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We have MOVED !!

February 4, 2013

Hi everyone,

Thanks for all your support over the years.

We have OUTGROWN this blog and now have a much bigger space on the web..

PLEASE CLICK HERE to visit our new site – http://www.alohasangha.com

Thanks so much!

Tom

Wash your bowls

November 3, 2010

Wash your bowls

There’s an old Zen story that I like very much. A monk comes to the monastery of Zhaozhou and asks for teaching. The master asks him, “Have you had your breakfast?” The monk says that he has. “Then wash your bowls,” is the teacher’s reply, and the only instruction he offers.

Zhaozhou wants to bring the monk down to the immediate present moment, as if saying “Don’t look for some profound metaphysical or yogic instructions here. Be present to this moment.”

Meditation reveals how many fixed ideas and opinions we have. How much judgment, expectation, and how much preconception we carry around with us all the time.

You noticed?

I come back to this simple story again and again (like, when I am driving, or doing routine tasks at work, and I catch my mind going all over the place, sometimes going over the same old story lines, over and over).

“Wash your bowls”–for me means just do what you are doing, and that’s enough.

I think it gets even more interesting when we look at why we even bother with meditation in the first place.

When was the last time you asked yourself why you do this stuff–you know, read spiritual books, show up to a meditation group, download–upload, sit attending the breath, walk attending to walking, whatever you do…

Why do you do this?

Is there something gnawing at you?

Some question you want settled, once and for all?

(OK, if you are honestly in this thing out of curiosity or for stress reduction, that’s fine. But if you are still at it after a few months, well, it’s time to ask a few questions).

The only place I can go from here is to stick to my own experience.

I guess I do acknowledge there is something gnawing at me; often below the level of my day to day awareness.

Yeah, after 30 years of doing this stuff, I do have an inner gnawing going on.

Some part of me wants to believe in something.

Maybe it’s part of our evolutionary biology; we may be wired to believe in something as a way of insuring our survival. Just look at historical frenzies around nationalism, fundamentalism, and now the Tea Party on their victories in last night’s elections.

This is what makes fundamentalism appealing for so many: So and so said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it.

Our conditioning leads us to believe that there are answers to the questions which gnaw at us. And if we just work hard at it we will find those damned answers and be happy, and everything will be fine, no more gnawing.

I would love to believe in something

But let’s say we did find an answer. Let’s say we did believe in something. Would we then be happy?

Think of all the times you found an answer (in religion, philosophy, science)–did that do it?

I know of many incredibly brilliant people, experts in evolutionary biology, philosophy, and religion who seem to have some major gnawing going on. Just ask their spouses.

I am afraid that any answer is a stopping of awareness. Life stops, it dies.

OK, maybe we need to re frame this, and consider the process rather than the imagined destination, of living the question.

People often ask me what I have against Buddhism, or Hinduism, or any other religion (as you may have noticed, I take frequent pot shots!)

The best answer I can come up with comes from a Jesuit priest, believe it or not (whose work was banned by the Vatican). Here is the refreshing answer from Anthony de Mello, S.J. (which is on the nuts and bolts page of this blog):

“As soon as you look at the world through an ideology you are finished. No reality fits an ideology. Life is beyond that. That is why people are always searching for a meaning to life… Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning. Life only makes sense when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.”

So much of what is taught and practiced as Buddhism to me is quite dead.

Life is all wrapped up in a nice logical package: this is why we suffer, and this how we end suffering (now sign up for this seven day retreat! — after which, you’ll need to do the one six months from now to get “deeper” — then you’ll need to …. it goes on and on).

No thanks. Been there, done that. I am still pretty much in the same sinking boat I was always on 30 years ago when I started.

Only now there is more water in it!

Once we are given an answer (abhidhamma, seven stages of insight, even dzogchen) the questions stop. Or if they come up, we are redirected to work hard on the so-called answer.

Even this well-known passage from Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

(1903) leaves one with a bait at end:

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

But what if we never “live our way to the answer?”

What then?

Wash your bowls.

One of the genius aspects of some iconoclastic teachers within Buddhism and other traditions is that they know this very well, that the answer to such questions as what am I, what is life, etc…is not a cognitive statement, fact or “teaching” but rather, is the experience of awareness itself.

What we are doing in meditation is simply developing the capacity to experience awareness itself.

And not some fancy, esoteric mystical awareness, just this awareness right here and now.

Let’s take the example of loneliness.

I read an article recently (sorry, can’t remember where it was, but I do remember where I was when I read it–in our bathroom at home..too much information?) in which it was stated that fifteen percent of (North) Americans report experiencing an intense feeling of loneliness once a week.

There is a simple cure, and this is the heart of the meditation practice for me:

You just ask yourself: Is what experiences loneliness, lonely?

Living our ordinary, everyday awareness with greater and greater capacity allows us to savor every instant.

Every moment is a treasure, and time is never killed or wasted.

We become, to borrow a line from Kahil Gibran, “a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.”

And we just wash our bowls.

Please visit our new site here: http://alohasangha.com/

Gilding the lily

September 22, 2010

Once you set up shop as a meditation teacher you get asked a whole lot of questions. Of course, there are the ones questioning your competence, qualifications, and intentions–I tend to skip over those (as I am a failure on all three counts, and folks who come to our get togethers just come for entertainment rather than enlightenment).

Then you get the real toughies.

Like: If there is no self, then how does karma work?

Or: If it is all happening as it should (variant–if it is all perfect) then why ____ (fill in the blank: Taliban cutting off women’s noses, the BP oil spill, Sarah Palin).

(These are just  two on a short list of about a six or seven; same questions in different clothes.)

The confusion rises when in meditation practice, some teachers or traditions encourage students to explore the view of the so-called perfection of the present moment. This simply means that it’s too late to change the present moment, so we open to it as it is.

I feel this is meant to encourage what I call the “valley qualities” of non-striving, openness, warmth, and relaxation. I don’t feel it means that things are happening as they should be due to some plan or karma (frankly, for me karma is just way too much to take on board).

We try to relax into the perfection of the present moment as it is, yes, but it also means we allow our hearts to break over and over again at the madness and cruelty on a massive scale that is happening in the world.

We actively engage in whatever we can to alleviate suffering, as suffering is very real. We do what we can to work to change chauvinistic systems that oppress others in the name of some higher power. We do this out of mature compassion–the suffering with others. Spiritual practice serves us in this process of bearing witness with love and compassion.

This question points to a larger issue we face when we engage in spiritual practice. Aspects of practice that I encourage, and talk about and write about on the blog, pertain to a “valley” approach rather than a “mountain-top” approach.

When I say “valley qualities” I am not referring to San Fernando, California.

The mountain-top approach encourages climbing higher and higher, and flirts with the idea of transcending the world. The valley approach, on the other hand, is about going down, not up. It’s not a waking “up” but a waking “down.” By down I mean: into the body (valley), not the rarefied atmosphere of the head (mountain-top).

It is about the richness, the lushness and the composting of our stuff in the valley, not about “transcending” our stuff on the mountain.

Another way to talk about these movements is to call the valley approach feminine, and the mountain one masculine. The valley accepts the refuse of the cities, and in the composting of the refuse grows the lotus, while the mountain rejects the refuse in search of “perfect” rarefied mental states.

The mountain-top approach is all about peak experiences, while the valley is about the ordinary life of oatmeal, children and paying bills. So in valley spirituality there is little concern for transcendence. “Ordinary mind is the way” is a famous line from an old Zen teacher of 9th century China.

Some spiritual traditions encourage transcendence from the very things that make for a “passionately engaged life” (Catherine Ingram’s line). The mountain-top approach emphasizes the transient, ephemeral nature of life. This translates often into the seeing the world as unreal and unsatisfactory, and developing a hankering after what is real–some sort of spiritual upgrade, some other-world transcendence.

Mountain spirituality is about leaving home for a long journey; valley spirituality recognizes you can never leave home.

Mountain spirituality is about discipline and long (and expensive) retreats, and getting more and more refined levels of insight. Valley spirituality recognizes you can’t improve on our already perfect present moment wakefulness; trying to do so is gilding the lily.

photo by kevincole via PhotoRee

I contend that the valley way is not about belief systems at all, but rather on opening to what is, in all it’s chaos, confusion, misery and mind-boggling senseless tragedy.

Of course, this is not a black or white deal. As as a sangha member pointed out in an email to me, mountains and valleys depend on each other. He writes “whether we choose the valley or choose the mountain, there is discipline involved to notice and accept what is happening.”

The mountain way seems to de-sensitize us into thinking it’s not really real, or it’s happening as it should be due to some cosmic plan, or karma. Or that it’s just a mass of suffering and our job is to “do what has to be done” to put an end to it–through striving, discipline, renunciation, and hard work.

I guess I am just lazy.

I like hanging with my family, and not using my precious vacation time from work to go off on retreat somewhere.

I am as happy as a clam in the refuse and lushness of the my life just as it is.

The valley approach suits me perfectly!

Please take this opportunity to engage in some dialog via the comment feature of this blog.  What do you think? Am I over-simplifying this?

(I would like to thank Dennis Butler for his insightful comments. Note: this is a re-write of a previous post in this same category).

Love at ground zero, part two: skillful means. A collaborative post with author Raymond Sigrist

September 14, 2010

This is part two of a two-part collaborative post with author Raymond Sigrist. Part one is here.

I would first suggest that we very carefully re-read Raymond’s essay. Perhaps you might print it out and keep it some place where you might stumble upon it, perhaps when you are in the grips of confusion or irritation.

Raymond’s admonition to approach this work with some caution is significant. We may have a tendency to dive into spiritual practices and throw caution to the wind. Let’s be clear at beginning: this is hard work, and is not for the weekend warrior or dilettante. As we challenge and dismantle deep psychic structures we may find ourselves like the person at the of W. B. Year’s poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

But if we hang in there we may find that the place where all ladders start is the ground zero of Being, the ground zero of love.

photo by Wonderlane via PhotoRee

If we use these feelings of anger and confusion, as when we read or hear these hateful sound bites, as our starting point, and If we are honest with ourselves in this process, we will most likely uncover our inner bigot, our inner racist, our inner Pastor Terry Jones.

For me some humility helps me.

We rent out the master bedroom in our house on a month to month basis. We currently have a  physical therapist from Las Vegas who is here on a three-month work contract with Kaiser. One day he picked up a friend at the airport who had just arrived from Las Vegas who was going to stay in his room with him for two weeks. The friend is African-American.

When I met him I felt the bubbling up of psychic residues from an entire childhood spent soaking up racist notions. I found myself going out of my way to be nice to him, I guess as a way for me to appease my inner bigot.

Racist attitudes are deeply embedded.

At a meeting of Operation PUSH in Chicago in 1993 Rev. Jesse Jackson remarked “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

We need to acknowledge our denial of this stuff, and how it tends to creep into the daily life thoughtscape. Meditation helps us uncover, and ultimately to embrace and transform, these notions. As long as we continue to repress them they will invade deeper layers of our psyche and fester.

photo by AlicePopkorn via PhotoRee

In time, this embrace morphs into the recognition that at the ground zero of Being we are pure capacity for these feelings.

(Let me gratefully acknowledge Richard Lang’s brilliant, accessible,  experiential instructions for the recognition of the ground of being–anyone can do it!–and for his phrase “pure capacity”).

We may in time see, as Raymond writes, that “we don’t ever need to change anything. But if we want to, we can work on changing ourselves so that we increasingly learn to realize that very fact that we need to change nothing.”

I am sorry to say I have no new, nifty techniques to offer. I simply practice quiet, mindful awareness and gentle self-inquiry. In time, with practice, we see that at ground zero we are nothing more than pure capacity for ourselves and for the world. You can also call this pure capacity love. This blog is brimming with notes on how to do this, and I offer a few pointers at the end of this post, so hang in there.

But I feel intense irritation towards this guy that wants to burn the Korans, you might say (or maybe you are rooting for him, it doesn’t really matter all that much).

Capacity, schmapacity.

Raymond’s insight here comes to the rescue. I get from his piece that as your feet become wet in spiritual practice, you might relax a little, and start to not take yourself so seriously. As you nudge up against feelings of irritation, and simply allow them without manipulation or avoidance, before you know it you are loving “that part of me that does contain some measure of hatred.”

Raymond goes on to say that if “I am able to love that negativity in me, my love will begin to expand naturally and it will increasingly include many more people. Not that I should include everyone as a person that I am not fond of; it is just that it is quite enjoyable to do so when this phenomenon spontaneously occurs.”

This is why they call meditation practice skillful means. Yes, “not that I should include everyone … I am not fond of” — it just becomes irresistible to do so after a while.

As you work through your resistances in this way, you become irresistible. To yourself and to others.

So when we are confused or overwhelmed with irritation or fear we simply sit quietly, settle the mind on the breath, and ask ourselves Who or what is feeling this?

On present evidence, if we discard all the ladders of ego and conventional identity, Who or what is confused?

photo by InkHong via PhotoRee

With a little clarity it’s not hard to see that we are not our inner racist. The inner racist is simply a bundle of thoughts, a packet of conditioned phenomena, empty and rolling on as Munindraji would say.

When you see this, a shift happens.

So what are you then?

Pure capacity.

Open, eternally free spirit. The Tao, empty, yet full, and suffused with compassion through and through.

As the late Kalu Rinpoche once said:

“You live in illusion and in the appearance of things.
There is a reality.
You are the reality.
If you wake up to that reality,
you will know that you are nothing,
and being nothing,
you are everything.”

Yes, but What do I do with the feelings?

Mindfulness meditation teaches simply to feel them fully.

Allow them to compost.

photo by Wonderlane via PhotoRee

Don’t take sides in your mind.

When meditating, take a hands-off attitude, allow the feelings to rise and fall in the wide open space of awareness.

Exercise benevolent indifference towards them.

And be free .. in time, with practice.

It’s heart wrenching, blue-collar work, but that’s meditation.

It’s what we signed up for.

Have a great week.

Tom

….. ….. …… ….. …..

About Raymond Sigrist. Raymond says about himself: “I write about apophatic mysticism and have published a book on this subject: “In Love With Everything–Apophatic Mysticism– The Benefits and Dangers of Love Without Reason.” Raymond has some excellent essays posted on Scribd, which I highly recommend reading. Raymond maintains a very useful website on apophatic mysticism here. He also has a Facebook page. Raymond is incredibly accessible. I have benefited from email contact with him, and I don’t think he would mind engaging in some dialogue with you in the comments section of this post. Just click on the blue Leave a Comment box below.

Love at ground zero: a collaborative post with author Raymond Sigrist

September 14, 2010

A few days ago a member of our sangha wrote asking me to help her get a handle on troubling feelings of anger, despair and confusion. She asks a radically urgent question, radical in the true sense of the word’s roots–the question gets at the root of who we are and how we manifest in these disquieting times.

A person she held as a good friend sent her an email in which she endorsed the thinly veiled bigotry we have seen so often splashed on the screen of our collective consciousness, filled with anti- Islamic, anti-progressive, and anti- affirmative action banalities. She describes feeling offended, angry, confused.

The deeply hurtful part came in a passively vicious personal dig.

In her email to me she asked “how would a pragmatic apohatic mystic hold the feelings I’m feeling?” We can rephrase this question simply as How can I deal with this? or Should I erase this person from my life?

These are urgent questions. As the voices of intolerance hijack our attention, these may be the most burning life questions we face today. We may find ourselves, in unguarded moments, asking how we feel about the plans to build an Islamic center at Ground Zero.

This collaborative post attempts to answer these questions.

Many of you who read this blog or attend our meetings may be aware that I have found tremendous resonance in the traditional spiritual teachings found in many of the world’s mystical traditions. Over the past few years I have struggled to understand and communicate the unifying message at the heart of these traditions.

A few months ago I read Raymond’s Sigrist’s book In Love With Everything. The struggle ceased. Raymond writes, authoritatively, eloquently and with dry wit, what I had been trying to articulate for years. Raymond presents a clear and engaging approach he calls “practical apophatic mysticism” which draws lucidly on Taoist principles to highlight the core message discovered by traditional mystics all over the world.

I emailed Raymond to see if he would help me answer this question. He agreed.

What follows is tag-team blogging: Raymond responds to the deep substance of the question, and asked me finish up with some practical techniques.

Feel free to add your comment to this post below, as Raymond may very well respond to them.

Raymond’s response follows.

photo by Justin Gaurav Murgai via PhotoRee

Recently a reader of my book asked a daunting question: how is it possible to embrace people who we find to have despicable behavior? The subtext of this insightful question contains a related question: why should we; is there an authentic imperative to do so?

There is very little we can do right now at this moment about the perceived flaws we notice in our thinking and in our behavior. At this moment it may also be very difficult to see that there might actually be nothing fundamentally wrong with this apparently bad behavior. We don’t like the way we are, and we think there is an imperative to change it.

Yet some of the mystics say that there is an ability to nearly completely free ourselves from the suffering caused by these perceived flaws and these perceived imperatives. And so some of us become extremely interested in finding out if this is really the case. We are arguably not any better (more noble) than anyone else; we are merely curious about these reports of people who can live with an unshakable sense of well-being no matter what happens to them, and who have a knack of effortlessly embracing the totality of human experience.

Some of these mystics tell us that the root of a person’s ability to effortlessly embrace and become fond of every being, and everything else about this world, lies in the ability of the person to recognize, despite numerous flaws, her own immutable perfection. No matter what she does or fails to do, her fundamental moral status does not change. For a comparison, if someone goes over a waterfall and drowns, we do not make any moral judgment against that waterfall. It is behaving perfectly naturally. With a growing ability to realize immutable perfection comes the increasing understanding that the only difference between we humans and a waterfall is that we can learn to love life more, or can learn to love it less.


photo by Wonderlane via PhotoRee

This ability to see that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of us is very difficult to acquire.

If I were able to recognize my being as something which is immutably perfect I obviously would not need to improve anything about myself. What is interesting is that I can move in a direction in which a sense of that non-contingent perfection increases. I can move in a direction in which there is a sense of my value which is completely non-performance dependent.

Ironically before we go about the task of realizing how to more perfectly love ourselves and everyone else we need to clearly recognize that we do not need to love ourselves and everyone else. The sense we are getting, or will be getting from the ground of our being, is that nothing we do will cause us to become any more, or any less lovable. The love we are increasing sensing is completely non-performance based! (Admittedly this growing sense of our impeccability may merely be a neurological dynamic that can be accessed with a certain amount of skill. But even if that is all it is, it is still an uncanny natural wonder and an extremely adaptive human behavior)

As we follow this path we will be practicing an unusual formula. By the use of “skillful means” we will be trying to increasingly and more enduringly realize that we don’t ever need to change anything. But if we want to, we can work on changing ourselves so that we increasingly learn to realize that very fact that we need to change nothing. As the realization becomes more comprehensive, we will find ourselves enjoying ourselves more and more. We will find ourselves more satisfied with the totality of life, all of the good of life, and all of the bad of it.


photo by r000pert via PhotoRee

Although when I am able, I do enjoy categorically experiencing a love for all beings, I do not sense that there is anything morally wrong with not loving some of them. And in fact I find it essential to love that part of me that does contain some measure of hatred. Paradoxically, if I am able to love that negativity in me, my love will begin to expand naturally and it will increasingly include many more people. Not that I should include everyone as a person that I am fond of; it is just that it is quite enjoyable to do so when this phenomenon spontaneously occurs.

Assuming the first sentence above at the beginning of this essay can prove true to experience, how do we acquire that astonishing ability? How to realize we are perfect right now, right now despite what appear to be numerous and obvious flaws? How to rid ourselves of negative self-judgment?

But before we go on we best recognize a danger in this exercise. We best be aware of the psychological instability that is caused when we start dismantling the values we have depended on to structure our experience of life. Life in the raw is a raging river of apparently chaotic phenomena. Our values are part of the structures that contain life within comprehensible and meaning-rendering channels. Removing these needs to be a careful process. Free of fundamental self-judgment I am very prone to becoming completely insane.

That danger noted, in my experience unconditional love is a gift, not a command. Is there anything we can do to open ourselves enough to accept this invitation, this offer to realize a non-mandated and effortless love?

>>>>>

Thank you Raymond. We are all grateful for your clarity.

The second, concluding post, will highlight a few of Raymond’s key points and offer simple tools we can use to “open ourselves enough the accept this invitation.”

… ….. … ….. … …..

About Raymond Sigist. Raymond says about himself: “I write about apophatic mysticism and have published a book on this subject: “In Love With Everything–Apophatic Mysticism– The Benefits and Dangers of Love Without Reason.” Raymond has some excellent essays posted on Scribd, which I highly recommend reading. Raymond maintains a very useful website on apophatic mysticism here. He also has a Facebook page. Raymond is incredibly accessible. I have benefited from email contact with him, and I don’t think he would mind engaging in some dialogue with you in the comments section of this post.

Which is THE best spiritual practice?

August 17, 2010

What’s the best path?

What’s the best spiritual practice, technique or lineage?

Well, after much thought, and thirty years of experimentation, I have to say it would be Kasmiri Shaivism, with the practices of Naqshbandi Sufism coming in at a very close second place.

Please, I am not being serious here. (Although, I must admit some experiential familiarity with both of these appraoches).

I get asked this question often, and each time I need to redirect the questioner, to cajole her to re-frame the question a little.

I nearly always get the urge to say the best path is the one which works for you, or better yet, the one which is working for you at this point in your life. Different approaches work best for different people at different times in their life.

I see many folks struggling with questions such as “Who’s got the whole answer, which one is the true path?”

“Which one starts up where the other ones leave off?”

I don’t think that’s the real issue.

The issue is what works for you at given time. And that might change over time. It certainly has been the case with me over the course of the last 30 years.

Ok fine, you might say, but isn’t there one that is absolutely better than the rest? Or perhaps one path will take you here, but after that you need to practice this other one to take you to the next level?

Or which is the TRUE one?

A variant of this question would be “Which one did the Buddha actually teach?”

Again, pardon me for being blunt, but who cares what worked for the Buddha?

The Buddha lived in a very different time and place, and was faced with many different issues. What worked for him may not work for you. Just because it worked for him means just that. It worked for him.

The Buddha did not have your mother.

Find out what works for you.

But isn’t there a path which is absolutely better than another? After all didn’t the Budhha supposedly say (in the satipatthana sutta) that the four foundations of mindfulness is the only way for the salvation of beings?

Many high level religionists make claims like this.

Sorry to be so blunt, but I just don’t buy it.

There is a way to compare practices, but it has to be done from the inside, from the lived experience of the practice, phenomenologically, if you will. This takes courage and honestly, especially at the beginning, when you see how much psychic investment there may be in a particular practice and tradition.

What you can do is compare strengths and weaknesses of particular meditation and spiritual paths and practices from the inside. At the beginning of this process you must allow the possibility that all practices and traditions have strengths and weaknesses. Then you can make an honest comparison.

This is the first step out of the incredibly subtle grip of a pervasive  fundamentalism I see in many spiritual circles.

Yes, even in the cool ones.

If you do this kind of honest appraisal, you just might come to see that the choice of a practice or tradition is not as important as you initially thought it was. You come to see that they all work in similar ways. Of course they emphasize different aspects of development, which is why different practices may be more relevant to you at different stages of you life.

You may even come feel comfortable with practices, traditions and world views which may have previously been seen as sexist, anachronistic, misanthropic, violent or quant. You may even feel enormous compassion and see how others get stuck in this subtle, pervasive fundamentalism, having been through that space yourself.

You see the urgent need for compasionate interspirituality.

And if you come this far, my friend, you have come a long way.

Please check in with our new site here for more on topics such as these http://www.alohasangha.com

Why a spiritual recession is good for you

June 30, 2010


The other day I was re-reading parts of Karen Armstrong’s illuminating autobiography (of sorts–it ends at young adulthood) The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Her experiences as a young nun in England struck a chord, particularly the shock of re-entering the world and dealing with her religious brainwashing in the convent. But Karen’s stunner is a simply worded plea: spiritual life is all about doing something to transform our mind and heart.

I happened to have been glancing at another book while re-reading Karen’s (yes, my bedside is littered with piles of books)–James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief in which he says practically the same thing–dogmas and beliefs have nothing to do with spiritual life.

Nada. Zip.

The point of religion is to shift consciousness, and has nothing to do with what happened under a tree in India 2500 years ago, or in Sinai in 1446 BCE , or in Mecca, Assisi, Jerusalem or Upper Myanmar.

Raymond Sigrist, in a comment to my last posting, mentions spiritual poverty. I think we all could do with a thumping deflation in our spiritual accounts.

It’s time we welcomed a Great Spiritual Downturn.

A spiritual recession.

Raymond writes: “Spiritual poverty, as seen in both Zhuangzi (“I depend on what I don’t know”) and some of the Christian mystics like San Juan de la Cruz (pobreza espiritual), is an efficacious perspective. I think there is a disadvantage in claiming that I can completely eliminate the ego. In fact, it might even be the ego that makes such claims.”

Yep.

From the point of view of this much needed spiritual recession, it doesn’t matter whether God is a benevolent being half involved in the workings of the universe or a hallucination.

All that matters is that we routinely access a set of skills that can transform the self, open the mind, and motivate decent, principled action.

It’s the transformation, not the myth, that matters, adds contemporary Jewish mystic Jay Michaelson.

In writing about the pragmatic approach to prayer in the last blog post, Raymond Sigrist made the following comment to my post, which I will quote at length (he is recounting an incident that happened when he was a voluntary chaplain in a hospital):

In the praying together, the client and myself were both acknowledging that in order to effectively cope with the situation they were in, we needed to find a perspective that could transcend the boundaries of typical habitual thought patterns and machinations.

What I found interesting was that we could access a dynamic process that was not as available even by listening with that powerful tool which Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”

As soon as we started to pray, the gestalt in the hospital room shifted markedly, and sometimes dramatically. The discursive thought of ordinary mind nearly completely vanished. Something from the center of our being had become acutely awake. Something quite beyond the thought of having or not having a God.  It is something Meister Eckhart prayed for: “I pray God to be rid of God.”

I have suggested on this blog that there is no one transformational cookbook (i.e., religious tradition) that will resonate with everyone. But the doing is the thing, not the believing.

Jay Michaelson observes that we must “shift away from a belief-centered, ethnicity-centered, and history-centered religious worldview and toward a pragmatic one.”

We also need to shift how we view role models. In the past, much of the truly deep spirituality was associated with an elite minority (with the exception of Shin Buddhism, and a few others). We need to re-consider spirituality as a pragmatic, everyday deal, just like keeping fit and eating healthily. It’s do-able. You just gotta get off your butt.

Or, perhaps more precisely, put your butt on the floor. Or in a chair.

Just get your  tush to the cush.

Here’s Jay Michaelson again:

Spiritual excellence is every bit as real as physical or intellectual excellence, and to my mind, smart people who don’t do any work on themselves are as out of balance as bookworms who never go to the gym. … But if you aren’t doing something, you’re the spiritual equivalent of a 98-pound weakling.”

It aint easy. Neither is going to the gym, lacing up your running shoes, or cooking most nights.

But ya gotta just do it, as the Nike folks say.

You’ll be glad you did.

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