Today I had to reach deeply into the sources of my spiritual life, seeking the means to be with, in a sacred way, as I like to say, what I am experiencing of the outer world.
It was not easy, for at first I could only see a world full of both bomb blasts and bombastic rhetoric. I felt the impact of a world swamped by grief, fear, and anger. I listened to accounts of the hypocrisy involving a governor who won an election by running on a holier-than-thou ticket of his version of “family values” who is now caught up in a shocking sex-scandal revelation that has his wife releasing salacious materials to the public and filing for a divorce.
In short, I felt overwhelmed by a world full unhappiness: the self-righteous outraged by the ludicrous, the dangerous exploiting the naïve, the uninformed believing absurdities, the manipulative and the power-hungry apparently out-maneuvering overly-gentle non-partisan progressives.
To escape all this doom and gloom, I thought to step outside, right here in the deep woods where I live. But, although I immediately found myself listening to the wind in the trees, looking at the radiant blooms of the spring flowers, walking the familiar paths down to the creek, I still kept wondered how, on such a beautiful day, things could be so awful elsewhere, and, I kept asking myself why it is so difficult for human beings simply to quieten themselves, live in peace, and, as they say, “smell the roses.”
To quieten my own self, however, I knew I would probably have to first listen to myself; I’ve learned to pay attention in a respectful way to whatever is surfacing from deep within, without becoming obsessed by it. So, as I walked, I allowed my frazzled thoughts to float where they would, without trying to censor them too quickly with Pollyanna pretense or my own over-simplified pontificating.
So, my thoughts turned first to the pain I felt over the suffering of people wounded in the current bomb blast. I allowed myself to imagine the fear and horror of the bystanders, the agony of those grieving for the dead.
Then I began to think about those who had caused this tragedy—the radicalized Islamic terrorist suicide bombers who had said they believed so completely in their “holy war” that they were willing to do battle, to die to make the world live by to their religious beliefs.
Suddenly, I heard in my mind the words of an old hymn I haven’t sung in many years, words that go something like this: “Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before. Christ, the royal Master, Leads against the foe; Forward into battle, See his banners go! Like a mighty army moves the Church of God; Brothers, we are treading where the Saints have trod. We are not divided; all one body we: One in hope and doctrine, One in charity. Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching into war.”
Militant crusade lyrics, these, urging “one in doctrine” to do battle, and this from another side of the current religious fault line.
As I thought about the history of ideologically driven chaos and suffering, I wanted to cry out, “How long shall we be torn apart by fanaticism, of any and every kind? What can we do to stop this escalation of verbal and physical violence, coming at us from every direction?”
Thinking about the long history of war, I remembered Carl Jung, who, as Hitler rose to power, wrote in his journal, agonizing over his awareness of the developing catastrophe, feeling unable to stop it, even though he spoke again and again about how people needed to examine their own “shadow” selves and the “shadow” side of the culture and even the “shadow” side of their particular concept of God if the horrors he could see coming were to be prevented.
I also thought about a German couple I once knew in California who tried to explain to us Americans how “good people” in Germany could have stood by and allowed the holocaust to happen. This nice man said to us, “Well, in the beginning, Hitler wasn’t that bad; after the previous war that had been and still was so hard on all of us, Hitler at first said things that made us feel better, promised us good things to come, and, really, none of us ever believed that what eventually happened could happen in our enlightened nation, the nation of Goethe, Bach, Beethoven, etc…”
Now, I watch what is happening in my own country, what dreadful things are developing, and I search inside myself for the words, the ways that I myself can speak out, can reach out, can make a difference in this present chaotic state of the world.
So easy it is to feel helpless in the face of such a whirlwind of emotion and such a variety of passionate energy propelling us as a society into further conflict and horror.
Lately, alone here in the deep woods, I pray. I sit so quietly, day after day, trying to be starkly present to the reality that is happening that some of my friends are beginning to fear that depression has overtaken me. But I wait for inspiration, guidance, for the future and my part in it.
And, again and again, my spiritual bedrock beliefs stand me in good stead.
The title of a book I read years ago rings in my ears, “I never promised you a rose garden…”
As concerned as we all rightly are about justice and injustice, rights and privileges, freedoms and the lack thereof—I am constantly reminded that an unevenness apparently pervades nature and reality itself, that beyond any sense of right-and-wrong or good-and-evil, for example, a storm can suddenly destroy forests or cities or whatever is in the path, that meteors can hurtle through space and smash into things, that the innocent often suffer and the unrighteous sometimes escape punishment. I am reminded that reality seems equally fraught with pain and sorrow as well as it is suffused with delight and happiness.
How to make my personal and spiritual perspective large enough to encompass that reality, while maintaining any kind of hopeful balance, any kind of overall concept of wholeness and spiritual well-being—that is the ever-necessary discipline I face.
I have been taught well, of course. My spiritual mentors would expect nothing less of me than to meet this current challenge to my spiritual compass with the strongest thing I know to do.
So today, I focused on this one assertion–that love is still possible, even in the worst times.
What kind of love, though, you may ask? Well (and this is the tricky part), for whatever is at hand—a violet, small and shining in the new green grass; or a friend, confessing his grief on the other end of the telephone; or a blithering someone on the television that I really want to call the most awful names because he seems so vile—that is the challenge.
We have been taught, all of us, to love, to love each and all of what is, the beautiful, the precious, and the awful and the frightening—that is what all the world’s religions teach. To love our enemies, to have compassion for those least loveable, to be gentle with our own failings, even to reverse the teaching and “Love ourselves as we love our neighbors.” For truly, there is no difference.
I have to sit still a long time to work it out though. It’s complicated, many sided.
If I believe, as I do, that ultimately, in the big picture, there is no separation, that we are, indeed, One, that Life itself is indivisible, then my neighbor, my enemy, myself (and the violet and the storm and the meteor) all are inter-connected. Loving anything or anyone touches everything, while withholding love, or even hating anyone one or anything touches everything too.
I’m not so good at this, I confess. First it requires discernment. While everything may be One, I am Me. Boundaries matter. Safety matters. My values matter. Not just in an egocentric way either, but in a big way too.
If we are, in fact, co-creating the universe, then my actions for good, for what I believe in, my actions against what is dangerous and dreadful—this too is important.
So figuring out where I begin and end, where I should act or refrain from acting, where I can trust “the universe” or “spirit” or whatever to take care of the “big picture,” and where I need to speak out and act strongly, that is the first challenge.
What form shall this love so ardently advocated take?
Then, whatever way I go, it requires honesty. And courage.
For me, that means not trying to hide in stupefied revulsion, or self-induced ignorance, or deepening self-pity, or ranting and railing in an impractical and fruitless exposition of my own opinions. That’s all so much easier to do. But it doesn’t work. Not the way real love works. Not the way kindness works, or compassion, or forgiveness, or even equanimity.
Knowing, as I surely do, that love is actually the secret ingredient, the very essence of all life, allows me to trust that, even now, love is available and strong enough to change this troubled world. I do believe, when I get quiet, that love can be channeled through me, through all or any of us, enough to fill each moment, however dreadful, for us with “peace that passes understanding.”
This is not just Pollyanna pretense either. Again and again, it has been proven. “Be still, and know….”
When we quieten ourselves enough, our souls expand, and filling the space carved hollow by sorrow, a healing compassionate tenderness rises in us, with love for friend and foe alike, along with an awareness that we are loved, and that we embody love, that we can manifest love in the world. No matter what.
To feel the power and strength of that, even in the face of the worst days, the worst news, the saddest images, that is the ground of my practice.
As I said, I’m not so good at it. But today I return to it yet again, tenacious and fierce in determination.
And, there’s this. Equally important, I know I must give myself permission, even discipline myself, to allow joy and beauty often to sweep into and over me, filling me with bliss and perhaps swaying me with giddy pleasure—that too is equally necessary “medicine” for me in these otherwise draining days. I must not fall into the false trap of feeling guilty for feeling good. My joy, too, like my pain, radiates out into the world, so you might say I have an obligation to participate in joyfulness as in suffering!
Those are some of the things I thought about today.
And because of my love and respect for you, and because of who I am, I felt a need to reach out to you on this difficult day. So these are the musings I chose to send on to you. Not “nine simple rules for survival.” Not a big sermon or a profound statement, to be sure. I never have that to give.
I merely send out my voice to you, hoping to remind you that together we are, truly we are, we can be, we must be a force for good. We must not hold back, we must not give up, we must not lose our courage, our sense of proportion, our sense of humor, or our deep awareness of the many dimensions of history and of an unseen reality broader and deeper and wider than we can imagine, a reality that is manifested in love. We must not give up, or give in to hopelessness.
Together we stand for sanity and peace. Together we can choose to restrain our most virulent comments and opinions and actions. Together we can, in the familiar words, “bind up our wounds,” and carry on. Together we can find the strength to be still, and, also, paradoxically, the strength to act, to speak out, to say, perhaps, “The emperor has no clothes,” or “This shall not stand,” or “This I believe, but I will listen respectfully to what you believe,” or whatever other words finally find their way through each of us.
And, at times when we feel most alone, we can practice listening, deep inside ourselves, as I had to do today, to what the old Eskimo shaman called “the still, small voice of Spirit that says, ‘Be not afraid.’” Or to what Jesus said: “I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.” Or to what Krishna said: “A person who remains steady and unattached when pleasure and pain comes and goes will achieve the highest goal.” Or to what Buddha said: “The only way you can become free is to love those who hate you.”
I write this message to you, to the world, I suppose, as my own practice in loving.
I am just wanting to let you know that I am here, just being here, holding this space on the wheel, holding you, as always, in my heart with love and with the utmost respect.
Director, Fellowship of Comparative Religion