Woke up concerned that I may have misstated a few things in my last post or at least left out some crucial caveats… Have a peek at the end where I tried to clarify things if last night’s post left you wondering if I had lost my mind as well as my attachment to my stories!
Recognizing that “Six Degrees Could Change MY World”
The dryer is humming in the background, but the house is only lit by one compact fluorescent and the glow of the television and my laptop. There’s a cup of cold, forgotten coffee next to me, but I am drinking water we filter at home out of a Nalgene bottle I have used a thousand times. We went for a nice hike today, despite the gusty wind and the snow, but we drove to the top of the mountain for a change of scenery rather than take the path from the backyard.
My husband is watching a National Geographic special called “Six Degrees Could Change the World” and I am finding it impossible to focus on an Andrew Harvey book about Christ. The idea of the infinite love of God is tough to focus on when a voice is saying that “a change of just one degree could change American cattle country into a wasteland swallowed by drought.” I have never heard Alec Baldwin sound so terrifying – he’s the narrator of this scary little story I find impossible to ignore.
Instead of listening to the proof of “the dangers posed by global warming,” the litany of awe-inspiring changes that could occur with each degree increase in the global temperature I am writing this and trying unsuccessfully to keep my own fears at bay. It’s cable, so I know that this program will be repeated again and again, so later I can catch those details about how many thousands (was it 500,000?) of species that could be lost if one coral reef died so I can rattle off some statistics next time someone speaks dismissively about climate change. For now, I will watch and worry and wonder how on earth I can stop another polar bear from drowning and whether I will bring my grandchildren to my favorite Cape Cod beach someday.
Is this show going to give us any answers beyond reminding us to recycle and walk more and buy a hybrid (or wait, maybe you shouldn’t since there are so many resources already tied up in your current gas guzzler that putting yet another car on the road just makes it all worse)? I’ll keep watching and let you know.
At the very least, I think I can answer the question that Andrew Harvey posits at so many of his lectures “If you wake up at three o’clock in the morning and look at all of the injustices of the world, what is it that breaks your heart and forces you to action?” I cannot pretend anymore that someone else is going to take care of the corners of this earth that I love; I cannot withdraw into the fear that the science is too contradictory for a mere mortal to understand. The disappearing Arctic ice is my heartbreak; the rising seas will not recede into the neglected background of my modern life.
Yoga and Finding the True Self Beyond the Self
At the conclusion of yoga class last night my teacher said “Just remember, this is all you have to do to come back to your true self.” I felt a smile wrap itself over my lips as I heard her voice exactly what I had been trying to lose myself in order to find.
The practice of living has made my studio yoga attendance rather erratic. Time constraints but also the demands of the hermit aspects of my soul have caused me to become a more solitary yogini (with the help of Elsie and Hillary‘s podcasts). Somehow, I had almost begun to parallel my inability to find a place in an organized religion with my resistance to getting back to class. Both injuries and the discovery of the spiritual potential of my practice made me avoid the dictates of a teacher; I sought an unmediated relationship with the yoga muse and any resulting revelations.
Finally, last night, however, I got back to the yoga space that has been such a vital part of my life for four years.
I have always enjoyed this particular instructor’s classes even if I am often contemplating collapse halfway through (she sometimes tends toward the “ass kicking” style that Suzi at Yoga Like Salt mentions), so I was joyfully surprised that last night’s session was marked by long forward bends and a creative take on sun salutations that was more about deep lunges than constant movement through the Vinyasa. The fact that her class was exactly what I needed again showed me that I need to be open to the promise that the Universe will always send me guides and that everyone and everything can act as a teacher.
It had been a long week, and I arrived on my mat heavy with an exhaustion I had willingly invited to consume me. I knew deep down that focusing on my practice would energize me, but I was taking a skeptic’s stance on such a miracle: “ok, yoga, you think you are so magical, just try and wake up this sorry excuse for a body.”
The miracle on the mat settled over me despite my disbelief. Instead of fighting my way through a warrior pose sequence that set my quadriceps screaming, I remembered my own rhetoric and applied the wisdom I spend so much time studying. I allowed myself to realize that yoga truly is a moving meditation and an essential part of my spiritual practice, not just an alternative to the gym.
It became such that truly being present in a pose meant to forget that my arms were outstretched to the edges of my being and that my legs were the pillars connecting me to the earth. It meant that all thought and breath could fall away so that I could lean into a back bend and feel my inner vision clear to reveal a deep, sweet void full of everything and nothing, a space that was infinitely larger than the individual yet sized perfectly to hold me. In this forgetting of my body, I could find my truest home within myself and realize that my limbs were stretched to their truest expression and my breath had found its essential rhythm.
In reading James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints I found voice for my worry that to cast off elements of the false self (the proclivities and neuroses and dramas that make me me) in the search of the True would leave me somehow bereft of personality. Finally in finding glints of bliss in surrender did I begin to understand “Our personalities are not eradicated as much as they are made fuller, more real, and finally more holy.”
Waves of Language and Silence
Over the last week I have felt what it is to be swept along by my own words and by the awareness that I have readers out there who have been reading through all of this woven language. Last weekend, I pointed to the obvious paradox of forming human thought and pouring out sentences and paragraphs to describe that which cannot be described. Again, I feel overcome by the inadequacy of writing. Somehow it is because I love words so much that I must flow with their waves, and I must accept my need to recede from communication from time to time. It is in recognizing when language risks losing its power that I cultivate a truer respect for what it may be I am trying to say. I must stop trying to pound every experience into measured meaning and let myself float in a sense of unstructured being.
Thanks to all who have commented on my blog over the past week – I value all that you have shared with me and know myself blessed to have others out there who will dare me to think in new ways all the time. On Saturday, I could not bear to get back to the keyboard, but I found comfort beyond measure in a room lit by one candle, simply allowing myself to receive. Only at that moment could I integrate my own rhetoric into a version of truth. It makes me realize that those masters we have grown to love on the pages of books were not trying to churn out a daily blog post about every step along the path. They were permitted secret, unpunctuated silence.
I’ll be be back when the wave seems ready to crest again.
Beyond All Separation: The Birth of the World
Still taken with Rachel Naomi Remen‘s interview on Speaking of Faith, I want to share her description of the “Birthday of the World”:
In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.
And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.
In the last few posts I have spent some time examining my relationship to organized religion (well, to Christianity and Catholicism really since that is my only valid reference point). A story like this makes it all the more clear that the separations that are necessities of the labeling and packaging a belief in God are truly irrelevant.
This myth from the Jewish tradition is new to me, featuring terms I have never heard, but that does not make the tenets of its vision any less relevant or awe-inspiring. The story acts as the poles of the tent that support the beautiful blanket that is the belief that God dwells within all of us. I am building my life around such a belief, but never had the chance to describe this unifying light to myself with images I could understand.
Initially I was attracted to this part of the interview because Remen said, “We are all healers of the world.” It is through my desire to be a healing force in this life that I became attracted to matters of the soul in the first place. The sense that this practice of restoration is a global project and an imperative of the human race inspires me to live with a sense of purpose I have only just begun to explore. The theological questions of whether we are on a trajectory to return a perfect time before history began is best discussed at another time; for now, this tale can simply be a new way to experience the present.
Even if one wants to find fault with organized religion or at least remain an outside observer, one vital and enduring benefit of entities like a local parish is the sense of community that such places provide. We know that we need such a sense of connection to feel whole and recognized. This story gives us a way to understand all people as members of one spirit community populated with everyone who is responsible for making this a better existence. Certainly one can feel the loneliest in a crowded room, but perhaps drinking in this story fully can dispel some of that sense of alienation.
My Expanding Vision of “Believing in Everything”
Last week while I was reading the Bhagavad Gita I listened to Christine Kane‘s album Rain & Mud & Wild & Green even as I went through the part about “one-pointedness” that described how background music keeps one from being fully aware what she is studying. The iPod was necessary to block the rest of the sounds from a busy Sunday afternoon at our house; plus, splitting my attention lead me to realize the way the lyrics of “One Once More” spoke directly to me, especially a past, cherished version of myself.
The song starts:
Saints and Valkyries
Runes and rosaries
I believe in everything I guess
As I sift through various traditions and sacred writings, I feel I am someone who can find something beautiful and worthy in countless corners because I am not worried about finding the One in a single book or building.
An old friend’s comment on my blog today reminded me of the person he first got to know when I was on my year abroad in Galway during the junior year of college. The twenty year old that I was railed against governments and religions over endless pints of imported lager, shocking as many people as possible with her feminism and her convenient radicalism and her ecstatic pagan ways. Now, my political views are more informed and less strident, but mean more to me; my feminism is a softer, lived-in ethic rather than a jubilant in-your-face volley of girl power. At this point, my radicalism is stewing more quietly, but with a great deal more potential as I actually feel poised to be the change I wish to see in world, opposed to just arguing in the pubs about what ought to be done. These days I’ll drink a bit of Guinness and become still as I tell you that I think I’ve finally discovered what I am meant to do in this world, that this spiritual quest may just be it.
A few years ago, the symbols in Christine’s song would have been what captured my imagination, esoteric collector of sacred talismans that I was. I was an indiscriminate and undisciplined believer, just looking for a few traces of magic in a world that seemed all too cruel and mundane.
As I feel what it might be to mature into my relationship with the world and the sacred, and I look beyond the spiritual souvenirs to the truth behind the rituals, I can reevaluate the habit of believing in “everything.” Now, I can begin to understand what it is to look at all paths to the Divine with an open heart, even the one with the weight of two thousand tumultuous years of Western World defining history behind it. The major religions today are tied to terrorism and sexism and homophobia and countless other prejudices. Due to these social concerns, I do not have to subscribe to any of them completely, perhaps, but I cannot assume that my modern political consciousness makes me wiser than millennia of saints and mystics and prophets. The beauty of their thoughts may not nullify the contemporary manifestations of their respective faiths, but it makes their religions worthy of much more than a second glance.
Healing Through Questioning
Listening to the podcast of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith the other day, I was introduced to Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has pioneered the “integrative medicine” movement that pulls the modern medical establishment’s attention to the mind/body connection. I was reminded yet again that holistic healthcare is actually considered quite radical in most circles and that many well meaning doctors have been (and continue to be) surprised by the fact that a person’s experience of her illness is as important as the clinical symptoms she may demonstrate.
The airing of this radio show is yet another instance in which the Universe seems to be conspiring to make me think about wellness and infirmity, and the place of health and illness in my own life and the lives of those I touch every day. When I was trapped on the couch with another sprained ankle last week, I plunged into a bout of self pity while speaking to a friend, listing all of the ways that my body has betrayed me over the last handful of years, including six months when I was reduced to debilitating exhaustion most of the time due to a nexus of calamities. She suggested that I might be taking good enough care of myself that none of these health issues became insurmountable, long-term issues. That is a nice thought, but I really think that I am being taught what it is to be temporarily unable to meet the days’ challenges so that I can allow that knowledge to become empathy that will eventually be transformed into the power to help others heal. These days, I am working on developing my sense of perspective on the moments when my body does not perform exactly as expected, hoping to realize that I should just be overcome with gratitude for all that she accomplishes each day.
All of this is merely meant to be an introduction (that I will surely explore later) to a passage included on the program from Remen’s book’s Kitchen Table Wisdom:
The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.
At this moment, this quotation gives some shape to my thoughts about what I talked about yesterday, my struggles with conforming to the fullness of any particular church. I think one of the elements of the Catholic Church that I grew up with that leaves me so conflicted is that claim to the Truth with an absolutely knowable capital “T.” I am still in a place of delicious, torrential questions. Perhaps the reason we have religion in its modern sense is to find solace in a monolithic entity that seeks to comfort its flock with creeds and commandments and promises of the ultimate wisdom. The only answer I have received to all of my questions so far is that this is not my path.
From my reading of the Christian mystics I know that the tradition that has its most obvious manifestation in the one-way communication of Sunday mass (all priestly answers, it seems), also has guided centuries of questing souls who have interrogated issues more deeply than I can possibly imagine. I am just left to wonder how to reconcile these two expressions of communion with the divine.
Reconciling, ever reconciling…
Sneaking into Jesus’s House
My husband and I were honored to be asked to be the godparents of two of our friends’ children. We felt comfortable with the broad spectrum of such a role from giving the best birthday presents to offering counsel, spiritual or otherwise, especially in matters they didn’t know how to talk to their folks about. The family sent us a lovely bottle of wine the other day, which only upon closer inspection proved to be less of an early thank you, and more of a way to soften the blow. Enclosed in the box were two innocuous looking sheets of paper – contracts from the Episcopalian church that asked us to affirm our allegiance to Christ and his Church and assure that the children regularly take part in public worship and personal prayer. Personal prayer I have covered, but the rest… Well, the concerns about the above mentioned elements pale next to “I share regularly in the worship and the ministry of my own Church. I live a life in harmony with the Christian faith an the responsibilities of my own Baptismal covenant. My priest/pastor has seen this statement and affirms its accuracy.”
What does it mean that my mind was instantly whirling with ways to beat the system? I was applying the same sort of creativity one must take to traffic court when she is trying to talk her way out of a speeding ticket she almost certainly deserves. Can my mother see the priest at our church from home, where they still attend, and mention that we have been doing a lot of traveling (untrue) and have not had a chance to settle into a parish but that I fulfilled all of the requirements once upon a time? Can we make an appearance a few times at a local church and grin and bear it until we get these pieces of paper signed and then never be seen again?
It is not even the last vestiges of Catholic guilt that make me feel horrifically devious as I try to think of a clever way to prove we are card carrying members at a local house of (a Christian) God. One can laugh about such things if she did not respect so much of what those places stand for, and if she did not feel a deeper sadness at the inability to join one of them.
I don’t think I have ever been to a non-Catholic mass, so I cannot speak for the Anglican service, but I when I attend church a few times a year due to family obligation, I am always so troubled by my my incapacity to recite the Creed. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” “One holy, catholic and apostolic church…” Perhaps I am missing something, but I cannot make these statements work with my conviction that all true faiths that seek unity with the divine are essentially working toward the same place, simply using different symbols and vocabulary. One cannot claim primacy and still respect other traditions as equally valid – can they? I spend much of my time in beseeching prayer asking whether this is supposed to feel right, if I can love Thomas Merton and Teresa of Avila and feel so conflicted within those walls.
This happens at the same time that I am just beginning to understand what it might mean to worship Jesus, though at this point I am still trying to get comfortable with saying His name. Actually, Gartenfische‘s post simply entitled “Christ” helped me to begin to understand that Jesus is in fact a figure with whom I can feel a deep resonance. It figures, she is talking about a Hindu’s love for Christ. I find I can get a better perspective on His greatness through the writings of other faiths – they do no assume the ingrained belief that is meant to be second nature to a confirmed Catholic.
We have until June to sort all of this out; with the speed that spiritual developments seem to be spinning through my life, I cannot say for certain that I will not have befriended a priest or found peace with a local parish, but at the moment, that doesn’t seem all that likely.
Is there anyone out there who cares to vouch for the fact, if nothing else, I think about God an awful lot? Think I can just email the address of my blog to all of the local pastors and see if anyone can give me points (and a signature) for effort?
Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God
A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.
My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.
Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.
This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.
Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.
All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.
Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.
Up Dog. Down Dog. Bad Dog?
Life took something of a turn in the days since I walked my parents’ dog Saoirse under that Epiphany sky on Sunday. The most notable causes of difficulty this week were the left ankle I sprained later that very night while on one last stroll with the the beloved hound as well as the fact that said canine was such a nervous wreck in the face of two territorial cats that she has alternately panted or whined through the night since she has arrived. Any semblance of routine my husband and I might be trying to establish in this new year was dashed as I hobbled around with this old injury I thought I had left behind me and we learned what it is like to add a loving omega puppy to the pack.
Tonight I was going to accomplish everything on my list including an ankle-safe walk, whipping up dinner, and finally doing some yoga to unkink these confused muscles and sinews that were shocked by the indignity of lurching around on crutches over the last few days. When I finally had a chance to get to my mat, Banshee, the savasana kitty who loves to curl up on my belly the moment I lie down, started her bid for affection. Saoirse was not about to let that sort of love pass her by, so she quickly took her spot in my lap – all 100 pounds of her. I pushed, I yelled, I growled, I pleaded, I tried to extricate myself but she just kept twisting us both in knots of limbs and tail and seeking doggy tongue.
I have just started reading Eknath Easwaran‘s translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. I am sure I will be writing a great deal about it, but my first impression was just how true and practical and applicable it all can be, especially through this wonderful teacher’s perspective. He talks about an Eightfold Path that lead to Self-realization, and ultimately to the realization of the Divine. In one of those rare moment when I actually have the ability to practice what I read, I recalled two elements of his Path: slowing down and putting others first. Though I was seeing a sweet, disobedient dog as a distraction to what I was meant to be doing – practicing what yoga I could on one foot – what if I stopped for a moment and looked at what she might need? What if I recognized this situation not as a lack of training but as the Universe suggesting I try something else? Here is a six-year-old only “child” who had been stolen from her life that features daily walks on the beach who is now being left alone all day with strange little creatures who look like little dogs, but most assuredly are a very foreign other. She has had to walk thought mountain slush and ice in woods full of deer and coyotes and other creatures that are so foreign to the sand dunes she is accustomed to roaming. The person sitting on the floor in the middle of prime puppy play space is her only link to that regular life she knows and loves, and now this person is rejecting her.
Surely Easwaran’s wisdom can be lavished on much more complex and serious issues than the classic struggle of yogini versus black lab, but this is a decent place to start, I should think. How is it that we think we can fill our house with adorable, furry fonts of unconditional love without occasionally stopping to realize what their experience of life must be like? The moments I spent holding on to her were the closest to meditation I had experienced in days, but I had fought them as ferociously as she fought for my attention. For once I feel a little closer to understanding what it means to listen to nature and silence that demanding ego-driven self who needs to believe she is in control.