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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!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Activism and Individual Freedom

More and more, I am convinced that there are two examples of concise descriptions of the spiritual path. Jesus' Great Commandment - to love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves - is one. The other is Neem Karoli Baba's "love everybody and tell the truth." There certainly are more elaborate summaries than these two, but I do not believe they are any more accurate for their
verbosity.

As we go about loving others, we are bound to ask ourselves how we should do that. Beyond wishing them well, most people find that loving others involves some degree of working for an improved situation for them. The problem, or the blessing depending on how you look at it, is that it can seem that there are as many issues as there are people to work on them. What's more, nearly everybody working on a particular cause feels their cause is of critical importance. That only makes sense - who would work on what they felt was an unimportant cause? However, just because someone we know is energized by a cause doesn't me we feel the same way. I believe that is even more likely when the supporters of a particular cause seem to be angry most of the time, a condition that seems chronic lately.

The truth is that each of us has a limited amount of energy. We simply cannot address every worthy cause. When proponents of even the worthiest cause are always scowling and bitterly critical of those who either disagree or don't share their enthusiasm, they do more harm to their cause than even the most adept critic could. There is nothing healthy about a group of angry people trying to bully a cause forward. As we look for ways to become involved, we would do well to find healthy groups with whom we might share our energy. What we can learn from this if we are already involved is that anger is always counter productive, and if our group moves toward anger we need to help apply corrective influence.

There seems to be a marked lack of patience among activist groups lately with those trying to serve as allies. Are potential allies sometimes ill informed? Absolutely. Are they in need of education? Absolutely. Does this sometimes lead to frustration? Of course. More and more, however, I see pictures of people working for change looking with an anger that borders on rage at potential allies who aren't responding as the activists wish they would. The result is that, more often than not, meetings fall apart and potential allies are lost. No healthy person will spend a lot of time slogging through abuse by angry people - no matter how justified their anger may be - who project that anger on those who want to help. We should remember that the instruction to love everybody includes those who are working with us in common cause!


Friday, January 15, 2016

You Probably Don't Care, But...

The Anglican Communion, the world-wide body of Anglican (Episcopal) Churches has suspended the Episcopal Church in the United States for three years because of the decision they made at their
General Convention last year to marry same gender couples. I could go into why this flies in the face of what Anglicanism is - that each Church is independent and there is no Pope or other central authority figure, but I have done that before, and others have done it before, and given the massive contraction of all institutional religious bodies fewer people care each day.

BUT!

Back in the day when we formed The UAC, people often asked whether or not we were part of the Anglican Communion. They would look down their noses at me when I explained that only one Church in any country could be in the Communion, but that even if we could be in the Communion we would refuse.

WHY?

I said we would refuse because we didn't want to be yoked to a bunch of ill-educated and ill-prepared bishops from Churches in the Southern Hemisphere whose understanding of biblical criticism and social justice make the most strident American fundamentalists look like radical liberals. I said that we preferred to do what was right, to treat all people with compassion and love, and not have to deal with those in the developing world who weren't ready to see the truth of God's love for all people. Now with this announcement, I feel vindicated. I was right. Oh, yes, and one other thing:

I TOLD YOU SO!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Reflections on Writing and Spirituality

For a time last year, I lost my voice. Not the one that emerges from my mouth, sadly enough for those around me, but the one that emerges from my fingers. There were a number of reasons. I have learned, to cite but one reason, that I cannot be intentionally interesting but need to write from my heart and let the chips fall where they may. On my other blog at BishopCraig.com, I recently wrote two posts that were a bit edgy. I had stopped doing that, trying to be a kinder, gentler me. I have learned, however, that that I am better at truth than I am at placating the masses. When there is muddied thinking that is rising to popularity, I am better at cutting through the mud that I am at patting the muddied thinkers and pundits on their muddy little heads.

I also need to just write. That's a change for me. Creativity was something I had to wait for, and then when the labor pains began I would sit down and write. I am finding that has changed, and that there are things within me waiting to emerge - but I can't give other things priority. I need to get my coffee, sit down, and let it flow.

I have shared before that I used to think I wasn't creative because I am not much of an artist in the traditional sense. My stick figures are good enough, but beyond that I do much better at producing drawings that are designed to entertain by virtue of how bad they are. As you may have guessed from the first paragraph, I don't like playing in the mud so I am not a sculptor. My painting skills are best applied to the side of a house. One day I realized that I do things with words that was very creative, that I could weave a tapestry with my fingers aided by a keyboard or a pen. While I obviously write on a keyboard, I have found more heart and soul emerges from a pen because it takes longer. Writing slowly serves as a kind of nonsense filter, it's not so easy to just continue writing until something substantial springs forth. Maybe that's why journalism is virtually nonexistent these days. Even a typewriter took longer than a computer, and mistakes weren't so easily corrected. Instead of fingers gliding over a keyboard, a typewriter required fingers that would beat it into submission. Wasted keystrokes were unthinkable.

Perhaps my laryngitis of the hands is passing. It seems like many things have been in flux, including some spiritual ones. I saw a video recently about an experiment a man did by rigging a bicycle to turn left when the rider turned the handles to the right, and right when the rider turned the handles left. He then took the bike on his speaking engagements and offered people the opportunity to ride it. They couldn't. Even though they understood what they were to do, it turns out riding a bike is much more than knowledge. It makes sense if you think about it for a moment. We don't just turn the handlebars, we lean in the direction we are turning. As we come out of the turn we decrease our lean until we are going straight ahead again. Turning the handlebars to the left leads to leaning left, and when the bicycle tries to turn right there are going to be problems! This was an experiment in neuroplasticity. It took the experimenter eight weeks to learn to ride the "backwards" bike. Suddenly it clicked, but guess what? Then he couldn't ride a normal bike. It took his son, who had just learned to ride a bicycle, only two weeks to learn to ride the modified bike, suggesting that young people have more neuro-flexibility that adults. We knew that already from teaching foreign languages to children.

There are spiritual implications to this, I believe, and they lie in our religious traditions of origin. Those of us who were raised in a tradition will have a harder time looking outside of it for parallels and other perspectives. Those of us who were raised only marginally within a tradition will have an easier time, and those raised in no tradition at all will have the easiest time of all. However, it stands to reason that when we practice in a tradition for a period of time we will start to become less flexible. That's not a bad thing, it's a normal thing, but it means that it will take us longer to adapt to other points of view. I believe that when we become accustomed to looking at other points of view it does get easier. Each new point of view we consider doesn't represent starting from zero, but rather we build a flexibility.

So what, you say? So, you probably aren't going to convince someone who has been a Methodist all their life and is now seventy-five years old to become Interspiritual. You might, but it's going to be a struggle and take a long time unless they have had some experience that leads them to question their Methodist perspective. That's perfectly fine, because the idea of evangelizing should feel like the anathema it is to an Interspiritual perspective. Our job is much more creative because our job is to explore what is out there and search for all the places where we find truth. We don't seek to tell others what their truth should be, we seek to dialogue about what truth might be. We don't feel the need to be perfect or to get everything right, we seek honest exchange of ideas and practices. We don't look to get locked in to one view, we seek to walk in different views in search of Truth. I believe it's the most creative spiritual environment available to us today, and that creativity will teach us much. Or we can go back to being spoon fed by an authority figure. As for me, I just can't go back.