This is Chapter 16 in my novel, The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel: a novel about Cuba, prostitution, and the Catholic Church.
For previous chapters, just scroll down.
This is Chapter 16 in my novel, The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel: a novel about Cuba, prostitution, and the Catholic Church.
For previous chapters, just scroll down.
A few days ago, I posted a trial balloon episode of my first podcast in a series called “A Course in Miracles for Activists: ACIM for social justice warriors.” It used one of those generic automatic “translations” from-text-to -voice. It featured a professional voice, but one that had predictable problems in phrasing and sometimes in pronunciation that often characterize disembodied automatic voice recordings.
My effort was a kind of place holder. I was looking for feedback. (I’ve since removed the posting.)
But with the responses I received in mind, I’m now posting “take two.” Its content is quite different from my first recording and its voice is my own. However, I’m still looking for feedback. (And please don’t pull any punches.)
I’m also looking for subscribers to my new podcast site which you’ll find here: https://acimforactivists.com/ Please use the “Follow” button towards the bottom of the page.
So, give a listen and sign up if you’re so inclined. I consider this project another step in my own spiritual pilgrimage. I’m learning as I go — both about podcasting and the meaning of life.
Here’s an interview posted last week by Rob Kall on OpEdNews, where Rob is the editor in chief and where I’m now serving as a senior editor. The exchange took place at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. As you’ll see, I’m speaking from my basement office in our home in Westport, Connecticut. (I’m thinking that I should do something to make the venue seem less like a basement. . .) Anyway, it’s the third time Rob has had me on his show.
Readings for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 18:6-9; PS 33 1,12, 18-19, 20-22; HEB 11: 1-2, 8-19; MT 24:42A, 44; LK 12: 32-48
Despite their apparent obscurity, this week’s readings should be powerful and encouraging for people of faith. They are about faith that enables followers of Jesus to see what remains opaque to a purblind world.
By definition faith cannot adjust to what the world takes for granted. It is commitment to what materialists cannot see – to what the mainstream denies. After all, the world’s normalcy exalts individualism, money-grubbing, meaningless entertainment, oppression of “the othered,” endless war, and the never-satisfied quest for pleasure, power, profit, and prestige.
Faith, on the other hand, believes in a world that remains unseen by the dominant culture. It’s the world as it comes from the hand of God: beautiful, simple, loving, forgiving, and belonging to everyone.
As a result, people of faith are called to stand with those our dominant culture rejects. In “America,” that means standing with the poor and homeless, with immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTTQQIAAP humans, socialists, communists, environmentalists, and social justice warriors. . . That’s the short list, today’s readings suggest, of those who are favored by God.
Put more simply, faith realizes that all of us are one. All are children of God. All creatures from smallest to greatest are loved by God. It’s that simple. It cannot be said too often. That’s why some of us formally celebrate creation’s oneness each week with others who share our simple outlook. That’s why the world’s spiritual teachers of all faiths insist that each day must begin with some spiritual discipline (such as meditation or centering prayer). Such quiet time reminds practitioners that we do not belong to this world. That’s why Jesus told us to “pray always.”
There is nothing more important than living from the truth that all creation is one. NOTHING! That faith alone can save our world from the impending disaster sadly looming on our near horizon in the form of nuclear war and climate disaster.
But it is so hard to swim against the stream, isn’t it? It’s exhausting. After all, we’re surrounded by daily events that contradict it at every turn. Everything in our world conspires to tell us that we’re atomized individuals hostile to everyone unlike us. Think of the daily mass shootings, endless sanctions of designated enemies, obvious public lies, redefinitions of truth, police brutality, worship of money, resources absolutely wasted on war, and the distortions of God and religion for selfish purposes. Think of our belief that our country, the principal cause of the world’s problems, is somehow special, exceptional, and favored by God. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Thank God for Sacred Scripture that calls us back to Center. (That’s the beautiful thing about the Bible – almost alone in ancient western tradition it represents the consciousness and voice of the poor, rather than those of kings, generals, and court prophets.)
In any case, and for what they’re worth, here are my “translations” of this week’s readings as they’d be understood by their authors who were themselves marginalized people surrounded by Great Powers intent on exploiting and even obliterating them. Please read them for yourself here. At first, and in their original form, they might strike you as obscure. However, read thoughtfully, they are powerful. So, here’s what I take them to say in these dark times. See if you agree.
WIS 18:6-9 (A reflection on Israel’s Exodus)
Our tradition is that of
An enslaved people
Exhibiting the meaning
As courageous commitment
To an unseen glorious future
Where the mighty
And brought to justice
While the exploited
As God’s own people.
PS 33: 1, 12, 18-19, 20-22 (Blessed are the people God has chosen to be his own)
Yes, God’s Chosen People
Are the famished
And those threated
They are driven by
A divine Life Force
To struggle for justice.
The Force is kind
Of the oppressed.
HEB 11: 1-2, 8-19 (Follow the example of our forebears)
Faith is a verb,
An active commitment
By the hopeless poor
To a just future
That the world
Cannot even see.
It’s what our ancient ancestors
Giving them hope
Even when they were
Only a few immigrants
Among a hostile
Fearful that the poor
Unbelievably fertile “invaders”
Would eventually outnumber
And replace them.
MT 24: 42A, 44 (Don’t give up the fight)
So, wake up!
God’s future will dawn
Just when the World’s saying
“That can never happen.”
LK 12: 32-48 (These readings are meant for everyone)
Yes, we might be small in number
And it might take a long time,
But we are the agents
God has chosen
To bring about
Our Master’s future
Where money’s not important,
The rich serve the poor,
The thieves are thwarted,
And empires overthrown
By true humanists,
In this series, I’ve been tracing my own growth in terms of Ken Wilber’s stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, world-centrism, and cosmic-centrism. I’ve been arguing that each stage has its own “alternative facts.” What I believed to be factual as a child, I no longer accept — in any field, faith included. The highest stages of critical thinking are achieved, I believe, by those who accept the alternative facts of mystics and sages across the globe. Their facts receive virtually no recognition from the world at large. Yet, they are truest of all.
The studies and travel I’ve recalled so far in this series had taken me from Chicago and various places in the United States to Europe where I spent five years traveling widely. Then I moved to Appalachia, and from there journeyed to Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Cuba, and Zimbabwe. Each step of the way, my awareness expanded. By my 50s, I had pretty much gone beyond ethnocentrism.
Then by 1997 (at the age of 57), I gingerly entered the next phase of Wilber’s growth hierarchy, cosmic-centrism. The door opened that Christmas, when my wife, Peggy, gave me the gift of three books by an Indian teacher of meditation, Eknath Easwaran.
The most important of the three was simply entitled Meditation. The book explained how to meditate and outlined Easwaran’s “Eight Point Program” for spiritual transformation. The points included (1) meditation, (2) spiritual reading, (3) repetition of a mantram, (4) slowing down, (5) one-pointed attention, (6) training of the senses, (7) putting the needs of others first, and (8) association with others on the same path.
As a former priest, I was familiar with such spirituality. After being introduced to meditation during my “spiritual year” in 1960, I meditated every day for the next dozen years or so. Then I stopped. I thought I would never go back.
But after reading Meditation, I decided to perform the experiment Easwaran recommends there. He challenged his readers to try the eight-point program for a month. He said, if no important changes occur in your life as a result, drop the practice. But if significant personal transformation happens, that’s another story.
Suffice it to say that I tried for a month, and now nearly 20 years later, I’m able to report that I’ve never missed a day of meditation. Soon I was meditating twice a day. In short, I had been re-introduced into spiritual practice, but this time under the guidance of a Hindu. However, Easwaran insisted that his recommended practices had nothing to do with switching one’s religion or even with adopting any religion at all.
In other words, meditation had introduced me into the realm of mysticism common to Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslim Sufis, and subscribers to other faiths.
Easwaran described mysticism, wherever it appears, as founded on the following convictions: (1) there is a divine spark resident in the heart of every human being, (2) that spark can be realized, i.e. made real in one’s life, (3) in fact it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) those who recognize the divine spark within them inevitably see it in every other human being and in all of creation, and (5) they act accordingly.
Those are the principles of cosmic-centrism.
In 2012, during my wife’s sabbatical in Cape Town, South Africa, my eyes started opening to the divine in nature – especially in the ancient rock formations in the southern Cape. As Dean Perini points out in his Pathways of the Sun, many of them have been “enhanced” by the Koi-Koi and San people indigenous to this area. The enhancements (for instance, sharpening features in rocks which resemble human faces) serve the same purpose as the completely human fabrications in places like Tikal, Stonehenge, and (perhaps) Easter Island. They position the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to keep track of equinoxes and solstices. All of those heavenly bodies and seasons influence our own bodies (70% water) as surely as they do the ocean tides and the seasons. So it was important to the Koi-Koi and San to mark the precise moments of the annual celestial events for purposes of celebrations, rituals, and feasts.
Near Cape Town, we lived in Llandudno near the location’s great “Mother Rock.” Like so many other mountains, rocks, sacred wells and springs in that area, it exuded extraordinary cleansing energy. My wife and I often made our evening meditation before that Rock, and on occasion in a nearby sacred cave.
They say that the human story began in South Africa 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. So in the presence of ocean, sacred caves, and holy rocks, we attempted to reconnect with the roots of it all and with the animals and ancient peoples who in their harmony with nature’s processes seem much wiser than we post-moderns are proving to be.
We were entering cosmic space, where the principle of the unity of all creation shapes critical thinking.
(Next week: Learning from spiritual masters in India)
Readings for First Sunday in Lent: GN 2:7-9, 3:1-7; PS 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5: 12-19; MT 4: 1-11. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030914.cfm
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. A week ago, Hollywood presented its 2014 Academy Awards. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” won seven Oscars. I think his story and today’s reading about Jesus’ desert retreat are connected.
Lent actually started last Wednesday when many of us put ashes on our forehead to remind us of our approaching death. All of us, the ashes told us, come from the dirt and are rushing headlong towards the grave, whether we consider ourselves “believers” or not. Our world (at least for us as individuals) is ending. That’s simply a law of nature – as inescapable as gravity. It can’t be avoided. With time running out, Lent reminds us, the moment to change – to appropriate our basically divine nature – is now. Jesus’ vision quest in the desert shows the way.
So does “Gravity.” In fact, it’s possible to see the film as mirroring the experience of Jesus during his own “Lent” in the desert depicted in this morning’s gospel selection.
To begin with, both stories are completely symbolic. Both have their protagonists reliving the history of their people. Both show us the path to liberation. It leads from self-centeredness to God-consciousness. As such, both the account of Jesus in the desert and of Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity” represent summonses to either grow up here and now or suffer the consequences.
Think about “Gravity” in those terms. Here’s how the film’s publicity describes the plot:
“Director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist on a space shuttle mission headed by astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a talkative, charismatic leader full of colorful stories that he shares with his crewmates as well as mission control. As the two are on a space walk, debris hits the area where they are working, and soon the pair finds themselves detached from their ship and stranded in space. While figuring out what steps they can take to save themselves, Stone grapples with a painful past that makes her consider giving up altogether.”
Without giving too much away, the film can be understood as mirroring the current plight of Mother Earth, the United States and the human species. It’s about our highly technological and artificial way of life and its inevitable destruction by the very laws of nature. It reminds unaware, “spaced out” people to “return home” and live in accordance with our true identity as earth creatures respectful of nature’s laws.
In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock plays that spaced out American I mentioned. She’s an astronaut. As a medical engineer, she’s a trained healer whose job in NASA is to maintain a basically unsustainable way of life in outer space. To begin with, however she’s totally saddened and distracted by her personal problems. Specifically, she’s still in mourning for her lost daughter who died from an unexplained fall at the age of four. Interestingly, her daughter died conforming to the law of gravity which Dr. Stone’s “mission” requires her to defy.
The point is that Dr. Stone’s mission (like her daughter’s brief life) is doomed by inescapable natural laws. Entropy causes the systems she maintains to run down and demand periodic, extremely costly “missions” like the one she is on. At the same time inertia insures that the inevitable waste produced by the space enterprises will double back to seal the projects’ doom according to the law governing colliding bodies.
In that situation, Dr. Stone becomes the image of an alienated woman called by circumstances to wake up and accept her true divine nature as a healing goddess – as the embodiment of Mother Earth. As such she must return to the larger Divine Mother; she must return to earth and appropriate her own vocation to embody that Mother’s presence.
Think about it: the Bullock character is a “Stone” – the earthiest identification possible. She’s a doctor. She’s an astronaut. In all three identities, she’s out of her element. She’s floating in a weightless atmosphere that has caused her to deny her gravity-governed essence. In addition, like the earth itself, her oxygen supply is threatened. And that, of course, is painful and repulsive. Or as she herself puts it, “I hate space.”
“Gravity’s” story unfolds to display Dr. Stone’s healing efforts to reconnect with earth despite the obstacles working against her. In the process, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, she shows us all the way home from our own alienation and destructive way of life.
Dr. Stone’s way home involves not only using the personal tragedy of her daughter’s death to work in her favor. It also means crossing the Ganges and being blessed by the Buddha. She must also overcome her own ethnocentrism and xenophobia relative to her country’s designated “enemies” (the Russians and Chinese). Her return would have been impossible without an international space platform, a Russian Soyez module and a Chinese Shenzhou space capsule.
Finally, Dr. Stone needs to be “born again,” reliving the entire evolutionary process taking her through human astral origins to earth where she’s plunged into deep baptismal waters. With great effort, she throws off her old identity in the form of her astronaut’s survival gear. In the process, she encounters fish, amphibians and other pre-human life forms in the evolutionary chain. Finally freed of her past, on all fours, Dr. Stone emerges onto Eden’s shore. As a reborn Eve – as Mother Earth – she straightens up and walks forward into a new life. Her final words in the film are “Thank you.”
There’s a similar plot in today’s Gospel – lived out by Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. Like Dr. Stone in relation to “America,” Jesus reflects the experience of his Jewish compatriots. They passed forty years in the desert enduring temptation the whole time. Jesus in Matthew’s account passes forty days there. His response to temptation rescues and redeems the collective history of his similarly tempted people more than a thousand years earlier.
Jesus’ first temptation is ego-centric – to feed himself by turning stones into bread. His second temptation is ethnocentric – connected with the temple and the quasi-magical attributes accorded the structure by his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus’ final temptation is world-centric – to exercise dominion of “all the nations of the world.” By rejecting all three, Jesus symbolically achieves cosmic-consciousness. The story ends with his being ministered to by angels.
As in “Gravity,” Jesus’ vision quest in the desert maps out our Lenten path. It leads from self-centeredness to cosmic consciousness of unity with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. The path cannot be traveled without struggle. Its goal cannot be achieved without breaking free from selfishness, xenophobia, and the arrogance of life in an imperial center whose ways are unsustainable and far removed from its evolutionary roots. That’s the point of Lent’s prayerfulness, penance, fasting, and abstinence.
Practically speaking returning home during Lent – realizing our True Self being transformed like Jesus and Dr. Stone – might mean:
• Renewing our prayer life. Even unbelievers can do this. How? I recommend reading Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to find out. Yes, meditate each day during Lent. It will bring you into contact with your True Self. (And, I predict, you won’t stop at the end of 40 days – it’s that life-transforming.)
• Abstaining from fast food and reclaiming the kitchen. Leave behind for forty days the typically chemicalized, fatty, sugar-hyped American diet, and perhaps experiment with vegetarianism. That seems far more beneficial than traditional “fast and abstinence.”
• Shopping locally and refusing to set foot in any of the Big Boxes during Lent’s 40 days. Think of it as homage to Jesus’ counter-cultural resort to the desert or as Dr. Stone’s leaving behind that artificial life in outer space.
• To escape ethnocentrism and imperial sway,adopting as your news source OpEdNews and/or Al Jazzera rather than the New York Times.
• Resolving each day to actually respond to one of those many appeals we all receive to make phone calls and write letters to our “representatives” in Congress.
• In the “Comment” space below, share other suggestions.
Yes, it’s Lent once again. Like Dr. Ryan Stone, we faced up to our origins in dust last Ash Wednesday. A good Lent which leaves behind selfishness, ethnocentrism and allegiance to empire will also allow us to utter her sincere “Thank You” on Easter as we rise from our knees transformed.
Here are 18 little reflections on the 10 day meditation retreat I finished about a week ago. It was extremely intense — a real immersion experience both in meditation and in Indian culture. The living circumstances and diet were Spartan. No talking or even eye contact for 10 days. No cell phones or computers, newspapers or TV. We meditated for 10 hours each day using a method that will be explained below. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity. India is wonderful!
Here at last.
This is what brought me to India, I’m convinced.
But how did I get here?
Did I die?
I can’t remember doing that
I recall saying goodbye to my loved ones – a wonderful hug from Maggie,
A goodbye kiss from Peggy . . . .
“May you find what you’re looking for,”
“I think you already have.”
So here I am – dead to the world.
Is this what heaven is like?
Or am I in hell or in prison?
I’m determined to find heaven here,
And wherever I land
From now on . . . .
“The Vipassana Community”
So many people here,
(about 80 I’d guess)
Young, old, men, women,
Tall, short, slim, heavy,
All but 5 of us brown,
All seeking God.
I am not alone.
It’s quiet here.
Green, brown and dusty,
Run-down, like India,
And very slow.
But there’s a well-kept garden space,
In front of the Meditation Hall.
No golf course beauty though
Or slick railings, winding staircases or polished floors.
Instead there are large patches of dirt,
Stoney paths, chirping birds,
And sunshine all around.
“Where I Sleep”
I sleep in one of the “Gents Dormitories,”
In bed # 22.
Fifteen cots, each two feet apart.
The beds are pieces of slate,
With a mattress on top, just 2 inches thick,
And a small hard pillow.
A piece of canvas suspended from a rod
Separates each bed.
But nothing filters
The farting, snoring, throat-clearing, belching, spitting, coughing and sneezing.
Still, we somehow manage to sleep
From 9:30 till 4:00.
Already by 3:30
Alarms go off.
Fluorescent tubes ignite.
The farting and throat-clearing begins in earnest,
And the race to the outdoor washstands.
By 4:30 we’re in the meditation hall.
Following our breathing – till 6:30.
That’s the mantram here.
Every notice ends with those words:
It’s a strange, forbidden thought for me
Who fears happiness,
(I’ve been told)
Who’s blind to the happiness already bestowed
And who longs for the pains of hell.
What if I realized heaven is indeed already mine,
Surrendered to it,
Luxuriated in my body, mind and spirit,
And spurned the hell
The saints have sold me?
Would I actually see God?
Why this terror before heaven all around?
“The Reason for Unhappiness – and Its Cure”
All life is suffering
Says the Buddha.
What’s the cause?
Gotama went deep inside
To find out.
It’s because of craving,
Senses encounter sense objects.
Attachments and aversions form.
When inevitably thwarted
To overcome suffering,
Become a dispassionate watcher of sensations
Pleasant and unpleasant,
Knowing that each
Is governed by
The Universal Law of Impermanence.
“This too will pass”
Is the salvific mantram.
“I am the Happiest of mortals,”
the Enlightened, Unattached Buddha insisted.
“Where I Eat”
Our mess hall has red concrete floors.
We eat on narrow shelves
Each facing a dingy white wall
Whose Scotch Tape wounds
Cry out for soap or paint.
Thousands have sat here before us
On stainless steel plates.
Rice and dal
And a sweet thick drink
I can’t identify.
No one speaks or makes eye contact.
We line up to wash our cups and plates
At stone pilas.
Then one by one
We melt back into the darkness
Whence we came
Like moths seeking light.
Upma (millet mush)
Or biryani rice
Pickled green peppers (available at every meal)
Iragi balls (black millet)
2 vegetables: green beans, diced beets, squash, okra, or bitter gourd
Sauce: spinach, tomato and onion,
Fruit (one piece): watermelon, papaya, or banana
Salted and peppered “puffed rice” with peanuts and cilantro
“Take Things Hard”
I love living like this
(My kids will laugh)
When I was a Columban
The motto was
“Take things hard.”
I bought into that,
And still do.
I like the predictable daily routine,
The rock-hard bed,
Cold “showers” from a bucket,
The same meals repeated.
But time to think,
What more could I ask?
(Well, maybe not the cold showers.)
“How to Meditate”
“Narrow your focus,”
The teacher said,
“To the triangle
Whose base is your upper lip,
With its apex, the top of your nose.
Now do nothing
Just observe your natural breath
For 15 hours.
That’s step one.”
“Step 2 is to spend 10 hours
Focusing on sensations
In the same triangular space –
An itch, a pain, a tingling, throbbing – anything.
Work diligently, ardently, patiently.
This was the Buddha’s path
To enlightenment and liberation,”
The teacher advised.
“It can be yours as well
If you follow his technique.
Doing so, you are bound to succeed,
Bound to succeed.”
“Step 3 is to narrow focus still further.
The triangle shrinks.
Its base remains your upper lip.
But its apex becomes the bottom of your nostrils.
Focus on that mustache area.
Identify the feelings there,
And contemplate it – for 10 hours.”
Now you’re ready for Vipassana itself.
The word means “seeing things as they are,
Not as you want them to be.”
You scan your body
From head to toe
For changing sensations,
For 5 hours in the morning
And 4 in the afternoon.
The point is
To experience life’s impermanence
Where it cannot be denied
Within the framework of your own body,
And so be liberated
From cravings and aversions.
Which like all bodily sensations
Do that for 65 hours.
“The Lotus Position”
The lotus position
Is killing me.
After 15 minutes
The fronts of my thighs
Are throbbing uncontrollably
Like waves on a rough sea
I can actually see the turbulent ripples.
And I still have 45 minutes
(Sometimes and hour and 45 minutes!)
Towards the end,
Each 60 seconds seems like an hour.
Is this what I must do
For the rest of my life
To achieve enlightenment?
“It’s not about torturing yourself,”
The teacher tells me.
“It’s about self-discipline,
And purification of mind.”
I review my life:
For 16 years I’ve gotten up each day at 4:45
For half an hour of meditation.
For 25 years
I’ve run 4 miles every morning
In cold and snow, heat and rain.
“No pain, no gain,” I’ve always believed.
Then a half hour of spiritual reading.
Three vegetarian meals
When I’d rather eat meat.
Another half hour of meditation at night.
What I need is not more pain.
What I need is the Buddha’s understanding
That the pain already here
And the abundant joy
Are both temporary
Subject to the universal law of impermanence
And destined to pass.
Don’t be attached
To either pain or pleasure.
That’s the lesson
And the purification of mind
My teacher was talking about.
But pardon me;
I’m using a chair.
“I Hate Vipassana”
It’s day four of our course.
During the last half hour of morning meditation (4:30-6:30)
I felt like screaming,
“This is just bullshit!”
The chanting had started,
Making it impossible for me
To concentrate on my body scan.
All of a sudden,
I hated everything:
India, Indians, Vipassana Meditation, the chanting,
My hard bed
That’s making me gag.
I don’t understand Vipassana!
Yes, I know it’s about
Facing up to life’ impermanence.
But how many times can you survey your body
For changing sensations
Without screaming about bullshit –
From sheer boredom?
It’s a good thing I still have nearly a week
Make sense of this,
And find heaven
“I Love Vipassana”
The crisis passed
As quickly as it had come.
After 3 hours
Of fruitless, distracted, infuriating “meditation,”
A conference with our dour, laconic teacher
Helped me see. . . .
He spoke of the importance of posture
For disciplining the mind.
He asked about mine.
“No problem,” I said,
I don’t do the lotus position;
I sit in a chair.”
“Hmm . . .” was his pitiless response.
I adopted the lotus configuration
For the next hour.
My legs absolutely throbbed.
At one point
I couldn’t tell my right from my left.
But then I saw:
The Buddha based everything,
On what was certain,
From the experience of his own body.
Since that body perfectly mirrored
The entire universe,
And the laws of nature,
Was better than reading a whole library of books.
So scanning the body
From crown to toe
Is like journeying among the planets,
Like a history lesson,
Like a review of my own life.
Pleasant and painful
Were like all the crises of life
Like all its joys – destined to pass.
The point is however
To awaken the body completely,
To make every single cell
And to do the same
With every moment of life.
“Just observe it all objectively
With perfect equanimity,
Without craving or aversion
Everything will soon pass,”
The teacher said.
“Everything is changing,
I can hardly wait for this afternoon’s
4 hours of “work.”
“A Meditation High”
December 11 , 2013
I had a unique experience – for me.
(My teacher would later tell me it’s quite common.)
During the last 15 minutes of meditation (1:00-2:30)
I had been sweeping through
My Vipassana survey of my body,
And had done so quickly
Perhaps 6 times in a row.
And all of a sudden
My entire body was tingling
From head to toe
In mild vibration.
I felt my body was filled with light.
The vibration continued for 15 minutes.
This, I believe,
Was the experience
Of the “Inner body,”
The immanence of the divine
That Eckhart Tolle describes
In The Power of Now.
My Indian teacher however
Not to treat such experiences
With any more preference
Than dryness, distraction or frustration.
All – the pleasant and the unpleasant –
Are merely sensations.
The point of Vipassana is
To treat all sensations the same:
“With perfect equanimity.”
It’s the nature
Of both pleasant
And unpleasant sensations
And in life
To arise and then subside.
It’s fatal to crave and form attachment to the pleasant
And to fear and cultivate aversions to the unpleasant.
(Still, the experience was nice!)
“Outta Gas – again!”
Today – the 7th of the course—towards the end
Of our 7th hour of meditation
(with 3 ½ to go)
I just ran out of gas.
My back ached.
I couldn’t bring myself
To scan my body even one more time,
“From the top of your head, to the tips of your toes;
From the tips of your toes
To the top of your head.”
And then those aversions kicked in again –
To meditation, Indian accents,
Endless translations into Kanada and Pali
And our teacher’s chanting
In that artificially deep voice,
With the weird tones, melodies and cadences
I don’t understand.
Then I realized
My aversions are the point.
It’s sensations like this I’m supposed to identify
And observe objectively.
Life is full of them,
And they are merely feelings – at least until I own them
(as I mistakenly have done again!),
Making them mine
And creating new “samskaras”
(Negative behavior patterns)
In the process.
“Just observe the sensations,
The teacher intoned.
View them objectively
Like all sensations,
They will arise
And then disappear.
Don’t attach to them.”
Lesson learned . . .
“The Problem with Pleasure”
My teacher says that
Pleasure is good
When it’s shared with others:
A good meal with friends
A game of golf with my sons. . .
But not when it’s sought
For its own sake,
Especially in isolation
That bowl of ice cream for a midnight snack).
Those sorts of “pleasures”
Give rise to craving
Which the Buddha teaches are the causes of unhappiness.
I’m afraid all of that is true.
My experience shows:
Have filled my life to overflowing.
The pleasures I’ve sought – for me –
Have been the problem:
Craving when they’re absent,
Disappointment when over.
And then there are those samskaras . . .
So give others pleasure in abundance.
And let life shower you with gifts unsought.
(It always will.)
Otherwise, live simply
Your cup will overflow
Even if nothing extraordinarily delightful
Ever happens again.
All my life
It’s been preached to me,
And what a burden it’s been!
Now I see
That responding (not reacting) to impulses
Is intimately connected to
The Universal law of Impermanence
And to my anger and defensiveness.
Impulses are impulses
Whether to take that 2nd piece of cake
Or to make a smart retort.
As sensations they arise and pass away.
As a passing impulse
Helps me identify angry sensations
As impulses too –
To be recognized
And given time to pass –
In order to escape misery.
This has been
A 10 day
100 hour Meditation
On the Universal Law of Impermanence.
(I.e. on reality’s changing nature
As events constantly rise and pass away),
On the need to face
The present moment
As it is
As we would like it to be,
With equanimity and calmness.
It has been about
The causes of unhappiness
Located in the sensations
Our bodies constantly produce
As our senses meet
Eradication happens when
We don’t react or become attached to such sensations,
But simply observe them
With heightened awareness –
To accomplish that feat,
We must practice
An hour of mediation
Each morning and evening
Scanning our bodies
“from the top of our heads
To the tip of our toes”
This establishes a pattern
(Based on experience)
For facing the vicissitudes of daily life
Which is constantly
The two wings of the Vipassana bird are
My most recent blog post, “Going to the Movies in Bangalore: ‘Elysium’ and the Surveillance State,” elicited a couple of comments that bear thinking about. It might help to do so in the light of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, which we’re celebrating today here in India (Oct. 2nd).
One very good friend acknowledged that “Elysium” indeed described the kind of planet and surveillance state towards which the United States is rapidly pushing the world. She wondered, “What can we do about it?” — especially in light of the fact that politicians (even those with the promise Obama once represented) seem incapable of exercising the kind of leadership necessary to avoid the Elysium syndrome.
Another friend observed that the type of working class revolution I said “Elysium” suggests is counterproductive. Inevitably, he said, revolution leads to an ultimately destructive cycle of violence that gets us nowhere. A better alternative would be to adopt Jesus’ non-violence as our bedrock philosophy, eliminate materialism from our lives, reform consumption patterns, and simplify lifestyles. He wrote, “I think we need something that actually changes the love of power and which makes even a poor life acceptable. Hence my hope in the Gospel of Peace of the pacifist Jesus.”
My friend’s reference to the acceptability of a “poor life” is what Gandhi proposed as well. Famously, he said that the world has plenty to meet human need, but not human greed. It’s today’s greedy lifestyle that impoverishes our world and creates the urban moonscape reality portrayed in “Elysium.”
Gandhi combatted greed in three ways. First of all, he fostered an interior life animated by the practice of meditation and constant repetition of his mantram (“Rama, Rama” – Joy, Joy). In so doing Bapu raised his own awareness of the unity of all life – and the insanity of seeing others as enemies. Secondly, Gandhi exemplified simple living by reducing his own material needs to an absolute minimum. When he died, what he left behind was assessed at a worth of less than $100. Finally, Gandhi worked tirelessly to change a political reality that others thought impossible to alter. They laughed at his optimism and confidence that India could be liberated from the British Raj. Yet he mobilized this country’s huge population to drive from its soil the most powerful and extensive empire the world had ever seen.
Key to Gandhi’s success was detachment – detachment from addiction to results. As long as we refrain from meditation, simple living, and political activism because we think such measures are useless or doomed to failure, our road to the reality portrayed in “Elysium” is straight, broad, and inevitable.
We are not alone. There are seven billion of us in the world. It’s hard for us to measure the impact of the infinitesimal part we play in synchronizing our daily activities with the arc of history that Dr. King observed bends inevitably towards justice.
Jesus, Gandhi, King . . . These should be our models for courageous, hopeful living. The rest is in the hands of God.
Recently, a good friend of mine wrote to ask how my Lenten resolutions were faring. It’s half-way through Lent, and given what I wrote here on Ash Wednesday (located in the “Thoughts for the Day” category just below the masthead of this blog site), I think I owe her an answer. I’m hoping that the reflection needed for sharing like this might reignite my own Lenten fire. Perhaps it might also encourage reflection in others. They might even share their experiences using the “Comment” feature on this blog site. And that in turn might encourage the rest of us to “save” our Lents before it’s too late.
In general, my Lent is going well. Two elements have made it special. A third (a chance conversation) has given me a fresh understanding of the purpose of Lenten penance.
The two special elements are first of all my experience with an emerging “Ecumenical Table” in our local area. The second is a Lenten study group I’m leading about the historical Jesus.
I’ve mentioned the “Ecumenical Table” several times before in these blog postings. It’s a lay-led gathering of Christians who are looking for deeper meaning in Sunday liturgies. We’ve been gathering monthly for Lord’s Supper liturgies since Pentecost last year. But this Lent we’ve decided to meet every Sunday in a more focused attempt to discern whether our form of community worship is what we’re seeking ultimately. The liturgies the past three weeks have been beautiful and thoughtful. And hearing the voices of women as Lord’s Supper celebrants and homilists is unbelievably enriching. It makes it so apparent how the Catholic Church impoverishes itself and its people by insisting on an all-male clergy.
The second special element of this year’s Lent is our little seminar on the historical Jesus. We’ve been meeting each Wednesday night for an hour and a half. Our purpose is (as Marcus Borg put it) to “meet Jesus again for the first time.” We’re trying to encounter the Jesus of history who stands behind the faith-inspired interpretations of the canonical gospels.
So far the seminar has been going well, although I’ve found my own leadership uneven. But the participants (about 25 at each session) have been unbelievably generous in their showing up, contributing to discussions, and overlooking leadership shortcomings. (Some have told me it’s their Lenten penance!) In any case, the discussion of the gospel readings for the Sunday following each Wednesday’s meeting is proving to be especially rewarding. The same holds true for the segments of the PBS series, “From Jesus to Christ.”
I’ve even found the sessions spilling over into casual conversations. In particular two of my ex-priest friends who have done me the honor of attending have helped clarify my own thought and have advised me about how to do better over hot chocolates at our local gathering place, Berea Coffee and Tea.
The third special element of this year’s Lent, my attempts at Lenten discipline, has been greatly influenced by a conversation I had with a friend weeks before Lent began. He and his wife had come over for supper, and I offered him a cocktail beforehand. My friend declined. He said his son was alcoholic, and as an act of solidarity with his son’s efforts to resist alcohol, my friend too was giving it up.
At first I supposed he was thinking in terms of good example. But then I realized there was far more to it than that. After all, his son wasn’t present to witness my friend’s abstinence. Instead my friend was expressing his faith in the basic unity of all human beings. His abstinence affirmed that acts of solidarity with others somehow influence them even when they are not physically present – even when they’re not consciously aware that those acts are being performed. That’s a deep act of faith quite relevant to Lenten disciplines.
My friend’s words made me realize that at least one purpose of abstinence and other forms of what we used to call “penance” is to raise consciousness of our unity with others – especially with whose negative experiences of life we’ve managed to escape. The hope is that the resulting vicarious experience will somehow strengthen them and move us to action towards eliminating the causes of their distress. So for example,
• Following my friend’s example of abstinence from alcohol establishes a bond with those struggling to break addictions to liquor and drugs.
• Not eating meat somehow unites us with the hungry and raises consciousness about the effects meat-eating has on them and on the environment in general.
• Lowering the water temperature in one’s morning shower creates solidarity with those in U.S. prison camps subjected to water torture in various forms – including cold and scalding showers and waterboarding.
• Turning off the TV above the elliptical machine while exercising, and repeating one’s mantram instead begins to break the bond with the culture of overconsumption and destructive growth.
• The same holds true for establishing a daily discipline of consulting e-mail only once or twice a day instead of every fifteen minutes.
My friend’s refusal of liquor that night taught me that the realization of human solidarity in addictions and other problems is the whole point of Lent and its “penance.” All the rest including formal worship and study of the historical Jesus is simply means to that end.
No, I take that back. The end isn’t realizing human solidarity. The end is doing something about it.
And yet as Gandhi taught us, the end is mysteriously contained in the means – however seemingly insignificant.
Well, it’s Lent. Today is Ash Wednesday. My question is what does that mean for activists who are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, dissident, teacher of unconventional wisdom, story-teller, mystic, and movement founder, Yeshua of Nazareth?
The question is obscured by long centuries of covering up those identities in favor of Jesus’ overwhelming identification as “Son of God.” That title swallows up all the rest and makes it difficult, if not impossible to engage in what Thomas a Kempis called “The Imitation of Christ.”
But for the moment, suppose we set aside “Jesus the Christ,” and concentrate on that man his mother named Yeshua. He lived in a time not unlike our own, in a province occupied by an empire similar to ours. He found such occupation unbearable, and devoted his public life to replacing the “Pax Romana” with what he called the “Kingdom of God.” There the world would be governed not by Roman jackboots, or by the law of the strongest, but by compassion and gift – even towards those his culture saw as undeserving.
The latter was “Good News” for the poor and oppressed among whom he found himself and his friends – laborers, working girls, beggars, lepers infected with a disease not unlike AIDS, and those fortunate enough to have government work as toll gatherers. He ate with such people. He drank wine with them. Some said he got drunk with them. He defended such friends in public. And he harshly criticized their oppressors, beginning with his religion’s equivalents of popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and TV evangelists. “Woe to you rich!” he said. “White-washed tombs!” he called the religious “leaders.”
What does it mean to follow such an activist and champion of the poor this Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013?
I would say it means first of all to ask that question and to pray humbly for an answer.
Other questions for this Lent: Does following Jesus mean taking a public stance against empire and “church” as he did? Does it mean praying for the defeat of U.S. imperial forces wherever they wage their wars of expansion and aggression? Does it mean discouraging our daughters and sons from participating in a disgrace-full military? Does it mean leaving our churches which have become the white-washed tombs of a God who through failed church leadership has lost credibility and the vital capacity to effectively summon us beyond our nationalism, militarism, and addiction to guns and violence? Does it mean lobbying, making phone calls on behalf of and generally supporting those our culture finds undeserving and “unclean?”
Does it mean for Catholics that we somehow make our voices heard all the way to Rome demanding that any new pope save the church from itself by rejecting the anti-Vatican II schismatic tendencies of the last two popes, healing the wounds of the pedophilia crisis, reversing the disaster of “Humanae Vitae’s” prohibition of contraception, allowing women to become priests, eliminating mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination, and recognizing and honoring the contributions of Catholic women like the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)?
Yes, I think, it means all of those things. But Lent also calls for self-purification from the spirit that arrogantly locates all the world’s evils “out there” in “those people.” In its wisdom, the grassroots church of Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, of Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jean Donovan, and Matthew Fox calls us to deepen our interior lives for purposes of sharpening our discernment about how to contribute towards replacing empire with God’s Kingdom. All of those saints, remember, were condemned by the hierarchy just the way Yeshua was in his own day.
Six weeks is a relatively long time for the purification necessary to eliminate undesirable patterns in our lives and to replace them with habits exemplified in the lives of the saints I’ve just mentioned. It’s plenty of time for working on our addictions to the pursuit of pleasure, profit, power, and prestige. Each of us knows what behaviors in our own lives are associated with those categories. So it’s time to get to work.
As for myself . . . besides using this period for training my senses, I intend to recommit myself with renewed fervor to my daily practice of meditation, my mantram (“Yeshua, Yeshua”), spiritual reading, slowing down, one-pointed attention, spiritual companionship, and putting the needs of others first – the eight-point program outlined by Eknath Easwaran in his book Passage Meditation. I’m going to keep a spiritual journal this Lent to make sure I stay focused.
I’m also joining some friends of mine in a resolution to give up church for Lent. We’re doing so in favor of a six week experiment with an “Ecumenical Table” — a lay-led liturgical gathering often featuring a woman as homilist and Eucharistic Prayer leader. Though some in the group will also continue to attend their normal churches, the experiment may help us discern how to finally cope with the white-washed tombs of God I mentioned earlier.
And then there’s our parish Lenten Program I’ll be facilitating. It’s called “The Quest of the Historical Jesus: from Jesus to Christ.” It will be devoted to discovering the carpenter Yeshua behind the Jesus Christ of the gospels. In the light of our discoveries, we’ll unpack the liturgical readings for the following Sunday in hopes of making those Lenten liturgies more meaningful and challenging.
Additionally, my wife Peggy and I will also be working hard on our communication and have decided to devote significant time each evening to listening to each other in a loving respectful way.
In these ways I hope to pass my most fruitful Lent ever, to be truly able to rise with Yeshua to a new level of Kingdom-commitment on Easter Sunday.