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Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Body Abandons Us

I am quite sure people are more than a little tired of my complaining about my physical problems. In fact, I am tired of complaining about my physical problems and so I long ago switched to talking about my physical problems in the hope that others encountering similar difficulties will benefit from the discussion.

I started "falling apart" when I was forty-five years old. I will turn fifty-two in September. I had my ankle reconstructed at forty-five and discovered when they gave me crutches after surgery that I couldn't use them because of an existing shoulder injury that I had learned to live with. Eight months later, at forty-six, I had my right labrum and rotator cuff repaired. While I wouldn't recommend anyone have two significant orthopedic surgeries in one calendar year - I thought it was a good idea because my out of pocket maximum had been reached in the first surgery and the physical therapy that followed it - my rationale for repairing my shoulder was sound, even if the timing wasn't. I reasoned that at some point in my life I would need to use either crutches or a walker again. In 2011 my rationale proved sound when I had spinal fusion and needed to use a walker for a couple of weeks. Back surgery is never a complete success in the sense that one never becomes "good as new." That having been said, even though I've not returned to one hundred percent I am at eighty to eighty five percent - a very significant improvement, indeed. Now it's a torn labrum in my left hip, and as much as I don't want to admit it I will probably need to have it surgically repaired  sooner rather than later because it is getting worse rather quickly. What started out feeling for all the world like a bad groin pull and sort butt now clicks and sometimes makes it difficult to bend over or stand back up after sitting on the floor.

Quite often I find myself wondering if all of this is "normal." People in my family didn't talk about physical aches and pains due to being of northern European heritage and, in the case of my parents, rather heavy alcohol abuse that may well have masked whatever physical pain they were having. I wonder how many other fifty-one year old people have the physical health issues that I do, as if being able to identify myself as normal or abnormal would change the reality of my situation. The truth is that if I live long enough I will one day reach the age where most of my peers have physical limitations and whether or not I started earlier than most will be irrelevant.

Our culture is very embodied - more than we need to be and more than is healthy. I was abused rather profoundly as a child and I recognize that led to two seemingly contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, I always made sure I was strong and able to take care of myself as an adult should anyone attempt to transgress against me as an adult and, on the other hand, I wasn't very invested in caring for my body - a body that had let me down when I needed it most as a child. So I exercised and lifted weights to increase my strength and stamina and I also ignored my body when it told me something was wrong. In other words, the only one who got me here is me!

One day, however, even the most grounded among us will experience what I am experiencing now. If we believe our body is our "self," then we surely will experience our "self" slipping away. While I am a true believer in interdependence, I do not relish becoming physically dependent on others one moment sooner than necessary. Perhaps I feel unsafe, or (more likely) unworthy of the level of care that I may need a bit sooner than most. On the other hand, the opportunity for spiritual practice in the midst of all of this is enormous. I am daily reminded of my own impermanence, and my ego (in the Eastern sense) is regularly assaulted by these small reminders that there is no permanent, unchanging Craig who will go on forever. Maybe the grace in all of this is that since I am a slow learner I have been given early lessons!

I have always found suffering to be an extremely spiritual circumstance. There is something about being reminded that we aren't islands onto ourselves or the masters of our own destiny that has great value. Balanced against that are concerns about remaining gainfully employed and being emotionally available for friends and family. As in so many other areas of life, it becomes necessary to find and maintain balance. You might well say that balance is the heart of all spiritual practice! After all, not many of us can run away to a monastery or become a hermit in a remote cave, as appealing as that may be at times. While some people are called to such practices, even in the monastery or the cave there are questions of balance in our relationships, our schedules, and finding food and water.

The spiritual life, especially in Christian circles, has suffered because somewhere along the way some fool decided to create a false dichotomy between sacred and secular and so between daily life and spiritual practice. There is no such distinction. A spirituality that makes us feel great at church or in the meditation hall but doesn't impact our home life is perhaps the worst kind of self-deception because it creates a part of ourselves that is irrelevant. That's obscene, and may be a significant part of the decline of institutional Christianity. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, which means the human experience is the subject of spiritual practice - from eating, drinking, and shitting to wondering how we are going to get up that flight of stairs it is all grist for the mill. The challenges of life are the vehicles for our growth and awakening. They may not be fun, but they are essential!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Is Buddhism a Religion?

I suppose you are hoping for a definitive answer. We all hope for definitive answers in almost every area of life - in fact, it is that hope for certainty that is the primary cause for fundamentalism in all its manifestations. Benjamin Franklin famously said that the only two sure things in life are death and taxes. I would add birthdays to that list, except that in truth birthdays are merely markers in our march toward death and so are implied in death. As to taxes, the only certainty is that they come due - there are those who refuse to pay them, so perhaps they aren't certain either. That leaves us with death.

Is Buddhism a religion? I suppose that depends on how one defines religion. I heard an interview the other day in which the person being interviewed defined a religion as a belief system that looks for outside intervention from a force more powerful than oneself, an intervention that rescues us from an unpleasant circumstance. That perspective hadn't occurred to me, so I spent some time reflecting on it. How does it impact Christianity? If one follows the traditional Christian path and believes that Jesus "saves" us from hell, then Christianity is a religion. On the other hand, for someone like me who can no longer believe in a hell from which humanity needs saving, I suppose it could be said that the Christian path is spirituality, not religion.

Some people are quick to point out that the root of the word religion, "ligare" means "to bind [back] or to tie." That certainly has been the experience of religion for many people, but I have to ask whether or not that remains a valid goal. Is the purpose of religion in our lives to control us, or to keep us from doing something that we shouldn't? Is that even desirable? Many of us have, indeed, felt constricted by religion - not in the sense of being kept from doing the things we ought not do, but in the sense of being kept from achieving our full potential. In my experience, spirituality tends to encourage us to achieve our full potential and sees us not as some kind of animal that needs to be tamed but rather as a human being with a conscience which tells us when we cross a line of propriety.

So we return again to the question of Buddhism as religion. If we accept the definition of religion offered above, that religion looks to an outside person or force to rescue us and also binds us back from doing the things we should not do, clearly Buddhism is not a religion. Buddhism places the responsibility for our self improvement project squarely on our own shoulders - right where it belongs. While Buddhism doesn't rule out the possibility of a God, it does hold that we are the agents of our own salvation. I value that emphasis on personal responsibility and the lack of an outside agent who forces us to misbehave. When Mara, who might be understood as temptation, comes to visit we are encouraged to treat Mara with compassion. We treat our temptations with compassion rather than attempt to deny they exist in order that we might appear holy to our friends. Can we make peace with ourselves? If we can, then surely salvation exists and we are saving ourselves.

How does this square with the Jesus experience? Truthfully, Jesus laid out a path for his followers to walk and was critical of the religious and political leaders of his day who sought to convince the people they were beholden to the leaders themselves for their salvation. There is no small amount of irony in the truth that as the Christian religion grew it tried to convince it's adherents that they were beholden to the Christian religious leaders for their salvation. I believe Jesus would have opposed that behavior as much in the Church that claimed to follow him as he did in the Jewish leaders of his day.

Is Buddhism a religion? Only if you make it one by distorting the teachings of the Buddha. Is Christianity a religion? Only is you make it one by distorting the teachings of the Christ.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reincarnation, Rebirth, and Souls

For those of us who straddle the Buddhist-Christian worlds, the whole business of reincarnation (a Hindu concept), rebirth (a Buddhist concept) and having a Soul (a Christian concept) can be problematic. Hindu spirituality poses the idea of reincarnation, a concept that has been accepted by more than a few Christians throughout history. Loosely stated, reincarnation holds that we come back and live again until we achieve enlightenment. In Christian terms we might say that we come back until we achieve union with the Divine, or union with all that is. In the New Testament there are references such as our being "purified as if by fire" that Roman Catholics have seen as a proof text for purgatory while reincarnationists (myself included) would argue that if this life is anything it is a purification as if by fire and so this must point to reincarnation.

Rebirth, on the other hand, holds that our essence returns but nothing more. For me the problem in that belief is that in Tibetan Buddhism great Lamas are not only reborn but are in fact reincarnated. In fact, the great masters are thought to be able to predict and/or control the place of their next "rebirth." When the suspected reincarnation is found, he recognizes the things that belonged to him and pictures of people associated with him in his previous life. Apparently, in the transition from schmuck to enlightened person to Bodhisattva the circumstances of rebirth/reincarnation change and come under the control of the individual - or something like that. Frankly, I'm not buying it. I am suspicious of all double standards, and to me (you can, of course, make up your own mind) the whole notion of Bodhisattva vow - that we vow to return even after achieving enlightenment until all beings are enlightened - rather argues against rebirth and in favor of reincarnation. Taking the Bodhisattva vow means that me, myself, and I - empty though we may be - are coming back.

Speaking only for myself, of course, I do believe I have a soul and I believe that soul is impermanent in that it is always changing/evolving because nothing in life stagnates without dying. I believe that soul carries over from lifetime to lifetime, and while I am ambivalent about the assertions of some that they can recall entire previous lives, there is the little matter of a recurring dream I had as a child of being dressed in fur and a metal helmet with horns on it, running through a town, and being run through with some kind of spear. I had this dream long before I knew what a Viking was, and long before I knew I was Norwegian. Then again, it may not mean anything.

Theologians constantly argue about things like this and make pious declarations of what we ought to believe - a grand display of arrogance if ever there was one. The truth is that nobody knows what happens after we die, and there is no proof that anyone has ever come back or even been reincarnated - though for my part I find the Tibetan system compelling. There is the little matter of the several "books of the dead" from antiquity that purport to tell us precisely what happens according to different traditions - but all they really are is collection of the speculations of ancient theologians, who seem no less arrogant that contemporary theologians. One might say they were ahead of their time!

In the end, I believe that what really matters is that each of us arrives at a resting place (as opposed to a conclusion) in our journey that we can live with. If it fits right now, I believe that is a good and beautiful thing - as long as we keep our minds open to new information and possibilities. Once we close ourselves to the possibilities, we close ourselves to growth and turn instead to paying more attention to defending our entrenched beliefs than to the beliefs themselves. There's a name for that, but I suppose I use it too often...just turn down the lights, light some candles, maybe play some soft music, because all productivity has ceased.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Can You Just Pay Attention?

There's a trend these days wherein people sit in meetings, conference, or speeches sending Twitter messages quoting what the speaker is saying. Some of my friends, and tens of thousands of others, do it. Frankly, I don't like it one bit. There is nothing about sending fragments of what anyone is saying that can possibly come close to capturing the message of any speaker. What's more, when we filter through what we are hearing searching for "tweet-bits" we can send out, we aren't really listening to what's being said - and how many problems have their origins in people not listening?

I can't count the number of times after giving a sermon or a talk someone will come up to me, grinning from ear to ear, and tell me they just loved how I said "xyz." I sure am glad they got something they could use from what I said, but more often than not I never did say "xyz" or anything even close to it. Now, that's fine with me, but can you imagine how much more lost in translation our messages are if someone is tweeting them as we are speaking? The world can wait for whatever important information we glean from the meetings, conferences, and social events we attend. In fact, the world will be rewarded for its patience by receiving a tweet that is at least peripherally related to what we said.

We already spend far too much time not listening to what's is being said. We formulate our response to the statement of friends and loved ones before they have finished their thought. We participate in a culture that actually encourages multi-tasking, which fragments our attention even more than it already is. We want everything - even information - now, right now, and so the information we receive often isn't even completely formulated in the speaker's mind before we start not listening and formulating our response. Is it any wonder our relationships are mired in communication problems? We have forgotten how to communicate!

In the end, it's a matter of mindfulness. Do we want to be here, now, and experiencing life, or would we rather be distracted, deluded and completely ineffective? If Twitter is any indication, its the latter! Count me out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Whose Shit Is This, Anyway?

For many years now I have been asking people I have counseled, "Whose shit is that?" when they come to me and reveal that they are, essentially, classical caretakers and/or being manipulated and controlled by someone else. They usually will say something like, "Well, if I do that then John is going to be upset..." which prompts me to ask just whose problem John being upset really is - whose shit is that, anyway? Each of us are responsible for our own feelings, thoughts, and behavior. If John is mad, that's a problem of John's creation and John is the only one who can solve it - no matter how much John tries to make someone else responsible.

Lately, I have discovered a whole new, much broader application of what I charmingly call "The Shit Principle." It works like this - people do stupid shit all the time. They live their lives being less than true to themselves, in the closet over any number of issues. Friends betray friends, or refuse to see them in public for fear of the opinions of others, they start unwise relationships or unwisely end stable relationships, they quit good jobs in favor of bad jobs - the list is virtually endless. Sometimes, those bad choices cause us to feel hurt but upon close examination (and to borrow a tired, but honest, break up line) it's not you, it's them. What I mean to say is that not only can't we protect people from themselves, we also shouldn't take other people's foolish actions personally. Their seeming inability to face reality just isn't our issue - but, oh, how we love to try to make it our issue.

Ultimately, the only one we are responsible for is ourselves. If someone doesn't want to associate with us, unless we have been displaying some fairly inappropriate behavior, it's that person's inability to accept reality as it is that drives their decision. Despite that, we often find ourselves embroiled in an unpleasant story - fantasy, really - of our own construction in which we play the villain or the abused party. Let it go, it's just not your shit.