Clearing Out the Clutter in Our Character

Fence DSC03309As I continued on my Journey into Emptiness, I discovered a third kind of clutter, which might be identified as the clutter in our character. This is made up of all the tools and maneuverings that we use in our relationships with others.

Does every vacation—for those of us who are partnered—have to include at least one big argument? Mine seem to, and they unfailing arise out of habits that might have some usefulness in completing work projects, but not in being with the one I love.  My colleague, the Rev. Barbara Merritt, drew my attention to the advice of modern theologian, Richard Rohr, who claims there are three things we need to let go of here: 1) being in control, 2) being effective, and 3) being right. Then she told a story that I could have written myself. She said:

Having just read that list, I was a passenger in the car as my husband drove us to the movies Thursday night. I couldn’t help but notice that he’d taken a very slow and, I believed, inferior route. I shared this observation with him. He reminded me that I was not driving (number 1, I was not in control.) I replied that he was not being as effective as was possible (I wanted maximum efficiency) and finally I comforted myself with a smug sense of being right. In less than a minute, I had violated all three precepts of ‘letting go.’ I had struck out.

One day Margy and I were driving to the movies, and I managed to strike out in just exactly the same way. From my point of view, we were rushing to get to the movie, and she was foolishly taking a longer route. There was nothing intrinsically unpleasant about the journey, yet I was worried about wasting time on the way to the movie. I was attached to control, effectiveness, and a sense of myself as being right.

Antoine de Ste. Exupery, in The Little Prince, tells us that it is the time we waste on our friends that makes them so important to us. Of course, there is a paradox here. Being with friends is not really a waste of time. But we cannot enter that time with productivity or effectiveness in mind. Wasting time is the essence of a playful spirit. We are not trying to gain anything, grow anything, accomplish anything. We move from doing some thing, to being some one.

On the journey into emptiness, the third step was to let go of these compulsions of my character, and to waste time. Perhaps because I am partly introverted and partly extroverted, I needed to waste time both alone and with others. I needed unstructured solitude, and I needed unstructured time with friends.

How often do we just take time for being with friends? After one such dinner conversation, I wrote in my journal: I feel saner, restored to myself. This is what I am looking for, finally, this sense of being restored to myself. In order to be in the present moment with others, I needed to stop doing and doing. I needed to let go of control, to let go of being effective, to let go of being right.

 

The quote from the Rev. Dr. Barbara Merritt was from a sermon “The Spiritual Practice of Letting Go” preached February 25, 2001, at First Unitarian Church in Worcester, MA.

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God Is a Verb

The Jewish mystics suggest that God is a verb. Instead of thinking of God as a being, we might think of it as Be-ing. Instead of using the word God, we might use the verb, God-ing. This process in the universe, this God-ing energy, is evolving, creating, transforming the universe, always changing, always leaning toward greater perfection. Or perhaps we should say it is leaning toward greater beauty, since perfection implies that there is something out there we are trying to copy. But God-ing, the activity of God the verb, includes the birth of newness and unpredictability within the wholeness. And all of us are a part of this God-ing.

Sun in Trees DSC01708Jewish mysticism sees a particular dignity and purpose in the lives of human beings. It describes it in the form of a story—the Kabbalah speaks of sparks of divine light that were trapped in the husks of all things in the universe when this material world was created. The purpose of life is to raise the sparks, and bring together the separated light into one whole. Part of how we do this is through becoming aware of the larger whole. But what makes humans significant is that we exist with free will. So not only are we a part of the harmonious symphony of the all, but we can actively shape the music. Whatever we choose has an effect on the larger whole.

Rabbi David Cooper tells a story about Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach, one of the great mystical rabbis of the twentieth century. He was always late everywhere he went, because every time someone asked him for help, he stopped and responded. He would not simply give money, but also have a short conversation. “Each person was treated as if he or she were a saint. …Reb Shlomo believed that the world was balanced on our ability to help one another. Should someone fail to assist another person, the world could be destroyed.”

As human beings, then, our actions have ultimate value. We are not here to follow a bunch of rules, or to pass a test, or to clear a kind of judgement, to get into a personal heavenly afterlife. Rather, by the choices we make, we are shifting the essence of the universe. When we choose selfishly and with egotism or cruelty, we keep the world broken and dissonant. We cover up the light within ourselves and others. When we expand our hearts and choose acts of loving-kindness and compassion, we are releasing the divine sparks of light in ourselves and others. We transform the universe as we transform ourselves.

Quotes from Rabbi David Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical judaism.

Everything Is God, God Is Everything

Ferns just out DSC00286In the Buddhist tradition, there is not much discussion about God—in fact, Buddhism has been called a religion without a God. But more to the point, the Buddha was said to regard such questions as irrelevant. The point of his teaching was to enable people to overcome suffering. By the practice of meditation, we might come to understand ourselves from the perspective of the larger whole—once we gained such a perspective, we would no longer be attached to the pains and desires of the individual life of the individual self. We would reach nirvana.

However, the theologian in me can’t fail to notice that this experience–transcending the self to encounter the unity of everything–is common to the mystics of most traditions–and in many of those traditions, that experience of the larger unity is described as the experience of God. J.D. Salinger, who was a student of Zen Buddhism and Vedantic Hinduism, wrote an account of a moment of such insight in his short story “Teddy.”

“I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all,” Teddy said.  “It was on a Sunday, I remember.  My sister was a tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God.  I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”

There are many paths to the awareness of the larger whole. Some paths use the word God, and others do not. Using the word God is one way to express the beauty and awe we encounter in the mystery of the interconnected universe. But the word God is not a proper name. We can just as easily call it Mystery, or Light, or the Evolving Universe, or Love.

Sometimes I think we should abandon the word God, because of all the oppression and abuse that have been engendered by those who claim to be acting on God’s behalf. But at other times, that is the very reason I want to use that word. I know how healing it can be, for someone who has been banished from the realm of the holy, to recognize that they too are part of ultimate reality and value. How better to say it, in our world, than to claim that we all belong to the realm of God?

The story “Teddy,” was originally published in the January 31, 1953 issue of The New Yorker and reprinted in the collection, Nine Stories.

Allies Share Both Sorrow and Joy

Birch light and dark DSC07802If we seek to rebuild our relationship to this land, I think it is also vital for non-Indians to rebuild their relationship with Indian peoples. To do that non-Indians must become committed allies to Indian people’s struggles. Real relationship involves interaction with the whole of a person and community, sharing both sorrow and joy, struggle and celebration.

Indian people want us to move beyond stereotypes and learn more deeply and accurately about Native issues today. They need allies in their struggle against racism and colonization. We can use our advantage and position as people living in mainstream society, to be a resource for Native peoples’ concerns.

When we can learn to share the pain, and share the struggles of Indian peoples, then we also will find ourselves sharing in the celebrations. In her novel, Solar Storms, Linda Hogan begins with a story of an unusual feast given by the woman named Bush. This feast was a grieving feast: Bush was grieving the loss of the young child, Angel, after she was taken away by the white county authorities from their tiny Native community. She held a feast in which she prepared food for her whole community, and then she gave away all of her possessions to them. Hogan writes, in the voice of one who had been to the feast:

…I watched the others walk away with their arms full. Going back that morning, in the blue northern light, their stomachs were filled, their arms laden with blankets, food… But the most important thing they carried was Bush’s sorrow. It was small now, and child-sized, and it slid its hand inside theirs and walked away with them. We all had it, after that. It became our own. Some of us have since wanted to give it back to her, but once we felt it we knew it was too large for a single person. After that your absence sat at every table, occupied every room, walked through the doors of every house.

By this sharing of sorrow, the sorrow became bearable. Native American people are too often bearing the sorrows of our history alone. If we want to share in feast with them, we too must carry the burden of sorrow. Once we let ourselves feel this grief, we realize it is much too large for one people to carry alone. But the more of us who carry this sorrow, the more of us who carry the struggle, the more bearable it will be.

When we open our hearts to the earth, we are opening our hearts to relationship with all who live here with us. We are recognizing the brokenness and the sacredness of each person and each being, each place and each story in that place.

Human Beings Are Part of Nature

Many of the ecological problems we face are rooted in a foundational assumption of western culture that human beings are separate from nature. We see ourselves as distinct and superior to nature, and imagine that the earth is like a resource bank to exploit for our own use.

Starhawk, in The Earth Path, notes that some environmentalists go the opposite extreme. Because of the devastation that human actions have caused, they see human beings as a “blight on the planet,” and suppose that the earth would be better off without us. But, as she points out, “it’s hard to get people enthused about a movement that …envisions their extinction as a good.”

What we need to understand—emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually—is that we are not separate from nature at all. We are part of nature. She passes on a story from Allan Savory, about land management in Zambia and Zimbabwe in the 1950’s.

People had lived in those areas since time immemorial in clusters of huts away from the main rivers because of the mosquitoes and wet season flooding. Near their huts they kept gardens that they protected from elephants and other raiders by beating drums throughout much of the night… [T]he people hunted and trapped animals throughout the year as well.

The herds remained strong and the river banks lush …until the government removed the people in order to make national parks.” The parks set up rules to protect all the animals and vegetation from any sort of disturbance. Within a few decades, the vegetation had disappeared from miles of riverbanks. What they discovered was that the fear of human beings kept certain grazing animals on the move, and that prevented over-feeding that damaged soils and vegetation. With the removal of one species—the human farmers and hunters—the ecosystem had lost its balance.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

This story illustrates the truth that human beings belong to this earth—we are a part of the ecosystem, for good or ill. We can be a part of the balance as well as a cause of the imbalance.

Some Indigenous stories of North America say that we are like a younger sibling on this earth. The other beings and species are more acclimated to their purpose and their relationship to the whole. And so, when we are feeling overwhelmed by these messes we have created, we might turn to our older relatives on the earth to find wisdom for our journey.

To Be Whole We Must Experience the Broken

Sun in branches DSC01449If I believe that all people, and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole, I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between all people and all beings. However, when I open to the whole, I experience more profoundly its brokenness, the ways we hurt each other and our earth, the ways we are not in harmony. It is tempting to retreat, to draw a circle around myself to try to achieve some sort of individual harmony and balance—but that would cut me off, into the brokenness of separation.

I realize in this tension that there can be no individual salvation. If we want to heal ourselves, we must be healers of our world. If we want to heal our world, we must be connected to all the broken people. We must embrace the broken to heal the broken. Relationship is at the heart of everything. So, to be whole is to experience the broken. To be whole is to be broken.

It might be too much to bear. How do we find joy in the midst of it? Always, I remember the sun. The sun shining on each being, the sun the source of all life on earth. When I feel the sun warming my face, I realize that I am connected to the sun. Each moment of connection can be a source of joy. Each moment of connection rings true to our deepest purpose. To be connected to Mystery, to each other, to the earth, awakens joy.

And the truth is, even our brokenness, our limitations, can become doorways into connection. We are all incomplete without each other. We each have just one small piece of the puzzle. Alone, all we see are jagged edges and random colors… and maybe all together we see just a jumbled pile of jagged pieces—but sometimes we catch a glimpse of the puzzle box cover—what we might become all together. That glimpse can fill us with joy. And sometimes, we find another piece that fits together with our own jagged edge. We have to find our joy in each moment of connection.

Our jagged edges teach us that we need each other. When I reach the limits of my knowledge or ability, it is a gift to reach out to another person, whose knowledge and ability might balance my own. All returning soldiers from the battlefield need the tenderness of others to find self-forgiveness. One day, when I was weary and sad about my recurring impulse to tell my partner what to do, my partner said, “I know you can be controlling sometime, but I love you just the way you are.”

We must embrace the jagged edges, embrace the broken pieces. Forgive and be forgiven. Ask for help. This is the path to wholeness. The sun shines down on all of us, each day, whether cloudy or clear, making no distinction between the good and the bad. May we return to the great circle of life, may we hold each other and all beings tenderly, for we are one.

The Sun Shines on All

Reconciliation and forgiveness require us to seek out those whom we have hurt, or who have hurt us, to make things whole again. We must mend the threads of connection between ourselves and other people, between ourselves and the earth, between ourselves and the Mystery of life.

This is not easy work. It is not just big societal evils that we face. We also face the everyday betrayals and regrets. Self-forgiveness may be the hardest of all. We face the perennial faults that are unique to us, yet common to so many. We mean to be kind, but find ourselves cranky and rude instead. We mean to be supportive to a friend or family member, but feel judgmental instead. We mean to be honest, but tell little lies to avoid upsetting someone. We mean to be generous, but feel greedy about our pleasures.

Can I forgive myself the belief that I am right when I argue with my neighbor? Can you forgive yourself the angry words shouted at your child as you are trying to get out of the house to make it to school or work on time? Can we forgive ourselves the end of a relationship with a partner or spouse? Can I forgive myself for needing help when I don’t know how to face a situation on my own?

Sun and Snow DSC06016What helps me to forgive is to remember the sun. The sun shines down on all of us, each day, making no distinction between the good and the bad, making no distinction between when I am in tune with all my values, or when I fail. Its light is constant, never changing because of virtue or vice, but merely following the rhythm of the seasons and lighting up the blue sky or the gray clouds. Its light keeps shining, giving life to all creatures. When I remember that I am accepted as part of the circle of life, it seems easier to open my heart to forgive myself.

And if I am a part of the circle of life, so is everyone else. If I believe that all people, and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole, I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between all people and all beings. This is the heart of spiritual practice—to open our hearts to the larger whole of which we are a part.