Friday, March 30, 2007

Living Between Earth and Sky

Much of the human strife that has existed from the beginning can be understood in terms of the struggle of individuals, groups and nations to obtain those things that are valued as scarce because we live in a world with physical limitations. There is never enough to go around it seems. Not enough money, food, land or natural resources and even if we subjectively feel we are doing very well, there is always a deep-in-the-gut sense that we are lacking something on both large and small-scale terms. Overarching all our needs is the knowledge that we have a limited life span that puts time limits in the pursuit of things. Religion and spiritual concepts in their purest forms are essentially unknowable in this context and one of the problems with the competing systems of belief is that each one claims to have the answers the others lack, which exerts pressure on each to dominate the other to a greater or lesser degree. In the Jewish tradition, one of the main tenets of the faith is the absolute holiness of God which allows no images of the Creator and from this idea comes the dictate to not worship other gods or idols, because to do so is to take the infinite and bottle it up within human thinking which leads to drawing doctrinal conclusions from faulty premises. Other traditions, however, see the One God manifested in different forms and is misunderstood by westerners as idolatry because it engenders a feeling of alienation in us when compared with the familiarity we have with our own. We are constantly reminded and immersed in physical reality. It plays at our emotions and dictates our drives, forcing us to look at it unquestioningly and to do its bidding in knee-jerk fashion. It hypnotizes us with its beauty, terrifies us in horror or just leaves us bewildered with a constant stream of stimuli, causing us to build up within ourselves a network of self-protection systems to help mediate the world for us, so that its bipolar nature is not impossible to bear. What we are accustomed to however, is not all we perceive, for there is another world that exists not outside the ability of us humans to know. It is the realm of the Spirit, which knows no earthly anchors and is not tied to the imperfect conceptual restraints of our minds and hearts. In our heads we somehow conceptualize that there is a missing piece to the puzzle of existence, that what we see is not all there is, as an astronomer knows that the universe we understand is not all there is due to the unchangeable laws of physics. There is yet an unknown quantity of matter which remains undiscovered, that even with all our science we have not been able unveil. No matter how deep we search into the infiniteness of the cosmos, or how small we examine matter and energy on the quantum level, there will probably always be unanswered questions that beckon us to move forward toward increased understanding.

Everything in the physical world is moving toward either creation or dissolution and though we may think that life here on earth has no strong relationship to the spiritual plane, it nevertheless does. In the molding together and breaking apart over and over again there is a constant understanding in all sentient beings that the destiny of the physical is the eternal. A tree grows from a sapling, puts out its branches and leaves and in its turning up and rising toward the sun it provides us a clue to the solution that humans have always been looking for. That tree reaches up toward the light, to the sun that seems to endlessly brighten up our world with its life-giving rays. The sun, our earthly parent, warms us sufficiently that life continues to thrive in the deep, dark, cold and vacuum-less ocean of space. God, in a similar way, as our Singular parent offers us a promise that if we seek the Divine with all the power and strength of our imagination and understanding we shall find that which does not fade or perish and although we may be still be subject to the rule of physical laws here, we are also walking through a veil that separates this plane from the next. We are learning to balance on a fence that separates the two since we need both realities to be able to exist here, but our longings and dreams reach out to the next level of spiritual evolution. As we see in 1John 2:15-18,

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.
17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1 also counsels us the nature of this existential plane in its proclamation that the activity of the world in which we live is 'vanity' and to be seeking that which will not ultimately satisfy is a exercise in futility:

1:2 "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher; "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
1:3 What does man gain from all his labor in which he labors under the sun?
1:4 One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth remains forever
1:7 All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again.
1:8 All things are full of weariness beyond uttering. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
1:14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

So we ask ourselves why life 'sucks' and we have the answer clearly written down thousands of years ago. Other traditions with wisdom writings such as the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita also echo the same truths as do those from the Jewish tradition and though the story is told a bit differently, the lessons learned from it are equivalent to those of our own. Our journey from the mortal to the eternal state is one that starts in the world of chaotic dualism to that of a world of Oneness that is balanced in diversity. It is one in which we slowly let go of our stake in an imperfect system to that of the complete when we take our gaze off the temporal and see the eternal with the 'single eye,' a world with infinite possibilities. Although it may take a leap of faith at a time when we stand at a gaping precipice, there really is no way to avoid forward motion since there is no return path back to the safety of the familiar. All life is seeking redemption as it makes its way through the carnal plane to the spiritual and to be human is to be blessed with a sixth sense, the urge to seek knowledge about where we came from, why we are here and where we are headed in the great forward movement of creation. We all have an inclination to seek after God and inevitably we must all throw up our hands and submit to the Ineffable that created us. With the words of the Lord and the Holy Names ready on our tongues, we keep our connection to that reality, the One, in good working order and move ever closer to the next level of Being.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Parable of the Ten Talents

KJV Matthew 25:14-30

(14) For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.
(15) And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
(16) Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.
(17) And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.
(18) But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.

During the Roman period, when Israel was under military occupation with its severe penalties for sedition against the State and a burdensome tax collection system, there was a deep longing for freedom which had been burned into the Jewish mind from their experiences of repression under the Syrian Greeks rulers and previous to that, by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Egyptians. Tensions had heated up to the boiling point, and many of Rome’s disenfranchised Jewish subjects were looking for a way to hasten the coming of a new military hero, the Messiah of God promised by the prophets, to release them from their bondage to Caesar whom they believed was a degenerate, unclean and godless overseer. During that roughly 100 year period, many Jewish writings spoke of this longing and there arose splinter groups that reflected different views in Israel as to how exactly to push things along to bring about his coming. One of these groups was the Essenes, who withdrew as completely could be possible from the mainstream of Jewish life so they might reach the level of ritual and moral purity necessary to move the hand of God in favor of Israel once, for all time and they left their imprint upon us with the discovery and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among them is a scroll entitled “The War between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness” which envisioned a great apocalyptic battle and the coming of a god-man with extra-human powers who would lead them both against the Romans and also those apostates who benefited from a compromised Temple system and from collusion with the foreign occupation army. There were also a group of ‘freedom fighters’ known as the Zealots who believed that only by force and faith could they rid themselves of the Romans and their paranoid King and dictator, Herod the Great, who was in many ways strikingly similar to a modern-day Saddam Hussein who in parallel fashion constructed many lavish buildings and created an wealthy elite class who were loyal to him at the expense of the poor they oppressed.

Within this highly charged political atmosphere there also appeared several individuals with messianic aims who were able to collect enough followers to be viewed as a threat and sufficiently disruptive to the status quo and were turned over to the occupiers and summarily executed, ridding both the romanized Jewish upper-classes and their overlords of ‘extremists’ who had the ability to foment rebellion and further endanger their privileged status and the already fragile peace that held together that part of the Empire. Jesus of Nazareth was only one of these visionaries, but he managed to gain enough of a following so that the sayings and parables he is credited to have spoken have echoed down through the centuries to us in the books of the New Testament. One of these is known as the ‘Parable of The Ten Talents.’ In the context of the parable Jesus is answering the disciples in regard to the question of the nature of the Kingdom of God and those who would inherit it. Back then a ‘talent’ was equivalent to a sizeable amount of money, amounting to approximately several years’ work. Those servants who had invested what they were given received praise from their master but the one who buried his talent was derided for his lack of his shortsightedness as was the excuse the tentative servant gave in verses 24 and 25. What’s interesting to note here is that the master does not instruct them explicitly to bank the money. He just gives it to them to see what initiative they might show considering the status of the giver and value of the amount entrusted. This is how Jesus ends his discourse:

24"Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'
26"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

This parable stands in stark contrast to other sayings of the usually mild-mannered Jesus known for meekness, forgiveness and forbearance. It is used I think mainly for emphasis although it can put a scare into you when you read it, especially about the part where the unprofitable servant is cast into the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The Kingdom of God is not to be taken lightly, according the lesson of the parable so if one is to take the path of the Master, it is incumbent upon the servant to take the journey seriously and to put to use what has been so richly given and the vivid imagery used by Jesus here only heightens its meaning. The Temple system in Jerusalem can be compared to the idea of the value of the ‘talent’. At that time, the Sadducees (of the line of Zadok,) had the duty of being the kings and priests of God, and were responsible for keeping the Temple system free from desecration as did their forebears but had supposedly compromised themselves by practicing corruption while at the same time preaching holiness. This is most likely the reason Jesus often called the Sadducees “hypocrites.” You may recall that he did not spare their counterparts, the Pharisees either, who taught of the existence of an afterlife as a reward for doing good deeds. The Pharisees were the great Rabbis of the time, those who were supposed to set an example for the common people to follow. Evidently Jesus thought otherwise, that things were not going all that well in Judea and that all of its inhabitants were in need of repentance and unlike the reclusive Essenes, Jesus felt it necessary to leave the wilderness and move among all the people of Israel to preach as well as to serve as an example of true righteousness.

Anyway, just a little historical background here to possibly help bring out some the meaning from this chapter of Matthew. What does its lesson hold for us today? It is necessary to adapt the original context to that of our own time, so it’s really up to us to use our own judgement. How do his words speak to you? You may see him as a great teacher or as God incarnate, but there is a reason why the words of Jesus have had lasting power aside from Christianity’s fortunes in being able to join with Rome’s state infrastructure and spread throughout the world. His magnificent sayings and parables have had universal significance and although some of them have also been used to rationalize virulent anti-semitism down through the centuries they must also be seen in the light of their true brilliance and in the life-changing influence they have as to where and how we should use our ‘talents.’

Friday, March 23, 2007

When the Gods Compete, You Win!

Wherever you look, competition is everywhere. Advertisers spend billions trying to capture your attention and imagination, prompting us to buy their latest gizmos to entertain you and satisfy your every desire. It seems that it's the way things have always been. Always something new with dubious benefits to top it off! Since childhood we've been conditioned to be prolific consumers in a get-get-get vulture-culture (you either get or get eaten) and so we run our little fannies off to make enough money so we can participate in the revels.

Religion has always been a business and has always followed a business model. Many different preachers have hawked it over the millennia in order to grab our attention to the quality of their wares. They form alliances by getting on the same page and organizing themselves into corporate structures that can both keep its customers satisfied and keep them continually putting cash into the till. If you've been around a few decades and have sampled their offerings (not the offering basket, of course) then you probably know what I'm talking about.

That reminds me, in Mel Brook's 'History of the World,' one of my favorite movies, you might have seen the part where Comicus, (Brooks) a 'stand-up philosopher' does a comedy routine for Caesar (Dom DeLuise) and gets rousing applause for his joke about how Romans have a god for everything and gets near the end of it with the line, "The only thing (we Romans) don't have is a god for is premature ejaculation - but I hear that that's coming quickly!" and gets Caesar to burst out in uproarious laughter. Comicus then says,"The little fag gets it," referring to the effeminate court spokesman's girly giggle." (I always get a laugh from gay humor.) Unfortunately, Comicus blows his sketch by making a reference to Caesar as being a "big, fat pig" and thus his career at 'Caesar's Palace' comes to an abrupt end with an order to his guards to "KILL HIM!!!!" Brooks was a master comedian to be sure and puts a funny edge on that period of history, which had as its backdrop a colorful and plentiful array of different competing beliefs. Rome in its golden age was blessed with an incredible variety of material as well as spiritual goodies and so a parallel can be drawn between their culture and ours. The only real difference between the two, in my opinion, is that Roman civilization was just a touch more on the brutal side than our own is currently. Our world is like the forum was back in the day with many different people and ideas mixing in a huge multi-cultural coliseum-like structure and is a perfect breeding ground for conflict between the top religious contenders, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. New to the game but not without precedent are the new age varieties that are more Gnostic in origin. Organized religion hates Gnosticism because it's relatively anarchical but that could change if one of them ever really caught on fire. Some Gnostic based belief could actually turn out to be the One World Religion that the main line religionists fear and might engender some type of millennial conflict as laid out in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. With much to gain and lose in their competition for adherents the mainliners must highlight the immanent coming of an Anti-Messiah to ward off the increasing influence of the up and comers, that these new beliefs will lead to the destruction of the human race by defying their Gods' edicts to not worship 'other gods'.

Many people however, remain unswayed by this type of fear mongering and continue to ignore the mainline religions' apocalyptic warnings of doom and continue to stream into the faith marketplace to sample the merchandise to see which looks and tastes best to them. Now I listen to a lot of fundamentalist Christian radio and it tends to demonize certain tangents even within their own general sphere of belief. The Church Growth Movement led by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, for example, is often spoken of derisively as being 'in error' and a tool of Satan to mislead the flock due to certain 'covenanting' requirements and to various 'mark of the beast' features that appear both in belief and in manner of worship. Among other noted 'false teachings' is the relatively recent spiritual sensation known as 'The Secret' which purportedly opens up a whole new world of prosperity, counseling its viewers and readers in practicing techniques that harness the power of the mind, in a cleverly wrapped package which also includes the realization and energizing of 'the God within' who actively wants us to have all our heart's desires come true. Right now I estimate it to be THE major threat to American Christian fundamentalism maybe even more so than is Warren's Church Growth Movement.

Religion is definitely supplanting other philosophies that have become popularized in recent times. Communism and Fascism vied for the lead for a while until the really nasty stuff manifested itself in horribly violent excesses and although these political and philosophical systems retain some of their former steam, neither is likely to displace the other-worldly aspects of religious idealism which have so much appeal to us fragile, finite beings. The Davidic injunction to "taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusts in him." (Psalm 34:8) is still just as relevant today as it was the day it was penned, supposedly under the inspiration of the Almighty. The true nature of the 'Lord' that's mentioned in the Psalm is what remains in contention today as it has always been, but it is even more so today due to religion's influence upon governmental decision making and the art of war and peace. So it's yours and mine to decide which among many is the real Lord that we're going to put our bets on. The gods of a (shrinking) world are upping the spiritual ante and are graciously letting us, their subjects, decide on whom the winner is going to be. Ultimately we are the winners though, since we get to do the choosing this time, and for once they have to listen to us!


Our 'sense switches' are turned on almost all the time, taking in many different kinds of information which we knowingly or unknowingly sift through to create a picture of what is both inside us and around us and the mind is the collector and mediator of it all. When we concentrate on an activity, we learn to shut off any and all impulses that reach the brain which do not have immediate relevance to whatever task is before us. When we're loading the diswasher for example, there are dirty dishes in the sink and clean ones to be removed and placed back in their assigned positions in our cabinets and drawers and we logically order the tasks that need to be done to effectively complete the job. Of course, not everyone does these tasks in the same order but the end result is basically the same, the dishes get done. Some, however, who may be mentally impaired will often mix the dirty dishes in with the clean ones simply because there is no logical sequence that the brain can reference to do it efficiently. I know because I used to work with mentally handicapped people. One actually punched me in the face simply because I was trying to help her with the task. Why she did this I'll never know, but I surmise that she somehow knew that she was incapable of doing the job and became upset because she was limited in her dishwashing abilities and perhaps became frustrated with herself (and me) at about the same time. At any rate, there are times when we are more aware of our surroundings than at other times and the level of concentration regulates the amount of information we are getting from them.

In the same way, on a larger scale, we often reactively become frustrated with the immense amount of information we have to deal with from moment to moment and there sometimes is a vague but palpable sense of disquiet that manifests itself symptomatically in our bodies and/or in our emotions. Our stomachs may become tight or a bit queasy, the muscles in our backs and necks may become painful or we may just feel anxious, depressed or even agitated and we then search for ways to reduce the offending stimuli by removing ourselves from its reach in order to rebalance. Often it is impossible to do, and our hands get clammy, our heart rate speeds up, or we become angry and lash out verbally or even physically to lower the perceived threat level. All physical, sentient beings have this built in mechanism for dealing with large quantities of information whether it be of a threatening or non-threatening nature but humans are able to process a vastly greater amount of cognitive information since our brains are larger with more surface area to perform tasks such as abstract reasoning and that's also due to the way we've been put together. Consequently, there is a much greater degree of variation and complexity in human behavior than in animal behavior.

We Westerners are a driven herd. Hypnotized by the constant lure of sense pleasures, we run on all twos like hamsters run on all fours riding the great wheel of productive activity all day long till we drop to possibly gain a few of them. Since there are few of us who have the luxury of not having to participate in that wonderful pastime, work, there are some things that we should be aware of. To make up for the range of negativity that being productive may evoke, we tend to daydream about things that make us forget our unpleasant thoughts and this usually helps to slow down the mental machine that keeps driving us on. Sometimes the machinery isn't able to compensate for anxiety, anger, frustration, etc., and our defense mechanisms break down and we end up punching out sick so we can recover from the overload. When enough overload occurs, the mind and body starts a shutdown sequence and we may then be asked by our co-workers, "are you feeling alright?" There are times, though, when we just don't want to honestly display our inner disconnectedness and we say something like, "Well, I'm just not feeling too well. My stomach is like this, my head like that." You know what I mean. It's difficult in our competitive world to admit insufficiency and give away our hand because people easily sense weakness and can turn it to their advantage in the complex jungle of the workplace. I'm including child and elder care here too, folks, since caring for family is usually just as difficult, if not more so than dealing with the challenges at the office or shop, and we don't have the option of going home sick. Let's also not forget the mental load our partners place on us as well but that's another story in itself!

At the rather young age of 35 I started having disabling panic attacks and didn't know why. I'd just start to fall asleep and all of a sudden would sit straight up in bed in a cold sweat, hyperventilating myself into a complete terror. As I think back it seems these attacks resulted from many minor assaults on my emotional defenses that had accumulated over those 35 years and my system just became swamped with too much stuff but it seemed the actual precipitating event was my impending divorce. As the years went by these episodes would come and go but after a time they progressively got worse until I was often getting them several times a day. Fortunately, they're gone for now. Medication and meditation are now my main weapons to keep them from coming back but often I still feel that vague feeling of dread that seems to want to take up residence somewhere midway between my stomach and my head. Now there are some people that develop hyper-allergic conditions to various types of offending substances most of us can easily handle, but in an overload condition the immune system runs amok and becomes alerted to them even when they are present in only very small amounts. A similar thing occurs in anxiety disorders. Something in the brain senses danger when no actual danger exists and it responds by sending hormones into our bloodstreams that put our 'flight or fight' instincts in gear. I remember back in the early 80's a friend of mine tried to tell me about his panic attacks and I thought he was putting on an act. He wasn't. Sure as can be it caught up with me as well and if you haven't had one of these killer-chillers, believe me, they're quite frightening and you literally fear for your very life.

It's important not to overlook the signs of overload when they start staring at you because the human brain, like the physical body has its limits in being able to fend off stress. Take some time out each day to create a quiet place within yourself where you are able to completely relax, a little oasis where you can check in with your body and mind and ask them how they're doing. It may help to write down both the good and bad events that occurred up to that point during the day if they're not immediately obvious to you. Also, you can include breathing exercises during that quiet time which can help to rev down your engines so you can think about the events of the day in a clearer way. Mantra meditation, I've found, is especially good because it gives the mind rest from distracting or intrusive thoughts. The main point here is that we need to learn how to take good care of both our minds and our bodies so they both can run optimally. Mental health and physical health are inseparable partners in the nurturing of wellness and it is up to us to keep a close watch on how they are doing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Emotional Healing

People react to life's ups and downs in different ways. While some are more stable in their reactions to negative stimuli, others are more labile in their responses to unpleasant things that occur in their lives and are endlessly riding an emotional roller coaster. In time, their responses can become rather fixed and a permanent facet of one's personality. Some, on the other hand, show few emotions and go through their days like a colorless canvas or a soundless instrument because they may have suffered great trauma at some point and to protect themselves from further hurt they bury unpleasant memories associated with that trauma deep within so that they won't overpoweringly intrude into conscious thought. There are still others who use emotions to get others to give them what they think they need in a rather childlike, manipulative fashion because they are too fearful and unable to get their needs met in more adaptive ways. Life has taught them not to trust and so people with a poor sense of self almost never learn to trust themselves enough to think clearly through problems toward resolution and need to engage outside parties with dubious abilities to get them through whatever crises they're going through.

Another way to deflect severe anxiety brought on by negative precipitating events is through busyness. If there are enough things that one can do throughout the day to avoid unpleasant thoughts related to unresolved problems, then it is possible to keep them at bay by moving really fast 'doing things,' which helps protect the mind from the intrusions of unwanted memories. It is normal to experience anger, sadness, fear or any other negative emotions that come our way. It's the inordinate focusing in on them that keeps us bound to negativity and it is that which often blocks emotional healing. When we learn to practice 'centering' ourselves we learn to block the emotional arrows that fly at us so that the hurt doesn't penetrate as deeply into our daily lives and as time passes it becomes easier to deflect them and the hurt lessens as each day goes by.

There are times though when we are pushed to the limit emotionally and physically. Knowing how to deflect the smaller hurts keeps us less stressed so that we have the energy to deal with the really big ones when they come along. Even the seemingly most stable among us are not immune to major losses since they can intrude upon us without warning and act like a huge psychic wrecking ball and at some point, even the most resilient of us can succumb to them and be brought down to their knees. Our emotional houses that we have so carefully constructed and kept tidy can almost instantly be torn to the ground by uncontrollable events and we can find ourselves sitting in dust and ashes, forlorn and seemingly without hope. We may even accuse ourselves undeservedly for being responsible for them, making the memory of the loss even more difficult to bear. These unexpected events may even influence some to attempt suicide in order to escape the emotional pain brought on by severe trauma. Think of those who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses, who have lost a child, beloved parent or spouse, or those who have been victimized by a natural disaster or may be living in the crossfire of violence, as in a war. These can be too overwhelming to deal with and so immediate and continuing help from an outside source is necessary in order to salvage their lives.

Yet, even in the most extreme cases of trauma we stand in awe and wonder at the remarkable ability we humans have to adapt to sudden change and to survive and recover from even the most devastating events. If we are able to learn the lessons that chance occurrence places in our paths we can overcome not only the small upsets but also the larger ones that happen to come our way. They may lead us to question our limits and take stock of our emotional integrity. They may help us to develop close friendships and devise new coping strategies for each new psychic assault that causes us to reel in despair. We may find ourselves returning to the faith of former years with a renewed enthusiasm, developing an entirely new spiritual anchor or maybe just discovering a quiet place within where we are able to ride out the storms that we encounter from day to day.

There are many things that we don't have much control over but there are also many things we can do to help moderate our reactions to difficulties and hardships and to protect ourselves we need to have a full range of weapons in our emotional arsenal to fight off negativity and assaults on our stability. In my opinion, developing a sense of spirituality is essential if we want to optimally survive the battles we so often encounter. This may include the contemplation of an impersonal higher power that at times intervenes in our world but it may also include finding needed answers in a moment by moment walk with one's inner Self or God within. It can also be just the process of finding that quiet place deep inside us or learning effective coping strategies that push us on to not only survive, but also to flourish. For many, those strategies can be found in traditional religion but for others it can be in the internalization of a combination of spiritual teachings and positive self-affirmations. None of us are completely impervious to emotional difficulties since even the strongest among us can be floored when undesired events conspire to strike and unravel us, but the fact that the human race has survived for as long as it has is a testament to the tenacity and flexibility of the human spirit to cope in an imperfect world and each of us has that same spirit as an inheritance and helper.

Art by John Stewart 'The Calm Before the Storm

Monday, March 19, 2007

Peeling Back the Veil

1Corinthians 13:12 "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
Matthew 6:22, 23 "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore your eye be single, your whole body shall be full of light. But if your eye be evil, your whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you be darkness, how great is that darkness."

On our journey through the existential plane our inner eye is in many ways covered by very thin layers of flesh that need to be peeled back to reveal the true nature of what can be seen. When enough of these layers have been removed our sight becomes clearer and we begin to see with greater maturity, better able to understand the relative importance of all the things that we have experienced and have held dear in our lives and better able to weigh them according to their true value. For example, we learn on this plane that the bodies that hold the essence of who we are is subject to degradation as they age but paradoxically our inner selves also unfold toward greater awareness of the preciousness and wonder of life. Time takes on new importance and we begin to understand that all we think, say and do have eternal ramifications due to the laws of cause and effect and the interrelatedness of all that is. We are able to realize that though we are very small in the context of the entire universe, we also have an important part to play in its unfolding.

When we are young we tend to want to have everything all at once, not that we always feel that it is owed to us, but rather that we become flushed with the pleasure of sense stimuli and often become addicted to those feelings. These intense longings act as a kind of blinder, and sometimes we take dangerous detours to reach them and run into a good deal of pain and suffering as a result, but as we grow, hopefully we become more cogniscent of these detours that promise happiness but fail to deliver. These detours can be likened to the unclear mirrors described by the apostle Paul. With age comes wisdom and though it may sound cliché, it is nevertheless true. The aging process through the attainment of wisdom can help clear the film of debris from our eyes, opening up a whole new panorama of what was once an unseen world for us to enjoy in abundance. Aging likewise can also cloud our vision and can make us bitter if we've been unable to find the satisfaction in life that others have found and we can feel cheated, worthless and discarded, but by diligently trusting the Eternal that watches over all of us and dwells within us, regardless of what our senses tell us is real, we are better able to stay on a more sure path that leads to ultimate peace and joy. It is in learning to trust what we cannot see with our physical eyes that helps us do this and ironically, it is the same unseen world that which allows us to truly enjoy sense pleasures here on earth. All the great teachers that have learned from their teachers going all the way back to ancient times emphatically combine to attract our attention and bring us to an understanding of where to look for things that have true worth. It may not be an easy path to take because it takes time and some patience to become aware of the unseen and even then we only can attain it in part. Even the most diligent seeker often only sees reality through an earthbound haze but true life is nevertheless a birthright that we all have a share in if we are intent enough to search for it from both within and without. So each day it is important to allow time for our spirits to rest in the arms of the Compassionate One and not let the dross of the world's impermanence block our way to what we are ultimately and inevitably destined for. We should endeavor to enjoy our lives, laugh, give, take and just be who we are but we also should try to practice moderation. That which is shiny and desirable often turns to rust and ashes, only offering disillusionment and dissatisfaction, so it is important to seek with a true heart and learn to balance that which is of the seen and the unseen. This leads to real contentment.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Human Spark

I like to think sometimes
When all my thoughts are focused
Where all your thoughts might be
How you envision clouds and sun
And all the places where you run

There is a truth that speaks to me
When I'm still and serene
Like a teacher in red apple dress and sweet color green
Instructing me in enveloping embrace
Not to worry, no, not to worry

We are traveling separately, yet we are together
I on my path and you on yours
Sometimes we see each other through fences
Catching movements with heightened senses

Alike and different in myriad forms
A sound spins like a whirling funnel
And all creatures that hear the sound are afraid
But we surrender to it
And the dust falls where it longs to sit

So here on the open ground, we rise to greet each other
Knowing the plan will unfold as it will
We walk toward the same destination
Sparked by the fire of human inspiration


Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Colors of Faith

From the moment we are born we are presented with a lush landscape that expands before us as we age and with it grows a sense of wonder of all that appears and disappears to and from our senses. We marvel at the sight of our hands and our ability to grab hold of and release objects or our inability to do so. We are bombarded with sense gratification as our mothers and fathers nurture us and become perplexed when those same sensual needs are not met when we think they should be. As we grow older what once seemed miraculous becomes mundane and our emotions slowly moderate as we learn that happiness and fulfillment are not always at our beck and call. Still older, in our teens and twenties, there is a sense of having lots of time to do whatever our whims dictate and in that perceived freedom we learn the effects of one action as opposed to another. The sum total of our experience then, takes on a psychological shape of relative permanence as we learn to approach each new moment in the context of the moments that preceded it. For example, some folks when they are quite young know instinctively what they want and go on to their desired goals more or less on target with fewer detours than do others. Some indeed have few or no goals at all, other than to find some type of satisfaction in whatever day they happen to be in. Each trail an individual embarks on has its good and bad stretches and with any luck, we end up turning out well, having good jobs and good families with our bank accounts and investments heading in a positive direction. Some of us, though, whether it's due to choice or fortune do not end up quite as well off as some others who are more goal directed. Their orientation maybe toward the wind, the smell of the sea, the lay of the land or the sounds of insects and the flight of birds so they don't think as much about practical things like making a good living or getting their name written down in history for future generations to marvel at. I guess I'm of the latter variety and so I confess that my view of utility has always seemed to lack a degree of inspiration since I've always tended to prefer dreaming to that of concentrating on the business at hand. Be that as it may, we are all so very different within though our bodies appear similar in form. We need both realists and dreamers since they are complementary as are the two wings of a bird. Likewise spiritually, we may seem cosmetically very different from one another in ritual and practice but when we get down to the bone, we are really all believers in the same eternal truths since they are common to all religions.

The great teachers have always desired to guide humanity back to a proper course heading for our little ship called Earth and those that dwell within its decks and though everyone is on the same ship, each claims that his or her course is best, given their master navigator's instructions on which one is best to be followed. Thus the ship goes this way and that and heads into great storms needlessly because of the sincere but heated arguments that take place on board. In the same way, people I think tend to think they own their teachers and have a lock on the truths which were entrusted to them, not realizing that their shipmates also have the same truths, though they may appear superficially different. They argue about small insignificant details of the rigging while all the elements that make the whole ship work together as one to accomplish the task of traversing of the sea to arrive at their desired destination. So it seems that people of one faith tend to have the greatest enmity not toward those who are atheists but to those who strongly adhere to different ones than their own. They denigrate their brothers and sisters because the colors of their faith are not quite the same shade as their own and so they crusade to win them over or to change them by force. When we look at a stationary color wheel we see the gradual gradation from one end of the visible light spectrum to the other end but when we spin the wheel there appears to be no particular shade of color in the wheel at all. The only visible color is white! Sunlight, after it leaves a prism becomes a rainbow, but in its unprocessed state it is a glowing yellow-white and so we need to understand that things aren't always as we might initially interpret them to be. In the same way, all diverse thought on the nature of God eventually merges into one and all faiths are in essence emanating from the same brilliant single Source. Change and variety are what makes life what it is and nothing is ever static due to the effects of time and space in its interaction with matter and energy. What we think we know is therefore suspect when examined from a source other than the human mind and that source I believe is Deity, of which we are of in substance. So it seems better and healthier to allow for differences of belief and welcome diversity since it ultimately leads to a greater understanding of the One out of which everything came into existence. So it may be of help not just to look at only one's own vision of truth, for there are many. Each has its own distinct color signature, helping to enrich our understanding of what makes us who we are both in and out of the physical state. God is the Whole, the One. God is also the Many, since nothing can exist that is not part of the infinite. If we consciously make an effort to ignore ideological and theological difference and look to where our ideas of God intersect, I think we could come to a greater understanding of who and where we are in the great tapestry of life and learn to react more positively by exploring the commonalities between faiths instead of highlighting the differences.

Art by Peter Eglington 'Rainbow Tribe'

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Possible Shia/Western Alliance?

Look out King Abdullah of Saudiland, Emir Al-Sabah of Kuwait and the UAE! Iran and the U.S. may be on a path to co-align against Wahhabi Islam which has promoted the radical ideology that undergirds the asymmetrical tactics used by Sunni insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Shia/Western alliance would not only defuse the tensions between Iran/Hezbollah and U.S./Israel but would help to improve our relations with Russia and China, as well. There would be one hell of a power and resource sharing coup if such an alliance developed. The Iraq war would essentially end and those nasty Taliban would be driven back to where they belong, in Waziristan and the Palestinians might then finally find peace a viable alternative to the internal and external conflicts ravaging their people. This may sound crazy on the surface but alliances in the region have tended to come and go like desert sandstorms and politics often turns on a dime. Such a power-sharing arrangement would get most of our military the hell out of the Middle East and keep the world's oil flowing and may even force the Sunnis to sue for peace so they too could get a piece of the action. Now that the neocon agenda is in complete disrepute everywhere it is possible that a minority of level-headed legislators in Congress would be able to move the national agenda from one of extending empire to a more reasonable, peaceful one that would be more inclusive and tolerant of others, one that would persue diplomacy instead of constant war, which we no longer can afford to wage in an overseas sinkhole of lost lives and treasure. Congress, on the other hand, which is largely in the pockets of multinational corporations and the military industrial complex, generally follows in lock-step with them in advocating for and implementing regime change in countries which are considered threats to their patrons' interests and very few legislators have awakened to the vastness of the corporate war propaganda machine. These few include people in all levels of government as well as individuals and groups that have the guts to provide an alternative view to the one parotted my the mass media. The official agenda is that we live in a bi-polar world with Judeao-Christianity on one side and monolithic Islam on the other. It is one in one which westerners are on God's side, saving the world from an insidious Muslim world takeover whose agenda by nature seeks to eliminate all values which we hold near and dear to our hearts. Islamic thinking though, is far from monolithic and is evidenced by an extremely bloody four year Sunni insurgency which has ethnic cleansing and the elimination of ideologies contrary to its own as its goal. In this sense, America and even Israel pose a far less threatening problem for Iran than does the worldwide maniacal aspirations of Al-Qaeda and other likeminded terrror groups.

There are Shia outside of Iraq such as in Pakistan that are also under tremendous pressure from Wahhabism's policy of eliminating heresies through unrelenting suicide bombings and other forms of terror, many of which we rarely hear about, so to attack Iran for the purpose of eliminating their much harped nuclear threat could have the undesired effect of driving these natural enemies together into a temporary coalition to flush us out from Iraq and the larger oil-rich Middle East. Now we all know the Shias are no saints and may even envision the coming Mahdi at some future time wiping out the West but many of them in power in Iran are also practical and have the ability to sense a good business deal if it perchance came their way. We westerners are no angels either and have a long history of provocateuring conflicts so let’s not have any illusions about ourselves. Most of us are able to smell the stinking elite rat filth that enabled 9/11, the Waco horror and the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. What I'm referring to if you haven't guessed is the shadow government and it's secret-agent psy-op machine that rallies people to go vigilante against imaginary Orwellian enemies.

The Iranian Shia know they can't defeat us westerners either ideologically or militarily but they do know who really wants to defeat them and wants them dead, who seek to wipe out the Shia religion to the very last man and woman. We could choose to use intrigue to set them against one another which would be contrary to our national interests or we could make the wiser choice and pluck peace from the edge of annihilation and finally tame the beast of war for at least a short while. The future is waiting for us to make decisions that will calm national tensions and improve the lives of future generations and I believe the time for making them is now. How many people worth their salt would really want a third world war anyway? Not many people I know. Let's make it a done deal and finally make peace with Iran. Middle East peace is far from being an impossible dream!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Power of Stories

The power of stories has built our world. They are told to mature audiences by comedians, in front of students by teachers, to campers on summer break by campfires, in song by musicians, to children by their parents just before bed, and even in the womb when the child in his or her watery bubble hears sounds from the outside world for the first time. They go back a long way to the time when humans were first able to take their imagination to places not yet conceived from the raw material of their daily lives. Nations and their cities were built on them and though the tales may have been woven from a just a little truth and a lot of embellishment, they've had the power to inspire their hearers in turn to create their own legends and civilizations and so we have as our inheritance a very large historical quilt that tells us a lot about who we are in the good we have done as well as in the bad.

One of the best and most influential of them is found in the story of Jesus and in the later books of the New Testament that went on to flesh out the original salvation theme. The Gospels themselves grew out from the volumes of Hebrew writings and took much of their inspiration from them as their writers made them relevant to the first century setting in which they lived. They were made meaningful not just to the nucleus of Jewry which had known many lesser saviors in the past and the promises of greater ones to come but also to other tribes and peoples with different but no less inspiring icons of their own. These were woven into the original story by their tellers and were gathered together into what we might refer to as more or less fixed orthodox belief. Many of their truths however were not only based on ideas that came from the older Sumerian, Indian, Egyptian and Babylonian stories. They also reflected some of the character of the companion religions that paralleled first century Christianity. I've always felt that if something of quality is created, it has the power to endure the changes that occur even after its time has long passed. That's the reason why I believe many bits and pieces in the Gospel story are also found in the stories of Osiris, Mithras, Hercules, Dionysus, Krishna, etc. The older ones live on in the newer and so it is that although the former ones becomes a bit tattered and worn after a time, their essence remains, though slightly changed to inspire the next generation. Conflicts develop though when the established order is threatened by the desire of some to modify it and the latter is born painfully from the former like a mother that regrets her pregnancy in the hours just preceding the moment of the delivery. Death accompanies change as the old order in its desire to dominate resorts to violent authoritarianism through fear in order to stay in power and though it may in the short term find success in repressing the newer idea, it eventually and inevitably must yield to it. Unfortunately, many die in that repression.

We humans are not always enthusiastic about change because we often like what we've become accustomed to and whether it's from want, suffering or just plain boredom we brace ourselves for it and derive courage to face it from the great stories we create and the heroes that live and breath within them. Although we have always been more or less the same in our wants, desires and values throughout time, we've had the need to continually change the legends and myths which reflect them just to give a little new life to the old and to revitalize our long-cherished ideals. Change being the nature of existence, we are as much actors as audience in watching and experiencing the passage of time. Our stories tie us to our past as well as to the unknowns of the future and we feel a multidimensional connection to others in their continued telling. We throw away our fear and cast our lots to whatever may happen because we know that we are part of the greatest story ever which is ourselves.

artwork by Sir John Everett Millais 'Boyhood of Raleigh'

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Living with Angels and Demons

We all know that humans have the capacity to act in ways somewhere between the extremes of good and evil and even the non-believers among us recognize that at best we get only mixed reviews for the way we conduct ourselves in the social domain. Even the steadiest of believers if they are at all honest will tell you that they have to fight King Demon day in and day out in between the periodic showers of blessings so that they often feel both forces pulling their frail corporeal frames apart in the battle. Their tired faces are everywhere, in doctors' offices, at work, on the war-front, and in the grips of cruelty and poverty. We acknowledge their existence and ask, why? And growing out from this disconsolation are the businesses that tap into huge markets of folks ready for the pickin' by enterprising individuals touting their latest natural or pharmaceutical remedies or the latest religious twist on how to get and keep blessings coming fast and strong. People wallow in their inability to earn a decent income, to lose weight, to gain weight, (haven't heard much from this camp) to get healthier or feel less stressed through their days which is something like catching a butterfly or a sunbeam that frustratingly becomes more and more tiring and elusive. We remind ourselves of our blessings and give thanks for what we have but we also feel the fear of losing them. As we age we tend to contemplate death more and either try to avoid the subject or try to face it head on as we watch ourselves and those we care for slowly getting a bit less physically able to do the things which used to be done without having as much as a pinch of pain. Passion begins to slip a little further from our awareness and the reality of life's impermanence moves a little further forward.

If the Angels and Demons couldn't traverse through our mind's eye we just might be in a sorry state indeed. They remind us that beyond the physical world there is also another, more subtle reality than consciousness assumes and we learn to trust that which is hidden and not easily observable. We learn to ignore the Demons that rage in our heads and put up shields to counter what they whisper in our ears and then overly rely on our Angels to get us through but it is acceptance that is the great lesson for our lives and we strive to attain the peace it offers because the alternative is blatant despair. It is a state we grow into when we become less hard on others and on ourselves, more tolerant of our neighbors' foibles and more patient in finding some inner balance and peace with all the conflicting traits that make us who we are. When we are young we struggle with things like our identities, how we measure up as potential friends and mates and how we rank within the social and economic order, our parents and our bosses' expectations, and sometimes, just how we are going to make it to survive the next day and after all that we start with the guilt trips about how others have it so much worse than we do and that we have no right being such complainers.

Now that I'm a bit older and roughly halfway through my semi-psychotic journey through this earthly plane I find I have no real solid answers for myself concerning the vagaries of life let alone having them for others who might happen to ask me. A few people and their words have had more of a positive impression on me than others but maybe that's just because I haven't run into a situation yet which would have brought them to mind. I have felt neither great love or great hate for anything or anybody and have tried to be open-minded to the ideas and idiosyncrasies of others and seek neither to curse or bless the Demons or the Angels because they seem to have come along with the package when we came into this world. If it gets too hot in the kitchen, I figure it's just better to leave it due to my usually non-confrontational temperament and that mindset seems to have served me well.

So follow your own road, take some time along the way to gather your strength and breath and keep a moderate distance between both the Angels and the Demons. They're there to make us human, just don't let either one of them take over and run your life because life will be complicated either with or without them. You'll probably have enough on your plate trying to take care of yourself and your own anyway without having to worry about taking care of either of them.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

We Want Peace, But...

There are two competing philosophies that stand out in my mind that seem to affect the course of civilization, one that allows for unrestricted use of force to gain its objectives and one that constrains us in the use of that force. In relation to these concepts we develop fixed ideas that color all that we do whether for good or ill. Within the span of these core belief systems are the innumerable actions we take as individuals or groups that range from extreme pacifism to uncontrolled aggression. If those who are cautious and wise gain more influence in the marketplace of ideas than those who are reckless and authoritarian, I believe we as a race are in a much better position to nurture peace and implement just political and social policies.

Religion, I think is a force for great good or great evil. It is a two-edged sword that great prophetic voices through the ages have made very clear. While religion can be used to do great harm against those who are deemed to be servants of evil, it can also be an incredibly positive force to do good since all scriptures have passages within them that are universal in the ability to redirect our energies toward making the planet a better place to live. Of course, it is tempting to think that God doesn't care about humankind because people everywhere have always suffered as a result of natural catastrophic events. Destruction is part of physical existence. We can't escape it while in our bodies or while dwelling in homeworld Earth. The galaxies live and die in cycles of unending creation and destruction as do those who live here on this small blue dot in space. If we in our struggle to survive, can't transcend to a higher thought plane other than the "grab what you can and to hell with the others" mindset because of the constant precariousness of life, I think we're in big, big trouble.

Using God to justify violence is absurd because no one can prove that their ideas of God are one hundred percent true as claimed and giving lip-service to peace while hiding under its cloak does not bring it about but does just the opposite. Using it as cover is manipulative in that it deceives people, skewing their ideas and poisoning their spirits. As members of the human family we have much in common yet our leaders repeatedly vilify other nations and cultures and teach us to do the same. When are we going to rise as a human family and finally force our leaders to abolish war and ignore those who preach hate? Do we have that much of a global death wish? We have the tools to make peace. They are in our minds and hearts because we have all learned them from childhood and though we sometimes forget the ways of peace, if we are doggedly committed to their pursuit, we have a good chance of propagating it and limiting unneeded suffering in our individual and collective lives.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Some Thoughts on 'The Secret'

I just watched 'The Secret' DVD and wanted to write about it without thinking about it too much so forgive me for loose associating here. My first reaction after watching it for a few minutes was that I was watching some kind of new-age infomercial and I wondered what type of big-dollar spin-offs it would generate. I guess the beginning also reminded me of the 'prosperity gospel' emphasized by many ministries like Rev. Schuller's and by Norman Vincent Peale's 'possibility thinking' books which promised an easy, sure-fire route to wealth and prosperity if one would only reach out and grab it. "Ask, and it shall be given; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." (Matthew 7:7) No doubt faith is the foundation for any type of successful undertaking but there are also times when you can't always get what you want. A toddler in the grocery store, for example, sees a toy that attracts him or her and all the child can think about is how wonderful it would be to have that toy. It becomes so built up in that child's mind that by the end of mommy's shopping trip it erupts into, "I'm gonna make mommy get me that toy if I have to scream it out of her!" The kid screams but it doesn't work, and mommy ends up with baby tears showered all over the groceries. A half-hour later the toy is miraculously out of mind, and the toddler finds something new and just as fascinating to think about or do. Now as adults we have or should have some understanding of the concept of delayed gratification. The physical world has its ups and downs and good and bad things can and do happen to us just by chance. Also, good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good ones. "I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil" (Psalms 37:35) The Psalmist then says "but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found." There is also the biblical imperative which sums up our purpose here in this world, "He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) In the Gospels Jesus expands upon these ideas but he puts more of an eternal emphasis upon them, something left relatively under-discussed in the previous revelation.

So "The Secret" at about midway drops the "I wanna have this car or house so I'll pin a picture of it up on the ceiling so I can see it every time I wake up" and goes into the more mystical concepts behind the idea, that all of us are energy and that we have the infinite at our disposal if we only recognize it by thinking and feeling in a way which resonates with it. This part I really like. In my own experience, negativity brings on more of the same while hope and faith increases to the extent that it is employed in my moment by moment walk through the day. It is normal though and very human to have dark periods. We need to have bad times too because it helps us understand others when they are facing trials so that we are better able to offer them help and comfort. Like so many others, I've had major bouts with depression. Many times negative mental states are biochemical in nature and people sometimes just can't come out of the clouds by practicing positive thinking and may need to rely on appropriate medications to help them feel better. But beyond the physical limitations of the human body, it is very true that the mind has within itself the power to conceive a higher state than it finds itself in at any given moment. This can be gained through audio-guided relaxation methods for the non-God-believers among us, or through whatever spiritual practice one feels most comfortable with.

There is no guaranteed fast track system to gain success and happiness. It's not something that comes easy for most folks, anyway, and there is really no secret to 'The Secret,’ in my humble opinion. The road to understanding is often blocked by obstacles that must be moved out of the way each time they are encountered. Knowing ‘The Secret’ comes by learning from one's own and other’s successes and failures. There are times when we must claw through the dirt to get where we want to go and times when we have to fight for what we believe is right and true. It also involves finding a spiritual path that's compatible with one's particular temperament. Different problems often require different solutions and sometimes a whole arsenal of tools are needed to fix the things that go wrong in our lives and in our world. I do believe we are truly infinite, and part and parcel of God. We are also our brothers, sisters, friends, lovers and nature herself. Recognizing the ultimate inner goodness within us and in the universe is a matter of letting the Infinite do its work in us, always holding on to its activators: faith, hope and love. Words that reflect the Infinite must always be ready on our lips, their thoughts in our minds and hearts so that we learn to natually dwell upon them, always having the eyes of our souls fixated on that which is of the light so that goodness may continuously and plentifully enter into and reflect out from each of us. From this the world is helped to heal.