19 November 2008

Not to Destroy, But to Build

Reflections on a gospel passage "I come not to tear down the Law but to fulfill it." I first wrote this almost two years ago, but it is terribly relevant to me right now.

It seems to me that this gospel passage shows that Jesus was struggling with a challenge that is highly relevant to us today. For him to say something like "Do not say that I have come to tear down the Law" must mean that people were in fact accusing him of that very thing. Which means that his actions and his words were perceived as a challenge and a threat to traditional belief and practice.

But he replies to this criticism, "I have come to fulfill the Law," which sounds to me like this, "I am honoring the very foundation on which the Law is built, on which all religion is built. If the edifice of your beliefs and practices is falling it is because those beliefs are not true to the foundation, not because I am tearing them down."

Now, it seems to me that we face this same challenge today. The structures of our societies and our economies, our thought structures and many of our religious structures, are not true to the foundation of Life. They serve only themselves. And many are in full-frontal assault on the foundation of Life on Earth. So how do we, as people who wish to remain true to the foundation, which is the fundamental unity of all that is -- which expresses itself as love of oneself, love of neighbor, of enemy, of life forms alien and mysterious to us humans -- how do we stay true to that foundation of unity and at the same time deal effectively with the structures -- in which we ourselves are deeply enmeshed -- that perpetuate genocide and biocide?

People the world over identify deeply with the super-structures of belief and tradition that they hold dear. Yet so many of those structures must fall or be transformed if Life on Earth is to be reclaimed. People, all of us, will feel that what we hold most dear, our very sense of self, is under attack. How do we, with Jesus, say "I have not come to tear apart but to fulfill. Not to destroy, but to build. It may feel like an attack on the foundation, but it is not. There is a deeper foundation to be rediscovered. Let the false fall away and the truth return. Let the structures that are destroying Life fall away and let new life grow from the still-healthy root."

How do we do this? Can love transform the world? How does love approach those who feel threatened by the change, those who feel that all they hold dear is under attack, including their very sense of identity? How do we allow our devotion to belief and tradition and security to fall away, if that is the consequence of being true to the foundation of radical, inclusive love? How do we bear witness to the truth, knowing that there are many edifices of society and self that will not stand under the scrutiny?

If we are to survive the coming decades, and if we are to live on an Earth that is vitally alive with all manner of life forms, radical change must come. To welcome that change we will have to know what is true and what is false, and we will have to know how to let go of many of our most cherished possessions, those possessed in the mind, and embrace the living truth.

11 November 2008

Switching From Fear to Love

I just received a peculiar bit of spam email (maybe you did too) from someone calling himself or herself (not sure) "Tinker." The language is difficult, and I have questions about much of what is being said, but there is a core that I think I can put into my own words. Something like this, with apologies for any misrepresentation of the original intention. Tinker's own delightfully unique words can be found at www.bltr.org.

The essential problems of humanity all spring from a common source. There are many different ways to talk about this, but essentially the human mind is driven by fear of the unknown. We each have a gatekeeper in the mind that examines whatever is happening around us, and compares that to what is already known and familiar, and admits entrance only to what matches what is already known, and then figures out what to do with that which is unfamiliar. The gatekeeper has many strategies for dealing with the unfamiliar, depending on just how threatening the new is to what is already known. Those strategies include reinterpretation, outright denial, attacking the messenger, silent internal ridicule, automatic reassertion of the familiar, arguing and criticizing, and in extreme cases, physical or character assassination. The mind fears what it does not know. And it goes to great lengths to preserve the known in the face of the unfamiliar.

Lesser threats that can be incorporated into the gatekeeper's current paradigm are massaged into place. Greater threats to the familiar are resisted by whatever means. The more persistent the threat, the more violent the self-defense.

The primal fear driving this mechanism is social exclusion. The gatekeeper's rule is finely tuned to the behavior it sees around it. It has a pretty good idea what is socially acceptable and what is not. Rebellion of the individual is usually well within the bounds of an accepting subculture. There are very, very few who are willing to risk being rejected by everyone else in order to admit the truth and speak the truth and go where the truth leads.

Every single one of us has access to the truth. We don't need religions or gurus or politicians to tell us what is true, although they can sometimes be helpful. We know what is true. We are in no way separate from each other and in no way separate from God, so we know what is really true. It is simply that we shut off our trust in that truth because we fear the unknown. The truth does not come to us as dogma, or as beliefs that tell us in advance what to do and what not to do. The truth comes to us as a deep knowing in the moment of what is right and what is not right. We all know the feeling, that inner compass that points us in the right direction moment to moment. And we all know the feeling of denying that inner compass because it points us away from what is socially acceptable, away from what we think will win us approval from our peers or those in authority, away from what is safe and predictable.

This is such a strong mechanism in all humans that it is hard to see how it can be overcome. We can try to teach our children and we can try ourselves to be morally strong, which means to trust that inner compass when it points away from societal norms. And there have always been a very few who have been able to achieve this. They end up being revered as spiritual leaders or killed, or both.

But for most of us the fear is just too great. The fear of being thrown out of society, killed even. The mind that is conditioned to respond to what is socially acceptable is too strong.

Tinker is proposing that the solution to this problem, and it is an urgent problem -- our very survival as a species, and the survival of many other species is at stake -- is to change the social norm. To make it socially acceptable to listen to the inner compass. Then there will be no conflict. He has a plan for making this happen. I wish him luck. It may be possible. After all, every one of us knows what this is about. We know exactly what it feels like to deny our inner compass and go with what the crowd expects. We know what that fear of rejection feels like.

We also know what it feels like to be true to that still small voice within. We know that it is reliable. We know that it is a voice of love and peace and truth and integrity. But it never gives us the final answer so it leaves us moving constantly into the unknown. This is our true condition anyway, but that true condition is plastered over with the ongoing monologue of the gatekeeper who is constantly turning the new and surprising and frightening into the old and familiar and comfortable. But we know how horrible it feels to deny the truth we deeply know and go with what is merely socially acceptable.

My own feeling is that social acceptability is not the path to awakening individual conscience. Tinker seems to be assuming we are all separate and need to have some external force that will grant us approval to know what we already know. That's the same mistake religions have always made, I think. Individual conscience isn't really individual. It is the deepest knowing of life itself manifesting in an individual mind. It is God's own truth bubbling up in our own being. We have the freedom to ignore it, to trust the crowd instead, to trust the dogma, to trust the inherited belief system. And we have the freedom to listen to that deep knowing, to allow it to act through us, regardless of the fear it arouses. We all have that freedom. It is a given. Trusting the rule of society gives us all the catastrophes we see, the wars and the destruction of the earth. Trusting the inner compass is trusting the source. It is love. It always manifests as love. It never wants to do harm to anyone or anything. It never coerces or manipulates. It never wants to shut anyone out. It has no enemies, for it is the essential nature of everyone and everything.

In my own experience, the falling away of the fear comes when it is clearly seen just how this whole mechanism operates. When the mind sees very clearly how its own gate keeping is threatening its own survival. Then that deep survival instinct is harnessed in service to seeing the truth and reorienting to the deep truth. When the mind sees that its gatekeeper is the source of the danger, it loosens its grip and reorients toward reality. It prefers reality to the gatekeeper's story about reality. The gatekeeper may remain, but in a much diminished role. The gatekeeper is no longer the source of personal identity.

I have no plan. I have no advice. But I do know that the truth of love is within and around every one of us at all times. The change we need is as simple as flipping a switch. Switching from fear to love. From running with the crowd to trusting our inner compass. From drowning out reality with our monologue of explanation and rationalization and criticism, to listening deeply to reality, to loving reality in its incomprehensible splendor. This love does not need to be learned. It is our true condition. Fear is imposed on top of it. It takes no effort and no time to acknowledge the fear, to see through it, and to step into the love of reality, to fall into the embrace of the unknowable vitality of life itself, to acknowledge the feeling of the truth, to use Tinker's words.

And I think that because we are not in any way separate, when anyone does this, it happens in some measure to everyone. So I think maybe the edifice of fear is falling and the foundation of love is being revealed. That wall of fear can fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. In fact, it is already happening. If it can happen to me and it can happen to a mechanic in the Netherland Antilles called "Tinker" it must be happening to all of us.

08 November 2008

Not To Be Missed

I have written surprisingly little in this blog about the natural world. When I first conceived of The Natural Contemplative I had a double purpose in mind. First, I would write about contemplation from the perspective of one who sees contemplation as a natural part of every life. I have read that only about 1% of the human population are "natural contemplatives." With this I wholeheartedly disagree. Whatever these others mean by "contemplative" it is not what I mean. We are all natural contemplatives. Most of us are merely unaware, perhaps even a little afraid, of our contemplative core. Unaware and perhaps a bit resistant to the truth of our own being. Or perhaps we know it, but call it by another name.

Second, I wanted to write about the natural world that is so dear to me, especially the whales and seals I have come to know in myriad ways over the past 13 years or so. I thought I would be writing about the intimate link between our contemplative nature, and the contemplation of nature. The link between our deepest nature and the deepest nature of all life. The inextricable bonds and intertwinings and interdependences. The song we share with whales and seals and birds. How meeting another wild animal can thrust you instantly into an understanding of your own true nature. The fallacies of independence, autonomy, mastery, domination, conflict, exploitation, self. The unutterable damage we are inflicting on ourselves through the damage we inflict on each other, on earth. The ultimate conclusion that there is no "other." All damage is ultimately self-inflicted. The harm we do to another is done to ourselves.

It turns out these are really hard things to write about.

There is no common language, no common frame of reference within which to discuss these things. The belief in separation is so profoundly written into our language and our ways of thinking that it is nearly impossible to talk about the perfect unity of being.

Both eastern and western spiritual traditions are usually caught in apparent dualities. I grew up in the Christian tradition, so I know quite well its dualities. Good vs. evil and all that. Its emphasis on achieving eternal life and rather peripheral concern for the life we are living right here, right now, especially the rich and beautiful lives of other animals, of rocks and rivers and trees and soil and sky. There is little if any love for these living entities. There is even a denial that we are animals. There is us, made in God's image, and then there is everything else, everything lesser than us. We are going to heaven, if we believe the right things. The dominant tradition hardly seems to care where everything else is going or about loving the richness of this life.

But I have also spent time among believers and practitioners of eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. And like the Christian longing for heaven, the eastern traditions have their preference for enlightenment, nirvana, transcending this illusory world and dwelling in some purely spiritual plane that is free of the hurt and illusion of this bodily, animal life. Even among self-proclaimed "non dualists" there is a not-too-subtle dualism that prefers "pure consciousness" or "being the observer" or "detachment" to the complexity of being matter-earth-animal-human.

Even the non dualist who proclaims "everything is consciousness" can't seem to escape from a subtle dualism. This goes back to the language problem. Immediately the mind wants to interpret this statement by countering, "so everything is not body." Consciousness=good. Body=bad.

I started this blog because I was tired of hearing two things: that spirituality is basically about personal salvation or personal enlightenment, and that the material world, the earth, the animals, our own bodily lives, don't have any spiritual significance. Bodies suck. Best get free of them. And the bodies of animals and rocks and rivers really suck. Best get free of all that. After all, those things die. What good can they possibly be?

I have spent some time recently reading the work of Adyashanti, who is a spiritual teacher, about my age, coming out of the Zen tradition. I initially enjoyed encountering his writing because his approach to meditation resonates with my own, and that is a very, very rare thing. Even among meditators I have always been a bit of an oddball. I still deeply appreciate what Adya is carrying into the world. His message is very straightforward, relatively free of spiritual jargon, and clearer than any I have heard for a long time. He goes to the root of the thing in a way many people can understand. I have never met him (I will next spring) but my impression is that he is carrying a loving presence with people that is quite rare. About 90% of what he says makes perfect sense to me. Read his book Emptiness Dancing if you are interested.

But I find myself increasingly frustrated with his lack of concern for the natural world and the body. In a recent interview he was asked, "Are the body and physical sensations illusory?" His reply was "Yes and no. Ultimately everything is a dream, and yet you still have to deal with the body... it's still going to hurt if you bump your head."

What a sadly impoverished sense of what it is to be a body! Good God! It's just a bloody inconvenience? Not a word as to the glory of the web of life. Not a word as to the incredible beauty and grandeur of mountains and whales and wolves. Not a word as to the joys of rain and sun and feeling the caress of wind on skin. Not a word about the intricate and intelligent web of life. How sad. And Adya is one of the better ones. He speaks of the danger of getting stuck at the place of "being pure awareness" and how important it is to carry that awareness back out into life. He speaks of the importance of not trying to hang out in a false bliss state. Yet he has little good to say about being a body and he doesn't seem to care if we trash the planet. Oh well, everything dies. That's the way it goes. It's all a dream anyway.

So as you can see I have a fair bit of anger about this. No one seems to be talking about the deepest insights of contemplation - the riches that flow out of silence and the understanding that the sense of being a "separate self" is a mind-created illusion - while at the same time really loving this animal life. I wanted to try to do that, to bring those two worlds together, to reunite heaven and earth, spirit and matter, but it is turning out to be a tricky business, which just goes to show how foreign it is to our ways of thinking about and seeing the world and our place in it. In trying to explain it I more often feel torn in half than successful at reunification.

If I am anything, and I resist all labels, I am probably some kind of non dualist. From what I have seen, there is only one thing. Spirit and body are the same thing. Distinctions exist only in the mind. They are a story, a convenience, a fiction, an illusion. Really, there is only one thing, one being, one energy matrix that forms and reforms into temporary nodes, including of a type (which we call a "nervous system") that is able to "read" itself after a fashion. Who knows what is really going on? No one! All we know is what a tiny portion of the brain says it thinks is going on, or what it invents to fill in the gaps in its knowledge.

My whole adult life, and maybe longer, I have wanted to understand the very root of the reason why we are here in this form, and the reason for all the apparent misery, personal and planetary. I have wanted to know why we are so unhappy, so destructive, so exploitative. And I have wanted to know what is possible for us. Is the peaceable kingdom a fantasy or a reality? Is it a description of an afterlife or a description of this life - a hint at the underlying reality of this life that we merely fail to see? Is this mess for real, or are we merely blind and ignorant and locked in our own limited perceptions and mental frameworks? What is really real?

I have had enough glimpses of a vibrant, beautiful, glorious, sacred, joyful, generous, loving, welcoming reality hiding in the cracks between all our misery that I have needed to understand deeply what the hell is going on here. I have needed to understand the workings of my own mind, with the understanding that my mind isn't essentially different from anyone else's. We are all working with the same basic mechanism. And it determines how we see the world and how we respond to the world, far more than most people want to admit.

But trying to understand the mind, even observing one's own mind at work, is a dense thicket. It's fascinating, but one can get rather tangled up in it.

I keep having to pull back to the basics. Yes, I want to understand the very root of suffering, the root of greed and violence and the feeling of separation. I want to understand the root cause of devotion to ideology. But I also want to recall what I do know and to embody it.

Explanations, theologies, philosophical frameworks aside, one thing is clear to me. The foundation is Love. This is not an idea I have, it is something I have seen very clearly, more clearly than I have seen anything else. Clearer than a clear blue sky. I can not for the life of me, for all my thinking and investigating, answer in a way that satisfies my mind or anyone else's, why deep love should take the form of war and rape and child abuse and flood and famine and children blown apart by land mines and drug addiction and exploitation of the planet and religious fanaticism and all the rest of it.

But I do know that all of that mad mess is also an expression of this one beautiful thing. Somehow maybe it just has to be this way, for no particularly good reason. I don't know. But given the choice between this world exactly as it is and some imagined bliss world, I would take this world any day (well, most days!), for the simple reason that I have been around long enough not to trust my fantasies of perfection. In the end those fantasies have caused me much more suffering than anything life has sent my way. And the things I love most in my life happened like accidents. I never saw them coming, and I would never want to have lived without them. Good things and "bad" things.

So which is more trustworthy here, life, or my idea of what life should be? I'll take life as it is, thank you very much. This life is so rich and mysterious and wild, can I really imagine anything that would be an improvement?

I am inclined these days to think that the source of our worst problems is the belief that there is something better than this life exactly as it is. Paradoxically, the way to make this life infinitely better is to embrace it and be embraced by it exactly as it is. Everything in this body/brain thing has been trained to resist this life as it is. This body/brain has been taught that there is always something better. A better job, a sexier mate, a perfect heaven or state of pure consciousness, a faster car, whatever. The list goes on. There is always some safer, disembodied, detached, airbrushed, virtual reality that is better than this messy bodily life. There is always some reason to despise this that is. To despise the world. To despise our own lives. To despise our bodies. To despise the animals and the plants. There is always something better than this, just around the corner. Human meaning derives from striving for that something better. This is what we have conditioned ourselves to believe. This is what we are taught from the very beginning.

What if... What if all that striving for something better, and the lack of love for this right here exactly as it is, is what is making everything appear so messed up? What happens if we stop striving and improving and really get to know this right here? What happens if we fall in love with reality?

Oh my. It's unbelievable. What riches we have been missing. What bliss! What joy! What wonders! What sorrows! What disappointments! What successes! What failures! What laughter! What tears!

There is no imagined, hoped for, or virtual substitute that can hold a candle to this life, exactly as it is. The "nothing" and the "everything." The tangible, lively world and the unknowable deep silence out of which it pours. The material known that is a wave on the surface of the deep unknown. Grasp at one or the other and we live a fragmented life. Allow both together and we have heaven on earth. Right here. Right now. This. Exactly as it is. The whole shebang. Not to be missed.