—Artwork: Shiloh Sophia McCloud, visionary artist,
Published online on The Huffington Post
Today there is a resurgence of interest in the sacred feminine. The immense popularity a few years ago of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code spoke not just to our enjoyment of a good thriller but also to the mystery of the divine feminine in Western culture, which is the real thread of the book’s chase, from the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa to the search for the grail and the heritage of Mary Magdalene. We know now how the feminine mysteries were present in Greek culture and myth, as imaged in the story of Persephone, and enacted for more than 2,000 years in the initiations at Eleusis. In the early Christianity women had spiritual equality, and the significance of Mary Magdalene, the disciple whom Jesus loved more than others, being the first to see the risen Christ, points to the esoteric significance of the feminine. We have also learned how the power of the sacred feminine was repressed by the Church fathers, and Mary Magdalene purposely misidentified as a prostitute.
As we awaken from the repressions of the patriarchy we need to reclaim the sacred feminine both for our individual spirituality and for the well being of the planet. Our ecological devastation points to a culture that has forgotten the sacredness of the earth and the divine mother, as well as denied the feminine’s deep understanding of the wholeness and interconnectedness of all of life. And our individual life, so often caught in addictions and starved of real meaning, has a hunger to reconnect with the soul, which has always had a feminine quality. And linking our own journey and that of the world is the ancient feminine figure of the World Soul, the Anima Mundi, the spiritual presence within creation.
So what does it mean to reclaim the sacred feminine? How can we feel it in our bodies and in our daily life? Every woman knows this mystery in the cycles of her body, which are linked to the greater rhythms of life, the cycles of the moon. And she feels it in a calling to reconnect with the power and wisdom she carries within her, a deep knowing that is not found in books but belongs to her very nature.
The feminine carries a natural understanding of the interconnectedness of life, how all the parts belong together. She instinctively knows how to respond to the needs of her children, how she feels for their well being even when they are not physically present. And in her body she carries the greatest mystery, the potential to give birth: to bring the light of a soul into this world.
The feminine is the matrix of creation. And yet we have forgotten, or been denied, the depths of this mystery, of how the divine light of the soul creates a body in the womb of a woman, and how the mother shares in this wonder, giving her own blood, her own body, to what will be born. Regardless of whether an individual woman has the physical experience of giving birth, she shares in this primal mystery and is empowered by it. Yet our culture’s focus on a disembodied, transcendent God has left women bereft, denying them the sacredness of this simple mystery of divine love.
What we do not realize is that this patriarchal denial affects not only every woman, but also life itself. When we deny the divine mystery of the feminine we also deny something fundamental to life.
We separate life from its sacred core, from the matrix that nourishes all of creation. We cut our world off from the source that alone can heal, nourish, and transform it. The same sacred source that gave birth to each of us is needed to give meaning to our life, to nourish it with what is real, and return us to a relationship with the wholeness of life.
Of course men also have a need to relate to the sacred feminine, to be nourished by her inner and outer presence. Without the sacred feminine nothing new can be born, and we see around us the sad plight of a masculine culture destroying its own ecosystem, unable to even agree on the steps needed to limit global warming. We all need to reclaim the living power and transformative potential of the sacred feminine, to feel her connection to the soul and the earth. And we desperately need the ancient wisdom of the soul of the world to help us at this time of global crisis. Many times before the world has been through an ecological crisis, and the world soul carries within her the memories and wisdom we need. But if we remain cut off in a mindset that sees this a problem that we need to fix with the same masculine attitude that has caused the problem, we will just compound the crisis. Only through working together with the sacred feminine can we heal and transform the world. And this means to honor her presence within our bodies and our soul, in the ground we walk on and the air we breathe.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has written about the feminine and the role of women in our present time in The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has written about the feminine and the role of women in our present time in “The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul.”
Your life is like an ongoing work of art. It is filled with characteristics from your family. It is brought to life by your experiences, triumphs, and setbacks. And as long as you live, it will continue to be a form of artistic creation.
Creativity is often defined by creative works, such as books, paintings, and movies. But creativity encompasses more than the works we create. Living a creative life also involves the thought, energy, and time we devote to creating the life we’ve been given to live.
This week on The Portfolio Life, Rob Bell and I discuss creating a life worth living, and how you have the ability, choice, and power to pursue your calling. During this conversation, you will also have the opportunity to peer into Rob’s creative rhythms and writing process, and how he balances life and work.
Listen in as Rob shares what he learned going through a difficult season of life, the power of making small changes, and when you know you’re on the right path to creating great work.
Listen to the podcast
To listen to the show, click the player below. (If you are reading this via email or RSS, please click here.)
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In this episode, Rob and I discuss:
- What Rob learned about life after experiencing his worst fear.
- Why creativity is working with the material life gives you.
- What it means to live a creative life.
- How small changes can lead you to live an empowered life.
- Why Rob expresses his ideas in the least amount of words as possible.
- The elements of a good story.
- Rob’s life and work rhythms.
- Taking daily strides toward accomplishing big goals.
Quotes and takeaways
- “What kind of life are we going to create and what kind of world are we going to create together?”—Rob Bell.
- You know you’re on the right path toward creating great work when the good material doesn’t fit in.
- “It’s not hard to fill pages. The hardest work is in what to eliminate.”—Rob Bell.
- Saying less with words is far more difficult than saying something with many words.
- How to Be Here, by Rob Bell.
- Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell.
- NOOMA, complete video collection by Rob Bell.
- Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis.
- Flickering Pixels, by Shane Hipps.
- Love Wins, by Rob Bell.
- Download the full interview transcript here.
I am the best-selling author of five books, including the national bestsellers The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. Each week, I send out a free newsletter with my best tips on writing, publishing, and helping your creative work succeed.
Sister Joan Chittister is offering an online course on the blessings behind every aspect of growing older. Learn more about this opportunity here.
The one certain dimension of US demographics these days is that the fastest growing segment of the American population is comprised of people above the age of 65. We, and all our institutions, as a result, are a greying breed. At the same time, we are, in fact, the healthiest, longest lived, most educated, most active body of elders the world has ever known. The only real problem with that is that we are doing it in the face of a youth culture left to drive a capitalist economy that thrives on sales.
So, what we sell is either to youth, about youth, or for the sake of affecting youth. But after all the pictures of 60-looking 80 year olds going by on their bikes fade off the screen, the world is left with, at best, a very partial look at what it means to be an elder.
Especially for those who never did like biking much to begin with.
The truth of the matter is that all of life, at any age, is about ripening. Life is about doing every age well, learning what we are meant to learn from it and giving to it what we are meant to give back to it.
The young give energy and wonder and enthusiasm and heart-breaking effort to becoming an accomplished, respected, recognized adult. And for their efforts they reap achievement and identity and self-determination.
The middle-aged give commitment and leadership, imagination and generativity. They build and rebuild the world from one age to another. And for their efforts they get status, and some kind of power, however slight, and the satisfaction that comes from a sense of accomplishment.
The elderly have different tasks entirely. The elderly come to this stage of life largely finished with a building block mentality. They have built all they want to build. It is their task in life now to evaluate what has become of it, what it did to them, what of good they can leave behind them. They bring to life the wisdom that comes from having failed as often as they succeeded, relinquished as much as they accumulated. And this stage of life comes with its own very clear blessings.
Given the luxury of years, the elders in a society bring a perspective on life that is not possible to the young and of even less interest to the middle aged whose life is consumed with concern for security and achievement. Instead the elders look back on the twists and turns of life with a more measured gaze. Some things, they know now, which they thought had great value at one age, they see little value in later. The elders know that what lasts in life, what counts in life, what remains in life after all the work has been completed are the relationships that sustained us, not the trophies we collected on the way.
The Elders are blessed with insight
For the first time in life, the elderly have time to enjoy the present. The morning air becomes the kind of elixir again that they have not known since childhood. The park has become an observation deck on the world. The library is now the crossroads of the world. The coffee shop becomes the social center of their lives. And small children a new delight and a companion, if not leaders, as they explore their way through life again.
The blessing of this time is appreciation of the moment.
FREEDOM:There is a kind of liberation that comes with being an elder. All the old expectations go to mist. The competition and stress that comes with trying to find a place in today’s highly impersonal economy fade away and I can do what I like, wear what I like, say what I like without bartering my very survival for it. For the first time in years it is possible simply to be a person in search of a life rather than an economic pawn in search of a high-toned livelihood. The need to reek of competence and approval gives way to the need to enjoy life.
The awareness of life as liberating rather than burdensome is the most refreshing blessing a soul can have.
NEWNESS: The truism prevails that it is the young, that part of the social spectrum who stand on the brink of adulthood who have the opportunity to make the great choices of life: where to go, how to live, what to do with our one precious and fragile life. But if truth were told it is really the elderly who have the option to become new again. With the children on t heir own and the house paid for, with our dues paid to the social system and our identities stripped away from what we do to what we are, we have the world at our feet again. We can do all the things we’ve put aside for years: learn to play the guitar, go back to school, volunteer in areas we have always wanted to do more of like become a tour guide or a museum aid, go backpacking or become a children’s reader at the local library. We can now get up every morning to begin life all over again.
The blessing of life now lies in the realization that life is not over but beginning again in a whole new way.
TALE TELLING: The elders in a society are its living history, its balladeers who tell the history of a people and the lessons of growth that come with them. The war veteran can talk now about the hell of war that belies its so-called glory. The mothers know what it means to raise children with less money than the process demands. The old couples know that marriage is a process not an event and that what draws people into marriage will not be what keeps them there. These are the ones who raise for the rest of us the beacons of hope that tell us the truth we need, on our own dark days, to hear: If these others could survive the depression, the losses, the breakups and breakdowns of life, we have living proof now, so can we.
The process of past reflection is one of the major blessings an elder can have because it crystallizes the value of one’s own life and blesses the rest of the world with wisdom at the same time.
RELATIONSHIPS: In the lexicon of elders, all too often and all too late, a new event begins to take front and center where once work and the social whirl had held sway. Elders wake up in the morning aware that the only thing really left in life after all the schedules have disappeared are the people that have been left out of them for far too long: the adult children they haven’t talked to for weeks—no, months—now. They remember the last old friend they met in the market who said “We really have to have coffee together some day” and begin to look around for the phone number. They recall with a pang the grandchildren they promised to take to the zoo and wonder with a pang whether or not the zoo is still open for the season—and whether the children still remember grandpa and the promise. Elders have the luxury of attending to people now rather than to things. And out of that attention comes a new sense of being really important to the world.
One of the great blessings of being elderly is not that it isolates us but that, ironically, it ties us more tightly to the people around us
TRANSCENDENCE: Finally, it is the elders in a society who distill for the rest of it the real meaning of life—and right before our eyes. The quality of their reflections on life are so different than ours, they must certainly be listened to. The serenity of their souls in the face of total change—both physical and social—give promise that behind all the hurly-burly lies a deep pool of peace. The devotion they bring to the transcendentals of life—to solitude, to prayer, to reading, to the arts, to the simple work of gardening, to the great questions of the age, to their continuing commitment to building a city, a country, a world that will be better for us when they move on, may be the greatest spiritual lesson of life a younger generation may ever get as well as the greatest insight they every have.
Indeed, to find ourselves on the edge of elderhood, is to find ourselves in an entirely new and exciting point in life. It is blessing upon blessing and it invites those around them to live more thoughtfully themselves by listening to them carefully now—while we all still have time.
If you are interested in learning how aging is really a great adventure and are looking for an online retreat, this just might be the thing for you.
Learning takes place only in a mind that is innocent and vulnerable.
RAIN is a useful acronym for the four key principles of mindful transformation of difficulties. RAIN stands for Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Nonidentification. A line from Zen poetry reminds us, “the rain falls equally on all things.” Like the nourishment of outer rain, the inner principles of RAIN can be applied to all our experience, and can transform our difficulties.
Recognition is the first step of mindfulness. When we feel stuck, we must begin with a willingness to see what is so. It is as if someone asks us gently, “What is happening now?” Do we rely brusquely, “Nothing”? Or do we pause and acknowledge the reality of our experience, here and now? With recognition we step out of denial. Denial undermines our freedom. The diabetic who denies his body is sick and ignores its needs is not free. Neither is the driven, stressed-out executive who denies the cost of her lifestyle, or the self-critical would-be painter who denies his love of making art. The society that denies its poverty and injustice has lost a part of its freedom as well. If we deny our dissatisfaction, our anger, our pain, our ambition, we will suffer. If we deny our values, our beliefs, our longings, or our goodness, we will suffer.
“The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love, and intelligence has nothing to do with any outer tradition,” observes Zen teacher Toni Packer. “It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”
With recognition our awareness becomes like the dignified host. We name and inwardly bow to our experience: “Ah, sorrow. Now excitement. Hmm, yes, conflict; and yes, tension. Oh, now pain, yes and now, ah, the judging mind.” Recognition moves us from delusion and ignorance toward freedom. “We can light a lamp in the darkness,” says the Buddha. We can see what is so.
The next step of RAIN is acceptance. Acceptance allows us to relax and open to the facts before us. It is necessary because with recognition there can come a subtle aversion, a resistance, a wish it weren’t so. Acceptance does not mean that we cannot work to improve things. But just now, this is what is so. In Zen they say, “If you understand, things are just are they are. And if you don’t understand, things are still just as they are.”
Acceptance is not passivity. It is a courageous step in the process of transformation. “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is nice,” Zorba the Greek declares. “To live is to roll up your sleeves and embrace trouble.” Acceptance is a willing movement of the heart to include whatever is before it. In individual transformation we have to acknowledge the reality of our own suffering. For social transformation we have to start with the reality of collective suffering, of injustice, racism, greed, and hate. We can transform the world just as we learn to transform ourselves. As Carl Jung comments, “Perhaps I myself am the enemy who must be loved.”
With acceptance and respect, problems that seem intractable often become workable. A man began to give large doses of cod liver oil to his Doberman because he had been told that the stuff was good for dogs. Each day he would hold the head of the protesting dog between his knees, forces its jaws open, and pour the liquid down its throat. One day the dog broke loose and the fish oil spilled on the floor. Then, to the man’s great surprise, the dog returned to lick the puddle. That is when the man discovered that what the dog had been fighting was not the oil but his lack of respect in administering it. With acceptance and respect, surprising transformations can occur.
Recognition and acceptance lead to the third step of RAIN, investigation. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “seeing deeply.” In recognition and acceptance we recognize our dilemma and accept the truth of the whole situation. Now we must investigate more fully. Buddhism teaches that whenever we are stuck, it is because we have not looked deeply enough into the nature of the experience.
Buddhist practice systematically directs our investigation to four areas that are critical for understanding and freedom. These are called the four foundations of mindfulness—body, feelings, mind, and dharma—the underlying principles of experience.
Here is how we can apply them when working with a difficult experience. Staring with investigation in the body, we mindfully locate where our difficulties are held. Sometimes we find sensations of heat, contraction, hardness, or vibration. Sometimes we notice throbbing, numbness, a certain shape or color. We can investigate whether we are meeting this with resistance or with mindfulness. We notice what happens as we hold these sensations with mindfulness and kindness. Do they open? Are there other layers? Is there a center? Do they intensify, move, expand, change, repeat, dissolve or transform?
In the second foundation of mindfulness, we can investigate what feelings are part of this difficulty. Is the primary feeling tone pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Are we meeting this feeling with mindfulness? And what are the secondary feelings associated with it? Often we discover a constellation of feelings.
A man remembering his divorce may feel sadness, anger, jealousy, loss, fear, and loneliness. A woman who was unable to help her addicted nephew can feel longing, aversion, guilt, desire, emptiness, and unworthiness. With mindfulness, each feeling is recognized and accepted. We investigate how each emotion feels, whether it is pleasant or painful, contracted or relaxed, tense or sad. We notice where we feel the emotion in our body and what happens to it as it is held in mindfulness.
Next comes the mind. What thoughts and images are associated with this difficulty? What stories, judgments, and beliefs are we holding? When we look more closely, we often discover that many of them are one-sided, fixed points of view or outmoded, habitual perspectives. When we see that they are only stories, they loosen their hold on us. We cling less to them.
The fourth foundation to investigate is called mindfulness of the dharma. Dharma is an important and multifaceted word that can mean “the teachings and the path of Buddhism.” It can also mean “the truth, the elements and patterns that make up experience.” In mindfulness of the dharma we look into the principles and laws that are operating. We can notice if an experience is actually as solid as it appears. Is it unchanging or is it impermanent, moving, shifting, re-creating itself? We notice if the difficulty expands or contracts the space in our mind, if it is in our control or if it has its own life. We notice if it is self-constructed. We investigate whether we are clinging to it, struggling with it, or simply letting it be. We see whether our relationship to it is a source of suffering or happiness. And finally, we notice how much we identify with it. This leads us to the last step of RAIN, nonidentification.
In nonidentification we stop taking the experience as “mine” or part of “me.” We see how identification creates dependence, anxiety, and inauthenticity. In practicing nonidentification, we inquire of every state, experience, and story, is this who I really am? We see the tentativeness of this identity. Instead of identification with this difficulty, we let go and rest in awareness itself. This is the culmination of releasing difficulty through RAIN.
One Buddhist practitioner, David, identified himself as a failure. His life had many disappointments, and after a few years of Buddhist practice, he was disappointed by his meditation too. He became calmer but that was all. He was still plagued by unrelenting critical thoughts and self-judgments, leftovers from a harsh and painful past. He identified with these thoughts and his wounded history. Even the practice of compassion for himself brought little relief.
Then, during a ten-day mindfulness retreat, he was inspired by the teachings on nonidentification. He was touched by the stories of those who faced their demons and freed themselves. He remembered the account of the Buddha, who on the night of his enlightenment faced the armies and temptations of Mara, a powerful demon of Buddhist folklore who personifies our difficulties and obstacles on the path. David decided to stay up all night and directly face his own demons. For many hours, he tried to be mindful of his breath and body.
In between sittings, he took periods of walking meditation. At each sitting, he was washed over by familiar waves of sleepiness, body pains, and critical thoughts. Then he began to notice that each changing experience was met by one common element, awareness itself. In the middle of the night, he had an “aha” moment. He realized that awareness was not affected by any of these experiences, that it was open and untouched, like space itself. All his struggles, the painful feelings and thoughts, came and went without the slightest disturbance to awareness itself.
Awareness became his refuge. David decided to test his realization. The meditation hall was empty so he rolled on the floor. Awareness just noticed. He stood up, shouted, laughed, made funny animal noises. Awareness just noticed. He ran around the room, he lay down quietly, he went outside to the edge of the forest, he picked up a stone and threw it, jumped up and down, laughed, came back and sat. Awareness just noticed it all. Finding this, he felt free. He watched the sun rise softly over the hills. Then he went back to sleep for a time. And when he reawakened, his day was fully of joy. Even when his doubts came back, awareness just noticed. Like the rain, his awareness allowed all things equally.
It would be too rosy to end this story here. Later in the retreat David again fell into periods of doubt, self-judgement, and depression. But now, even in the middle of it, he could recognize that it was just doubt, just judgment, just depression. He could not take it fully as his identity anymore. Awareness noticed this too. And was silent, free.
Buddhism calls nonidentification the abode of awakening, the end of clinging, true peace, nirvana. Without identification we can live with care, yet we are no longer bound by the fears and illusions of the small sense of self. We see the secret beauty behind all that we meet. Mindfulness and fearless presence bring true protection. When we meet the world with recognition, acceptance, investigation, and nonidentification, we discovery that wherever we are, freedom is possible, just as the rain falls on and nurtures all things equally.
Excerpted from Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are by Jack Kornfield. Copyright (c) 2011 by Jack Kornfield. By permission of Shambhala Productions. Available wherever books are sold.
PURCHASE THE BOOK: https://www.amazon.com/Bringing-Home-Dharma-Awakening-Right/dp/1611800501/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1528072905&sr=8-1&keywords=Bringing+Home+the+Dharma
Below the mind there is a beautiful, inarguable, direct experience that you are. I invite you to notice this fact: the felt sense of presence and all the flavors of what it is like to be, right now, going nowhere. When we are invited here, when we land in this moment, we find the simplicity and nourishment that emanate from the core of our being as we rest from the outer world. To the extent we can drop our attention away from the content of thought and open ourselves to this holy dimension of life, to presence, we are fed. We are zeroed and soothed in this stillness, resting from all of the things we've created, all the messes we've made and the victories we've had. For a time, we can just rest in a dimension deeper than thought, below the particulars, and drop into raw being.
Anything that arises to draw us away from noticing this moment, any struggles or suffering, are the essential arguments we have with our existence and places where our pain obscures the truth. None of these will be mended or addressed outside ourselves. No matter what we look for outside of ourselves in relating with others, these essential issues are ours to become conscious of, own and resolve or we will export the responsibility for it onto others and create messes.
The fact of our human predicament is underscored when relating to other human beings. How do we stay close to each other and clear in ourselves when we are faced with the simultaneous combination of our timeless depth of presence, and our shadowy collection of misguided creature motivations? We can feel pretty peaceful and perfect sitting on our cushions, but in a split second, even the tiniest little exchanges with others can take us away from this perfection into confusion. We must reclaim this ground of being as our sanctuary and resource for returning to sanity, especially in the presence of other beings. Centering in grounded presence isn’t just for the meditation hall but for every breath we take.
There are few places in life where we are more invested than in our relationships and thus relating intimately combines both love and challenge. The love makes it difficult to blow off what arises in the context of relating, which brings us closer to the inner conflicts we’d rather not face. This is one of the beauties of relationship: when we love someone, when we really value the connection we have with them, we tend to be more willing to look into what we are carrying — the things that flummox us or that we are unconscious of — in order to keep the channel between us clear. When something or someone truly matters to us, when there is something we deeply know we are for or is for us, it creates a cauldron that holds a fire. If we face the fire, it has the power to deconstruct the false in us.
Relationship is the end of spiritual bypassing. We can get by for a while on the high of romance and make a life out of avoiding things, but deep relating inevitably brings us to the heart of what matters. Rumi has a poem where he asks, “My darling, how can I love you more?” In this poem, he is constantly asking his love, “Help me refine my heart, help me refine my approach so that I may spill my devotion in a way that is useful to you.” This can be both thrilling and horrifying because when we ask, “How can I love you more?” or “Can you tell me about another little piece of my shadow that affects you?” your partner might just answer!
There is nothing sweeter than sitting with another human being or beings in the full realization of the Holy, looking into their eyes, simply and fully here. I invite you for a moment to picture and invoke the highest beauty you have experienced in the company of another being. To seed yourself with the possibility of this deep sweetness, whether it’s invoked by a cat, a child, a friend, a lover or a teacher. In my experience, the deepest beauty in relating occurs when we stop and rest in presence, and the two-ness is dissolved in the light of shared being. With this taste of sweetness, let yourself rest into the ground and abide in being, allowing your system to picture this sweet otherness as you directly experience grounding in your own sovereign, felt existence.
Now, I invite you to imagine a challenging moment you have experienced while relating with another being. Imagine resting in the same way in the middle of it, allowing whatever is triggered to coexist with breath and ground and a sense of your own sovereign being. When things start to get rough, at the soonest opportunity, it serves us to do what Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery.” In other words, get thee to zero, to virginity, to virgin-land, to sovereignty — just here, resting as simple being. Before taking one more step or uttering one more word, stop and soak in the Holy.
Hafiz says to make a list of your top three priorities, and then follows that by saying, if they are not “God, God, God,” then you’re in trouble. Nowhere is this more useful to remember than in challenging moments of relating. This right here, this being, this zero is a foundation, a haven, a sanctuary. This is the portable phone’s charging base. We need to return to it regularly when we are relating to other people. It gives us the capacity to snip anything strange that is growing between us, to cut any malignancy or falseness in a moment with the willingness to go nowhere, to get nothing, to humble ourselves, to lose everything, to return to zero. When our relationships are ruled by this commitment to the ground of being, it can only contribute to relating from what is true in an enduring and fulfilling way.
—14 JUNE 2018
Having written a book that questioned eternal torment, Rob Bell was branded ‘the biggest heretic in America’. He tells Ed Thornton what took place next
ROB BELL was once the pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was saluted by one newspaper as “the next Billy Graham”. Today, he is more likely to be found on stage at a stand-up comedy club in downtown Los Angeles than in a pulpit.
But he has not stopped preaching. “I get a screen and put up sections from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it somehow works,” he says of his shows at the Largo comedy club, where he has a residency. “People just realise, ‘Wait, was that a sermon? Did I just buy a ticket for a show and I just heard a sermon? And I’m not only OK with it, it was kind of great to be there.’”
Bell moved to LA in 2012, a year after the publication of Love Wins (Features, 5 August 2011), which cast doubt on the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. To the US’s Evangelical gatekeepers, such as Franklin Graham and John Piper, this amounted to denial of the gospel itself, and a reason to warn their flocks off his work.
As a result of the book, Bell went from “being the coolest Christian in America” to “the biggest heretic in America”, Kent Dobson, his successor at Mars Hill Bible Church, says in The Heretic, a documentary about Bell released this year and directed by Andrew Morgan.
Bell notes that Love Wins contained nothing “which isn’t firmly within the historic Jesus tradition”, but the heretic label has stuck. It has even, perhaps, become a badge of honour, denoting a thinker unafraid to push theological boundaries and unsettle cherished assumptions.
Bell says that the move to California was not a direct result of Love Wins: the church, which he founded with his wife, Kirsten, in 1999, was “loving and supportive” and supported his decision “to follow the work where it takes you”.
“At some level, I’m telling a story, and, at some point, you say: ‘Where do people tell stories? And if I was in one of the capitals of storytelling would that do something new for the work? Would that do something new in me?’”
Bell had absolutely no intention to lead a church in LA. “I’m not ever in churches or overtly religious spaces. The whole thing is a temple. That drives what I do more than anything. As opposed to trying to build a temple, I come along and announce that the whole thing is a temple, the whole earth.”
AWAY from the demands of preaching weekly to a congregation of thousands, he has done more or less as he pleases: hosting a weekly podcast (“The RobCast” the comedy-club residency; writing books and a play; going on speaking tours; and surfing. He even had a slot on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which he mixed motivational life-coaching — “You have more power to create your life than you realise” — with exposition of the Hebrew scriptures.
Unshackled from the expectations of a congregation, he has also voiced support for same-sex marriage. “Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural, and healthy to want someone to go through life with,” he told Oprah in one interview.
“The past few years have been. . . shall I use the word ‘fun’?” Bell says. “It’s just been absolutely amazing. . . The environment here in Los Angeles is . . . like being home.”
Bell’s job and location might have changed, but his fundamental sense of calling has not: he believes the sermon is “an art form” which needs reclaiming as “somewhere between guerrilla theatre and performance art”.
“I’ve been trying to reclaim the sermon for everybody, not for a group of religious people over here, but for everybody, about what it means to be human.”
This desire to open the sermon up to people outside Christian subcultures has always animated him, he says: it led to his starting Mars Hill, in a disused shopping mall; to his touring clubs and theatres with shows such as Everything is Spiritual and The Gods aren’t Angry, and his hugely popular Nooma DVDs; and, ultimately, to where he is today, talking about Ecclesiastes in a sweaty comedy club.
People outside the churches are hungry for depth, he says. Western culture is consumed by “treble notes”, the “of-the-moment, pressing concerns, what hit the internet 17 minutes ago”. People increasingly crave “the bass notes”, he says: the deeper matters that human beings have talked about for thousands of years.
“And when somebody can tell you a story, can quote a text, they can help you see that the thing that you are facing, that you are struggling with, that you are confronted by — oh yeah, people have been wrestling with that for thousands of years. And here’s some of the truths, some of the insights, some of the wisdom in the shared human experience.
“It’s amazing how much we’re craving this. And especially as people leave what you think of as conventional religion — they’re desperate for bass notes.”
BELL played drums in an indie rock band as a student at Wheaton College, Illinois, and he clearly still enjoys the buzz of touring and the immediacy of live performance (although he is rarely away from his family for more than a couple of nights, and takes his wife and three children with him on longer tours). “The people in a room — I love that more than ever.”
Next month, he brings the “Holy Shift” tour, which has already been around the US, to the UK and Ireland. The organisers, Greenbelt, with whom Bell has often collaborated in recent years, say that the shows contain a “mix of philosophy, comedy, theology, and subversive insight”.
“I’m sort of reclaiming the word ‘holy’. Can you in 2018 talk about the word ‘holy’ for an hour and 45 minutes in such a way that takes people places they haven’t been before? In some ways it’s like a giant experiment — can you do this?”
The comedic side of Bell’s work has evolved in LA, where he has been “spending lots of time with comedians”. One of these is Pete Holmes, star of the HBO show Crashing, with whom Bell has developed a two-man stand-up show.
“When we became friends, he was doing stand-up, but he was going after big truths, trying to work out the big questions, and I’ve been doing the big questions, but leaning into comedy. We both realised that we were leaning into the other person’s work.”
Bell insists that he does not employ comedy as a device to “get people to pay attention to the work. This is central to the work.” The comedian charges through “the polite boundaries of conversation”, and asks: “Why don’t we talk about that? What line just got crossed? The comedian goes and finds that line and marches right over it.”
For Bell, comedy can be redemptive.
“When a comedian is working redemptively, the comedian goes: ‘Hey, look: we can go into all of these forbidden, dark, frightening places, and we’re fine. Look, you’re even laughing about it: your own shadow, your own darkness. All of the things that you’re most mortified [about] are present within you, I’m going to talk about them, name them, I’m going to list them in excruciating detail, and you’re going to bend over, you’re going to be laughing so hard, you’re going to be doubled over.’
“Seeing that, it’s like a profound gift. It’s like the release valve for the soul, like everybody can just relax.”
BELL does not miss the Evangelical sub-culture in which he was once revered, perhaps because he never felt at home in it. “Even when I was a pastor in a local church, that seemed like a strange freak-show.”
Not surprisingly, he is scathing about President Trump and the white Evangelicals who helped to elect him. When he preached at Mars Hill against the Iraq War, some left the church, which prompted his realisation that “there is a religion way more sacred to people than anything involving God, Jesus, the Bible — and that is America.
” Even the gun, the gun is more sacred: it’s the untouchable that can’t be questioned for a lot of people.”
Trump’s election, he says, revealed what the gospel amounted to for many US Evangelicals. “It was never about the grace, compassion, solidarity, non-violence of the Jesus path. It was about protecting a particular 21st-century, free-market, capitalist vision for the world. And that thing had been masquerading as Jesus for a long time, and it revealed its corrupt, stained soul. . .
“One of the gifts of this presidency has been that that’s all now out in the open. It said morality, it said faith, it said trust in God, it used the word ‘Jesus’. But it wasn’t serious: it was all a giant charade, and now way more people see it than saw it before — and that’s important.”
Bell acknowledges that his views are radical, but he notes that radical in Latin, radix, means “root”; so “The radical isn’t the person who wandered off into the deep weeds, the radical is the person who went back to the source. It’s the tradition that wandered off.
“The Jesus movement was birthed as a counter to the empire, a subversive movement that was about caring for each other. Sacrificial love is how the world is made better, not coercive military violence. We need that more than ever.”
Indeed, Bell maintains that he is “more compelled by the Bible than ever”. What is the Bible?, published last year, sought to present the Bible as “an ancient library of poems, letters and stories”, with the potential to transform its readers.
His next project is an audio book called Blood, Guts & Fire: The gospel according to Leviticus, in which he revisits the book from which he preached his first sermon series at Mars Hill. “I’m completely blown away with all of what I missed 20 years ago in Leviticus: how much of Leviticus is about justice, about equality, about living with intention, about conflict resolution, about proper relationship to the earth.”
THE public appetite for Bell’s work shows little sign of waning, and his output remains prolific. But he does not come across as hurried or busy, or anxious to meet the next deadline. (He was happy to extend the interview ten minutes over the allotted time.)
“All of life is organised around having a life, and then the work comes out of bumping into neighbours and going for a meal in the neighbourhood and meeting somebody out in the ocean surfing. . .
“I’m just thrilled with all the people I encounter who are waking up to the joy that’s possible, and who are rediscovering that the Jesus path does something to you and it does something to the world. You don’t have to live with hopeless despair. You can actually live with intention, and you can actually be shaped in profound ways. That’s endlessly interesting to me.”
The full interview can be heard on the Church Times Podcast
—From Listening for the Heartbeat of God
The stream of Celtic spirituality, from Pelagius in the fourth century to George MacLeod in the twentieth, is characterized by the expectation of finding God within, of hearing the living voice of God speaking from the very heart of life, within creation and within ourselves. It is a spirituality that recognizes the authority of Saint John and reflects his way of looking and listening for God. At the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, where two distinct ways of seeing, represented by the Celtic and Roman missions, came into conflict, the former allied itself to John. Coleman of Lindisfarne argued that the Celtic tradition originated from Saint John, the disciple who was, he said, “especially loved by our Lord.” Wilfrid, on the other hand, argued for the Roman mission, which, he claimed, was based on the authority of Saint Peter, whom he called “the most blessed Prince of the Apostles.” The tragic outcome of the synod was not that it chose the Roman mission but that it neither made room within the church for both ways of seeing or declared that both were firmly rooted in the gospel tradition.
The practice of listening for God within the whole of life was based on the perspective of Saint John’s Gospel; it is therefore not limited to the Celtic tradition, but found in various mystical traditions in the history of the church. Celtic spirituality is, however, unique in the way in which it developed and cherished John’s vision. It is important always to remember that Christianity is not confined to a single perspective; rather, it comprises a rich interweaving of approaches to God. It is not a question of choosing between the John and Peter traditions, but of attempting to hold them together. We need to ask how we can celebrate both and merge them into a spirituality for ourselves and the church today.
The great Celtic theologian of the ninth century, John Scotus Eriugena, although sharing the mystical tradition of Saint John and its listening for God in all things, understood the need to make room for both John and Peter. The former, he believed represents the way of contemplation, the latter, faithful action. Both disciples ran to the empty tomb of Jesus and both witnessed his resurrection. In a sense, they can be regarded as the male equivalents of Mary and Martha and as symbols of the tension between the contemplative and the active. This tension has always existed in the church and we experience it ourselves in trying to find a balance between the inner and the outer. In this intensely materialistic busy age, which sets great store by outward appearance and possessions and by activity, what is the balance that we need to recover in our spirituality, if we are to integrate the inner and the outer, and to allow the spiritual to shape our lives? If both the way of John and the way of Peter are to have a place in our spirituality, what are their distinct strengths and weaknesses?
In the New Testament the John tradition is of course best reflected by the Gospel according to Saint John. The Peter tradition, on the other hand, finds its clearest expression in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which includes the reference to Peter as the rock on which Christ will build his church. By comparing these gospels we can understand the conflict of Whitby and its aftermath and the tensions and complementarities between these two ways of seeing.
John’s Gospel begins with the Word that was in the beginning: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3) The perspective is a universal one. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) Here the perspective is particular. The tendency in the John tradition is always to see God in relation to the whole of creation, in relation to “all things.” It refers, for instance, to the light “that enlightens every person coming into the world.” (John 1:9) John’s canvas is the whole cosmos. Like his symbol, the eagle in flight, he sees as from a height the whole of life, its beginning and its end. His perspective is infinite. In looking at one thing, the life of Christ, his vision includes all things, for Christ is the life of all life. The tendency in the Peter tradition, however, is to see God in relation to a particular people. In Matthew’s Gospel God brings salvation to the world through a specific line of descent. Thus the first chapter reads like the record of a family tree. The symbol associated with his gospel is that of a man of Earth, so Matthew describes what is immediately in his line of vision, the details of a particular family and heritage. In writing about Jesus, he paints a vivid picture of a human family, its history, and prophetic tradition.
The strength of the John tradition is that it produces a spirituality that sees God in the whole of life and regards all things as inter-related. In all creation, and in all the people of creation, the light of God is there to be glimpsed, in the rising of the morning sun, in the moon at night, and at the heart of the life of any person, even if that person is of an entirely different religious tradition or of no religious tradition. John’s way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the light of life wherever it is to be found. As the history of Celtic spirituality shows, it is a tradition that can stand free of the four walls of the church, for the sanctuary of God is not separate from but contained within the whole of creation. The strength of the Peter tradition is precisely that it does have four walls, as it were. It enshrines the light of truth within the church and its traditions and sacraments. It is a rock, a place of security and shelter, especially in the midst of stormy change. It allows us, even in our times of personal confusion, to turn with faith to the familiar house of prayer where our mothers and fathers and those before them have for centuries found truth and guidance.
These ways of seeing can combine to create a spirituality that is simultaneously well-rooted in a specific tradition and open to God in the whole of life. Together they can provide access to the ancient treasury of the house of faith, while at the same time equipping us to discern God’s presence in all life. If they are not held together, however, the result will be a spirituality in part cut off from the world and, in its religious constraints, separated from life, from the Earth and its people. It may fear creation as an essentially threatening and even godless place, doubting those of other faiths, or imagine that the church’s buildings and tradition contain the holy rather than simply symbolizing the holiness that is everywhere present. Alternatively, the division might produce a spirituality that, in an attempt to broaden its vision, is no longer connected to any church and becomes cut off from the truths and mysteries traditionally protected by the walls of the church. While retaining a strong sense of the inter-relatedness of all people and of the whole of creation, it may cease to learn from the great corpus of the church’s wisdom and become an individualistic spirituality. The two traditions have often been pulled apart, but they are much stronger together. The truth of “God with us” that is celebrated by particular people in particular places need not be an exclusive celebration; it applies to every person and every form of life, because God is with and in all that has life.
The creative tension between these two ways of seeing is symbolized on Iona. Outside the main entrance to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, on the island, stand the great Celtic crosses of Saint John and Saint Martin. There need be no discontinuity in worshipping at the foot of these crosses and then moving inside to continue worship within the stone walls of the Benedictine Abbey. Rather, the one experience can enrich the other. Being part of the song of creation and, as members of the church, of the living communion of saints, are two aspects of the one mystery. Teilhard de Chardin, who was a scientist, a priest, and one of the twentieth century’s great Christian mystics, saw, for instance, that when the priest raises his hands in consecration over the bread and wine at the churches altar he is declaring all matter, all life, to be Christ’s body and blood.
Most of us will have had the experience of walking to church in the light of the morning or evening and feeling reluctant to leave the freshness of the wind or the colors of the sky to enter an enclosed building, sometimes terribly stifling or cluttered and unimaginative in design. Sometimes we need not the busyness of a church but the solitude of a hill to be still and attentive to God. On the other hand, most of us have also experienced in the words, silence, and sacraments of church liturgy an opening of our inner vision, so that on our return home we see the elements of creation around us with fresh eyes. And at times we can feel isolated in creation. As Coleridge wrote:
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ‘twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part VII, lines 598-600)
In times of trouble and loneliness, have we not all drawn comfort from singing hymns and saying prayers in a congregation of men and women who, like us, have known temptation, loss and emptiness?
Occasionally it is not the open air or the church that we desire, but both. My memory of an evening on the Isle of Wight is, I am sure, a universal sort of memory. Towards sunset, I was out walking, with open fields on one side and trees lining the path. The air was clear and calm and I was hearing the birds’ closing song for the day. For a long time I stood under a great pine, looking at its height and feeling its ancient life, aware that all was being enfolded by the sun’s last light. I did not have to move; I was alone. I could have had another ten minutes, but I chose to move and a minute later was standing in the chapel of Quarr Abbey listening to the monks chanting and allowing my prayers to rise with the incense. I knew that in two different ways I had experienced one continuous act of worship.
This does not mean that it is only in the beautiful, in the glorious rays of the sunset and the fine singing of Benedictine monks, that the connection can be made between the bounded walls of a church sanctuary and the life around it. Equally, in times of confusion, betrayal or failure, when from our depths we are calling out for help, we often find that the words of a church service give voice to our yearnings. We may even discover that traditional prayers more truly express our despair than we can ourselves. Similarly, the church can guide our longings for justice in the world. The words of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, for instance, will sometimes sharpen our sense of urgency and passion for justice in society.
An aspect of life that the church has often found difficult to express is the passion for life that is within us and the delight in life’s sensuousness. Certain traditions have wonderfully developed the use of the senses in worship. To experience the divine liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, is to know a full religious incorporation of the senses, through light and color, touch, sound, and scent, but Western religious traditions have tended to stop short in approaching sensuality, especially where it relates to relationship and sexuality. The way in which the church has so often either ignored or allegorized the Song of Songs and its clear delight in the goodness and God-giveness of sexual attraction and intimacy typifies religious inhibition, with its fear of passion and the sensual.
Early in Augustine of Canterbury’s Roman mission to Britain at the end of the sixth century, there were signs of this fear and of a determination to enforce clerical celibacy. In a series of questions addressed to the Pope, Augustine had expressed concern about common practices he had discovered in the British church. For instance, women took communion while they were menstruating, as did men who had recently had sexual intercourse with their wives. “These uncouth English people,” wrote Augustine, “require guidance on all these matters.” In response, Pope Gregory indicated that although it was not forbidden for women to receive communion during menstruation it was “commendable” for them to refrain from doing so during their period of “defilement,” as he called it. Also, a man who had “approached” his wife should not enter a church before washing and should even wait until his “heated desires cool in the mind.” The Pope added that, although the physical union of married people was not sinful, husbands and wives should have intercourse only in order to procreate and never “for mere pleasure.”
The Gospels of John and Matthew reflect different perspectives in relation to pleasure and the senses. Their accounts of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil, for example, describe what was probably the same event in very different ways. In John’s Gospel, the woman, Mary, takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair. “The house,” says John, “was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (John 12:3) In Matthew’s version, on the other hand, an unnamed woman is described simply as coming to Jesus and pouring oil on his head as he sits at table. (Matthew 26:7) The fragrance of the perfume and the intimacy of the anointing and drying of Jesus’s feet are entirely absent from this account. In John’s Gospel there is a readiness to delight in the sensory and in the closeness of affection. Matthew is more cautious. John’s spirituality accentuates the light that is within all life, revealing a passion for life in its fullness. The body is regarded as good and intimacy becomes an expression of God’s love. In the spirituality of the Peter tradition there is an awareness of the dangers of delighting in the senses. In time this awareness led to the extreme belief, shared by both Augustine of Hippo and his namesake in Canterbury, that sexual love is merely concupiscence.
In the modern age, with its obsession with the sexual, it is important to allow John’s vision to help shape our spirituality. “I have come that you may have life,” says Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel, “and that you may have it in abundance.” (John 10:10) We need to regain confidence in the goodness of creation and thus of the body and of our sexuality, whether we are celibate, single, or committed in relationship. This entails recovering a sense of the goodness of the creativity that is fundamental to creation’s fruitfulness and continuity. We will not be able to address the perversity of our generation’s fascination with sex by denying the essential goodness of our sexuality, but rather by declaring that it is deeply sacred, an essential part of who we are, and therefore reflecting the goodness of God’s image in us. The John tradition encourages us to honor and delight in our sexual identity. This is where the two perspectives need to be held together. The John tradition encourages us to acknowledge the goodness of our physicalness and to understand that the sensual has a place in spirituality and can express God’s love and creativity. The Peter tradition, on the other hand, can set boundaries to help us answer questions like, With whom should we be intimate? and, How does the goodness of the sensual relate to commitment in relationship, or to the demands of community life and society’s well-being? Yes, let us passionately and uninhibitedly taste the goodness and delightfulness of creation, but let us also be alert to the laws that protect sustainability and wholeness in our relationships.
Another tension between the two ways of seeing is created by their distinct approaches to wrongdoing. How should we view our failures in relationship, for instance? John’s Gospel includes the story of the woman taken in adultery (a story that today raises questions of adultery). Jesus tells those who want to stone the woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When no one condemns her, Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:7-11) In Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, we find these words: “I say to you that every one who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:28-30) John’s tradition, espoused by Pelagius and others in the Celtic tradition, recognizes our capacity for goodness; even when we fail we are seen as essentially good, as capable of not failing. Christ is portrayed as forgiving and “full of grace.” God’s goodness is at the heart of the human and humanity is graced with the profound desire to be holy, as God is holy. In repenting of sin we are not turning away in order to be someone else, but re-turning to our true selves, made in the loveliness and goodness of the image of God.
The Peter tradition, on the other hand, underlines our capacity for sin and warns us to be on our guard against this tendency in ourselves and others. It sees Christ as the fulfillment of the law, a corrective to our sinfulness. It approaches our behavior with a caution that may be as wise as a serpent’s, but can overlook the intrinsic good at the heart of each life. With Augustine this way of seeing led to the extreme conviction that the essential goodness in humanity was totally erased with Adam’s fall.
In this area, perhaps above all others, we must recover a balance in our spirituality, believing and hoping in our God-given goodness on the one hand and being wise and alert to sinful leanings on the other. Is it not always necessary to pursue two approaches to our failings, the transformative and the surgical? We should be able to cut out deep-seated wrongs and provide at the same time the right conditions for goodness to flourish. Is this not how the body operates? The aim of medicine, therapy, rest, and surgery is always to enable the healthy energy deep within us to assert itself against any disease or malaise that is threatening our essential well-being. In the same way, are we not to be liberating the image of God that is within us? If we do not, how will we deal with ourselves and others in the midst of terrible failure? How, for instance, will we deal with a young teenager who helped kick to death a young man because he was homosexual? Are we to say that she is evil at the core of her being and should be locked away for the rest of her life, unless she can become something totally other than what she is? The conviction of Celtic spirituality is that her evil behavior sprang not from the very heart of her life but from a deep confusion and loss; if she is given the grace to recover some of the goodness that was hers in infancy she will gradually be transformed into her true self. In the process, of course, she will need to be protected from her tendency to evil. However, punishment and watchfulness cannot in themselves restore people’s goodness; this can be done only by releasing their true essence, made in the image of God.
In the John tradition transformation occurs through love. “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Change will come through love. John’s spirituality is guided above all else by a sense of the welling up of love from life’s deepest springs, the place of God’s abiding. In the Peter tradition, on the other hand, great confidence is placed in the outward strength and rightness of the law handed down by religious tradition. Following God’s law will bring about change for the good in our lives, both individually and collectively. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” says Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until Heaven and Earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18) Part of this tradition are social justice and charity, including the practices, set forth in Matthew 25, of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, and attending to those in prison. The love of others is to be combined with the law of righteousness. Otherwise, at one extreme there may be a vague, unproductive enthusiasm for the sacredness of all life and, at the other, a joyless moral dutifulness. On its own, neither approach can bring about the profound changes that are needed in our lives and in the wider relationships of the world.
In the New Testament, not only are their different perspectives generally united, but John and Peter themselves often appear together. At the Last Supper, for example, they are next to one another and after Jesus’s arrest they are the two who follow him. Separated at the crucifixion, they later run together to Jesus’s empty tomb. In the Acts of the Apostles they are referred to as sharing the experience of imprisonment. One of their greatest shared experiences, however, is the transfiguration, described in Matthew’s Gospel. On the mountain they see Christ as the light of God and are instructed to “listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)
John and Peter did listen, in different ways, and this is why it is important to bring together their distinct perspectives and draw on the complementary gospel traditions. The brief historical sketches in this book have shown how the church has been weakened over the centuries by its rejection of Celtic spirituality and the latter’s development of the mysticism of Saint John. The church would have been infinitely richer if it had embraced both Pelagius and Augustine, affirming the essential goodness in every life while remaining alert to the evils that can destroy us. This would have provided surer foundations for integrating our spirituality with the whole of life and with what is most natural. At the Synod of Whitby, why could the way of John not have been held together with the way of Peter? The Celtic mission, which acknowledged the light present even in those who have not heard the gospel, complemented the Roman mission, with its emphatic claims of the uniqueness of the gospel. The two were not mutually exclusive. The church was the poorer for forcing Celtic spirituality underground, so that for centuries it survived primarily on the Celtic fringes of Britain, among people unsupported in their spirituality by clergy. Would not the church and the world have been better prepared to meet the challenges of the modern world – including ecological crises – if they had learned from Celtic spirituality instead of rejecting it? Would they not have been enriched by the awareness that God’s light is within creation as well as transcending it? Why was the church so frightened when, in the nineteenth century, men like Scott and MacDonald taught that we are a reflection of God’s image, the divine being inextricably interwoven with the human? Would it not have been enlarged in its spirit by affirming that our creativity, sexuality, and passion for life can be expressions of the life of God?
Finally, in the twentieth century, when the John tradition was reflected in George MacLeod and others, why did their conviction that God is the light of the world (rather than just a religious aspect of it) not burst open the doors of the church to the world? If it had more wholeheartedly accepted this belief, the church would surely have avoided many of the dangers of irrelevance, which often characterize it today. Could it not have redefined its boundaries? Instead of being shut off behind its four walls, upholding a spirituality that too often looks away from life, could it not have transformed itself into a kind of side chapel for the world? Our churches might then have become places where we could more easily step into and out of daily life and be reminded that the real cathedral of God is the whole of creation. If the church’s symbols and rituals pointed more clearly to the world as God’s dwelling-place, we might then more fully rediscover that God’s heartbeat can be heard in the whole of life and at the heart of our own lives, if we will only listen.
If you have an aversion to Eastern philosophy (even though Christianity is, by origin, an Eastern religion), bear with me, I think you’ll find this interesting anyway. I’ve been trying to find a cohesive way of expressing what I believe the person of Jesus calls us towards that steps into something much deeper than just a conversion to a codified religion and its accompanying world-view (Christianity). The Tao (Dao) offers something into this space. With that in mind, here I want to explore Jesus and the Tao.
Many will be aware of the Tao through a writing called the Tao Te Ching – a philosophical piece. We could have some amazing and lengthy discussions about the Tao Te Ching, but underpinning it is the idea of the Tao. It’s important to understand that the Tao is not a thing to be grasped. The Tao is most easily understood as the underlying natural order of the universe. It could be said to be the essence that underpins everything. Translations of the word ‘Tao’ give us English words like ‘way’, ‘route’, and ‘path’. Thus it’s not a thing to be grasped, but more a mode of existence that underpins everything.
C.S Lewis in his work, The Abolition of Man, talks of the Tao as a natural law and as unchanging (his dystopian future in which the grounded reality of the Tao is done away with among humans is fascinating and places power in the hands of an elite group who come to resemble something that is not human). He noted that new systems that spring up and new ideologies that are born are merely fragments of the Tao and that they owe the Tao any sense of validity they may have. It’s important to note that the Tao is different from the Christian concept of God where God is a personal entity (though such a description falls well short of the reality) whereas the Tao is an impersonal, universal way of being – it simply is. To understand it in Christian thinking (as much as it could possibly be understood), if God is the Creator then the Tao is the underlying law at work in the created universe and the intended ‘way’ for all of creation (though, as we shall see, in Christian thinking the two are brought together in a person).
All of this is an extremely superficial way of understanding these concepts – which is why the Tao Te Ching uses various forms of writing to draw one towards harmony with the Tao – much of it causes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for the average western reader. The pursuit of much Chinese religion and various philosophies and ways of living that connect with the Tao, is harmony with it – this way of being is known as ‘De’ – cultivation of the way. Harmony with the Tao, for many, is the chief mode of life, but there isn’t a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ to such a way of life. Of course, as with any of humanity’s philosophical approaches to life there are more rigid forms of ‘De’ such as Confucianism, but I’m intrigued by the idea of our lives being about cultivating ‘the way’ (De). It is along this line and the implied natural form of ‘being’ both for us and the universe that I want to focus.
In many Chinese versions of the Bible, the Greek word ‘Logos’ is translated as ‘Dao’ (Tao). Knowing that, read John 1 and where it says ‘Word’, replace it with ‘Dao’ with the understanding that we’ve been talking about. I don’t want to try and make connections that aren’t there but there is some clarity to be found in drawing it all together that strips away some of the baggage we have placed on Christian thinking. Also, I would caution trying to make John say something that he may not be saying by drawing on Greek and Chinese philosophy and then placing the words of those concepts into what he says. This is more about connections that I find interesting and that take my faith into the language of another’s way of seeing and understanding the world.
In the thinking of Greek Stoic philosophers who followed in the footsteps of Heraclitus, ‘Logos’, most often translated as ‘word’, was a principle of order and knowledge; they saw it as a divine principle that pervaded the universe – hence the translation to ‘Dao’. Therefore Jesus could be said to be the Tao, or the Logos of the Stoics, embodied. Where Christianity differs from most thinking around the Tao is that we believe Jesus is God – is Divine. So in Jesus we have the embodiment of the Creator (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:9) and we have the embodiment of the intended natural order of the universe (the Logos or Tao from which everything comes – “through him all things were made” John 1:3). Thus Jesus and the Tao can be talked of in the same sentence.
So here’s the kicker – when we look to the person of Jesus (and His Divine form) we do not see the call to a religion (though the practice of said religion can be useful for what we are being called to) and we do not see the call to adhere to a predetermined list of beliefs. Rather than these things, we see the call to something much deeper – harmonization with the Tao and therefore the very intention for our humanity. We are called to be fully human; nothing more and nothing less. The language of sin then isn’t simply about breaking a predetermined set of moral rules, it’s about that which inhibits our intended life in the Tao/Logos and therefore creates conflict; establishing something other than the intended reality.
The ‘rules’ of Christianity and all the dos and don’ts it’s turned into are, at best, a derivative and a shadow of the Tao – where Christianity is too often reduced to a moral and ethical code to live by. Rather than this, Christianity is the rules stripped away and the spotlight put on the transformation God works in us to recreate us to our true state as part of the Tao or Logos – His intended order for the universe/creation. Our role is to simply open our lives up to that transformation and to walk ‘the way’. Christ as both God and the Tao/Logos is the gateway [“I am the way”] to us being a new creation shaped towards that intended reality – the reality that underpins the universe – Jesus.
There is something formlessly created
Born before Heaven and Earth
So silent! So ethereal!
Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless
It can be regarded as the mother of the world
I do not know its name
Identifying it, I call it “Tao”
– Tao Te Ching Chapter 25
Identifying it, I call it Jesus the Christ – not merely a principle but a person. Food for thought and if you continue with it there are many many head-trips in there when Jesus, our journey, and many popular Christian concepts are considered.
"What Is the Sacred Feminine? An excerpt from Voices of the Sacred Feminine" edited by Rev. Dr. Karen Tate by Amy Peck
The Sacred Feminine is a concept that recognizes that “God” ultimately is neither anthropomorphically male or female but a Divine Essence (Goddessence) beyond form and duality – an essence that is in balance and unification of masculine and feminine principles – a dynamic interdependent “Immanence” that pervades all life. The Asian Yin Yang icon is a good representation of this idea.
However, seeing the divine as an abstract concept of omnipresent consciousness, or immanence, is a challenge for most humans. We all have a basic human need to put the inexplicable into a tangible form in order to explore our relationship to it. Thus we tend to anthropomorphize or attribute human characteristics to the unknowable. In other words, we name and assign form to an abstract concept in order to relate to it at our level of ability. So the Divine Essence or Absolute has become a “Father” God figure that we were taught to visualize, pray to and imagine having a personal relationship with.
Unfortunately, seeing the vast, infinite, absolute and indescribable Goddessence only in the form of masculine metaphor and symbol has severely limited our human spiritual potential and greatly hindered our ability to live in peace and balance on this earth.
For the last several thousand years the dominant religious belief systems of our world have been patriarchal which sanctioned societal ethics that elevated God the Father over Mother Earth, and man over woman.
But it hasn’t always been this way! It is vital to remember that for eons before patriarchy, throughout the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages of pre “his-story,” there were worldwide “Mother/Female and Earth” honoring societies that lived in a more egalitarian, sustainable and peaceful culture that thrived without war for thousands of years. It is urgent to rediscover and exhume the lost memory of those cultures to inform us and inspire us to construct a more stable foundation for society’s future.
Remembering these lost matrifocal civilizations authenticates and validates the significance of the Sacred Feminine and the importance of women and female values as we rebuild a healthier global unity.
It is time to balance the masculine and feminine principles within our belief systems, our religious doctrines, our cultural ethos, and within ourselves. To gain this equilibrium, we must shift our focus for a while to the idea of Universal Motherhood – we need to explore the metaphor of the Mother, the symbol of the Goddess and the model of Priestess. We need to bring to light the archaeological evidence of ancient Goddesses and their stories. We need to emphasize “Motherly” love, wisdom, compassion and creativity as well as respect sexuality as natural and sacred. We must empower women and celebrate their contribution to spirituality, culture and society. And we must awaken ourselves, teach our children and educate our men.
Awareness of the Sacred Feminine will aid us to appreciate the feminine nature in women and men. Awareness of a Universal Motherhood will help us to respect the earth and Mother Nature. Awareness of the Feminine Principle will help us honor women’s bio-physical and emotional passages through life, and to help all people (women particularly) to attain healthy self-esteem. And this awareness will encourage all persons to find inner balance and peace, thereby increasing respect and tolerance of each other – which ultimately will promote greater world harmony.
It is time to honor the Sacred Feminine. “Honoring the Sacred Feminine”, in the spiritual sense, means valuing the feminine principle, along with the masculine principle, as equal and fundamental aspects of the Divine. From a planetary level, it means respecting and healing our Mother Earth. From a cultural standpoint, it means revivifying the archetype of the Goddess through entertainment and the arts and using language that gives equal emphasis to the pronouns “she” and “her”. In the societal sense, it means re-creating the role of Priestess, and respecting the contribution of women in business, science, art and politics, as well as the home and community. In a religious view, it means offering ceremony and service that reaffirms our connection to the divine, the Goddess, the earth and each other. In the human sense, honoring the Sacred Feminine means especially valuing the innate worth of woman’s mind, body and soul, as well as appreciating the “feminine” qualities in the male character.
Voices of the Sacred Feminine: Conversations to Re-Shape Our World by Rev. Dr. Karen Tate is being published by Changemakers Books in November 2014. ISBN: 978-1-78279-510-0 (Paperback) £13.99 $24.95, EISBN: 978-1-78279-509-4 (eBook) £6.99 $9.99.
When you hear the word “myth” associated with the Bible, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Do you define the word “myth” to mean that the stories described are not factually true?
My reading of the Bible has undergone an evolution over the years. As a child, I was taught the various stories as if they were actual historical events. As my understanding of science and the world began to broaden, I saw that a literal reading of many of these stories was impossible. I came to view the Bible as myth, by which I meant non-historical stories that contained a moral message. Today, my understanding of the Bible as myth has taken another step. Although I still do not believe that many of the stories are historically or factually accurate (although they may be anchored in historical events), I view “myth” in a broader and more meaningful sense. Mythology is a form of literature that expresses fundamental truths in a way that ordinary discourse is inadequate to describe. Mythology adds a richness of detail and a concreteness to metaphorical language. Now when I refer to the stories in the Bible as mythology, I do not intend to do so pejoratively. Reading these stories as myths gives me the freedom to understand their underlying meaning in a way I never could before.
Why specifically did I abandon the historical view of many of the writings in the Bible I was taught as a child?
1. From a scientific standpoint, many of the “facts” in the Bible were simply wrong. One of many examples: according to Genesis, the universe is just over 6000 years old. According to physics, the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.
2. Also from a scientific perspective, many of the stories were impossible. Within this category, I put most of the miracles. The story of Joshua stopping the sun moving across the sky is an example. First, the story assumes (as was the thinking then) that the earth was flat and was at the center of the universe. We simply know this to be false. Second, for the sun to stop would mean that the earth would have to cease rotating on its axis—an event which would destroy the planet.
3. For many of the miracle stories, natural explanations exist, especially considering they were written in a time when the authors believed that solar eclipses were divine omens, disease was divine punishment, and mental illness was caused by demon possession. In the case of Jesus, I do believe that he was a faith healer and that healing was an important part of his ministry. However, today we can find faith healers in Haiti who practice voodoo and in tribal Africa who practice witchcraft. Many of these modern-day faith healers have patients who are actually healed by these practices. Doctors call this the placebo effect, an effect so powerful that drugs must undergo double blind experiments.
4. Some of the mythological stories in the Bible are not original, but were borrowed from other traditions. The Epic of Gilgamesh—a Sumerian poem detailing the creation of the universe that predates the writings of Genesis by many centuries—contains a flood story whose plot points are almost identical to the story of Noah.
5. The other world religions also contain rich histories of mythology and fantastical sounding (to us) stories. On what basis can we Christians claim that our miracle stories are legitimate, yet theirs are flights of fancy? The mythology surrounding the Buddha, who lived 500 years before Jesus, includes tales of how he healed the sick, walked on water, and flew through the air. His birth was foretold by a spirit (a white elephant rather than the angel Gabriel) who then entered his mother’s womb! At his birth, wise men predicted that he would become a great religious leader.
6. The Bible itself is full of inconsistencies. How can it be an accurate historical record, when the various books contradict each other? Here is UNC Religion Professor Bart Ehrman: “Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? It depends which Gospel you read. Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died? It depends which Gospel you read…Or take the accounts of the resurrection. Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not? What did they see in the tomb? Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? It depends which account you read.” (http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p96.htm)
Despite the above points, millions of people still read the Bible literally. Other than the inherent problems associated with closing our minds to science and the reality of the world, I see other problems in literal interpretations of the Bible. I believe that such a reading limits the Bible. Rather, than expressing universal truths, a literal interpretation limits the actions of God to certain events in history. Yes, there are many rules articulated and lessons expressed, but God’s actions on the world become finite, confined to certain historical events: like the chess master making individual moves on a chessboard frozen in time two thousand years ago. Reading these same stories mythologically, however, can bring forth their universal qualities.
Second, encouraging a literal reading of the Bible alienates much of our society. In an age of science and technology, too much of the Bible is simply unbelievable to today’s mind and can turn people away from the underlying messages. I fear that an insistence on a literal or historical view will ultimately lead to the irrelevance of Christianity. Furthermore, because the stories were written in a different age with very different views on social justice—an age in which slavery was legitimate, an age when discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation was the norm—the Bible can also be used to justify intolerance today.
Reading the Bible as mythology is not a new concept. Two of the early Church Fathers, Origen (185-254) and Augustine (354-430), both interpreted Genesis metaphorically, rejecting literal interpretations. Early in the 20th century, German theologian Rudolf Bultmann called for a “demythologizing” of the New Testament for many of the reasons I have given above. Rather, the movement in many fundamentalist circles today to read the Bible as inerrant (an extreme form of literalism, in which every word of Bible is viewed as true) is a late development from the 19th century as a response to the chipping away at the historicity of the stories since the Enlightenment.
By throwing off the shackles of having to believe in the historicity of the Bible, we are free to interpret the stories as a testament to the religious experiences of people from a different age—a testament that communicates a meaning about their experiences of Ultimate Reality, of God. I understand that their experiences of the divine ground were interpreted through the lens of a pre-modern view of the world, and my own religious experiences will take on a different form today. In my next post, I will examine how I interpret a few of the key Biblical stories in a metaphorical way that helps me to understand the meaning of God.
THE BIBLE AS MYTHOLOGY, PART 2: GENESIS
What can the stories of the Bible teach us about our own experiences of the divine? In my last post, The Bible as Mythology, I discussed my problems with a literal interpretation of the Bible. Reading the Bible as mythology, however, does not mean that all of the stories are historically untrue. Many are, in fact, based on real historical events and people. Others are purely fictional, and yet others are a blend of history and imagination. In this post, I will demonstrate how unlocking the handcuffs of historical truth from the Bible can free us to experience the universal themes present in the stories.
Let’s start at the beginning: Genesis. A source of ongoing debate, this story is often read by creationists as a literal description of how God created the world in 6 days 6000 years ago, forming man from the dust as a potter might create a pot. Atheists like Oxford Biology Professor Richard Dawkins see the story as not much more than a primitive people’s attempt to explain the workings of the universe without the benefit of modern science. On the other hand, I (along with many others, including the early second century church father Origen) read it as a metaphorical commentary on the relationship between God, humankind, and existence itself.
Whether the original authors of these stories believed in the accounts literally or not is irrelevant to how we read them (Chapters 1 and 2 actually present two different accounts of creation, written not by Moses but by at least two authors during the 6th century BCE—one of the later texts of the Torah—who borrowed imagery and themes from the much older Mesopotamian creation story, the Enuma Elish). If we read the Bible as the encounter of a pre-modern people with the divine, we would expect their interpretations to be written in a way that conformed to their cultures and their understanding of the workings of the world, which is a very different understanding than we have today. But the underlying thematic message of the stories can still contain universal truths that hold just as much meaning for us. Just as our scientific laws change over time as we gain knowledge of the universe, why shouldn’t our theological interpretations of scripture likewise evolve?
From the opening lines of Genesis, we can thus see God as creator. But today we might choose to interpret God not as a supernatural being sitting outside the universe commanding it into existence, but rather understand God as the source of existence itself—an existence that flows forth from God. We can understand God as the creative power that supports existence. This creative power was not a one-time event, but it occurs continuously—underlying the space-time framework of the universe, the matter and energy that make up its content, and the physical laws which govern its actions. This creative power is also that which animates life itself as we see with the image of God breathing the breath of life into Adam. The Hebrew word for “breath,” nephesh, also means “soul.” God is thus the center of our being. (For more on this view of God, see two of my earlier posts: Rethinking God and Symbols.)
Similarly, we can read the Garden of Eden as representing an ideal: the essential underlying connection between God, nature, and humanity. However, we do not live our lives in this ideal essence. Instead, our actual existence is characterized by a distance between us and the divine ground that is the power behind creation. This separation (the “Fall&rdquo and our own further distancing from our divine centers in which we elevate our egos over God (“sin&rdquo is what results in our suffering. (See my earlier post on The Problem of Evil that explores this issue further.)
We also see in this story that although God is the creative source of existence, we have freedom—just as the theories of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and evolution all posit the importance of randomness, probability, and freedom in the laws that govern existence. God creates, but a key mechanism in the process of creation is freedom of the created.
The metaphor of the Fall and the separation of humanity from our divine ground can also be seen in the metaphorical language of sexual awakening. Just as a child transitions through puberty to adulthood (symbolized by the recognition of Adam and Eve of their nudity and their sexual union) and this transition also coincides with both a loss of innocence and a corresponding increase in wisdom (symbolized by the eating of the fruit from the knowledge of good and evil), humanity has transitioned from our pure essence to our actual existence. The question then becomes how can we reconnect with the divine ground, with God?
Rereading Genesis in this way allows us to see both the creative role of God and the human existential situation within a framework that is consistent with modern science. In a later post, I will similarly address the mythological meaning behind the resurrection.
Longing, Piercing and the Dark
“You cut me open and I keep on bleeding love.”
–Leona Lewis, Bleeding Love (modern pop song)
Not long ago I dreamed friends wanted me to come upstairs from a dark basement to meet some people. I ascended, realizing as I climbed that my pupils were fully dilated as if still in the dark. Reaching the people, my pupils had not changed and I could not see. Moreover, I had no active principle in me, receptively present to the depth of my being, which was bottomless night. At their mercy, I was unprotected even by the veil of a social face. Blind to the lit world and ecstatic, I turned toward them as an ambassador of the gorgeous dark, entirely open and given.
We are afraid of the dark. We are afraid of death, sickness, need, longing, grief, rotting, decaying and the void. What is hidden within us in darkness, and what we have grown to fear and loathe, is the realm of the Divine Feminine. To understand Her through linear methods is impossible: only through experience, through initiation, are we allowed to come close. Many are now being called to Her, through illness, tragedy or the draining of meaning from our lives, because her wisdom is critical to the healing and wholeness of our souls and our world.
The Divine Feminine doesn’t oppose the masculine, but embraces and blesses the whole of everything. Qualities of the Divine Feminine are present in both women and men, and are needed to draw us into our depths and thus our full spiritual potential. Speaking of the feminine clearly and freshly is challenging: she is hidden, many of her aspects have been so denigrated we believe they are valueless, and many concepts surrounding her have become cliches and linked with a wounding fury. Yes, there is pain where the feminine has been desecrated, burned and tortured, where her wisdom has been buried under derision and fear. This must be honored. Yet we cannot afford to splinter into dualistic battles when reclaiming these energies is so critical to the healing of the whole. We have all lost from her banishment and we all stand to gain when the energies of the Divine Feminine are rewoven into our lives.
Reclaiming this ground is not easy, much of it gunked up with dismissal, devaluation, and contempt, especially the pathways to Her transformative powers. The way is dark, guides are few and the harpies are loud and convincing — they live inside and outside us and therefore sound real. When we travel into these lands within ourselves, the conditioned negativity rises and we feel terrible about ourselves, which feels like a sure sign to turn back. However, the deep space of feminine receptivity and unknowing, her understanding of the interrelatedness of life, and her nourishing waters and sheltering dark are so vital for the healing of our world that it is worth traveling back through the territory of thou shalt not throw like a girl, cry like a girl, need like a girl or love like a girl.
Softening and opening is a big part of where we go when we journey to the feminine — what is softer and more open than an accepting vagina or the warm inside of a fluidfilled womb? We are meant to live open, and we must reclaim our way there. So many beautiful faces are hardened in stress, over-mentality, protection and separation. It is possible, without the world changing a bit, for us to re-inhabit these sacred waters and hold this shelter and healing out to each other as sanctuary.
I can hear the protests of all who carry the wounds of rape, abuse and humiliation. Soften, are you nuts??? It’s true we are vulnerable to forces that don’t know what to do with an open soft place other than colonize, plunder, poke and humiliate it. And it is possible to learn the ways of the warrior alongside the ways of the flower and restore what has been scared into hiding its rightful throne, manifested on this planet. The focus of reclamation seems to dance of its own accord back and forth between the poles of heart and warrior, reweaving a tapestry of wholeness — the stronger and clearer I get, the softer and more open I can be. As I explore the strength of my physicality and groundedness, the clarity of seeing what is true, and a right to my voice, I witness a shift then to softening, receptivity, and the ability to open to interdependence.
Denying the soft depth of the feminine mystery affects all of life – when we separate life from its holy essence we cut the world off from energy that can nourish, heal and transform it. A disembodied god and a world in which matter is unholy is devastating to the feminine. It is injurious to cast a whole realm of human experience, much of which is native to women, into a dark cavern of banishment. We are so confused about reality that we see our instinctive wisdom as pathology, attack ourselves for it and try to rid ourselves of it, leaving us with a deep mistrust of ourselves that makes us vulnerable to manipulation and control.
Here I will describe a couple vital initiatory aspects of the Divine Feminine as they have been coming to consciousness in my experience: longing (opening to a burning ache for something it seems we need) and piercing (meeting an experience wholly and allowing it to penetrate us to the core). These are aspects that have been somewhat vilified in a culture obsessed with mastery. To reclaim wholeness is not only to reclaim the sword of clarity and strength, it is also then to use what we have learned to set a throne for a kind of vulnerable softening and opening that replenishes our souls, relationships and world from within.
In an auditorium, face wet with tears, I watch my friend Ty passionately play tablas, and listen to Krishna Das sing from his heart devoted to God. A burning ache in my heart, for Man, for Masculine, for God, opens a well inside that I have grown to adore in its bittersweet mindless black depth. I have experienced it many times: as a child trying to kiss my brother’s coat fast enough to avoid his punch, longing to be invited into the mysterious world of his boy room, games, and friends; lying in bed, my mother ironing in the hall, wanting her without a way to reach in my emotionally distant family; sobbing when the distance between my heart and my boyfriend’s seemed impossible to cross; home from college locked in an embrace with my soon-to-leave father who was divorcing my mom; and on mushrooms facing a terrifying darkness no one else seemed to notice that filled the bar.
Our culture calls this something to get over. We keep ourselves from these doorways to the dark, and with derision born of fear or in the name of “helping,” encourage others not to go either. Discomfort (the first sign of impending transformation) is seen as something to control: figure it out, fix it and thereby eliminate it. Mind and will partner in brutalizing this soft underbelly, hardening to keep it away, making ourselves less affect-able and above reproach from the wandering police of the hyper-masculine within us and without. Anything but soften, open and allow it.
But we are affect-able. The web of wedded creation uses us to long through for itself. Women are wired for this softening and opening and it has everything to do with our longing for the Holy. We don’t need more therapy to eradicate this. No matter how many sessions we have on our dads, brothers or boyfriends, the Feminine will ALWAYS long for the Masculine, and we are not wounded or whacked or missing something because of it. Just as the iron filing is drawn to the magnet, the electron is drawn to the proton and the gravity of the earth holds our sweet bodies to her, we were born to long. Longing is the Feminine expression of divine love.
In all this pining I found why Hafiz wrote: “Let your loneliness cut more deeply.” In early experiences of burning for what I could not have, a fullness rose out of my emptied cup to fill it to the brim. Out of the fertile void, shaky young places would become sturdy. What worked on a small scale might be magnificent if I were completely denied satisfaction! So I prayed arrogantly, “Give me nothing that I want.” An unimaginable dark night ensued. Surrounded by and filled with desolation, I felt separate from God and was forced to plumb my own bottomless well. Longing is a guide that leads us into a potent purification for the heart wanting to be emptied of all but gold.
Through longing, the interconnected web of life expresses relatedness. Not only are there young places to burn off and a divine alchemy that fills the empty heart, but longing has a vital role in our relationships. We ARE inextricably related. Where we know this, we relate in an interlaced and interdependent way. When one acts as though he or she is separate, the whole web feels it, and we feel it in our bodies as longing. We are wired to call each other back into connectedness. We might not know how yet, but we have the wiring.
Pain (emotional, physical or spiritual) is a piercing for those of us willing to open to being divinely mastered. We have been taught the opposite — that we are to master with mind and will. Granted this can be useful when a greater need is present, such as saving a life, or defending a village. After the battle though, returning to a tender human heartfulness serves the return to the community. We have overdone this hardening to our detriment and forgotten the rituals of a softening return. A valuable skill during times of great challenge has become a way of life. We harden and cut off the energetic exchange with the matrix of life, sealing ourselves into cells of separateness as our unhealed pain throbs inside, creating illness, violence, dullness and misery.
To be pierced is to allow the shell of protection to break, exposing and drinking the elixir of our innermost. Last year I had some work done on a frozen shoulder which entailed the doctor sticking a 5″ needle into the joint, poking around and injecting fluid. I had witnessed the progress in my shoulder and was committed to the process. Yet as I lay on her table during the final treatment, tears streaming down my face from the pain, I considered for a moment clocking her and running out of the room. Instead I yielded beyond my concept of an ability to do so, allowing this piercing to have me. I let it take and tenderize me until I was powdered. Never had I felt so given, so crushed, and so filled with Beauty.
After I told this story during a talk, someone brought me a copy of a photograph of Bernini’s sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” St. Teresa reclines in a totally blissful swoon, mouth open, head back, eyelids half-mast, hands and feet limp while a curlyheaded young angel with a loving smile stands above her, holding the spear of God. Divinity piercing the human body, heaven piercing earth, spirit piercing matter. St. Teresa describes her experience as follows:
“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails. When he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”
This was the experience of that hour on the table and the same experience during the birth of my daughter, when the pain of contraction came minutes apart, and I crouched howling like a dog. Arrogant about my ability to handle pain, I yielded to the contractions. However, I was unprepared for the final moment when Sophia’s head dropped and a force like the muzzle-loading of a musket moved through my body from the top down. Until then there had been some illusion of control. Feeling the power of the force that would birth my child, I instinctively bowed the lowest internal bow I could imagine, knowing I had come in contact with the terrible power of the Lady (I was going to write “Lord” but it’s fun to play in here — we have stripped ladies of this terrible power, though anyone who has been in relationship with one surely knows it.). Pierced and mastered, I was a portal through which delicious clouds of revitalizing, nourishing feminine energy bathed the room.
To long and to be pierced, to open to the dark and be mastered, to take the doors offered to Her mysteries and to fling them wide open in a passionate embrace with the Holy, spilling divine healing juicy energy to the four corners of the earth. We can bring this wisdom back if we are willing.
(c) Copyright 2010, Jeannie Zandi, all rights reserved.
Originally published in The Sun Monthly, May, 2010.
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July 5th, 2017
Fifteen years ago when I began writing books, I had high hopes that someday I would be “discovered” and that “my message” would thereby reach millions of people and change the world for the better.
That ambition began to disintegrate soon after when after years of labor The Ascent of Humanity found no takers in the publishing world. So I self-published, still hoping that word-of-mouth would propel it to best-seller status. That would show all those publishers! I remember looking at the sales numbers in August 2007 – its fifth month, about the time it should have been gaining momentum. Total sales that month: five copies. Around the same time I was evicted from my apartment (having pinned all my hopes and income on the book) and spent the next half year living temporarily in other people’s houses, children in tow.
It was a painful yet beautiful clarifying experience that asked me, “Why are you doing this work? Is it because you hope to become a celebrated intellectual? Or do you really care about serving the healing of the world?” The experience of failure revealed my secret hopes and motivations.
I had to admit there was some of both motivations, self and service. OK, well, a lot of both. I realized I had to let go of the first motive, or it would occlude the second. Around that time I had a vision of a spiritual being that came to me and said, “Charles, is it really your wish that the work you do fulfill its potential and exercise its right role in the evolution of all things?”
“Yes,” I said, “that is my wish.”
“OK then,” said the being. “I can make that happen, but you will have to pay a price. The price is that you will never be recognized for your role. The story you are speaking will change the world, but you will never get credit for it. You will never get wealth, fame, or prestige. Do you agree to pay that price?”
I tried to worm my way out of it, but the being was unyielding. If it was going to be either-or, how could I live with myself knowing in my heart of hearts I’d betrayed my purpose? So I consented to its offer.
Of course, time would tell that it wasn’t actually either-or. What was important in that clarifying moment was that I declare my ultimate loyalty. Once that happened, recognition and prestige might or might not come as a byproduct, but it wouldn’t be the goal. After all, the work I do isn’t “my” work. These are ideas whose time has come and they need capable scribes. Our true wages in life consist of the satisfaction we get from a job well done. Aside from that, well, the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.
That was part one of the disintegration of my ambition. The first part was the disintegration of personal ambition. The second part was the disintegration of the ambition to do big things to change the world. I began to understand that our concepts of big impact versus small impact are part of what needs to be healed. Our culture validates and celebrates those who are out there with big platforms speaking to millions of people, while ignoring those who do humble, quiet work, taking care of just one sick person, one child, or one small place on this earth.
When I meet one of these people, I know that their impact doesn’t depend on their kind action going viral on the internet and reaching millions of people. Even if no one ever knows and no one ever thanks them for taking in that old woman with dementia and sacrificing a normal life to care for her, that choice sends ripples outward through the fabric of causality. On a five hundred or five thousand year timescale, the impact is no smaller than anything a President does.
Certain choices feel significant to us, unreasonably. The heart calls us to actions that the mind cannot justify in the face of global problems. The logic of bigness can drag us into feelings of irrelevance, leading us to project importance onto the people we see on our screens. But knowing how much harm has been done by those very people in the name of bettering the world, I became wary of playing that game.
The calculating mind thinks that just helping one person has a smaller impact on the world than helping a thousand. It wants to scale up, to get big. That is not necessary in a different causal logic, the logic that knows, “God sees everything,” or the logic of morphic resonance that knows that any change that happens in one place creates a field that allows the same kind of change to happen elsewhere. Acts of kindness strengthen the field of kindness, acts of love strengthen the field of love, acts of hate strengthen the field of hate.
Nor is scaling up necessary when we trust that the tasks life sets before us are part of a larger tapestry, woven by an intelligence that puts us in exactly the right place at the right time.
I attended a funeral recently for a central Pennsylvania farmer, Roy Brubaker, among several hundred mourners. One of the testimonials came from a young farmer who said something like this: “Roy is the one who taught me what success really is. Success is having the capacity to always be there for your neighbors. Any time someone called with a problem, Roy would put down what he was doing and be right over to help.”
This farmer had been Roy’s intern. When he went into business for himself and became Roy’s competitor, Roy helped him along with advice and material aid, and even announced his new competitor’s farm share program to his own mailing list. At the end of his speech, the young farmer said, “I used to think Roy was able to help so many people because he was a successful farmer who had it made. But now I think he was probably more like me, with fifty vegetable crops all crying for attention and a million things to do. He was there for people anyway.”
Roy didn’t wait until he had it made to start being generous.
This is the kind of person that holds the world together. On a practical level, they are the reason society hangs together despite its pervasive injustice, poverty, trauma, and so on. They also anchor the field of love that helps the rest of us serve our purpose rather than our personal ambition.
As I run into more such people and hear their stories, I realize that I don’t need to worry about the size of my audience or about reaching “people of influence.” My job is just to do my work with as much love and sincerity as I can. I can trust that the right people will read it. I am awed and humbled by people like Roy whom I meet in my travels and in my community. They live in service, in love, with great faith and courage, and unlike me they don’t have thousands of people telling them how important their work is. In fact, quite often the system and culture we live in discourages them, telling them that they are foolish, naïve, irresponsible, impractical, and giving them little financial reward. How many times have you been told a life dedicated to beauty or nurture or healing is unrealistic? Maybe after everything on your farm is all ship-shape, maybe after you are personally secure with a solid career and secure investments, maybe then you can afford a little generosity. So I admire people who are generous first, generous with their precious lives. They are my teachers. They are the ones who have eroded my ambition to make it big – even with the excuse of serving the cause.
I am reminded of a Zen teaching story in which the Zen master is approached by a messenger from the emperor. “The emperor has heard of your teaching and wants you to come to court to be the official imperial teacher.”
The Zen master declined the invitation.
A year later the invitation was repeated. This time the master agreed to come. When asked why, he said, “When I first got the invitation, I knew I wasn’t ready because I felt the stirring of excitement. I thought this would be a great chance to spread the Dharma throughout the realm. Then I realized that this ambition, which sees one student as more important than another, disqualified me from being his teacher. I had to wait until I could see the emperor as I would any other person.”
Thanks to the humble people who hold the world together, I am learning no longer to favor the emperor over any other person. What guides me is a certain feeling of resonance, curiosity, or rightness.
Ironically, having lost my careerist ambitions, this year Oprah Winfrey invited me to tape an interview with her for (even more ironically) the show Super Soul Sunday. Five years ago my heart would have been thumping with excitement at the prospect of making it big, but now the feeling was one of curiosity and adventure. From the God’s-eye perspective, was that hour to be more important than the hour I spent with a friend in need? Or the hour you spent taking a stranger to the emergency room?
Yet my response was an immediate yes, accompanied by feelings of wonderment that my world was intersecting with hers. You see, Oprah occupies nearly a different universe from my own countercultural fringe. Could it be, I think with leaping heart, that the gulf between our worlds is narrowing? That the ideas I serve and the consciousness I speak to are ready to penetrate the mainstream?
I think the conversation with Oprah is a marker of changing times. I was amazed that someone in her position would even take notice of my writing, since it lies quite outside any familiar discourse within the mainstream. (At least I’ve never seen anything in mainstream media remotely similar to my election article that attracted her attention.) Our meeting is perhaps a sign that our country’s familiar, polarized social discourse is broken, and that her people – the vast and fairly mainstream audience she serves – are willing to look outside it.
By this I do not mean to diminish her extraordinary personal qualities. I experienced her as astute, perceptive, sincere, expansive, and even humble, a master of her art. But I think her reaching out reflects more than these personal qualities.
I sometimes see myself as a kind of receiving antenna for information that a certain segment of humanity is asking for. A use has been found for the weird kid in high school! On a much larger scale, Oprah is something akin to that as well: not just herself, she is an avatar of the collective mind. Deeply attuned to her audience, when she brings something into their view it is probably because she knows they are ready to see it.
During our conversation I sometimes had the feeling that she personally would have liked to geek out and dive much deeper, but that she disciplined herself to remain the antenna of her audience and stay within the format of the program, which doesn’t lend itself to my usual long disquisitions. I meanwhile was trying to frame ideas for a mainstream audience that I expect isn’t familiar with some of my basic operating concepts. Our conversation felt a bit awkward at times, groping for a structure, as if we were trying to furnish a very large house with a motley mix of beautiful but odd furniture. Nonetheless I think we created a habitable enough corner to welcome people into a new perspective.
In the years since my encounter with the spiritual being, I’ve become comfortable in the cultural fringes where my work has found its home. I have scaled back on traveling and speaking in order to spend more time with my precious loved ones and to connect with the source of knowledge in nature, silence, and intimate connections. I’m with my family at my brother’s farm right now, doing farm labor part of the day and writing during the other part. The flurry of publicity that might follow the Oprah appearance (or might not – it could just be a blip on the radar) poses me with another question, the complement of the one my initial “failure” posed. If it serves the work, am I willing to sacrifice the reclusiveness I am coming to love? If it serves, am I willing to be on other programs where the host may not be as gracious as Oprah? Am I willing to be more of a public figure and deal with the attendant projections, positive and negative? Do I have the strength to remember who the real super souls are – the Roy Brubakers, the dolphin rescuers, the hospice workers, the care givers, the peace witnesses, the unpaid healers, the humble grandfathers taking a child berry-picking, the single moms struggling to hold it all together not imagining that their monumental efforts at patience have an impact on the whole world?
Let me be honest with you: if I hadn’t been facing the total collapse of my success fantasies already, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the spiritual being’s offer. And by the way, it is an offer that is constantly renewed. Every day we are asked, “What will you serve?” I had not the strength on my own to say yes to a life of service. Nor do I now, save for the help I receive from others who hold the field, the people who humble me every day with their generosity, sincerity, and selflessness. To the extent I am effective at what I do, it is because of you.
If I am right that my Oprah appearance is a marker (however small) of the unraveling of once-dominant worldviews, then it only happened because the emerging worldview I speak for is being held so strongly now by so many. Take it then as an encouraging sign. Whether or not it proves to be a breakthrough moment for the concepts of empathy and interbeing we discussed, it suggests that they are coming closer toward consensus reality. We will not be alone here much longer. I thank all who have held the field of knowledge I speak from, who believe my words even more than I do myself, and who therefore uphold me in the work that upholds you. That is how we transition from the Age of Separation to the age of We Need Each Other.
Each great spiritual tradition, in its own way, suggests a model of what it means to be a holy person. Each of them shines a light on the human ideal. Each of them talks about what it takes to grow, to endure, to develop, to live a spiritual life in a world calculatingly material and sometimes maddeningly unclear.
Every major spiritual tradition—Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—brings a special gift to the art of living the spiritual life. Each of them refracts the light of its own spiritual wisdom texts in particularly sharp and distinct ways. Each of them strikes a different tone in giving the great truths of life that form a chord, a symphony of truth.
It is an enlightening excursion, this wandering into the spiritual insights of other whole cultures, other whole intuitions of the spiritual life. It depends for its fruitfulness on openness of heart and awareness of mind. But the journey is well worth the exertion it takes to see old ideas in new ways because it can bring us to the very height and depth of ourselves. It can even bring fresh hear¬ing, new meaning to the stories that come down to us through our own tradition. A Sufi story defines the process clearly:
“Tell us what you got from enlightenment,” the seeker said. “Did you become divine?” “No, not divine,” the holy one said. “Did you become a saint?” “Oh dear, no,” the holy one said. “Then what did you become?” the seeker asked. And the holy one answered, “I became awake.”
It is the task of becoming awake to our God, to our world, to the wisdom that even now lies within us, waiting only to be tapped, that is the real meaning of our questions. It is, more than that, the one great task of life.
May your journey through these questions bring you a new moment of awareness. May it be an enlightening one. May you find embedded in the wisdom of the past, like all students of life before you, the answers you yourself are seeking now. May they waken that in you which is deeper than fact, truer than fiction, full of faith. May you come to know that in every human event is a particle of the Divine to which we turn to meaning here, to which we tend for fullness of life hereafter.
God speaks in many tongues, glows in many colors, calls to us in many voices, is beyond any puny little parochial image we make of God. It is this great cosmic God we seek.
Dogmas are signposts along the road of the soul on the way to God. They are meant to open our minds to mystery. They are not meant to keep us from learning about God in other places and ways.
Religion is meant to lead us to the center and source of creation. The aberration of religion, then lies in spending so much time as religious people claiming our truth and condemning everybody else’s. When theology is used to condemn another person’s path to God, it not only distracts us from the purpose of religion but it distorts it, as well.
What is the deepest meaning of Buddhism, Master?” the disciple asked. And in answer the Zen masters tell us, the teacher only bowed. It is in being able to find the sacred in everything that a person finally discovers God.
“God is the East and the West and wherever you turn, there is God's face,” the Koran teaches. “Behold I am with you all days,” the evangelist Matthew says, “even to the end of time.”
The Hindus teach, “May peace and peace and peace be everywhere.” Jesus says “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” The overall message is clear: the abiding presence of God is a universal revelation.
The Buddha said there is an Eightfold Path to inner peace: right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, right contemplation. Jesus says there are eight beatitudes: mercy, poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking and witness.” Do you think they decided on these together?
“In this world aspirants may find enlightenment by two different paths,” we learn in the Bhagavad Gita.“For the contemplative is the path of knowledge; for the active is the path of selfless action.” The Christian tradition teaches that both contemplation and a commitment to social justice are essential parts of the Christian life.
“Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is One,” we learn in Deuteronomy. And the Hindu prays, “He is the one God, hidden in all beings, all-pervading, the Self within all beings.” And the Sikh says in the Mul Mantra, “He is the Sole Supreme Being, of eternal manifestation.” Clearly, the whole world knows that our God is their God, too. So how can we be more loved than they?
“I have breathed into humans My spirit,” The Koran says. “Let us always consider ourselves as if the Holy One dwells within,” the Talmud teaches. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Christianity says. But if we are all vessels of the divine, how can we use religion to justify destruction of other human beings?
“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience and compassion,” the TaoTe Ching teaches. “There are only three things that matter: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.” Wouldn't the world be different if we all loved what God loves–the other?
How do I know if I’m finally becoming closer to God? It’s when I see God in everyone I meet and touch God in everything that is.
—from Joan Chittister::Essential Writings, selected by Mary Lou Kownacki and Mary Hembrow Snyder (Orbis)
One of the things that independent seekers face on the spiritual path is loneliness.It’s inevitable if we are committed to avoid taking on other’s belief systems and yearn to experience what is true for ourselves.
In fact, succumbing to loneliness and trying to relieve it is sometimes the reason people become blind followers. They would rather trade in the comfort of being in the crowd of religious homogeneity than the insecurity of the solitary quest. There is a certain value of joining a sanga or community but when we give up our own discernment of what is true and not true to avoid loneliness we can become a perpetual student of dogma rather than the source of our own realization. Its often a requirement of the committed spiritual seeker to leave the pack for awhile to achieve this.
Even if we are not on a spiritual path, the experience of loneliness is part of the fabric of life. It can happen when we move to a different city, lose a job, experience the loss of a loved one, leave a relationship and break-up with a friend. In the grief a part of ourselves can go with that person, location or job and we can feel like that piece is missing. Or we can judge an aspect of ourselves harshly and push it aside and then feel an emptiness inside.
So when we spend some solitary time either on an organized silent retreat or just time by ourselves this loneliness can arise. We can feel like we miss our loved ones and want to reach out to them. And if that doesn’t happen we may try other ways to avoid the loneliness like eating junk food, smoking weed, watching a lot of TV, going to bars, etc . But the activity does not relieve the emotion. No amount of doingness can solve something that is in our beingness. It may be useful in these times to ask ourselves:
“What is happening here? Am I trying to bi-pass my loneliness, or trying to get others to complete me and make me feel whole or hoping that when others love me, I will feel love for myself?” What is it I am missing? What it is I am really yearning for?”
I have been through this and what I have found is that that there is no way to get over or through or around loneliness. There is only getting it...being with it. The way to resolve it is to let the loneliness arise and go into it and not resist it. We need to feel the yearning deeply in our heart and soul.
The Yearning for Self
We may experience the essential painful individuality of our being in the universe. We may cry out to God to relieve the suffering of it all, to comfort our lonely heart. It may last a long time. It may feel like forever. But eventually it will burn itself out. We may come to realize we have been trying to get others to fill us and all attempts to do this are futile because no other can fill the empty hole inside.
We will see that the cry for another is essentially the cry for our true self and the part of us that was missing will start to return . Gradually a deeper peace will arrive and we will feel more complete and whole. We will enjoy spending time with ourselves because we will have become our own best friends.
And when we do spend time with our loved ones or friends it will be more natural relaxed and less co-dependent. No longer will there be the puzzling neediness of trying to grab a piece of another to force fit it into the missing space of ourselves and all the attendant unconscious wheeling, dealing and stealing of psychic energy that goes with the attempt: “Well if you do this for me, I’ll this for you” “If you ignore this about me, I’ll ignore this about you” etc.
You will notice when you are alone you are no longer lonely. In fact you will feel like you are gathering more of yourself to yourself so that when you are in the company of others you will have more of youself to share. Solitary time will be soul-itary time. Aloneness will be experienced as all-oneness.
And is this not what others really want from us: the fullness of who we really are?
Russell Scott www.awakentheguruinyou.com
Anthony DeMello, the Jesuit spiritual teacher and psychotherapist, died suddenly of a heart attack on June 2nd in 1987 at the age of 56. In memory of his life, printed below is a piece Sister Joan wrote about him for an article entitled "The Spiritual Art of Three Modern Masters" that appeared in the U.S.Catholic magazine in June, 1994. The other two masters were Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
I never met the man and I never made one of his retreats. I never read anything he wrote and I never studied his curriculum vitae. I've never talked to anyone who talked to him and I've never heard one of his tapes. But few people have had a greater impact on my life. DeMello was not a designer of spiritual systems. He was not a lawgiver. He was not a cheerleader for a collection of esoteric spiritual exercises. No, Anthony DeMello was a teller of ancient stories whose stories rearranged the human landscape. It is in the stories that he told that I met Anthony DeMello and knew at once that he was unforgettable.
Anthony DeMello, the Jesuit psychologist-spiritual director, is a spiritual figure of our time who will not soon be forgotten in ages to come. DeMello brought something to Western spirituality that had been mightily absent. DeMello brought all of us back into contact with the East, a treasure too long forgotten by too many. What I found in Anthony DeMello's stories that enrich contemporary spirituality is the quality of timelessness.
In the mechanistic West, it is not our style to look for wisdom. What we want in life is far more likely to be fixes than insights. Let others philosophize if they will; we push buttons and "make adjustments" and act. Consequently, we do not sit comfortably with the idea that pain is protective, that suffering is meant to be a symptom of a basic disorder in us, not an irritating inconvenience meant for quick cures and total elimination. We do not tolerate headaches; we do not brook opposition. We know what we want and we get what we go for. The name of the game is "The World According to Me."
Into that world view, as religious with its exercises as it is secular with its technology, DeMello brought a completely different attitude toward life. DeMello dedicated his work to the teaching of four basic principles: consciousness, wholeness, faith rather than belief, and spirituality.
For DeMello, presence and consciousness are the keys to life. In one of his stories, disciples ask the Holy One to teach them the secret of life. Because it was the Day of Silence, the master took a piece of paper and wrote just one word in reply, "Awareness." The disciples read the word and looked at one another in consternation. "Master," they continued, "Could you explain this a little more?" The Holy One took another piece of paper and this time wrote two words, "Awareness. Awareness." The disciples were clearly perturbed. "Holy One, "they persisted. "Can't you please explain more about what you mean by 'awareness?" The Holy One looked up from the prayer rug exasperated and this time wrote clearly and distinctly. "When I say 'awareness,' I mean Awareness! Awareness! Awareness!"
Clearly, coming to see the holy in the daily was, for DeMello, one of the essentials of life. It was awareness, he taught, that made us capable of growth, able to understand others, willing to be made new again. A capacity for the present, DeMello made clear, was the secret to happiness because it saved us from the hurts of the past and the tyranny of a fearful future.
Second, DeMello taught that we lose happiness when we make it dependent on anyone or anything else. "Holy One," the disciple pleaded. "Help me to be free." And the elder said to the disciple, "First find out who has put you in chains?" A week later, the disciple returned. "Holy One," the disciple reported, "no one has bound me." "Then," the Holy One said, "from what do you need to be liberated?" At that moment of enlightenment, the disciple suddenly became free.
The point is made. DeMello was clear about the fact that the secret to happiness is that it lies within us. Happiness, he taught, is measured not by what happens to us but by our ability to find satisfaction within ourselves. The fact that we attach happiness to things outside ourselves, outside our own control, in other words—this house, that job, these clothes, those friends, that recognition—is precisely what makes happiness impossible.
Third, DeMello maintained that we must be open to unlearning everything we have ever known in life if we are going to be able to grow from one place to another. "How shall I attain Eternal Life," the disciple asked the Holy One. "Eternal life is now. Come into the present," the Holy One replied. "But I am in the present now, am I not?" the puzzled disciple persisted. "No," said the Holy One, "You are not." "But why not?" The disciple demanded. "Because you haven't dropped your past," the Holy One said. "But why should I drop my past? Not all of it is bad," the disciple insisted. And the Holy One replied clearly and firmly, "The past is to be dropped not because it is bad. The past is to be dropped because it is past.”
Obviously DeMello was no conserver of a pious and plastic religiosity. To go through life with an open mind, challenging the truisms in the light of new questions is a sign that our faith is greater than our beliefs. Beliefs, Anthony DeMello taught, trap us into close-minded positions but faith assures us that it is God who is really the faithful One. Faith tells us that God will once again and always see us through.
Finally, DeMello taught that if we are really going to be spiritual people that we will have to stop seeking "perfection" and start seeking enlightenment, an awareness of the sacredness of the most mundane. "Help us to find God," the disciples begged the Holy One. "No one can help you there," the Holy One said. "But why not?" the disciples demanded to know. "For the same reason that no one can help the fish to find the ocean," the Holy One said.
God is, indeed, everywhere for Anthony DeMello—in darkness as well as in light, in the ordinary life lived with extraordinarily consciousness, in the sacred center of a creation that is secular to its marrow. It is in the separation of life into categories of the holy and the unholy, the spiritual and the material, the earthly and the heavenly that the human soul gets divided as well. It is the loss of a holy viewpoint that turns my rag-tag, messy, disorganized, judgmental life unholy. DeMello brings us back to the secret: life is enough for us. It is not something to be endured on the way to something better. It is the stuff of which the transformation is made. Life itself, not religion, is the substance of spirituality.
Awareness, unlearning, faith and spirituality are rarefied perspectives in a culture that prizes being out of its senses and in control and being right and being religious. Religion, DeMello pointed out in clear and unequivocal terms, "is not necessarily connected with spirituality." Clearly, spirituality for DeMello is the ability to live whole and happy in the now, expecting nothing, demanding nothing, grasping nothing and so becoming open to all things.
The very thought of going through life open-handed is chilling to the western mind, which may, of course, be precisely why we need it so much, consider it so difficult and find it so unforgettable.
Anthony DeMello brought to a mechanistic world a commitment to a contemplative heart, a passionate soul, and a conscious mind, qualities that change a world, attributes that never die. And to do it, he told us stories.
He told us stories that made us wiser than ourselves. He told us stories that broke down the barriers of our souls. He told us stories that cast light into dark and realized the simple for its profundity and the pompous—even in religion—for its calculating attempt to turn the sacred into a product rather than a prophetic presence.
It is precisely these qualities that flamed out of him with consummate conviction and disarming humor to become a living light that is far beyond who he was as a person, where he lived, what he did, where he went in life. It is in those things that his life will live on, even for those of us who never met him, never heard him, never followed his life's particular meanderings.
DeMello said once, "You are never so good as when you have no consciousness that you're good. A good is never so good as when you have no awareness that you're doing it." By his own measure then, as unaware of us as we were of the person of him, Anthony DeMello may well have done his best work on those, like myself, who never knew him.
April 2, 2017
Come into this space, where today we consider the surprise, the surrender, the gift… that is part of the process of transformation.
Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for an unknown God. – Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frederic Ariel
Once upon a time, a stream, from its course in far-off mountains, passing through every kind of countryside, at last reached the sands of the desert.
Just as it had crossed every other barrier, the stream tried to flow across the sand, yet as fast as it ran into the sand, its waters disappeared.
It was convinced its destiny was to cross the desert, and yet there appeared to be no way.
And then it heard a murmuring from the desert itself. A whisper: “The wind can cross the desert, and so can the stream.”
The stream replied that it was flowing into the sand, and only being swallowed: that the wind could fly, and this was why it could cross a desert.
“By trusting in your usual methods, you will never get across. You will either disappear or become a quagmire. You must allow the wind to carry you to your destination.”
“But how is this possible?” the stream asked…
“Ah…By allowing yourself to be absorbed in the wind” came the answer.
This idea was not acceptable to the stream. It had never been absorbed before. It did not want to lose its individuality because, if it lost it, would it be able to get it back?
“The wind,” said the sand, “performs this function. It takes up water, carries it over the desert, and then lets it fall again. Falling as rain, the water becomes a river once more.”
“But can I not remain the same stream I am today?”
“You cannot remain so,” the whisper said.
“Your essential part is carried away and forms a stream again. You only think you are what you are now because you have forgotten the essential part of yourself.”
When it heard this, certain echoes began to arise in the thoughts of the stream. It vaguely remembered a state in which it — or some part of it? — had been held in the arms of the wind. It also felt that somehow this was the right thing to do, even if it didn’t seem to make any sense at all.
So, with yet some hesitation, the stream raised itself into the welcoming arms of the wind, which gently and easily bore it upward and along, letting it fall softly on the roof of a mountain, many, many miles away.
And because it had such grave doubts, the stream was able to remember and record more strongly in its mind the details of the experience.
“Yes, of course,” it said as if waking from a dream… “now I know who I am.”
– A Sufi story
Transformation is in our church mission statement. We seek to transform lives.
Many religions would say they are about transformation.
But the Catholic priest and teacher Richard Rohr says that too often on the religious or spiritual path, we get stalled in what should just be the first phase. In this first phase, he says, we find stories, practices, and beliefs that give us meaning and a sense of identity as moral, enlightened, or whatever our preferred sense of worth may be. He says:
This [first phase] is good and needed. That’s how you get started. As psychology would say, you have to have an ego to let go of an ego. You have to have a self to move beyond the self. But most religion stops [there.]1
Religion of transformation isn’t just about saying the right things, or believing the most enlightened ideas, or being informed and articulate. We may just be going through the motions.
True: sometimes going through the motions can help us get there. “Fake it until you make it,” as they say. But we won’t make it if we do not allow those practices and beliefs to transform us.
Richard Rohr quotes the philosopher Ken Wilber:
Religion has also served — in a usually very, very small minority — the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it – …not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution — in short, … a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself.2
Think of the analogy of starting an exercise regimen, or any new habit.
I know that, for me, in the early stages I am usually having to push myself into new behaviors – drag myself out the door, resisting at every step. But if I keep at it, and if I’ve chosen some kind of exercise that I might enjoy once my healthier lungs and strengthened muscles can support it
…I begin to enjoy it. I even crave it. I start to prioritize it.
That’s not just behavior change; that’s transformation.
And I don’t mean a transformation of our physical bodies into sculpted physiques, but a transformation of our desires and our will.
Similarly, I’ve heard of people who love sugar but then cut it out of their diet. At first it’s excruciatingly difficult, but then they say they don’t even like sugar anymore. Personally, I can’t imagine that for myself! But I trust that, for them, their transformation is real.
But leaving behind the metaphors of diet and exercise, let’s return to that deeper transformation.
Richard Rohr says:
The [transformative] experience occurs when God or life destabilizes your private ego, usually through some form of suffering. It will feel like dying because it is the death of the false self. …The True Self is all about right relationship, not requirements. It’s not about being correct; it’s about being connected, which you always were — you just didn’t realize it.3
This is what happens to the stream in the Sufi parable I told. The stream has to die to what it was. It must open itself to something beyond itself. It must trust and surrender.
…And then in the process of transformation, it discovers – it becomes – a fuller, realer self beyond the small self.
WAVING THE WHITE FLAG
Most of us only surrender – only finally wave that white flag – if and when we “hit bottom.”
My brother hit bottom two years ago. He had to drink while my dad drove him to rehab because the doctor said if he didn’t drink, his body would start to fail. When I showed up for family week, and in the months that followed, I saw someone who had surrendered in ways that at first felt jarring to me: uncomfortable. He had changed so much, I didn’t know where I fit.
But eventually, I, too, let go, stopped being the older sister trying to fix him, and surrendered to his process. In the many conversations that have followed, he’s told me that it’s not just about not drinking, it’s not just about doing the 12 steps and going to meetings – although all of those are necessary. It’s about a spiritual transformation – not once and for all, but daily. Over and over again.
Perhaps that sounds grueling…?
WE WORK SO HARD
But that’s where most of us get it wrong – me included! We make it grueling. We get perfectionistic; we work at it. But listen to these words by the theologian Frederick Buechner:
…to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst — is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.
We cannot transform on our own.
The stream needs the wind to cross the desert and return to the mountain. The caterpillar needs the workings of nature, and time, to transform into a butterfly. My brother needs what he understands as the love and power of God.
To what do you surrender in order to reach transformation?
A GREATER POWER, A DEEP YES
What greater power helps you do what you alone cannot?
If not God, is it the power of community and right relationship that demand we transcend our individual selves? Is it the power of Mystery to which you surrender, that gifts you with humility, an appreciation for doubt? Or is it the workings of nature and time to which you let go and come into alignment?
It may be more than one of these – or all of these. It may be some power I have not named. You may still be searching for it.
We are probably all still searching for it.
The truth is we do not cross our own deserts by continuing to trudge through in the same old ways that we are accustomed.
We need to find what Richard Rohr calls our own “deep yeses” to carry us through – something we absolutely believe in, something to which we can commit. Something in which we can trust, even when the process is painful or frightening, like when the stream lets itself be taken up…
May we find our own “deep yeses” to which we can surrender, so that we, too, can relax into the arms of the wind and transform time and again into our truest, freest forms.
May it be so.
– Rev. Emily Wright-Magoon
The Sufi tell stories that say all I think I'll ever know about finding God.
The first story is a disarming and compelling one. It is also, I think, a troublesome one, a fascinating one, a chastening one: “Help us to find God,” the seeker begged the Elder. “No one can help you there,” the Elder answered. “But why not?” the seeker insisted. “For the same reason that no one can help a fish to find the ocean.” The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.
The second story is even more challenging. “Once upon a time," the Sufi say, “a seeker ran through the streets shouting over and over again, We must put God into our lives. We must put God into our lives. "Ah, poor soul,” an Elder smiled wanly. “If only we realized the truth: God is always in our lives. The spiritual task is simply to recognize that.”
As a Benedictine, a disciple of an order historically devoted to the Sacrament of the Ordinary, I know how disappointing, how exhilarating that kind of advice can be. The neophyte seeks to pass the test of spiritual heroics; the wise seek to accomplish only the testimony of integrity. The young think the task is to buy God by their good efforts; the insightful know that the task is to want God beyond the lure of lesser ends, including even the trappings of spirituality.
For my own part, I entered religious life intent on being spiritually intrepid. I wanted something far more romantic than the Sacrament of the Ordinary. I expected to find formulas tried and true, ideas that were esoteric, a life that was mystical, a regimen that was at least duly demanding, if not momentously ascetic. What I found were spiritual manuals that were convoluted and academic, at best, and a community that was simple and centered in God always. The writers had missed the mark; the women were living the life. It was very disappointing. And it was very right.
God is not in the whirlwind, not in blustering and show, Scripture teaches us. God is in the breeze, in the very atmosphere around us, in the little things that shape our lives. God is in the contradictions that assail us, in the circumstances that challenge us, in the attitudes that impel us, in the motives that drive us, in the life goals that demonstrate our real aspirations, in the burdens that wear us down, in the actions that give witness to the values in our hearts. God is in the stuff of life, not in the airy-fairy of fertile imaginations bent on the pursuit of the preternatural. God is where we are, including in the very weaknesses that vie for our souls.
Benedictine spirituality attends to those things, not to tricks and trials designed to make spiritual athletes out of spiritual weaklings. Finding God depends on finding what determines our own lives and realizing in them the power and transcendence that is God.
I learned from holy women before me that finding God depends on four things: a conscious awareness of the presence of God; the sacralization of life; an atunement to the Holy Spirit and a sense of place in the universe.
A conscious awareness of the presence of God requires the development of a sincere and serious prayer life that is more reflective, thoughtful, and contemplative than it is mere rote and ritual. “Going to church’" is not a substitute for putting myself in the presence of God. Turning our minds and hearts over to the God of the universe puts us in the place of That Which we seek. The purpose of prayer is not to make God conscious of us; it is to make us conscious of God. It is to attend to the God in whom we live and whose presence we either ignore or expect to find somewhere else.
The sacralization of life requires us, in the words of Benedict of Nursia’s fifteen- century-old Rule, to “treat all things as vessels of the altar”–to hold every isolated thing in high regard whatever their use, to treat them gently, to take care of them well whatever their age. It leads us to become part of the holiness of the universe by recognizing each and every element of it as a spark of the Divine. It nurtures in us that sense of the sacred in all things so that the presence of God becomes a fact of life, not a myth to be fabricated. It leads us to save and care and preserve and respect the goods of material creation so that we can come to respect the spiritual energy that underlies each of them. It is learning to live in sacred space again so that we can be surprised by God. We are part of a holy universe, not its creators and not its rulers. God has done the creating, God does the judging and God waits for us to realize that.
An atunement to the Holy Spirit enables us to hear the Word of God in those around us and in the circumstances of our lives–in our culture, in our sexuality, and in the racial makeup that is the raw material of our being. It lies in bringing each of those things to fulfillment--whatever the obstacles to each. Everything we are, everything that is said to us, everything that happens to us is some kind of call from God. In fact, everything that happens is God’s call to us either to accept what we should not change or to change what we should not accept so that the Presence of God can flourish where we are. Until we learn to listen to these manifestations of divine presence all around us in life, we need not expect visions.
A sense of our place in the universe is what Chapter Seven of the Rule of Benedict calls “The Twelve Degrees of Humility.” In one of the earliest pieces of Western spiritual literature, Benedict is very clear that the beginning of a spiritual life depends on the realization that we live in the womb of God, that we need to admit our struggles, that we need to accept the inconsequential circumstances of life with equanimity and that we need to cultivate the kind of internal peace that leads us to live gently with the rest of creation, to tread lightly through the universe and to deal tenderly with both ourselves and others.
Finding God is a matter of seeing God where God is, of seeing the God who is in us to sustain us, around us to touch us, before us to beckon us onward in life. Finding God is a matter, not of learning to become something we are not but of learning to see what we already know, to touch what we already contain, to recognize what we already have. Finding God is a matter of living every minute of life to its ultimate. “Oh, wonder of wonders,” the Zen teacher teaches, “I chop wood. I draw water from the well.” Finding God has little to do with church and more to do with becoming the best of everything we are every moment we breathe.
God is not a mystery to be sought in strange places and arcane ways. God is a mystery to be discovered within us and around us. And savored.
—from How Can I Find God? ed. James Martin, SJ, Triumph Books, 1997
As the Holy creates the world in each moment, the ground level of its expression is the field of vibration. Everything that you can see, everything that is, is made of vibration. Step back from thought, step back from seeing things as objects, and let yourself notice the hum, the vibration, the sensation of existing, of being. Without definition, without evaluation. It is impossible to be wrong. You just are.
It’s a given. It’s the gift of life. It’s the gift of existence. When we stay very close to this ground of being, this simple ground of presence and sensation, the Holy can create through us of its own accord rather than through our preconceived concepts.
We’ve often been confused, searching for a sense of “I” through thought’s eyes. But the sense of being is not in the head; it is directly experienced through your sense of felt existence. When you drop into the vibrating ground of being, into the most fundamental level of existence, the world of the Holy sings to you through the vibration in your cells. And beneath and all around, everything is rising out of and shot through with empty space.
Let yourself sink below the object level of things, toward this felt field. You’ll notice it feels three-dimensional. You’ll notice that attention can move to different parts of the body and you can sense the texture there. You may barely be able to tell that some parts of the body exist at all. They will feel spacious and open. Others will be asserting themselves through tension, often in the belly or the heart, but that tension can be anywhere. And throughout the body you may notice a kind of a felt hum, a hum of life energy, a hum of shakti.
Most of us have been conditioned to have our attention fused to the content of thought, to the reality that the mind creates. We look to thought to define us, to define others, and to define the world. But thought is delusional because it’s a representation of what is, and often many steps away from actual reality.
To allow attention to sink into felt experience is to say goodbye to the world of thought. At first we might take short trips to the realm of felt experience because we’re tired of the land of concept, and we’re willing to take a chance on something new. At some point we may be willing to say goodbye to the past, to the future, to our identity, to where we are, to what we are, to where we’re going or where we’ve been. We may be willing to experiment, to see what exists outside of thought.
Because of the strength of conditioning, we may think we are attending to felt sense when we are actually attending to some combination of felt sense and thought. Notice if any evaluation is happening: “Wow, I’m doing it. That’s my breath.” If there’s anything like that, a kind of reporting from your mind, it will sound like a sports announcer, up in the bleachers, reporting on rather than being immersed in actual experience.
Anytime you notice your attention floating up into thought, I invite you to return it to your felt experience. Let the body have breath. On the felt level of things, breath is a constant, incredibly multi-faceted experience, from the time it enters the body, fills the lungs, fills the belly, to its movement out. And let the body have ground through noticing your weight, softening and sinking. Notice where the body touches the chair, the earth, and soften there. Ground nourishes the creature and allows it to settle.
In your imagination or in your direct experience, let the boundary between body and atmosphere dissolve. Let attention and your felt experience start to feel a like an ocean, or a field, or like a spacious, vibrating cloud. See if you can simply allow yourself to sit there as a cloud of noticing space. Let all that rises come to this awareness that you are, from the feel of breath, to the sounds, to the sensation where your body touches your chair or your hands touch each other. Notice that sounds in the distance arise in your awareness just the same as the sensations in the body arise. When you sit as noticing space, all sensations are equal, though varied in texture. Let yourself not call any of it “you.” Or let yourself call ALL of it you. Sink all your attention into the feel of now, into the immediacy of breath and existence.
One of the biggest perceived obstacles we find when we explore this felt moment is pain, tension, and pent-up emotion. It is basically stopped-up, pressurized and repressed life energy. The potency and power of our life energy can feel uncomfortable, because we have been taught to distract from that intensity. When we take attention off of the mind-created world and sink it into this elemental hum, this creative matrix, we open ourselves to transformation. We say, “Here I am Holy power and potency, have me, have my life, have my creations. Remake me. Dissolve me. Live through me.”
This is not something that upper management would approve of. Wired into your survival system is the belief that your life depends on the continuation of your pseudo-reality and the energy management system that supports it. But your life does not depend on that. This system is obsolete and your life is right here, right now. Not down the road, not yesterday, and it’s not a continuum or a thread. It is a vibrating hall of present mystery–a masterpiece of immediacy, of the unknown, of utter possibility.
Exploring felt experience without the mind’s two cents starts to loosen the sense of ownership which is at the base of perceiving oneself as separate, and is the root of suffering. As identification with a particular “me” defined by particular thoughts loosens, the possibility of stepping into raw being can emerge, a way of being which is apart from having to be defined. To step completely away from identification is called freedom. It’s freedom from the dictates of mind, from the dictates of conditioning. You simply are.
In our culture, we think of knowing as a mental process. We think of knowing our name, our address, how old we are, and what our plan for the future is. Conditioning and that kind of knowing are in cahoots. Conditioning relies on you being divorced from your deeper embodied knowing of this moment, this life, this immediacy here and now.
There is a certain kind of knowledge that we have in our bones for having gone through an experience. Most of this knowledge is unspeakable, but it fuels deep grounded wisdom. What does a woman know in her body after she’s given birth? What does a veteran know from living through war? What do we know in our bodies after we’ve been through a dark time and come through to the light? The holy informs us through this field. This is why they call sages wise. Sages are beings who have plunged their attention away from the external world, away from the mind, and deeply into nowhere, into the felt hum where presence and sensation meet, and hover around the heart of the paradox of existence. There is an intelligence to this field, and we are, in reality, simply this field expressing itself.
Our life energy through conditioning has been distorted. It does not run in natural ways. Western white culture largely does not respect the intelligence and sovereignty of an infant’s cry, or of a child’s exuberance in the middle of church. We respect an externally created, fear- based order over the organic movements of nature, over things as they are, and over things in their wholeness and in their naturalness. Sages through time have talked about being simple and natural. They themselves have been described as being as simple as children, uncomplicated, and not moving from fear. Their responses in the moment are tailored to the moment, uninterrupted, and undistorted by conditioned ideas. There are layers and layers of falseness and delusion that keep us in prison and keep us using our life energy for something other than the simple expression of the Holy through our bodies.
Returning our attention to felt experience shines a light of love on the body and funds the creature with the treasure of our conscious awareness. The creature of the body takes on the brunt of conditioning–the brunt of stress, of harsh words and insensitive treatment. On top of this disregard for the creature, we attempt to get somewhere other than here that will be “better.” Thus our bodies tense and get sick over time because the queen has left the queendom; the king has left the kingdom. Attention and the rich backdrop of the vibrating Beloved has been abandoned for the god of our conditioning: mentation. The creature has been abandoned for a system of ideas. The body within conditioning is ailing. It is not seen for the amazing instrument that it is.
The body is a treasure to anyone who wants to live from what’s true. As the grosser energies of pain start to be digested, the body can begin to discern the subtle orders of the Beloved through a sense of aliveness. Attention returned to felt experience allows the body’s undigested, gummed-up emotional and energetic systems to be cleared out. When we put our attention on the body, it will tell us what it needs to do in order to untie a knot. The body will tell us how to move, when to curl up, when to dance, paint, stretch, run or weep.
Turning toward the body with tender attention is not for the faint of heart, and is often the last place we will turn. Usually we like the idea of fleeing the body to transcend this human mess. We hope that we can jump out of this humanness and simply be light. I invite the kindness and regard of turning toward and embracing, rather than turning away and fleeing.
This embrace is a way of transcendence through wholeness with nothing left out. In the end, we must be willing to mirror the unseen’s love for the seen by being willing to meet whatever is given at the body level. As we befriend the creature of the body, we discover a sane, felt capacity to open and soften. We can download light into flesh, and feel in the body the worlds of unseen and seen dancing together. This is a sweet way to be here on the planet. It is called the body of God. It is called wholeness. It is called heaven on earth.
SOURCE: "Heaven on Earth" by Jeannie Zandi
—Posted Dec 12, 2011
"He who dares not offend cannot be honest." -Thomas Paine
"Most of us feel that others will not tolerate emotional honesty. We would rather defend our dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others; and having rationalized our phoniness into nobility, we settle for superficial relationships." from Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? by John Powell.
One of the main factors that sets great relationships apart from merely good ones is the depth of emotional intimacy. There are, of course other factors that contribute but authenticity, vulnerability and deep emotional connectedness are right up there at the top of the list. When two people commit themselves to the process of deep diving (into the soul or the psyche) they become, in the words of our friend Sam Keen, "psychonauts", who unlike astronauts who explore the outer reaches of space, choose rather to explore the inner reaches of the heart and mind. Both types of exploration require courage, curiosity, motivation, and a spirit of adventure.
The process requires not only a desire to be aware of and in touch with our emotions and perceptions, but a willingness to reveal and share what we are experiencing with others who we trust to accept and honor our inner truth without judgment. Given the fact that most of us have a tendency to be somewhat judgmental towards others and to ourselves as well, this is no small consideration. Becoming a more tolerant and accepting person is not only a possibility even for those of us who are world-class judgment machines, but it is actually one of the greatest outcomes of the deep-diving process.
Connecting to ourselves on a feeling level is for many of us, much easier said than done, but with practice, we can learn the language of emotions and become skilled at recognizing feelings when they arise, identifying them, experiencing them, and ultimately, honoring them through our communications and /or actions. This process not only generates intimacy, depth and genuineness in our relationships, but it also enables us to create the feeling of being complete and whole within ourselves. When we choose instead to deny or repress feelings, as John Powell points out, our relationships and our lives in general begin to feel dry, flat, and superficial. This is the price that we pay when we are more committed to avoiding upsets than we are to living and interacting with authenticity and integrity.
Controlling our feelings is a form of self-manipulation that we perform in an effort to control others' responses to us in the hopes of winning their approval or minimizing the chances of them feeling hurt, angry, or displeased with us. Those couples who share the greatest degree of intimacy and fulfillment together are not the ones who experience the least conflict or the fewest upsets, but are rather those who are the most willing to relate with both honesty and sensitivity. They have developed the skills of good communication and learned how to deal respectfully with the differences that inevitably arise in even the best relationships. They are, as Daniel Goleman would say, "emotionally intelligent”.
It's a package plan; there is no way that we can thrive in the bliss of affection, empathy, tenderness, sexual excitement, peace, joy, and love without being open to our anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, embarrassment, frustration, grief and even hatred. If we want a life in which we thrive rather than whither, we must be willing to accept, as Zorba the Greek says, the "full catastrophe". As we see it, the real catastrophe is to come to the end of your life only to realize that by playing it safe and trying to avoid risk, you took the biggest risk of all, and lost the most valuable thing that you could lose: a life that was rich with meaning, feeling, and joy, one that not only filled your own cup to the brim, but spilled over to fill the cups of others who were moved and inspired by you.
Living an inauthentic life also denies us the possibility of ever feeling truly loved for who we are, and consequently we inevitably find ourselves caught in a relentless quest for love that can never be satisfied or sustained. How can I trust that anyone really loves me when I haven't shown them who I really am? So when my partner tells me that he or she loves me, that little voice in the back of my mind says, "you love who you THINK I am. But if you really knew who I was, you wouldn't love me", thus the title of John Powell's book.
It's only when we both reveal ourselves fully that the deepest, purest, most soul-nourishing love can be exchanged. The remedy for coming back to engage more fully is to first be in touch with what we are feeling and then to express, rather than repress, connect rather than protect, and reveal rather than conceal.
Like any new skill we are acquiring, it may take a while to learn to live open-heartedly. Old habits, particularly protective ones, often take a while to break. We are not going to be graceful and accomplished right away. At first we might feel awkward and clumsy. It helps to keep this in mind, so that we can each be more patient and forgiving with each other and with ourselves as we stumble towards enlightenment. It's not about doing it right; it's about what the Buddhists refer to as making "right effort". As we become more skilled at emotional honesty we come to know ourselves and each other more deeply. Not just ABOUT each other, but all that is within each of us: the wounds and sensitive areas, feelings of inadequacy, our mistakes and magnificent failures, the guilt, shame and fears, and our tragedies and triumphs, as well as our greatest dreams, our successes, hopes, accomplishments, and our unique and extraordinary gifts.
The joys of connection, satisfaction and fulfillment are beyond measure. It's a small price to pay to feel like a blundering idiot while we are learning the skills of emotional honesty. But be careful, because once you get started on this path you can't stop. You can't go back the superficial life again. Not because you shouldn't, but because the benefits and joys of being real, even on a bad day, so greatly outweigh the prices that authenticity requires that there's just no contest.
SOURCE: Psychology Today:
—April 18, 2016
Sarah May Bates - Founder of Yay With Me a hub of practical tools to create change in yourself, from Podcaster/Author, Sarah May Bates, @sarahmaybee
If you prefer to listen here’s the podcast version of this post on iTunes and Soundcloud.
Why sometimes people aren’t honest with us and sometimes we’re not honest with ourselves.
This one’s written for a person who contacted me who’s newly single and dating quite a bit. He has a few different partners and has had a lot of difficulty saying he is doing so because it goes against everything he wants in the moment.
I want to talk about honesty and dishonesty and how it comes into play in relationships. So if you’re the type of person who dates and doesn’t tell the other person where you’re really at – or if you’re super jealous and suspicious about your partner and it drives you mad, this is for you.
Just to be clear – this is not about the trivial niceness lies that don’t come up often – like telling someone you love the pie they made, or saying you have to cancel plans because of work when it’s really because you don’t feel like going out. This is about emotional honesty – the habits and ways of being that seem small, but actually create who you are and how you form bonds with others. Because the simple act of being honest can change your life in awesome earth-shattering ways.
I am not covering sociopaths and pathological liars – you’ll see that pathological liars lie incessantly to exaggerate their own importance. But if you are wondering if you’re with a pathological liar or a sociopath, please buy the book, “Women Who Love Psychopaths.” Even if you’re a man or your situation is different, this book will be highly educational.
What I’m talking about is kind of like emotional lying – it’s subtler and therefore insidious in how it hurts your life – and it’s tied a struggle with acceptance. What I hope to offer is insight into why either you are “shielding” others from the truth or why others are doing this to you. I’d also like to sell you on the amazing and powerful benefits of being honest and letting go of control. Because that practice has amazing benefits in your life. Without further ado – three parts: what why and how!
Part 1: The What
Emotional Honesty – with yourself and with others. Meaning, authenticity in your way of being. When it comes to relationships – honesty is a sign of wholeness, confidence and self-love. I think of honesty as a synonym for trust and intimacy. It’s powerful in what it does because when you’re totally honest, it immediately makes you closer to others – you show up as all of yourself. A lack of honesty can taint your relationship just as powerfully. Some refer to lying as ‘relationship termites.’
In my opinion, the importance of emotional honesty isn’t quantified by the individual instances or the specifics of one lie, it’s all about the connection you have to your inner compass. It relates to the hierarchy that’s guiding you and your decision-making throughout your life. Everything in life down to a character choice you make as you live now, today in your present moment. Emotional honesty can be tackled by thinking of it as a simple way of BEING. It’s not the individual instances that you must address, it’s your approach to being yourself – who you choose to be and the values you decide to embody. Your values are like the decoder ring for every individual instance you might encounter. Once you practice owning your own truth and values, everything in your life will arrange itself perfectly. You don’t have to try to fix a situation or struggle with how to make things work, anymore. The fear evaporates and everything just gets super simple. It’s a relief – because there’s only ever one truth. It just is, and you don’t have to do anything about it but move through it.
Once you approach your life with honesty, you will begin to confront things as they arise. They won’t be pushed to the side or “managed,” they will just be. You’ll know that things will be difficult or they’ll hurt, and that will just be what it is. Without the make-shift solutions, what happens is your life becomes a purer expression of your truth. Guided by who you are and what you want: in love and all your relationships. Just by confronting things as you need to vs in two years from now when you can’t fix them any longer, you become empowered as the author of your life. That’s the only change that needs to get made: your approach to your present day. Today, right now.
Part 2: The Why
We usually lie or hide from our emotions for one of five reasons:
- To protect someone
- A fear of abandonment
- Control what someone else does
- Control how others perceive us
- To avoid conflict or punishment
When we’re dishonest in our relationships, often it’s a sign of something bigger at play – it comes from a lack of acceptance: of yourself, or what you’re feeling, of what you might need to confront. It’s a way to avoid the truth. A way to CONTROL and ALTER what must be done, so we don’t have to face it.
Dishonesty is the system of controlling what scares us. A fear of loss, a fear of betrayal, a fear of being hurt, of being seen, of being controlled and owned.
When it comes to love, the fears and ties are very primal because they’re linked to our first intimate relationships: those of our family. The fears we feel are encoded by the bonds we formed with our parents. They also change based on the stage we’re at in a relationship because each stage triggers a different element of how we learned ‘couples’ exchange love. I will go through some of the lies we tend to tell during courtship, committed relationships, and marriage.
In Courtship and Dating
- When courting, people aren’t honest when they’re afraid others are not going to like their truth. People might compartmentalize their relationships and the information they give others so that they can maintain control over them and how they’re perceived. It’s a way of maintaining control over the source of love and or pain: they get to choose whether or not they’re liked. It can also be because a person wants to maintain autonomy – not be fully controlled or known.
- However –it’s bad to do that because when you control the experience someone else has of you and the truth, you create a separate reality. Suddenly it’s a bond created in a separate world. In doing this, you remove your intimate experience of that bond, and you remove your trust in someone else and their ability to love accept you. You also put something between the two of you – so you remove some aspect of your own participation in your relationships. It is this effect that keeps you from fully participating in your relationships and enjoying them to the utmost. So not being honest is like a tiny death. You remove some access you have to your full participation in the simple act of choosing to control it. It’s also a way to stay “outside the ring” and protected from being hurt.
Why would someone be afraid to be honest? Here’s a short that my friend Steve Moore made that speaks to this idea nicely. (It pertains to men and women, alike.)
- Sometimes emotional dishonesty comes from a lack of trust in oneself – that what you want is wrong and won’t be accepted. When we think what we want is wrong, it’s usually unconscious and therefore guides us without us knowing.
- Sometimes the dishonesty is simply self protective: a person is so vulnerable and sensitive, the anxiety is unbearable.
- Pervasively dishonest people are usually detached from what they are thinking and feeling altogether. If you find yourself lying often, check in with yourself to see if maybe you have NO idea how you feel – at all. I was like this in high school – I had no idea how I felt about anything because I was totally numb. If this sounds like you, then I believe you have some unaddressed experiences that are painful and scary. It means the connection you have to your inner compass is blocked off from something unaddressed, like an old trauma. You might even remember your trauma and think it’s not affecting you at all – but it actually is working beneath the surface of your subconscious. It’s all a subterranean cycle of running from a secret truth. I highly recommend you investigate further with a therapist!
- We lie about our story to control others, but ironically we are also doing it for ourselves. We want to believe what we’re saying because part of us wants the false reality to be true. So what happens over time is your brain has a natural inclination to believe the lies you’ve told, and eventually you can’t tell where the truth ends and the lie begins. Your own memory gets hazy. This is something you might have done as a child: made up an alternate version of a story and now it’s a blur because your brain has paved over the true history. Lying distorts your view of reality – burying is something your brain is trained to do.
Everyone rationalizes their own dishonest behavior –most of us lie “just a little bit” – just enough to feel like we’re still good people. It’s when those rationalizations take over the majority of your behavior that you get into trouble. It’s in that grey area that we lose sight of what we truly want. We just “become” this cycle of behavior. Instead of choosing in favor of the highest goals, life is built by what we’re afraid to accept or too sad to know. It’s a path that goes in circles, forged by a resistance to what is.
Emotional Honesty is vital to dating for several reasons:
- Misleading people makes you feel like a bad person who has to hide their true self. Not to mention, it makes other people feel like they’re going crazy – and it’s cruel and unfair to remove someone’s ability to make choice in the situation.
- The contrast inherent in your person is what makes you beautiful and sexy. Your darkness and your light. Polarity is the prime ingredient for passion – so to “middle” yourself or react to someone else’s ideals is a waste of your personal gold. To experience a rich relationship, you need someone real: who knows who they are and who they aren’t. Who can push and pull you – who loves and hates. The more someone who will say and be whoever you want them to be, the less of anything you will feel, in return. You need contrast and friction, in love especially – you want someone complete so you can share your full self with them, too. So you can both play different parts and learn from one another. Otherwise, what you get is neutral: a platonic friendship.
Relationships are built around simultaneous and yet opposite needs to be autonomous and intimate, and therefore this is where all couple-conflicts arise. It’s a power struggle between these two needs, hashed out and decided for the first time between two individuals, with two separate ideas of the world, as they come together to form a bond. In a relationship, there’s a constant power struggle between these two ideas and these two opposing needs, as they merge into one story, that is, their relationship.
- Common lies are to gain power in the relationship, for example – you might lie to a partner to support your rightness.
- Emotional dishonesty is also a tool that people use to control behavior of the partner, often these acts are borrowed from their parents. Like withholding information to milk a certain emotional reaction.
- Other common lies are ways to retain autonomy in the face of someone demanding more intimacy. If one person wants to know every intimate detail of your mind and your emotions and you withhold that and intentionally keep it mysterious or confusing – this would be a tactic to protect yourself from being “owned” by this other person. You don’t want to be seen because part of you thinks you’ll lose autonomy and/or that you’ll be revealed as a disappointment. You might intentionally keep your private experiences vague and unknown. On the other hand it might be experienced as a very uncomfortable and confusing communication from your partner – if you can sense that they are not wanting to be seen and known. This might trigger a feeling of deception and a lack of trust.
- Often dishonesty comes into play when a couple goes through a life-stage shift that triggers a conflict in one or both individuals: the roles must change with the state of their life. Some life stages trigger old family dynamics, almost like picking up a parent’s script from an old play. If someone had a family conflict at a certain age, they too might replay the parent’s actions when they reach the same age. Weird, right? Sometimes the person won’t even know their parent did the same thing – it’s almost like it’s encoded in their DNA.
In a marriage, there are some major changes cause the dynamic to change – here are a few, roughly: the end of the fantasy, which is within the first few years of marriage, the beginning of child-rearing, and the end of child-rearing. So these are times when a couple might be most vulnerable to affairs because this is when they experience the most stress – change is traumatic because relationships have to organize around them
- Often a lie will be a way of distracting focus from the real problem: the anxieties over the relationship. The real problem is a threat to the emotional bond itself, which is too scary to examine for both parties, so a lie is a way for a person to lessen the tension. A lie will be a point to focus on that’s removed, and therefore less intense. And the lie can be about anything, not just an affair. It could be a secret habit – like smoking, or having secret pass times, a secret purchase. What matters is it’s a thing that this person can fixate on as separate – it takes on the label of “the problem,” to obsess about or even fight about, without looking at the relationship. BTW! This is all inside the book, “Intimate Partners” by Maggie Scarf – I highly recommend it. It’s all about family dynamics that repeat. Writing another blog about it – coming soon!
- Cheating is a way to avoid facing a potential problem with the bond of the relationship – it often comes about as an attempt to relieve the tension one person feels around the relationship. It’s an unconscious strategy of coping with overwhelming anxieties that the partner cannot face. The reason this would ever become the most viable solution is because all they feel is the relief that comes from the affair. They don’t see it as tied to the fear or even know the fear exists. When we bring someone else outside of the relationship in, it’s a way to triangulate our problems to something outside of the bond – even if that’s a focus on how they’re raising the kids, or conflicts with money. You have terms to fight and therefore vent.
- When people in committed long-term relationships find connections in others spontaneously, the “emotional affairs,” it likely relates to the role they have cast themselves in and their partner in – based on their upbringing. They look for this other cast member to help they define their identity, to themselves. The role they’re casting for is their ideal match: the person who can see them and complete them, who embodies all their ideals. All relationships start with the fantasy stage – when you don’t quite know each other yet, but you view the other person through your imagined ideals. When the stage is over, the person finally sees the reality of who the person is, and sometimes that causes them to feel betrayed or disappointed – like they were somehow sold a raw deal. “You duped me into falling for you!” When in reality, it’s their perception of an ideal that has finally worn off.
A person can perceive their role so strongly that they seek out another person to help them validate it. This is when a person seeks out an emotional affair or suddenly falls in love with someone they barely know. If their role is “rational, strong and emotionally mysterious” and they seek someone “emotionally bountiful, free-spirited, fawning,” they will resent a partner that suddenly has other facets that aren’t affirming to them. We seek others who can reaffirm our parts. When a person goes through a “mid-life crisis” they often seek to buffer their self-image by casting an opposite role.
Often with affairs, people are seeking to replace the first stage of a relationship: the fantasy stage. This is their golden standard of a person, whom likely doesn’t exist because they are an ideal manifested in their mind. It’s the fantasy that they perceive – not the reality of the human being, so falling in love becomes a very short loop. Meet a person, see their ideal, get to know the reality, freak out and break up. The neediness is tied to childhood, so they’ll feel so angry and resentful and cannot reconcile that this ideal doesn’t exist.
In all committed relationships there’s a period of getting to know the truth of a person minus your idealizations. It’s just like when you grow up and you realize how far it is to the store. That’s just a part of growth – growing to know and going deeper than the surface. A relationship based on what you want and they want and what you’re both capable of is what you build together, with love as your glue. The bond evolves between two people, together: you write it as you go, define it as best you can while battling old ghosts of your family relationships. We all choose people based on our fabric, almost via telepathy: we sense in the other a missing piece of ourselves. When we feel comfortable with our partner, we work out our remaining childhood issues. It’s our path to return to ourselves.
Part 3: The How – The Tools!
There’s a little bit of everything in here – for dating, for a relationship, for trying to be more honest.
TOOL 1: Hear Between the Words
Listen for what someone is not saying. This is a tool for those of you who are dating. A lot of the time we get clues and signs from people, but we don’t interpret their meaning accurately because we don’t want the truth to be so. As a habit, listen to what people are NOT saying. Everything is usually pretty evident when we’re not on the path that leads to our happiness, but we just can’t look at the answer. Ask yourself: are there statements that you want to hear that this person is not saying? Are there basic understandings that are not being spelled out? Are you confused but hopeful? Are there terms that you think are implied, but have never been made explicit?
Often when we don’t like the truth, we don’t read to the signs – the body language, the subtle avoidance of certain topics, the gaps in what we know. We want to hear the answer that we are not hearing, so we blind ourselves to the truth by highlighting what gives us hope. All that habit does is cheat you out of years of time that could be spent getting closer to what you want.
When people don’t want to say the truth because it threatens what they have, they usually avoid talking about it. Omission is a way of passively lying. A way to not upset you and also keep you where they want you, knowing that they’re far from stating their truth. It’s the same as lying but it’s much more tolerable because it requires doing nothing: a person can simply avoid taking action vs. actively creating the deception. Also, they can rationalize the sin as not their fault. A lot of people choose to omit/avoid the truth because it’s a way to deny that they’re controlling others – therefore it keeps the guilt at bay.
Push yourself to look at what you don’t want to see, especially when you’re dating. Assume nothing and remain open to all possible outcomes, for better or worse. Don’t wish things to be different or hold out hope that someone will change: this is just a temporary way to avoid pain that causes you a thousand times more pain later on. If a person isn’t where you are and they don’t want what you want, move on and cut your losses. When someone shows you who they aren’t, listen.
TOOL 2: Jealous of a Ghost
The ghost is a metaphor for an ex who still lingers in the mind of your partner that makes you feel threatened. The ghost isn’t active in your lives, yet somehow this topic inspires all kinds of feelings of jealousy and insecurity. If you’re the jealous type and feel constantly threatened by your partner’s ex’s, even though they don’t hang out with them anymore, this is a tool for you and your significant other to use. It’s to help you create a safety zone in your relationship so these kinds of not-so-fun topics don’t destroy what’s great about your bond.
It might be awkward to facilitate, but if you can both commit to trying this, it works! Make this one issue into a “Task” – basically, reserve a weekly hour of time that you use to focus solely on this icky topic. For example, let’s say it’s Sunday nights at 8 pm: each Sunday, you and your partner sit down and for one full hour you say everything that’s on your mind related to this issue. Your partner must sit and listen to you intently and not say a word back. For the rest of the week outside of this one hour, you are not allowed to bring up this issue in any shape or form.
Here’s why this works: one person gets to be heard completely, the other gets to feel safe from attack while you both go about your romantic life. Tasking also works because it removes the issue from play – therefore it can’t exacerbate a random fight. Again, this issue truly represents the push/pull needs dance that is intimacy and autonomy. In other words, it’s not about what it’s about. It’s a power struggle that has taken on a face and a name.
TOOL 3: Listen to the Baby Ouch
This is a tool for those of you who are currently not honest in your relationships and that bothers you, because you can’t seem to see why you’re doing it. This tool is really about starting to be honest with yourself. Right now, you likely can’t tell what is right or wrong in any given relationship, because the terms are confusing. Maybe you don’t really want to deal with someone else’s emotions, so in your mind, dishonesty is easier for everyone.
There is such a thing as having your private self, and you don’t have to bear that to everyone as soon as you meet them. That’s not what this is about. This is about the part of you that feels guilty when you’re misleading someone you like. It doesn’t feel good – it hurts. What is the rule for when you should be honest with someone? It’s defined only by you – an inner compass of sorts, but right now you’re unable to read it because the feelings you have are conflicting and therefore confusing. The emotions are vague because you haven’t been able to identify them inside yourself, therefore you can’t read your own emotions. This is a tool to help you begin to understand what you feel good about, and what makes you happy.
When something conflicts you, and you get that inner voice that fights with something, rationalizing it back and forth – like, “Maybe I should say something.. but no, I didn’t lie – I like this person, I hope they don’t find out that I’m xyz…” That inner conflict – when something doesn’t quite sit right – let’s call that The Baby Ouch. That tiny, uncomfortable, fearful feeling is a sign that something in your actions is hurting YOU. Your acting out of alignment with who you really are. The discomfort is something in your own being is saying, “This doesn’t feel like me.” THAT Baby Ouch is what you have to start acknowledging, respecting and aligning your actions with – because it means you are betraying yourself and your true values. When you’re not acting in alignment with WHO YOU TRULY ARE, you are abusing yourself. When you abuse yourself, your confidence is lowered and you create feelings of depression. Plus, it perpetuates the behavior that’s not really you.
I briefly want to say thank you to my latest sponsors! Liz on Patreon! You are awesome and I love you! It’s amazing to me that I can create something from my own mind – and books, and post it and then real people like you give me donations. That sounds weird but it’s very humbling to me. A part of me thought that it’d be crazy to post a donate link or make a Patreon page. But I feel very valued and it inspires me to make more content and always give you my best. So thank you so, so much. Back to the blog…
In order to really be the person you aspire to be, you must act according to what you know are your issues. Meaning – you have to take control of them and build the paths you need, so that you can always act from the right place. I think a lot of the most successful personal growth is about seeing your big bad issue and choosing to build a staircase around it so that you can be kind and loving to others. When it comes to emotional baggage, sometimes you have to override what’s built in so that you can grow in the direction of your choosing. Like you’re building an Ewok village of new systems that are healthy and positive around the trees and triggers of the past. Honesty is how we own where we are and confront our truth– and it leads to understanding what we truly want.
When you can see that there’s a misalignment in your life– between your actions and your values, or what you want and what you have – that misalignment highlights the place you have to grow. This is how you spot a change that’s meant to grow you. As soon as you keep your eyes open and accept that sometimes you’re going to have to hurt, you grow into a Super You. As you practice being honest about where you are and what you want, and say no to what isn’t in alignment with that truth, you begin to get good at moving through the pain and fear. Suddenly you realize it’s all going to be okay, and you’re handling it like a champ. You also grow and change each time you move through a challenge or a loss, and each time you gain a new muscle. Very soon after practicing this brave honesty, you become supremely confident – because you know you can and will survive anything, and you will take care of yourself. You also let go of what is not in your cards, and everything becomes so simple – the resistance is what makes life hard. Not the truth.
Best of all, what happens when you choose to accept things honestly, and not hide from them – no matter what – is your life is guided to what it is you’re truly looking for. You take your need to control your fate, out of the equation and you allow yourself to change and hurt and grow where you need to. And that’s when life gets AMAZING.
I send you my love and I hope that this registered and that it helped somehow. I’ll put the related reading on the blog version of this post. Smile lovely friends!! I also wanted to let everyone know about my new podcast with Ellen Huerta of Mend– Love is Like a Plant, our teaser episode is up so hit subscribe if you’re interested in checking it out. Here it is on Soundcloud and iTunes.
—Photo by Denise Applewhite
His Holiness the Dalai Lama poses for photos after his interactive session with students at Princeton University's Chancellor Green Library in Princeton, New Jersey on October 28, 2014. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)
The purpose of life
ONE GREAT QUESTION underlies our experience, whether we think about it consciously or not: What is the purpose of life? I have considered this question and would like to share my thoughts in the hope that they may be of direct, practical benefit to those who read them.
I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affect this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. I don't know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves. Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness.
How to achieve happiness
For a start, it is possible to divide every kind of happiness and suffering into two main categories: mental and physical. Of the two, it is the mind that exerts the greatest influence on most of us. Unless we are either gravely ill or deprived of basic necessities, our physical condition plays a secondary role in life. If the body is content, we virtually ignore it. The mind, however, registers every event, no matter how small. Hence we should devote our most serious efforts to bringing about mental peace.
From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion.
The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.
As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind!
Thus we can strive gradually to become more compassionate, that is we can develop both genuine sympathy for others' suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.
Our need for love
Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another. However capable and skillful an individual may be, left alone, he or she will not survive. However vigorous and independent one may feel during the most prosperous periods of life, when one is sick or very young or very old, one must depend on the support of others.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama comforting a young survivor during his visit to the Tsunami devastated region of Sendai, Japan on November 5, 2011. (Photo by Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL)
Inter-dependence, of course, is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness. The most subtle level of material phenomena is also governed by interdependence. All phenomena from the planet we inhabit to the oceans, clouds, forests and flowers that surround us, arise in dependence upon subtle patterns of energy. Without their proper interaction, they dissolve and decay.
It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.
We have to consider what we human beings really are. We are not like machine-made objects. If we are merely mechanical entities, then machines themselves could alleviate all of our sufferings and fulfill our needs.
However, since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. Instead, we should consider our origins and nature to discover what we require.
Leaving aside the complex question of the creation and evolution of our universe, we can at least agree that each of us is the product of our own parents. In general, our conception took place not just in the context of sexual desire but from our parents' decision to have a child. Such decisions are founded on responsibility and altruism - the parents compassionate commitment to care of their child until it is able to take care of itself. Thus, from the very moment of our conception, our parents' love is directly in our creation.
Moreover, we are completely dependent upon our mothers' care from the earliest stages of our growth. According to some scientists, a pregnant woman's mental state, be it calm or agitated, has a direct physical effect on her unborn child.
The expression of love is also very important at the time of birth. Since the very first thing we do is suck milk from our mothers' breast, we naturally feel close to her, and she must feel love for us in order to feed us properly; if she feels anger or resentment her milk may not flow freely.
Then there is the critical period of brain development from the time of birth up to at least the age of three or four, during which time loving physical contact is the single most important factor for the normal growth of the child. If the child is not held, hugged, cuddled, or loved, its development will be impaired and its brain will not mature properly.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama blessing an expectant mother as he leaves his hotel in Narita on his way to Osaka, Japan on May 9, 2016. (Photo by Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL)
Since a child cannot survive without the care of others, love is its most important nourishment. The happiness of childhood, the allaying of the child's many fears and the healthy development of its self-confidence all depend directly upon love.
Nowadays, many children grow up in unhappy homes. If they do not receive proper affection, in later life they will rarely love their parents and, not infrequently, will find it hard to love others. This is very sad.
As children grow older and enter school, their need for support must be met by their teachers. If a teacher not only imparts academic education but also assumes responsibility for preparing students for life, his or her pupils will feel trust and respect and what has been taught will leave an indelible impression on their minds. On the other hand, subjects taught by a teacher who does not show true concern for his or her students' overall well-being will be regarded as temporary and not retained for long.
Similarly, if one is sick and being treated in hospital by a doctor who evinces a warm human feeling, one feels at ease and the doctors' desire to give the best possible care is itself curative, irrespective of the degree of his or her technical skill. On the other hand, if one's doctor lacks human feeling and displays an unfriendly expression, impatience or casual disregard, one will feel anxious, even if he or she is the most highly qualified doctor and the disease has been correctly diagnosed and the right medication prescribed. Inevitably, patients' feelings make a difference to the quality and completeness of their recovery.
Even when we engage in ordinary conversation in everyday life, if someone speaks with human feeling we enjoy listening, and respond accordingly; the whole conversation becomes interesting, however unimportant the topic may be. On the other hand, if a person speaks coldly or harshly, we feel uneasy and wish for a quick end to the interaction. From the least to the most important event, the affection and respect of others are vital for our happiness.
Recently I met a group of scientists in America who said that the rate of mental illness in their country was quite high-around twelve percent of the population. It became clear during our discussion that the main cause of depression was not a lack of material necessities but a deprivation of the affection of the others.
So, as you can see from everything I have written so far, one thing seems clear to me: whether or not we are consciously aware of it, from the day we are born, the need for human affection is in our very blood. Even if the affection comes from an animal or someone we would normally consider an enemy, both children and adults will naturally gravitate towards it.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama stops to talk to a group of school children on his way to the Provincial Offices in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy, on April 10, 2013.(Photo by Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)
I believe that no one is born free from the need for love. And this demonstrates that, although some modern schools of thought seek to do so, human beings cannot be defined as solely physical. No material object, however beautiful or valuable, can make us feel loved, because our deeper identity and true character lie in the subjective nature of the mind.
Some of my friends have told me that, while love and compassion are marvelous and good, they are not really very relevant. Our world, they say, is not a place where such beliefs have much influence or power. They claim that anger and hatred are so much a part of human nature that humanity will always be dominated by them. I do not agree.
We humans have existed in our present form for about a hundred-thousand years. I believe that if during this time the human mind had been primarily controlled by anger and hatred, our overall population would have decreased. But today, despite all our wars, we find that the human population is greater than ever. This clearly indicates to me that love and compassion predominate in the world. And this is why unpleasant events are news, compassionate activities are so much part of daily life that they are taken for granted and, therefore, largely ignored.
So far I have been discussing mainly the mental benefits of compassion, but it contributes to good physical health as well, According to my personal experience, mental stability and physical well-being are directly related. Without question, anger and agitation make us more susceptible to illness. On the other hand, if the mind is tranquil and occupied with positive thoughts, the body will not easily fall prey to disease.
But of course it is also true that we all have an innate self-centeredness that inhibits our love for others. So, since we desire the true happiness that is brought about by only a calm mind, and since such peace of mind is brought about by only a compassionate attitude, how can we develop this? Obviously, it is not enough for us simply to think about how nice compassion is! We need to make a concerted effort to develop it; we must use all the events of our daily life to transform our thoughts and behavior.
First of all, we must be clear about what we mean by compassion. Many forms of compassionate feeling are mixed with desire and attachment. For instance, the love parents feel of their child is often strongly associated with their own emotional needs, so it is not fully compassionate. Again, in marriage, the love between husband and wife - particularly at the beginning, when each partner still may not know the other's deeper character very well - depends more on attachment than genuine love. Our desire can be so strong that the person to whom we are attached appears to be good, when in fact he or she is very negative. In addition, we have a tendency to exaggerate small positive qualities. Thus when one partner's attitude changes, the other partner is often disappointed and his or her attitude changes too. This is an indication that love has been motivated more by personal need than by genuine care for the other individual.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama greeting a young girl during his visit to Vancouver, BC, Canada on October 22, 2014. (Photo by Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)
True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they behave negatively.
Of course, developing this kind of compassion is not at all easy! As a start, let us consider the following facts:
Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems. Nor is this wish selective; it applies equally to all. As long as they are human beings experiencing pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively.
Let me emphasize that it is within your power, given patience and time, to develop this kind of compassion. Of course, our self-centeredness, our distinctive attachment to the feeling of an independent, self-existent ï¿½Iï¿½, works fundamentally to inhibit our compassion. Indeed, true compassion can be experienced only when this type of self- grasping is eliminated. But this does not mean that we cannot start and make progress now.
How can we start
We should begin by removing the greatest hindrances to compassion: anger and hatred. As we all know, these are extremely powerful emotions and they can overwhelm our entire mind. Nevertheless, they can be controlled. If, however, they are not, these negative emotions will plague us - with no extra effort on their part! - and impede our quest for the happiness of a loving mind.
So as a start, it is useful to investigate whether or not anger is of value. Sometimes, when we are discouraged by a difficult situation, anger does seem helpful, appearing to bring with it more energy, confidence and determination.
Here, though, we must examine our mental state carefully. While it is true that anger brings extra energy, if we explore the nature of this energy, we discover that it is blind: we cannot be sure whether its result will be positive or negative. This is because anger eclipses the best part of our brain: its rationality. So the energy of anger is almost always unreliable. It can cause an immense amount of destructive, unfortunate behavior. Moreover, if anger increases to the extreme, one becomes like a mad person, acting in ways that are as damaging to oneself as they are to others.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama joining students in a exercise talking about gratitude at John Oliver School in Vancouver, Canada on October 21, 2014. (Photo by Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)
It is possible, however, to develop an equally forceful but far more controlled energy with which to handle difficult situations.
This controlled energy comes not only from a compassionate attitude, but also from reason and patience. These are the most powerful antidotes to anger. Unfortunately, many people misjudge these qualities as signs of weakness. I believe the opposite to be true: that they are the true signs of inner strength. Compassion is by nature gentle, peaceful and soft, but it is very powerful. It is those who easily lose their patience who are insecure and unstable. Thus, to me, the arousal of anger is a direct sign of weakness.
So, when a problem first arises, try to remain humble and maintain a sincere attitude and be concerned that the outcome is fair. Of course, others may try to take advantage of you, and if your remaining detached only encourages unjust aggression, adopt a strong stand, This, however, should be done with compassion, and if it is necessary to express your views and take strong countermeasures, do so without anger or ill-intent.
You should realize that even though your opponents appear to be harming you, in the end, their destructive activity will damage only themselves. In order to check your own selfish impulse to retaliate, you should recall your desire to practice compassion and assume responsibility for helping prevent the other person from suffering the consequences of his or her acts.
Thus, because the measures you employ have been calmly chosen, they will be more effective, more accurate and more forceful. Retaliation based on the blind energy of anger seldom hits the target.
Friends and enemies
I must emphasize again that merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them.
And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble, So if we truly wish to learn, we should consider enemies to be our best teacher!
For a person who cherishes compassion and love, the practice of tolerance is essential, and for that, an enemy is indispensable. So we should feel grateful to our enemies, for it is they who can best help us develop a tranquil mind! Also, itis often the case in both personal and public life, that with a change in circumstances, enemies become friends.
So anger and hatred are always harmful, and unless we train our minds and work to reduce their negative force, they will continue to disturb us and disrupt our attempts to develop a calm mind. Anger and hatred are our real enemies. These are the forces we most need to confront and defeat, not the temporary enemies who appear intermittently throughout life.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama exchanging greetings with his old friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the Archbishop's arrival at the airport in Dharamsala, HP, India on April 18, 2015. (Photo by Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL)
Of course, it is natural and right that we all want friends. I often joke that if you really want to be selfish, you should be very altruistic! You should take good care of others, be concerned for their welfare, help them, serve them, make more friends, make more smiles, The result? When you yourself need help, you find plenty of helpers! If, on the other hand, you neglect the happiness of others, in the long term you will be the loser. And is friendship produced through quarrels and anger, jealousy and intense competitiveness? I do not think so. Only affection brings us genuine close friends.
In today's materialistic society, if you have money and power, you seem to have many friends. But they are not friends of yours; they are the friends of your money and power. When you lose your wealth and influence, you will find it very difficult to track these people down.
The trouble is that when things in the world go well for us, we become confident that we can manage by ourselves and feel we do not need friends, but as our status and health decline, we quickly realize how wrong we were. That is the moment when we learn who is really helpful and who is completely useless. So to prepare for that moment, to make genuine friends who will help us when the need arises, we ourselves must cultivate altruism!
Though sometimes people laugh when I say it, I myself always want more friends. I love smiles. Because of this I have the problem of knowing how to make more friends and how to get more smiles, in particular, genuine smiles. For there are many kinds of smile, such as sarcastic, artificial or diplomatic smiles. Many smiles produce no feeling of satisfaction, and sometimes they can even create suspicion or fear, can't they? But a genuine smile really gives us a feeling of freshness and is, I believe, unique to human beings. If these are the smiles we want, then we ourselves must create the reasons for them to appear.
Compassion and the world
In conclusion, I would like briefly to expand my thoughts beyond the topic of this short piece and make a wider point: individual happiness can contribute in a profound and effective way to the overall improvement of our entire human community.
Because we all share an identical need for love, it is possible to feel that anybody we meet, in whatever circumstances, is a brother or sister. No matter how new the face or how different the dress and behavior, there is no significant division between us and other people. It is foolish to dwell on external differences, because our basic natures are the same.
Ultimately, humanity is one and this small planet is our only home, If we are to protect this home of ours, each of us needs to experience a vivid sense of universal altruism. It is only this feeling that can remove the self-centered motives that cause people to deceive and misuse one another.
If you have a sincere and open heart, you naturally feel self- worth and confidence, and there is no need to be fearful of others.
I believe that at every level of society - familial, tribal, national and international - the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in an ideology. All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities.
I try to treat whoever I meet as an old friend. This gives me a genuine feeling of happiness. It is the practice of compassion.
Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,
“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father [proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”. Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption [his “atonement theory”] had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents. Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….
We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….
Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….
It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.
This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”
Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.
Ah loneliness. There may be a multitude of varying signs or symptoms that anyone could have during awakening – and no two would ever be the same – but one symptom that I see universally throughout my clients is loneliness. Ironically, we are united in that. I went through it too, and for the most part, I spent my awakening cursing that loneliness, reflecting on the complexity of my experience and wondering how anyone could ever possibly understand what I was going through. I thought somehow I was flawed. I thought that I was entirely alone, and I had no idea that so many others were going through the exact same thing. It wasn’t until long after the intensity of my awakening had calmed that I began to see how this loneliness had served me. I began to recognize that the loneliness that I had experienced actually had a purpose, and it had benefited me in numerous ways (however, that doesn’t mean you have to suffer it, but more on that later).
Lets take a look at the spiritual purpose of loneliness during awakening, and how I’ve found it is actually assisting us further along the path to enlightenment:
Loneliness shifts our relationships
In a weird way, loneliness starts it all. In fact, it is this sense of loneliness, and feeling that no one else could possibly understand that adjusts our social circles and life conditions. It is that pervading sense of loneliness and not fitting in that calls for us to examine our relationships with friends, lovers, or work mates and recognize who no longer resonates with us. This empowers us to move away from negative influences and toxic relationship patterns to make room for supportive, loving, compassionate people in our lives. It creates the space for the universe to fill the vacuum with someone much more compatible and in alignment with who we truly are. It brings our relationships into the 5D reality. If those kind of folks haven’t turned up in your life just yet, don’t lose hope, as you clear your vibration and become more aligned, they’ll start showing up.
Loneliness brings our focus inward
Generally, we’ve spent most of our lives looking outward. Initially we may have lived from ego with focus on more physical things – how we look, how much money we have, social status etc. but these things all fade eventually (or uncontrollably crumble as is sometimes the case during spiritual awakening). We’ve also been raised to look outward for guidance on which path to take, or to consistently look to others for our decision making. That all changes when we experience loneliness. All of the crutches we have clung to throughout our lives get whipped away from us – be it the big house, your job, or the people in your life who you’ve become emotionally dependent on. It might sound cruel, but it really has a wonderful purpose. When we can no longer rely on sources outside of ourselves, and when there really is nowhere else to turn, we finally turn inward. And that, my friends, is where the real transformation begins. That is what takes us from meek and mild mannered to fully independent, standing in our power, fully expressing our gifts and fulfilling our greatest passion and purpose. That can’t happen unless you search inward enough to find yourself and unearth all the amazing strengths you have within you (don’t worry, if those virtues haven’t shown up yet, they will!)
Loneliness awakens the truth of our divinity
How ironic that this all consuming sense of loneliness is actually the very thing that awakens us most. You see, when you finally release all of these ‘crutches’ that you used to lean on, you finally go inward, and when you go inward, you begin to remember the truth of who you really are. That in itself can unearth a different sense of loneliness – a loneliness of the soul. This is where we begin to realize that earth is not our true home. We get a sense that home is somewhere else. Sometimes we get a feeling, or we may just be lucky enough to experience remembrance of where home is, and who we were with. We begin to miss ‘home’ purely because our souls have awakened enough to come to consciousness on THIS physical level. This awareness has our soul questioning, ‘why did I come here’ and ‘how can I get home’. We might even get a sense of a mission or life purpose that we just don’t want anymore. This longing makes us more aware that we are not of this world at all, and it can bring up some real soul level pain or grief – and it really does hurt. I know I spent many hours in tears, sensing my soul family and longing to go home, but it is that very awareness that should enlighten you to the fact that your soul is awake now. You are accessing other, much deeper parts of YOU. In order to be fully awakened you need to fully know you, and you cannot fully know you without becoming aware of all of those wonderful divine parts that make up the whole. Rest assured that the pain will dissipate and eventually be replaced by a strong sense of purpose, wisdom and empowerment here on earth.
Loneliness reconnects us to spirit
This is my favourite. Like I mentioned before, after you’re left feeling lonely, misunderstood, and unable to connect with the people around you, you start to go inward, and when you go inward you find connections on an entirely different plane. It is this very loneliness that withdraws you from the physical world and forces you to awaken your intuition and reconnect to spirit. Sometimes when life is too comfortable we are reluctant to change. If we have plenty of resources in the physical world, we tend not to feel the NEED to connect so much to the spiritual world. But when it begins to feel that no one here in the physical world can help us, we start searching for help on other planes. This happens automatically and is often the time when we begin noticing meaningful synchronicities, getting signs and messages, feeling presences, connecting to spirit guides or simply that feeling of oneness.
Loneliness releases limiting belief systems and past life issues
Lastly, it helps us to release limiting 3D belief systems (which is exactly what we need to let go of in order to experience 5D reality). Naturally, being present on earth throughout the ages, the energy has been extremely dense. We have been traumatized through lifetimes where we came to conclusions like ‘I’ll be cast out for my gifts’, ‘I’ll be killed for being a healer,’ or ‘I need to be alone in order to embrace my gifts’. These are common belief systems that are a result of lifetimes when using our psychic gifts or healing abilities really was truly dangerous. We learned that we would be rejected (or killed) for showing them, sharing them, or helping others with them. Its natural that we should come to those conclusions, and they absolutely were relevant – back then. But they are no longer our reality, and they often perpetuate issues like being afraid to be a healer, being unable to access our gifts, or isolating ourselves in order to keep ourselves safe.
The good news is that these limiting belief systems are being released. Simply by being aware of these feelings or thoughts we are in the process of acknowledging, realizing and releasing them once and for all. Eventually they will be replaced with our 5D truths – that our abilities truly are a gift, and that it is safe to share them for the benefit of those around us.
Is loneliness necessary in order to awaken?
Ok, so now we know the purpose of loneliness as part of ascension. We can all see the specific ways that it benefits us and catalyzes vital changes that transform us internally. However, now comes the secret truth that most people don’t realize until they are out the other end of awakening fully…
Its not actually necessary.
Yep. Seriously. Loneliness may catalyze many powerful changes as we move along the awakening path, but you’ll be relieved to know that it really isn’t necessary to feel that way, at all.
Let me explain why. Remember when we discussed how loneliness helps us to release limiting belief systems that stop us from experiencing our true divinity? Well the good news is, that loneliness is just a perception. In itself, it is a belief system, and it is one that we all inherently carry (otherwise we’d breeze through awakening feeling connected and united – but of course, then there wouldn’t be any need for awakening anyway). The reason we are experiencing loneliness (or any other awful feeling) is because somewhere deep down in our souls, we believe in it. And we believe in it because we’ve experienced it in past lives. It is the accumulation of all of the times we’ve been rejected, cast out or ridiculed, and it is the fact that we are still carrying those past life wounds that keep it in our vibration now. We feel lonely because we felt lonely back then, and we are still carrying that loneliness with us now, everywhere we go, and in everything we do.
You’re right on track!
Fortunately, the very fact that you are experiencing loneliness at all means you are healing it. It means that old issues are rising to the surface to be felt. It means that you are tapping into your past lives. It means, (although it hurts) that you are healing your soul. It means that you are right on track in your awakening journey, no matter how lonely or challenging it may be. It means you’re doing just fine…
"The Almond Trees in Blossom"
Endlessly I gaze at you in wonder, blessed ones, at your composure,
at how in eternal delight you bear your vanishing beauty.
Ah, if only we knew how to blossom:
our heart would pass beyond every small danger,
and would find peace in the greatest danger of all.
——————————————————-— Rainer Maria Rilke
At a public gathering in my town’s plaza, two women pass me. The elder, who seems about 85 to 90, walks slowly, unsteadily, on sensible shoes. One of her slender, thin-skinned legs, bruised and dotted with age spots, is partially covered in knee-high panty hose, while the other is bare, the stocking fallen and gathered around her ankle. Her sparse white hair, somewhat disheveled, is loosely gathered at the back of her neck. Her frail arm stretches out, with her bony hand firmly grasping the arm of the other woman, who I assume is her daughter. The younger woman takes in the scene around her, while making herself wholly available to the older woman, putting aside any agenda she might have for herself. The mother relies utterly on her daughter’s strength, kindness and slowed pace. A tender closeness between them is palpable in the willingness of the daughter and the dependency of the mother as she clings to her daughter’s arm in much the same way the daughter must have clung to hers when she was too young to walk on her own.
Only a week before, my 7-year-old daughter, Sophia, brought up the topic of aging while we were walking. “Mama,” she observed, “old people are kind of like babies.” I asked her why. “Because they need help like babies. They cannot do things on their own. Sometimes they need help walking, some need helping eating, and some have to lie in bed and be changed like babies. It’s so sweet.” I asked her what she thought that would be like, and she replied, “I think it would be nice — like having servants.”
Most people experience being dependent as a humiliation rather than a treat, like my daughter does. Sophia’s innocent and positive view stands in marked contrast to the response of many people I know to the prospect of getting older and becoming dependent: “Shoot me first!” they exclaim. It’s as if the idea of becoming dependent on other human beings is so abhorrent that one would rather die a violent death than consider it.
How we value our independence, our strength and capability! How we prize our ability to do things for ourselves on our own, thank you very much. How we fear the fact that aging requires us to let down our walls, our protections, our pride, our privacy, and ask for and accept assistance. It lays wide open and bare the simple fact that we are not perfect islands unto ourselves, but fallible, sweet, interdependent beings in need. Aging asks us to open, to trust, to let go. It asks us to let others into our most private worlds and see us in our naked humanity.
Aging is life’s way of saying, “Last chance to realize what this is all about!” If one hasn’t been lucky enough to be humbled, softened and opened to one’s place in the interconnectedness of all things by parenthood, midlife crisis, illness, a failed relationship or two, or some other of life ’s challenges, aging certainly offers the opportunity in spades. Aging asks us to radically redefine who we take ourselves to be, after a lifetime perhaps of defining ourselves by what we can do. It invites us either to start defining ourselves by what we cannot do or to drop the defining altogether and allow ourselves to explore what it means to exist outside of definition, within the whole rather than separate from it.
Why should I write about aging? While I have not yet hit the deeper parts of aging that others around me have, despite my 44 years of experience in getting older, I have tasted enough to be intrigued by the rub of loss of youth that is just beginning for me. I felt like I was just about to find my groove until I gave birth to my daughter at the age of 36. Over the next few years it slowly dawned on me — as the soft saggy skin from my pregnant belly hung during yoga class, as I dropped into bed at the end of a working-mother day, as I glimpsed the chicken skin and wrinkles in the sunlit rearview mirror, as my child grew up and I grew tired — that gravity was calling me. Age spots like my grandmother’s started to appear on my face. The skin on my shoulders is turning from soft to dry and rough from the years of sun exposure. Now, I hold small print away from my eyes and have just purchased my first pair of “old lady” glasses, marking my entry into the realm of the aged. I started to hear inside my head something I ’d never anticipated: “You are too old to do that . . . to wear that . . . to say that . . .” When I ride my bike to work, I feel more like the Toto-hating Miss Gulch than I do a soaring bird or fit athlete.
I can feel the field of limitless possibility that is youth slipping away. The baseball players and movie stars on TV are starting to look like babies; the newscasters were born after my baby brother. The world is being taken over by the next generation, and I am not part of it. I am slipping out of it. I will not be world famous, I will probably not be much more of anything than what I am now. I am as beautiful as I will ever be, as strong as I will ever be, as capable as I will ever be. And I am fading into the past, while my daughter rises to greet the world. The world is going on without me — it does not need me to function, and I will likely disappear without having made much of a mark on it at all.
Oh, the small person in me does not like this. She was unconsciously betting on some future glory that would prove her excellence and importance. She doesn’t want to be one of the many unknown faces, one of the multitudes that live and die with little trace. She wants to be bigger than life, someone to take note of, making history. She wants superlatives: biggest, best, strongest, most beautiful. Life is a continual assault and insult to this one because unless we are lucky or delusional, we do not get to be the best at much of anything, or at least not for long. And aging is the final and most definitive insult. If we held out until now — either by large amounts of external success, achievement and prowess, or by ignoring the obvious fact that we as persons are insignificant grains of sand among the many — age and death will certainly rectify that. At some point there is no ignoring this, and the final settling with reality begins.
Do I need cheering up? An exercise program? A list of the pros of aging? Examples of women playing basketball, running marathons, looking smashing in their 70s? A lecture on rejoicing in my cronehood? Not at all. I want to face the gritty details of being in an aging body and touch that reality with tenderness. I have not found it useful to wave the flag of the bright side when darkness looms; darkness doesn’t go away by patting it on the head and telling it to go to its room, and the brightness of cheer is not the deep light for which I live. Aging is loss. Anything that I hold dearly that passes will invite my loosened grip. Aging is about getting weaker, saggier and wrinklier, losing faculties, and eventually dying and one ’s body rotting. I want to embrace this darkness; I want to hear the voice of loss, weakness and dying. I want to hear what it has to say and be reborn as a light that is not birthed of reassurance, but of synchronizing myself with what is real and surrendering to it. I want to be it all and know it all and kiss it all.
Aging is not a stranger, it is simply a more dramatic version of the same old friend whose face returns to us all throughout life in little and big ways — loss, death and resurrection. Rainer Maria Rilke advised: “Be ahead of all parting.” The more one has kept pace with the invitations that life offers along the way to grieve, open, be humbled and let go, the less settling of accounts must occur in order to meet the greatest invitation of all: to lose one ’s strength, prowess, capability and, finally, life. And to open and soften one’s heart in the face of it. Old age lays bare our vulnerability, our longing, our fear of each other, of ourselves. We cannot run, we cannot delude ourselves; we have to sit still and wrestle with and come to terms with the great mystery that this life is.
One invitation of being infirm is to be tender with ourselves. Not impatient, rejecting and judgmental, but tender. Aging invites us to learn self-acceptance and, with that, acceptance of all the parts of life as holy and worthy of our love. We are not worthy of love only for what we do and contribute, but worthy of love and tenderness because we are. Another invitation is to be humbled: we return to beginners, to not knowing. There is nothing we can use as a crutch to prop ourselves up and say, “See? I am worthy because I…” And we find ourselves worthy, as Sophia says, “Just because.”
We lose it all. If life let us keep it, we would not soften. We soften into the arms of life, into the arms of our caretakers. We let them love us. We let them have us. We let ourselves return to what we belong to, though we walled ourselves off from ever knowing that all along it owned us, this life, this clock ticking, this symphony of birth, death, living, dying, crying and loving.
We let it go, we open our hands, we let the bird fly away, we find the heart that lives through us, we find that we do belong, that we always did, that we are part of it, that it is OK. We are not special. We are not gods. We did not win a gold medal, write a famous novel; we will not go down in history. And it’s enough to have lived, to have done the best we could do, to have loved the best we could love, to be part of it all. Aging invites us to open to the truth that we are one, we belong to each other, we are here to be loved and to love.
Sophia and I play a game, where we take turns closing our eyes and leading each other around the neighborhood, up hills, through vacant lots, up onto the curb, down off the curb. She observed once during the game, “Mama, I trust you more than you trust me.” May I surrender and grow in this trust as I grow in years.
(c) Copyright 2006, Jeannie Zandi, all rights reserved.
Originally published in The Eldorado Sun, August, 2006.
Aversion, anger, and hatred are states of mind that strike against experience, pushing it away, rejecting what is presented in the moment. They do not come from without. This insight is a reversal of the ordinary way we perceive life. “Usually,” says Ajahn Chah, “we believe outer problems attack us.” Things are wrong and people misbehave, causing our hatred and suffering to arise. But however painful our experiences may be, they are just painful experiences until we add the response of aversion or hatred. Only then does suffering arise. If we react with hatred and aversion, these qualities become habitual. Like a distorted autoimmune response, our misguided reaction of hatred does not protect us; rather, it becomes the cause of our continued unhappiness.
The Buddha declares, “Enraged with hate, with mind ensnared, humans aim at their own ruin and at the ruin of others.” How do we break this tragic legacy—both in our own lives and in every blood-soaked corner of the globe? Only through a deep understanding of anger, hatred, and aggression. They are universal energies, archetypal forces that cause immense suffering in the world. Their source must be traced in the depths of our human hearts. And then we will discover an amazing truth: that with compassion, with courage and dedicated effort, we, like the Buddha, can meet the aggressive forces of our own mind and of others, and these energies can be transformed.
Freud and his followers believed the aggressive instincts to be primary. Culture’s “commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself…is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to original human nature as this.” Later, in the aftermath of World War II, sociobiologists such as Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey hypothesized that our species, like our predecessor apes and many other animals, had necessary and inevitable instincts of territoriality and aggression.Today, evolutionary biology and neuroscience are carefully charting the genetic function and neural mechanisms of aggression.
But the fact that aggression, anger, and aversion are built into our universal heritage is only the starting point in Buddhist psychology. After we learn how to face them directly, to see how they arise and function in our life, we must take a revolutionary step. Through the profound practice of insight, through nonidentification and compassion, we reach below the very synapses and cells and free ourselves from the grasp of these instinctive forces.With dedication, we discover it is possible to do so.
Aversion and anger almost always arise as a direct reaction to a threatening or painful situation. If they are not understood they grow into hatred. As we have seen, pain and loss are undeniable parts of human life. Buddhist texts speak of a mountain of pain. They tell us our tears of grief could fill all four great oceans. When our experience is one of pain, hurt, loss, or frustration, our usual habit is to draw back in aversion or strike out in anger, to blame or run away.
Like pain, fear is the other common predecessor to anger and hate—fear of loss, of hurt, of embarrassment, of shame, of weakness, of not knowing. When fear arises, anger and aversion function as strategies to help us feel safe, to declare our strength and security. In fact, we actually feel insecure and vulnerable, but we cover this fear and vulnerability with anger and aggression. We do this at work, in marriage, on the road, in politics. A fearful situation turns to anger when we can’t admit we are afraid. As the poet Hafiz writes, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d rather see you in better living conditions.” Without insight, we are doomed to live our lives in this cheap room.
Fortunately, we can train ourselves to live with mindfulness, to meet fear and pain with wisdom instead of with the habits of aversion and anger. When a painful or threatening event arises, we can open our eyes to it. When we learn to bear our own pain and face our own fears, we will no longer blame and inflict it on others, neither family members nor other tribes. With mindfulness, instead of reacting, we can respond with spacious clarity, purpose, firmness, and compassion. A wise response includes whatever action, fierce at times, is the most caring toward life, our own and others’.
Imagine a healthy mind as one that is free from entanglement in any level of hatred. At first this might seem impossible, an idealistic attempt to impose decorum on our innately aggressive human nature. But freedom from hatred is not spiritual repression, it is wisdom in the face of pain and fear.
In a healthy response to pain and fear, we establish awareness before it becomes anger. We can train ourselves to notice the gap between the moments of sense experience and the subsequent response. Because of the particle-like nature of consciousness, we can enter the space between instinct and action, between impulse and reaction.To do so we must learn to tolerate our pain and fear. This is not easy. As James Baldwin put it, “Most people discover that when hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.”
That’s why we start by paying attention to small things, small pains and disappointments. When I start to get into an argument with my wife, if I pay attention I notice that I usually feel hurt or afraid. If I speak to her angrily, she will become defensive and the argument will grow. But if I’m mindful, I can talk about the hurt or fears instead of being lost in anger and blame.Then my wife becomes interested and concerned. Out of this a different and more honest conversation occurs.
Potentially, through Ms. Zandi's personal struggle we can all find that radiant seat deep within, where Love shines, soothes and abides within us forever. But first you must follow her through a journey of mental exhaustion, heart wrenching pain and utter defeat. It was only then, physically and mentally exhausted that she hears Love's call, tastes Loves presence, and comes forth from her self-imposed tomb.
How profoundly her words ring true, her aching heart is felt, and her liberation a hope for so many.
In the year that I was pregnant with my daughter and planning on marrying her father, I was plunged into an inexplicable darkness that ruled my life for four years. During that time, much of what had characterized me became eclipsed – I was no longer sociable, brilliant or on top of anything. My sole focus was a gnawing discomfort, a total loss of meaning and my inability to find what was “true” in order to right my life.
Why, as a well-adjusted woman who had kept up with her emotional work and led workshops on the topic, was I plagued to such depths? Was it a hormonal issue? A psychological issue? Had I made a wrong choice that resulted in my living a lie? Between working, mothering and doing the basics of daily life, I searched inwardly and outwardly, and mostly mentally, to find clues to this mysterious stalker who had performed a hostile takeover of my psyche.
As the months and years passed, as possible causes were exhausted (pregnancy hormones, postpartum depression, some early birth trauma of my own, some lie I was living, some way I had been bad that I was being punished for by a wrathful God), I entered into a sort of resigned despair. Many times I wished my life would simply end. I had fantasies of wandering out into the wilderness of Taos Mountain and being devoured by mountain lions. I would look up at the stars and long to disappear among them. The state of agony and anxiety was so acute, deep and constant that it hardly left my attention during my waking hours.
No matter what relative truth I would adopt in any given moment as the solution to my woes – keep the child, don’t keep the child, stay with the man, leave the man, live alone – nothing held the promise of righting things. In retrospect, while I was searching for the truth that I could voice that would correct something “off” in my personal life, a much bigger truth was stalking me, one that could not be told, but only lived.
I could not light on this truth with my mind, but had to be born into it through watching who I had been wear down and pass away. As I was no longer performing the self I had been and as my mind struggled with and was bested by this conundrum, I watched the “good partner” die, the “contributing community member” die, the “one who knows” and the “one who can find the truth” die. More and more I was simply left in the present with no plan or strategy with which to approach anything.
I would go to a nearby river and lay on its banks. I noticed the anxiety that pervaded my body most of the day; I noticed the hell my mind was in, scurrying this way and that, trying to save me by finding the truth about the anxiety; and I noticed the way the wind blew, unconcerned, through the trees by the river and the way the ripples danced, unperturbed, in the water. At some point I discovered that if my attention was buried in the unconcerned wind and the unperturbed ripples, my body would relax just a little bit. Over time I saw that things-as-they-are were complicated by my thoughts and plans, which obscured actuality and created a hell if I paid attention to them. Out of exhaustion and despite a certainty that this was not in “my” best interest, I watched the “one who could figure it out” and the “one with a clue” die too.
I began finding my attention immersed in my senses in the present and in simple being. My mind faded as the central navigational instrument for my life, and I watched its incessant chattering fade as the thoughtless realm of things-as-they-are took the foreground. My mind could not offer a rationale for the shift – this new way simply took over as the only way to be that did not create misery.
Two years into it I wrote to an acquaintance, author and teacher, Steven Harrison: “It has been a good teacher in that I now know that I don’t have a clue about anything, whereas before I was quite smug about having lots of clues about lots of things. I used to refer grandly to the “Great Mystery.” I think I thought that someone named God was my pet. Or at least that whatever that presence was, I was certainly among its chosen ones. Now I’ve seen the underside of that mystery and have referred often to it as the “fucking Mystery.” I really want to understand, and the more I try, the more I’m sat down on my butt. When I’m present these days it’s not because I’m groovy or have a practice or think it’s a good idea, but because anywhere else is painful.”
He wrote back: “What you described is to me the breakdown of the mythology of life and the emergence of life-as-it-is. . . . From the vantage of the breakdown, it looks dark. From the vantage of the broken-down it looks fresh and full of potential and possibility. This is the beginning of new creativity in which the myth is transparent and perhaps something inherently integrated is possible in the forms we bring about. This is, after all, the creativity that we are born into but conditioned to forget, the creativity that is your daughter, that is life itself. To explore this requires the ongoing abandonment of the known and the attention to the movement of life-as-it-is, which is always new.”
Not by my will, I had left the known and all my strategies for how to keep myself safe and moving forward. It is a feeling of being constantly naked and living by the seat of my pants as I watch life unfold and reveal itself a moment at a time instead of attempting to direct it. I find myself an explorer in the realm of what’s actual, what is here now, outside of the mind’s commentary about it. And outside of any plan for progress, improvement or goal attainment. It’s amazing how simple life has become, and how full and luscious. Transformation happens within me and around me as I give myself to the present and leave the mind’s commentary behind, as something essentially meaningless, like static on a radio.
What I have stumbled upon is the ground of being, who we are essentially, our birthright, and what is true about us in every moment, regardless of circumstance. This reality is Love, surpassing and dissolving all concepts of love – it is an alive, immediate experience of oneness that moves unpredictably and outside of concepts and social conditioning. Instead of something that is given or received, it is a basic fact of existence – not only mine, but existence in its entirety.
I can report on my findings from my explorations and elaborate on my experience of this Love. I can talk about how the past and future have faded as realities from my experience, how my life is pervaded by a sense of contentment, how full of radiance and mystery the moment is, and how this looks in my relationships and in my parenting. But that would move away from what is actual, now, for you, for me. And so what I really want to say is this:
To all those who struggle, to all those who wonder if there is something wrong with them, to all those who do not feel at home, at peace, whole and fine just as you are now, please know: You are Love. Your being is a mystery beyond comprehension. Each moment contains a miraculous myriad of sensations to breathe into and explore. Something greater than this you-with-a-plan is running your life and always has been. Let it have you.
Now that you have moved into my heart,
taken the doors off their hinges and
removed the windows, glass, sash and all,
beggars are coming from everywhere
for your sweet embrace.
The beggars stream in from every direction
walking, running, crawling, rolling and being …carried.
The neighbors have stopped screaming about it.
At first they had plenty to say but after weeks … … and weeks of this
they know there is no helping it.
This is beyond city ordinances.
Soon they will be coming themselves,
dropping rakes, dog leashes, clothespins,
leaving cars running in the street,
for a glimpse of your holy face.
What am I to do but
watch in awe at the blessed variety
… of your creation,
the myriad wounds, the incredible stories,
the way they gather around the door
quivering with the certain knowledge
that finally no one will be turned away,
and stay in the house making meals,
and carrying sheets up and down the stairs.
(c) Copyright 2004, Jeannie Zandi, all rights reserved.
Originally published in The Eldorado Sun, February, 2004.
SOURCE/Ms, Zandi's website: http://jeanniezandi.com/let-it-have-you/
—Image credit: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (detail), by Caravaggio, 1601-02
The common reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”—either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109). Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) agreed with neither of these understandings.
Duns Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used by the Gospel writers and by Paul). He was inspired by the cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) and gave a theological and philosophical base to St. Francis’ deep intuitions of God’s love. While the Church has not rejected the Franciscan position, it has been a minority view.
The many “substitutionary atonement theories”—which have dominated the last 800 years of Christianity—suggest that God demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to “atone” for our sin-drenched humanity. The terrible and un-critiqued premise is that God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept God’s own children! These theories are based on retributive justice rather than the restorative justice that the prophets and Jesus taught.
For Duns Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but had to be the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the incarnation—or we were steering the cosmic ship! Only perfect love and divine self-revelation could inspire God to come in human form. God never merely reacts, but supremely and freely acts—out of love.
Salvation is much more about at-one-ment from God’s side than any needed atonement from our side. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God!
God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model—which the ego prefers—to a world in which God’s mercy makes any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) notions of human and animal sacrifice (common in most ancient religions) and replaced them with an economy of grace and love.
Jesus was meant to be a game-changer for the human psyche and for religion itself. But when we begin negatively, or focused on a problem, we never get off the hamster wheel of shame, separation, and violence. Rather than focusing on sin, Jesus—“the crucified One”—pointed us toward a primal solidarity with the very suffering of God and thus of all creation. This changes everything. Change the starting point, and you change the trajectory, and even the final goal! Love is the beginning, the way itself, and the final consummation.
God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we can do will either decrease or increase God’s eternal and infinite eagerness to love!
Reference: Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 183-188.
“We are saved from God! And more precisely, we are sparred [sic] the wrath of God . . . Without your trusting in Christ, the wrath of God that was placed on Jesus will then be placed on you.” ~ Jack Wellman, answering the question “What are we really saved from?”
In so many words, this is the Gospel according to Western Christianity. Over the details we may quibble, but we are often told that Jesus died in order to save sinners from the wrath of God. In other words, he was a substitutionary sacrifice—he died in our place—to appease the Father’s justice, honor, and wrath. The story of how we get to such a place where we need such a sacrifice basically goes like this:
God created humankind in his image and saw that it was good. Then, humanity sinned and experienced a “fall.” This created a huge problem, one that finite creatures simply could not make up for. Why? Because God’s justice and honor are such that only a payment of infinite proportions could make atonement. So, God, in his infinite wisdom, sent himself in the form of a Son—one truly human—in order to be sacrificed to himself so that his justice and honor could be upheld. Thus, he fills the conundrum of needing an infinite payment from finite humans. Now, those who accept the blood sacrifice could be forgiven their sins. The rest? The wrath of the infinite Father forever abides on them.
I understand the propensity to mock and scorn such a view. “New atheists” in particular have a field day with it. However, we are not going to take part in the mockery here (as much as I would like to). Doing so would not be helpful though. What we are going to do is simply touch on some of the initial problems penal substitution (PSA) creates so that, in the following blog post, we can introduce some healthier—as well as more orthodox—views of how the Cross saves us, and what, exactly, it saves us from (hint: it’s not God!).
Problem I: The Debt-Collecting God
The first issue this view creates is that it basically depicts God as a debt collector. A debt was accrued and payment has to be made in order for the Father’s forgiveness and mercy to flow forth into the world. Contrary to the Pauline claim that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5), the sins that are accrued are kept on the books until the spilt blood of Jesus covers them. Then, and only then, is the debt paid. And so, then and only then can the wrongs be taken off the books.
Problem II: The Retributive God
The second issue is the way in which original sin gets interpreted by folks in the PSA camp. Indeed, their understanding of humanity’s fall exposes God as a retributive punisher. What I mean is that our sin is just so damn disgusting that God must have blood in order to be appeased. To that end, the punishment Jesus took was the punishment we deserve. The lashings, the flogging, the mocking, all of it something God would do to us or have done to us if Jesus hadn’t taken the beating for us. That, or something similar. Those of us who accept the transaction are spared. Those that don’t get their just deserts in the end—infinitely re-tributed for their finite sins.
Problem III: The Archaic-Minded God
If history has taught us anything, it is that the gods we create demand blood sacrifices in order for their wrath to be appeased. Rene Girard has helped elucidate this more so than anyone. Think of all the virgins that were thrown into volcanoes throughout the eons. The penal substitutionary model of the atonement paints the Father in a similar light; the only difference being that God is both the one demanding the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. So, while it is not surprising that we would sort of see Jesus as the “virgin we throw into a volcano to appease an angry god,” it is rather ironic, especially given that our Jewish forefathers (and mothers!) had already taken humanity away from such a view of “at-one-ment.” As James Alison reminds us:
The Jewish priestly rite was already . . . way ahead of the “Aztec” version we attribute to it. Even at that time [pre-exilic], it was understood that it was not about humans trying desperately to satisfy God, but God taking the initiative of breaking through towards us. In other words, atonement was something of which we were the beneficiaries. (From Alison’s essay “God’s Self-Substitution” in the book Stricken by God?, pp. 168 – 69)
Problem IV: The Janus-Faced God
Another issue we run into with this view is that two manifestations of the Trinity are pitted against one another. In one corner, you have the wrath of God, which needs the shedding of blood in order to forgive sins (Hebrews 9:22). In the other corner, you have Jesus, who forgave freely (Matthew 9:2; 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11; 20:19–23). In other words, Jesus forgave even though blood hadn’t been spilled. One major issue with this is that the New Testament is fairly clear that both the Father and the Son are, in nature, eternally the same (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 4:34; 5:19–20; 6:38, 46; 10:29; 12:49; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 13:8). In later creedal formulations, it is said that they are homoousios, or “of one substance.” To put is simply, then, Jesus reveals what the Father is like and what he has always been like. Yet, in the PSA model, this hardly seems so.
Problem V: The Unfollowable God
When the Father and the Son are pitted against each other, choosing the correct one to follow becomes quite a conundrum. If we forgive like Jesus, for example, then forgiveness will precede repentance (Matthew 9:2; 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11; 20:19–23). However, if we choose to forgive like the Father, we will only forgive those that show repentance, or after they make a payment of some kind. But did Jesus not command that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is (Matthew 5:48)? And is that perfection not displayed as pure mercy (Luke 6:36)? It seems rather dubious, then, if the way in which the Son and Father forgive is as dissimilar as East is from the West.
What Are The Alternatives?
Over the course of its history, Christianity has put forth alternatives to the penal substitutionary view. In fact, many theories predate PSA (a theory not even formalized until John Calvin, a lawyer, put it together during the Reformation. Essentially, with some slight alterations, it’s just like Anselm’s eleventh-century “Satisfaction Theory,” which posits that Christ died in order to satisfy God’s honor. Calvin took that idea and emphasized God’s wrath rather than his honor.)
So, if this way of thinking about the atonement has not always been the norm, what were Christian theologians saying about the cross prior to the Middle Ages? Interestingly, something much different than we commonly hear today in the West. However, that is going to have to wait until my next entry. (I know, I’m such a tease!)
Until then, feel free to comment below and let me know what problems you have with penal substitution. Or, if you affirm it, feel free to make a defense for your case. I’ll do my best to follow along.
If atonement theology is not best understood in penal substitutionary ways—as I contend it’s not—then what are some healthier, more orthodox ways of understanding the cross? Well, that’s what we’re going to get into.
From the beginning, Christians have talked about the life and death of Christ as a model for our own lives. Clement of Alexandria (150–215 CE) was one of these:
For [Christ] came down, for this he assumed human nature, for this he willingly endured the sufferings of humanity, that he being reduced to the measure of our weakness, he might raise us to the measure of his power. And just before he poured out his offering, when he gave himself as ransom, he left us a new testament: “I give you my love.” What is the nature and extent of this love? For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.
Later, however, Christ’s moral influence would be broadened into a way of talking about atonement more specifically. (Peter Abelard, a twelfth-century French theologian, is the one who gets credit for the development of the theory.) And, while it has its strengths, both biblically and ethically, it suffers only in that it simply doesn’t say enough about what happened in the life and death of Jesus. In other words, while the theory isn’t necessarily wrong—that is, Jesus Christ is the model of what it means to be “at-one” with the Father (John 5:19–20; 6:38; 8:28; 10:29; 12:49)—it leaves us wanting a more robust explanation as to how Jesus, and most specifically, the cross, saves us.
That is where Christus Victor—the dominant theory of the Eastern Orthodox Church—can help lend a hand. In A Journey with Two Mystics, my best friend, Michael Machuga, sums up the theory with this beautiful catena of Scripture:
Satan has enslaved humanity with the fear of death (Heb 2:14–15). All manners of evil arise from this bondage. But Christ comes to set humanity free from Satan’s power, that is, “to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Pet 5:8). He does so by enduring the cross and by then being raised to life by God (Acts 2:23–25). In doing so, Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities, exposing them to public disgrace by leading them in a triumphal parade” (Col 2:15). Christ is made Lord (Rom 14:11; Phil 2:11), given the Name above all names (Phil 2:9), and will reign until death, the last enemy, is destroyed (1 Cor 15:24–26). Death will then be cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10, 14) so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
Needless to say, an atonement theology such as this takes us much further than “moral influence.” Here, Christ is indeed our model for “moral living,” but he’s much more than that. Christus Victor proclaims that because of him, everything that stands in our way from being “at-one” with God has been defeated, including sin and death. And, excitingly, we can apply it in such a way that doesn’t necessitate a “traditionally sacrificial” interpretation of the cross, while at the same time taking sin seriously (a charge PSA folks tend to make against their non-PSA interlocutors).
In the following section, we are going to unpack what this may mean for us. Our goal, most specifically, will be to answer the question: How, exactly, does Christ’s death save us from “sin” and “death?”
The Victory of Christ
Death is Put to Death
Clearly, death is a problem. Allow me to rephrase. According to the writer of Hebrews, it is the problem: “So that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb 2:14–15, emphasis mine). The writer of 1 John also emphasizes that “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Put these together, and we can easily say that humanity’s greatest problem is that the devil and his works have enslaved humanity through the fear of death.
Incidentally, this fear of death is what cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker posited is the primary source of human-initiated suffering. That is to say, the neurosis death brings is the underlying cause of most of our violence (i.e., sin). What happens is that because we can think abstractly about our own death, we build these so-called “hero systems”—cultures, religions, political ideologies, and so on—that must be defended against all alternative systems. Psychologist Richard Beck explains how this mechanism works, and why it’s such a problem:
In short, alternative hero systems—other values, worldviews, and ways of life—threaten to undo everything that has made our lives feel significant, meaningful, and secure in the face of death. The ideological Other—usually some out-group member who has different values and beliefs from our own—presents us with an implicit critique of our personal hero system. This threatens us to the core, attacks the very source of our self-esteem. This means that the ideological Other—the out-group member who is simply different from us—doesn’t really have to do anything particularly threatening. His or her mere existence is enough to menace us. Outgroup members represent, on the edges of our awareness, a dissenting voice that suggest that the way we’ve constructed our identities and the criteria we’ve used to manage our self-esteem are not eternal and transcendent but are instead arbitrary human fictions.
So, what do we do in the face of that threat? Simply stated, we demonize these people. Rather than endure existential discomfort, it’s easier to double down on our worldview and to see those different from us as malevolent agents. We aggress against these “others.” In mild forms, we view them as confused or mistaken. More severely, they grow to become enemies we have to forcibly eliminate.
All we have to do to see this play out in real-time is open our eyes. Look around and you will constantly see shots fired at one another. Not only do the Christians fight the Muslims (and vice-versa), but the Catholics fight the Protestants, and Protestants demonize the Anabaptists; Sunnis attack the Shias, and both go after the Sufis. More “secularly-speaking,” Capitalists demonize Socialists, while Socialists blame Capitalists for the world’s problems; but “New Atheists” know better and point to religion and its adherents as the true cause. And on and on it goes.
Regardless of who’s to blame, the answer to this dilemma, according to the earliest Christians, is in the person of Christ Jesus, who conquered death and the fear it brings. What Christ’s Victory emphasizes is that because of his death and subsequent resurrection, Christ triumphed over, among other things, not only the fear of death, but death itself. He died and went to Hades, conquered it, and now holds the keys (Rev 1:18). Whereas the devil once had the power to wield death as a way to keep humanity in bondage, Christ now has that power. But, with that power, he does the opposite of the devil; he comes to us, in all our confusion and misery, to show us that new life awaits us. He shatters our fear of death by showing us his hands and his side, and by forgiving us “while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8; John 20:19–20).
This is how we are saved from the bondage that our fear of death holds us under. By affirming the Resurrection—and as such, our own future resurrection—we open up new possibilities for our love to flow forth in the present. In other words, because we have nothing to hold onto any longer—now that the sting of death has been taken away—we are free to give ourselves in love for the other (the Greek term for this is kenosis). As the writer of 1 John tells us: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (1 John 3:14). To put it in the simplest way I can, the dynamic duo of fear and death are undone by an even more dynamic duo: Love and Resurrection.
The Subversion of Sacrifice
A second major problem Christ’s death saves us from is this business of sacrificing to the gods. For as long as humans have been around, we have been engaging in this practice. The greatest of the sacrifices have always been the purest: firstborn sons, virgin daughters, unblemished lambs, and so on. And while the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement keeps in line with this sacrificial thinking—the virgin Son is sacrificed to appease the wrath of the Father—the true message of the New Testament actually seems to be quite the opposite. In other words, the sacrifice of Jesus is not to be thought of as something that changes God and his mind, it is something that God does through Jesus that changes us and our ways of thinking. Thus, it saves us.
So, how exactly does God do this?
In two ways.
First, notice how the New Testament message flips the common way of sacrificial thinking on its head: God puts forth the Lamb, we receive him, yet God raises him up again. To put it this way, God offers the sacrifice to humans who cannot help but do what they do best. Yet God also gets the last word—the word of life. The writer of Acts repeatedly makes this point:
- Acts 2:23–24: “This man . . . you crucified . . . but God raised him up.”
- Acts 3:15: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.”
- Acts 4:10: “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”
In doing this, we are shown two things at the same time: what God is truly like and, consequently, what we are like. What I mean is that when the Father puts forth the Son (and, also, when he raises him up), it is to show how the whole sacrificial system is not something he desires, for he never desires death (Ezek 33:11), but rather, we do. I love how the writer of Hebrews drives home this very point:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins . . . [however] when, Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” (Heb 9:22; 10:5–8, emphasis mine)
Notice the contrast: sacrifice and doing God’s will. On the one hand, the desire for sacrifice, while historically something we can’t help but project onto the entire pantheon of gods, is shown to be purely a human desire: “These are offered according to the law.” On the other hand, the one who perfectly does God’s will is the one who allows this law-based system to fall onto him while forgiving it all. Hence, Jesus shows us how the Father, rather than being just another god who demands sacrifice, is actually the one true God who becomes the sacrifice on our behalf. That is what we mean by “Christ died for us.” (Rom 4:25; 8:32) He dies for our benefit. Why? To expose the system for what it is—a system predicated on more and more blood and death (Luke 11:49–51)—while yet showing pure grace in the face of it.
The second point I want to make is that God takes humanity’s practice of ritualistic sacrifice and gives us a new ritual: the Eucharist. As Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out The Gospel and the Sacred, pretty much everything Jesus does during the Last Supper is subversive in nature:
The institution of the Eucharist is an inversion of the temple sacrifices. The usual direction of the sacrificial offering is reversed; instead of the worshiper giving to the god, the god is giving to the worshiper. Jesus “gives” (didomi) his body and blood, symbolized by bread and wine, to them instead of their giving their bodies and blood, symbolized by money, to the temple. Just as money symbolizes life given to the temple, so bread and wine symbolize the divine life given to the worshiper. Bruce Chilton suggests plausibly that the words of institution, “This is my body . . . this is my blood” (Mark 14:22–24) intend to present the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine as substitutes for the killing of victims in the temple. The room substitutes for the temple, the table for the altar, and the sharing of food for the killing of the victim. Normally, the worshiper brings the offering into sacred space; here, the upper room is the nonsacred counterpart of the holy of holies, and so the offering is made outside of sacred space. Thus, the sacrificial system is subverted by the reversal of the direction of its ritual logic.
The beautiful thing about this whole event is that Jesus doesn’t simply tell his disciples what not to do, he gives us something to do. We are ritualistic creatures, after all, and as such, need rituals in order to get along in life. But these rituals demand blood. They demand victims. Not the Eucharist, however. This new ritual that leads to new community centers on a table, not an altar. It centers on bread and wine, not bodies and blood. It centers, even, on sharing this meal with one’s enemies. Remember, even Judas—the man Jesus knew would betray him—was present and had his feet washed by the Lord (John 13:1–5). Such is the inclusivity of the Eucharistic meal.
At the end of the day, what matters most when it comes to atonement is whether we hold to a healing doctrine or not. Does our atonement theory bring peace or not? What I have discovered is that, while the nonviolent atonement theology I now affirm has done just that, my former views, ripe with penal language, never did. In fact, penal substitutionary atonement theory did just the opposite; it caused me great grief and confusion. For a time, it even played its part in driving me to atheism (and I know I’m not the only one).
That said, could PSA still be the most correct understanding of the Cross? Sure. One can find substitutionary language all throughout the Scriptures. One can read about God’s wrath and judicial nature as well. This cannot be disputed. But, what can be disputed is whether the sacrifice of Jesus is something that changes God’s mind about us, or whether it is to change our minds about God. To ask it this way: Does the cross save us from God or from something else (e.g. the Principalities and Powers, the practice of sacrifice, the fear of death, the devil, sin, and so on)? Throughout this series, I hope I did my job in showing that those who affirm the latter should be afforded a seat at the table with the majority of Western Christians who conclude the former; that we can offer some critique and pushback against their idea that, on the cross, the wrath of God was being poured out on a broken and bloody Jesus. A greater hope is that I did a bit more than that; namely that I put forth an understanding of the cross that actually subverts the “traditional” violent one that has troubled so many Christians and non-Christians alike.
 Clement, The Exhortation to the Greeks, 346.
 Distefano and Machuga, Journey, 43–44.
 Beck, Slavery of Death, 41–42.
 Ibid., xii.
 Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel, 44.
PART 1: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allsetfree/2018/01/saved-god-5-problems-penal-substitution-atonement-theory/
PART 2: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allsetfree/2018/01/saved-god-alternatives-penal-substitution-atonement-theory/
Richard Rohr is a beautiful troubadour of Christ, a Franciscan spiritual teacher who has so often inspired my "inner-most-person" to leap with joy!
- Methodology: Scripture as validated by experience, and experience as validated by tradition, are good scales for one’s spiritual worldview.
- Foundation: If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then it is a benevolent universe. God is not someone to be afraid of, but is the Ground of Being and on our side.
- Frame: There is only one Reality. Any distinction between natural and supernatural, sacred and profane is a bogus one.
- Ecumenism: Everything belongs and no one needs to be scapegoated or excluded. Evil and illusion only need to be named and exposed truthfully, and they die in exposure to the light.
- Transformation: The separate self is the problem, whereas most religion and most people make the “shadow self” the problem. This leads to denial, pretending, and projecting instead of real transformation into the Divine.
- Process: The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.
- Goal: Reality is paradoxical and complementary. Non-dual thinking is the highest level of consciousness. Divine union, not private perfection, is the goal of all religion.
ROB BELL'S WEBSITE: https://robbell.com
I believe in mystery and multiplicity. To religious believers this may sound almost pagan. But I don’t think so. My very belief and experience of a loving and endlessly creative God has led me to trust in both.
I’ve had the good fortune of teaching and preaching across much of the globe, while also struggling to make sense of my experience in my own tiny world. This life journey has led me to love mystery and not feel the need to change it or make it un-mysterious. This has put me at odds with many other believers I know who seem to need explanations for everything.
Religious belief has made me comfortable with ambiguity. “Hints and guesses,” as T.S. Eliot would say. I often spend the season of Lent in a hermitage, where I live alone for the whole 40 days. The more I am alone with the Alone, the more I surrender to ambivalence, to happy contradictions and seeming inconsistencies in myself and almost everything else, including God. Paradoxes don’t scare me anymore.
When I was young, I couldn’t tolerate such ambiguity. My education had trained me to have a lust for answers and explanations. Now, at age 63, it’s all quite different. I no longer believe this is a quid pro quo universe — I’ve counseled too many prisoners, worked with too many failed marriages, faced my own dilemmas too many times and been loved gratuitously after too many failures.
Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and, clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite.
People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.
FR. RICHARD ROHR is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His many books include Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, and most recently, Divine Dance. You can sign up to receive his daily meditations here.
Let’s be honest: Our hearts are breaking at the individual and collective levels. What is the meaning and significance of heartbreak? I’d like to begin by distinguishing between two kinds of love.
In my experience, there are two main kinds of love at play in our lives. The first is what I would call “human love”; it is relational and conditional. It’s a two-way street in the sense that it’s transactional. It says, either consciously or unconsciously, “I will love you if you fulfill these criteria.” It also says, “If you hurt me, I will close my heart and stop loving you.” Human love is messy, painful, vulnerable, dualistic, full of contradictions, and terribly confusing. It expands and contracts beyond our control, and it is based on fear. We yearn to love and to be loved, yet we fear and even sabotage it at the same time. Yet human love contains a truth and, with the aid of wisdom, is a portal to something much deeper.
The second kind is what in the Christian tradition is called “Agape Love,” which is a field of boundless, unconditional Love that is always here–eternally. It is the omnipresent source and substance of everything that arises; in other words, everything you experience is made out of unconditional Love. I often call it “boundless Awareness,” “Consciousness,” or the “Self.” I even sometimes call it “God.” For me, all of these terms are synonyms for the ultimate truth at the core of everyone’s being. While human love wants and even expects to be loved in return, suffering hell when it does not get its way, unconditional Love does not want or expect anything in return, as its nature is simply to Love, to share itself out of pure and innocent joy. While human love is a two-way street, unconditional Love is one-directional like the sun. The sun’s nature is to shine outward; it does not require the returning of its rays to be what it is. Its nature is just to radiate from the inside out. And so it is with unconditional Love.
When we’re identified with an egoic state of consciousness, we cannot perceive or access the field of unconditional Love underlying our human love, and we consequently long for it. When we are empty of self (and hence of the division and conflict it creates), we are not only capable of perceiving and accessing the Presence of unconditional Love in which we are always cradled like a child in a mother’s arms, but we come eventually to discover that we are not separate from it and, what’s more, that our broken humanity is the vessel for its manifestation in our conscious experience.
In other words, we come eventually to discover that these two loves, rather than being mutually exclusive, co-exist and in some mystical sense depend on one another. Human love arises in and is an expression of unconditional Love—and without either, neither would be possible. Heartbreak is the link. Heartbreak is clearly inevitable in the human experience, and that is not a mistake. This realization is enough to explain and justify our relative presence here in this world of painful heartbreak. That is, bringing both loves into harmony and eventual unison requires heartbreak; the philosopher’s stone in this alchemical process is the willingness to soften one’s heart in the midst of heartbreak, over and over again. This gesture of softening transmutes common human love into something divine and altogether miraculous.
The tendency for us humans when we are shrouded in ignorance is to seal off and harden the heart when it has been broken, which we misperceive as a gesture of strength, but guarding and hardening the heart is actually a form of weakness and is not wise (though it is a completely understandable and innocent mistake). In fact, it takes great strength and wisdom to remain innocent, vulnerable, and softened in the midst of heartbreak. A true Lover does not seek to deny or mend a broken heart but to accept and soften into it as a way of life. That way, we retain the innocence of our childhood but with the added strength of wisdom that comes with Awakening. This does not mean that we do not exercise common sense when it comes to setting up relative boundaries and saying no to injustice and abuse, but the great myth is that we have to harden our heart and compromise our innocence to do those things.
I have always loved this line by Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” However, in this context and with the deepest respect, I would change one word: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets OUT.” The light of unconditional Love is already in you; in fact, it IS you. When you let your human heart crack or even break wide open, softening into the heartbreak you experience rather than hardening against it and refusing to feel it, the unconditional Love that you truly are shines out of that crack and may even burst forth like rays from the center of the sun. It is through heartbreak that the Love of God or the Self or Consciousness breaks into the world of experience. Without the gift of heartbreak, God’s unconditional Love would remain unconscious. Human heartbreak turns the infinite and eternal potentiality of God’s unconditional Love into a lived actuality in space and time. With this perspective, we might be able to understand something Father Thomas Keating once said: “Vulnerability means to be hurt over and over again without seeking to love less, but more.” You could never “do” this from an egoic perspective; it’s only when you surrender the resistance that constitutes your ego, soften into the heartbreak that is there in you, and discover your essence as unconditional Love itself that you are capable of loving in this way.
So, are you up to the task? More than you think. In the stunning words of Zelda Fitzgerald, “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”
With Boundless Love,
Michael A. Rodriguez is a spiritual teacher who works with people in meetings, retreats, and private sessions on a full-time basis in the United States and abroad. He holds four academic degrees, including a master’s degree in comparative religion from Harvard and a PhD in English literature from Florida State University; taught at the university level for well over a decade; and has lived long-term in two monasteries. Drawing always from his direct experience, Michael illuminates the undivided nature of Life or Consciousness with great clarity and compassion, pointing to reality in a way that is free from dogma, ritual, or adherence to any particular tradition. He draws skillfully from the world’s wisdom traditions and also integrates Jungian psychology, literature, music, and art into his work to address the full range of human potential. All his work, including his interviews, can be accessed via his website at www.boundlessawareness.org.
Nov 08, 2011
Why do we suffer?
Why do we cause others to suffer?
What can we do about it?
Why do we suffer? From a Buddhist perspective, it is due to greed, hatred and delusion, the three poisons. These create suffering, these are our suffering. But we need to add a word to the Buddhist formula: unbridled. It is unbridled greed, hatred, and delusion that amp up suffering exponentially. The secret sauce in this toxic mix is self-deception. The road to hell is paved with the finest intentions; we think our motivations are pure and our stuff does not smell. "When will we ever learn?" Pete Seeger asked. This is my question, this is all of our question. It seems impossible for us to realize that our individual good is intimately woven together with the collective good. That what benefits me most deeply benefits others; and when the other thrives, I blossom. Take three parts narrow self-interest, throw in a hearty dose of self-deception, harness unbridled greed as propellant, and voila! Bring down our planet while smelling like a rose!
The antidote in Classical Buddhism is mustering up the four awakened qualities: loving kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity. These are preceded by the word boundless. So, boundless compassion. Boundless and Unbridled. They seem alike but they are not. Jessie Colin Young sang "Just one key unlocks them both, it's there at your command. Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody come together and love one another right now." We must spring free from our self-absorption, our self-deception, right now, and see, as my old teacher Robert Aitken Roshi would often say, that "we are all in this together and time is short." Our boats rise and fall in concert.
But first we must awaken to delusion, face our own short sightedness and self-serving thinking and behavior masquerading as righteousness. We must see, or at least entertain the possibility, that we are ignorant of what is really going on, and ignorant of the impacts of our actions. This is the most gnarly element: for us to awaken from delusion, we must be willing to face our own pig-headed, willful ignorance and the deleteripous ripples it has generated. Let me finish by quoting the great 1950's philosopher Neil Sedaka: "Waking Up Is Hard To Do.”
So let's have at it.
The Garden of Eden story fascinates me. I’m going to ask you, just for purposes of this post, to take the story out of Biblical context. Put aside all the theology, all your beliefs and opinions, whatever they are, about the Bible and religion. Just for a few minutes, consider this story without any preconceived notions. Disregard for the moment issues about obedience, sin, and punishment. Please understand that I am not challenging or disrespecting anyone’s beliefs. And I’m not asking anyone to change what they believe. This is just an invitation to look at the story itself without any additional context to see what we notice.
Okay, so you have the first people living in this beautiful place, where they have a life of ease, with plenty of food. The weather must have been pleasant because they were without clothing. They walked in the garden with God, in whose image they were created.
There are many trees in this garden paradise, but only two are named – the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The people are free to eat the fruit of any tree, presumably including the tree of life, but they are warned not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for if they do, they will “surely die.”
Let’s pause right here. One of my first questions is why, if a tree is forbidden, would it be in the garden in the first place? Is that entrapment? When you tell a child “Whatever you do, DON’T do that!” what is the first thing that child wants to do?
And why do these two trees, the only two named trees in the garden, stand in contrast to each other? The tree of life gives immortality, but the tree of knowledge of good and evil gives death. What is it about the knowledge of good and evil that is incompatible with life? It might be easier to understand if the forbidden tree was the tree of evil. But it seems like knowing the difference between good and evil would be a good thing. Why isn’t it?
One way to think about it might be that knowledge of good and evil created duality. Before this knowledge, there was un-self conscious harmony with God.
What is the first thing that happens after they eat the fruit? They become aware that they are naked and they are ashamed. They try to cover themselves up literally with leaves. And figuratively, they try to cover up what they have done by hiding from God.
So in effect, they become self conscious in a way they weren’t before, and separate from God. They are afraid.
The Tao Te Ching says that we only know goodness because of evil, and that goodness only comes into existence when we have lost Tao. So when we are living in harmony with Tao, concepts of goodness/evil, kindness/cruelty, and justice/injustice are meaningless, because Tao transcends duality. Everything happens naturally and without effort. There is nothing to fear because there is acceptance of what is without struggle.
Putting this back in the context of the Eden story, good and evil had no existence or meaning when we walked in harmony with God. By introducing the duality of good and evil, we also created the cycle of life and death. We separated unity into conflicting opposites. We labeled them good and bad. We tried to hold onto the good and reject the bad. We began to struggle with what is. And we suffered.
So what do we do now? How do we restore unity and harmony? Again, leaving aside religious doctrine for the moment, the generic answer is that we repair the breach in our own selves. Where do I struggle in my life against what is? What do I judge as good or bad? What do I desire or reject? In what ways do I separate myself from others through judgment, unforgiveness, fear?
We might have specific answers to these questions, but we can go deeper by contemplating the nature of what creates the breach. If I am angry, for example, I can get stuck in the story I’m telling myself about why I’m angry. Of course, my story will justify my anger, and will probably blame someone else or some outside circumstances for causing the anger. I will be right and the other person will be wrong.
But what if I put the story aside and just observe the nature of this anger? What does it feel like in my body? How does it shape my experience of myself, my relationships with others, my view of the world? What can I learn from anger? How can it lead me back to harmony?
In contemplating this in my own life recently, I realized that I was judging myself for being angry. As I offered myself compassion instead of judgment, the anger softened and I could see that under the anger was pain, pain that I blamed someone else for. When I looked closer, I could acknowledge that what I was blaming the other person for was something that I either had done or was capable of doing myself. I could see that the other person was in pain too. My compassion expanded to include the other person.
My breathing slowed and sank into my belly. I felt lighter. Free. Without forcing anything, I easily released the anger I had been holding onto. I accepted what had happened as well as my reaction to it. I let it all go.
And I went for a stroll with God in the garden.
[Note: The painting above is by my awesomely talented sister, Susan E. Inman.]
Many seekers do not take full responsibility for their own liberation, but wait for one big, final spiritual experience which will catapult them fully into it. It is this search for the final liberating experience which gives rise to a rampant form of spiritual consumerism in which seekers go from one teacher to another, shopping for enlightenment as if shopping for sweets in a candy store. This spiritual promiscuity is rapidly turning the search for enlightenment into a cult of experience seekers. And, while many people indeed have powerful experiences, in most cases these do not lead to the profound transformation of the individual, which is the expression of enlightenment.
In speaking regularly with spiritual seekers, it dawned on me one day how addicted so many of them are to the power of charisma. They swap stories about how powerful this or that teacher is and compare experiences. They get a charge from it, many mistaking charisma for enlightenment. Charisma attracts at all levels: political, sexual, spiritual, etc., and it feeds the ego's desire to feel special. The ego loves getting hits of power—it's like a form of spiritual candy. The candy may be sweet but can you live on it? Does it make you free?
Freedom is not necessarily exciting; it's just free. Very peaceful and quiet, so very quiet. Of course, it is also filled with joy and wonder, but it is not what you imagine. It is much, much less. Many mistake the intoxicating power of otherworldly charisma for enlightenment. More often than not it is simply otherworldly, and not necessarily free or enlightened. In order to be truly free, you must desire to know the truth more than you want to feel good. Because if feeling good is your goal, then as soon as you feel better you will lose interest in what is true. This does not mean that feeling good or experiencing love and bliss is a bad thing. Given the choice, anyone would choose to feel bliss rather than sorrow. It simply means that if this desire to feel good is stronger than the yearning to see, know, and experience Truth, then this desire will always be distorting the perception of what is Real, while corrupting one's deepest integrity.
In my experience, everyone will say they want to discover the Truth, right up until they realize that the Truth will rob them of their deepest held ideas, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. The freedom of enlightenment means much more than the experience of love and peace. It means discovering a Truth that will turn your view of self and life upside-down. For one who is truly ready, this will be unimaginably liberating. But for one who is still clinging in any way, this will be extremely challenging indeed. How does one know if they are ready? One is ready when they are willing to be absolutely consumed, when they are willing to be fuel for a fire without end.
If you start playing the game of being an "enlightened somebody," the true teacher is going to call you on it. He or she is going to expose you, and that exposure is going to hurt. Because the ego will be there, standing in the light of Truth, exposed and humiliated. Of course, the ego will cry "foul!" It will claim that the teacher made a mistake and begin to justify itself in an effort to put its protective clothing back on. It will begin to spin justifications with incredible subtlety and deceptiveness. This is where real spiritual sadhana (practice) begins. This is where it all becomes very real and the student discovers whether he or she truly wants to be free, or merely wants to remain as a false, separate, and self-justifying ego. This crossroad inevitably comes and is always challenging. It separates the true seeker from the false one. The true seeker will be willing to bare the grace of humility, whereas the false seeker will run from it. Thus begins the true path to enlightenment, granted only to those willing to be nobody. Discovering your "nobodyness" opens the door to awakening as beingness, and beyond that to the Source of all beingness.
Do not think that enlightenment is going to make you special—it's not. If you feel special in any way, then enlightenment has not occurred. I meet a lot of people who think they are enlightened and awake simply because they have had a very moving spiritual experience. They wear their enlightenment on their sleeve like a badge of honor. They sit among friends and talk about how awake they are while sipping coffee at a cafe.
The funny thing about enlightenment is that when it is authentic, there is no one to claim it. Enlightenment is very ordinary; it is nothing special. Rather than making you more special, it is going to make you less special. It plants you right in the center of a wonderful humility and innocence. Everyone else may or may not call you enlightened, but when you are enlightened the whole notion of enlightenment and someone who is enlightened is a big joke. I use the word enlightenment all the time—not to point you toward it but to point you beyond it. Do not get stuck in enlightenment.
Ego is the movement of the mind toward objects of perception in the form of grasping, and away from objects in the form of aversion. This fundamentally is all the ego is. This movement of grasping and aversion gives rise to a sense of a separate "me," and in turn the sense of "me" strengthens itself this way. It is this continuous loop of causation that tricks consciousness into a trance of identification. Identification with what? Identification with the continuous loop of suffering. After all, who is suffering? The "me" is suffering. And who is this me? It is nothing more than a sense of self caused by identification with grasping and aversion. You see, it's all a creation of the mind, an endless movie, a terrible dream. Don't try to change the dream, because trying to change it is just another movement in the dream. Look at the dream. Be aware of the dream. That awareness is It. Become more interested in the awareness of the dream than in the dream itself. What is that awareness? Who is that awareness? Don't go spouting out an answer, just be the answer. Be It.
Enlightenment means the end of all division. It is not simply having an occasional experience of unity beyond all division, it is actually being undivided. This is what nonduality truly means. It means there is just one Self, without a difference or gap between the profound revelation of Oneness and the way it is perceived and lived every moment of life. Nonduality means that the inner revelation and the outer expression of the personality are one and the same. So few seem to be interested in the greater implication contained within profound spiritual experiences, because it is the contemplation of these implications which quickly brings to awareness the inner divisions existing within most seekers.
Spiritual people can be some of the most violent people you will ever meet. Mostly, they are violent to themselves. They violently try to control their minds, their emotions, and their bodies. They become upset with themselves and beat themselves up for not rising up to the conditioned mind's idea of what it believes enlightenment to be. No one ever became free through such violence. Why is it that so few people are truly free? Because they try to conform to ideas, concepts, and beliefs in their heads. They try to concentrate their way to heaven. But Freedom is about the natural state, the spontaneous and unselfconscious expression of beingness. If you want to find it, see that the very idea of a someone who is in control is a concept created by the mind. Take one step backward into the unknown.
There is nothing more insidiously destructive to the attainment of liberation than self-doubt and cynicism. Doubt is a movement of the conditioned mind that always claims that “It's not possible,” that “Freedom is not possible for me.” Doubt always knows; it "knows" that nothing is possible. And in this knowing, doubt robs you of the possibility of anything truly new or transformative from happening. Furthermore, doubt is always accompanied by a pervasive cynicism that unconsciously puts a negative spin on whatever it touches. Cynicism is a world view which protects the ego from scrutiny by maintaining a negative stance in relationship to what it does not know, does not want to know, or cannot know. Many spiritual seekers have no idea how cynical and doubt-laden they actually are. It is this blindness and denial of the presence of doubt and cynicism that makes the birth of a profound trust impossible, a trust without which final liberation will always remain simply a dream.
All fear comes from thought in the form of memory (past) or projection (future). Thought creates time: past, present, and future. So fear exists and comes from the perceived existence of time. To be free of fear is to be free of time. Since time is a creation of thought, to be free of fear you must be free of thought. Consequently, it is important to awaken and experience your Self outside of thought, existing as eternity. So question all notions of yourself that are creations of thought and of time—of past, present, and future. Experience your eternalness, your holiness, your awakeness until you are convinced that you are never subject to the movement of thought, of fear, or of time. To be free of fear is to be full of Love.
Many spiritual seekers get "stuck in emptiness,” in the absolute, in transcendence. They cling to bliss, or peace, or indifference. When the self-centered motivation for living disappears, many seekers become indifferent. They see the perfection of all existence and find no reason for doing anything, including caring for themselves or others. I call this "taking a false refuge." It is a very subtle egoic trap; it's a fixation in the absolute and all unconscious form of attachment that masquerades as liberation. It can be very difficult to wake someone up from this deceptive fixation because they literally have no motivation to let go of it. Stuck in a form of divine indifference, such people believe they have reached the top of the mountain when actually they are hiding out halfway up its slope.
Enlightenment does not mean one should disappear into the realm of transcendence. To be fixated in the absolute is simply the polar opposite of being fixated in the relative. With the dawning of true enlightenment, there is a tremendous birthing of impersonal Love and wisdom that never fixates in any realm of experience. To awaken to the absolute view is profound and transformative, but to awaken from all fixed points of view is the birth of true nonduality. If emptiness cannot dance, it is not true emptiness. If moonlight does not flood the empty night sky and reflect in every drop of water, on every blade of grass, then you are only looking at your own empty dream. I say, “Wake up!” Then your heart will be flooded with a Love that you cannot contain.
Maybe I can point you to the great Reality within you. Maybe you will awaken to the direct experience of Self-realization. Maybe you will catch the fire of transmission. But there is one thing that no one can give you: the honesty and integrity that alone will bring you completely to the other shore. No one can give you the strength of character necessary for profound spiritual experience to become the catalyst for the evolutionary transformation called "enlightenment." Only you can find that passion within that burns with an integrity that will not settle for anything less than the Truth.
Enlightenment has nothing to do with states of consciousness. Whether you are in ego consciousness or unity consciousness is not really the point. I have met many people who have easy access to advanced states of consciousness. Though for some people this may come very easily, I also notice that many of these people are no freer than anyone else. If you don't believe that the ego can exist in very advanced states of consciousness, think again. The point isn't the state of consciousness, even very advanced ones, but an awake mystery that is the source of all states of consciousness. It is even the source of presence and beingness. It is beyond all perception and all experience. I call it "awakeness." To find out that you are empty of emptiness is to die into an aware mystery, which is the source of all existence. It just so happens that that mystery is in love with all of its manifestation and non-manifestation. You find your Self by stepping back out of yourself.
Ramana Maharshi's gift to the world was not that he realized the Self. Many people have had a deep realization of the Self. Ramana's real gift was that he embodied that realization so thoroughly. It is one thing to realize the Self; it is something else altogether to embody that realization to the extent that there is no gap between inner revelation and its outer expression. Many have glimpsed the realization of Oneness; few consistently express that realization through their humanness. It is one thing to touch a flame and know it is hot, but quite another to jump into that flame and be consumed by it.
First published in the Inner Directions Journal, Fall/Winter 1999.
© 1999 Adyashanti.
Adyashanti, author of The Way of Liberation, Falling into Grace, True Meditation, and The End of Your World, is an American-born spiritual teacher devoted to serving the awakening of all beings. His teachings are an open invitation to stop, inquire, and recognize what is true and liberating at the core of all existence.
Asked to teach in 1996 by his Zen teacher of 14 years, Adyashanti offers teachings that are free of any tradition or ideology. “The Truth I point to is not confined within any religious point of view, belief system, or doctrine, but is open to all and found within all.”
Based in California, Adyashanti lives with his wife, Mukti, Associate Teacher of Open Gate Sangha. He teaches throughout North America and Europe, offering satsangs, weekend intensives, silent retreats, and a live internet radio broadcast.
“Adyashanti” means primordial peace.
The Christian Faith was born in the experience that we have come to call Easter. It was this Easter experience that invested Jesus with a sense of ultimacy. It caused his followers to regard his teaching as worthy of being preserved. It was the reason that Saint Paul could write, “if Christ has not been raised then your faith is in vain.” Clearly without Easter there would be no Christianity. That assertion hardly seems debatable. At this point I discover that I am at one with the most literal fundamentalists.
What is debatable, however, is the question of what the experience of Easter really was. Here the distance between the Christianity of biblical scholarship and the Christianity of the fundamentalists opens and begins to widen. Fundamentalists are quite sure of their truth. On Easter the crucified Jesus, who was laid in the grave as a deceased man on Good Friday, was by the mighty act of God, restored to life on Easter. He had thus broken the power of death for all people. If the body of Jesus was not physically restored to life, the fundamentalists claim, then Easter is fraudulent. There can be no compromise here. Those who waver on this foundational truth of Christianity have, according to this perspective, abandoned the essential core of their faith tradition. Well, my only comment on this would be to borrow the words from an old song and say, “It ain’t necessarily so!”
When one reads the New Testament in the order in which these books were written, a fascinating progression is revealed. Paul, for example, writing between the years 50 and 64 or some 20 to 34 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, never describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body resuscitated after death. There is no hint in the Pauline corpus that one, who had died, later walked out of his grave clothes, emerged from the tomb and was seen by his disciples.
What Paul does suggest is that Easter meant that God had acted to reverse the verdict that the world had pronounced on Jesus by raising Jesus from death into God. It was, therefore, out of God in a transforming kind of heavenly vision that this Jesus then appeared to certain chosen witnesses. Paul enumerates these witnesses and, in a telling detail, says that this was the same Jesus that Paul himself had seen. No one suggests that Paul ever saw a resuscitated body. The Pauline corpus later says, “If you then have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Please note that the story of the Ascension had not been written when these Pauline words were formed. Paul did not envision the Resurrection as Jesus being restored to life in this world but as Jesus being raised into God. It was not an event in time but a transcendent and transforming truth.
Paul died, according to our best estimates, around the year 64 C.E. The first Gospel was not written until the early 70’s. Paul never had a chance to read the Easter story in any Gospel. The tragedy of later Christian history is that we read Paul through the lens of the Gospels. Thus we have both distorted Paul and also confused theology.
When Mark, the first Gospel, was written the Risen Christ never appears. The last time Jesus is seen comes when his deceased body is taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Mark’s account of the Resurrection presents us with the narrative of mourning women confronting an empty tomb, meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised and asking these women to convey to the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark then concludes his Gospel with a picture of these women fleeing in fear, saying nothing to anyone (16:1-8). So abrupt was this ending that people began to write new endings to what they thought was Mark’s incomplete story. Two of those endings are actually reproduced in the King James Version of the Bible as verses 9-20. But thankfully, these later creations have been removed from the text of Mark in recent Bibles and placed into footnotes. The sure fact of New Testament scholarship is that Mark’s Gospel ended without the Risen Christ ever being seen by anyone.
Both Matthew, who wrote between 80-85, and Luke, who wrote between 88-92, had Mark to guide their compositions. Both changed, heightened and expanded Mark. It is fascinating to lift those changes into consciousness and to ask what was it that motivated Matthew and Luke to transform Mark’s narrative. Did they have new sources of information? Had the story grown over the years in the retelling?
The first thing to note is that Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. First, the messenger in Mark becomes a supernatural angel in Matthew’s story. Next Matthew says the women do see Jesus in the garden. They grasp him by the feet and worship him. This is the first time in Christian history that the Resurrection is presented as physical resuscitation. It occurs in the 9th decade of the Christian era. It should be noted that it took more than 50 years to begin to interpret the Easter experience as the resuscitated body of the deceased Jesus. When Matthew presents the story of the risen Jesus to the disciples, it is on a mountaintop in Galilee where he appears out of the sky armed with heavenly power. Recall once again that when Matthew wrote this narrative the story of Jesus’ ascension had not yet entered the tradition.
Luke follows Mark’s story line about the women at the tomb, stating that they do not see Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. Luke, however, has turned Mark’s messenger into two angelic beings. He has also transferred the locale of Easter to Jerusalem specifically denying Mark’s words spoken through the messenger that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Luke has heightened dramatically the physicality of Jesus’ resuscitated body. In Luke, the resuscitated Jesus walks, talks, eats, teaches and interprets. He also appears and disappears at will. He invites the disciples to handle his flesh. He asserts that he is not a ghost. Finally in order to remove this physically resuscitated Jesus from the earth, Luke develops the story of Jesus’ Ascension.
Even in the Ascension narrative, however, Luke is not consistent. In the last chapter of his Gospel the Ascension takes place on Easter Sunday afternoon. In the first chapter of Acts, which Luke also writes, the Ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. Whereas the messenger in Mark, who becomes an angel in Matthew, directs the disciples to Galilee for a meeting with the risen Christ, Luke specifically denies any Galilean resurrection tradition. He orders the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they are endowed with power from on high. The narrative is clearly growing.
In John, the Fourth Gospel (95-100), the physicality of the Resurrection is even more enhanced. In the 20th chapter of this Gospel Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene in the garden and says to her, “Mary do not cling to me.” One cannot cling to something that is non-physical. Then John suggests that Jesus ascends immediately into heaven before appearing, presumably out of heaven, that night to the disciples, who are missing Thomas. Though Jesus appears able to enter an upper room in which the windows have been closed and the doors locked, he is once again portrayed as being quite physical. This physical quality is further enhanced a week later when Jesus makes a second appearance to the disciples, this time with Thomas present. It is in this narrative that Thomas is invited to touch the nail prints and to examine the place in his side into which the spear had been hurled. All of these appearances take place in Jerusalem.
Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel portrays a Galilean appearance much later in time after the disciples have actually returned to their fishing trade. Here Jesus directs them to a great catch of fish, 153 of them to be specific. Then he eats with them. Finally he restores Peter after his three-fold denial.
The Easter story appears to have grown rather dramatically over the years. Something happened after the crucifixion of Jesus that convinced the disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was thus available to them as a living presence. This experience was so profound that the disciples, who at his arrest had fled in fear, were now reconstituted and empowered even to die for the truth of their vision. This experience had the power to force the Jewish disciples to redefine the God of the Jews so that Jesus could be seen as part of who God is. Finally this experience was so profound that it ultimately created, on the first day of the week, a new holy day that was quite different from the Sabbath, to enable Christians to mark this transforming moment with a liturgical act called “the breaking of bread.”
When these biblical data are assembled and examined closely, two things become clear. First something of enormous power gripped the disciples following the crucifixion that transformed their lives. Second, it was some fifty years before that transforming experience was interpreted as the resuscitation of a three days dead Jesus to the life of the world. Our conversation about the meaning of Easter must begin where these two realities meet.
The Dance of Yin & Yang: Cultivating Feminine Flow and Masculine Presence" by Marilynne Chophel Cultivating Feminine Flow and Masculine Presence
The ancient paths of meditation and yoga are about wholeness, awakening, and embracing all that life has to offer. Every situation, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is an opportunity to become more aware of who we are, what we respond to, and how we experience life. Everything we experience can be seen as an opportunity to open and expand our consciousness, and to integrate the seemingly opposing aspects of our self. We can embrace opposites, seeing them not as contradictions but as the dynamic polarities of our aliveness, our whole selves. We can recognize that every person, whether man or woman, has both masculine (Yang) and feminine (Yin) qualities. These qualities arise from the lifeforce energy that manifests uniquely in each of us.
Yang, your masculine essence, is the active expression of your self – from which you manifest presence, strength, direction, and purpose. Yang energy is the quality you call upon to take initiative, establish leadership, and achieve goals. Yang energy also creates structure and a safe container for Yin to open and express its aliveness.
Yin, your feminine essence, is the receptive, open, and flowing expression of your self - that dreams and surrenders to the magic and wonder of life and love. When you call upon your inner Yin, you become more alive, expansive, and permeable to everything around you. Yin energy is devotional love, playful joy, and spontaneous creativity. Yin sees beauty everywhere and appreciates the details in everything. Yin energy also follows or yields – especially to Yang's active energy.
We can explore what happens when our Yin and Yang energies are in a harmonious dance, or out of balance. "Balanced and integrated, these energies guide us through life as a dynamic whole. We move forward with clear vision, yet we are willing to trust and flow with whatever life brings us. As we become more whole, our need to look outside of ourselves for love falls away. We experience the sweetness of union of our inner man and inner woman. From this place, we can create more harmonious relationships and more joy in our lives," according to Margot Anand.
We invite you to play with your inner feminine and masculine, by yourself and with a friend. First, take a personal assessment of where in your life you are more Yin or Yang, including at work, at home, in intimacy, and in relationship to others. Can you quantify how developed Yin and Yang are in the different aspects of your life?
With a friend, practice embodying and expressing Yin and Yang energies. Taking turns, decide who first will be Yang as the leader, and who will be Yin as the follower. During this experience, Yang leads Yin in creatively inspired movement, or in a number of other activities, and Yin simply follows, surrendering to whatever initiative or direction Yang offers. After a while, switch roles. In this playful game, Yang becomes inventive, challenging, generous, and risk-taking. Yin becomes open, receptive, and responsive. This practice builds trust and intimacy between partners, as well as spontaneity and sincerity, love, and playfulness. It challenges your inhibitions about asking for what you want, and cultivates the art of fully giving and receiving. The changes and reversals in roles will enrich your experience of the masculine and feminine qualities present within yourself and in others.
By Marilynne Chophel
The concept of the Sacred Feminine begins with the obvious but neglected truth that everything on Earth is born of the Feminine. The Feminine Principle of life is characterized by qualities that have been identified culturally as the domain of women, but in truth are an aspect of wholeness, in humanity and in life.
These qualities of the Feminine Principle are typically described as interconnection, unconditional love, nurturing, heart, inclusion, cooperation, receptivity, being, allowing, relatedness, intuition, oneness, and compassion. These qualities of wholeness have been at risk, being undervalued and nearly lost, under centuries of culture characterized by the unbalanced masculine love of power.
The qualities of the Feminine Principle have increasingly been recognized as urgently needed to address the imbalances and global crises threatening our survival on the planet at this time in history. But this cannot be done by women alone. Men must also revalue, reclaim and integrate the Feminine qualities of wholeness within themselves. Many men of heart have already done so.
Why call the Feminine “sacred?” Many are choosing to call the Feminine Principle “sacred”– i.e., the “Sacred Feminine”– to indicate the multiple life-affirming dimensions of the Feminine and its inherent essence of seeing all life as sacred, as interconnected and as unique expressions of one vast wholeness. The essence of the sacred feminine is about birthing and nurturing life. If we are to survive on the planet, this essence must be given fuller respect expression, and integration.
Daughters of the Patriarch and the daughters of evolution.
A patriarch is a man who exercises autocratic authority as a pater familias over an extended family. This is a Greek word, a composition of πατήρ (pater) meaning “father” and ρχων (archon) meaning “leader”, “chief”, “ruler”, “king”, etc.
Feminism comprises a number of social, cultural and political movements, theories and moral philosophies concerned with gender inequalities and equal rights for women. How do we define ourselves as women? I think the Sarah Palin phenomenon has really brought this into question!!
Men and women cannot be simply defined by their assigned gender apparatus. We know for example, that men and women DO think and act differently. Viva le difference!!
The psychological and emotional differences are at a deeper level than the physical. We are all or most of us, born as either the son or daughter of the patriarch.
What does that mean? It means we have either taken on the roles assigned to us by eons of male domination OR we have through self introspection chosen to identify ourselves with values outside of those handed down though cultural and religious doctrine.
Both son’s and daughters of the dominator model have been restricted in their emotional and social responses to life. Following rigid traditions, rules AND roles men will be men…..and women have their place. Even as our culture has progressed we find daughters of the patriarch still play within the lines of what is expected of a woman and or, we see really powerful women, strong bright women like Sarah Palin following the male model for success. First rule: play like one of the boys.
Then there are the evolved men and women, who play outside the lines that were drawn for them. They are not confined to developing only one side or the other of their brains, personalities and emotions.
But have explored and begun to honor the fullness of their beings. What does that look like? They are not locked in to roles….like “my better half” which implies we are only living from half of ourselves.
Instead they have explored and embraced a sense of wholeness. For men it is the freedom to explore and express their sensitivities and feelings. Often teased or beaten out of them growing up in a man’s world, or being sent off to war where the sensitive is replaced by insensitivity causing them to close down anything at the feeling level.
A recent study showed in corporations that men ARE embracing feminine responses in their management styles quite successfully. While at the same time women continue to be seen as weak when they come from their innate modes of operating.
Women who break from the mole they were expected to live value their emotions and do not hold them as a sign of weakness. They trust their intuition and by embracing their inner masculine bring these qualities into action. Oprah demonstrates this integration in which her deepest feminine qualities are powered by her masculine thrust and manifestation.
There are extremes on both sides: Those who live only by rules from outside of themselves and those who have thrown out all tradition putting themselves first in everything. Somewhere in moderation we can respectfully connect and grow in our wholeness while maintaining the best of both.
In doing so, we can come together in partnership and can contribute so much more to building a world of peace.
From Thom Hartmann’s book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight
“We have now traced the history of women from Paradise to the nineteenth century and have heard nothing through the long roll of the ages but the clink of their fetters.” – Lady Jane Wilde l821 to l896
A friend who’s a psychiatrist with training in neutrochemistry once joked to me, “The most dangerous drug in the world is testosterone.” History suggests he is right.
Exhaustive analysis of “pre-historic” cultures, such as done by Riane Eisler and others, indicates that in virtually all Older Cultures the women were of equal status with the men, and in a few they were even in charge. One theory for why this was is that women uniquely bring life into the world, and it may not have been until humans moved from hunting//gathering to herding/agriculture that they began to understand genetics. The women ran the show because they controlled life itself, producing life from their bodies.
When everybody figured out that the men had a role to play in the process, however, during the early herding times, some of the men pulled off a power grab, converting the gods that were worshipped from female to male, and asserting control over the fertility of women the same way they controlled the fertility of a field or a flock of sheep. The men took over.
At the same time, testosterone-driven behaviors came to dominate the beginnings of our Younger Culture: aggression, competition, domination, warfare.
When European missionaries taught Australia Aborigine hunter/gatherers how to play “football” back in the early 1900’s , the Aboriginal children played until both sides had equal scores; that was when the game was over, in their mind, and it boggled the British missionaries who taught them the game. The missionaries worked for over a year to convince the children that there should be winners and losers. The children lived in a matrilineal society that valued cooperation; the Englishmen came from a patriarchal
society, which valued domination.
The Iroquois had figured this out a thousand years or more ago; only women in the tribe could vote on most issues. As a result, decisions regarding relations with other tribes were more often made in the context of “what will work for our children?” rather than “who wins/” or considerations of pride, power or conquest.
Similarly, we find that populations are exploding in virtually every nation of the world where women are dominated, treated like cattle or goods, or exploited and controlled. The men in such countries are making the decisions, and one of the male values is “have many sons to build the biggest army” [and, of course, another common one is “have sex whenever you want, with whomever you want”].
On the other hand, in those nations where women have relatively equal position and power with men, there are lower birth rates, often even to the point of zero population growth, as has been achieved in many of the countries of Northern Europe. In virtually every country of the world we can see this equation demonstrated: male domination equals population explosion; relative male-female equality equals sustainable populations.
In this regard, you could say that the women’s rights movement is truly a HUMAN rights movement.
So another solution to this mess we find ourselves in is to give power back to women in all realms, including the social, familial, religious, military and business worlds.”
ABOUT MARILYN NYBORG
Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching and the Secret of the Golden Flower was one of the major influences in this cultural shift; both of these works had an introduction by Carl Jung.
From The School of Wisdom:
Richard Wilhelm is the Marco Polo of the inner world of China. He, more than any other, is responsible for opening up to the West the vast spiritual heritage of China and thus all of Asia. He translated the great philosophical works from Chinese into German, where they have in turn been translated into the other major languages of the world, including English. To this day, among the dozens of translations of the I Ching now available, his 1923 translation stands head and shoulders above the rest. He introduced the I Ching, and Chinese philosophy, to the School of Wisdom when it first opened in 1920. These ideas have been a integral part of its program ever since. Richard Wilhelm, and the ancient Chinese Sages he came to know so well, are key Ancestors of the School of Wisdom.
Another student of the School of Wisdom, Carl Jung, wrote an interesting sketch of the inner world of Richard Wilhelm, as part of his Jung’s autobiography.
More than just a linguist and scholar, Wilhelm was a spiritual seeker who penetrated to the very depths of Chinese spirituality without losing his European frame of reference. Living in China for over twenty years he saw first hand the great cultural and spiritual differences between East and West. At the time, the Europeans were conquering colonial powers in China and had little or no respect of Chinese culture. The Chinese in turn considered the Europeans to be barbarians and closed their spiritual traditions to Westerners. Richard Wilhelm was one of the first to realize the value of Chinese thinking, to bridge the great divide between the two cultures. This division was internalized in his own soul after he moved to China in 1899 and began to penetrate its spiritual secrets. As he integrated Chinese thinking and world views into his own life, the gap between Western and Oriental culture split his very being in two. The new Chinese part of himself did not take over, he did not lose his European identity. He was able to translate the Chinese ideas back into the European gestalt. But the effort required was tremendous and he struggled his whole adult life to try to merge the two divergent spiritual traditions in his soul.
This struggle manifested itself physically in 1910 when Wilhelm contracted amoebic dysentery from Chinese food and lay seriously ill for months. The next year he met Lao Nai-hsuan, the Chinese sage who helped him through the internal conflict and Wilhelm recovered. With Lao’s help he bridged the gap and found inner tranquility, at least for a time. But many years later upon his final return to Germany in 1924, the tranquility lapsed, and the fight between the European and Chinese sides of Wilhelm renewed. After only four years in Europe, at age fifty five, Wilhelm suffered a relapse of his amoebic dysentery. The long-dormant microscopic organism that had invaded his system and triggered his illness in China in 1910 led to his premature death in 1930. Carl Jung saw in his relapse and early death an inability to integrate the two sides of himself. Although not completely successful in this personal struggle to merge the two cultures in his psyche, his writings, especially his translations of the I Ching: the Book of Changes and the Secret of the Golden Flower, certainly create a strong bridge for people in the West to approach and understand the unique spiritual and cultural insights of the East.
Richard Wilhelm was born far from China, in Germany, in 1873. As a student in a prestigious school, Tubinger Slift, he had broad cultural interests with a special love for the works of the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was by nature a deeply spiritual person and his studies naturally turned to theology. In 1895 at the age of 22 he was ordained as a protestant minister and served briefly as a parish minister. Young Richard was idealistic and yearned for broader horizons and adventure. At age 26 he joined the Allgemein Protestantischer Missionsverein and agreed to serve as a missionary in China in the German colonial city of Tsingtao.
Shortly after Wilhelm arrived in China in 1899 the Boxer Rebellion erupted. A large faction of radical Chinese began a violent revolution against European colonialism. All Westerners were targeted for attack, especially missionaries. Although the Boxer Rebellion was eventually crushed, the Europeans were sensitized to the need for better communication with their Chinese subjects. Against this background, Richard Wilhelm began studying the Chinese language as soon as he arrived in China. He quickly discovered that he had a natural gift for the language. Chinese, and the other languages of the East which are derived from it such as Japanese and Korean, are completely different from the languages of the West. They are based on thousands of characters or ideograms, rather than letters. Translation from Eastern languages into Western languages is extremely difficult. The few who can do it are highly prized, especially in missionary work. Recognizing the exceptional aptitude for translation, the missionary group allowed Richard Wilhelm to spend his time studying the language. In 1905, the year his son Helmut was born, he began to translate his first Chinese book into German. His study and translation of Chinese religious life continued until the day he died.
As Wilhelm learned the language he became intrigued with the Chinese religious texts he was studying. Wilhelm quickly developed a passion for Chinese culture, particularly their religious texts. In Tsingtao and in Peking where he studied at the University, he encountered many of the cultural leaders of China at the time. Described by his wife as a warm and gregarious person, Wilhelm was able to befriend many Chinese and learn their way of life. This association with the Chinese language and culture began to transform him into a new person. He began to see the world through the perspective of the Chinese. He was very impressed by the deep spirituality which he found. He came to China intending to convert the heathens to Christianity. But almost without realizing it, the missionary had himself become converted. Many years later Wilhelm would boast to Carl Jung that during his entire twenty-year stay in China he never baptized a single Chinese. He discovered instead that his true mission was to create a translation bridge between Western and Eastern spirituality.
In 1911 at age 38 Wilhelm met Lao Nai-hsuan, the Chinese sage and scholar who profoundly influence his life. After Lao helped Wilhelm recover from amoebic dysentery, Wilhelm founded the Confucius Society in Tsing Tao, and Lao Nai-hsuan became its head. Their relationship grew close. Lao lived from 1843 to 1921. Wilhelm described him as an eminent scholar of the old school, one of the last of his kind, and referred to him as his honored teacher. He was one of the few classic scholars then open to change. He realized that China’s isolation from the rest of the world had to end. Lao was a true Chinese sage, related to the family of Confucius, and trained in Confucian government and traditions. He was also adept at Chinese yoga and psychological methods from the Taoist traditions. His special expertise and passion was the I Ching, and this love quickly spread to Wilhelm. Lao came to trust the extraordinary missionary, and took Wilhelm as his pupil. For the first time the deep spiritual traditions and insights of China were shared with a European.
In 1913 Lao and Wilhelm began the monumental task of translating the I Ching from Chinese to German. The task continued for ten years. At the same time Wilhelm was translating the book into German, Lao was creating a new Chinese edition of the book entitled the Book of Changes According To The Ch’eng School. Lao directly assisted Wilhelm in understanding all aspects of the text. In Wilhelm’s words,
Lao first opened my mind to the wonders of the Book of Changes. Under his experienced guidance I wandered entranced through this strange yet familiar world. The translation of the text was made after detailed discussion. Then the German version was retranslated into Chinese and it was only after the meaning of the text had been fully brought out that we considered our version to be truly a translation.
In 1921, just as the last pages of the printer’s proofs of the finished translation were coming back, Lao Nai-hsuan died, his life’s work complete. Wilhelm continued to edit the work and to add his own comments over the next few years until he concluded the I Ching: Book of Changes, in 1923. The next year he was forced to return to Germany where he assumed a position as a Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Frankfurt. In 1925 he founded the China Institute and served as its director until his death.
From 1924, until his death in 1930, the focus of his work shifted from translation to lecturing and teaching. He tried to promote the great culture and spiritual insights of China. To do so effectively he had to personally serve as a kind of bridge of the great cultural divide between China and Europe. At first he encountered opposition and hostility to his efforts on many fronts. Europe was nationalistic and chauvinistic. The academic community distrusted him because of his missionary background, and the religious community distrusted him because of his transcendence of Christianity. But a few listened, including Count Keyserling, who was also opposed to the nationalists, academics and orthodox religions. Wilhelm participated in Keyserling’s book on marriage, writing the chapter on Chinese marriage and its spiritual significance. Wilhelm also participated in the School of Wisdom in Darmstadt. Due to his influence on Count Keyserling, and his son, Arnold Keyserling, Chinese philosophy, particularly the I Ching, became a central part of the School of Wisdom curriculum.
At the School of Wisdom Richard Wilhelm met Carl Jung, who became his good friend. Jung also realized the great significance of Wilhelm’s work, particularly the I Ching. Jung helped Wilhelm gain respectability in the German academic community, and wrote lengthy introductions to Wilhelm’s two most important translations, I Ching: Book of Changes and The Secret of the Golden Flower. These two books had a profound influence on Carl Jung.
With the help of Keyserling and Jung, Wilhelm’s work in Germany eventually met with some success. Wilhelm’s books were published, and he met and influenced other important cultural leaders, such as the writer Herman Hesse and the musician Joseph Hauer. But according to Jung, Wilhelm was not able to make a smooth psychological transition back to European life. Wilhelm began to cut himself off from his spiritual roots in China. In Jung’s words, Wilhelm “seemed to feel the pressure of the European spirit”. When Jung first met Wilhelm he seemed completely Chinese to Jung, in outward manner as well as way of writing and speaking. But a few years later this changed. Now Wilhelm’s lectures on China began to sound more like Christian sermons to Jung. The two sides of himself, the Chinese and the German, began to split apart, with the Chinese side going into the unconscious. As the Christian views and forms of thought moved into the foreground, his resistance to the Chinese bacteria living in his body weakened. Wilhelm relapsed into the amoebic dysentery he originally contracted in 1910. Carl Jung tried to treat him, but in the end the inner psychological conflict between east and West proved too strong, and Richard Wilhelm died at age 57. His grave is shown below. His great spiritual legacy, I Ching: Book of Changes and The Secret of the Golden Flower, and other books, will live forever. (Note: a search of the Internet will reveal full text versions of some of his books, including the I Ching, most of which are of questionable copyright status, and thus not reproduced here.)
—Click here to buy "Discovering Your Soul Nature "
By showing us who we are and how to live surrendered to what is, nondual wisdom can greatly minimize the suffering that is our common human affliction in a separation-based society. This awareness as a psychotherapist throws a new light on the issues that a client brings to the session room. Even the least “spiritual” client, who may not be interested in esoteric talk of one’s true nature as consciousness, is interested in suffering less, especially in the relationships that matter most. Here, I will explore the difference between the concept of relationship, which is born of conditioning and can only perpetuate the isolation and distress we feel inside of identification with a “me,” and the actual experience of moment-to-moment relating, which is our birthright and an expression of our natural state.
Typically when we speak of relationship in our culture, we are referring to the concept of relationship, to an object. We say “I have a relationship,” or “I’m in a relationship,” “I want a relationship,” or “My relationship sucks.” And we grow up with the promise that if we find the right person and do the right things, that relationship will bring us happiness, joy, fulfillment, belonging and the end of loneliness. We even bring this conditioning into our spiritual mythology as a belief that “manifesting our soul mate” will cause Nirvana to descend upon us.
The only thing that can deliver what we are seeking through relationship is contact with, and an ever-deepening living from, the Real.* Thus relationship, as an object to pursue, acquire, get right and keep, becomes a false god, heaped with the hopes and dreams of our lost connection to our deepest Self. To the extent that the relating between any two people is pressured to deliver on the societal promise, we turn something that is natural and easeful (learning about and enjoying each other, negotiating and appreciating differences) into a stressful attempt to force the actual relating to adhere to an inner ideal so that we are not left feeling the things from which the relationship is supposed to save us. A conditioned relationship gone bad simply becomes a competition to squeeze our sense of our own goodness out of the “other” by getting them to behave in the ways we need them to in order to feel good.
The concept of relationship isn’t simple, like the concept of a ball – something round that we can throw, kick or hit in a game. It is a highly complex set of assumptions, expectations, beliefs, rules, and conditions that are widely shared in our culture, though some variation exists between groups, families and individuals. In addition to the underlying assumptions, which are relatively static, there are dynamic learned strategies we use to attempt to evaluate, correct, solidify and nail down something that is meant to be beyond measurement, alive, changing and unpredictable – everything from pleasing to pouting to spying to working on our “stuff” to be good enough.
This complex conceptual system is largely held unconsciously – we don’t even know that this mutually bought-into system does not reflect reality. In fact, we don’t even realize it’s a conceptual system. And sometimes, neither does the therapist. So the first step a therapist needs to take before offering couples therapy is to examine the conditioned assumptions, expectations, beliefs, rules and conditions, and the accompanying strategies that make up her own complex conceptual box called “relationship.” This is no small feat. The more open, clear and self-knowledgeable the therapist is about these, the freer the space she can offer to clients. (A “couple” is another complex conceptual system, as is a “human being.” Discovering the reality and actuality of what any of these words points to is a fascinating excavation of our true nature.)
In nondual circles we talk a lot about our “conditioning,” but what is it? In psychology, it is “a process of changing behavior by rewarding or punishing a subject each time an act is performed until the subject associates the action with pleasure or distress.” (dictionary.reference.com) What we are left with after the completion of our extensive social conditioning process are large areas where we are unconsciously seeking pleasure or avoiding distress instead of expressing the truth of our being. And despite its occasional and generally short-term benefits (getting pats or avoiding whacks), it turns out the result of this behavior is suffering, as we get further and further away from leading simple, present-centered, truth-filled lives from our natural state, and become more and more unconsciously invested in our pleasure-seeking/distress-avoiding strategies.
We don’t suffer because of our relationships – we suffer because of our disconnection from the Real. And there is nothing better to distract us from the search for the Real than the promise that some object out there is finally going to make us happy. As long as we are living predominantly through unconscious concepts and seeking fulfillment through the acquisition of objects, we are putting our attention on conditioned pseudo-reality versus actual reality, and perpetuating our suffering. Attempting to relate to another human being through one’s relationship concept is a dead-end street in terms of joy, fulfillment and intimacy.
Relationship built on conditioning is not sustainable, transformative, growthful or, in the long run, fun or good for anyone. As we increasingly seek to solidify the other in order to feel good about ourselves, and find ourselves being solidified in order to evoke positivity from our partner, the life goes out of our togetherness. And how could it not? Instead of tending to alive relating, we are seeking to change living, breathing, dynamic expressions of God, and the mysterious space in which we meet, into solid, predictable objects. It can be a relief for couples who come to therapy to realize that they are not failures at applying a wonderful system that works for everyone else, but rather are sane wonderful people who unknowingly have proven through their experience the obsolescence of our conditioned model. They are actually healthy for the fact that they cannot make an insane strategy work on each other, and their seeking for help is more a sign of success than failure.
The complete and utter failure of the conditioned relationship model produces the humility that is a prerequisite to relating from aliveness, just as the utter failure of the “me” model is a prerequisite to relating as a human being from our natural state. So let’s raise a glass to the entry point to true living – total and unmitigated failure! If love is involved, if the two people have discovered something real about their togetherness and kept in touch with it despite their difficulties, that channel for love can be the beckoning glint that leads them further into the cauldron of their own undoing. So you now can see my bias as a spiritual teacher sitting with any two people on these issues – whosoever loves and enters into sustained relating opens the possibility of the death of “me.”
At some point an ethical consideration presents itself – is it fair to foist one’s penchant for dying to God upon one’s clients, when they are simply coming in to save their relationship? I tell people who I sit with that my emphasis is on the truth and alive relating, not on any particular structure of relationship, as the rigidified concept of their “relationship” might actually be what is getting in the way of satisfying relating! If they run screaming from the room, I know they are someone else’s clients. I think each true servant of humanity benefits from discovering and understanding her own approach and the perspective behind it. Ideally this becomes explicit in the counseling room at some point as well. The good news is that the benefit of nondual wisdom is not all about death and dismemberment – to relate simply from the present actually does serve our happiness, it’s just a deeper form than the pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding happiness on which we were betting the farm.
What does relating look like outside of the concept of relationship? If we allow our beloved dreams to collapse, along with all of our scheming and strategizing to obtain them, and rest here in the moment as clueless not-knowing, what happens to our relationships? What are they? If we check in with every breath to see if what we are saying and doing is in alignment with our highest and deepest truth, what aspects of what we call our relationships will survive and what aspects will need an overhaul? What aspects of what we consider “me” will survive and how much will need to be discarded?
What is it like to function inside a relationship that is an object and what is it like to relate from aliveness and actuality without that concept? What are the rules, the feel, and the quality of each? If you saw a couple of humans relating from the first or the second, what would each look like? We can use the two descriptions not only to understand what I’m trying to convey, but also to see ourselves reflected in these descriptions during a particularly free or a particularly challenged relational moment, and learn something about the place from which we are relating.
The concept of relationship is a noun, an “it.” It’s something to get, to have, to keep, to protect, to tell people about: “I have one.” We are either “in” or “out;” it is either “on” or “off.” This sort of relationship bolsters and supports the “me.” In fact, a “me” is a prerequisite to living inside this sort of relationship, and the relationship can become an ornament on our “me” tree, another trinket that we use to prove that we are somebody. Somebody good! Each aspect of a highly conditioned and complex concept such as relationship has a good side and a bad side, depending on whether we have been conditioned to glean pleasure or distress from it. (In other words, neither “side” actually produces pleasure or distress – it is our conditioning that does so.) So within the conceptual system of relationship, generally if I have one, I’m good. If I don’t have one, I’m bad. If I have a bad one, I’m bad (or my partner is). If I have a good one, I’m good (I’ll take the credit here). It’s going well today, I’m good. It’s not going well today, I’m bad (or my partner is). The reality is our sense of well-being and connection to the Real is not actually predicated upon certain relational configurations, but it seems so within conditioning.
The 360-degree sphere of actual experience (what’s it actually like in this moment for everyone, below thought?) is shrunken down to a finite set of possibilities: good and bad. We are nowhere near the actual experience of the moment – we are too busy evaluating it and scheming about how to get good and safe in the next moment. With each aspect of the relationship concept, there’s a way to be good and a way to be bad, and unconsciously we’re working overtime to be good, which actually obscures our connection to our inherent goodness as being. Once we discover our true being, the whole system of identification that keeps us enslaved to proving our goodness and minimizing our badness, is seen as a ridiculous waste of time. [A short anecdote here – when my daughter was 7, she came home from school and asked, “Mama, what does ‘being fake’ mean?” To which I replied, “That’s when you pretend you are different than you are, or you feel differently than you do, so that people will like you.” She exclaimed with horror, “Why would anyone want to do that!?”]
Alive relating, on the other hand, is a verb, and it requires no maintenance or evaluation. There is nothing to be “in” or “out” of – it just IS and it is like this right now. The quality of the relating in the moment is met, without distancing from it to evaluate it, manipulate it or manage it. The emphasis is not so much on what it means, but on noticing that it is, and deeply receiving/feeling how it is, whatever the flavor. Relating is happening all the time, for your enjoyment or excruciation, courtesy of the Beloved. Within conditioning, we skip over the actual experience of relating in pursuit of the “it” of relationship (getting a good one, making sure it’s going well) because we think that achieving the “it” will get us somewhere good. But any of us who have some years under our belts know that this approach to living doesn’t result in anything but suffering. There’s something wrong with the program, not with you.
In addition to this goodness/badness game of conditioned relationship, there are also tracking systems – it’s important to keep track of who’s good, how good we are, how good we are in relation to this one, how good we are in relation to that one, and who owes whom. We move toward the ones who make us feel good and away from the ones who make us feel bad. Again, our relating in this case is steered by the unconscious habit to seek pleasure and avoid distress, not by the truth. When we are conscious of this dynamic, we can willingly move toward pain and move through it, so as to start to develop a wider view of the possibilities in any moment. When our vision has shrunk to see only good and bad, only short-term pleasure and pain, unconsciously we will move toward trying to get good every time, ignoring reality and possibility, like rats in a maze.
Relating through a concept has fear as its motivational energy, whereas relating from actuality is based on love. Where conditioning lives, unconscious fear lives too. In the absence of conditioning, love and freedom reign. In fear-based me-centric relationship, our questions are, “How does this serve me?” and “What’s safe?” In alive relating, our questions are, “How does this serve God?” and “What’s true?”
Within the paradigm of relationship as concept or as an ”it,” I need one to give me love and connection. If I have one, I’ll have love. If I behave properly inside of one, I’ll have love. If you behave properly inside of it, I’ll have love. So I need it and I need to control it, so that I have the good stuff. When we are in this sort of acquire-and-protect mode it has the feel of going and getting something, of working to get it, to secure it, to nail it down. This sort of togetherness is based on an underlying sense of lack and the need for control in order to guarantee love’s supply. It requires at least one project manager, as we try to control things so our comfort is maximized, shutting down pieces of ourselves as necessary. The project needs to be managed closely because if we did not stay on top of it, where would we be?
In alive relating, I am love, I am connectedness itself, and the fact of love’s abundance is clear from the bubbling fountain of my being. From alive relating and resting in the Real, it’s completely ludicrous to think that love comes from the outside. Pats and kind words are nice, but our bread and butter come from within. In alive relating, the sense is, the Holy has it handled. So there is a giving over of anticipation, management, and figuring it out, for this right here. Maybe it will end, maybe it won’t end, maybe you’ll like me today, and maybe you won’t – no management, just a meeting of what is. Alive relating invites a settling into the now, a settling into what we are, whatever the feel of it is in this moment.
In the concept of relationship, separation reigns and objects seem very solid. So there’s “me” and there’s “you” and there’s “the relationship.” There are other discrete objects too, those who might threaten it, those who might take us away from it. In alive relating, objects disappear as the background becomes the foreground. Mistrust is met as it rises and dissolves as we rest as vibrating Being. Objects become almost transparent, like waves. There’s a sense of a you and a me, but what’s really primary is this vibrating field, this alive moment, to which everyone belongs.
Inside the relationship concept, you are a solid, predictable object, or at least you should be. Don’t surprise me, because a “me” doesn’t like to feel out of control, and I’ll blame those feelings on you for misbehaving. When I come home, be home. When I say “I love you,” say “I love you” back. Don’t leave me out here in the sea without a paddle. You are my reassurance object, my reference point for my safety and you owe it to me to be that, according to the rules of the relationship concept. The primary relating here is between conceptual images, and the alive flow of life is mistrusted and seen as a potential threat to the relationship. The unknown is seen as dangerous and thus filled in with identification, definition and meaning. Authentic impulses are seen as suspicious, potentially leading to the dissolution of the status quo, and therefore are ignored or downright discouraged, as we take solace in our predictable, defined togetherness. Our focus is on how we need to be for the other to feel good and loved, or how we need our partner to be so we feel that way.
Within alive relating, you are an ever-changing miracle, and so am I. You are a wonder! An unpredictable, wild force of nature, and I love you to be that, because I love actuality. I am not demanding anything of you because I see you as a gift to cherish and enjoy, a free being whose truth and path are not mine with which to meddle. The primary relationship (if we can even call it that, as the sense of “two” dissolves) is between emptiness and the flow of experience. There is a trust and love of the flow, and a sense that the unknown is enlivening. Emphasis goes to what is happening now, whether it brings pleasure or causes distress, because we’re here for it, we love the truth, the actual flowing moment! We are both expressions of this flow. When we are dropped in and dissolved in this, the feeling is that everything is alive and new, nothing is ever the same. Authentic impulses are celebrated, made room for, as possibilities for each of us and our togetherness expand. This sort of relating can dismantle what’s left of the clinging “me.” Our focus is on blessing and freeing the other to be the unique, organic, authentic expression that they are, leaving identification behind.
In the concept of relationship, time is important. Our relationship has a past and a future. Our past becomes very important either as a wellspring of inspiration [“Remember how in love we were?”], material for identification [“We’ve been married 56 years, longer than anyone we know!”], or as a database to draw upon when cross-blaming [“Well, why should you be mad at me for being attracted to him, you were attracted to her!”]. Our future as well becomes very important – we need constant reassurance that we have one together, to plug up our great fear of the unknown and unpredictable nature of being alive, and to cheer us up with promises of trips and goals that distract us from our current suffering.
In relating, past and future fade and there is only the timeless immediacy of now. There’s just this. Right here. All our eggs are in the basket of the present, not in saving anything for later but in fully experiencing this. Memories from the past, whether pleasant or unpleasant, are met as they arise, when they arise, without fishing for them or using them to bolster good-me-ness. Thoughts of the future are traded in for a complete immersion in the trust of the flow, no matter where it leads or how it feels.
Within the relationship concept, the structure and agreements of our partnership come from socially conditioned and unconsciously held rules and agreements, and these are seen as a standard that “everyone knows.” These rigid rules and agreements are imposed like a template upon actuality rather than rising from it, and deviating from them (or wanting to) is seen as not loving the other or somehow betraying the relationship.
The creative structure that arises through alive relating is birthed out of what’s alive and organically enduring for these two unique beings. Contrary to belief, there is structure in God’s country – the Holy builds mountains that last eons and cells that are perfect for their function. The structure here rises out of what is, rather than being imposed on it. It is mutual, conscious, unique and revisable. When the structure of relating is built from moment-to-moment abidance in the truth, it is a gift, but a gift that must be subject to new bulletins from the Holy in each moment. Conscious agreements are forged as long as they are alive, mutual, and born of these unique beings at this time [rather than from rigid definitions of “should”], and they form what we are together. Rather than relying on rigid rules to make sure things go well, we trust in our mutual integrity and respect, and our ability to stay in touch with each other in an ongoing way. Sadly, most of our relational structures are built from unconscious encrusted ideas that we are trying to cram living, breathing beings into, rather than from Divine Will – and so turn out to be deadening prison cells.
Inside the concept of relationship, our idea of commitment is to a person and to an unconscious and rigidified form of relationship with that person. We make efforts to preserve the structure and adhere to it, and follow its rules, as proof of our love. The commitment from within alive relating is to the authentic expression of our highest and most tender Self, and regard for all beings is included in that – a strict adherence to what is true for us is combined with a constant awareness of the sensitive heart of the other.
One caveat – the concepts that rise out of talk of nonduality and freedom can be used to justify all kinds of shoddy behavior in relationship. In the name of “no structure” we can be running a pattern of fear of intimacy. In the name of our “freedom,” we can demand our narcissistic right to do whatever we want regardless of the effect on another. It is important that we explore the bounds and possibilities of relating with people who share our own depth of integrity, self-responsibility and purity of intention.
To journey from living within conditioning to living free is to land here, now, dropping everything and noticing what is. It is the willingness to look, see and become aware of how conditioned complexes operate within our energetic systems, to take responsibility for them, and to find the infinite possibilities that lie outside their walls of right and wrong, good and bad. It is to have passion for self-knowledge, a thirst for drinking the pure, clean water of our own authentic expression. It is to find support for the things we have to face as we drop our conditioned patterns (they were born of pain and it’s pain we’ll get to feel as we stop using them to cope) and open to a radical vulnerability in the moment. It is to free every human being we come in contact with to be who they are and to feel whatever in us has difficulty with that. When things get confusing, it is to find sources of clarity in those who have carved out areas of sanity in themselves. And by being a pioneer in her own discovery of Self-in-relating, the nondual therapist can become such a source of clarity, and a torchbearer for others.
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— YIN SYMBOL
Defining the Sacred Feminine means various things as it is expressed along several dimensions of life:
1. In the spiritual dimension, it means including and valuing the feminine as an equally fundamental dynamic of the creative life force and the Divine, along with the masculine. The yang cannot exist without the yin. It means remembering our interconnection and oneness: we are not separate from each other and creation.
2. In the religious dimension, it means including and honoring the Feminine face of God in religious expression, ritual and ceremony, with inclusive language (such as Mother/Father God). It means recognizing and honoring the female deities and archetypes of the Goddess across history and cultures.
3. In the planetary dimension, it means seeing Mother Earth as our Mother, respecting and healing her, cultivating right-relationship with her as our ground of survival.
4. In the cultural dimension, it means recognizing the sacredness of all life, our web of interconnection and community; and celebrating the stature and wisdom of the Feminine across cultures, in the arts and in creative expression.
5. In the psychological dimension, it means reclaiming the Feminine qualities as important interior qualities of wholeness and balance within each individual, male and female.
6. In the human dimension, it means valuing women as whole people–body, mind and spirit; and valuing females equally with males.
7. In the societal dimension, it means seeking the voices, visions and wisdom of women to be received and int