“I stand here today humbled by the task before us”

inaugurationkeyholeHumility.

I had never considered the virtue of humility, the necessity magic that is conjured by being humble, until I began working with Caroline Myss’s book about Teresa of Avila’s theology, Entering the Castle.

Raised in the 80s age of self esteem – you can do anything, sky’s the limit, everyone is an individual snowflake worthy of accolades and advancement – humility was never considered a noteworthy skill. Who had time to learn what humility was when there were so many dreams to be chased and so much self promotion to be done ? The only way to get into college and then get a good job and be any sort of success at all was to learn young and learn well: you need to constantly remind the world that you are unique and worthy.

Slowly, the recognition that humility is in fact a virtue, not just the fall back plan for quiet kids who’ll never win the best prizes, has started to color my life. If you know me in the flesh, I’ll let you be the judge of whether that approach is really working… At least I can tell you I am thinking about it!

Humility has come to mind all week because I am still struck by the very first line of Barack Obama’s inaugural address: “I stand here today humbled by the task before us.”

Part of our new president’s mystique is his quiet confidence, his even demeanor and delivery, his deep belief in himself that allows him to move from this place of humility. We can all pray that this quality endures in him so that he can open his heart and mind to other perspectives and continue to work with the common good as his ultimate goal.

It is becoming more and more clear that humbleness not just an attitude for monks and scullery maids. Taking humility beyond an interior dialog with the soul and watching its practical application on the stage of presidential politics makes this spiritual work make a new sort of sense.

Like I said, humility never meant much to me until a couple of years ago when I picked up Myss’s book. I am left to wonder how many other brilliant words and ideas like that still circle around me, as yet ignored and unacknowledged. I know I cannot get hung up on all of the visions that have not yet revealed themselves to me – that is a sure way to madness, looking desperately for the next moment of enlightenment. It just inspires me once again: this journey through life offers so much promise, such evolution of the mind and soul, so many opportunities to look at this adventure of living afresh.

A couple more bits of wisdom from that incredible speech on January 20:

inaug-speechAs we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

The Spiritual Mix: Oneness Across Faiths

Two and a half years ago my perspective on spirituality shifted dramatically to encompass a new world of faiths and possibilities. Unknowingly, I had been working the soil for this new flowering for some time, but it was at the Omega Institute’s Being Fearless Conference that I heard Caroline Myss and Andrew Harvey speak and everything changed.

Caroline Myss gave me a new window on my own Christian heritage as she introduced a full ballroom of people to their interior castles. Through her lecture I found the courage to to find solace in the wisdom of a saint for the first time. For all that I internalized my Catholicism, there were major aspects – namely the bits I now find most compelling, the saints and mystics – that were largely absent in the sanitized “Spread the good news: Jesus is love” catechism of the 1980s. I knew Myss’s work as a healer (The Anatomy of the Spirit had long been a bible of mine), and I was so thrilled to follow her on this new path back into my own history.

Andrew Harvey’s sessions interested me because the titles of his seminars mentioned the divine feminine. For all my goddess worship over the last decade, I was pretty sure that I had heard it all, but I could use a refresher. Hearing that familiar message from the mouth of a man would be an interesting new twist. Man, was I wrong! The world was turned upside down when the words of a Catholic saint offered comfort and the Great Mother, for all her power to nurture, was also the avenging Kali telling us that we had gone too far as we destroyed the planet and each other. Harvey helped pull my adoration of the sacred feminine into adulthood, stripping it of the girl power pablum I had needed when I first began to understand womanhood and instead offering a mature realization of the mothering nature of God and its essential relationship with the masculine principle.

Harvey is a scholar of the great world religions, and he also introduced me to the undiscovered territory of mystical Islam, Sufism, and the spiritual power of the poet Rumi. At an extended weekend workshop I attended shortly after that first conference, he gave the group Rumi’s own chant and offered it as something to “use at the core of our lives.” Having never found a Sanskrit mantra that really “stuck” in my yoga practice, I was amazed to realize that this little line in Arabic became a gentle, perfect hum in the back of my mind that I could call upon whenever I needed solace.

Reading Sister Joan Chittister’s blog today, I was immediately drawn in by the title of her post “A Glimpse of Oneness for a Change.” “Oneness” is such an important yet amorphous term – to me it means the understanding that every person who speaks to a higher energy with a pure heart is in fact communing with the same basic, omnipotent entity that can be called God or or Goddess or Spirit or Universe. “Oneness” is what gives me hope that there truly is a unifying principle in this world and that a greater, more compassionate global consciousness is within our grasp.

What really amazed me was that she invoked my own sacred mantra in the first paragraph of her post. Sister Joan talks about witnessing a zikr, the remembrance of God, not as a purely Sufi ritual but as a celebration of divine unity as “Buddhist monks, Jewish rabbis, Hindu swamis, Christian monks, Muslim imams, Indian Sun Dancers and lay practitioners of all the world’s great contemplative traditions” joined together to praise the Sacred. She was at a summit that happened in Aspen a few weeks ago, “Gathering Spiritual Voices of America,” organized by the Global Peace Initiative of Women.

As I move along my own spiritual path, still a magpie pulling wisdom from every tradition that will open its heart to me, I take great comfort in knowing that this desire to bring the kaleidoscope of religious perspectives together endures on a great scale. I seem to be a person who will never be tied wholly to a single creed, but I can pray to all of the names of God that I know that we can find a true place of Oneness.

Embracing the Need to Heal

Since I have started reading David Edwards’ Burning all Illusions, as I have discussed in the last two posts, it is amazing to me the new lens through which I gaze at my experiences. One of the topics that he has illuminated for me is the uncomfortable degree to which we are forced to bear the mantle of modern society, “the way things are” in that resigned fashion that is meant to excuse all of the excess or the pessimism or the difficulty that marks the age.

In accepting “the way things are” we must stomach living in a state of constant contradiction. We’ve all listed those ridiculous phrases that roll off the reporters’ tongues and only begin to fester in our ears when we take a little step back: “peacekeeping missiles” is the one I find most odious. One of the less neatly packaged paradoxes that we encounter all the time is the celebration of both senseless strength and fragile victimhood in our culture. On the one hand, we are told face the world with an aggressive, competitive stance, to quit whining and arm ourselves with a stiff upper lip (whatever that is – I notice it is my bottom lip that is most likely to betray me when I find myself on the verge of pouting or crying). Yet, at the same time, as Caroline Myss discusses at length, we use our wounds as currency; we let all of the bad things that have ever happened to us be our defining elements and we demand others recognize what we have suffered.

Images of soldiers in distant deserts on one channel and confessional talk shows on another.

A conversation with my chiropractor the other day brought my own struggle between these two poles into perspective. I have been visiting this network chiropractor for over three years for various issues with my back and have been to see him more often lately as I struggle with sciatica. After a month away from his table and almost that much time away from my yoga mat, I returned last week with that same nagging pain in my right leg. After my treatment we chatted for a while – he was telling me that I needed to come more regularly to deal with this issue and I was trying to express the fact that I had spent more than enough time in his office. Thing is, I know that what he does can work for me, but what does it mean that I end up “broken” again after only a few weeks away?

I am a healthy young woman, so how is it that visiting alternative health practitioners has become a pastime that eats up a significant portion of my “discretionary” income? I do plenty of yoga (or at least I do when I am not afraid of a forward bend damaging this cantankerous nerve I never knew I had until this fall) and I know how to breathe healing energy into my body. I’ve been practicing Reiki for years and I understand a good deal about the connection between body, mind, and spirit. What is it that makes me so passive in my healing process? How did I become so dependent on these people with their gentle touch and well-placed needles and singing bowls? I never thought I understood that old adage “physician, heal thyself” until I realized that I was applying “body-attuned creature, sort out your own aches and pains” to myself.

Upon expressing these competing concerns to my chiropractor, I think a moment of true understanding blossomed between us. It was not that I wasn’t committed to healing, it was just that I felt guilty plunking down a $15 copay a couple times a week instead of doing the work myself. As we talked, I realized that placing myself under someone else’s care did not make me weak; it just proved that we are all part of a connected universe that hums along by creating constant webs of interdependency.

The other thing that he reiterated to me, but which finally made some sense, is that the symptoms I experience are just part of my body’s reaction to stress. Previously, this just made me more annoyed with myself – what was wrong with me that I was not using the ample tools at my disposal to deal with this alleged stress? What was I forgetting to do that made it possible for all that stuff to get lodged in my vertebrae?

This was the moment that I recalled all that I have been reading in Edwards’s book. If I truly believe that something is out of joint in terms of how we live in this world, if we are forced to conform in millions of insidious, soul compromising ways, then it only makes sense that my body is under more pressure than a human form was ever meant to bear. Since I believe so strongly that emotions manifest themselves in the physical form, it seems inevitable that my body would find her own way to rebel against the ideas my mind is only beginning to comprehend.

I have spoken of compassion many times before, and it seems time to employ such lovingkindness in the way I treat this body of mine. She is neither soldier nor victim; she is my soul’s home that deserves to be cared for and understood.

Beyond the Inconvenience of Changing Behavior & Changing the World

I am still preoccupied with the issue of global warming and the devastation we cause simply by being regular, average citizens of the western world, but I am ready to draw a more concrete parallel to this awakening and the overall quest for the True Self. Of course, the way we live upon this earth and the imprint that we leave upon creation is an inherently spiritual question in itself, so please forgive me if I get stuck here for a while.

In Entering the Castle Caroline Myss writes a great deal about a fear of humiliation as being the force that keeps us from embracing humility – the quiet, unselfconscious power that can open us to God. She asks her readers to go through these humiliations, from the minor interpersonal stuff that keeps us from changing our morning routine to the deep spiritual elements that affect the way we relate to the Divine. I am beginning to realize that one of the little humiliating situations that I would do anything to avoid is being derided for being too high-maintenance or difficult, for being deemed a chore to have around because I cannot just go with the flow. Of course, I fear a common element of groupthink, the tyranny of the majority that will do everything possible to keep all people at the lowest common denominator.

The food we choose to eat can expose us to a great deal of judgment and ridicule. As someone who is gluten intolerant, I have had more than enough conversations about my diet and my digestive system. Before I got serious about eliminating gluten, I was a relatively serious vegetarian, but once the menu’s meatless pasta choice became a half-remembered dream, I had to give up my anti-flesh convictions. If I planned ahead even more carefully and prepared to refuse even more offered sustenance (let us not forget the degree to which calories are the currency of friendship, love, and hospitality), I might be able to earn back my veggie stripes, but at least to this point, I have found that it is not worth the struggle.

There has been plenty of reporting dedicated to the impact our carnivorous diet has on the planet. Environment Magazine published the first story I ever read about the issue. Even that show I keep talking about, Six Degrees Could Change the World, discussed the amount of energy it takes to put a hamburger on an American plate. The issue is emerging as one that is larger than my own appetite or the annoyance of people who never know what to feed a picky eater like me (ah, those hostesses faces that have fallen to despair when I whisper weakly that soy sauce’s second ingredient is wheat!).

I bring up the issue because I recognize that one reason I do not change my diet is a little bit like my inability/refusal to see the Divine in all people and treat them accordingly. I don’t want to plague loved ones with either my wearisome food concerns or my new codes of honor. Already I am the woman who cannot eat a normal birthday cake and is forever caught up in spiritual pursuits, how can I start passing up pork chops at Sunday dinner and refuse to twist my wit in wicked directions to make friends laugh too? Of course, none of this is to say that I am either entirely virtuous (I liked the turkey and cilantro burgers my husband made for dinner last night and sometimes I am engulfed with a mean spiritedness that is entirely my own) or that I am completely ruled by others’ whims (I am a pretty strong willed person, but sometimes I abandon my principles in an often feeble attempt to be polite).

Some of the most overused words of this decade have got to be “convenient” and “inconvenient” – proof that Al Gore’s movie hit a home run into the modern cultural lexicon. It is time to stop throwing around inconvenience as just another buzz word, however, and realize the deep truth contained in the fact that we are creatures completely addicted to our convenient, disposable world. Changing our behaviors and facing the confused or hurt or laughing faces of our companions really is just a trifle when we talk about affecting the fate of the world or engendering more compassion in this world, but damn, it sure seems hard.

The Struggle with Humility

Stephan de PalyFor the better part of a year I have been working with Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle, a refashioning of Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. Part of me feels guilty about spending all of this time with this derivation of such a classic text, with all of its modern directions about “Soul Work” and journaling, but I have to trust my 21st century spirit and give her what she needs. Though I’ve had the original out from the library for ages (in the guise of two tragically plain looking volumes that hold 1960s translations of the saint’s complete works) I know that my chances of really reading unmediated Teresa is rather remote, while I know I will give time to the process as Myss lays it out.

Before you can come anywhere near the pyrotechnics of the soul that mark the mystic’s experience (and I use that term facetiously, knowing that a great deal of the journey to the Divine is rooted in silent communion rather than blinding visions and moments of levitation) one has to work with what Teresa calls the “reptiles.” These are the fears and hang ups and frailties that keep you from real communion with your sacred self. The reptiles are the petty shreds of the all too human preoccupations that keep us from embracing divinity.

Myss introduces humility as a necessary “quality of character” as one walks the spiritual path; understanding it builds the essential foundation as you journey upward to the turrets of the soul castle. She writes: “humility allows you to recognize an acknowledge all the positive qualities of body, mind, and spirit in another person”; “humility disarms the competitive voice”; and “humility enables you to understand another person’s motivations and to transcend any negativity.”

It’s written in a bit of a self-helpy way, but all of these things seem really quite wonderful and I can certainly get excited about the positive outcomes engendered by embracing humility and shifting the way I relate to others. At the same time, I do not think I had ever thought about the concept of humility before I picked up this book; it certainly was never a quality I strove for. What does one think of besides kids who grew up in tiny houses (humble beginnings) and someone forced to eat their words (humble pie)? I, like so many others, was raised to be an achiever; you have to sell your skills and make sure that all of your accomplishments were recognized and applauded. Putting others first all of the time is a good way to be labeled one of the “nice” girls in class, but it is not how you get to be known as interesting or clever.

I have an awful lot invested in being considered interesting and clever, so the realization that my wittiest lines so often come at the expense of others has been a vicious reptile to wrestle with. It is this resistance to letting go of what I tend to see as hallmarks of my personality (rather than banal cruelties) that has kept me in this first mansion for months, knowing that I must go back and peel away endless layers of resistant false self. So many corners of my being are shocked to learn that the goal is recognize myself to be a humble servant of God.

That really is the ultimate goal: to figure out how to act humbly on this earth with all that you meet so that you are prepared to approach to Divine with devotion unencumbered by the petty mandates of the ego. At this point I am willing to declare it a worthy enterprise, but it doesn’t seemto be a quality that contemporary living has prepared me for. I have some more work to do so that I can fight the belief that I will need to wear a sign that declares “I’m not being shy/dull/retiring, I’m being HUMBLE!”

And so I close another entry, wondering whether I am transgressing the humility code as I hope that people find my words intriguing enough to have reach the end…

Pacing the Earth With Humility and Grace

“In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of this whirling world.”

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous

Apollo 17 Crew, NASA

In his remarkable book, Abram looks at the way written language (and all of the technology that resulted in perfecting that particular form of magic) has altered our relationship with nature. We are almost completely wrapped up in the power of our own minds to the degree that we no longer recognize that living on this planet is to coexist in an infinite partnership. He describes the ability of people of oral cultures to live in harmony with the land and every entity; he makes it clear that we “moderns” have alienated ourselves almost completely from such a symbiotic dance.

I wanted to celebrate the chirp of every cricket right along with him and know what it would be like to see the earth not as an inanimate setting upon which I enact the drama of my life, but to recognize the landscape as a main character. I was able to lose myself in the text. At the same time, the unforgettable element that reverberates through this work is that such a well-crafted narrative can only exist thanks to the innovations that have pulled us away from this original sensibility. And though his story is captivating, I think I would be looking for a little more excitement than the local moss and soaring birds might be able to offer after a little while. He offers a very brief solution to this separation from nature, and that is to return to a localized culture that truly focuses on what is immediately outside your back door rather than on the global vision that entrances us now. I am not sure that his answer is immediately practicable or even attractive, but I gained much simply from Abram’s description of an idealized unity of humans and their environment.

I chose the quote above both because it creates a startling perspective on the consequences of “progress” and because Abram employs the terms “humility” and “grace.” During this period of soul searching I am trying to take a break from my current dilemma that revolves around asking “what’s next?” to move further within to ask “where am I now?” Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle has been my guide, and in working with this book I have encountered these two words that I have thrown around before but certainly did not fully understand. These words are an interesting choice for Abram because one thing I missed in his book was any direct discussion of God. That is not a failing of this book necessarily – the natural world is the mightiest manifestation of the divine and it is easy to read into this text the sense that removing ourselves from nature is also to separate ourselves from the most beautiful and immediate expressions of the sacred. It is just something that I noticed was absent since so much of what I am reading these days is so overtly laced with “God talk.”

But what does it mean to live with humility and grace? This question is enough to fill endless entries, but it is one that I must begin to pose. At this moment I would consider grace to be the ability to walk through my day knowing that I am a channel of divine energy, conscious of the unity of all creation and of my own powerful place in that continuum. Humility is a concept I am just beginning to get my head around – to understand on a personal level that it is not about fading into the woodwork and sacrificing my personality in an effort to be blandly and angelically good. It is about settling into my truest self so that I am secure enough and grounded enough not to need to be first, not to demand constant attention and praise, not driven to denigrate others in order to improve my own position. It is about honesty and authenticity.

Both of these terms apply so perfectly to the way in which we must be bound to behave on this planet. To act with grace is to recognize our position in this web of life both by refusing to exploit it and by making positive contributions that better this world. And to move from a place of humility is to give up the idea that we are supreme creatures entitled to trample every other species and resource in a mad dash to have more and more and more. It is to recognize our own impermanence and look upon this planet with respect rather than as another foe to be conquered, another force to be controlled.

Courage in the Gathering Light

Because I am still trying to work with this unique period that I described yesterday, when we are swirling through celebration even as we are plunged into the darkness of the dying year, I sought out a yoga podcast that is rooted in this particular time. Over at Hillary’s Yoga Practice I found a class from December 23, 2006. I needed to find words that were wrapped in winter, offering the wisdom of this season. Her topic was courage and I realize that it was exactly what I needed so that I could establish the proper perspective as we move away from the Solstice into Christmas and then onward to the new year.

Upon examining my preoccupation with mortality over the past several weeks, I realize that though such emotions were valid, I was walking a line between exploring such territory and wallowing in the darkness. I allowed myself to become unmoored in my ruminations and I forgot to call upon the resources that can protect me from sliding too deep. Now, it appears that the element that eluded me was courage.

Caroline Myss speaks often about our addiction to victimhood and the ways that we allow our “wounds” to control our experience as well as manipulate those around us. I see such patterns in my own life, and I know that they were at work when I invested in bleakness disguised as contemplation. Something as organic as courage would have been the lamp in the night that saved me from becoming entranced by the waning cycle rather than looking to the hope on the other side. It just seemed too difficult to flex that sort of muscle at the time, however. All too often, courage seems to go out the window when it is most required because acting courageously would almost certainly upset the mundane balance that marks the lives of so many of us.

Yesterday I was taken with the way the joyful, bustling holidays are at odds with our animal instincts that demand we honor the absence of the life-giving sun. Today I am less interested in that paradox, in dwelling on how hard it must be for us to deal with the conflicting messages of nature and culture. Instead, I am drawn to that very human emotion called courage that causes us to seek and create light from darkness. Beyond that, I am awed by the power of the Divine that roots such a power in our hearts and shows us again and again the constant rebirthing of the universe.