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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Finding Meaning in Work

There are times I wish that I was one of those people who just didn't care what they did for work. I know people who would do almost anything that didn't violate their sense of right and wrong to make money, and I admire them. I have also read all of the admonitions by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other esteemed spiritual teachers and religious leaders that it doesn't matter what you do for a living (within the boundaries of ethical propriety, of course), as long as you put your self into your work with right effort it can even be a path to awakening. I believe them, I really do - but it's just not my experience.

Don't  misunderstand, if you are just fine with doing anything that pays a decent wage because you see it as a way to pay your bills and provide for your family I have no problem with that. In fact, I wish I could be like you. I wish I could toddle off to a place where something was made that nobody would ever buy, that wouldn't negatively impact anything or anyone but wouldn't positively impact them, either, and be perfectly content. I just can't do it. I certainly have tried - more than once.

I can be very creative in seeing some of the things I have done for work as meaningful. When I was doing field inspections on homes in foreclosure and vacant homes I was able to see value in being kind and compassionate to the people I encountered as I went about my business. In the case of the vacant properties, I realized that by checking on them and making sure they weren't being used as drug houses I was doing a small part to keep neighborhoods a little bit safer. Even when I encountered people being displaced by banks that had essentially stolen their homes from them in the mortgage scandals of the last five years I could listen to their stories with a sympathetic ear and treat them with dignity and respect. I don't really think I need much of a window to see some good in most work, but I do need something. Right now, in the middle of a job hunt, I am having trouble finding it.

For me, "making money" is not reason enough to take a job if the job involves little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic or - even worse - throwing people overboard. I recognize that from a Buddhist perspective there are very few jobs that aren't considered right livelihood, but I'd be hard pressed to work at a many place that in the strictest sense of the term does offer right livelihood. I suppose it's in part due to my complete rejection of most everything that caused my father to be absent during my childhood. He was a workaholic who during my teen years was an executive in the paper converting industry, the industry which makes the equipment that makes cartons and boxes for everything from cigarettes to McDonald's French fries. To him, I was less important than a French fry box. I suppose that's a message I never wanted to send to anyone, and I can live with that.

The problem is that our employment options narrow as we age. I don't consider myself old, but employers do. I also have some physical limitations that make some employment options unrealistic. That being said, I don't need a position with benefits, I just need a position in which I can feel of benefit. That's turning out to be harder than you might think.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Wash Me, and I Shall Be Clean?

One of the many changes I have noticed in myself over the last several years is that the more time I spend in meditation the less the old liturgical language I used to love resonates with me. In fact, some of it is simply repulsive. This morning I saw a post on the Internet that had a verse from Psalm 51 that is often used in confessions of sin in worship services. The Psalmist pleads with God to, "wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." The implication is that our sin, the things we do wrong, have so befouled us that we need serious cleansing, something like a spiritual version of fecal incontinence that needs power washing.

I've often wondered how often such language has stopped people from even trying something new and challenging. I wonder how many people, filled with religious fervor, simply avoid challenging and uncertain situations for fear of spiritually pooping their pants. I wonder what possible good such imagery could accomplish other than keeping people under control and on the farm - and if that's good, I am not so sure good is very good at all!

Back when I was an enthusiastic institutional Christian I relished the group confession in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church. In those days I attended Mass three days a week - as often as it was offered in my parish. There was great comfort in the words of absolution, and for those who still find those kinds of rituals comforting I have no desire to take their comfort away. All of us, even me, need reassurance that we are okay every now and then. Now, however, that I have come to see that we are all bearers of what Buddhists call Buddha Nature and what Christians sometimes call Christ Consciousness, or what I just like to call God, I see the consequences of sin (those times when we know better but take the easy way out anyway) not so much as spiritual sharting but rather an obscuration of our essential basic goodness. It's less a matter of a soiled diaper than it is a matter of needing to clean our glasses. To be sure when our glasses are dirty we don't see the world or ourselves accurately, and that is a problem - but there is a difference between being so profoundly flawed we need someone else to sandblast our diaper and reaching into our pocket for a cloth to clean our lenses.

In the Upper Room before the Last Supper Jesus washed his disciples' feet. Peter, ever speaking before thinking, first asked Jesus to not wash his feet and then asked him to wash his whole body. Jesus responded that people who are clean need only to have their feet washed, a reference to the fact that in a culture where people walked everywhere in sandals their feet got dirty. If Jesus were here today I suspect he would wash his disciples' hands, but I digress. So if Jesus is telling Peter he is clean, and at this point in his life Peter certainly got it wrong more often than he got it right, what in the world makes us think we need to be washed and purified? The answer is the thought and behavior control mechanism of the Church has led us to believe that for seventeen hundred years, and it's time to claim our freedom.

We all make mistakes, we all take the easy way out sometimes, and we all unintentionally hurt people at times - but every one of those behaviors originates in our own pain and brokenness. At those times we don't need to be reminded of our brokenness - it's all too apparent - but rather of our goodness. Rather than being kicked when we are down, we need to be lifted up. Wash me an I shall be clean? You are clean already! Rejoice!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Need to Police Belief

I don't know how many people are aware that there are people in various religious and spiritual belief systems who spend a great deal of time monitoring the behavior of others - especially that of clergy and other leaders - and then blogging about those who fail to conform to their notion of orthodoxy. The "offenses" of these "heretics" are most often benign, ranging from things like daring to join a mutual support group for clergy to stumbling over words during a worship service to being suspected of being "light in the loafers," a delightful [sic] phrase that hasn't been used in about forty years to describe gay men. It's an expression that is about as timely as the views of those who use it.

It seems that every tradition (including Buddhism) has these trolls lingering in dark corners and waiting to disparage the reputation of good people in the name of orthodoxy and other questions of "validity." The problem is that nothing they do every builds anything or anyone up, it only tears down and destroys. There is no faith is the universe evolving just as it should, and even less faith in the human mind to detect nonsense when it is presented. Worse, there is no productive outcome of heretic hunting. In fact, it is completely life-denying. This view holds that human beings are for the most part ignorant fools, unable to judge whether what they are hearing rings true or not. Could these bloggers simply be generalizing from their own audience to the spiritual community at large? It's certainly a possibility.

Every new teaching, regardless of the tradition in which it occurs, begins as a heresy - which might be defined as a teaching outside of or contrary to the accepted collection of teachings. Within Christianity, the idea that women could be ordained was at one time a heresy. In some dark corners of Christendom it still is a heresy. It took someone with courage who understood the error of a male only clergy to stand up and proclaim the "heresy" as truth for the wheels of change to begin their slow, gradual grind toward the inclusion of women. In this way, those who "teach heresy" actually provide a very valuable service in opening the windows to allow fresh air to blow through the stale climate of religious and spiritual traditionalism. (We dare not forget that burning witches at the stake was once orthodox!) Of course not every heresy brings about change, and that is as it should be. There are such things as bad ideas, and just because someone has a new idea doesn't mean they have a good idea. Recall the Yugo GV.

The need to be a heresy hunter is rooted in abusive religion itself. If your view of God is one of an unforgiving and abusive parent then you may well feel vindicated in acting in the same way, freely abusing others and accusing them of being inadequate in hopes of covering up your own feelings of inadequacy and hoping that God won't notice just how wretched you really are if you succeed in bringing forth enough heretical corpses. While we normally feel for the victims of such small minded nonsense, the perpetrators of it need our compassion as well because they live fear filled and ultimately unfulfilling lives. The fact that their dissatisfaction comes out sideways in witch hunts betrays their profound need for healing. It also speaks of the need for those of us creating new spiritual communities to pay close attention to the images and metaphors we choose.