Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Living Body of Poetry

Reading and listening to the news makes the Psalms come to life. Children threatened with separation from their families, international tensions, indigenous people displaced from their homeland. Even in this too-brief sampling of common headline topics a person can find plenty of reason, as the psalmist did in his own context, to shake a fist at heaven, tear one's garments, beg for mercy and cry out for justice.

When I am caught up in my own mostly comfortable life, the Psalms are hard to reach, both their anguish and their ecstasy remote from my daily grind. As soon as I graze the surface of human suffering, however, the words of the Psalter become vivid, potent, a living body of poetry pulsing with human feeling and desire.

Here is at least one good reason to read both the news and the Psalms: to remember that I am part of the human family, which is also to remember my responsibility for the welfare of that family.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Kingdom of Compassion

When Jesus is called the son of God, or especially the only son of God, in the gospels and the New Testament letters, it is not, as I was taught, to set him in opposition or claim his superiority to other faith leaders. Neither the gospel writers nor Paul had likely ever heard of the Buddha. Muhammad wouldn't come on the scene for several hundred years. The gods of the Hindu pantheon don't seem to have shadowed their writings.

Who's divine pedigree was being denied, then, if not the gods and leaders of other faiths? According to several prominent scripture scholars, and, if one reads closely, to the New Testament writers themselves, it was the political and military rulers of the day, those who exercised absolute power, especially over the people on the margins of society.

Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man of his time, actually claimed divinity for himself. He called himself the Son of God. The gospel writers knew this. Paul knew this. Jesus knew this. Caesar's reign was part of the world in which they lived. And it was in direct opposition to Caesar, to both his claim of divinity and his position as world ruler and all that his empire stood for, that the early followers of Jesus founded their movement. They were not interested in establishing the one true religion. Jesus’ mission for them was much more grand than that. He wanted them to announce, and more importantly, to embody, a new world order, to help him establish an empire built on compassion, radical equality, unexpected abundance and unconditional love for all.

I find this view of Jesus’ claim to divinity, that his lordship trumps Caesar’s (rather than the Buddha’s or Muhammad's), both refreshing and challenging. It is refreshing because, after all, how could a man who spent so much of his public life sending shockwaves through the oppressive social and religious institutions of his day turn around and establish a religion that excludes anyone who doesn’t believe in him? It doesn’t add up.

The challenge, though, is that when I set aside the question of whose religion is the most true I am faced with the question of what I am doing each day to announce and embody the kingdom of compassion, equality, abundance and love over which Jesus reigns. But I would rather be troubled by this question than comforted by the false assurance of having correct beliefs.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Mundane Way Column

My latest Mundane Way article was published last week in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The article recounts an experience of forgiveness that came more as a gift than something I worked for. Enjoy!

Guitar Lessons and the Gift of Forgiveness

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Books That Have Rescued My Faith

This post is a sort of follow-up or footnote to my earlier post, “Watering the Soil,” posted on April 13, 2019.

I am reading a moving book by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, which works to educate and employ gang members in Los Angeles. Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, is a beautiful testament to what the kingdom of God can look like in the twenty-first century.

In the book, Boyle sprinkles his heartful stories with quotes from various Christian writers. Reading these quotes, all gathered in one place and in such a spiritually powerful context, I realized how much these same writers have done to rescue Christian faith for me, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully retrieving it from the confines of the fundamentalist package in which I originally received it and giving it new life and meaning.

Yesterday, as I read another of these quotes from Boyle’s book, a surge of gratitude welled up in my chest. I lifted my face and thanked God for these beloved teachers, without whom my relationship with the religion of my childhood, of my culture, would be dead.

Here is a selected list of the authors, my Christ-haunted brothers and sisters, who have rescued and are rescuing my faith:

Philip Yancey: Soul Survivor
Marcus Borg: The Heart of Christianity, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time
Anne Lamott: Traveling Mercies, Plan B, Grace (Eventually)
Frederick Buechner: The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets, The Eyes of the Heart
Gregory Boyle: Tattoos on the Heart
Barbara Brown Taylor: Leaving Church
Rachel Held Evans: Searching for Sunday
Kathleen Norris: The Cloister Walk
Gary Wills: What Jesus Meant
N.T. Wright: Simply Jesus
Richard Rohr: Falling Upward
Madeleine L’Engle: A Circle of Quiet
Dorothy Day: All the Way to Heaven
Joan Chittister: Called to Question

Friday, April 19, 2019

Thoughts on Observing the Sabbath

In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that part of what Sabbath looks like for her is living as though all her work is done. I like this as a guiding principle for Sabbath observance. I would set next to it the principle of doing the opposite of what I normally do, as a way to bring balance and rest. Since I spend much of the week sitting and looking at a screen, Sabbath for me might include walking around outside for a while. Since I spend my work days doing mentally taxing work, Sabbath might include mentally restful activities: doing puzzles, playing board games, or reading something light and entertaining. Perhaps most pertinent for me, since I spend most of my waking hours trying to improve myself, Sabbath must include rest from that heavy labor and the willingness, for twenty-four hours at least, to call my self good. To know myself to be beloved as I am.

True Sabbath requires an interior rest, the cessation of the inner striving to do and be more than I am right now. This means letting go, for one day, of projects, plans, agendas, new ideas, cravings for possessions or pleasures, and the desire to be productive. It means letting myself and the world be. In practice, it means recalling my mind each time it tries to run down these familiar channels, bringing it back to the present moment, and reminding it that, for this day, all is well. It means giving the body, mind and spirit the rest they need to be refreshed and ready to take up the work of becoming human again for another week.

For six days we work to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. On the Sabbath, we celebrate its arrival.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Watering the Soil

As an intellectually oriented person and a book lover, I have tended to put too much faith in the written word. The excitement of new ideas, the pleasure of an eloquent turn of phrase and, frankly, the cheap but powerful satisfaction of thinking I know something that someone else doesn't have too often driven me to read books of great spiritual value without profiting much from them. I simply read too many books too quickly to digest the gist of any of them. Before I finished one, my mind had already begun to hunt for the next, always looking past the wisdom offered in the present toward some supposedly greater wisdom in the future. This kind of reading was more compulsive than intentional. It stimulated but did not transform.

Over the years my unhealthy relationship with spiritual reading has changed. Thanks to my spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran, I am coming to believe that truth and wisdom are not to be found among the aromatic pages and black ink of a paperback but within my own spirit. Spiritual reading has become, under the influence of this new perspective, more an exercise than a hunt, a way to gradually develop and shape the mind and the heart.

Truth is not a prey to be captured but a plant that must be allowed to grow from its own ground. Reading is one way to water the soil.

Friday, March 22, 2019

This Feels Like Prayer

Last fall I took my nine-month-old daughter outside a little after five o’clock in the morning. She had been up most of the night with a snotty nose and had apparently thrown up at one point because of all the drainage. In the dark of my bedroom I felt for an outfit to put on her, got her dressed, then took her out the back door. Despite the fact that we live in area with considerable light pollution, the stars were vivid and pointy. I quickly identified the Big and Little dippers as well as Orion’s Belt. Thin white clouds moved slowly between us and the stars. The moon hid somewhere behind the tall old oak trees. I paced in my flip flops up and down the gravel driveway, turning over small bits of rock with each step.

My daughter lay in my arms, her head in the crook of my left elbow. For the first several minutes she gazed at the lights around her: my next-door neighbor's porch light, the street lamps, the light from our laundry room near the back door. Crickets chirped their final few songs. A plane gave a small blast as it left the airport a few miles away. Back and forth we went, down toward the street, turning before the light from the streetlamp got too bright, then turning again near the back door. Trying to stay in the dark. A few blocks away, a dump truck slammed its massive metal bins onto the road.

No birds sang. No cars passed on our street. We were enveloped by cricket music, punctuated by the scuffing of my flip flops on the gravel and an occasional sucking noise from my daughter's pacifier.

Before long, she began to drift off, her eyelids sliding down slowly, then raising, then sliding down again. Finally, they slid down and stayed. I continued walking with her in the driveway for another ten or fifteen minutes, partly to make sure she was asleep, but also to enjoy the relative quiet, to feel the satisfaction of helping the baby go to sleep, to listen to the crickets a while longer, and to imbibe as much silence as possible through the veil of ambient noise. Mostly I kept walking because I don’t get outside as much as I’d like to, and I’ve discovered that there is more real silence outside, even in a noisy place, than there is in the quietest room in the house.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Voices of Faith

Here are a couple articles I wrote in 2015 and 2016 for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The newspaper started a weekly column called Voices of Faith, and I published these articles in that column before it was discontinued.

Article: Meditation is much more than just relaxing

Article: Fostering a sense of gratitude

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Blazing with Glory

After reading the day's prayers and scripture selections from my small copy of Magnificat magazine the other day, I looked out from my office into the school library and was momentarily stunned by the fact of God's presence. Not that I felt anything directly, but I was struck by the truth that God was there--in that room, that building, at that moment. Through my doorway I saw the beat-up computers and the tiled ceiling strung with orange lights for Halloween. For the moment there were no students, and somehow their absence enhanced my sense of the Presence that filled the room--filled and embraced it at the same time, even though no one was there to be filled and embraced by it. This Presence, I realized, suffuses the room day after day, pouring itself moment by moment into every painted cinder block in the wall, every wooden chair, every book standing on the old shelves, every pixel on every scratched and smudged computer screen. This ordinary room blazes with glory. How veiled our eyes must be not to be blinded in an instant.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Passing Fox

Now that it is fall I have been opening a window in my meditation corner in the morning. With the blinds up and the window cracked, the dark seeps in with the cool air, along with the stirring sounds of the approaching dawn.

One morning, as I sat on my meditation bench, eyes closed, knees on the floor, I heard a smallish creature trot by just below the open window. In spring or summer I would likely not have heard anything, but with a blanket of brown leaves on the ground, the nimble feet made a light crunching sound on their way through the yard.

The animal's gait was too rhythmic for a squirrel's distinct intermittent patter, which is often followed by a sharp rattle as it scurries up the chain link fence or scratches its way around the grooved bark of an oak tree. Nor was the passing animal loud or loping enough to be a loose dog, common as those are in the neighborhood. Neither was it a bird, hopping about and kicking up leaves to get at the bugs and worms in the grass.

I seemed to know intuitively that the creature passing below the window on this chilly morning was a fox, one of the family that has built a den across the street in the narrow, wooded border between two properties. I was glad of its brief company, its stealth and cleverness a four-footed reminder of the ego I was trying to tame from my perch on the bench.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Cost of Comfort

Mainstream American culture is addicted to security, convenience and comfort. Ads of all kinds bombard us endlessly, promising products and services that will please, excite, satisfy, comfort or reassure us just the way we like. In short, they're selling a fantasy. Life is not always comfortable, secure or convenient. It is often messy, uncertain, fragile, confusing and unpredictable.

What is the cost of our dependence on comfort, security and convenience? In addition to the strain on our wallets, what is it costing the earth, our bodies, our communities, our souls?

I don't want to get extreme about this, but it might not hurt to allow myself to experience a bit of discomfort or to live with a minor inconvenience rather than buy something to "fix" it. If consumerism is the belief that the solution to every problem or the fulfillment of every need ends with a purchase, I could try instead to imagine solutions and satisfactions that don't involve acquiring another product.

A small example that I've recently begun experimenting with is turning to my public library, rather than to Amazon or even a local bookstore, when I want something new to read. The selection may not be as vast or eclectic, but the books are free and only temporarily take up space in my home. Plus, I believe there is actually a benefit to the limitation of choice. Since consumerism entails the proliferation of preferences and the cultivation of discontent, any attempt to limit my options and accept what is offered can gradually uproot these insidious tendencies and teach me appreciation and gratitude.

And learning to be appreciative and grateful can bring true comfort when life's inevitable challenges come my way.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Telling the Truth?

I think very young children children know much more of Truth in a much more immediate way than adults can fathom. They can't tell us about it, of course, but not because their vocabulary or linguistic development are lacking. It's because there are no words with which to tell such a thing. Even those rare souls who have glimpsed Truth as grown men and women are ultimately at a loss to convey what they've seen, though many have tried and I'm grateful for their efforts. The Truth as seen by children and mystics cannot be described fully; it can only be experienced fully. So say those who have had the experience, anyway. I wouldn't know. What a child knows intuitively, the youth slowly forgets, and the adult must work tirelessly for the rest of his life to have even a faint hope of recovering it.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

No Need for Shame

The growing awareness of one's imperfection that comes with spiritual progress is not a shame-filled experience, but a pure, humble and healing awareness. It comes as we begin to glimpse, very faintly, the vastness of divine love, the depths of peace, the unshakable faith of those precious few souls who know God face to face. In these glimpses, we realize that the perfection to which we are called is so far from our current state that to feel ashamed seems silly. The task is so nearly impossible that it's a wonder we're on the path at all.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Path at My Feet

I am drawn to the idea that I may be "used" by God in many ways of which I am unaware. This possibility regularly quells the ego-driven notion that I should be doing something "special" or more "spiritual" than what I'm already doing in my daily life. Instead of getting up in the middle of the night with my young daughter, or changing the oil in our family's cars, or bringing home enough money to allow my wife to stay home with our children, I should (so my ego says) be volunteering at a homeless shelter, leading a meditation retreat or protesting mountain top removal. Of course any of these things have their place and they all meet real needs, but I'm not sure they are more important, more spiritual or more meritorious than the other activities. I don't think God does the same kind of spiritual accounting that I do.

Nevertheless, I must acknowledge that the "God works in mysterious ways" principle can be a cop out. God will use me however he wants, so I'll just go about my life without worrying too much about how I live or how my actions affect others. Of course it's usually not that conscious, but somewhere this thought can lurk in the mind. The saving principle here, I think, the thing that prevents aloofness and spiritual oblivion is the daily practice of spiritual disciplines, which anchor me to Something bigger than my own small and stingy will. These disciplines serve as a small beam of light by which to steer my course in tiny increments. With this beam I can at least see the next step, though I may never, and probably need never, see the whole path at once.

Several years ago on a camping trip I was walking from the campsite to the community bathroom. It was night and I lit my way by shining a flashlight several yards in front of me. I could not see the ground at my feet. To my right a young boy was heading in the same direction. He also carried a flashlight, but he pointed the beam straight down, illuminating the path at his feet. In this way he could pick his way safely through the woods. Beside him walked his father, whose presence he could sense and whom he followed intuitively. He didn't need to see where he was going, only to know he was close to his father as he tried to keep from falling on the path.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Allow Him to Carry You

“If you die a little bit every day of your life, you won’t have too much to worry about on your final day.”

Die before you die. I read that somewhere a while back. Die before you die. Suffer the sloughing off of old thoughts, resentments, fears, calcified guilt. Allow the withering of your self-will, your craving for selfish pleasures large and small, your demands for certainty and comfort beyond what you can reach through faith. Absolute certainty and comfort come only after the ego dies. Pursue the death of the ego, but not fanatically. Keep in step with God, whose pace will seem slow at times. When it does, that is good. It means you are allowing him to carry you. Imagine a small child walking beside her father. Though the father walks slowly, the child must hurry to keep up. But if he picks her up, she no longer seems to be moving quickly, though her rate of progress has not changed. If you try to outpace God by walking on your own, you will tire out and may lose your way. Pursue liberation with patient persistence, and trust God to set the pace.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Faith and Practice

“One should not reason too much; it is enough if one loves the Lotus Feet of the Mother.”

This hits me today. I was just thinking (there I go again!) about how I have such trouble keeping my attention on the mantram whenever I try to repeat it. I believe part of the reason is I start thinking about the mantram: how important it is to repeat it regularly, the benefits of doing so, how I might find more opportunities to do it, and so on. Of course, the minute this kind of pondering begins I’ve lost the mantram itself. What’s so damned frustrating is I often don’t even notice that I’m getting pulled away before I’m down the rabbit hole again. Ultimately what drives my distraction is fear. I am afraid, or rather my ego is afraid, of the emptiness, the void into which it seems the mantram will carry me. Absence of thought equals absence of self, and absence of self equals nothingness, a blank. So the reasoning mind sees it. And in a sense it is true, the great ones say. But they also talk of fullness, of wholeness, of union, and of abiding joy. In other words, words are inadequate. The thing must be experienced. But without long and arduous practice, the experience will never come. And in the face of existential fear, keeping up the practice can feel Sisyphean. This is where faith is essential, I am beginning to see. Faith in the words of the teacher, in the lives and testimonies of the saints and mystics. Faith can carry me far beyond reason, deep into the abyss from which the intellect recoils. I believe it is only through faith that I can hope to grow in the grip of doubt.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Sign of God's Favor

"At once the spirit sent him out into the desert."

Mark 1:12

This statement immediately follows God's declaration of love for and approval of Jesus after Jesus is baptized by John. Maybe God wanted Jesus to be aware of his favor before he entered the challenging period in the desert.

Don't take difficulty as a sign of God's absence or displeasure. It may be just the opposite.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Turning Left

“The situations we struggle with that are the most difficult for us are also the ones in which we need mindfulness the most.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

As Eknath Easwaran says frequently in his talks, pain is necessary for growth. In times of difficulty or uncertainty, spiritual practice becomes a lifeline, and if I allow challenging circumstances to drive me deeper into my practice, rather than away from it, I will be making the most of my pain. Someone told me recently something to the effect that it is not getting an answer that does me good but seeking an answer. The desire and the search are what shape my thoughts, my character, my life. This does not mean I need to spend a long time struggling with, pondering or grasping for a solution to a particular problem. It means I am to remain open, curious, unattached, willing to take the next step in the process but equally willing to find the path blocked and to turn in another direction. As one person, describing their way of discerning God’s will for their life, put it, “Keep walking until you hit a wall, then turn left.”

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Broader View

As much as I benefit from having a routine, I seem to benefit just as much from having occasional breaks from the routine. Stepping away from my daily and weekly rounds offers perspective, giving me a broader view of my path and where I might be headed. Without this vantage, it would be extremely difficult to reflect meaningfully on my life and make the needed adjustments.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Burden of Possessions

“...anything beyond need tends to become burdensome. If you have it, you have to take care of it!”
Peace Pilgrim

Simplicity of living is a worthy goal, but how does one already loaded down with possessions go about it? Perhaps it’s different for each person. Some may be able to rid themselves of most of their stuff without much trouble. Others may need to unburden themselves gradually. What comes to me as I consider Peace Pilgrim’s statement is that the first step may be simply to observe for myself the truth of what she says.

Do I see how some of my unnecessary possessions have become a burden, either because of the upkeep they require, the money I spend to hold onto them, or the energy I use fussing over them when they break? In what other ways do my possessions become a burden? How do they weigh me down or cause me trouble that could be avoided if I didn’t have them? What would I stand to gain by giving them up?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Diverse Devotion

This post is a reflection on a poem by Meera, a 16th-century poet and mystic of India.

The quality that stands out to me in this poem is devotion. It’s a quality I often envy in other spiritual aspirants, particularly those who have a strong attachment to a particular divine incarnation: Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus. Though I grew up in the Christian tradition, in which personal devotion to Jesus is an essential component, I have not often felt a strong connection to any divine figure. Somewhere in his writings Eknath Easwaran suggests that we abandon the search for our own Divine Ideal and instead place ourselves humbly at the feet of them all, letting one of them choose us instead. I find this advice comforting and have reminded myself of it many times, especially when I feel discouraged about my apparent lack of devotion. Still, it sometimes seems that the Divine Ideals are taking their time making a decision.

I can say without hesitation, however, that I am devoted to the practice of Easwaran's eight points, and if what Meera says is true--that the teacher is “the path and the goal”--then my devotion to the teachings is equivalent to devotion to the teacher. As Easwaran himself said, “I live in my eight-point program.” By extension, since Easwaran emphasizes the unity of all paths to God, I can say I am devoted to all teachers of the path. This to me is very much in the spirit of Easwaran, who praised his grandmother as his spiritual teacher, Sri Krishna as his Beloved Boss and Gandhi as a prime example of contemporary spiritual genius. He also expressed intense affection and admiration for the Compassionate Buddha and deep respect for Jesus.

Following the example of my teacher, then, I can embrace my own diverse devotion, and if a particular Divine Ideal deigns to choose me as a devotee, it will be my pleasure to be at His or Her service.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Impossible Yearning

“Let each man follow his own path. If he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God, peace be unto him! He will surely realize Him.”

Sri Ramakrishna

I am comforted and encouraged by the first part of Sri Ramakrishna’s statement. My path, which to me doesn’t seem that unique or strange now, is certainly outside the bounds of what was acceptable in the religious context in which I grew up, and may perhaps still seem strange to many who profess faith in Christianity, particularly in this part of the country. I am continually grateful to have the loving words of great masters like Ramakrishna, Swami Ramdas and my own teacher, Eknath Easwaran, to remind me that there are indeed many paths to God. What is less comforting is the second part of the statement, that one must “sincerely and ardently” desire union with God in order to reach the goal. Despite my strong and increasing commitment to spiritual practice and inner growth, I confess I still lack the deep and all-encompassing yearning for complete liberation. It’s too frightening a prospect to my ego. And it should be. Total liberation, according to the teachers mentioned above (and many, many others) means simply and precisely the death of the ego.

How can I wish the death of that with which I am still so strongly identified? I can’t. I must have God’s grace and mercy for such an impossible task.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Worship of Religion

Jesus was not a Christian challenging Jews. He did not come to proclaim that one religion (Judaism) had it wrong and another (Christianity) had it, or would have it, right. Jesus was a Jew challenging Jews. He did not repudiate Judaism but the obsession of many of its members with the formalities and regulations that obscured the religion’s core principles. He sought in part to bring his people’s minds and hearts back to the central message, the whole point, of their religion. In that way, he was much like the Hebrew prophets of old leading right up to John the Baptist, his precursor.

Or like the Buddha, who had much to critique about the crust that had accumulated on the Hinduism into which he was born. If Jesus had come as a Hindu, he would undoubtedly have challenged the caste system, as Gandhi did, particularly its labeling of some members of society “untouchable.”

If he were to come today, as a Christian, what would he find displeasing in this religion that bears his name?

God doesn’t found religions; people do. God shows up when people begin to worship their own creation (religion) and not him. He comes to remind us why we found religions in the first place.

Friday, February 16, 2018

True Spiritual Work

“ the work of contemplative love man will be healed.”

The Cloud of Unknowing

It is work, there should be no mistake about that. One of my biggest misconceptions about the spiritual life--before I actually started living it--was that it shouldn’t involve much effort. Even prayer, which I understood I should be doing regularly, I didn’t think of as work. What “work” I did conceive to be part of spiritual living was more along the lines of a to-do list: read scripture, attend regular religious services, pray. If I checked these things off the list often enough, I was doing alright. If I didn’t, I wasn’t. I had no idea of what true spiritual work looks like--the work of meditation, for instance, in which I try every day to train my unruly mind to attend to the thoughts I choose. Or the work of forgiveness, that searching, humbling effort to see myself in the one I resent, or at least to see that their hurtful actions come, as mine do, from ignorance or busyness or fatigue and not badness. This work is good work. It is, as the author says, healing work. And it takes all the effort we can muster.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Subtle Work of Love

“It is amazing how many loving desires arise from the spirit of a person who is accustomed to this work.”

The Cloud of Unknowing

In my best and truest moments what I most want is to grow more and more “accustomed to this work” of loving, of peacemaking, of being a small reflection of God’s light. It is not glamorous work; in fact, it is often barely noticeable except by a few of those who benefit by it. More challenging, I often don’t notice it myself, though I am the one doing it (or trying to). Only God can see the whole of this lifework of sanctification, and that must be for the best. If I were aware of the process any more than I am now, I would likely be as overwhelmed by my failures and missed opportunities as I would be falsely assured by my successes. Better for now to walk by faith and not by sight.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Beginnings in Meditation

I began meditating in the summer of 2008, when I was 23. I had had no prior experience of meditation, but I was eager to deepen my spiritual awareness. The previous eighteen months of my life had been some of the most spiritually and emotionally difficult I'd ever known. Depression had often drained my passion for life during that year and a half, and my recent marriage had already suffered some heavy blows, due largely to my own seemingly intractable selfish attitudes and behavior. Fortunately, during the spring of 2008 I experienced a powerful breakthrough as a result of some work I had done with a spiritually-focused group dealing with addictions, work that paved the way for my introduction to meditation.

One day, a friend in the group who knew I was seeking a method of meditation suggested I read a book by someone named Eknath Easwaran. The book was called, simply, Passage Meditation, and I ordered it online soon after my friend mentioned it to me. When it arrived, I opened it with the same giddy anticipation I always have when I receive a new book. It was small and clean, with a glossy cover and a subtitle—A Complete Spiritual Practice: Train Your Mind and Find a Life that Fulfills—that told me I was on the right path. Before I opened the book I told myself that, because I knew nothing about meditation, I would approach Easwaran's words with open-mindedness and a willing spirit, seeking to follow as closely as I could the instructions he presented. (Thankfully, the spiritual group I had been a part of placed great emphasis on these qualities of openness and willingness, so I was well-prepared in that way). I opened the book, and discovered in its pages a voice that has become very dear to me on my spiritual journey; it was, and is, the voice of a wise and encouraging friend, a voice as full of light and humor as it is of deep sincerity and clay-footed practicality. Perhaps most importantly for me, it was a voice of unshakable certainty built on direct, personal experience — not on theories or dogmas or speculation. Here was one whose statements about the spiritual life could be trusted, and who offered practical guidance to those like me who lived an active life in contemporary society.

The first instruction that stood out to me stressed the importance of daily meditation. As Easwaran puts it: “There is only one failure in meditation: the failure to meditate regularly.” Reading that, I resolved to be faithful and consistent in my practice, and through some mysterious mixture of effort and grace I have been able to meditate every day without lapse for a little more than four years now. So what does my daily practice look like? Most mornings my alarm clock goes off at 6:15. Within a minute or two I am out of bed, slipping on a sweatshirt if it's cool weather. Grabbing my keys, I slip on some shoes and head out the back door into the faint light of early morning. Still a bit bleary, I stroll down the driveway, glancing at the morning paper lying in the grass, and go for a short walk down the street and back. In the past, I would have simply rolled out of bed and gone straight to my meditation corner. But after many, many groggy, half-conscious mornings I decided, at the suggestion of a fellow passage meditator, to begin the day with this short walk to wake me up and get some blood flowing. The birds are up with me, and I listen to them sing as I walk. Sometimes the neighborhood barred owls call across the tree tops, hooting from their invisible perches. Returning to my driveway, I grab the paper and head to the backyard to see about my three chickens. I let down the ramp that keeps them closed in at night, gather the eggs from the nesting box, and go back inside.

Putting the eggs and newspaper on the counter (taking a minute to scan the headlines), I pick up my cell phone, which I use as a timer, and make for my meditation corner. My meditation bench, along with a small soft blanket, leans against the wall where I placed it after the previous morning's meditation. Rolling out the blanket, on which I will rest my knees, and unfolding the legs of the meditation bench, I find a comfortable position near the window that looks out onto the front yard. Once I am settled, I grab the little notebook into which I copy passages I want to memorize for meditation along with a copy of Easwaran's God Makes the Rivers to Flow, a diverse collection of inspirational passages suitable for memorizing. I spend a few minutes reviewing the passage (or passages) I plan to use for that day, plus any new passage I am trying to memorize, then setting the books aside, I set my phone for thirty minutes, close my eyes, take a breath, and begin silently repeating the passage in my mind. Before long, distractions commence, followed by diligent recollection of the passage. This pattern continues for the duration of the half hour. When the alarm sounds, I open my eyes, silence the alarm, say a few short prayers, and put away the bench, blanket, and books until the next morning.

A few words on making progress in meditation: one of the best pieces of advice I've received from the writings of Easwaran is that progress should be measured not by startling interior visions but by the ability to be peaceful, loving, and tolerant; not by whether I can hear the cosmic sound, but by whether I can listen to my wife (or friends, or parents. . . ). From this perspective, I can easily see I have made much progress, though I've never had a vision nor heard any sound during meditation but the barking of the neighborhood dogs and the singing of the birds, along with the occasional roaring motorcycle or thundering airplane. An equally important bit of advice is that the rate of progress is a matter of individual needs and abilities and should not be used as a point of comparison. As Easwaran puts it in The End of Sorrow, the first book in his three-volume collection The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living: “We should never ask ourselves why there is this difference between people. It is good to be content with the speed at which we are able to go because it is in accordance with our dharma.” When I remember that my path was tailor-made for me, crafted to teach me exactly the lessons I need to learn in this life, the need to compare myself with others falls away, and discouragement and despair are replaced by hope and serenity.

During the last nearly ten years I have experienced wonderful spiritual growth (at my own pace, of course), and meditation is at the core of a host of practices that have contributed to this development. I continue to participate in the group that helps people with addiction, and my involvement offers me abundant opportunities to give my time and energy in service to others. I have learned that working for the benefit of other people without any desire for personal gain is an essential part of my spiritual program, keeping me from becoming too inwardly focused and giving my life a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose. My zest for life has returned with interest, and I now take great pleasure in everyday activities like cooking, eating, hiking, reading, and spending time with family and friends, in addition to getting involved in a few of the many worthy efforts to restore balance and harmony to our relationship with the earth. Most importantly, my capacity for patience, kindness, forgiveness, peace, and happiness has grown. My wife, who spent her first few years of married life with a distant, self-obsessed, judgmental spouse, has recently remarked that having me in her life has made her a better person. If that is true, it is only because of meditation and the other spiritual disciplines that others have taught me, which is to say that purpose, peace, passion, and joy are available to anyone willing to put in the effort.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Slowing Down to Still the Mind

This post is a reflection on the article "The Need for a Teacher," by Eknath Easwaran.

What struck me most in Easwaran's article is his injunction to go slow and to allow my body, mind and will to develop the strength and resiliency necessary to continue to progress on the spiritual path, even as the challenges increase. I tend to be impatient with the pace of my progress, so I’m grateful for Easwaran’s reminder that trying to force or rush spiritual growth is dangerous.

In practice, going slow might mean taking incremental steps in, for example, training the senses. Rather than giving up coffee  altogether, for instance, I might try drinking a bit less than I’m used to. Or, for an even smaller but still effective experiment, I could choose a different mug, leaving my preferred one in the cupboard for another day. I have tried both of these options recently, and have found I was able to loosen up my preferences just a bit. As Easwaran teaches, juggling my likes and dislikes in one area makes is easier for me to do it in other areas. I have discovered, since I implemented the two experiments above, that my preferences in things like deciding where to eat when my family orders takeout have become more flexible. I’m learning that it can be liberating when asked for my opinion about where to eat or what to listen to on the radio, to say simply, “I don’t have a strong preference,” or, “I’ll let you pick.”

Just the other day I was having lunch with some of my coworkers, and although I had already chosen my entree I began to doubt my choice as I listened to them discuss what they might order. Pretty quickly, however, I was able to catch my mind in the act and say, “We are going to stick with our first choice, even if their selections sound more enticing.” And while I’m sure it was almost all due to the expertise of the chef, it was one of the best restaurant meals I’ve had in a long time.

To borrow Easwaran’s language, it is the artistry of these small daily decisions that appeals so much to me. More than that, though, it is the stillness of mind that comes from loosening my preferences, even a little bit, that is the real payoff.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Like Following the Wind

Jesus is as inscrutable as any enlightened sage. Indeed, he is as inscrutable as God himself. As he says in John’s gospel, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). The Buddha says something remarkably similar in the Dhammapada: “Like the flight of birds in the sky, the path of the selfless is hard to follow” (7:92). And the Hebrew prophet Isaiah says plainly, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (55:8-9).

Any attempt to explain the whole of Jesus, as unavoidable as such explanations may seem to the religiously minded (among whom I count myself), is doomed from the start. You might as well try to explain a squirrel, or a beech tree, or a raindrop. And yet the difference between Jesus and a raindrop is, of course, that he tried to teach us something. What was it? On one hand, it seems obvious: he taught us what love is. On the other hand, when we try to square that fact with his actual words and deeds, we see immediately the chasm between our understanding of love and his. For this reason, I think that shock and befuddlement are often truer responses to Jesus than blithe assurance or even comfort.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Eknath Easwaran: The Mundane Mystic

I read last night that Easwaran’s devotion to his own spiritual teacher, his grandmother, led him later in life to a devotion to Sri Krishna, the divine incarnation his grandmother worshiped. He described the process as a kind of inheritance his grandmother passed on to him through her own devotion to Krishna. I find hope in this, since I have not felt much devotion to the great incarnations (Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, etc.) but am beginning to feel a flicker of devotion to Easwaran himself. I think I’ve felt hesitant to devote myself to a teacher so contemporary and down-to-earth as Easwaran, but obviously neither of those qualities precludes deep spiritual awareness. Another reason for my hesitance to allow myself to become a devotee of Easwaran is that he himself encouraged his students to direct their ardor toward one of the classic divine figures. Lastly, and this may be the heart of it, it just feels wrong to express religious devotion to any being other than a “recognized” incarnation.

Nevertheless it is to Easwaran that I turn for instruction, Easwaran who built the spiritual community that nourishes me and my practice, Easwaran who hangs on the wall behind my meditation table and Easwaran who said (like many other teachers) that he (He?) would be with us even after he left his body. What do I have to lose by at least experimenting with devotion to this mundane mystic?

A final thought: I’m just realizing there’s a dose of self-consciousness in the thought of being a devotee of such a relatively unknown teacher. Most people would understand, maybe even admire, my devotion to Jesus, Buddha or Krishna: these are legitimate vessels of the divine. But Eknath Easwaran, a twentieth-century Indian Fulbright scholar who taught English literature before becoming a meditation teacher? Maybe Easwaran’s obscurity is all the more reason to direct my devotion to him; it’s a blow to my ego not to be attached to a famous spiritual figure.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Less Glamorous Work

“Live in the present. Do the things that need to be done. Do all the good you can each day. The future will unfold.”

I often get to feeling dissatisfied and wistful, wishing I could give more of my time and resources to “important” work--serving the homeless or other marginalized people, agitating for changes in America’s climate policy, or some other CAUSE. These are not necessarily wrong desires, and in fact if I hold them lightly and humbly they may grow into helpful actions. But even if they did, that wouldn’t necessarily mean I had experienced any lasting inner change. I could give every minute to helping the homeless or the sick and still be fearful and angry. In that case, in spite of my outward actions I would still be adding to the world’s suffering. The far more difficult and less glamorous work of inner growth can be undertaken in almost any circumstance, and if my desire to relieve suffering is true, I will try every day to chip off a little more of my self-will, let go of a little more fear, so that, perhaps without my even being aware of it, I might bless all who cross my path.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Divine Radio Signal

The other day at a 12-Step meeting I heard someone say that for him God was like a radio signal, ever-present and available to anyone ready to receive him. He said his job was to “always be building a better antenna.” This concept of God works for me on at least a couple levels.

First: God is ever-present but not always perceived. Yes, God is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean I will necessarily encounter him. I must prepare myself for the encounter (build a better antenna) through prayer and mediation, service, silence, and anything else that bucks my self-will.

Second: radio waves are transmitted from somewhere. For the spiritual seeker, the counterparts to the giant transmission towers are the world’s saints and sages. Through their wisdom and deep insight, these luminous figures transmit the sometimes elusive meaning of the scriptures as well as their own intimate experience of the mystery of God. When we read and reflect on their lives, we point our antennas toward the source of the Divine Signal that guides and blesses our lives.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Calling of Love

“...stay alert and attentive to the way you are progressing in your vocation.”
The Cloud of Unknowing

Do I consider the spiritual life to be my vocation? If not, why not? It is certainly the most important work I do in my daily life, and my success in that work bears directly on my success in all other areas of living.

How do I know if I am progressing in this vocation? Eknath Easwaran says plainly that the measure of spiritual success is growth in love. Not psychic visions, or healing powers, or material wealth, or anything else but an increasing desire and ability to consider and work for the welfare of all in my every act and thought. Maybe no one has stated this truth more eloquently than St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

How do I know if I am growing in love? That’s a question worth sitting with for a while, but I think Easwaran would say that if I am trying to grow in concrete ways every day, then I can be assured that I am growing. If I try to be a little more patient with my daughter, a little more willing to play despite being tired, if I am willing to put a bit of strain each day on my spiritual muscles, they will get stronger.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cultural vs. Divine Love

I heard a short sermon once in which the preacher said something to the effect that eternal life was equivalent to knowing God. It brought to mind what John says in his first epistle to the early Christian church: the proof that we know God is that we love, and love of God is best demonstrated in love for others (I John 4:7-12; 19-21). My takeaway from all this was: eternal life = knowing God = loving God = loving others.

I wrote the preacher after the service to share my thoughts. He agreed with my equation and added an important caveat. Since we are all of us creatures of our culture, he said, we tend to understand love the way our culture presents it, which doesn’t necessarily jibe with the reality of the divine love that Jesus--or, I would add, the Buddha, or Sri Ramakrishna, or Swami Ramdas, or Peace Pilgrim--embodied. Because of these competing and often contradictory concepts of love, it is essential that we maintain a healthy self-criticism and not blithely assume that what we mean by “love” is the same as what these holy figures mean.

How can we check our culturally influenced notion of love? By soaking in the words and actions of the great lovers. I think there's at least one clue about what love really is in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. Something that struck me recently about that story is that, although the lawyer asks Jesus "Who is my neighbor?," Jesus, true to form, doesn't answer directly. He tells the well-known story and then asks, in a brilliant twist, "Who do you think was this man's neighbor" (my emphasis)? It's a totally different question. The lawyer seems to want to know how to categorize people so he knows whom he's supposed to help and whom he can ignore: who is my neighbor? But Jesus flips the question around and says, in effect, that it's more important to ask whether I'm being a good neighbor to whomever I meet.