Archive for the 'religious life' Category


January 5, 2013

This is about a thought I’ve been aware of for a long time but never really registered with me in my, as mother might put it, gizitsky (gut) — wasn’t a visceral understanding until this morning.  (I take that to mean I wasn’t quite ready to deal with its implications until now.)

I met someone some time ago, very briefly, and it was pretty clear to me that he literally had difficulty thinking when I was in (arm’s length) proximity to him physically.  I dealt with that as best I could, because I really did have something I felt I needed to talk to him about and I didn’t get the chance either talk about it then or to arrange another opportunity to discuss it — I just tried to get across the main idea (I thought): you’re barking up the wrong tree, I could help you find the right one, and I could use your help with something else.  I had thought he had indicated that he was interested in all that.

Leaving aside the content of the conversation I anticipated, I am at this point thinking the real significance of the attempt at conversation was to experience this drowning-out of a mental process.  Because it’s quite analogous to what happens when the ego gets in the way during meditation or some other means of accessing the divine, the forces greater than ourselves, the universe.  I can’t hear my guidance or feel my support when there’s ego-chatter and fear, doubt, and insecurity rattling around inside my mental apparatus.  I need willingness and surrender, great openness to the encounter, a clear channel.

I suspect that I needed to show to this person, and to myself, what it’s like when ego interferes with my interaction with the divine, whether it’s my ego interfering or theirs or even somebody else’s.

Just as they seemed to me to make clear when I met them that they did not want to hear what I had to say then or subsequently, I think I needed to see that I need to be free of their ego-chatter and point of view.

I think a different balance could be struck between us, but I don’t detect any willingness to do that.  So in that case, I need to do the “God is husband to the widow,” or a “woman religious,” approach to the issues in my life, and to do that, I need to interact with God without ego-chatter.

I think this approach has a lot to do with how I was drawn to use the name “Ani” (as in, nun) as a screen name.  When I stopped using it and started using my given name online, I felt I would try to make a go of being more oriented towards social interactions and less with my head up in the clouds, so to speak.  Clearly, what I’m looking for is the balance between the two that works for me, whatever that balance turns out to be.

But what I think this encounter and my experience of not being able to hear was presenting as a lesson to me was that if I am going to have to be on my own, I need to hear without interference, just as this other person wants to hear without interference.  I think it was a way of showing me the source of some of the chatter I need to set aside.  Of course, if I am with someone who has less ego-chatter, I can hear better how to relate to them — which may not be cutting a tie that seems to bind.

In this situation, I can’t hear well and I am also not receiving the resources I need some other way.

I am trying to resolve that untenable position, whether dramatically, by going all-in with one method or the other, or by rearranging the balance between the two some other way, perhaps even by receiving the gift of the chatter’s becoming muted, through something my would-be interlocutor learns to do.



Connections and disconnections

December 15, 2012

I was interested to read an explanation of sort for why a person might shoot small children at a school:

Often in a haze of illness, the schoolhouse gunmen are usually aware of the taboo they are breaking by targeting children, said Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project. “They know it’s a tremendous statement that shocks people,” Dr. Cornell said, “and that is a reflection of their tremendous pain and their drive to communicate that pain.”

That’s quoted from

Nation’s Pain Is Renewed, and Difficult Questions Are Asked Once More

Published: December 14, 2012

in the NYTimes.

I had written a comment (to Gail Collins’ op-ed column; I wrote it before I read what Cornell said in the article, but after I had heard him on the PBS NewsHour), about how I have been taken aback by the crossing of a line in the shooting of small children.  I compared it to a similar reaction I had to the slamming of planes into sky scrapers.  I want to say, “We [humans] don’t do that.”  The apparent coldness, the disconnectedness from fellow feelings for others are what strike me.

So, being the person I am, I have the urge to harmonize in some way Cornell’s explanation with my own reaction.

When I myself have felt what I want to describe as unbearable pain, the kind when you can’t stand being in your own skin, in your own body, my response has been to try to escape up into the spiritual realm until I have enough distance to process the event.  (Watching my child being beaten is an example.)  It’s hard to do in the moment, at least for me it is, because the pain seems to close the heart and my heart needs to be open to receive the help.  I suspect that this is why prudent people pursue training, usually through religious practice, to keep the heart sufficiently open even in these situations.

I wonder if people who cross bright lines in their pain lack even more on-going connection to what I call the spiritual realm, but which can also be thought of in other terms, like Plato’s forms or forces in the universe or the collective unconscious or Source.  I wonder if they are, first, cut off from themselves, and then, cut off from others and from a sense of community probably most of us have without being fully aware of it.  And if a person is cut off from themselves, I think their awareness of the universe at large and of other people is not mediated through a conduit that includes compassion — I suspect they are using a mental process that includes information but lacks other components for understanding the world.  So when pain is overwhelming for them, I’m thinking that they don’t have a safe harbor to escape to and that they don’t have in place the internal equivalent of Jersey barriers on a highway — a strong (internalized) connection to identifying with others and with community —  to keep them from crossing bright lines.

For me, then, the issue turns into how to foster people’s feeling connected and how to coach them or encourage them to locate in themselves that part of our mental apparatus through which we connect.

Chthonic faith

November 16, 2012

This relates back to my previous post — it’s some of my ponderings.

It occurred to me that one of the distinctions between the oracles and folks we might call prophets is that oracles commune(d), I think, with sort of subterranean spirits or forces, and prophets commune with a God out there and up there sort of in the heavens.

In fact, the subterranean spirits came to have a really negative reputation.  Do we have a male figure who communed with subterranean forces in an amicable interaction?  One without anger at or fear of such a force?

What I’m wondering is that a person can’t have a balanced view of the spiritual realm without having plugged in to both sets of forces, and that men find plugging into chthonic forces more difficult.  Maybe this difficulty became transformed into rejection of such forces as “evil.”  They’re not, I don’t think; I think they are just more reactive to our own small imperfections.  I think they just require the person to engage in a certain kind of surrender that is better supported for women in Western culture.

So, I think, to develop a connection such as the oracles of old had, it takes a certain style of surrender (sincere and complete, no element of playing at it at all — “no holding back,” as Jackson Browne writes about something else in “Sky Blue and Black”) and it also takes addressing the surrender inwards and downwards.  I’m not sure lots of Western religious practices encourage that.

What I get when I engage in it includes a connection with the earth.

We have Earth Day, but nevertheless I think she’d like it if more people “called home,” to her.  Like my sons’ kindergarten teacher who wondered whether my older son didn’t like her because he didn’t smile at her, the earth, I think, could use the explicit expression of our affection.

It’s Friday evening, and while I’m not going to Friday Night Shabbat Services tonight, I am reminded of the image of Shabbat as a bride, I think it goes.  Mother Earth, Father Sky, Adonai and a female companion, God’s light side and God’s dark side, yin and yang, Shiva and Kali (do I have the right pairing?) — I think we need wholeness in divinity, or balance in the forces of the universe (for those who prefer the impersonal version of what I’m trying to get at).

The moral equivalent

November 15, 2012

I think by this Willy meant the thing equivalent to the point of reference in terms of some essence of the point of reference — Willy used the phrase a lot, to find an analogy that would explain a problem at hand.

Someone once explained to me that in Judaism men find their spiritual lives through prayer, women through applying the rules of kashrut in their daily lives.  These could be seen as moral equivalents, at least according to the perspective of the speaker.

I’m looking for the moral equivalent of the female “oracle” of ancient times.  We have Moses the guy who brings his community the Ten Commandments; is he the moral equivalent of someone like the Delphic Oracle?  And if not, what should a man be doing if he takes up the role of being a mouthpiece for God, for expression of Platonic forms, for understanding of the forces of the universe?  Maybe he’s a physicist or mathematician like Albert Einstein.

Any way, this is a question I’m pondering.


January 14, 2012

I was thinking this morning that sometimes intention is everything and sometimes it doesn’t matter at all.

For example, if I’m bereaved and someone tries to comfort me and they say something I just don’t find helpful, if I perceive a real sincere intention from them to help, and they’re just clueless, I, at least, find myself comforted by that emotion of theirs, even if I recoil from their words.  And so, too, with other forms of help, even advice.

On the other hand, if someone is stepping on my toes, however well intentioned, it still hurts.  Actually, the example I had in mind is draining my energy, because that I find happens often inadvertently, probably due to my own make-up.  I am what some people label very permeable, and I pick up other people’s stuff really easily.  So, for example, after spending time interacting with someone, even someone I don’t really know (like a receptionist in a new doctor’s office), I’ll find myself doing something strangely foreign to me, like how I back up the car in the doctor’s office parking lot — my hands on the wheel feel different, I use an unfamiliar sequence of behaviors to turn and look out the rear window and for how and when I turn the wheel — it is not what I usually do.  I could override it if necessary, but I think the energy drain is not affected by that — I think that just as I’ve picked up some of the person, they’ve picked up some of me.  Which in and of itself I don’t think is a problem, but I think what happens is that if they then interact with people who use other people’s energy, while their own energy may remain safe and intact, mine will be pulled out by this third person, because I’m so porous and I have all kinds of energy that people apparently like.  And I can’t always easily draw in comfortably on my own enough fresh energy myself to replace what is being used, especially if I’m interacting with a lot of people who interact with a lot of people — I sometimes think that’s part of why people like contemplative nuns and hermits live secluded lives.

So, I have to be careful about how to respond to a person, when I should respond to intention and when I need to take account of the behavior regardless of intention.  Since lots of people’s belief systems don’t include ideas like porousness and energy exchanges, it can be tricky to try to arrive at a mutually agreeable way of interacting, since there may not be a way of explicitly communicating  about the issues.   But I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I just don’t care so much about what other people think — I’m not going to stand on ceremony while I get harmed, however inadvertently (and especially if the other person is blaming me for not being able to accommodate them), and if some embarrassment ensues, well, so be it — for me, the alternative may actually be far more deleterious.  But I will also say that my first choice is to try to work things out tactfully and without disturbing anyone, that’s Plan A.  I’m just not always that good at it.

Holding back

December 16, 2011

I started thinking about this issue, and at about the point at which I got to wondering whether love includes the desire to protect the loved one, I decided maybe I should reason this out in less fleeting words.

The “holding back” I was thinking about has to do with celibacy and one of its contrasting states, having a family.  Because my impression is that to perceive the highest forces of the universe through our spiritual apparatus (instead of, say, through measuring them with technology and describing them in equations) without distortions and damage, we have to have a very polished piece of apparatus, one with nothing on which these forces can catch and snag, and part of that has to do with not holding back, with complete willingness and surrender.  To put it another way, holding back is kind of like drag on an aircraft; it’ll bring it down under circumstances in which it would otherwise stay aloft.

I don’t want to say that children and spouses can be a drag (how loaded is that?), but I will say that our love and energy for them is love and energy not being applied to higher spiritual relationships — it’s being addressed to them (the kids and spouse), I don’t want to say “diverted,” but it simply is not going vertically upwards.  Loving children and spouses is a good thing but like the saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it to,” if we love our family members and they absorb our love, we don’t have it for other relationships, including with the divine at the highest levels.  I don’t doubt loving one’s family is compatible with a spiritual life of some sorts, and it may even help people find their capacity for loving and help them keep their hearts open and in these ways help them make progress on their spiritual journey, but at some point, I think we need all hands on deck, all the love we are capable of receiving from God to be gifted back to God if we want to experience God at that level.  I think that’s just the “physics” of the situation, and I could be wrong, but that’s my sense of it.

I think going into an advanced spiritual journey with caveats such as, “as long as it doesn’t harm my children,” is very understandable, even endearing and laudable by some measures, but I also think it is dangerous.  It leads to not looking at God head on, but rather with a glancing, indirect gaze.  If we look at God head on, like looking into mirrors on opposite walls in a room, we are drawn into an infinite regress, and if our egos (monkey minds, desires and fears) are out of the way, this is a very positive experience, perhaps the ultimate positive experience.  But if there’s stuff in the way, like an imperfection in a some kind of glass, I think it/we will shatter from the influx of what is being poured in.

So, I got to thinking about what it is about love for our family members that may be getting in the way.  Because I don’t think love per se is the issue, I don’t think love per se does get in the way.  I suspect we tend to include an element of protectionism in love for our near and dear.  I don’t want to be circular in my thinking, and I do realize I started with, “I want to enter into an advanced spiritual relationship but just don’t let it harm my kids.”  But I know that for me as a parent, there is a strand of my love for my kids that is about protecting them.  It’s most appropriate when they are babies and, at the other extreme, can cross the line into being a helicopter parent or an enabler in a dysfunctional relationship under some circumstances.  But I think it’s difficult to have kids, even grown kids, and not feel some kind of desire to help them be safe and happy.

Now, here’s where I think the crux of the issue is: having the thought without turning it into a desire.  That requires some kind of compassionate detachment (and probably other techniques to rearrange the thoughts and emotions, like bundles on a donkey or items in a suitcase, so that the load is carried differently), and what that looks like probably varies with the age of the child, and will be less or more compatible with having spiritual energy for other relationships.  I suspect it’s why celibacy can be helpful, or even just prescribed, for fostering a spiritual life.  So, I think that the ability to love one’s children may be wonderful, it may lead to an ability to love other people’s children and even all people, but that loving relationship with specific family members itself may be an impediment to being able to have spiritual progress after a certain point.

That’s where I think the way human beings can link to one another comes in handy (this idea is somewhere in Plato’s dialogues).  This way, someone can have that intense and monogamous relationship with the divine and also find a compatible way to relate to the person who is the next link in the chain, and so on down the line until everybody is joined, regardless of how many degrees of separation, or whatever we call distance from the source.  The more people who have that primary, monogamous relationship to the divine, the better, but I think that in theory, all it need take is one.

“Nones” and approaching a religious life through reason

December 12, 2011

I am grappling with how to respond helpfully to the piece in the NYTimes by Eric Weiner on rationalists who want to lead a religious life.

I might try starting by looking deep in my heart for some issue I really care about that does not benefit me personally but involves immediate concrete activity that benefits someone or something else (and doesn’t involve much of an audience).   I would engage in that activity and I would thank the universe for giving me the opportunity to engage in it.  I would take my emotional temperature after this and think about whether the world looked different to me. If this process seemed to have a positive effect, I would try repeating it.

More generally I would try to become more aware of what allows my heart to be open and what interferes with that.  I would try to increase the former and decrease the latter.  I would try to keep track, also, of what I’m doing when I feel more than my usual self.  The idea I’m getting at here is to expose that part of yourself that’s already engaged in a religious sensibility or orientation or attitude, and become more aware of what that feels like and what seems to support it, and then develop that further.  One key thing to remember is to keep track of the role your ego is playing and to guard against mistaking your ego for your heart.

I think that’s where I would start.  I am not going to try, at least for now, to list particular habits of thought, behaviors, or activities that might be helpful for leading a religious life, or where to look for God.  (I will say, though, that I think looking for God is kind of like detecting planets from perturbations in measurements of known objects in the universe, seeing the other way of looking at a picture that includes an optical illusion, and using an telescope or camera that sees parts of the light spectrum that our eyes alone don’t perceive.  I hope I haven’t mangled the physics too badly; what I’m trying to say is that I think we’re looking for traces of something that basically exists in ways we don’t perceive with our usual ways of perceiving the world around us, maybe something that resides in other dimensions than the ones we use in the material world.)  I’m not sure such a detailed list is what was being sought, there’s a lot of that published out there already, and I don’t want to overwhelm people at the outset.  It’s all inside you already, anyway, it just takes some practice identifying it and developing that part of you.  External guidance at the outset is probably a good thing and somewhat necessary, but eventually the goal is to develop your own internal listening through which to receive guidance.  And then at some point, you can decide what you think is, and has been, the “God” part.

And please take this whence it comes  — I don’t have any particular credentials for this.  Please also realize it’s not meant to be definitive —  it’s basically my casual attempt to suggest from my vantage point what part of our mental anatomy is involved in living a “religious life.”