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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!