as to the applicability of those teachings.

Once we remove the first brick from the walls of our dogma – whether from the Torah, the New Testament, or the Qur’an – then we also lay waste to the claim that what remains is “mandated by God.”  Freedom of choice in religious dogma means the selected dogma must then be justified by reason, by conscience, or by faith.  Any of these justifications can be spiritually and morally acceptable.  But arguing that what remains is “God’s will” is hypocritical and untrue.

When our preachers stand in the pulpit and spread hatred and hurtfulness towards others and claim that it is God’s will and laws, I unhesitatingly reject their arrogant claims of authority to determine God’s mandate.  I choose to believe that Leviticus 18:22 written 3000 years ago saying, “A man will not lie with mankind as with a woman” is trumped 1000 years later by Jesus’ message of love towards one another.  (No prohibition is stated in the Torah regarding female homosexuality, and Jesus never spoke about homosexuality at all.)  I choose to accept polygamous relationships (assuming all involved voluntarily seek it) which is governed by biblical law and thereby implicitly condoned, and see no basis for government intervention in such relationships.  I choose to reject any form of slavery, in spite of it being condoned biblically, as being abhorrent to my rational mind and the laws of this Nation for which individual freedom is an ethical and spiritual necessity.

Furthermore, I choose not to execute my rebellious children, no matter how difficult they may prove to be – or what Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says for me to do.  And when someone says that our concept of punishment and justice should be “an eye for an eye” because God said so through Moses (Exodus 21:24), I will point to Rule # 196 in the Hammurabi Code written on a rock tablet in Babylonia @500 years before Moses that says, “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”  Are Hammurabi’s 282 laws also from God, and are they too still applicable today as “God’s Will?”

If one picks and chooses only the Laws of God that one personally likes, but still uses “God’s Will” as the justification for those selected laws, then I ask that person to thereby honor ALL of the laws.  If not, then let us go in peace with each other, living the best moral life as we can best determine, drawn from the best teachings of those most admirable teachers who have gone before us.  The teachings that best bring us into peaceful being with all that is around us.

(For a free digital copy of my summary of Maimonides’ 613 Commandments from the Torah that underlie this posting, email your request to Info@MckeeLearningFoundation.com)


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Our Personal Creation Story

When we read the various creation stories that have appeared across cultures and religions, on the surface they are stories to explain how our outer world came into being.  The world we can see, touch, and with which we interact.  How those things may have truly come about was beyond the capacity of early human beings to comprehend, just as there are many questions about creation that still today are beyond our capacity to understand in spite our current grasp of modern science.  So the explanation had to be in a form that could be comprehended by people of those early times – the traditional stories and myths of our creation.

In truth, our questions are not really just about the creation of the outer world in which we live.  Rather, the desire for explanation is really more fundamental: a universal need to answer the question “Where Did I Come From?”  Which then leads to the question of “Who Am I?”  And from that, the bigger question of “Where Am I Going?”  If we think of these various stories as simply multiple façades over a single repetitive structural blueprint for creation, and see the stories handed to us as really a model for how all things were created, then a creation story can tell us a great deal about our own creation, our own selves.

For example, consider the creation story told in the Torah, a familiar story of beginnings shared by Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.  The first step (day) of creation existed in a void of nothingness but water and darkness, until God said, “Let there be light” – and so there was light.  God’s light.  In that same way, my life came from nothingness, a void until God created my soul from a particle of God’s spirit, sparked by the illuminating source of God’s light.

In the second step (day) of creation, God created “an expanse in the midst of the water, [to] separate water from water,” thereby creating “Sky” (Heaven).  In that same way, a space in that Sky was created for me, the place where my soul was originally formed and resided; the spiritual home from which I came, and the spiritual home to which I will return.

In the third step (day) of creation, God “gathered the water below the sky into one area so that dry land may appear,” thereby creating Earth and the Seas.  On the land, God then “brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.”  In that same way, the egg within the woman separated the water of the womb to become the available soil into which the seed of the man could be planted and bear fruit.

In the fourth step (day) of creation, God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night [and] serve as signs for the … days and the years … two great lights, the greater (sun) to dominate the day and the lesser light (moon) to dominate the night, and the stars.”  It was the creation of the dimension of “time.”  In that same way, my fertilization and development occurred within a structured process over nine months of time; my human life has then transpired in subsequent steps through measured time over years (versus my spiritual life, which is timeless).  Each day is measured by the rise and setting of the sun and each night’s passing of the moon.  The sun is my creation father, the moon is my creation mother.  Both come together to parent and watch over my life through each passing day.

In the fifth step (day) of creation, God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and the birds that fly above the earth.”  In that same way, my life began in the warmth of my mother’s water, water regulated by the Mother Moon, starting in the simplest form of a cell, yet a cell with all the capacities to potentially support life.  Around me, the Universal Spirits traverse the world, unbounded by place, keeping watch over all.  In their flight, the birds call to the soaring aspirations of freedom and movement that live in our hearts; remind us of our ability to travel far beyond where we may find ourselves physically and spiritually; and point the way to our personal connection from Earth to Sky (Heaven).

In the sixth step (day) of creation, God brought forth “every kind of living creature: cattle, creeping things, and wild beasts of every kind.”  And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” …  “Male and female, God created them” … and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.”  In that same way, I first passed through basic mammalian facets to develop my physical capacities and instincts.  Then and only then did I begin to evolve to my human “self,” moving inevitably toward human birth, in the image that God “image-d” (imagined) for me.  Until I emerged physically formed, ready to begin the learning necessary to become capable and ready to master the earth.  To rule all living things in God’s stead for whatever time period God may allow for me.

The Creation story of Earth is likewise the creation story of each of us.  It is a deliberate, sequential, building-block process that is repeated in the appropriate way to create all forms of life.  The details, the mechanics, the character names, the time frames may change as we continue to learn more of the technical secrets behind God’s creations.  Seen differently, our “science” is simply a new creation story for contemporary human beings.

Our creation stories give us a shared reference for our common existence.  Read deeply and expansively rather than superficially, they guide us to a deeper understanding of creation beyond its mechanics, but to a fuller understanding of God’s purpose guidance for our lives.  It is up to each of us to draw the appropriate lessons from these insights.  The miracle and grandeur of The Creation is also the miracle and grandeur of our own creation, the metaphorical answer to Where Did I Come From.  It is the miracle of Who I Am.  The grandeur of Where I Am Going.

(From www.McKeeLearningFoundation.com : for a free digital copy of my collection of over 50 creation stories that underlie this posting, email your request to Info@MckeeLearningFoundation.com )

Friday, January 11, 2013

Religious Commonalities

In talking about the place and impact of religion in our lives today, people most often focus on the differences among our many traditions.  It is this focus on our differences that regrettably leads to much of our cultural and religious difficulties.  But what is interesting is that when you set aside the specific religious texts used, the rituals observed, the religious laws and judgments proscribed, and the earthly politics of religious power, what remains is the core spiritual essence of each religion.  At that core level, there is far more commonality than one might choose to acknowledge.

I recently completed a review of over 50 historical “Creation Stories” from cultures and religions across the globe.  These stories were developed thousands of years ago by peoples living in isolated communities, unaware of the others inhabiting this planet.  Yet in spite of their extreme isolation from each other, each culture developed its own story of creation, expressed in the geography, language, and life symbols of its natural environment.  The name of the Creator changes; the role and form of the Creator’s helpers change; the position of nature and all its beings varies; but all of these elements are there.  And the plot lines follow remarkably similar construction.

Regardless of one’s ancestral lineage, there is a creation story to be told.  They are embedded in our collective and individual psyche, coming out in the way a core thought in our brain will manifest itself in a thousand different dream scenarios.  Different chapters of the same recurring story.

This commonality of the creation stories moves us to think about other shared commonalities in spiritual expression.  Our hands, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, placed at chest level, are a near-universal sign of spiritual respect, union, and prayer.  Prayer, engaging in conversational dialog with a Creator, or simply with just “something” vastly different than ourselves, requesting intervention or just guidance in our daily lives, is foundational to spiritual practice.  Going off alone to contemplate in quiet is a practice that has long attracted mystic and layperson alike, even if the styles may take many different forms.  Advanced knowledge of science and architecture in primitive ancient minds allowed them to capture the first light of a solstice or other recurring cosmic event in the intricate design of their temples.

It is this timelessness, this commonality, that speaks to us when we stand in the ruins of a Machu Picchu or Stonehenge, or another ancient religious site.  That same voice calls to us in rituals handed down over thousands of years.  It is the voice of a common human desire to know God from whom our life, and all life, is derived.  We speak to that God in different words, languages and gestures.  But innately we share a common map of different paths to the One same destination.  The commonality at the core heart of our many religions is the commonality that transcends all of humankind and binds us together.