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Friday, July 8, 2016

Tragedy in Dallas - and Across America

Those of us who go to bed a bit earlier than others awoke this morning to the news of tragedy in Dallas, as five police officers were killed by sniper fire. At least seven other officers and two civilians were wounded in the attack, which took place during a Black Lives Matter protest in response to police killings of two unarmed black men - one in Baton Rouge, LA and another in suburban St. Paul, MN - over the previous 48 hours.

Reactions to the news are largely predictable. Supporters of law enforcement, especially their families and friends, will rightly decry the attacks for the cowardly acts they were. Those outraged by the seemingly growing police misconduct across our country will rightly ask why the murder of these police officers receives more compassion from the community - especially the white community - than the murders of people of color by police officers. Hash tags and tempers will fly, posturing will abound, statements from the sublime to the ridiculous will be made, and little will change until we see that there can be more than one right answer to any question. The truth is that we need to move beyond dualistic thinking if we hope solve any complex problem we face. The answer isn't either-or, but rather both-and.

It is tragic when police officers kill unarmed people and it is tragic when police officers are killed. It is an absolutely cowardly act to kill people with sniper fire in a civilian setting and it is completely predictable that such a thing will happen when the society continues to ignore discrimination and lynching - and let's be clear, the murders of men of color in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and dozens of other places were nothing more than lynchings - at the hands of anyone, but most especially representatives of the government. Put more simply, you cannot legitimately be surprised when after throwing a number of lit matches onto a gasoline-soaked pile of wood it bursts into flames - yet that seems to be our reaction to tragedies like the Dallas sniper attacks!

Clearly, we need a new approach. We need to stop running as fast as we can to the two extremes put forth, that we either support police or support people of color, standing at those extremes and spitting vitriol at each other. We need to find a way to work together, but I don't believe that will happen until some of us take the first step. To be honest, I am not a fan of Black Lives Matter because the truth is that all people of color are the victims of police - and societal - discrimination. Don't Brown Lives Matter? Yellow Lives? Red Lives? Gay Lives? All those groups and more are the victims of the same discrimination that Black people face, and I believe that needs to be acknowledged. That being said, I believe it is a movement that isn't going to go away and that is probably a good thing because at some point even a movement based on a flawed concept is better than no movement at all. To be equally honest, I have occasion to regularly drive by a home with an "I support the badge" yard sign on display, and I find myself wondering why they don't just hang a confederate flag on their porch and a makeshift noose from their doorpost. One of the questions I haven't seen addressed, which doesn't mean nobody has addressed it, is when did it become acceptable for police to deploy robot bombs against civilians?

Have you ever seen a yard sign, bumper sticker, or hash tag that says, "I support a solution"? Of course you haven't, because America seems to be all about assigning blame rather than making substantive change. Once we can establish to our own satisfaction that we have identified who is to blame, we seem to feel no need to change anything. It is as if an arsonist burned our house down and we found the person responsible so we feel no need to rebuild our house! If that sounds absurd when talking about a building, why don't we seem to feel the need when it comes to our societal infrastructure and systems?

We obviously need substantive change, but to achieve that goal we are going to have to find a way to work together to make it happen. While we need to move forward just as fast as we can, we also need to acknowledge that change will not happen overnight. We will need to replace elected officials who don't see the need for change. We will need to protest, non-violently and continually, and agitate for change. We will need to demand justice. We will need to be relentless. One thing we cannot do is allow those in power to continually divide us into two opposing camps and thereby neutralize our power.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Can I be a Person of Faith and...?

Every once in a while I come across a discussion that begins with the question I posed as the title to this post - "Can I be a person of faith and....?" Honestly, most of those discussions are pretty much a waste of time because they are hypothetical and walk a line of extremes that doesn't reflect the world in which we live, a world with shades of difference lived mostly in the vast middle ground between extremes. Examining some of those questions will illustrate my point, and in the middle of this Presidential election year some of the questions are timely. 

Let's begin by examining a few questions of belief. We will examine these issues from the broad perspective of a generic person of faith, a member of one of the three Abrahamic traditions (i.e., Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) or of the two large Eastern traditions (i.e., Buddhism and Hinduism). Further, the perspectives within those traditions we will respond from will be fairly centrist and neither extremist nor radicalized. 

Q. Can I be a person of faith and hold some racist beliefs?
A. Yes, because the great majority of people hold some prejudice even though they may be unaware of it. What is required is a willingness to grow and to change.

Q. Can I be a person of faith and belong to any mainstream political party?
A. Generally speaking, yes.

Q. Can I be a person of faith while struggling with violent thoughts or tendencies?
A. Yes, because many if not most of us do, even though we may not be aware of it. What is required is that we are addressing these issues.

Q. Speaking now to the American political parties, does either political party more accurately reflect the views of people of faith on a regular basis.
A. No, and particular candidates or office holders may or may not.
We could go on, but it's probably clear by now that in terms of beliefs, there are no particular beliefs - even those that might generally be thought to be problematic - that in any way disqualify a person from being a person of faith. We all have room for improvement in some areas and strengths in others. Presumably, as people of faith we all want to live into our particular belief system more fully. Here's where we run into some problems.

You see, there is no religious or spiritual tradition that advocates racism or xenophobia. Quite the opposite, in fact. Religious traditions call for special care for the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider along with the less fortunate. So much for a massive wall on the Mexican border, no matter who pays for it, and so much for mass deportations on any basis. In fact. despite the fact that many people believe that American society was not only endorsed but mandated by God, nothing even remotely resembling our system of government existed in biblical times. Kings ruled the world. Jesus didn't prop up the local government in his day, he was killed because the occupying Roman forces thought he was plotting to overthrow them.

What needs to be said, and it needs to be said very clearly, is that if you consider yourself a Christian and support Donald Trump - including the wall, including his racist rhetoric, including his anti-Muslim rhetoric, including his misogyny - you are apostate and no longer a Christian. What's more, if you are one of those people I have seen on the Internet comparing The Donald to Jesus, that would be pretty close to what Jesus described as the unforgivable sin.

America is full of people who claim the label Christian but have so watered down and modified what that means that it has become little more than say a prayer, get out of hell free, and listen to a kicking worship band every now and again. Beyond that it's okay to hate, it's okay to beat people, it's okay to sling your rifles around, and to do pretty much whatever else your want, including an occasional "Heil Hitler" salute to the Donald, because now you are "saved." You might want to take another look at that.

Right now, America is a country that seems to be long on fear and short on common sense. Nowhere is that more evident that in our political process. I confess that I am biased, but I believe the only way that we will be able to move away from this horribly misguided belief we have that stuff will make us happy is to rediscover spiritual practice. It doesn't have to be any particular form of spiritual practice, but we do need to commit to it, for that is the only place we will find lasting happiness.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

When the Ideal Isn't Possible (Which is Always)

We all want things to be "the way they should be." Of course, a great deal of the time the way things should be is simply an illusion or a myth. Way back in the 1950s, even before my time <gasp!>, the television show "Ozzie and Harriet" supposedly depicted idyllic family life before the onset of the rather untidy 1960s. It was only decades later that we learned that Ozzie and Harriet weren't so tidy after all, and one of their children died in a plane crash freebasing cocaine. Many people were shocked to find that Ozzie could be less than pleasant - but thank God they did, although the lesson seemed lost on most.

Fortunately, most of us live a much lower profile existence than Ozzie and Harriet did. Unfortunately, many if not most of us are plagued by just as many struggles. Even more unfortunately, we don't realize that our plight is rather common. Instead we suffer from the delusion that Ozzie and Harriet's television existence was normative. We wonder why our family is so different, so unusual, so abnormal - when in reality if we were to define "normal" as being "a member of the majority" our struggling families would be astonishingly normal! If we could come to terms with that it might take some of the sting out of it when others try to wound us by announcing how abnormal our families were, or when our now adult children try to hold us hostage for doing the best we could and as a result not providing the perfect childhood we all imagine we deserve but that none of us actually receives!

Many times when our adult children complain about their childhood or teen years they are trying to understand what happened or still struggling to establish their own identity. That's fair enough, and a discussion - notice I didn't say " an explanation" - is in order, at a time when emotions and passions are not running high. However, at other times complaints are coming from a much less healthy place and any attempt at an explanation will be counter-productive and only result in more damage to the relationship. For example, if someone - whether parent or child - demands some sort of restitution for the other being less than perfect, there is an unhealthy process at work. If we add mental illness to the equation, especially personality disorders, moving forward may not be possible and the best we can hope for may be a detente.

Our culture has encouraged us to develop a profound sense of entitlement. As a result, many of us believe we should never have a struggle, never have to work hard, never have to answer questions, and that we always deserve an explanation. We see the evidence in everyone from our own family members to a dejected Cam Newton walking out of a post Super Bowl press conference like a recalcitrant child. The truth is that while we all would hope that everybody would have an ideal situation all the time, in reality it doesn't work out that way. We can become trapped in wishing things had been different and never get around to working through the way things really were. That doesn't help anybody. It's rather like saying that even though it's raining today you wish that it was a clear, sunny day and so you are going to leave your umbrella at home - and them complaining because you get wet! You can't have it both ways, and while it is sometimes disappointing, reality is definitely more rewarding.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

No More Enlightement, No More Heaven

Enlightenment is a wonderful goal - if you don't happen to be a Westerner. So is heaven, with the same qualification. Westerners as a group seem to have the gift of turning a goal into an obsession. For us, a goal isn't something to be worked toward, it is something to be possessed - now - and, once
possessed, discarded. We find enlightenment and heaven to be more tools than concepts, bearing the idea that once we have achieved them we will have "arrived" and be able to place them on our mantle next to the family photos. Never mind that anyone reading the descriptions of heaven in the mystical and oft misinterpreted biblical book of Revelation and responding honestly would admit it doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun. The description is essentially that of being in church twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, without a even potty break or coffee hour to break the monotony! Despite that, many if not most Westerners would describe heaven as their goal, even as they envision it much more in their own terms than in any description contained in scripture. We think we will see Uncle Fred again - and indeed we might, but he will be two pews over and far too busy offering eternal praise to notice us!

Enlightenment, then, seems a far better idea, doesn't it? Of course, we aren't quire sure what that means, either, but it's better than endless church. Or is it? Some believe that if we became fully enlightened we would just merge with all that is, a kind of blissed-out oblivion. While it sounds great on the surface, and would in all likelihood be great in practice, most of us would respond by saying we would prefer enlightenment be postponed until sometime after our next vacation. Perhaps if we considered the truth that we aren't really all that thrilled about merging with all that is we would shift our focus to the path, rather than the goal. In doing so, I want to say that we would achieve heaven/enlightenment without even realizing we were on the precipice.

As an Interspiritual practitioner, I believe it's important to stop making distinctions between the various names the different traditions had adopted for the goal of our path. There is an old joke about the guy who is third in line to get into heaven. He notices the first person in line go up to St. Peter, who asks him for his name and religious affiliation. The man identities as a Methodist named Fred Jones. St. Peter responds by instructing him to go down the hall to room seven, but to be very quiet as he passes room three. The second person in line is Miriam Steinberg, who is Jewish. St. Peter sends her to room twelve, and admonishes her to be quiet while passing room three. Our man steps up next, and asks St. Peter why it matters what their religious affiliation was. St. Peter explains that they have found that people prefer to be in heaven together with others from a similar religious understanding. Our man asks why they have to be quiet passing room three. St. Peter responds that the Roman Catholics are in room three, and they believe they are the only ones there!

So let's drop this idea that there are different destinations, and instead come to understand that different traditions have different descriptions of the destination at which we all will arrive after this life. Further, let us agree that all of those descriptions both teach us something about our destination and also fall short and obscure it. What if we just forgot about them? Instead we might concentrate on the path, deciding to engage our spiritual practice and being of service to others because these are the right things to do, not because we anticipate any future reward. Spiritual practice isn't a life insurance policy, after all, that only pays off after death. It has the real potential to not only transform the practitioner but also the lives of those around us right now. When we come to appreciate it for its own sake, we begin to access its real potential!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Method is Not the Goal!

Many of us who discover eastern spirituality, especially those of us raised in western religion, are very happy when we are introduced to a method on which we can base our spiritual practice. Whether that method is following the breath in meditation, or mantra practice, or serving others in karma yoga, or study of spiritual texts, or any of a host of others, suddenly we find ourselves able to practice our spirituality all week long - not just on Sunday morning. Now, to be fair, Christianity certainly teaches service, social justice, and contemplative prayer. The problem is they say that these things are important but, with notable exceptions, don't teach how to go about them when the community gathers on Sunday morning. Sure, you can sign up for the annual trip to serve at the soup kitchen, but what about the other three hundred sixty-four days of the year? They might invite a centering prayer teacher or group to visit, but in my experience the quality of those presentations varies broadly and there isn't usually follow up to help support a practice.

Then we discover meditation, complete with instructions. This is great! The promised land has been found, a spiritual practice that can carry us through every day of the year! We struggle to become regular meditators, and for those of us who are able to achieve that goal significant growth often occurs. Then something vary subtle begins to happen. What begins as a very helpful tool on the spiritual path turns into the be all and end all. If my practice is meditation, then you had better not have a different practice or I will criticize it, either silently or aloud. I may begin to believe that I need to accumulate meditation time beyond what is reasonable, and start missing other obligations. I might insist that everyone in my house is absolutely silent while I meditate - a requirement, by the way, that reflects a weak practice
and is filled with the need to be the center of attention rather than a dedication to a productive practice.

This doesn't only happen with meditation, by the way. It happens just as often with other practices. If I volunteer at a homeless shelter I may come to see that as a superior way, maybe even the only way, and look down on you if you volunteer at a hospital. If I study ancient texts then your practice isn't as good as mine because it isn't "intellectual" enough. If I do yoga and you can't twist yourself into some unbelievably grotesque (yet sometimes strangely compelling) position, you obviously aren't spiritually advanced. We see this in the reaction of many contemporary Buddhists to the secular mindfulness movement. What I call Buddhist fundamentalists are quick to point out the ways in which secular mindfulness misses the mark, most often because it doesn't include the ethical teachings of Buddhism that they believe are essential. Guess what, kids? You can't control that! Can you say, "attachment?" When we start trying to enforce "our way" of doing things as the only acceptable way, we have crossed a line from seeing our method as a tool to be used on the path to seeing our method as the goal of the path. Like the Christian fundamentalist who believes that the only correct interpretation of scripture is a "literal" one (whatever that means) and so makes the Bible their God, we too can cross the line and make our method our God.

There is a good chance that the day will come when we cannot continue our preferred practice. As we age, we may not be able to continue the volunteer position we once loved. We will become less flexible, and have to modify our meditation and our yoga practices, or may find ourselves stuck in a position from which we can never be extracted. Our minds slow, and we cannot study as vigorously. Walking meditation becomes painful. If we are attached to our practice and the only legitimate practice, we are going to suffer needlessly. If, on the other hand, we see our practice as a tool and perhaps have dabbled in other practices, they can come to the fore as others become more difficult. This can only happen if we have held to a healthy view of our practice and have not allowed it to become the only way.

To prepare for this day, we might occasionally mix things up in our current practice. If we normally meditate on a cushion, we might try a chair on occasion. We might shift out volunteering around, or cut back a bit on our normal volunteer position to allow ourselves to try doing a couple hours a week somewhere else. If we normally read heady material, we might try something more nurturing. We might think of this as stretching for our practice, a kind of practice yoga (rather than yoga practice) that will help us keep from becoming attached and seeing our practice as a kind of God. It will pay big dividends in the future!