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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why I am a Buddhist Christian

I  am a Buddhist Christian first and foremost because the teachings of Buddhism give me a way to work with my mind and my life that Christianity cannot.

I'm also a Buddhist Christian because Christianity in the America is dominated by loud mouthed, small minded bigots who make me want to scream. In fact, the imbalance in the public arena has become so severe that I am not sure the image of Christianity can be rescued. What dominates the bookshelves of the Barnes & Noble Christianity section gives me the dry heaves. "Christian" bookstores, aren't. When I encounter the Salvation Army food truck in the hood they are essentially telling people if they had prayed for food the Salvation Army could have saved gas money because it would have magically appeared. If you come across a Christian in public who is likely to be witnessing about his or her faith, you will soon discover you have encountered an obnoxious boor. Some of you are thinking, "well, Mr. Smarty Pants, write a book for moderate to progressive Christians so they have something to buy." Nice theory, but the problem is that most moderate to progressive Christians are rather passive creatures who are more likely to buy the latest piece of fluffy, ego-laden Eckhart Tolle nonsense than a substantial book about a meaningful, practice laden Christianity. Why? Because substantial books seldom make Oprah's Book Club.

More importantly, the real problem is that the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have deteriorated into "holy shit, I hope this keeps me out of trouble" belief systems that don't have much to say to a world where most people smart enough to tie their shoes unassisted have realized
that there isn't any heaven in the clouds or hell inside the earth to make threats of punishment a motivating force. On the other hand, those wearing bow biters are crowding the mega-churches saying a sinner's prayer. I want to hasten to say there's nothing wrong with wearing bow bites, if that's your preference (or limitation). After all, Barney needs love, too.

What's worse is the truth that moderate to progressive Christians have been banging the new ecology & new cosmology drums for so long (thirty years!) many people mistake it for a dead horse and want to drag it off to the dog food factory to earn a few bucks. Can you people buy a new idea? Have you no imagination? Or are you so scared of new adventures that you don't dare try something new once you latch on to something that seems to work, even if only once? I bet there is still a leisure suit in your closet, isn't there? There are mausoleums with more life in them that there is in your gatherings. Can Call to Action give up on the puppet Masses and just once invite a theologian to one of their gatherings who still has their own teeth? Of course, doing so might bring change including attendees at your conferences who can't be tracked by the telltale crunch of a Depends undergarment and I'd imagine that is terrifying.

You see, it doesn't really matter if we are talking about conservative, moderate, or progressive Christians, most of you are so scared of change you are likely to soil yourselves if it would happen. Of course, many of the attendees at a Call to Action conference soil themselves on a regular basis anyway - but I digress.

So while the western faiths are busily scurrying about trying to avert disaster and waiting for God to rescue them while blaming those who disaster catches in its grips for their calamity because obviously they are not beloved of God, what are the eastern faiths doing? Do you really want to know? They have looked around, realistically assessed life, and decided that shit happens to everybody. So, rather than trying to avoid life either through institutional denial, yearning for the bad old days, or hunkering down in the avoiding-change storm shelter, Buddhism takes an honest look at what happens in life and encourages us to take an honest look at our reactions. We explore our mind and our stories with an eye toward stripping away all of the layers of nonsense we have voluntarily cakes over them seeing them honestly. We are taught that we can and should control our feelings, thoughts and behavior, and the result is that we become a person whom we can actually live with. Our ability to respond with compassion increases at least in part because we aren't looking over our shoulder to see if Satan is sneaking up behind us with a dozen roses, breath mints, and an erection because we realize that Satan is a mythical being of our own creation.

Why am I still a Christian? I am still a Christian because I have encountered God present in Jesus Christ and in the Sacraments of the Church. I am still a Christian because when you cut through all the fear and bullshit of popular Christianity and look directly at the teachings of Jesus and the first three hundred years of Christianity, at the great Contemplative history of the Church and it's profound social justice teachings and ignore the assholes outside Pridefest and Planned Parenthood, what you find is rich beyond measure. What you find are the great meditative practices, very similar to what eastern religions call meditation - and what you find in those practices regardless of your tradition is the same - that which I (and not a few others) call God. Not Santa God, mind you, some old hairy white man we beg for mercy, but rather the very ground of being, the source of life and love that is found in the interconnectedness of all that is and most especially in relationship. That God of my experience doesn't want us to go out on the street and try to make bitching into a legitimate spiritual practice, doesn't want us to evangelize the world to any particular point of view, never wants us to "share Jesus" with anyone, but rather asks something much more difficult. It simply calls us to love, compassion, and relationship - something completely contrary to our instinctive drive to focus on the things that separate us and then conquer, kill, and pillage in God's Name. Could there be anything more obscene?

The short version (though it's far too late to really be brief) is that I am a Buddhist Christian because by being Buddhist I can come much closer to the essence of Christianity in which I encounter God. More importantly, I encounter God in Buddhism without having to tunnel through all the bullshit of the pseudo-Christianity of contemporary expression. One brings me alive, and the other has repeatedly tried to oppress the life out of me. Mama didn't raise no fool.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Split That Hair a Few More Times, Will Ya?

One of the things I have noticed over the years about Christianity - and I will absolutely say right up front that this tendency has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus - is its tendency to compartmentalize life. There are hints of that in the New Testament's expression of the Greek view that the body was a prison for the spirit. In its more extreme forms this philosophical position led to practices such as "mortification of the flesh," consisting of actual self-abuse as a vehicle for spiritual growth. If people went too far and actually did themselves in it wasn't altogether bad because the spirit had been released.

More benign practices centered around idea that the world and its flesh were bad and the spiritual world was good started in the earliest days of the Church when the Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated from "the world" into the isolation of the desert in search of God. I don't believe they were trying to establish some kind of precedent or make a statement about everyday life being bad, but some people certainly saw it that way. During the Middle Ages monasteries became centers of education in addition to being, at least in their cloistered expressions, centers of withdraw from the world as well. The Protestant Reformation, especially those profoundly depressed individuals who developed the notion of the "total depravity of humankind" took the fragmenting of life at the hands of the Church to new lows. Contemporarily, evangelical fundamentalists have been waging a "culture war" for decades that characterizes everything from popular music and entertainment to free thought as "the work of the devil." This has led to a generation of home-schooled social misfits from that world, perhaps the most long term devastating effect of the narrow minded world of popular religion over the last one hundred fifty years. Many self-identified "Christians" now live in a world they are intensely afraid of and about which they are ill informed. Some have even advocated wanton disregard for the environment in the hopes that the world will end soon, which they see as a necessary preliminary event for Christ's return. Of course, that view is based on the most profoundly ignorant biblical scholarship available, but why should facts get in the way?

All of this goes on among people who believe they are following Jesus, who in fact was intensely involved in all corners of his world, from the mundane events of daily life to cutting edge political and religions action. His was a life of speaking truth to power and advocating for the full inclusion of all people in the Church of his day - and because the Church and State were part of the same entity in his day, that meant he was also advocating for the marginalized in the political arena. He attended to people's daily needs as well - their need for healing, for food, and for shelter in the storm. Extremely significant to me is the fact that although he did go away for periods of meditation and contemplation, he did not withdraw from the world.

From my first exposure to Buddhism on to today, one of the most impressive things to me about Buddhism has been its conviction that the material for spiritual practice not only draws from everyday life, but in fact is everyday life. From the Zen saying, "Chop wood, carry water," to the principles of Engaged Buddhism, to Chogyam Trungpa's assertion that "The path is the goal," daily life is the very stuff of practice. Its respect for the life of all sentient beings makes environmentalism not a problem but a requirement, and its emphasis on compassion precludes dismissing any part of our world. These values are a breath of fresh air in a world filled with anger and judgmental zeal, and they may be our best hope for the future. Rather than continuing to fragment reality into the good, the bad, and the ugly, Buddhism sees it all as necessary for practice. While there certainly are Buddhists who go to live in monasteries and similar settings, they go for intense spiritual practice rather than to avoid a defective world.

It is these kinds of contrasts that convince me that Interspirituality is essential for the future of our planet. Since different religious traditions developed in different cultural settings they are bound to have different emphases as well as different strengths and weaknesses. Looking across traditions provides a much needed corrective when an aspect of one tradition has been corrupted by well meaning but ill informed adherents. It's clear that Jesus would not have endorsed fracking, for example, even as many who purport to be his followers do so. A quick look across traditions leaves us hard put to justify a skillful spiritual person advocating poisoning our water for profit - and the truth is that looking across traditions counters the arguments of a vocal but misguided minority from any single tradition. It's much harder to hijack a very large, very diverse group of people from a diverse collection of spiritual traditions.

In the end, it's not who we follow that's important but rather that we follow them faithfully. As a mono-non-theist (to coin an awkward term), it is absolutely my belief that all of the historical traditions are trying to get to the same place and answer the same questions. The differences between traditions are for the most part cultural and historical while the essentials are commonly held. Theologians tend to see tremendous differences between traditions while the mystics - those who practice to encounter the essence of their tradition - find their experiences to be remarkably similar. Speaking just for myself, actually encountering Divinity is much more important than arguing about what official pronouncement we subsequently make about the encounter others have had - and the halls of theologians have never been heavy with mystics, in fact quite the opposite. Theologians tend to be very threatened by the mystics because they can't be controlled and so historically theologians have spent a significant amount of time trying to drive the mystics out. The results are clear to see, and it's long past time for a change!

Instead of listening to people who make pronouncements about people who have spiritual practices and achievements, imagine what would happen if we listened to those people directly? Instead of listening to self appointed theological press secretaries, why don't we look for ourselves? Instead of splitting hairs even further, why don't we admit that everything and everybody is inseparably interconnected? Imagine the revolutionary changes that would follow!

Chronic Pain as Spiritual Teacher

Pain is an interesting thing, and chronic pain can be a fascinating pain in the ass - or other parts of the body. I have learned it is a profound spiritual teacher as well. Nobody likes pain, we all want to be pain free, and sooner or later we all lose that battle. Some will lose the battle to remain pain free sooner and others later, but we are all going to lose it - except for those who have a rare disorder that causes them to not feel pain. At first that might seem like a desirable thing, but if you consider that the inability to feel pain would leave you with no reason to take your hand off a hot burner you will soon come to see that it is actually dangerous to not feel pain.

I have noticed that there is a part of me that wants to understand where "this" pain is coming from when it flares, not so much because I believe such an understanding would change anything but rather because I am curious by nature. I also want to know if I have done anything to exacerbate my pain so that I can change my behavior. The problem is that when we reach a point in life where we are carrying multiple diagnoses there may be no single, easy answer to that question. What's more, I am not sure it really matters. As the Buddha famously said, when you find that you have been shot by a poison arrow the thing to do is not to ask a lot of questions about the origins of the arrow or the type of poison involved - the thing to do it to pull it out! In a similar way, it doesn't matter so much where the "pain arrow" came from, it matters that it is present.

I've read a lot about pain and chronic illness over the last twenty years. There are nearly as many suggestions about coping with chronic illness as there are people making suggestions. Some advocate the use of medication while others are critical of medication and advocate other interventions. In my more cynical moments I am fairly certain people in the latter group move to the former when they encounter chronic illness and pain for themselves! A while back I read about a man who believed he was such an advanced mediator that he didn't need anesthetic at the dentists office. Once the drilling started, he realized how wrong he was! Along with many other men, I bought into the notion that admitting pain was somehow less than masculine and needing medication was even worse. It's a harmful myth, because when we are in significant pain we don't respond in the best way to our family and friends. You can call me weak for taking medication when necessary, it's more important to me to be the kind of husband, father, and grandfather my family deserves.

I must confess there are many times when I cannot look at my pain dispassionately and wax philosophical about it. Tonight was one of those nights, though obviously the worst of it has now passed and I can at least write about it. You see, pain isn't just about pain. It's also about sleep deprivation and the consequences of the resulting fatigue such as concentration and memory problems as well as a reduced pain tolerance the next day due to fatigue. There are, of course, many more struggles that come with living with any chronic illness, but among my point in writing tonight is to say that chronic pain has been among my greatest spiritual teachers.

As I have written elsewhere, I was raised in an abusive and chaotic environment. Some of the consequences of that history included (in my younger days) being extremely guarded and needing to be sure I could physically protect myself in any situation. I became a tough person with a high pain tolerance because it wasn't acceptable in my family to be in either emotional of physical pain. It was fine to be ill, in fact in a bizarre way it was almost encouraged, but complaining about it was out of the question. Not surprisingly, shortly after graduating from high school I became involved in an abusive relationship. During that relationship I injured my back at work. That injury finally started my relationship with chronic pain and eventually led to back surgery twenty-five years later.

I met my wife Erin I was forty years old. By forty-five I was reaping the consequences of the good old, all American male, just rub dirt in your injuries lifestyle. One of my ankles and one of my shoulders were in very bad shape, eventually requiring surgery. Suddenly, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't take care of myself without help - especially in the aftermath of two surgeries. For a period I couldn't have gotten myself out of danger by any other means than crawling, and even that was problematic. What does somebody with my history do when they are confronted with the reality that they are no longer in physical control? I suppose that most people try denial for a while, but it really is short lived. Sooner or later you have to surrender and admit that not only are you not impervious to danger but there are times you cannot even meet the simplest of your own personal needs unassisted. For me, that was a huge growing experience - and each time I have been forced to say, "I can't," it has been another growing point in my life.

A few years later the wear and tear of life on that back injury finally caught up with me and my opportunities for growth multiplied right along with my pain levels. My ankle and shoulder surgeries turned out to be a training ground for the much more debilitating process that my back became. I found I couldn't walk more than thirty feet without sitting or squatting. I went though many, largely unnecessary, procedures and tests but the only thing that helped were moderately high does of pain medication. Pain medication doesn't stop degenerative processes, and in the end I had no choice but to have back surgery - something I had I would never to do. It was an excellent decision and turned out as well as anyone could hope such a surgery might. Even with the surgery, however, there are ongoing limitations that, for the most part, I have learned to accept. More importantly, they limitations have taught me something about myself. In western culture we are taught that our value comes exclusively from what we produce, and this value system causes big problems for a lot of people when they retire because their whole identity is tied up in their work. They quite literally don't know who they are when their working days are done.
One day not too long ago I realized that "I" don't feel any differently than I did thirty years ago. My body certainly does, but Craig still feels like the same old Craig he was at twenty-two. Chronic pain has shown me the truth that I am not my body. My body is the vehicle that carries me around, and there are days it feels like I bought this vehicle at a used car lot with a sign saying "home of the high mileage beauties" out front, but it's not me. Some people never learn that lesson, but I have been blessed to learn it well. Of course, the lessons haven't always been pleasant but nothing worth having comes without effort. When I see my friends spending hours at the gym trying to delay or reverse the onset of aging I feel sorry for them because they are engaged in an exercise (pardon the pun) in missing the point. Of course it's great to be healthy and it's great to be in shape, but time moves on relentlessly no matter how much iron we pump. From my vantage point I recognize they would be much happier spending half as much time in the gym and redirecting the other half of their gym time to personal and spiritual discovery around the aging process.

I would love to tell you that I am older, wiser, more insightful, and everything is wonderful all the time. That would be lying, however. The truth is that chronic pain and chronic illness wear on me just as they wear on anyone else. I have good days and bad days, though I am coming to understand them more as good periods and bad periods. Sometimes it is quite easy to cope with my challenges and they seem almost insignificant. Then there are periods like the one I have been going through recently when I have trouble getting comfortable no matter what I do and I can't concentrate well enough to do much of anything. These are the times when spiritual practice is very important, even though I may not be able to do much practice in the middle of these tough periods. My history of practice carries me through, offers insight, helps me to surrender and recognize that everything changes and so eventually a good period will begin. Where I believe people with chronic illness get into trouble is when they believe that their spiritual practice and insights should mean they don't have any struggles. As long as we have a body we are going to have periodic body problems. No amount of spiritual practice or insight exempts us from being human. What it can do is take the edges off the worst moments and offer hope. The other thing that can be quite helpful is sharing our stories in the hope that they might help others. I was encouraged today to receive a comment on an article I wrote about chronic pain and ego last January on my other blog at from a young woman with chronic pain issues herself. It has been my experience that my struggles take on meaning when I can offer them to others in similar situations. For that reason I am in the (perhaps odd) space where I wouldn't have anyone take away my struggles if they could. Perhaps that is the greatest spiritual lesson of all.