Facing My Own Attachment to Separation

Porcupine DSC05211

When I take seriously the interconnected web of all existence, when I begin to try to experience it, I also come face to face with my own attachment to separation. There is more to awakening than a mystical appreciation of the beauty of the larger whole. Something within me, and I believe within all of us, is afraid of opening the heart. I am afraid of feeling the pain of other people, I am afraid of feeling the pain of the earth. I am afraid of letting go of my illusion of control, I am afraid of being hurt by other people, or emptied out by other people. It seems easier to distract myself than to pay attention to the fear around my heart.

But this too is a part of the dance. We have to be aware of our separateness in order to come to awareness of our unity. Because here we are. Here I am in this moment, alive and part of the great circle of life. All the feelings I feel, including fear and separation, are part of the universe at this moment. And, what I have learned from many teachers, is that somehow the only task that matters, the only dance I must do, is to pay attention to the task of the present moment. I am asked to take one step forward, to make the one next choice.

There are many teachers of meditation, in many different traditions. I do not have a particular formula to teach you to use to experience the divine. But many of the mystical systems within the world traditions actually do teach practices, the purpose of which is to help us to work with our fear, and our attachment to separation, and to bring us to that experience of higher consciousness. The Buddha encouraged people not to believe what he taught, but rather to try it out and test it for themselves.  If you want such a formal practice, finding a meditation group with which to work can be very helpful.

Even without a formal practice, we can take small steps. If we can notice the thread of connection between ourselves and one other being, that is a step. When I eat a piece of bread, I might call to mind that I am joining this bread together with my own body—it is becoming human in me. Why do people pray before eating, in so many cultures? There is something about the process of eating that reminds us of our threads of connection.

Even as you sit here reading, notice the sounds that send vibrations across anyone nearby.

If you are outside or near a window, feel the sun on your cheek, and realize that you have a thread of connection across thousands of miles of space—its light is reaching you.

Notice the gravity pulling your body to the ground, attaching you to the chair and the floor beneath your feet.

Notice your breathing, the air going in and out of your nose and mouth.

When you go into the kitchen, and drink a glass of water or a cup of coffee, think about how your body is also a form of water—70% water, and imagine that your hand is pouring water into water.

When you talk to a friend or a stranger, imagine the divine spark inside of them and inside of you, and see how that affects the greeting you bring.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we use the word God, or God-ing, or light, or love. It doesn’t matter what we call it. What we are reaching for is larger than language, larger than thought. But it is already deep within us—closer than breathing, closer than a song, closer than the DNA of each cell of our bodies. The threads of connection already weave their way into the center of our being, and hold us one to the other. There is a blessing in it, when we can feel it and see it. There is a sense of coming home and a feeling of belonging. May it be so. May we awaken like the spring flowers.

 

God Is a Verb

The Jewish mystics suggest that God is a verb. Instead of thinking of God as a being, we might think of it as Be-ing. Instead of using the word God, we might use the verb, God-ing. This process in the universe, this God-ing energy, is evolving, creating, transforming the universe, always changing, always leaning toward greater perfection. Or perhaps we should say it is leaning toward greater beauty, since perfection implies that there is something out there we are trying to copy. But God-ing, the activity of God the verb, includes the birth of newness and unpredictability within the wholeness. And all of us are a part of this God-ing.

Sun in Trees DSC01708Jewish mysticism sees a particular dignity and purpose in the lives of human beings. It describes it in the form of a story—the Kabbalah speaks of sparks of divine light that were trapped in the husks of all things in the universe when this material world was created. The purpose of life is to raise the sparks, and bring together the separated light into one whole. Part of how we do this is through becoming aware of the larger whole. But what makes humans significant is that we exist with free will. So not only are we a part of the harmonious symphony of the all, but we can actively shape the music. Whatever we choose has an effect on the larger whole.

Rabbi David Cooper tells a story about Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach, one of the great mystical rabbis of the twentieth century. He was always late everywhere he went, because every time someone asked him for help, he stopped and responded. He would not simply give money, but also have a short conversation. “Each person was treated as if he or she were a saint. …Reb Shlomo believed that the world was balanced on our ability to help one another. Should someone fail to assist another person, the world could be destroyed.”

As human beings, then, our actions have ultimate value. We are not here to follow a bunch of rules, or to pass a test, or to clear a kind of judgement, to get into a personal heavenly afterlife. Rather, by the choices we make, we are shifting the essence of the universe. When we choose selfishly and with egotism or cruelty, we keep the world broken and dissonant. We cover up the light within ourselves and others. When we expand our hearts and choose acts of loving-kindness and compassion, we are releasing the divine sparks of light in ourselves and others. We transform the universe as we transform ourselves.

Quotes from Rabbi David Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical judaism.

Everything Is God, God Is Everything

Ferns just out DSC00286In the Buddhist tradition, there is not much discussion about God—in fact, Buddhism has been called a religion without a God. But more to the point, the Buddha was said to regard such questions as irrelevant. The point of his teaching was to enable people to overcome suffering. By the practice of meditation, we might come to understand ourselves from the perspective of the larger whole—once we gained such a perspective, we would no longer be attached to the pains and desires of the individual life of the individual self. We would reach nirvana.

However, the theologian in me can’t fail to notice that this experience–transcending the self to encounter the unity of everything–is common to the mystics of most traditions–and in many of those traditions, that experience of the larger unity is described as the experience of God. J.D. Salinger, who was a student of Zen Buddhism and Vedantic Hinduism, wrote an account of a moment of such insight in his short story “Teddy.”

“I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all,” Teddy said.  “It was on a Sunday, I remember.  My sister was a tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God.  I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”

There are many paths to the awareness of the larger whole. Some paths use the word God, and others do not. Using the word God is one way to express the beauty and awe we encounter in the mystery of the interconnected universe. But the word God is not a proper name. We can just as easily call it Mystery, or Light, or the Evolving Universe, or Love.

Sometimes I think we should abandon the word God, because of all the oppression and abuse that have been engendered by those who claim to be acting on God’s behalf. But at other times, that is the very reason I want to use that word. I know how healing it can be, for someone who has been banished from the realm of the holy, to recognize that they too are part of ultimate reality and value. How better to say it, in our world, than to claim that we all belong to the realm of God?

The story “Teddy,” was originally published in the January 31, 1953 issue of The New Yorker and reprinted in the collection, Nine Stories.

Our Own Life and the Life of the Universe Are One

In many posts on this blog, I have been exploring the concept of God. I hope to help us to move past old rigid images of the big man in the sky with a beard and white robe, the judge, the king, these all too human inventions that people have created in the quest for understanding, or often, in the quest for power.

The mystics of almost every tradition tell us that our images cannot come close to what divinity might be all about. But the mystics also speak to us of something, or no-thing, that is not a being, but more like a process, more like an energy that permeates all beings, an energy of which we are a part, and of which we can come to greater awareness.

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh invites people to do an exercise, to begin to grasp with our minds the symphony of the larger whole. He invites us to think about an object—it could be any object. He talked about a table, but I like to reflect on a piece of bread. Find a piece of bread and hold it in your hand. Then, let yourself imagine what has conspired in order for this bread to be here in your hand.  

First of all, think of the wheat. In order for it to grow, it needed topsoil, with its fungal and bacterial components, its minerals and small worms. It needed the decomposition of the plants of many years, decades, and even centuries to create this fertile soil. You can continue to let yourself follow in this line of imagination, or if you want to follow my imaginings, go to this link to an earlier post.

One could keep talking all day to follow all the threads of connection linked to just one piece of bread. Paraphrasing what Thich Nhat Hanh would say:

If you grasp the bread’s reality then you see that in the bread itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-bread world. If you took away any of those non-bread elements and returned them to their sources…[the honey to the bees, the metal to the mines, or the farmers to their parents], the bread would no longer exist. A person who looks at the bread and can see the universe, is a person who can see the way.

As long as we think of God as “up there” somewhere, like a father or a king or some other kind of person, we imagine that we are separate from God, we imagine that we can think or not think about, believe or not believe in, pray or not pray to that God. But in a spirituality of connection, the gaze shifts to understand that there are no truly separate things, that there is no separate self or separate God—that our “own life and the life of the universe are one.” Maple in Spring MJ DSC03502

Threads of Connection

I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.
                                                                                                 Alice Walker

Daffodils Early MJ DSC03512

We’ve finally arrived in April. In a couple of weeks, the daffodils will begin to bloom in our front yard, and the first bright yellow dandelions will pop open behind the house. The forsythias will be first–maybe as soon as next Sunday?  But I can’t wait for the moment when the first daffodil breaks through its luminescent green casing, opening up pale yellow to reveal an orange center.

In spring, I keep taking short walks around our yard and down the street just to see what will happen next. The small wild strawberry flowers. The green buds of bushes opening into curled leaves. The leaves of the violets coming up out of the bare ground where I thought they might have perished in the fall. And down the road, the first fiddleheads of the ferns beginning to poke through the ground that a day ago had been fern-less.

This awakening seems to happen all at the same time. This week there are the bare branches and brown grasses, and then suddenly, everything will be green and lush and colorful. How do they know to break through, all in the same week? It helps me to understand what I have read about evolution—that species co-evolved with each other. That flowers emerged along with their pollinators, and each flower with its particular pollinator, so interdependent that we do them a sort of injustice to think of them as separate entities.

And of course, the insects will also come out with the flowers here in the spring, small ground bees hovering over the grass as if waking from a long sleep. The hummingbirds will arrive when the pink flowers of the viburnum open near our kitchen window. When the buds begin to get ready, it is our signal to put out the feeder, so we can join in.

All around us, like a choreography of dance, like a vast symphony, the beings of the earth move in harmony. And in this particular time of the year, this beautiful season of awakening, we can see it and hear it and smell it and feel it, if we pay attention. We can feel the threads of connection that make of many beings, one indivisible whole.

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The Power of the Story

Today I am concluding my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I have been exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I don’t understand the mechanics of experiencing the divine presence. I wonder if, as for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it has something to do with the commitment to give oneself to a sacred calling, or to do the work of justice. I don’t know why some people call for help, and never seem to hear an answer. There is no formula that I can teach you, except to say that trouble can sometimes be a doorway, too, if we knock.

It makes me think about something my grandfather wrote in a little black notebook that disappeared for many years. April 4th, the anniversary of King’s death, is also the anniversary of the death of my grandfathers, one in 1964, and one in 1967. My grandpa Johnson died when I was not quite 11 years old. He was not a Catholic, which was a big deal in my family. But I am told he had been a spiritual man, and had even considered a call to ministry as a Unitarian or a Lutheran. The story I remembered from the notebook was this: My grandfather said that my young cousin Michael at the age of three had gone into a church building and was looking for God. My grandfather commented, “If you can’t find God outside of the church, you will never find him inside the church.”

But just before Easter a few years ago, while my uncle was dying, another cousin sent me a message on Facebook, about going through papers of her father, and finding a copy of Grandpa’s note. It turned out the actual quote was slightly different than I remembered. He had written, “I hope you keep looking. And when you find him don’t keep him confined in church.” But it speaks to the same impulse—that God is beyond what happens in church.

Grandpa's Notebook

Grandpa’s Notebook

Even without a formula, even without a sure way to find this God who helps the lowly, I believe the stories of such a God can give us hope and courage. I am reminded of an old Jewish legend recounted by Elie Wiesel. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. But that is the thing about stories. The truth to be found in stories is not about whether or not they are factual. Some of the most helpful stories happen only in fiction.

This is a story about a Jewish community who had a very wise and powerful Rabbi. When the people were in trouble, their Rabbi used to go into the woods, to a special place, where he prayed a very special prayer, with ritual and song, and the people would be helped. But eventually the rabbi died, and his successor did not know the full ritual with all its songs. So when the people were in trouble, he went into the woods, and prayed the special prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped.

Eventually, he too died, and the next Rabbi who came to them did not know the place in the woods. But he did know the special prayer, and so when the people were in trouble, he prayed the prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped. Finally, he too died, and the next Rabbi didn’t know the rituals or the songs, he didn’t know the place in the woods, or even the special prayer. But he knew the story. And it was enough. And the people were helped.

Leslie Marmon Silko writes, in her novel Ceremony:

I will tell you something about stories,…
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

I found God in myself and I loved Her fiercely

I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I want to acknowledge that there are many people who do the work of justice, without relating to a God of justice. Their work comes out of a belief in human dignity and connection, and God has nothing to do with it, for them. And that is really fine with me. When we have experienced the connection we share with other human beings, I believe it naturally leads to a concern about justice and equality.

But for some of us, there have been moments when we were in despair about injustice, or afraid of what our truth was revealing to us, or ready to give up, like Dr. King had been in his moment of despair. And in those moments, we also felt a divine presence, a presence of courage and hope and strength, empowering us into transformation. This God may not have intervened to take away a difficult challenge, but rather enabled us to find wholeness and self-worth in the meeting of it.

For me, the divine presence gave me the courage to leave the church of my childhood, and leap into the unknown, to find myself as a woman, as a whole and equal person. When all around me the church was saying that women had their place, and it was not in the priesthood or the leadership, when I was hearing that women were weak and vulnerable and needed men to guide and protect them, something enabled me to reject that characterization, and claim fullness. Something I barely even had a name for—but it was a sacred power nonetheless.

Photo by Rick Kimball

Photo by Rick Kimball

For me, the risk involved imagining that God might be a woman, a Goddess. That I might be created in the image of that Goddess. And even though there was nothing in the Bible that described this Goddess, yet it was still the stories of the God of justice that led me out of those old male-dominant images and into new possibilities. As Ntozake Shange put it, “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.”

This experience in my own life became a window to understand, at least in part, the kind of transformation the slaves had experienced. How miraculous and lonely it could be, how long the journey, and how frightening the desert. But yet, something unmistakable like a fire to guide the way. It taught me that the divine is a power beyond institutions, beyond containers, yet able to be present in our lives—especially in those moments of transformation, when “the mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up.”

I do not ask that anyone believe in the God of my own transformation. It doesn’t work like that. But I do offer it to you as an option of hope. If you are going through a hard time, if you are discouraged, if you are seeking to follow the truth of your heart, if you are sore oppressed. If you are having trouble believing in your own worth and dignity. I invite you to call on that God, and see whether there might be a presence that can help you through.