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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Annular Eclipse and Magical Thinking

You have to spell that carefully.

Today there is going to be an eclipse wherein the moon, or maybe Kim Kardashian's rear end, blocks all but a ring of the sun, or moon, or something. Have you guessed I am not a scientist? You might also guess I'm not going to be poking holes in boxes to look at it, or any of that other stuff - whether or not such methods would even be appropriate for this kind of eclipse. I'm hopeless, right?

Luckily, I am not writing about the science of this thing. What I am writing about is the fact that I saw a piece today that said Tibetan Buddhists believe the time of an eclipse is an especially good time to accumulate merit. This is where I struggle more than a little bit, and it's not just with Tibetan
Kim Kardashian's rear end blocking the moon.
Buddhism, it's with all prescientific beliefs from all traditions.

Don't misunderstand - I am completely sympathetic with how these traditions get started. Some nomad somewhere steps outside during an annular eclipse and prays the some of his sick livestock get better and, wouldn't you know it, they recover. He doesn't understand what made them better any more than he understands what made them sick, all he knows is that they recovered after the annular eclipse. It's really perfectly understandable. What it isn't is good science. An eclipse may impact a lot of things, but the health of your flock of sheep isn't one of them. Sorry, Charlie.

So Charlie's sheep recover and he tells his friends and relatives and pretty soon word gets around that some pretty amazing things happen during eclipses of all sorts. Maybe some profoundly unattractive guy got a date, maybe the guy in the next tent had his fungal toe nail clear up - who knows? The result is that this particular event is now seen as auspicious, and people engage in all kinds of rituals hoping that something special will happen to them the next time it occurs. When it doesn't, it's just because they didn't try hard enough - which sounds an awful lot like the prosperity gospel to me, but
what do I know - and so they redouble their efforts. The unasked question is, "When someone does get something nice to happen during these times, is it the moon or their redoubled efforts that caused it?" Some would say it doesn't matter, but to me it does.

While I am not a scientist, I understand just enough science to know that there is nothing about a naturally occurring event that causes much of anything. Such  beliefs belong to the realm of superstition and originated in a prescientific age. If I am going to believe them, then I am going to have to believe a whole host of other things that people believed in a prescientific age because I have surrendered the right to use science as a way to understand the universe. It isn't at all consistent to say that I will employ what I have learned in this situation to explain my world, but ignore it in this other situation. I cannot simultaneously believe, for example, that gravity will hold me to the earth today, but that tomorrow I may flap my arms and fly. I cannot believe that eclipses are auspicious and subscribe to a contemporary understanding of the gestational cycle. If science explains how eclipses occur, then I cannot reasonably believe that mysterious spiritual forces - or Kim Kardashian, for that matter - make
them happen.

So what's the dilemma?

The dilemma is that I have seen people who believe that annular eclipses are auspicious who have achieved tremendous degrees of awakening and insight. The Dalai Lama comes to mind, to name just one of many. However, there are also people like Jack Kornfield who have achieved similar levels of awakening and insight without any of these beliefs. That seems to suggest that it's not the specific, non-scientific belief that leads to the awakening but rather the spiritual practice itself that does.

So, if you happen to be one of those people who believes in auspicious this or that, I think that's great and I don't want to get in the way of it. In fact, I want to see you go for it in a big way, because it may well lead to your awakening. As for me, not so much. In fact, for me the requirement to believe in such things just asks me to suspend my belief in how the universe works far too much for me to be able to go there with any authenticity at all. While I am far from being a religious scientist (a person who has made science their religion) and while I do believe there are phenomena that we simply cannot explain, an eclipse is not one of them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Aging, Love, and my Friend

I can still recall the first time I figured out that I had all of my emotions tangled and confused. It's not an uncommon scenario for survivors of sexual abuse. I was in my twenties, years before I went into ministry, trying to comfort a woman who had been through some terrible losses and I realized I was sexually aroused. I felt like an absolute jerk, though I am pretty sure she didn't notice and I certainly didn't announce it. I wondered what in the world was wrong with me. Fortunately, some good therapy helped me make distinctions and sort all of that out. There is a less pathological but in many ways equally maladaptive confusion in most younger males wherein any time they feel any kind of affection, much less love for a woman they feel the need to show her their penis. As you might imagine, this has ruined more than a few friendships over the years for a whole lot of people - and not just for Anthony Weiner.

One of the great joys in my life since I turned fifty is that I don't feel nearly as sexually driven as I once did. It's as if there was this mating instinct that left me on high alert almost constantly. Many a relationship has been ruined by men who cannot control this instinct and so develop a condition wherein their neck most resembles a turret and their eyes are constantly scanning the room looking for females of mating age. It's not that they don't want to remain faithful to their partner, but it seems there is hormonal imperative that, even for people like me who learn to ignore it, is a struggle on a daily basis. A little while after my fiftieth birthday I noticed a sharp downturn in that instinct, and it was great! I didn't need a Viagra prescription, nor did I run to the physician for a prescription for testosterone cream. Instead I shouted "thank God!" Suddenly there seemed to be much more time in my day. I started to appreciate beauty in all its forms much more often. It was amazing.

I have also learned that the world doesn't necessarily understand this shift in normal males who are not trying to convince themselves they will never age like, Donald Trump, Larry King, and at least one of the Cock Koch brothers who apparently married his daughter, but I digress. I have a female friend who is very sick. We had some significant conversations before she became ill, but as you might imagine when someone gets seriously ill the depth of the conversations increases dramatically. She has shared a lot with me, and I have had the privilege of seeing such a beautiful soul in this person. I hope we have all had conversations with people like this and walked away thinking, "wow, that was a really neat, really good person." My friend has such a deep and caring heart despite having encountered a fair amount of adversity in her life even before her illness. I think a lesser person, like me, would have told the world to piss off, but not her. I can honestly say that I love her - in that, "I'm over fifty" kind of way that won't result in me taking a picture of little Craig on my cell phone and texting it to her or leaving my wife and family and showing up at her door. It is in fact possible for me to love a female friend and not involve my penis. I have told her that I love her, and my sense is that she is probably reluctant to check her text messages now. Maybe we need a different word for this kind of love. I have heard many people suggest that one of the deficits of the English language is that we only have one word for love. It is somehow unfortunate that the word we use to describe how we feel about a parakeet, a lobster dinner, our new car, and how we feel about the person who is our soul mate is the same word, isn't it?

It's too bad that we don't have a good word to use when the people we love but don't want to send pictures of Anthony Weiner to are seriously ill and we want to reassure them that we care about them but aren't going to show up at their door, suitcase in hand. Keep trying, though, because there are so many people who need to know not only that they are special but that they are loved because that knowledge in and of itself is healing - for both the one who hears it and the one who says it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Levels of Perception

Levels of Perception is from the Milwaukee Compassionate Heart Gathering on April 6, 2014. The speaker is Craig Bergland. The reading is from Ram Dass' book Polishing the Mirror


Check out this episode!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Going to the Guru

Those of you who follow me on a regular basis may want to grab a seat before reading this because you may faint and I don't want you to hit your head as you fall. That thought is especially near to me as I just fell in the basement, impaling myself on the door of the dryer and landing in a clothes basket. I was in a narrow stretch of the basement and for a minute could not find anything to grab on to that I might stand back up. Then I started thinking about those lifeline commercials and was laughing too hard to get up. Eventually, however, I did extract myself. By the way, is that a urine puddle under that woman's arm? But I digress...

Here it goes, I hope you are sitting down: I have been wrong about the whole guru thing.

As some of you are aware, I have been listening to a lot of Ram Dass programs lately. His path is devotional spirituality of bhakti yoga, and his guru is Neem Karoli Baba, who left the body in 1973. I can identify with Ram Dass' experience of going to India and being taken to see this guru at a time when he was very skeptical about the whole guru devotion thing. The night before he was to meet Mahara-ji, Ram Dass was staying in a place with an outhouse. Jeffrey Montoya would tell you that Ram Dass and I have the same taste in accommodations, but he would exaggerating ever so slightly. When he went to use the outhouse he noticed the beautiful, starry night sky. He thought of his mother, who had died relatively recently from spleen cancer. He went about his business and went back to sleep. When he met  Mahara-ji,
Mahara-ji told Ram Dass that he had been thinking of his mother the night before, and that she had died of "spleen," saying the word spleen in English. He then asked what "spleen" was. Needless to say, he was taken aback because there was no way that Mahara-ji could have known this, and so he stuck around to learn more. He found himself bathed in unconditional love from Mahara-ji, something I confess I cannot quite understand in this context.

If you, like me, are a little cynical about things like this, you might write it all off as pious stories that spring up around holy men and women and help create their mystique. Jesus walks on water, Neem Karoli Baba reads minds, Ramana Maharshi and Padre Pio bilocate - it's all good, right? We can keep ourselves at a safe distance and imagine it's all just so much devout nonsense. Why should we bother to visit a teacher, anyway? Who needs pious nonsense, anyway? We are rational people! If we stay far enough away, it will be fine.

And so I need to tell you in light of this that at a Tibetan Buddhist empowerment I attended about a year ago something happened. When we went up to the teacher one by one to have her check that we had actually received the empowerment, she told me that I had a lot of anger and it was getting in the way of my spiritual path. I thought, "Well, I used to have anger, but I have done a lot of work on it and really am not very angry at all compared to what I once was." I was so surprised I thought I didn't hear her correctly and asked her to repeat it, which she did. I went back to me seat genuinely confused, especially since she had told my friend something about his life in the past that was spot on, something she couldn't possibly have known because she had never met him before.

So, off I went thinking about this a bit but for the most part putting it away. From time to time over the last year I have been having an increasingly strong, nagging feeling about working more closely with this teacher. I started to wonder if it was what I call the "call from God process" that any healthy ordained minister knows well. We start to feel we should investigate ministry, and we shove it down and put it away, but it keeps poking its head up into our consciousness. We may change jobs, move to a new city, take up new hobbies, change churches, get divorced, and do countless other things to avoid the call, but it keeps coming up. A friend compares it to stomach flu - we try to keep it down, deep breathing even after the saliva begins to pool in our mouths and throats to lubricate the exodus, but no matter how hard we try to keep it down it will eventually burst forth. If this is God calling me to work with this person, then that's what I need to do, but I wondered if it really was.

For five years I have been hovering on the periphery of this teacher, refusing to draw close. I go to the occasional teaching, listen to other teachings on CD or DVD, and then put it away. I say to myself and others that I don't like sadhanas (Tibetan spiritual practices) because they are in my judgment filled with the same sort of magical thinking that some Christian fundamentalist prayers are are filled with, looking for outside intervention to save us from our own crap. If that's true, what about the efficacy of my fifteen year mantra practice? I tell myself to shut up and not think about it, and buy myself a couple more months to procrastinate. Have I mentioned my PhD in Procrastination?

Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass
Then yesterday I was listening to a Ram Dass tape (okay, it was an MP3, but I still call them tapes) wherein he spoke of his relationship with his guru. He was recounting a time when he had been told by Mahara-ji to love everyone, and tell the truth. He came to the realization that those instructions from Mahara-ji were contradictory, because he didn't love everyone and if he had to tell the truth he was in a real bind. In fact, he realized he pretty much hated everybody, especially the people that were there in India at the time because he had brought them from the States to meet his guru and now they were getting all of Mahara-ji's attention while Ram Dass was ignored!

The next day Ram Dass missed the bus to the ashram. It was a thirty minute bus ride but an eight mile, three hour walk on footpaths through the small towns on the mountain to the ashram. As he approached the ashram three hours later through the brush, he could see everyone eating and laughing. He was sure they were laughing about him and that there wouldn't be any food left. As he approached, someone had saved him a plate of food and gave it to him. Furious, he threw the plate of food and screamed, "I hate you! I hate all of you!"

He heard his guru's voice, "Ram Dass, is something bothering you?" Apparently Ram Dass' subtle outburst hadn't gone unnoticed.

He walked over to the guru and shouted, "You told me to love everybody and tell the truth, but I can't do it. I hate all of these people!"

"Do you hate me?" came the reply from his guru.

"I fucking hate you!" Ram Dass said.

"Ram Dass, you are angry," was Baba's response.

"Oh shit," I thought, that's way too close to my own experience with the guru for comfort. As I listened to the longer version of the story it became clear that Mahara-ji saw right through Ram
Ram Dass today
Dass' shit and did things to make him confront it. Ram Dass thought he was special for bringing all of these people to India, something that in truth Mahara-ji could have cared less about, and so Ram Dass got ignored, which made him confront his feelings of being special. Through listening to Ram Dass' lectures quite a bit it is clear that this was an ongoing process.

Am I angry? I started to examine the evidence. If you don't know my history, I was sexually abused by my father when I was three or four and, in a separate incident, a friend's father in third or fourth grade while we were on vacation in northern Wisconsin. I was also profoundly verbally and emotionally abused throughout my childhood until I left home, being constantly berated by my intoxicated mother for things like being a "goddamn adolescent," and other conditions pretty much beyond my control. If she wasn't berating my brother or me, she was after my father, who sat by passively as he was emasculated night after night in his own drunken stupor. The result was that by the time I graduated high school I was a hot mess who had no use for white males. In truth, males of color have never bothered me, but throughout my twenties and thirties, even into my early forties, I brooked no shit from a white male, and all the therapy in the world didn't really change that.

I started mantra practice and informally studying Buddhism when I was thirty-nine. Gradually, over a period of years, I noticed changes in myself. Christianity was my still my primary spirituality, but I was using Buddhism to work with my mind - and finding plenty there to work with. I had two orthopedic surgeries in 2006 that provided ample time and opportunity to contemplate my failing and aging body. Ongoing back problems that I had for twenty years became more acute over the next year, feeding more practice and more mantra. I became much calmer, much less angry, to the point where my family noticed and commented on it. I thought I was doing really well. I could even take a moderate amount of shit from other white males without feeling compelled to neuter them, either verbally or physically. How could I possibly have anger issues? Look at how well I was doing!

Timothy Leary (R) with Richard Alpert/Ram Dass
Then I asked myself who I trust, really trust, with my life and safety. I trust my wife. That's it, and for me it's enough. She has stood with me through my episodes of decay, including the very bad idea of two surgeries in 2006 and a spine fusion in 2011 as well as my current inability to work, when I thought that any reasonable human being would have kicked me to the curb. After all, that's what I was taught growing up - that we are valuable only for the physical things we can do for others - whether that was offering my body to be used by rapists or offering my body to do chores around the house and yard, acceptance was an extremely conditional thing completely rooted in my physical self. Now my physical self just ain't what it used to be. I have often joked with Erin that if there was a lemon law for husbands she could have returned me long ago.

That's a pretty short trust list. Sure, there are other people I trust to a certain extent, and there are a few people I know would be there for me if I needed them, as I would for them. Do I have really close friendships except for my wife? Not really, I keep everyone at a safe distance. To be fair, the limited physical mobility I experience at times doesn't do much to help that situation, but I still will own my very large part in my short friendship list. Before we had to put our dog down last summer, there were times when his stubbornness and insistence on getting his lead tangled in the bushes so I had to go outside to extract him really made me see red. On the day last summer he finally couldn't stand up and it was clear we had to take him to the vet to be put down, I lay on the floor with him in tears as I begged his forgiveness for being so angry with him over the years.

I guess I am angry. Granted, I have come a long way, but I really cannot deny that there is a long way to go. What's more, as my guru suggested, it gets in the way of my spiritual practice. Some of you may be thinking, "go back in therapy," but I don't really believe the current therapeutic model is the answer because I believe I

have a spiritual problem. Surrender? Not on your life. As more than one of my friends has pointed out, "Craig has a problem with authority." My usual response, only half tongue in cheek, is, "I only have a problem with authority when it's stupid." How in the world can I reasonably be expected to surrender when the only person or institution in my life who hasn't screwed me (literally or metaphorically) when I surrendered to them has been Erin? Surrender to God? Right, sure, because the self-appointed and self-anointed representatives of the Church have certainly proven themselves trustworthy both in our direct relationships and in the news. What I have found is that I can surrender to processes, to my suffering, viewed from the Buddhist perspective. To another male? Maybe not so much, which means a male guru would be problematic and female teachers in the Midwest are not exactly waiting on every street corner. Well, I suppose female teachers of a certain sort are, but that's not what I am looking for!

Tomorrow I have an appointment with the Guru and I intend to surrender. I cannot make the next leg of my spiritual journey without someone who sees me as I am calling me on my shit. This particular community has been nothing but supportive of me and patient with me as I have done my dance around the periphery. I will do the sadhanas I have been so critical of - probably because on some level because my ego recognized
they would disassemble it - without complaint or hesitation. Besides, who ever heard of a priest who objected to doing what is essentially liturgy? I now understand why people go to the guru for refuge. I will follow the teachings and instructions and see where this takes me because it is long past time. From time to time, I will share my journey with you here. It should be very interesting! Sadly, the vintage 1960s Ram Dass beard will not be forthcoming. There is only so much I can ask of Erin, and that might well be crossing the line! Of course, I am still an Interspiritual priest and bishop, lest anyone get their undies in a bunch. Part of the responsibility that comes with such vows is to engage in continuing education and continuing spiritual growth - so here I go!