Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Dislocated Ear

My son’s phantom ailments often set me to chuckling. After playing with some padded sticks recently, he informed me that he had broken his eyebrow; a sledding trip down a snowy hill resulted, he said, in a dislocated ear. Neither wound proved fatal.

The boy feels twists and twinges, good or bad, and interprets them into the language of pain and brokenness. Much as I may laugh at his verbal antics, I realize that I – that we –  often do the same thing. I have experienced joy so intense that I thought my heart would beat out of my chest and pain so overwhelming that it circled round to an emptiness that threatened to engulf the whole world as far as the eye could see. And in their intensity, the deafening ecstasy and wrecking sorrow seemed only a hair’s breadth apart. The language of pain, I find, subsumes all these experiences, because each of them rips us out of our normal daily existence and forces us into a rarified air that mere mortals almost cannot breathe.

All this calls to mind the stories of priest and prophets, messengers and saints, who give us accounts of those moments when they felt most closely the touch of the holy. They too use the language of pain to describe these profound experiences. Isaiah, we are told, felt the touch of a burning coal on his lips when he heard God’s call; the image is lovely as metaphor, but translate this into the realm of practical existence and what you have is a scream of pain. Hildegard of Bingen felt the Living Light overwhelm her sight in such a way that her head would explode in agony. Mohammed has by some been labeled an epileptic because the touch of Allah on his heart would cause him to fall to the ground. The touch of the divine comes in ways that we find easiest to describe in the language of pain, mainly because we do not have ways to describe what truly transpires, how words like “ecstasy” and “agony” become mere playthings tossed around to describe the indescribable, categories that lose shape and meaning.

These uncategorizable moments – what they truly tell us, when we stop long enough to listen, is that all those moments of intense joy and unbearable anguish are blessings. We may use the language of pain and brokenness to describe them, but they are at the same time experiences of mystery and unity. Everything leads us to the One, though we do not always realize it.

My son, with his broken eyebrow and dislocated ear, is often a prophet for me, though not always so humorously. He – and all the wonderful people around me – have so much to tell me, to teach me, whenever I stop listening to their words and instead hear what the holy is saying through them. What a blessing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pandora's Box

Curiosity overcoming her, almost of its own accord Pandora’s hand lifts the lid on the lovely jeweled box. Out fly all the evils of the world as Pandora, overcome with shame and horror, tries to close the lid once more. This she manages to do, but not before all but one of the winged creatures in the box have escaped. The one still trapped? Hope.

It sounds like a crushing end to a tragic situation, doesn’t it? The young woman is overcome with a curiosity implanted in her by the gods; the evils will bring all manner of terrors and trials to all of humanity; and hope, which could sustain people through their adversities, remains trapped inside a locked box. But then you start wondering why hope would be in the box in the first place. It wasn’t like this was a box full of bright and shiny elements designed for the benefit of humans. This was bad stuff, I’m telling you, every awful thing you can imagine, and hope was placed there as purposefully as every one of those bad things. Why? Because hope, too, can be an evil.

We usually elevate hope almost to the level of a sacrament. We admire those who don’t give up in the face of adversity, we see hope as a necessity in building a better world. High apple pie in the sky hope. It’s all good, right? So how could hope ever be anything other than good?

The answer is as simple as desire: we too often pin our hopes on particular outcomes like a package and wrap our ego around it like a bow. Maybe it’s something individualistic like a promotion at our work or a sign of affection from our partners; maybe it’s something that we think of as more noble, like a grant to come through for our favored non-profit or the passage of a law helping victims of abuse. Doesn’t matter how personal and intimate or noble and communal the hope is: the problem is that so often we are like kids anxiously waiting to open our Christmas presents to see if Santa brought that special toy we’ve spent so long wanting.

I said to my soul , be still, and wait without hope,
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing

So says my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, in a beautiful poem called East Coker. He gets it, he gets how hope itself can become a cage that we use to fend off the real world, how it can become the opposite of mindfulness and acceptance. That strength of will and determination to work toward the best possible outcome that is sometimes shown by those facing adversity or illness – we call it hope, but really it includes a healthy dose of knowing that the ultimate goal may not be reached, that there is integrity and passion and joy in the journey even when the journey does not take us where we want to go. It isn’t ego wrapped around desire, but rather presence wrapped around acceptance. 

For my part, the hope that I strive to give up is far too ego-driven, far too concerned with desired outcomes rather than with learning the lessons of the process. Let Pandora’s box stay closed; like Eliot, I shall wait without hope, letting go of the wants that swirl within and around me so that I may receive the blessing of whatever it is that the universe is sending my way.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Fires of Autumn

Cool evenings, a nip in the air. My child blowing to check if he can see his breath. Leaves swirling and circling down from the trees. Autumn, it seems, has finally decided to make an appearance.

But I knew that already, and without even checking the weather channel or the calendar. The world around me feels autumnal right now: things blazing in a last burst, things falling, things dying. It’s that period before the stillness that marks winter sets in, and long before new possibilities emerge with the coming of spring. In autumn we see the beauty but know that it is fleeting, destined to wither and die so very soon. And like trees shedding their leaves, we must let go of what has given us fullness.

Elements of my life, and the lives of those around me, are drawing to a close at the moment, elements that we have liked or loved, celebrated, struggled with, watched with amazement or bewilderment. And now our task is to be witnesses to their final blazes, whether those be blazes of glory and beauty or blazes of rage and pain, as they move onward to their inevitable end.

Take a deep breath and let it all go. Autumn is here.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Sweet Kitties and Sacred Texts

I had to put my cat down today. The very lovely Francesca - long black hair, gold-green eyes, regal bearing and sweet nature - lived a good life for 12 years, but has had a rough time the last couple of months. It wasn’t an easy decision – rather more on the gut-wrenching side, really – but it came to seem pretty inevitable. She was suffering, and this was the last act of kindness that I could show her.

But it comes with a weight of guilt, too. I tried many things, dealt with the chaos that her illness and behavior brought into my house, and then tried many more things; still, I am left with the question of whether I did enough, tried enough, waited enough. After all, when it comes right down to it, I made the decision that another being – and a sweet and loving one at that – should die.

As it happens I was working on the Bhagavad Gita today, and the story told there is still singing in my head. As Arjuna looks out over the field of soldiers arrayed against him and his army, he knows that all the leaders of the other side are friends and family members, people he has loved his whole life. He is faced with the impossible choice to either kill those he loves or to let tyranny and greed rule. In total despair at the choice that is no choice, he falls down, wanting to die rather than to fight. But Krishna, his charioteer and counselor (and, of course, the divine Lord of all the world), tells him that his sorrow is sheer delusion: the Self, the truest part of all beings, can never be born, never die. It exists from before all time, and for all time. It may change bodies, but the sheer universal magnitude of its existence is never diminished, never for a second. Arjuna must understand that he cannot kill those he loves, because what is truest about them cannot be killed. Krishna tells him,

Death is certain for the born;
for the dead, rebirth is certain.
Since both cannot be avoided,
you have no reason for your sorrow.

Before birth, beings are unmanifest;
between birth and death, manifest;
at death, unmanifest again.
What cause for grief in all this?
                        Bhagavad Gita 2.27-28 (Mitchell translation)

These words created thousands of years ago speak to me today, tonight, where I am right now. All beings that I love will die; all beings that I love will be reborn. I will die and be reborn. Every tree, every blade of grass, every brick or lightbulb or piece of paper is created and then dies or is destroyed, giving rise to something else. Every thought, even, serves its purpose for a time, and then its time passes, when it gives rise to a new thought. And if we move from the manifest to the unmanifest, what indeed is the cause of grief? Life and death are merely different points on the same circle, and that circle includes everything that ever has or ever will exist.

Tonight I mourn the passing of the sweet little kitty who gave me her kind companionship for 12 years. And I thank her, and the universal love that holds us all, for reminding me that neither guilt nor grief is ever the end of the story, because this story has no end.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pulling Against the Undertow

Maybe it’s the change of weather that’s got me feeling off-kilter. Maybe it’s getting less sleep now that I’m having to follow a school schedule. Maybe it’s the reports of friends and family members who are weathering emotional storms. Maybe it’s the chaos and cruelty of this world of suicide bombings and government killings and hordes of natural disasters.

Or maybe it’s none of these, just the thoughts in my own head swirling and whirling into a darkness of its own making. Whatever the cause, I feel the tendrils of that darkness around the edges of my world.

That darkness, it doesn’t scare me, but I think that maybe it should. It comes as an old friend, and it comes feeling like truth, like the water’s undertow. I feel its pull, and all I have to do is to let go, stop fighting, and it will ease me under the water away from the chaos and cruelty. In lighter moments I know I have to work against its pull, but always, always the easier path is just letting the water carry me under. It’s so easy. And that, I think, is why it should scare me.

But that ease – it’s not truth, just as the darkness is not truth. I’m working with the Biblical prophets right now, who were faced with a desolation I have never known, the destruction of their homes and dismantling of their culture. In the midst of the devestations coming to them from the outside in the form of armies and exile, they called for their people to look inside, into their own actions and intentions, for the cause. They thundered against those who tried to use ritual as a magic charm to ward off evil and railed against the lack of compassion they beheld all around. They saw the darkness and they called it by name – even when the name was their own.

The darkness, though, was never the final word for the prophets. They saw clouds of despair enveloping everything they knew and they acknowledged their complicity in bringing on those clouds, but they also looked beyond the despair, and to something more than hope – to a certainty that one day the darkness would lift and the truth, which is like joy, would once more be visible. The darkness, they saw, wasn’t the point of the story, just a plotline development designed to move the story forward to its inevitable ending in the presence of God.

The thing is, I know that’s the ending of my story, too, and of all stories. My old friend the darkness may come and go, I may give in to the undertow or I may fight it, but through paths and plotlines that I cannot now fathom, inevitably, inescapably, the story will end in truth and in knowledge. It will end in the presence of God, because that’s where the story always is anyway, whether I can see it or not.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sick Day

I'm sick. Not ill with some dread disease that will waste my body into nothingness, not the recipient of some pestilence that has the potential to wipe out half the population. Just plain ol', everyday sick. With that most common of maladies, a cold. Now, it was bad enough that I actually had to pull over after I dropped my son off at school this morning because staying upright was no longer an option; I made it back home and tumbled straight into bed. So, not a world-shaking kind of sick, but still sick enough.

This has got me thinking about what a great life I have. When I'm sick, I go to bed, not to an office. If I have work I really need to do (like I did today), I take my laptop with me and type away while supine, interspersed with periods of shut-eye-ness. Well or ill, I have the great benefit of doing something that I love, work that brings me joy. And I get to do all of this while still being able to cart my son back and forth to school (when I'm not pulling over due to dizziness, natch).

So my thanks to the universe for sending me a small challenge that reminds me of the large blessings that pervade my life. And if you see me on the road tomorrow - watch out, I may be pulling over suddenly.

Friday, July 29, 2011

I want to be a nicer person.

 Really, I do. Not in the “I want people to like me” way – at 43, I’ve pretty much let that one go. Some people like me, some people don’t, and while I wish everyone thought that I was wonderful that’s just never going to be the case. No, what I’m looking for is more compassion and more patience. I hear the catty and judgmental things that come out of my mouth, the snappish responses when I’m annoyed (which is way too often), and at times I’m fairly appalled by them. This isn’t who I want to be.

When I was in San Francisco last summer with a  colleague visiting Buddhists and Hindus and Taoists (oh my!), we found ourselves running all over creation to make our various appointments, and props to the fabulous subway and bus system for getting us everywhere we needed to go. One day one of the trains ran late, which caused us to miss a bus to Oakland; when we got there we still had a decent walk ahead of us to get where we were going. We had not been able to call the person with whom we had the appointment to let him know that we were running late.  (Short interjection here – I really hate to be late. Really. It throws me totally off balance.) I remember rushing in the door when we finally did get there, maybe half an hour late, sweaty from the walk and totally flustered. “I’m so sorry we’re late,” I hurled into the empty air as soon as we opened the door. And then the man we were there to meet, a Taoist practitioner who looked not in the least put out by our tardiness, gently took my hand in greeting, looked in my eyes, and said, “But you’re here now.” In that one small moment I felt such a flood of tension run out of my body, because with just these few quiet words and gentle touch, he had called me back to my true self.

The gentleman was centered, focused and relaxed. We spoke for an hour or more, and he was helpful and informative, never seeming rushed at all, even when another person showed up with whom he was supposed to meet – delayed, of course, by us being late. He was kindness, the kind of kindness that I want to be, the kindness that comes not from some sort of mental construction telling him that being kind is the Right Thing, but rather from his actions and words welling up from an indwelling compassion. 

And there you have it. Compassion. Another one of those things that need to start at home, with ourselves, no less. I may get rid of catty statements and snappish remarks by keeping the door of my lips, as the Bible puts it, but the internal move toward real kindness doesn’t come about just because I manage not to say what I am nevertheless thinking. It comes from letting go of the judgments and feelings that I know better that drive the remarks in the first place.

So here goes. I want to be a nicer person. Day One.

Postscript – In between writing this on paper and transferring it to the computer, I ran late to something because my son was dawdling, and so I ended up yelling at him. Okay, Day One, take two.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What I’ve Unlearned

One of the best things I’ve learned about spirituality is that it’s not about gaining knowledge, or even wisdom: it’s about unlearning what is untrue. Our heads are so filled with ideas and beliefs and constructions, and most of them are basically wrong while whole big lots of others are only right in very particular contexts: if reality works this way, and if our society reflects reality, and if our societal ideals are valid, and if our expected actions are in line with our societal ideals, and if and if and if. Basically, it seems to boil down to something like this: if we accept a whole lot of other people’s ideas about things, then this whole boatload of ideas and beliefs and constructions is what is true. The thing is, though, that truth isn’t made up of ideas and beliefs and constructions. Time to unlearn some things.

See, truth is all around us at all times, but most of the time it gets buried under an avalanche of half-truth, kind-of-truth, wish-it-were-truth, and flat-out-not-truth. It’s kind of like the Baby Jesus figurine in a Mardi Gras king cake: there’s a whole lot of cake, but only one place where you’re going to bite into the Baby Jesus. We look past and through and beyond the truth all the time, focusing instead on the pretty shiny things that we like. And that’s fine. It’s just not the truth. But the truth is still there waiting, just like Baby Jesus in the cake.

So, if you want to learn about truth, you don’t go learn something new; you spend a hell of a lot of time stripping away the vast amounts of untruth in which we live day to day, until you get down to the truth that you already know, even if you don’t know that you know it.

So without further ado, here are the Top Ten Things I’ve Unlearned In My 43 Years on the Planet:

10. The best things in life are free
You may not have to pay money for the best things in life, like love, friendship, or the beauty of a sunset, but they are definitely not free. You have to pay lots of time, attention and caring to relationships, and those sunsets are only beautiful so long as they aren’t clouded out by smoke and smog – which means more time and attention spent on environmental issues. This list could go on all day. So get this “the world is gonna give me good stuff and I don’t have to do a damn thing for it” idea right out of your head.

9. Don’t wear white after Labor Day
Why the hell not? Wear pink at Christmas if you want to, and red and green for Easter, and black and orange for the 4th of July. Really, this one is just about following the rules, and we already know what I think about rules.

8. Looks matter, grades matter, achievements matter
These are all about outward projection and trying to find fulfillment in the eyes or opinions of others. Trying to measure yourself by another person’s yardstick is never going to get you any closer to truth.

7. Looks don’t matter, grades don’t matter, achievements don’t matter
Really just about the same as #8. We usually hear these kind of statements when people think they can’t measure up to those yardsticks, so they have to tell themselves, and anyone else who will listen, that the yardsticks are irrelevant. It’s still about other people’s opinions.

6. Chocolate is the be-all and end-all when it comes to sweet treats
Really, why ruin a good dessert with chocolate? You all know where to send the hate mail…

5. You should listen to your head
I live this untruth day in, day, out, 24/7/365, with a few minor breaks thrown in when truth comes crashing in through my heady/intellectual walls and makes its presence know. Thinking is good; making your own limited, individual thinking the arbiter of truth in the universe is not.

4. You should follow your heart
Yeah, because that never gets people into trouble ;-)  Take what I said above and substitute “unruly emotions” for “heady/intellectual walls” and you’ve pretty much got the picture.

3. Never eat watermelon seeds since they might take root and grow a watermelon in your stomach
The pH balance of a stomach makes this well-nigh impossible, but the real issue is fear. This sort of old wives tale is all about creating fear where you wouldn’t otherwise have any, and fear will never get you one step closer to truth. Unlearn this quick, because every fear is just a hindrance (just ask all my fears, they’ll tell you).

2. Facts = truth
This happy little untruth is the worldview we experience most often in our society. Facts are hugely useful, and we ignore them to our great detriment (and the detriment of our whole species, other species and the planet at large).  But facts aren’t the whole picture, and we run into difficulties when we think that they are.

1. God is out there
Separate. Somewhere else. Someone else. Not here. Not now. Not me. This is all about duality, about believing that things are separate, but it just ain’t so. God is here and there and us and them and everything, and everything is Just One Thing.
And so, my friends, I invite you to unlearn with relish. Strip away the layers of untruth; you’ll be surprised at how many you find. And when you’ve done it, may you bite into the Baby Jesus bigtime.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Follow Your Heart

Yeah, that doesn’t work. At least not for me.

There was an issue I’d been mulling (read: twisting, turning, obsessing over) for a while, trying to see how best to proceed. As so often happens, no clear vision was presenting itself in a nice, neat package. (I’ve noticed that obsessing rarely results in clear visions or neat packages, which makes me wonder why I do it so often…) Lists of pros and cons weren’t helping, and trying to see from different view points was just leading right back to the (annoying multitude of paradoxical) elements that I already knew.

So I decided on a regimen of yoga, meditation and a mantra of letting go as a way out of the morass of my own over-thinking. Letting go of expectation, of the desire for things to be one way or another, of all the coulds and shoulds that were milling around in my head.

It was pretty much an epic fail.

I did actually succeed in letting go of a lot of those expectations and desires; so good so far. And as expectations fell away, a clear course of action began to present itself, a path that had the benefit of being both reasonable to my head and clear (though difficult) to my heart. I could follow my heart, because I (finally) knew what it was telling me.

Only it didn’t work out that way. Head and heart were on board, but I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. Really. It felt like a 50 lb. weight was sitting on my chest, my shoulders were hurting from pulling inward and I had a coughing fit every time I tried to take a deep breath. And painful, in case I didn’t get that across already. So, do I consider visiting a doctor like any reasonable, sane person might? Nah, I know this reaction of old: it’s what happens every time I try to move down the wrong path.

Well, damn.

All that thinking and obsessing? Yeah, toss it out the window; totally useless. And the whole “follow your heart” thing?  Well, it might be useful if my heart weren’t so very adept at running, hiding, avoiding, and disappearing under a cloud of fear. If I followed my heart more often, I’d end up under a nice big rock, all alone in the darkness. No, the only clear path for me is to follow my instinct, my gut, the promptings of the Spirit – call it what you will, it is the only guide that ever gets me where I need to go. It’s the baseline of every little rock and pebble of spiritual growth that I’ve ever thrown at the stone walls of my ego.

So, I did a 180 and headed in the other direction. I know beyond question that it’s the right one because as soon as I turned that way all that physical pain I’d been carrying for days disappeared. I could breathe again, and a calm peace washed over me – again, a known reaction, but in this case to being where I’m supposed to be.

I don’t really know where I’m headed or why I’m going there. I don’t know if I’m supposed to stay on this path for a day or a week or a lifetime. But then again, it doesn’t matter: all that matters is that this is where I’m supposed to be right now.  And I can breathe easy again.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Things Fall Apart

Will the center hold? That's a question that has been much on my mind of late, in a desperate, damn-I-hope-so kind of way. Because things have been falling apart, and I have a vested interest in seeing that the center does, indeed, hold. I've been lost before, drifting, with no center, no mooring, and no reason to want to find one. The unbearable lightness of being, Milan Kundera calls it, when there is just not enough substance to give you an anchor in this world. No center. I've been there, and it's not pretty; I don't want to go back, but it creeps closer when things fall apart.

And things do fall apart. Cars break down, appliances stop working, houses need repair, families tear apart, relationships founder. Things fall apart, and we begin to wonder, what will be left standing? Will the center, at least a single burning beacon of light at the center, hold?

As I lay in bed one night, worn out but unable to sleep, I suddenly realized that in every direction I looked things were falling apart. Just at that moment, I heard a giant crash - part of my closet had just (I kid you not) fallen apart. It was like a cosmic exclamation point to my realization. Great, at least the universe has a sense of humor. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry, but hey, when in doubt, laugh.

My question is, what new truth is all this falling apart bringing to me? Or rather, what ancient truth am I being asked to acknowledge? As if I have to ask. As if the answer isn't brought to me in myriad ways at every moment. Things fall apart for a reason: because we must let go of something. The illusion of security, the desire for life to be unchanging, our ideas about ourselves and others, resentments and regrets, the need to be loved - all of these begin in real and vibrant emotion but so often become chains in which we wrap ourselves. And we are called to let go of these illusions and desires for what is so that what will be can come to us.

So I've been working at breathing, letting go, not demanding that things be any particular way. Sometimes that's hard, and sometimes it's so painful that hard sounds really nice. But here's the thing: when I let go, the center holds effortlessly. It's in grasping tightly that the core gets shaken, and in letting go that the perfection of every moment and action and particle of the universe is revealed. Because the truth is that the center will always hold, it can do no other: the center is where God is, and the center is God. The hard part is just in realizing that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The 9000 guesses

About a week ago I was having lunch with some people and I mentioned that there are roughly 9000 Protestant denominations in the US alone.

“So many?” one woman said, shaking her head in dismay. “That’s just not right, for there to be so much division.”

S, my 7-year-old son, chirped in at this point. “Well, there are 7 billion people in the world, so 9000 guesses seems alright.”

BOING! Hammer, meet the head of the nail. S may not have understood all the intricacies of this statistic being from one portion of one religion in one country, and that there are SO many other versions/denominations/religions/other ideas out there, but he zeroed in on the most salient point: that all of these versions/denominations/religions/other ideas are simply our guesses about the order in the universe and our place within it. Some of these guesses are educated, some are not; some are simple and profound, others are complex and poetic; some may be based in science and some may even be downright silly (Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, anyone?). But they are all guesses, or perhaps better stated, they are our attempts in our limited, human, culturally conditioned way to grasp that which is limitless and unconditioned. And if there are lots and lots of different attempts, or guesses, well what’s so wrong with that? It seems to me that the problem isn’t the number of guesses but the importance we ascribe to them. Rather than recognizing them as guesses, we hold them up as cosmic truth. As though the entirety of cosmic truth is condensable to the size of the human brain.

So here is my guess about the 9000 (and all the other) guesses: that they are all right – each one holds up something about our experience of creation, cosmos or even chaos that is important, at least to us. And that they are all wrong – even the ones that ring most profoundly true are still limited and cannot be all encompassing. They are our guesses, and they are beautiful, and they matter, but the limitless and unconditioned is going to stay limitless and unconditioned no matter how much we try to fit it into some neat little box. And deep down, we know it. Just ask my 7-year-old.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sacred Ashes

People have been looking at me strangely all day, and it takes me a moment to remember each time why: I’ve got ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross. Big bold strokes, all the way into the hairline - not your normal fashion statement. But, you see, today is Ash Wednesday.

I’ve heard various versions of “Hey, you’ve got something on your forehead,” “Here, let me clean that for you,” and “What happened to your face?” over the years, almost all of them since I moved to Nashville. In the more heavily Catholic Texas, where I’m from, people just know. In fact, I’m sure that a high percentage of the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world are walking around with “something on their forehead” today.

“But you’re not Catholic!” some of my friends will tell me. Technically not true: according to canon law, I’m still a Catholic, albeit a pretty bad one. I’ve turned into a “show up for the big days” kind of Catholic, but it’s not because I’m disaffected and fulfilling social obligations, nor because I’m basically uninterested and just following family tradition. On the contrary, I’m deeply interested. I’m just not exclusively Catholic anymore.

When I felt the touch of the deacon’s fingers today marking me with the sacred ash, it felt profound and holy to me – but no more holy than when I was marked with vibhuti, a sacred ash used in Hindu rituals, and instructed to concentrate my meditation on that spot. I did not reject Catholicism in particular or Christian teachings in general, I simply came to understand that my personal experience of the divine, of the holy, was wider than Christianity could contain. The holy calls to us from all things everywhere; my ears simply became attuned to a different frequency.

For these sacred ashes, something holy must be burned. The palms from last year’s Palm Sunday are burned and mixed with oil to make this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes; a variety of elements (you don’t want to know, but they are all considered holy) are burned and mixed together for vibhuti. All of this is a reminder that even what I hold to be holy in my own life must eventually burn to ash to make way for a new holy thing to come into being. Everything burns, everything falls away – my Catholic upbringing, my years of spiritual seeking, even my mystical experiences – so that I may take one more step toward the truth that lies beyond holiness, because it lies beyond all division. I, too, am sacred ash.

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's a Zoo Out There

After weeks of frigid temps, falling snow and the general malaise of winter, it’s a lovely 55-degree day. Sunshine, gorgeous, blue skies smiling at me. So I brought my child out to the zoo, an idea shared by a goodly portion of the parents to Nashville’s younger citizens. The animals and exhibits, of course, pale in comparison to the giant jungle gym, which is the real draw of the place. Kids running hither and thither; babies cackling and laughing (and protesting and crying); teens looking on, bored, at their younger siblings. It’s a little slice of the human experience everywhere I look.

Seeing all these faces has got me wondering about what all goes on behind them. Who in this group is planning a crime? Who is falling in love? Who is living in a hollow of fear? And why do we work so hard to keep all these things from showing?

We each have a story, but more often than not a whole lot of that story is about image, about trying to show the face that we want to pretend is ours rather than the one that really is ours. It’s about looking respectable and conforming, which has little in common with actually being kind and good. One person’s respectable might look middle aged and modestly dressed while another’s conformity might be seen in tight bright clothes and spiky hair, but it’s still all about trying to fit in.

There is a great value in conforming. It can keep us from doing stupid and harmful things, it can help build community, it can be one factor in moving us toward the relationships, jobs and activities that we find fulfilling. It can also direct our energies toward image rather than substance, pull us away from the deep and the real toward the surface and the illusion. It’s a tool, that’s all, and it’s up to us as to how to use it.

And it all puts me in mind of Walt Whitman:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are
so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the
mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Monday, February 7, 2011


It's the "again" part of winter. It's snowing - again. It's cold and windy - again. My lips and hands are chapped - again.

When this all starts, along about December, it's all exciting and new. The cold is exhilarating, the snow is a miracle. It’s intoxicating, even joyous. But then it goes on. And on. And it continues on. Until finally it just D R A G S on. What was wondrous is now a cause of dissatisfaction or even depression.

The change, of course, Is only in our minds, or to be more precise, in our perception. We perceive the newness of cold with excitement and then project outward: “it” is exciting. When we begin to perceive that same cold with dissatisfaction, “it” becomes annoying. Really, of course, “it” isn’t different; we are.

So is this a lesson about changing our attitudes? Could be, if that’s what you need to hear today. But what I’m thinking is really just about vision: that we should notice how often (like, always) our perception drives our reaction, see the ways that we create our world – because what each of us calls “the world” is really just our perceptions of some abstract reality that may or may not exist independently. 

All that being said, there is one great and absolute truth that I can offer here today:


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Present Imperfect

Would you want to know the future?

That's a question we ask ourselves, bandying around the answers like they really matter. "Yes, I'd use that knowledge to my benefit. Can anyone say 'Internet millionaire'?" "No, what if I'm gonna get hit by a garbage truck and die under a mountain of moldy lettuce? I wouldn't want to know that was coming down the pike." It's a thought game, often fun but always pointless.

The past, now, that's another matter altogether. "Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it" and all that. The past is knowable and directly determines the present: every minute action, every thought, every tiny bit of activity is predicated on some past event, whether that event happened just a second ago (I'm drinking tea now because I made it within the last few minutes) or decades before (the lyrics to "Oh Mickey you're so fine you're so fine you blow my mind Hey Mickey" just floated through my head). The past gets us to where we are.

Where we are is the present, and if this were a Buddhist blog I could now go on to blather about how the present is all there is, living in the moment, mindfulness, yadda yadda. All true, all true - it's just not my point at the moment. At the moment I'm going for the decidedly UN-Buddhist idea that the present makes no sense without the future.

See, there are some things I've been trying to figure out. Going round and round in circles in my head (yes, I know, so difficult to imagine for me). I decided that maybe I was driving myself crazy because I wanted to know the future and therefore know if the actions I take now work out the way I want them to. But that wasn't quite right: that was more the hammer hitting my thumb (painful and pointless) rather than the head of the nail. So I scooted around my interior geography a bit more to see what else I could find, and lo and behold if I didn't come across just the thing:

I want to know the present.

Yeah, that may seem fairly straightforward, but once again appearances are deceiving. The present is happening right now, and it's all that really exists - I'm with the Buddhists on that. And the present is totally conditioned by the past - I'm with the historians on that. But here's the thing: the present has to be lived in the moment, but it can only be understood in the future. Understanding is a function of reflection, and it takes the perspective of looking back to get it. We act in the now, but even when we feel like we are moving in the light of blinding clarity, the truth is that usually we don't understand our deepest motivations until later. The truth is that we walk through life flabbergasting unaware of what the hell we are really meaning and doing - and let's make that a double when it comes to understanding the present actions, thoughts and feelings of friends and loved ones. The truth is that we're walking blind here.

I absolutely crave the knowledge of what's going on right in the very now; I want to understand it, to see it in all it's glory. And I just can't; like everyone else, I can only see as through a glass darkly, even when I'm aching for light. And that, I know from all my futures that became pasts, is where faith comes in, and simple trust. Gotta say, though, I'm not so much feeling the faith at the moment.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gabriel’s Oboe

So there I was, working away on some grading, only half-listening to the Pandora Radio streaming in from the computer speakers. Suddenly the music had my full attention as I heard the gentle, lovely sound of Gabriel’s Oboe flowing toward me (listen here). I couldn’t move. These were the sounds I heard, you see, when I glided, joyous and barefoot, down the aisle at my wedding. No Here Comes the Bride, All Dressed in White for me, thank you; instead, I had these achingly beautiful strains accompanying me into the life I so longed for, with the man I loved beyond measure.

And then, of course, life happened. Joy and disappointment, hurtful words, great quantities of laughter. An unbelievable, almost fairy tale love that outlived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And an all-encompassing, life-rending sorrow.

I walk through my days carrying all of this with me, as part of me, as perhaps the greatest truth of me. For years that sorrow was the focal point of my existence, and existence was all it was. Finally I found my way back to the love, to knowing it for the deeper truth and the higher vision. The image of God stands before me, I know, each time I look into the face of another, and the image flames into brightness when I let the all-pervading love flow through me; you can’t do that so much when you are just existing. Walking barefoot down that church aisle, I didn’t know that the love I would receive from this man, this one finite being, would prove to be so much the mark of the infinite. I just knew I was happy, and I was home.

I haven’t heard that song in years until this morning, and to say that the moment was bittersweet doesn’t seem to do it justice. First came the bitter in hot salty tears that stung my eyes almost before I knew why they were there, as though my body recognized what I was hearing before my consciousness could catch up. But the next moment went beyond sweet into searing and aching and beautiful and joyous, gratitude sweeping through me for all of these experiences together. The life I’ve lived is not the one I expected when I glided toward my future with Gabriel’s Oboe; it is a life unexpected, but unendingly beautiful.