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FEEDING THE RIGHT WOLF

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about.  He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his own heart.  One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind.  The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart.  And the grandfather answered, “The one that I choose to feed.”

I think this is the spiritual work for all of us, the challenge for me, anyway.  So many of my reactions are automatic and cause me to unwittingly feed the wrong wolf.  Just last week, I made a commitment to myself to not respond in the same predictable ways with my boundary pushing-prone 17-year-old son…to pause before engaging with him in any ‘discussion’ about consequences, truth-telling, accountability.  Yet it was only minutes later that there I was, at it again.  Quick with a comeback,  not fully engaged in listening in a way that invites conversation, having already made up my mind, keeping us stuck in a loop of frustrating dialogue.

It just reminds me of the vigilance required to notice which wolf I am feeding in the first place.  As Budddhist nun Pema Chodron points out in her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears: “The first step in this learning process is to be honest with ourselves.  Most of us have gotten so good at empowering our negativity and insisting on our rightness that the angry wolf gets shinier and shinier, and the other wolf is just there with its pleading eyes.  When we’re feeling resentment or any strong emotion, we can recognize that we are getting worked up, and realize that right now we can consciously make the choice to be aggressive or to cool off”.

Pause, pause, pause.  Just the slightest turn towards remembering myself, a hiccup really, brings my reflexive thoughts, feelings, and actions briefly into clear focus; it reminds me I am the one doing the thinking, feeling, and acting . From there, I’m in a better place to choose.  A sense of humor is vital, the journey really impossible without it; with myself and others.  Taking yourself too seriously on the spiritual ascent is deadly, killing both the spiritual and the ascent!  Realizing that the pull to be busy in a thousand different ways is really just a distraction that gets me caught up again.  Recognizing how I get twisted up in my own story, some crazy yarn being fabricated out there in the recesses of my mind.

Potent fantasy most often, that’s what’s usually going on in my private movie while these two howling hounds are duking it out for primacy.  Ruminating about what she’s going to do, about what he’s thinking, about what’s going to happen to me next week, next month, next year. Taking things personally as if that were ever really true, especially seeing as everybody is busily building their own twisted tale of good and evil, villian and victim.  I can choose to say “No thank you” when someone pours me their ‘poison’ and asks me to drink.

Instead the low growls and the sharp bites of a fearful wolf; I can pick the wolf of warmth.  I can welcome a stranger or one estranged from me back into the pack.  I can howl at the moon in search of company.  And I can lick my wounds, trusting that healing will follow.

If I can do this for a few moments today and today and today, there will be more peace. 

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A WHIRLING DERVISH

Lately I’ve been feeling like a whirling dervish…except that I’ve been getting dizzy.  If you’ve ever since those Persian/Turkish dancers with their high hats, loose slacks, and robes spinning in unison, you may think, well, of course they’re getting dizzy.  But the aim is ironically the opposite; they’re surpassing dizzy.

Dervishes are like Christian Orders.  Among the Catholics, there are Franciscan Friars (which I would have been if I had been male), Dominicans, Jesuits, Paulists, and Benedictines.  The Sufis (the mystics of Islam) have their fraternal orders as well and these are called Dervishes.  Among some of the more important dervishes are the Qadir, Rifa’i, Shadhili, Suhrawardi, and the Mevlevi.  Like their Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist (known as sadhus) counterparts, individuals within the discipline of a dervish are practicing asceticism or a chosen simplicity and poverty, what the Sufis call tariqa (the path, the way to God).   

All dervishes do not whirl.  Each order follows the practices of its founder.  The Franciscans follow St. Francis of Assisi,  (the charismatic nobleman and soldier who gave up everything save God), wearing rough, plain garments, they live completely by alms, and serve the poorest of humanity and the needs of animals.   In Egypt, the Qadiryya dervish, also live humbly and give to the poor, but what sets them apart, is they are mostly comprised of one profession, they are fishermen.  Interesting to note, the more we are different, the more we are the same.  There was another famous fisher of men in Galilee, a Jesus of Nazareth, whose apostles were also fishermen. I guess you could say in some ways, that Jesus was the founder of his particular dervish.

But the dervish that whirls is the Mevlevi dervish. Founder Mevlana Jaladdin Rumi (1207-1273), the renowned mystic and prolific poet included the trance-like dancing as part of his practice of tariqa.  Rotating in a precise rhythm, the dance is part of a sacred ceremony.  The dancer represents the earth revolving on its axis while orbiting the sun.  The purpose of the ritual is to empty oneself of all distracting thoughts. Entering a meditative state, the body conquers dizziness.

There is intention.   When I am spinning my wheels, with a to-do list that is attacked like putting out a fire, tangled up in a lengthy fire hose, un-intentionally wrapped around myself like a boa constrictor; I have not entered the dance mindfully, but rather stumbled onto to the dance floor befuddled.  “Music is to develop the consciousness, poetry is wisdom”, said the prophet Muhammad.  Music, an essential accompaniment to whirling, is repetitive and rises to a crescendo of spiritual oneness, the blurring and blending of the material and cosmic worlds.

It is also about the breath.  It is bringing the body and mind just to the present.   

One of the many reasons that Rumi is known and loved across faiths and cultures is that his prolific writings speak to the timeless life of the Spirit. His message speaks of NOW:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen.  Not any religion, or cultural system.  I am not from the East or the West, nor out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all.  I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story.  My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless,  neither body nor soul.  I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know. First, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human. (Rumi Poem, Only Breath).

Always, a returning, a turning back, no matter how many times one has strayed.

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SAINTS ARE SINNERS WHO KEEP ON TRYING

I admit it; I am enamored with saints.  I am fascinated with those who have reached the pinnacle of spiritual freedom, unity with God.  Regardless of their religious traditions, these are men and women who are deemed “scientists of holiness.”  We can learn from them. They are not only guides to the grail of enlightenment but they teach us how to live in a practical and substantive way that can enrich our everyday living. 

Saints never think of themselves as such.  Each has had their own personal demons to face down.  It is in choosing not to run away in the million ways we humans do, but utilizing their trials and struggles for personal growth and focusing on the inner life that they demonstrate another dimension of human potential.  Recovering a bit of the asceticism that has always been the foundational gristmill for spiritual advancement can help us tremendously.  What I mean by this is we don’t need the severe self-denial and austere lifestyle of a Gandhi or a Buddha or a St. Francis, but to give up the current wave of entitlement, to be able to say no to our temptations on occasion, is freeing.  We become able to resist our own compulsive consumption.   

People need to experience God, not be told about God.  Living examples, being very much in the world, do that by inspiring the lives of others.  These are not “feel good” pseudo-spiritualities or for the spiritual elite, but for everyone. Our experience of the Divine informs the self and yet continually needs to be balanced with community.   Reaching out to others is both a natural progression and a means for necessary connection. Indeed, those with spiritual depth often understand social service to be as important, if not more important, than the more traditional activities of preaching and teaching. 

Saints would probably also scoff at the idea of them being mystics, though that is what they are.  Yet mystics are not so mysterious, rather I’ve heard them described as “ones who see into the depth of things through the fissures and fragments of our human experience”.  With single-minded purpose, these friends of God (or to the ALL that IS) are granted a special way of seeing, a heightened awareness of a presence or absence. 

Casting the mystical net wide as the awareness of some sort of ultimate reality that transcends all religions; religion can unify instead of divide.  We can recognize that different traditions can learn from one another, if one if grounded in one’s own tradition and open to another. Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, all can enrich each other’s practices.  For instance, Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, was influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

It is not the visions or miracles attributed to those regarded as saints, during their lives or posthumously, that should be the reasons for  reverence.  In fact, that kind of thinking leads to idolatry rather than the harder working of following by example.  It is the spiritual practices and articulated paths that are to be learned from.

That is not to say that we should disregard profound and unusual human experiences. It’s just that without a conscious effort to seek out these mystics, both past and present, their voices quickly become drown out by the difficulties of daily living, the heroes who win World Championships and are given parades, and the Hollywood stories of celebrities.  In an effort to reclaim the saint, human foibles and all, we are being re-called to something larger than ourselves.

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Does It Matter What You Call Yourself?

The short answer to that question is no.

Today’s inspiration comes from two magazine articles.  One was a thought provoking piece by Jon Meacham in the April 13th, 2009 issue of Newsweek, entitled “The End of Christian America” and the other was published recently in the January 26th, 2010 issue of The Christian Century with the heading “More people are praying, but religious ties are fraying”. Statistics cited in Newsweek were as follows :

-The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, from 8 to 15%.

-The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76%.

-The number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990, from 1 million to 3.6 million.  Meacham adds, “That is double the number of say, Episcopalians in the United States.” 

These numbers reflect a bending towards a spirituality that is a result of personal and personal soul searching, people looking to develop an inner life that is both meaningful AND practical. Christianity is unequivocally included in the mix, but not unexplored, unquestioned Christianity.  These trends validate what I have experienced over the years with those who form a wide swath of religious affiliations and spiritual practices.  While the idea of “taking what you like and leaving the rest” is an anathema* to many of my colleagues in theology, the notion of freedom is primal to the American psyche.  It permeates our daily living, in ways both conscious and unconscious.  And, at the end of the day, if you don’t buy into some religious idea, no matter how many times you repeat it at church, at some level you’re still not convinced.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  Practicing within a specific faith tradition, being steeped in it, does bring rich gifts that mere dabblers will never enjoy.  I also deeply believe in the need for a faith community that both supports and challenges you on your shared journeys.   However, we need to find people where they are, not where we are.  If one’s job is to help grow a soul (and that is my occupation, present company included) that means listening to hear where people find comfort or courage or meaning.  People want their faith to make sense.  Whether you are a member of a mainstream religious denomination or are an unchurched atheist, taking care of your spiritual health needs to have some pragmatic benefits just like taking care of your physical health does. And that would include using a holistic, even eclectic approach to the care of one’s inner life.

And that is demonstrated in the data listed in The Christian Century, “The number of  Americans who are praying is increasing at the same time that more of them say they have no formal religious affiliation, according to a major polling organization.” While adults who practice daily prayer has risen from 52 to 59%, those who never attend a religious service has also risen from 13 to 22%, an increase of 9%.  Omar McRoberts, a University of Chicago sociologist and researcher, states, “This represents an apparent shift in patterns of spiritual practice and identity away from the familiar institutions.  We are witnessing a decoupling of ‘spirituality’ from ‘religion’. I think we can expect to see yet more novel versions of religiosity appear, in response to changes in spirituality.”

What does all of this mean for the individual and for the community, in the best sense?  It means an opening, it means hope for interfaith dialogue and a loosening of prejudices and opportunites for conversations between the believer, the agnostic, and the atheist.  Where does each of them find spiritual sustenance?  What seems to work and what doesn’t?  It means that those who are Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish, may also incorporate Buddhist meditation techniques in their daily routines.  It means that the atheist may be able to read the Bible with a little less skeptism and a little more curiosity.  It reflects a softening and a turning away from the harsh rhetoric of so many of our so-called spiritual leaders.  And, finally, it allows for expanding notions of what constitutes the Gospel, the good news.

*anathema-Latin for ‘doomed offering’, it presently means a formal church ban, usually including excommunication.

Book of the Day: Thirst by Mary Oliver

Quote from the Book of the Day (actually a poem):
When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees/especially the willows and the honey locust/equally the beech, the oaks and the pines/they give off such hints of gladness.  I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself/in which I have goodness, and discernment/and never hurry through the world/but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.”/The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say/”and you too have come/into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled/with light, and to shine.”

Tomorrow’s post: “Putting the Joy Back in Jihad”

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