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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Spiritual Hoarders

Many people are what I call spiritual hoarders. They collect techniques, practices, initiations, prayers, mantra, teachings, retreat attendance, and a host of other spiritual events, experience, or methodologies. These end up in a kind of spiritual backpack that is carried along on the journey. As you might imagine, after a while that backpack gets bigger and bigger until it starts to weigh us down. At
that point you might think we'd just start cleaning out the backpack and lightening our load, but such a project isn't easy. After all, every item in the back pack was acquired through great effort or expense! Why, these are precious things, mementos of our journey!

I just finished reading an article about abandoned mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It seems there was a lot of mining going on there in the mid-1800s. As you might imagine, back in those days there wasn't a lot of record keeping. The result is that the existence of some of those mines remains unknown, despite the best efforts of authorities to locate and secure them. Among the many dangers facing those who foolishly enter these mine shafts is that the timbers used to support them may well have rotted and so they are waiting for the smallest vibration to collapse, trapping the amateur explorer inside. They also are very dark, literally pitch black, and even a flashlight doesn't provide enough light to avoid holes - some of which were intentionally made to drop debris down during active mining and others which were created by landslides and tunnel collapse. Other holes were covered by boards that have long since rotted and will not support the weight of someone walking on them. It's also quite possible that these holes have become filled with water and dust has accumulated on top of the water, making it appear to be solid ground. Once in the water filled hole, it is likely that there are no ledges upon which to hold or to rest. The same is true of quarries - they may have steep, nearly vertical sides. People dive in to swim and drown because there is no way back out. They may also strike abandoned mining equipment under the water or at the bottom of a vertical tunnel and be killed by the impact.

When I read about this abandoned equipment I wondered why miners would abandon equipment. Especially one hundred fifty years ago, that equipment must have been expensive and hard to get. Why would you leave it behind? Why wouldn't you just put it in your backpack and carry it out? It turns out there are a few answers to that question. One is that once some of the equipment was lowered deep into a mine it became extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous to extract it. The hours required to try to get it out didn't justify the expense of simply replacing the equipment. Other equipment broke during use, and there was no point in removing it. Still other mines became unstable and had to be abandoned quickly, leaving no time to retrieve equipment. Other times miners just gave up and chose a different career, and still other times I am sure either laziness or success prevailed.

Sounds a lot like a spiritual backpack to me! Some of that stuff needs to go, or the weight of it will
overcome us and we will be like the person who is lost in the maze of the mine shaft, exhausted and without food or water to make their way out. We don't necessarily need to throw it down a hole, we can put it in a nice, tidy drawer. We can hold on to some of it for a while, but the truth is that we will need to get rid of all of it to reach the end of the journey. I believe this is precisely what Jesus was talking about when he said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich person to get to heaven - and make no mistake about it, in the west we all are rich by the standards of the rest of the world.

We acquire these things along the spiritual path and we should plumb the depths of them. Wear those bad boys out! In doing so you will eventually come to the place where you need to let go of every last one of them. It won't be tomorrow, or next week, or even next year, but one day - perhaps one at a time - you will begin to see that you no longer need all of these things and, more importantly, that continuing to hold on to them loads you down and makes the eye of that needle look more and more narrow. Every practice, with the exception of sitting quietly and doing nothing, will run itself out and become less than useful to you - and that's normal. We need to guard against premature abandonment of these things, of course, and we must wring every drop of growth from them. The day will come, though, when going to Church on Sunday won't feed you anymore, when you don't need to carry the five different varieties of prayer beads everywhere you go, when you can leave that copy of the scriptures at home, when you can let a retreat opportunity pass you by - not because there is anything wrong with any of these things, but precisely because they have taken you as far as they can. You may still dust off that rosary once in a while or attend the odd retreat, but you will do so knowing that your spiritual tool bag really contains all that you need - and you will have transferred the things you need to progressively smaller bags many times. In the end, and hopefully long before you die, you will need to drop the bag entirely and enter into direct experience and engagement as the only thing that feeds you. At that point, you will have fully abandoned spiritual hoarding and entered into full communion with the goal of the path. What is that goal? It's better if I let you discover that for yourself.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Failing to Control that Which Will Not Be Controlled, and other shades of Fatal Attraction

It seems I have a passion for dating myself with media and entertainment references lately, but I cannot help myself and so it continues.

Having recently reread Marcus Borg's definition of religion and spirituality, that "religion is [hu]man[ity]'s attempt to control God and spirituality is [hu]man[ity]'s attempt to make sense of its
world, I would like to propose a third category, or perhaps a different term and category altogether, that describes popular and (I suppose unavoidably small minded) spirituality. I'd like to call it "Denialality," and define it as the belief or attempt to control life and its outcomes. I wanted to call it "SmallMindedality," but I decided that wasn't kind - which is a whole different thing from saying it isn't accurate, of course.

You see, there is a large part of us, whether liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, that is simply too fearful and too lazy to engage life to its fullest. For this massive group of people, which includes a large number of permanent residents and all of us as temporary residents from time to time, it's just too much work to engage life in all its fullness, beauty, and horror. The result is that we design systems of belief, either overtly or covertly declare them infallible, and so excuse ourselves from participation in the fullness of life. If I am a conservative Christian, I simply declare that the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it, and all evidence to the contrary be damned, I simply pull my toupee down over my ears and proceed full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes of evolution, ignoring the missiles of science that strike my vessel, because I know how it works, Goddammit!

Of course if I am highly educated, or imagine myself so, I would never believe in that kind of nonsense. My version of this is that my thoughts create my reality, and all evidence to the contrary be damned, I simply pull my toupee down over my ears and proceed full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes of things like poverty, starvation, and disease that are contrary to my best thoughts, ignoring the missiles of the seven billion other people on the planet who also have thoughts that may not line up with mine and so work against my attempts to create reality that strike my vessel, because I know how it works, Goddammit!

Then there are the conspiracy theorists, who postulate that nothing bad ever happens but that anything that appears to be bad is really an intricately designed illusion put in place by the government to gain control of our minds. Apparently it hasn't occurred to these people that if the government really wanted to control us (more than they already do), all they would have to do is convince a significant number of people that there were plots to control us. This would cause them to spend much of their time seeking out these plots and so they would be far too busy to notice the actual control plan. To these folks, everything from vaccines to airplane exhaust is being used to try to control us, and they refuse to be controlled, and so all evidence to the contrary be damned, I simply pull my toupee down over my ears and proceed full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes of the truth that in refusing to be controlled I now spend virtually every free moment seeking out those who might be trying to control me and so get virtually nothing done, ignoring the missiles of evidence and science that strike my vessel, because I know how it works, Goddammit!

This isn't an exhaustive list, but it is representative. Might there be a trend, here? I'd like to suggest there are several, not the least of which is a large amount of fear mixed with a large amount of denial. Life can be a frightening place, and so we are tempted to design systems of belief that create for us the illusion that we can control life or are exempt from its natural outcomes. This requires implementation of the second trend, the confusion of opinion with fact. I must believe that my opinion - informed or not, with any base in measurable reality or not - is more than opinion. My opinion must be fact. Whether we are talking about the Bible as literal truth, our thoughts controlling reality, or calling airplane contrails "chemtrails" that poison us, opinion becomes fact and evidence becomes unnecessary
because opinion now supersedes what most of us would call evidence. Of course, much of this is based on what I want to call "truth minus five degrees." by which I mean it starts with verifiable, objective truth and then just moves five degrees off point. The result is something that may seem very reasonable and even very familiar on the surface. but when it's played out to its logical conclusion becomes highly distorted, indeed. However, if I avoid with all my being playing it out, I can maintain a pretty solid defensive front of denial and never have to engage the truth of reality, until...

Until, for many of us, "the event" occurs. We or someone close to us gets the big diagnosis. Our lover leaves. We are fired. We or someone close to us is involved in a horrific accident and will never be the same. Humpty Dumpty has a great fall, and all of our carefully considered systems of denial don't put Humpty back together again. Now what? Now we kick into the grief process full time, I suspect mourning not only Humpty Dumpty but also the loss of our belief system that gave us certainty and denial in one neat package.

As an alternative, might I suggest a religion that engages reality on a full time basis? That is, after all, what every great founding spiritual teacher has taught. Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, and all the others were trying to get us to see past delusion to the reality that lives underneath it - and we somehow fell in love with the delusion rather than the reality! Does life suck? At times, yes! Can we avoid it? Not really! So let's engage it full on! Granted, we might have to start with little bits and pieces as we build our tolerance, but let's just go for it. Gradually, we will be able to tolerate more and more of it - joyfully, even - until we are fully engaged with life. That's what the vision has always been, but it's tough at times and easier to retreat behind the delusion than work through the reality. The problem is that's not really living, and we end up dying without having lived, and I don't believe that's a fair trade for any of us.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: Healing Troubled Hearts by William Day

I had high hopes for this book. Part I was a riveting account of the author's personal and spiritual journey that began when he was designated by an Uncle who was a Priest as a future priest. His account of his childhood disconnection as a result of this designation and his struggle to find his vocation was at times heart rending and riveting. His eventual experience in a Pentecostal church, while not my particular perspective, was interesting to read, as were his early experiences in ministry.

With that in mind, his decision to turn the book into an apologetic against any perspective but his own, biblical literalist, Calvinist perspective was unfortunate. He rather predictably dismisses anything remotely connected to his own Roman Catholic upbringing with little apparent insight as to how that upbringing makes his dismissal predictable! For someone with Dr. Day's training, that failure represents a huge blind spot in both his own insight and the effectiveness of his own "healing." He also, perhaps predictably, lumps any Christian perspective other than his own into what he calls a "New Age" perspective, which is a rather tired and extremely inaccurate tactic of apologists for conservative Christianity. While he did occasionally accurately describe a healing intervention, he fails to see that the same interventions in a secular context also work. In other words, whether one sees that one is not in complete control of every detail of ones life because one believes that God is in control or whether one comes to the same conclusion because of their own failed attempts to be in control matters little in the outcome of their psychological issue - though it may matter greatly in choosing where that person does or doesn't go to church.

In short, if you share Dr. Day's rather narrow perspectives you will likely love this book. If not, you won't find it especially helpful.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Book Review: Love and the Mystery of Betrayal by Sandra Lee Dennis

An outstanding, in depth look at betrayal and it's impact in our lives. The author brings her extensive psychological and spiritual knowledge and experience to bear on her own response to being betrayed in love. Especially helpful to me was that our brain fails to distinguish between physical and emotional trauma, at least in terms of the impact of the trauma on our psyche and person.

While I do have a history of profound betrayal in childhood, I had (for me) an interesting insight into my current situation. Having struggled with significant and early onset (at age 45) physical limitations and increasing debility for the last eight years, this book got me in touch with a profound sense of being betrayed by my body - which seems to speak to the connection between physical and emotional trauma of which the author wrote. It's an interesting and powerful connection for me and, I suspect, others in similar circumstances.

More importantly, this book is outstanding for those struggling to cope with betrayal in love because it is honest about the struggle and the path of recovery. There are no easy answers here, no encouragement to use band-aid measures that mask the symptoms and in so doing leave an emotional time bomb rather than true healing in place. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this book by the author in return for a fair, unbiased review.

The Curious Imprisonment of "Religious Freedom"

The case of some Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on an airplane is but the latest volley on the part of so-called "religious freedom" proponents to in fact restrict the freedoms of others in the name of their religion. Similar cases have emerged across the country by folks from other traditions. What these cases share in common is a confusion (or maybe not) between the freedom to practice my religion and my desire to force you to abide by my religious beliefs as well. It's an important distinction, and I don't really believe the proponents of this kind of "freedom" are so foolish that they don't understand the difference.

The truth is that when we do business in the public marketplace or travel on public transportation, we give up the right to decide who we will do business with or who we are willing to sit next to precisely because we are in public. We are free to make those choices in our private homes or houses of worship as well as while we are on or in other private property that we own. When we venture out into public space, however, we surrender the right to decide with whom we will interact. That's the nature of public space.

In the case of the Orthodox men not wanting to sit next to a woman, the truth is that - with all due respect to their religious tradition - the broader culture has determined that women are equal to men. This makes their request to be moved no different from requesting to be moved because your seat mate is a person of color. The request not only need not be honored, it shouldn't be honored because the religious believers have voluntarily entered the public domain. It's really quite simple, and it has nothing to do with religious freedom. If you want to control who you are going to travel with, you need to drive your own private car or charter a plane - and pray to God that the pilot isn't a woman!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: Adoration: Mary of Bethany - the untold story

I so wanted to say something positive about this book, so here it is: It has a red cover, and red is my favorite color. It also has large print, which is easy on my eyes, and is written in sense lines which means that it's really about fifty pages of very redundant material stretched into one hundred thirty-five. On the other hand, it took less than an hour to read, so not much of my life was wasted.

From the title, I was expecting something very different, perhaps a book about adoration as a spiritual quality or practice. What I got was a rambling, at times tangential, at other times conflated book with heavy but poorly conceived hints of total depravity. That analogies were sometimes mind bending, as in trying to show that work is bad and surrender is good - a concept that runs in direct contradiction to the experience of Paul, to name but one - the author compares Martha to Moses and Mary to Joshua, claiming that Moses didn't get to the Promised Land because he was concerned with working while Joshua did because, presumably because he was concerned with surrender to God. The problem of course is that Joshua's leading people into the promised land doesn't compare well with Mary sitting at Jesus' feet, it's just as much work as Moses leading people around the desert was.

Then, somewhere along the way, the author has decided that Mary of Bethany is the same Mary who anointed Jesus' feet. She displays her ignorance of biblical culture in claiming that it was only this Mary and Jesus who washed feet when in fact it was the duty of any host to wash their guests feet as part of hospitality. The author devotes the last third of her book into her fantasy of the two Marys being one.

In short, if you are given to fictional flights of fancy based on shoddy biblical understandings, this book is for you. If not, I'd avoid it like the plague.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.