Category Archives: Spirituality and Soul

Divine Design

In college I spent a lot of time with my best friend’s family, so when her father died a few weeks ago, that was the loss of a family member for me. Death makes me think about fate, hard as I try not to. Was it ‘his time’ as we often say? His spouse suffered most through his Alzheimer’s, for many years. No one would have wished him a hasty exit, but I think any of us would have wished for less lingering, once it seemed all awareness had vanished.

I have long refused to accept our lives are scripted. I reject any theological language referring to ‘God’s will.’ But when experiencing these life and death events it is hard not to question our destiny. Even if not scripted, it seems at least there are situations we are drawn to, and without question, external events that influence the choices we make.

Historical fiction is a beloved escape for me. I am often reading/listening-to a period in webRNS-God-Sistine-042518time when many Europeans, there and in the New World, believed hell was a real place and god resembled the Old Testament guy who was long on judgement and anger. This way of thinking produces narrow-mindedness. It is the perspective where Evangelical Christians, and some Muslim sects, are stuck. They live in the long-ago past, when the simple answer to every conundrum was: god’s will. These are immature, under-developed religions. Theirs is the Christianity of the Crusades.

When people of that way of thinking turn to politics and public policy, they again want simple answers to complex problems. For one, example, they forget their own ancestors were immigrants and feel entirely justified railing against those ‘illegals.’ And then there’s the women. In this country we are forced into to psychological burqas, by paying us less, restricting our access to healthcare, and the many other ways we are marginalized. Hell, they have us turning on each other. ‘No one is harder on women than women’ – I know you’ve heard that one, just as I know I’ve said it.

I was called a racist on Twitter a few days ago. I made a comment that I thought was carefully inclusive and said (paraphrasing here – I deleted the thread) something like, we have all been marginalized. The respondent said the big problem is entitled white women who don’t understand what it’s like [for black women]. Really? It’s all the fault of women? Over-simplified and inaccurate. What I will grant is that there is a shocking percent of women (not just white) who accept our marginalized status and vote to sustain it, or worse, say it’s god’s will. I will certainly grant that a shocking percent of white women helped elect the president who openly admitted he assaulted women. That should have been a deal-breaker for every single female voter. There’s some simplicity for you. If you think it’s funny to assault women, you can’t be president.  Except you can. Even when we could have expected to be on the same side in this culture of everyone choosing sides, we still can’t manage civil discourse. Anger perpetuates anger.

In my reading, writing, and thinking about religion, I distinguish between the dogma and practice that comes from theology, and the emotional/psychological experience of spirituality. Though distinct, they influence each other. The person who has a theological belief in god’s will, nurtures a psychology that foregoes personal responsibility, and even an emotional response that others are wrong. They aren’t bound to social compassion because if someone is born into poverty, it’s just god’s will. And isn’t it god’s will for women to be breeders? All other human activities are subservient to this biological divine imperative. This is why they focus on abortion and not living children. After all, childcare is a just women’s work, but an abortion is saying no to the divine order of patriarchy. Giving birth, even if raped, is a god-ordained event and no women have the right to make a choice in this area. Men, do of course, because they can just leave. Patriarchy is the ultimate in divine design for these folks. And it is the systematic over-arching oppression of women of all races. Patriarchy depends on oppressing others and absent patriarchy, slavery itself could not have flourished.

Though I reject my fate is destined or scripted, I still find themes in my life, and jacqui1stgrade_edited-1recognize how much in life is out of my control. In this I choose a spiritual interpretation. I believe there are lessons available to me for this life that I did not master in my previous lives. The lessons are all the more crucial in times of pain and transition. I think back on the life of my friend’s father. I think I can see some of the pain he lived with and how it both drove him and haunted him. An Episcopal bishop once said, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” I saw evidence of both in the time I knew him. I also see evidence in the emotional legacy he passed-on to his daughters. Exactly like my birth family, the daughters did not enjoy the same benefits as the son, materially or psychologically. So the family mimics society, and society mimics the family; but that doesn’t change my desire to be treated more fairly by my father, my church, my country. I accept I will never be my father’s son. I do not accept the bad choices of others to treat me as less because of it. I can’t change their choices or the outcomes of those choices, but I will not embrace them as fate and certainly not divine design. -J.B.

 

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In the Still of the Night

We are all alone at night. Even if there is someone close, as we drift off to our subconscious, we are alone. In the moments in time before you are asleep, what are those last thoughts before you drift off? Right now, I’m staring at the ocean. I’m thinking about the first bloody Europeans who saw this tropical paradise, before they set about claiming, colonizing, and ruining. It was a larger world back then and after months of nothing but water, it must have been glorious.

As I experience St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands), I see poverty and luxury. There is little in between. I see no natural enterprises that are not related to the service of tourism. And I feel a subtle resentment just below the surface from the natives. I don’t blame them. Though I believe I live modestly, the contrast between their lives and mine is embarrassing. This foreshadows the mainland US where I think the oligarchy intend a permanent underclass to clean their pools, mow their yards, and work in their restaurants. It is one reason why health care and education are only for the rich. Keep us scraping to survive so we don’t have the energy or courage to object. I guess they have forgotten the French Revolution. Ask Marie Antoinette how that attitude worked out.

I admit I am not a relaxed or enthusiastic traveler. I can’t wait to return home and see my dog. I’m the person who goes to a tropical paradise like St. Thomas and thinks about taxation without representation as a euphemism for colonization – which I consider a heinous sin. I feed the feral cats by the house and I would take them home if I could. But I also look at the vast water views and count myself fortunate to get re-centered. This beats the hell out of the smells that attack me when I head underground for commuter rail from center city to the suburbs.

And then, because I like thinking about religion, I think about God. When I think about the god that was force-fed on indigenous peoples along with brutal imperialism, I am sick and ashamed. This is one of many reasons I have resolutely denied a personal god for so long. But then it comes to the still of the night. The birds are quiet, the music in the house has been silenced, the ocean on the rocks is consistent and quiet from where I sit. It’s full dark with only moonlight. Not even tiny lights on the uninhabited islands dotting the horizon. The closest one is for sale for $30 million. Who owns an island? It seems sacrilegious.

Bill Maher is my favorite atheist. I imagine having robust discussions with him, though I know he just dismisses religion as silly and doesn’t really like these conversations. But he keeps me honest. How would I describe a good religion? You know, one that doesn’t hurt others but still enriches one’s own life?

Usually religion is about dogma and theology. These might be metaphysical and complex, but I think of little comfort in the still of the night when spirituality matters more. I would say in the still of the night I imagine a life force outside of myself. I must assign it female energy, or I’m just walking away. Then I imagine a great kindness. A kindness that surrounds me and comforts me in the very same way I work to comfort and protect my little dog. I would not mind having this for myself. So, if you’re out there, Mother God, surround me with kindness. Please give me a feeling that I matter. That is enough. Because the looking out for myself, helping others, sorting out right from wrong, well, I think that’s my job. So, if you could spare some kindness, I will be grateful. -J.B.

Dear Mother God

Candice Bergen was in a very smart sit-com, “Murphy Brown” (CBS 1988-1998). There was an episode where some of her acquaintances joined a support group for men. In response to this revelation she said something like “What do you do? Sit around and talk about how hard it is to have all the best jobs and the most money?”

I have written about patriarchy in previous columns and I’m certainly not finished ranting about the organizational and political evils of it. But there is The_Creation_of_Adamanother level that is destructive at a personal level I haven’t addressed before now. This came to mind for me most clearly when a young, white, male, gave a sermon on God the Father a few weeks ago. Most likely he was well-intentioned, but no male has the right to talk to me about God the Father as a good thing. I can’t see it as anything other than oppressive, or at least an ancient characterization of an energy or being that should be bigger than misogyny and gender stereotypes.

For the record, I practice Christianity, though I am frequently embarrassed or infuriated by the many who claim they have the only right interpretation. I find the Episcopal Church the most liberal, both socially and theologically, but with a structured liturgy that centers me. In spite of that, there is not a single mass that I am not deeply hurt by the male dominant language.

There are probably some of you out there saying, why not just walk away from that religion? For many people that is the choice they make, and I don’t fault them. Think of it this way: Most women in this country earn about .77 to every $1 earned by a man. Of course it’s not fair. We don’t stop working, though we do change jobs to try and achieve parity. In general, most of us keep trying to level things out in our own way. Unfortunately, religion is not always better than the prevailing culture. Every day we see examples of folks rising to be better, and those exploiting religion for personal or political gain. That is not new.

After that “God the Father” sermon, I promised myself to make a consistent effort to convert any pronoun possible to neutral or female in every service including every song. I’m a slightly loud soprano, so my personal statement does not always go unnoticed, but that’s not why I do it. It is like a meditation for me. I don’t feel as excluded and it is not as hurtful as the throw-back male pronouns.

What I am asserting is that if you spend your whole life praying to God the Father, and you hold Him as an example of the most revered, then how do you not at some level, assume men are better? It is inevitable. Now imagine the hymn “God of Our Fathers.” A very macho hymn. Not so much when I change the lyrics to God of Our Mothers. Yeah, singing that the one turned a few heads. I belted it out, too.

Now I do allow that Jesus was male and I retain those male pronouns. You know what would have happened if Jesus was a girl? Not a damn thing. There would be no Christianity. She would have been irrelevant. Maybe ignored or married-off with a man taking credit for Her work. Instead, Jesus defended outcasts and treated women like human beings. He challenged traditionalism, including patriarchy, and they killed him for it.

I mean no disrespect to my own human father, but I have never in my entire life felt comfortable with the God the Father ideology. It just never felt right to me. So my prayers are to Mother God. It has reshaped my spirituality. I don’t feel like an outsider in my own religious practice. As I have said before, I don’t believe in a personal god, but I practice my faith like I do because I don’t know how else to keep it real. My contemplation is with Mother God and more like connecting with a maternal energy who has a “Star Trek” kind of attitude toward humanity with Her own “Prime Directive” of non-interference.

I have included this before, but not for a long time. I have rewritten Christianity’s “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is in every Episcopalian and Roman Catholic mass. Many Protestant churches use it throughout the church year. No one’s using my version, but you can if you want.

Mother and Father
In heaven and earth
Making all things sacred.

Your richness fulfilled
Your preference for us
On earth the same as heaven.

Your providence meeting
Our earthly needs
Teaching forgiveness by forgiving

Guide us from fear
Protect us from harm
That we not forget all is connected.

Your Spirit
Our Spirit
Forever

Amen

In the meantime, I will be expressing gratitude to Mother God for the many blessing I enjoy and pray She can exert influence on the Syrians to show each other mercy, in spite of Her Prime Directive. -J.B.

The Dark Night of the Soul

In the seventies, Dustin Hoffman played Jack Crabb in the movie, “Little Big Man,” as a white man raised happily by Native Americans who took him in when a different tribe murdered his parents. As Hoffman’s character said, “I wasn’t just playin’ Injun, I was living Injun.” While there are many ways to view his story, most often I think about it from the perspective of Jack Crabb getting crummy breaks, failing, and stumbling from one lifestyle into another. For some of us regular folks, doesn’t that kind of sum-up life?

I recently went to a memorial service for a popular teacher who was also instrumental in creating a successful drama program. Somewhere in mid-life he got born-again, so the seemingly never-ending memorial production was steeped in evangelical Christian rhetoric. There were three clergymen (men, of course) and it seemed we were never getting out of there. The last “benediction” (which meant more comments from clergy) started after we’d been there three hours.

Before the popular teacher went through his born-again phase (which I’m told lasted a long time but was eventually modified) there was a time in his life when I knew him to be a seeking person. You know, considering all the heavy life questions like the purpose of life, and the usual God questions. This was the brief period of time when I found him the most interesting. He was asteeple5_edited-2 seeking, humble, curious, feeling human being.

Ironically, it was at this very time in high school that I deliberately abandoned fundamental Christianity. Before that I used to carry my Bible around school every day – and actually read it. One day, I just stopped. I remember thinking, “This isn’t helping me. I’m tired of being depressed.” I did not permanently dismiss all of Christianity, just the version I was force-fed from birth, but I did leave organized religion alone for many years. As Jack Crabb said, “That was the end of my religious period.”

I sat at this memorial service thinking, “I wish I knew the guy they are all talking about.” The adoration was not less than epic. But I just didn’t see the same person they did. You could assess it as my flaw of being too critical. Maybe. When I think about him, I remember that period of time when he was searching and asking himself difficult questions. I was never among his favored protégés, so my perspective is that of the spectator. From my seat in the auditorium of life, I remember feeling disappointed that he so quickly abandoned seeking for easy answers.

There is something of potential great value in the dark night of the soul and it warrants careful consideration. When we feel lost or isolated, it is uncomfortable and painful. But when we are in that place we can see things, especially about ourselves, that are more difficult to see from the vantage point of lazy contentment. And even worse, when we adopt an ideology, we start reshaping our observations and thoughts to fit those notions, therefore cutting ourselves off from other possible understandings. In that mindset, I have watched people treat long-time friends with callous disregard because they got themselves a shiny new religion and new friends with it.

I understand what it feels like to struggle. Often when we are in that space we spend most of our mental energy trying to squirm free of the discomfort. I am suggesting that as difficult as it is, there is the opportunity to just stay in that uncomfortable space a bit and reflect. Breathe. This could be the angst before the break-through to a better direction, or thought, or understanding. And I will grant you that you don’t want to get stuck in that dark night. That’s called depression.

Respect the dark night of the soul. I think we should not be in such a rush to push out of it. Isn’t that really what Christianity’s lent and Islam’s Ramadan are all about? These two annual religious observances schedule a dark night of the soul in order for the faithful to take some time to reflect and reboot. Discomfort is built-in and used as a deliberate catalyst. What can we do differently? How can we make the future different than the past?

Any trip back to high school is uncomfortable for me, even seeing former classmates. I was recently humbled and saddened to learn I said some typical smart-ass thing once in French class that hurt a classmate. (Though I’m amazed my French was that good.) Now I haven’t been in high school since the seventies, so that’s a long-time for her to carry around the hurt I instigated. I do know that while I enjoy my own commentary on life, I just don’t need to impose it on others, and certainly not recklessly. I am grateful she gave me the opportunity to apologize. I’m not sure I’m any more careful with my comments, but I hope so.

Every life has a theme and a lesson. A lesson for the individual, and a lesson for the rest of us. The memorial service offered story after story. Good stories. Nice themes. The stories that I remember weren’t going to come-up. They are reserved for a few friends, in a small circle of people who know me and still like me. The stories are impacted by where you’re sitting and your view. French class? Memorial service? Lost in high school? It depends if you’re inside looking out or outside looking in. And if the lights dim, or the night seems darker than usual, just take your time. The dark night of the soul is a holy place. -J.B.

Don’t Pray for Me

Usually in these columns, I build up to some conclusion, but this time I’m starting at the end. Prayer is what you want it to be. Perhaps prayer is a connection, like my cat sitting next to me. (Thanks, Ralphie.)Ralphie Even atheists can find their spirit resonating with music, or maybe nature, in a way that is not just pleasurable, I think, but lifts us out of ourselves and our everyday existence. That is how I would define spiritual. When by intention or experience, we step outside of our daily worries to connect with the universe, I think we can call that a prayer.

Some people define prayer as the petitions they present to an all-powerful and interested God. I would liken that approach to wishing on a star – not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I was in the process of becoming Roman Catholic (I am now Episcopalian), I had some difficulty sorting out culture Jiminy Cricketfrom dogma from theology. One of the things the nuns talked about that I knew was strictly cultural was that when you go into a chapel for the first time you can make a wish. I saw it as a Jiminy Cricket sort of thing. At the time I was working two full-time jobs, and it follows that I had no social life. It was about December 17th and in spite of the fact that I would be working until at least 7:00 p.m. and the previously stated realities, I wished for a New Year’s Eve date. Admittedly a self-serving fantasy, I viewed it as a throw-away request. Surely God had better things to do. I didn’t even take my own wish seriously. I told no one, and forgot about it.

At about 6:45 p.m. New Year’s Eve, I had sent all my staff home and was tending to final work that I could handle alone when a man I had previously only spoken to casually asked me to accept an extra ticket to Penn and Teller because he had a friend who cancelled. This is the story that I tell my nieces under the theme of ‘God has a sense of humor.’ I had a lovely New Year’s Eve and one or two other dates, then found out he was gay. Well, at least now I knew God’s idea of a perfect date for me.

About those petitions…Though I don’t really believe in a personal god, in times of duress, I think we all wish we had a super-power from whom we could request intervention or relief. In that I am no different from anyone else. And in spite of the fact that I don’t think things work that way, when I am in the middle of a struggle, I do in fact yearn for not only relief but an acceptable resolution, and maybe even a rescuer. Who doesn’t? What I think is crucial to human contentment and spiritual insight, is what we expect during the ‘dark night of the soul’ and after. What I’m suggesting is to consider how we view prayer and what we expect as a result of prayer. Why? Because I’ve had too many people tell me they would pray for me instead of actually helping me. Also, I want to reconcile for myself what may seem like the hypocrisy of wishful prayers that are an understandable response to loss, sadness, fear, worry, and despair.

In this capitalistic society, when someone exploits your need to be employed to fulfill their ego’s hunger to exercise power, it is oppression. There are a lot of people longing for relief from oppression, whether it is external like workplace bullies, or internal like clinical depression. As for me, I have had a lot of very bad bosses who have made my work day miserable, and some eventually put me out of work. (I know I am not alone with these problems.) One day on the train commute to such a job when I was feeling overwhelmed by the dread of the coming workday, I looked out the window to see the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen in my life. The clouds had formed in a way that created rays of brilliant colors that I am unable to fully describe. In that moment, surrounded by other apparently oblivious commuters, I felt that the vibrant and fleeting sunrise view was a gift just for me. It produced in me such a sense of joy that I carried it with me the rest of the day, and in fact I still remember it clearly even though it was about seven years ago. If my yearning for a better situation was a prayer, then that sunrise was an answer. And in that moment, the bliss I felt was more powerful than the relief from getting a new job, which I continued to pursue and did eventually land.

It would be an oversight to discuss prayer without addressing suffering. I have ended the old year and DalaiLamastarted the new year reading The Art of Happiness (His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD) which weaves lengthy conversations with the Dalai Lama into prose. Reading so much from His Holiness on suffering and pain has expanded my understanding of Buddhism. I have always had difficulty with what was my perception of Buddhism’s casual acceptance of the bad stuff in life in the old ‘life is suffering’ phrase. I heard it as a trite aphorism. Now I see that by accepting that there is loss and pain for everyone, my suffering is neither unique nor unfair. That is not to justify oppression which is unfair and unethical behavior, but suffering itself is a common human condition. This subtle shift in perspective helps me connect with humanity, rather than feeling apart, which served to increase my suffering.

If I can get myself to see suffering as a universal human condition, then it also changes my view on prayer. My prayer becomes a desire to connect with the universe in a way that reduces suffering, not just for myself, but for others as well. My prayer becomes a meditation on working to heal my soul in a way that makes compassion possible – toward myself and others.

I weave prayer and meditation together as complementary practices. I pray to release my suffering and affirm my wishes, then I meditate to quiet my ever-noisy head, to touch my bruised heart, and to restore my weary soul. These practices are very personal and I would never impose my approach on others. I write about it here as a means of reconciling my frustration with those who pray from an apparent desire to remain un-involved or from the arrogance of their own theology. I also write to work through my own hypocrisies.

Eventually, my practices include listening. I listen for what I would call the whisper of the universe. My Buddhist friends may consider it getting in touch with Buddha-nature. Some Christians might say it’s the Holy Spirit. I would not make any of those presumptions. I just know that I want the greater good for all of us, and that includes me, though I don’t know exactly how that will happen or even what comes next. How you pray or if you don’t, is just not my business. If you insist on praying for me, then I thank you for your good wishes, because sometimes wishes do come true. Please don’t expect reciprocity, because that is not my practice. Just know that my practice is intended for compassion. For you. For me. For friends and enemies. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” Well, I’m not making any vows, but I’m trying to head that direction. –J. B.

Tiny Houses and Religion

TinyHouse

Tiny Houses by Jay Shafer

When I think about what I most like doing at home, it is reading, writing, watching birds/squirrels/rabbits in the yard, and hanging-out with my cats – no disrespect to my spouse. (He’s just noisier and higher maintenance.) If I have a vice, other than eating chocolate and all forms of sugar, it is that I like entertaining. I’m not great at it, and meals are not gourmet, but I will have cloth napkins, fresh flowers, quality food, and wine. This is what I expect of myself. My entertaining is not extravagant, but I could not do it in a Tiny House.

“We the Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters” By Kirsten Dirksen

Though I envy those Tiny House people, I do have some stuff that I want to have around me; however, I don’t have offspring and what means something to me now, will mean nothing to those who are left to disperse my humble possessions after my demise. Maybe it will fall to my nieces, who I pray I have taught to not just send it all to the landfill, but at least find a thrift shop. So being middle-aged, I’m looking around thinking what a pain in the ass it will be for someone to deal with all this crap. And yet, a Tiny House? Where will I put my table linens? The litter boxes?

There you have it, the minimalist quandary. What do I keep? What do I shed? What do I refuse to take in? It’s no different in religion. The way that the major religions are practiced today is probably not the way they started, or even what used to be good about them. But do not be confused. Minimalism is not fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, as I define it, takes a religion to the fundamentals of days gone by, without a sense of context, e.g. Biblical Literalists. A minimalist view would look at the essence of a religion. In other words, I believe religious minimalism can be found in understanding the context of religious thought without being limited by its history or even modern corruptions. (All religion is interpretive and minimalism is one interpretation.)

Perhaps Buddhism is the Tiny House of religions. For me, it is the first religion that comes to mind in thinking about minimalism because it is both complex and simple. What is the essence of Buddhism? It depends who you ask. You could get answers like: mindfulness, life is suffering, detachment, compassion, noble truths, meditation, and so much more.

Buddhism can be practiced simply, but reconciling compassion with detachment always seemed complex to me. For example, one interpretation of Buddhism had monks sweeping the ants from the walkway in front of them, lest they step on and kill any of them. Yet in another account, I read about a Japanese monastery that drowned unwanted kittens – or worse, loosed their aggressive dog to do the dirty work and kill the kitten violently, (Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, 1973, p.35-6). They must have had some discomfort with this killing because they did it at night. I introduce this story not to accuse those particular monks of hypocrisy, but to identify the difficulty in making choices and reconciling values. Essential Buddhism to me is found in the quote which I thought was the Buddha, though I have been unable to substantiate, it is: “Look at the world through the eyes of compassion.”

We could use more compassion. We now live in a world with rants and deeply disturbing photos posted online with global access. Last week there was a picture of a starving African woman on my Twitter feed. Some American (I think) white male responded by saying, “f-her.” Really? Condemnation for starvation? That makes no sense. I responded with something like, “Why are you so angry? Why does suffering not reach you?” He responded by repeatedly Tweeting a photo of himself (I assume) to jam-up my Twitter feed. I am baffled by his attitude, just as I am confounded by a world with the sophistication of social media and the barbarity of be-headings.

What is the appropriate response to proud, showy brutality, for the civilized and compassionate of the world? (Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly has a good story on this – link below.) I don’t think it is a time for Buddhist detachment in terms of action; but it is definitely time to detach from the vengeful emotions that I believe Buddhists rightly warn us would perpetuate the pain to which we might hope to respond in the first place. Even though it is popular to equate religion with conflict, the essence of most religions is compassion. A minimalist approach to these religions can inform better choices in a complex world.

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on ISIS

I am one of those people who lives paycheck-to-paycheck and spends significant time worrying about money, so I’m not judging – I’m right there with you, but the financial obsession of Americans at all income levels, leaves little energy left to consider or confront difficult and painful social issues, local or global. I believe our consumer-culture and aggressive capitalism has anesthetized us from being all that we can be as human beings. In the grind of getting to work, staying employed, and paying the bills, it is nearly impossible to feel empowered. It’s even difficult to get Americans to vote and that is a simple, civic act that costs us nothing and is usually less than one mile from our homes. Do you know what does feel good? Yes, spending money.

I don’t have the answers, but I am comfortable posing some questions. What choices will I make today that will keep my life more simple, with fewer material distractions? What actions can I take that will not support global aggression? What thoughts and intentions can I nurture in myself that will send healing energy to the hungry and abused? What actions must I take to demonstrate my compassion and take it beyond private intentions? To quote Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Only don’t know.” Begging indulgence from my Buddhist friends, my unenlightened Western interpretation is that I don’t think we should stop asking questions, but rather remain humble in our pursuit of right action and right thought. Life happens in the small choices. Should I buy it? Should I keep it? What does vacation really mean? Does this activity nurture my soul or sedate it? “Only don’t know.” –J.B.

Nuns, Cows and Inspiration

There was a summer when I sang “How do you solve a problem, like Maria?” 52 times.  I was home from college andSOM76 managed to get a miserable summer job in a tourist trap during the day and playing a nun on stage at night.  I suspect I was not good at it, but I don’t really know.  I do know I got in trouble for talking trash within ear-shot of the little “Von Trapp” children off stage.  I seemed to need something to balance wearing a habit every night.  It was hard to view it as serious theater because backstage was a livestock sales barn, usually with cows.  The mooing and the cow dung were equally distracting.  And contrary to the delicious rumor, I did not go bar-hopping in my nun’s costume, though I wish that it had been me.

When the “Sound of Music” movie was in theaters in the early sixties, Karen Armstrong had just joined a severe, conservative convent in England at the age of 17.  The day her family took her to the convent, they went to see the “Sound of Music” after they said good-bye, while she was entering an entirely different world than the movie convent.  Armstrong spent seven long, painful years there and many more recovering, but eventually wrote The History of God, and many other books.  I just finished reading her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, and re-reading her follow-up memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

These two Armstrong books reminded me of The Empty Mirror: Experience in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering, and the book by my friend The Orange Robe (Marsha Low Goluboff).  I admit that not everyone is fascinated by people who go to extremes on their own spiritual quest, but I am.  In Armstrong’s case, she was in pre-Vatican II draconian communities that sounded quite like prison to me.  For van de Wetering, it was in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan with austere conditions that resulted in high-risk weight loss and numerous very serious physical and mental ailments.  My friend Marsha travelled the globe living on next to nothing that she most often had to scrape-up for herself in a guru-centered cult, Ananda Marga, which she calls a “spiritual sect.”

It is easy to be amazed by people making such personal sacrifice of physical and emotional comfort.  Granted, the stories I’m referring to here are written by people who have left the group.  Those who stay are less likely to write books that appeal to others or offer more than proselytizing.  Still, we can learn more about an organization, or a family for that matter, from those who have left.  Take a look at the black sheep of a family and you will learn more, faster.  Well, in my family that’s me, so maybe I’m biased.

What struck me in all three books was the arbitrary and brutal behavior of many in leadership who were viewed by themselves and others as spiritually advanced.  While I can understand the value to challenging and managing our own ego, I have never liked the people in power having to ‘break’ others. Upon arrival at the monastery, van de Wetering said, “In every training the ego is broken, the ‘I’ is crushed,” (p.17.)  Armstrong described that approach by saying: “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience…” (p.279).  Armstrong offered another way of looking at the ascetic search for God or enlightenment; “…a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy,” (p.279).  Really?  Is it just another buzz?  The Buddha himself, moved on from asceticism and to the middle path (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 85).

One reason I am so skeptical of extreme lifestyles is a result of growing up around plain Mennonites and Amish.  What I have seen from all three books and while growing up, is that people are people.  By my idea of ethical behavior and compassionate interaction, I don’t see any greater measure of ethics and compassion coming from the Amish, the convent, or the Zen monastery.  For you religious readers I would say: Orthodoxy is not Piety.  For those of you scratching your heads at that one, I will add that rigid religious practice does not guarantee religious enlightenment or even sincerity.  In fact, often the severity of practice is in itself a distraction.

What I have learned from these stories is the value of ordinary life; for example, the struggle of staying employed and sane as an ethical person.  For many people, this is a fierce internal battle.  It’s just not that easy to find a civilized work environment where you don’t have to worry about who is going to throw you in front of the political bus, or how many people will be laid-off to protect the CEO’s inflated salary.  Your ego doesn’t need to be broken when it is beaten down by life every day.  I think more of us need the creativity and strength to keep some balance and perspective in our lives without being demoralized or immobilized.

In this, I have to refer (briefly) to education in our country.  I don’t have the research to present you with a full treatise here.  What I have are stories: stories of laid-off teachers and entire schools systems that are chronically under-funded in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This week 30 school children went to see the governor of Pennsylvania with 4,000 letters.  He refused to see them.  Most of the state is controlled by white Republicans who see the School District of Philadelphia as poor blacks who have no right to expect the same education as white children of privilege.  Why is this ok?  Why is education considered a luxury?

That’s a long walk around the barn to say: what can I do to make a difference when I’m hanging on to my job by my fingernails and watching those in power abusing those who have even more meager resources than I do?  How do I manage my daily stress, and still find energy to make my voice heard?  And worse, will it make a difference?

What I’m hanging on to is knowing people like my friend Sara.  She took a vacation day to go to the state capitol to try to get callous legislators to care about education.  Every day she works full-time, cares for her mother and family, volunteers on two nonprofit boards, and was the volunteer of the year at her church.  At work she is fierce and vocal about workplace ethics and she has my back.  Always.

I can tell you I find more religious ecstasy in knowing Sara than contemplating my navel or being bullied by religious extremists.  I know there are more like her.  Truthfully, I’m not in her league.  But I aspire to be, and promise to keep trying harder.

If I have distressed you, then I do have a suggestion.  If you get really bummed, just put in the “Sound of Music” soundtrack and sing along really loud.  Nothing works for me better than the goat-herd song.  Just don’t stop listening to your conscience and protecting your soul, whether it is from your own ego or from bullies, in religion or at work.  –J.B.

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The Gospel of Star Wars

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I was in high school.  It was a mediocre public school in Lancaster County, PennsylvaniaPaulBarberEdit1 where there was a holiday for the first day of deer hunting season, but not for Martin Luther King Day.  This is, however, where I met Mr. Paul R. Barber, my own Jedi  master.  Mr. Barber died this month, so this column is in his honor.

Having lived in the Midwest and visited Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, I can tell you that Lancaster County trumps all of them with Bible-belt influence.  Some people consider that a good thing, I am not one of them.  The predominant Biblical interpretation for this region is literal, which strips Christianity of the rich potential of metaphor.  It was in this environment that Mr. Barber volunteered to teach world religions.  He was a devout, practicing Roman Catholic, but when he taught Hinduism, he became a Hindu.  He was so effective that invariably the Biblical fanatics in class – and there were always several of them – would barrage him with angry arguments.  They expected his approach to teaching non-Christian religions would be to offer up what was wrong with them.  Living where I did, I think I understand what it was like for Luke Skywalker on the desert, trying to farm, when he finally met Obi-Wan Kenobi (Episode IV: A New Hope, the first movie produced), who would become his own Jedi master.

With Mr. Barber, I took an independent study in philosophy where he introduced me to the likes of existentialism and pragmatism, while also letting me read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and showing me how to find philosophy in popular culture and simplistic books.  At the time of this writing, All Things Religious is up to about 6,500 views.  I recognize that CNN gets that many hits in 15 minutes, but think about how long it would take the majority of clergy persons whose average Sunday audience is 70, to be able to say their sermons were heard 6,500 times.  I would not have taken this path without Mr. Barber.

Star Wars creator George Lucas said, “I’ve always tried to be aware of what I say in my films, because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers — teachers with very loud voices.”
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/george-lucas/about-george-lucas/649/LucasC3PO

The values and mythology of Star Wars was not accidental.  Lucas told “American Masters” (PBS): “There was no modern mythology to give kids a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life…Nothing was being done for young people with real psychological underpinnings.”  Lucas said that he set out to write a “modern fairy tale” for children and was greatly influenced by mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell (substantiating YouTube link follows).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSyyqctan2c

Joseph Campbell warned us (“The Power of the Myth,” with Bill Moyers, PBS) that without mythology, society starts to fall apart.  If you would challenge that, then observe the shocking and ever-increasing incidents of random shootings.

It is possible that a secular culture, like Lucas created in Star Wars, can still share stories, fantasies and a value system.  The Galactic Republic of Star Wars was the democratic union that governed the galaxy of many races and species in peace for a thousand years with the Jedi Order as guardians of peace and justice.  Then slowly and surreptitiously, the (evil) Empire rose to destroy democracy to the benefit of the few.  Their challenge was all the easier in a culture that had succumb to corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

The Jedi Knights were the spiritual sort in the galaxy who trained and self-governed with telepathy, insight, and wisdom.  I see them as conscience police.  When bad things happened, it was good to call a Jedi to investigate and defend.  They were armed with lightsabers which were more for defense than offense and had both power and grace.

Lucas mixed the temporal and the meta-physical by introducing the “Force” and the midi-chlorians.  For help on this, I found a site that calls itself “Wookieepedia,” the Wiki for Star Wars.  (Don’t know how good it is but it the name makes me smile.)  It convincingly described the Force as “a pervasive energy field.”  It’s a little more than that because it seems to have a “will” for the creatures of the galaxy.  To help interpret that will, there are the microscopic midi-chlorians which are present to varying degrees in different species, highest of course in the Jedi.
http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Midi-chlorian

At this point I remind you that the creator of the Star Wars phenomena – for it is a great deal more than six movies, set out to tell stories to children.  The movies have all been extremely successful.  There are Web sites, games, toys, Halloween costumes and products that seem to reach to the stars.  One year for Halloween I was a Jedi Knight and my little dog was Yoda.  Some silly neighborhood kid came as Darth Vader and was freaked out when I drew my lightsaber on him.  Well, what was he expecting?  I’ve got your lightsaber now, kid.

I propose that Star Wars is more than entertainment and Joseph Campbell was right.  The attraction to those stories speaks to our natural desire for myths that serve our time.  Curiosity about the metaphysical is natural.  A common morality is essential.  As a global community, we have to stand outside our own traditions to recognize our common values.  I don’t see how we can survive otherwise.  I challenge you to present me with a culture that doesn’t value justice, for example, though of course not as much agreement on how it is defined.  Or view from the reverse perspective; examine what’s behind those trying to impose micro-ethics on others.  I predict you will see a desire to control, oppress, or subjugate someone who is different, and it is often fear-based.

Here’s what Master Yoda said about that (Episode I): “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

Thank you Jedi Master Paul Barber.  May the Force be with you. –J.B.

Got soul?

When comparing the Pacific, Gulf and Atlantic, perhaps many would find the Jersey Shore lacking.  I am not one of them.  Living in Pennsylvania, I enjoy proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.  This summer I am part of the large group of Americans to whom the euphemism ‘under-employed’ is applied, so I have contented myself with day trips and good books.  Sitting on the beach, even in Wildwood or Atlantic City, comforts me and heals my soul in a way that church never has.  So here’s what I was reading on the beach this summer:

Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore (1992)

What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter and Me, Rielle Hunter (2012)

In his introduction, Moore said, “When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning” (p.xii).  Well, between daytime talk television and online or mass media news, the violence is abundant.  As Moore said (p.270), “We can only treat badly those things whose soul we disregard.”

In this country, I would add misplaced moral outrage to the symptoms that Moore names, which brings me to Rielle Hunter.  Part of the reason I read her book is because of the angry rants aimed at her by complete strangers on Facebook, online book reviews, and in casual social circles after her book was released early this summer.  She had a relationship with a married public figure that resulted in a child.  That is not an unusual occurrence and has no actual impact on the public at large.  But she does have the right to tell her story and it was interesting.  I don’t know how Moore would respond to Hunter’s story, but here is the quote I would select:

“One of the difficulties in care of the soul is to recognize the necessity of pathos and tragedy.  If we view love only from a high moralistic or hygienic peak, we will overlook its soul settling in the valleys” (p.85).

The entire U.S. Civil War is an example of misplaced moral outrage by the South.  I am astounded by how the rich got the poor to suffer and die in such numbers when there was no possible gain for them.  One book (The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara) suggested the wealthy Southerners convinced poor whites that the North would take away their “rights.”  What rights? – Was it their right to be poor?  The Southern propaganda machine kept the details vague, invented falsehoods, and turned on the outrage with all vigor.  They exploited ignorance, racism and xenophobia to other (used as a verb here) black slaves and inspire a to-the-death-rising-up.  If slavery had been defended by wealthy Southern whites alone, the Civil War would have been over quickly.  The prolonged and painful years of Civil War was only possible with the ongoing support of the Southern ignorant poor and their misplaced moral outrage.

While I am tempted to use this as a jumping off point to correlate the wealthy Civil War Southerners to today’s wealthy Republicans, instead I want to ask you to think about the soul’s place in our world.  Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I would use the word spirit.  Even Moore in 305 pages refused to define soul.  In defining soul Merriam-Webster online said, “the immaterial essence…of an individual life.”  Moore extends soul to be present in places and things.  For me that has happened most easily, and sacredly, with my animal friends.

For you skeptics or atheists I would say there is an essence or spirit in us and around us that offers energy and life lessons.  These forces, as I have experienced them, have both light and darkness.  Many people label energy, people and events as good and evil, of God or the Devil.  As you wish.  The problem is that when you are busy labeling the source, you may miss the message.  Socially this matters because in the labeling, we distract each other from the root of the suffering that then goes unaddressed.  The most powerful tool of propaganda and oppression is DISTRACTION.

I choose to believe we are more than eating, working and procreating carbon life forms.  But how we define our humanity is made real by how we exercise our spirit as individuals and as a society.  Even as we search for meaning we lash out externally instead of exploring internally.  Moore said it best on page 296.

“We want to steal fire from the gods for the sake of humanity.”

So I thank Rielle Hunter for telling me an interesting story on my vacation.  And I thank Thomas Moore for reminding me to listen to the subtle and too quiet songs of my soul.  I don’t usually have patience for poetry but I want to leave you with these final thoughts, from my soul to yours.  -J.B.

I want to die after winter
on a grey, windy day.
The spring winds will know
to carry my ashes,
to the place where the animals rest.

There is a pond
where the goldfish swim,
having given their lives for games at the fair.
The frogs share the pond,
forgetting their hall pass from biology class.

Rabbits from tractors and possums from roadsides,
will meet unwanted domestics who were too long at the animal shelter.

There is a place
where murdered parent orangutans
will be reunited with their stolen baby,
and toothless circus tigers,
will regain dignity.

Pigeons from recreational shoots and three-legged muskrats from traps,
will know rhinos that bled to death for their horns.

There is a vast meadow
where veal calves find their mothers
and learn to graze,
while mice from adhesive traps
run free to fresh grain.

This is the place I will go
to be whole.

I will listen to animal spirits.
I will hear and understand
what I only imagined before.
I will not be lonely for humans
my humanity, forgiven.

And I will be with the animal friends who passed through my life, but left before.
And they will remember me fondly.

The near dead young bunny I found on the road,
will welcome me home.
She will let me hold her without trembling,
and take me to the place
where kittens are kittens forever.

©J.B.Good July 1993