Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Paths to Understanding, Essay 4: Beyond Tunnel Vision

Image result for public domain image of tunnel

“The meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.”
                                                                Robert Wright
                                                (As quoted in Religion Gone Astray, p. 155)

Our opening quote today could equally be applied to countless topics far beyond the scope of religious literature-- from music and art to diet and exercise tracts. As I have pointed out in previous blog entries, we see the world as WE ARE. To help clarify what I mean, here is a great teaching story I heard from my father at a very early age:

A man walks into a bar, orders a drink and starts chatting with the bar tender.  “I just moved here for a new job. How do you find the people in this town?” he asks.

The bartender wipes at a wet spot on the wood.  “How were they in your town?”

“Rotten.  Stab you in the back in a heartbeat.  Cold.  Not good people at all.”

“Yup, same thing here.”  The bartender excuses himself to serve a man sitting a couple of seats down the bar.

The first man watches him go and then hears the other diner ask a similar question to the one he had posed.  And again, the bartender asks how people were in his own town.

The diner replies, “Oh, they were great.  Easy going, always willing to help in a pinch.  Good solid folks.”

“Yup, same thing here,” the bartender replied.

“What!” the first man cried, leaping to his feet.  “You just told me the folks here were rotten, and then you go and tell this fellow just the opposite.  Watcha doin’, fishing for tips?”

“Nah,” the bartender replies with a grin.  “I just find people are pretty much what you expect them to be.”

Part of learning to understand who we are, so we can see others as they are, is identifying our own form of tunnel vision.  Now this very human "narrowing" of the mind sometimes gets a bad name for itself, implying that we are not “educated” or “fully informed” or that we are stuck in our own little corner of reality.  The hard truth is, most of us do not possess ears that hear or eyes that see the whole picture of the faith we practice or even the entire truth of the world around us.  However, What we place in our tunnel deeply affects the relationships we have with others and even with the unconscious parts of ourselves.

If we choose to hold that Muslims and Jews are in the “wrong” religion, that homosexuals are not equally the children of God, that violence is a perfectly acceptable tool to “get our way” and is sanctioned by our scripture, on and on, we lock out our ability to meet and see the human being our labels and judgments obscure. And sadly, we limit our own ability to work on positive traits within ourselves like unconditional love, compassion, and kindness. In the end, the people we choose not to know are not injured by such tunnel vision—we are.

It’s entirely possible for tunnel vision to be loving, non-judgmental and filled with light.  
And I would say it is a positive place to start because it encourages healthy relationships with others.  Robert Wright, in his New York Times editorial about reading and studying the entirety of scripture goes on to say:

“Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these (violent or homophobic) passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.”

At some point, however, the tunnel must widen. How can we say we “know” music if we have never allowed ourselves to experience the whole spectrum of this art?  Notice, I didn’t say “like the whole spectrum”.   Think about what you listen to, day in and day out.  Have you ever tried to listen to different kinds of music? How did that feel? When we say we “hate Polka” or “dislike Country Western”, what does that mean? How often have we actually just sat and listened to these forms with an open mind and heart? And here is the very interesting part: do you know someone who loves kinds of music you don’t? How interested are you in their hobbies, their work, their favorite sports team? What are their children like? What gives them hope for the future?  What do they most fear? Are you able to stay open to them, even love and enjoy them, though you don’t share musical tastes? This is what interfaith dialogue is like sometimes—we have to sit and hear the entire spectrum of religious experience long enough to be in relationship with another, even when that spectrum introduces us to ideas never glimpsed in our own tunnels.

When topics like homophobia, the role of women in religion, the dark side of institutionalism, elitism and what-not arise, we may be pushed well outside of our particular tunnel. I am advocating that the relationship we have with other PEOPLE is always more important than the tunnels we all inevitably create as part of being human.  Are we able to stay in dialogue, listening deeply? Are we able to see the comfortable and uncomfortable issues that arise without objectifying the person or people we are speaking with? In other words, can we place our shared humanity first and our own opinions and viewpoints second?

In a few weeks, the Three Amigos will visit Alpena, Michigan.  The challenge I make to all my readers is this: can you see the men more than their roles? What questions might you ask if you were making friends with them, rather than just evaluating them as “Priest, Rabbi or Iman? Because if you can challenge yourself to think in this way, you open yourself to others in your community who are not exactly like yourself, and in so doing, you make your tunnel a great deal more spacious and delightful to live within.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Paths to Understanding, Essay 3: Triggers of Violence

Image result for image of two people yelling at each other
In this blog entry, I’ll be starting an exploration of what triggers violence between religions. I say “starting” because this is a field that is forever evolving.

Triggers of Violence—a Beginning List

Projections vs Truth:  Do you really know if you want to be “right” or if you wish to live a life free of violence?

When faced with choosing between being “right” or achieving peaceful and non-violent societies, I think most of us would choose peace, but that is often another example of a conditioned response. 

Consider the following questions:
How do we achieve what you consider to be “real peace” and what does that look like? Be concrete!

What exactly does “nonviolence” mean to you?  Be concrete.

Give examples of a kind of peace that does not, in some way, impinge upon the rights, cultural mores or religious convictions of others.  Is this possible? If so, how can you and others work toward it?

What would you do to have peace (as you define it) and how far would you go to make your definition of peace a reality? Take a moment and consider that question and write down your answer. Do you see any seeds of violence in this reply?  How does that make you feel?

Richard Rohr, a modern contemplative thinker in the Franciscan tradition of Christianity makes this observation:

“Good religion is always about seeing rightly.  “The lamp of body is the eye; if your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light” as Jesus says in Matthew 6:22. How you see is what you see.  And to see rightly is to be able to be fully present—without fear, without bias, and without judgement.  It is such hard work for the ego, for the emotions and for the body that I think most of us would simply prefer to go to church services.”
-The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Pg. 62-62
Richard Rohr

If we consider “peace” as one of the central aims of “good religion” and a non-violent culture, then we are once again in a position to do the uncomfortable work with ourselves, our fears, our biases and judgments.  Until we undertake this work of gently understanding ourselves, we will not be able to create peace within ourselves or our institutions.  It truly begins within each of us.  As the Three Amigos (Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman) share, “One can only get to true peace peacefully” (Mackenzie et al, p. 76)    

Tunnel vision: picking and choosing scriptural passages to support violence

As Imam Jamal Rahman points out, Rumi, one of the finest of the Sufi poets from the 13th century wrote: “A Bee and a Wasp both drink from the same flower.  One produces honey, the other a sting.” Why? Because it is in their nature to be what they are, no matter that the material comprising their reality is the same. This observation can also be applied to us:  How we read scripture tells us more about ourselves than it does about any absolutes. Or as Richard Rohr said above, “How you see is what you see.” Scripture is beautiful because it is a mirror—in the words we chose and use from this vast resource, we have the perfect image of who and what WE are internally, and using that reflection skillfully, we can begin to work toward transforming ourselves. However, if we have a bias, like thinking all Muslims are violent, that is the only thing we shall see in the Qur’an, and we will likely take the passages we find out of the historical, literary and cultural contexts to which they belong. To make matters worse, we often do so while ignoring the violence in our own scriptures. The scriptures of all faiths are neither wholly violent nor wholly peaceful—they are, as my previous blog entry shared, merely snapshots of a once-lived reality, captured in a language often not our own, translated, commented upon, codified, mystified and simplified as needed.  Scripture is a lens through which we view our current lives, a lens which we often sadly craft to protect and defend ourselves, our egos and our institutional personas. Using scripture to encourage violence tells the world more about the violence in yourself than in your professed religion. And it tells us almost nothing about the nature of God. That should be a sobering wake-up call indeed. But it is also the good news—if we find ourselves horrified by that violence, we are now aware of it and can work toward a change of heart (repentance or metanoia).
      Media caters to OUR tastes

On page 79 of Religion Gone Astray, the authors point out an incredibly important facet of understanding media’s part in promoting violence: MEDIA CATERS TO OUR TASTES AS A CULTURE. If we did not, as a culture, possess a taste for violence, then our news reporting, talk shows, books, movies, music, games, etc. would not mirror this back to us because it would not be economically attractive to do. These industries are driven by our tastes and expectations as much as they, in turn, feed this basic craving for violent content. Once again, we are forced to see that the work of the individual is critical in setting up the conditions for violence to end. One by one, we can make choices that begin to influence the larger culture. Changing the human heart is the first step toward changing the world. In fact, most religious systems would agree it is the only way.
      Conditional love

Another painful cornerstone of any kind of violence is the inability of people to practice, in a practical manner, unconditional love.  As I explored in a previous blog entry, love with conditions often masquerades as unconditional love.  Notice this common statement: “I love you but I don’t like you.”  These words immediately point to a set of expectations and judgments that create parameters around a relationship. The child will tend to hear “I don’t like you” rather than “I love you.” Of course, truly unconditional love may be a Divine trait more than a human one; yet, I personally believe that any religious or social system that actively teaches that God or Mystery engages in human expectations of behavior is showing more about their institution or culture or point in history than they are about the Ground of Our (collective) Being.  Conditional love allows a cultural system to create reward and punishment ideologies based on legalistic wording and concepts that are firmly rooted in specific times and places. I fully believe, as does Richard Rohr, that unless God is better than the very best human being you know, you probably are not really engaged with God.

When we chose to practice unconditional love, we are thrust into yet another opportunity for transformation and growth.  We have to begin to clearly see how our cultural and religious expectations color the judgments we make about other people’s lifestyles, religious preferences, sexuality, and so on. Unconditional means to literally have NO CONDITIONS THAT WOULD PUT ANOTHER BEING OUTSIDE OF GOD’S LOVE and requires us to suspend our judgement—the very deep work of “judge not lest ye be judged”. It does not take much musing to see that this is a much harder undertaking than merely following religious codes and rules or doing things “right” in order to get some hazy sort of other-worldly reward. (By the way, have you ever noticed that promise of heaven or of being “chosen” flies right in the face of unconditional love? These two concepts cannot co-exist!).

Practice the Mind You Want to Inhabit

So, transcending our own taste for violence, as well as the very human predilection to use religion to support violence, requires us to make concrete choices every waking moment.  And these choices must be based on much more than “thought” or “ideas”. We cannot really argue or conceptually think our way out of violent behaviors and thoughts.    Rather, we have to know, on a deep and nonverbal level what unconditional love feels like and find it to be a more enticing experience than violence.  In other words, we have to enter into a state of unconditional love and let become the very ground of our being.

So how do we do this? Certainly, we can monitor the way we use language and gestures.  Certainly, we can forgive and accept forgiveness.  Certainly we read books and teach others ways to live nonviolently.  But if any of this fails to touch us deeply, well below the level of reality where we play with words and concepts, ideas and judgments, then we have not truly entered into a transformed state that ensures a more lasting peace.

Many of us are familiar with a story told by the Dalai Lama.  One day he was greeting monks recently released from prisons where they suffered terrible physical hardships.  One very old monk leaned in and confessed, “I was in great danger.”
“Of losing your life?” the Dalai Lama inquired, his eyes widening in concern.
“Of losing my sense of compassion for my captors,” the monk replied.

So how did the monk, immersed for years in a world of deeply personal violence and deprivation, preserve his ability to not only refrain from violence but actively practice a mind filled with compassion? The answer is incredibly simple and incredibly difficult at the same time. 

Most likely, he practiced meditation. He practiced contemplative prayer.  Not the kind of prayer that asked for release or even for help to keep his sense of compassion.  Not the kind of prayer where he railed at his captors, asking the divine for retribution. Not the kind of prayer that asked for reality to be anything other than what it was, nor for his captors to be anything other than what they were.  Rather, he practiced an open heart, not shutting down or shutting out.  He practiced abiding in what a Christian might call “Presence”, the Holy Present Moment, resisting nothing, wishing for nothing, expecting nothing.

In that kind of contemplative space, the web of cultural bias, religious upbringing, our age and the age we live in, our gender, and a thousand other conditioned strands that make up our personality and mind finally stop vibrating and agitating and short-circuiting our ability to stand unguarded and “naked” in the world.  We are who we are and accept others are who they are without criticism, judgement or the need that they become like us.  Isn’t it telling that Moses was told the name of God:  I AM. Right here, immediate present, awake, open-hearted, a state of being more vast than even the concepts of peace or violence.  Yes, we too can practice this, each within the cradle of our own tradition, and begin to practice the mind, emotions and body that we want to inhabit and so infuse the world with our basic sanity.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Paths to Understanding, Essay 2: Exclusivity in Religion

Image result for person alone on a beach image

It’s fascinating that we humans use language to both define and limit our world.  The very ability that can create bridges, deepen understanding and open us all to a cosmos that is rich and vibrant can also dualistically divide, hedge, and wall off people and communities. In my usual fashion, I am reading three different books right now: Religion Gone Astray by Mackenzie, Falcon and Rahman, The Dhammapada, and Falling into Grace by Adyashati. This lovely mix has brought up, each in its own way, a fascinating topic:  how we blunder into the fallacy that what we think and say is ultimately real.

Consider this quote from page 51 of Falling into Grace:

“Through careful inquiry, we discover that the process of identification, the root of our suffering, begins with the rudimentary structure of thought itself. Thought is symbolic.  A thought isn’t a thing. It has no reality; it is only an abstraction. A thought is, at best, a description of something we take in with our senses. And yet, from a very young age, we’re taught we are what we think of ourselves.  But there is another layer to this, and that is we tend to believe that we are what others think of us…”  Adyashanti goes on to say (pg 54): “…our history shows us—hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years of history-that our ideas haven’t saved us. Our ideas haven’t saved us from our own anger, bitterness and violence…if our history has shown us anything-the history of thought, the history of ideas-it’s that thought can’t save humanity, that thought can’t save the world, that it’s going to take something other than even the greatest ideas that we can imagine.”

I pondered these two quotes a long while. (Yes, I can see you are laughing at the irony here!) In the end, I do intuit deeply what Adya is trying to convey.  We use words and concepts to create a sense of safety, of knowing, of definition and concreteness, and those words and concepts actually become not just a false self but also a false reality.  And then we use thoughts and ideas to shore up and even defend the image we have created.

Once we begin to “create” a symbolic reality and a false self, we are more and more conscious of separation, of isolation. We become threatened by anyone who questions the “reality” of what we have built because we are invested in our creation. We defend ourselves, our ideas, because we have come to a place where we don’t know how to look into our true selves. And everything I have said about the individual is even more true for religions.

In my previous blog entry, I suggested that the most dangerous and insidious form of violence is the IDEA that everyone should be on the same page religiously, politically or socially.  With a religion, it’s not just a single false self forever defending and protecting itself, it’s a collection of false selves defending and protecting ideas. Ideas that are, at their very cores, symbolic representations of a once-lived experience.

Let me say that again; “ideas that are, at their very cores, symbolic representations of a once-lived experience.”  This is so important because this tendency to believe our thoughts and ideas to be something “real” is one of the often unnoticed cornerstones of religious exclusivity.  Religions that take themselves to be “the ONLY way” are merely illustrating the fear and anxiousness that arises when they unconsciously believe that an idea or thought is real. Of course there will be others who do not agree with a given philosophy or idea.  Of course new insights and new thoughts will arise, like seedlings in the spring. Of course time will gently “spin” written traditions as cultures bounce off each other and technology offers new ways to understand a tradition or even alternative views of reality. Of course new “ideas” like science, language study and archaeology will affect scriptural understanding.

Yet, these  “of courses” are not-so-common knowledge when we are unconsciously defending a sense of self, personal or corporate. In fact, such forces tend to trigger a very complex human emotion: FEAR. The normal human reaction to the fear that comes from a perceived questioning of reality and relevancy of self is to constrict and contract, create safety in numbers (“See, I am not alone in what I believe.  I must be real, and my beliefs must be real if others support me.”) Fear also leads to rigid dogma, claims of exclusivity, the valuing of belief over experience and even, as we see so poignantly in our world today, violence.

But what is it we are defending? A symbolic representation of a once-lived experience.

Exclusivity, at its core, is simply a fear-based reaction to a false reality.  

Don’t quite buy this?  Here are a few exercise to try:

First, grab a piece of paper and answer this question: Who am I?
Don’t think too long. Just write the first answer that comes to mind. 
Now keep asking that question until you have at least 20 answers on the paper in front of you.
Are you any one of those answers?  Are you all of those answers ALL OF THE TIME? Are there answers there that seem more attractive to you?  Some that embarrass you? And here is the kicker:  what is answering????  What is that something that can observe thought, see how the mind works, stands back and yet, when you try to look at it, then you move away from it? So who are you, really????

Next, look at the piece of paper in front of you.  Where did it come from?
The store. 
Before that?
A factory.
Before that?
A tree.
But how did it get from its spot in the earth to the factory?
People cut it down. 
But how did they cut it down? Who made their clothes, their food, their vehicles, their saws, the music they listened to? Who made them? And the tree? Where did the seed come from? Its water, its sunlight, the soil it grew in….and on and on and on.

As you can see, any object you can observe in your environment is intimately and forever in dance with EVERYTHING. If you probe long enough, the paper you are looking at arises because of literally everything else in the universe. When you see the paper, if you look long and deep enough you come face to face with every other thing in the cosmos. Reality is not carved into bits and pieces. It functions as a whole. And we live and move and have our being in this reality. 

Now, answer this:  how can any religion claim exclusivity? Study religions long and hard enough and you will see the same interesting thing happen—ideas arising from other ideas, peoples interacting and influencing, rituals and religious holiday dates borrowed from another and grafted into place, on and on and on. Religions are living organisms that change through time. They rise and fall with other religions, disappear into history, re-emerge in new forms. Using scripture to defend exclusive positions brings us right back to the idea of words as symbolic representation of a once-lived reality—we are using a ghost, a memory, an echo of a lived experience to try to shore up a false self or false corporate self.

In the end, we can only really affirm that a particular religion is yet another symbolic representation of an experience of Mystery.  Yes, it is an incredibly complex representation.  But that is all.

So where does that leave us, the participants in a religion? Well, a lovely place actually.  Because now we can affirm a given religion is our way of participating in reality even as another religions is another person’s Way.  We are still nourished by our faith, but no longer locked in a struggle about being “right” or “acceptable” or “orthodox”.  We are freed to hear the poetry in language and not use scripture as a legal system. We can view our society and other cultures with compassion and understanding, even when they are not exactly like our own. We are able to enter into conversations with others, needing neither to convert nor judge them because we know, at the Ground of our Being, we are One. We no longer fear.  And that sounds a great deal like the Kingdom to me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Paths to Understanding, Essay 1: Together in the Mystery: Compassionate Interfaith and Interspiritual Dialogue

Image result for image of two people speaking

When we first begin any interfaith exploration, it’s important to understand that the institution or individual(s) we interface with WILL NOT have the corner on the explanation of their particular faith.  Every major religion has shades and textures that no one person or organization can express. 

In other fields of study, we might call this their “bias”.  Let’s look and see how this operates.

Stop and do this exercise right now! Consider this question—What is the core of your faith? Explain in as much detail as you can how you arrived at your answer.

In the book, Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith by Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Iman Jamal Rahman, the authors begin by sharing what they understand to be the “core” of their respective religions: oneness in Judaism, unconditional love in Christianity, and compassion in Islam. The entire book hangs on these core values, influencing the scriptures the authors choose, the topics they turn their attention to, etc. Did your answer match what they found?  How does this make you feel?  Are you more or less apt to read the entire book now?
For some Christians, the core may be the savior function of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, or even the linear nature of religious time (from Creation to Judgement Day). And this is the central hiccup with much of interfaith dialogue—we all most likely begin with different assumptions about what the core of our faith even is. Then we add to that yet another challenge—we bring to the table the assumptions we have about the core of faiths that are not our own!

What we are called to do in interfaith dialogue is tricky.  We must first understand the particular way we view our own faith AND we must let the person or organization we engage convey their view without reacting in a judgmental or defensive manner. In other words, we listen with our whole mind and heart. Do you truly understand how difficult this is to do, even if you are Christian and the speaker is Christian, yet you don’t “recognize” his or her style of the faith?  When we cannot listen in a non-judgmental way, we are illustrating that religion has become part of how we identify ourselves.  Or, in psychological parlance, we are firmly situated in the ego, the “false self” Thomas Merton and others have identified.

Just what or who are we protecting when we cannot listen to the faith journey of another who is different from us?  God?  Does God really need protecting?

Demanding to have everyone on the same page in religious, political or social dialogues is one of THE most insidious and destructive forces in the world today.  By learning to listen into the truth of another being’s faith, we in fact are practicing peace and compassion. This does not mean we have to adopt their view or belief, nor does it mean they have to adopt our view or belief.  So much of what passes as dialogue often gets bogged down in salesmanship and conversion-minded wording.  So how do we get to the place where we have “ears that can hear?”

  Remove the label from the human being. When in any interfaith or interspiritual conversation, see the person to whom you are speaking.  See THEM, not their faith, dogma or philosophy.  Look in their eyes, pay attention to what they say about their families, their work, where they live, what they like to eat and how they like to play.  In other words, listen into their basic humanity!

  Come back to the present moment again and again and again. Often when we speak with another person, we tend to be mentally running our list of questions, judgments, comments and resources to add to the conversation.  What happens when you simply stay present?  You hear more than the words—you enter into the entire dance of communication which includes movement, inflection, tone, expressions in the face. We hear deeper! If you have ever been with anyone who knows how to just deeply listen like this, you know it feels like a blessing.  It is a gift we can always give to the other.

   Ask interested questions that do not lead or frame a reply we are fishing for.  For instance, instead of saying, “Don’t you see Jesus as the savior, the one way to God?” ask “How do you understand Jesus?”

   Understand your own biases and core beliefs. We all have specific ways we understand and function within our own faiths.  If we are really quite honest, every person in every church has a very personal way of understanding and relating to the divine, no matter what their tradition. --That is the very thing that makes religious interaction so juicy—each person has their own “piece” of a massive stained glass window through which the Mystery streams. In interfaith dialogue, we don’t stop being ourselves-- we merely appreciate all the complexity of the Divine as expressed by literally billions of other “pieces” of reality. By being very clear with yourself about your own faith, you can appreciate and enjoy the “bit of color” you and another represent.  Be clear with yourself: You aren’t shopping for new ways to be, you are simply one person of faith meeting another person of faith and gently discovering the Common Light between the two shades of your pieces of stained-glass understanding.

   Be willing to not know. Whether playing with ideas from your own tradition or from someone else’s, be willing to not know the answer. Seriously.  Thinking you know the complete and total answer to the questions of faith automatically limits your ability to listen into a larger universe. When sharp and clear “answers” pop into your head, it’s useful to question yourself—why do I believe this way? What experiences have I had in my life that support this answer? Is it always true, in every circumstance? When did I first form this answer?  Did someone or some organization teach me this answer? For instance, if you are told all Muslims are violent because their holy book teaches them to be this way, first tell yourself “I don’t know.  This may not be true.” Why do folks believe this way? “Well, for one thing, we are bombarded with partial information from the media that seems to show this to be true.” Do I have experiences that may cause me to either support or question this statement? “Well, yes—I went to school with a delightful young man from the Middle East who loved to laugh.  I never found him to be violent.”  And so on.   In other words, you address the statement by analyzing your own experiences and actively questioning the sources that contributed to what you THINK you know. When you do this with both compassion and fearlessness, you often will find yourself in a place where you can “hear” into a different answer that transcends the simple assumptions you may unconsciously carry around with you.

These points are simply beginning places. But I pray they will help us all learn to enter into interfaith and interspiritual dialogue with tools that encourage us to make new friends and tread respectfully together within the Mystery.