Category Archives: religion and spirituality

Thoughts About Robin Williams, Death, and Life

What made Robin Williams so funny was that he could play with reality.  He could step into an insane perspective on the world and speak from that skewed angle on the world to poke fun at the day-to-day grind of reality that we call “normal.” 

 But there is a price tag for playing with reality like that.  To do so, one must live beyond the safe confines of “normal” and expose oneself to all the perils that “normal” was created to keep at bay in the first place. And one of these perils is to deal with the famous observation made by Hamlet,“To be, or not to be.  That is the question.”

This tragic death gives me pause for I know that I too live beyond the safe confines of “normal.”  That has always been the case; but only in recent years have I found the courage to give up the desperate desire to convince others that I “think” correctly.  I don’t.  Never have.  And never will.  And I am exposed to the aforementioned perils but none of them appears to be the temptation to take my own life….or the life of anyone else!  And perhaps that will be a demon I will have to face at some point but I don’t think so.  I guess I have accepted death already as an intrinsic part of life and so, in some fashion, believe that I’m dead already.  And once one is “dead already” there is no need to worry about death but to merely focus on life and what it presents to you in the present moment.

I think it is Ken Wilbur who has made this very point,  that life and death and inextricably interwoven.  And each day of our life we are often called to death, to “climb the rugged cross of the moment and let our illusions die.” (W. H. Auden)  Each day of our life there are moments when we can opt to not stubbornly obey the dictates of our ego and in that moment make room for another person and/or to be “present” in the physical world. And Wilbur’s teachings presents that moment as a paradigm of death, a discipline that can prepare us for the Big Death that comes to all.

I share in our collective sadness over this tragic death.  I deeply admire men and women who can think…and live…outside of the box like Williams did.  They are gifts to humankind.  Their ability to share a “skewed” view of the world can give us “self” awareness for a moment, a brief glimpse into our precarious grasp on our world, a grasp that we think of as our personal “reality.”

 

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“True Believers” and Hell

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. (William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”) I recently offered this quote on my Facebook page and received this response from a friend of mine, “If the doors of perception were cleansed you would have something but it would not be a human being.”

When I read this response, a light bulb immediately lit up in my heart as I realized how astute this observation was. For this “Infinite” that Blake visited from time to time…perhaps too often…is a place to merely “visit” and not a place to live. But too often when people seek this “Infinite” and either arrive there, or get close enough to it to think they have, they become so intoxicated with their “success” and delighted with the “empty world of self-relatedness” (Paul Tillich) they have found that they refuse to leave. Those who refuse to leave and return to reality…this hum-drum world which is the only world we have…cease to be human and become some kind of “other-worldly” freak. One version of this…with which I am most familiar…is the typical Christian who is so “holy” that you wanta say, “Barf me with a spoon.” These are the “true believers” that Shakespeare had in mind with this description of many believers, “With devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself.”

 

W. H. Auden brilliantly described the misfortune of one who visits this “well of life” and refuses to leave, warning that:

 

…if he stop an instant there,

The sky grows crimson with a curse,

The flowers change colour for the worse,

He hears behind his back the wicket

Padlock itself, from the dark thicket

The chuckle with no healthy cause,

And, helpless, sees the crooked claws

Emerging into view and groping

For handholds on the low round coping,

As Horror clambers from the well:

For he has sprung the trap of hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Faith Must be “Nuts”!

Yes, religion has to be “nuts” if it has any value…or, to be more precise, if it offers any Value. By “nuts”, of course, I do not mean insane but I do mean an approach to a dimension of life that lies beyond the grasp of reason yet paradoxically is an essential dimension to life. This dimension is “meaning” and meaning always poses a challenge to our rational mind and a meaningful religious discipline will pose that challenge. Paul Tillich said, “A religion within the bounds of reason is a mutilated religion.” And he was not advocating irrationality, but merely noting that religion needs to direct us beyond ourselves. But we know that if we can keep our faith “rational” then we will not face any challenges to the basic premises that guide our life. And thus we are so often guilty of “bestial behavior” as Goethe warned us when he noted, “They call it reason, using light celestial, just outdo the beasts in being bestial.”

Now it is easy to focus this argument on the faith of other people. The challenge for all of us….certainly “moi”…is to always recognize the presence of premises in our thinking, “basic assumptions”, and listen to reality when it deigns to challenge us. Personally, I’ve spent most of my life with blinders on and merely dismissed any of these challenges. I think W. H. Auden had me in mind when he noted, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

“This Spirituality Stuff is Nuts!

“This stuff is nuts!”  I would periodically make this observation with my Sunday School class when I returned to the Episcopalian church in the spring of 2011, doing so with feigned frustration Now, I did so only after they knew me well enough to know that I was not being serious, but was only reflecting the cognitive dissonance between the mature approach to spirituality the class afforded me and the very linear, legalistic spiritual mind-set that still lay in the depths of my heart.

This was not an ordinary Christian church as it permitted a Sunday School class of this sort, one which emphasized a non-dual approach to Holy Writ and the Christian tradition. Each week we would meditate for 20-30 minutes and then discuss the book we were reading at the time, each book reflecting the non-dual approach to reality/Reality. And our discussion was personal, not being a mere regurgitation of the “party-line” that the church or the Christian tradition suggested. This discussion was an open, honest exploration of spiritual teachings and the meaning they had in our day-to-day life. But, with this “non-dual” emphasis we usually waded deeply into the aether, into the nebulous dimensions of spiritual life, “wrestling with words and meanings” (T. S. Eliot) and finding that our faith in God, in the human enterprise, and with each others deepened in the process.

And, from time to time I would abruptly interject our discussion with, “This is nuts” and then share how dissonant our discussion was with my past but also how absurd it would be with most people in our community, not to mention the world. For our world is very linear and depends on our ability to mute the “non-dual” dimension of our heart and mind in our day-to-day functioning and fulfill our responsibilities in our personal and professional lives. And the people in this class were highly functional, highly educated and accomplished people who were very adept in making their way in the linear world. But their presence in this class, and their discussion of the subject matter in the class, revealed their awareness of another dimension of life that was very important to them and actually gave meaning to their day-to-day life.

This experience taught me that it is possible to live in two different worlds at once, the “common-sense” world that people take to be real as well as the spiritual world that I was facetiously describing as “nuts.” For, when we venture into the realm of the spirit, we are led beyond the pale in a certain sense, into a realm where words cannot capture the matter we purport to discuss. And this does not mean that these words are unimportant. They are. But they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves; or as the Buddhists teach, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”

 

Bigotry, Racism, & Extremism

“True Believers” are always scary because they are idealogues, believing in ideas over reality. Sure, all humans have ideas and respect them as they allow us to communicate and to get things done in a group. But idealogues do not see ideas as merely a means to an end; they worship their ideas, seeing them as an end in themselves. Now they do have an hierarchy of values on this matter, having designated some ideas as “really important” and then assigned designations to them such as “god” or “truth” or “right” or as I like to sum it up, “truth, justice, and the American way.” These really big ideas are so important they will fight for them and in extremes they will kill for them and will often proudly announce they are willing to die for them.

Now I too believe in “god” and “truth” and “right” and value the American way of life. But since I’m not an ideologue…being in recovery from that malady…I see those words as being sounds we utter to refer to phenomena that lie beyond the grasp of words. “God”, for example, is a label we use to refer to that which is the Ungraspable, that dimension of life which we cannot wrap our head around but some of us feel very strongly is present…or Present…in this Mystery that we are encompassed by.

But my thought about God, as well as the rest of these thoughts and the whole of this blog posting, will be described as “straight from the pits of hell” by all idealogues as they cannot, or will not, handle ambiguity. They are horrified with the notion that life is dynamic, that there is a flow or fluidity to life as the notion threatens their illusion that they are in total control of their world. To understand this approach to life, to understand with the mind and with the heart, would require faith and there is no room in their heart for faith. Of course, they proudly announce that they have faith and they know that they that they do have faith because they know that they do. Our world has an object lesson in this blight on human consciousness with the Taliban, and now with Isis, and also the extreme right-wing of the American Republican party.

Yesterday Salon.com offered extensive excerpts from a recent book that addresses this issue with its analysis of racism and bigotry. The book is, “The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists“ by Stephen Eric Bronner.   The Salon.com excerpt is entitled, “This is your brain on racism: Inside the mind of modern bigotry” and here is the link:

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/27/this_is_your_brain_on_racism_inside_the_mind_of_modern_bigotry/

Here are some highlights in the Salon.com excerpt that I want to share:

The bigot has always felt queasy about transforming the visible, the ineffable into the discursive, and the unknown into the known. Observation and evidence, hypothesis and inference, confirmation and validation are thus selectively employed by him to justify what Cornel West has termed “the discursive exclusion” of those who are different and what they have to offer.

(The bigot) is always primarily concerned with proving what he thinks he already knows. He insists that the answers to the problems of life have been given and he resents everything that challenges inherited wisdom, parochial prejudices, and what he considers the natural order of things.

Other than his prejudices, he has no core beliefs. The bigot likes it when his interests are being served, when people of color are exploited, but he dislikes it when he feels disadvantaged.

Competition is good when it works for him. When it doesn’t, the bigot will insist that his competitors are cheating—and that they cheat because it is a trait of their ethnicity, nationality, or race.”

To summarize, the bigot is guilty of what Sartre called “bad faith.” “Bad faith” is a bogus faith in that it goes under the name “faith” but if subjected to scrutiny, is only egotism run amok, an ersatz spirituality which the Apostle Paul would have described as a, “work of the flesh.” But the bigot will not allow any questioning of his motives and in a sense has no capacity to do so for his heart has long sense been darkened by Darkness so that he sees only darkness and, of course, calls it Light. And, to employ the same circular reason offered earlier, it is then “Light” because he knows that it is “Light” whereas if he would allow that “Spirit of God” that he often purports to worship to visit his heart, he would see that he only at best sees faint glimmers of Light and can at best see “only through a glass darkly.” That experience would then allow him to tolerate more the possibility that people different than him have intrinsic dignity and deserve respect, that all of us have only a finite perspective.

 

To quote Goethe once again, “They call it reason, using Light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”

The Peace of Wild Things

 

A blog-o-sphere friend of mine shared a devotional she has recently written after a return from another country, a trip which aroused in her lots of fear and anxiety. And she honored me with use of a couple of thoughts I have shared here recently.

I too have traveled abroad some and always experience the same hyper-vigilance that she described, terrified on some level with the knowledge that I am a “stranger in a strange land.” I always enjoy the experience of being outside of my native land, thrilled with the experience of “difference”, delighted to note how these beautiful people have carved out for themselves a life so different than my own and how it works just as well as does life in my culture. But, nevertheless, there is the under current of fear and anxiety as I’m not in the comfort of my “hearth and home” and don’t have the security provided by my “stuff”, including the commonplaces of day to day life certainly including my native tongue.

Regarding her anxiety, my friend referenced the beautiful observation of Jesus about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, “how they toil not, neither do they spin” yet are marvelously taken care of. This brought to my mind a beautiful poem by Wendell Berry that often comforts me, particularly his observation that he finds comfort in the midst of despair with “the peace of wild things” who “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

I have used this “taxation” idea so many times in recent years, often in reference to my two beloved dachshunds, Ludwig and Elsa, who always appear so much at comfort inside their own skin, not having any need to “tax their lives with forethought of grief.” They are simply present…in the moment…following the advice of Ram Dass to “be here now.” (I bought for them the doggie translation of Mr. Dass’s book though I felt ripped off as every word was translated as “arf.”)

Now I realize that the deck is stacked in Ludwig and Elsa’s favor in that they don’t have this neo-cortical machine that is always whirring, plotting and scheming to accomplish the desires of an ego. The good Lord has blessed/cursed us with this contrivance though I feel strongly it can be a blessing if we follow the advice of Jesus and remember these beautiful birds and flowers that are present as a prompt to adjust our focus when the stresses of life buffet us.  As always, we must remember, “This too shall pass.”

THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS

BY WENDELL BERRY

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

Jesus Said, “Let Go of Your Stuff!”

My “literary license” has here been employed but I think that “let go of your stuff” is a good paraphrasing of the teachings of Jesus.  For example, this was conveyed in his observation that it would be easier for a rich man to enter the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And in another place, he responded to a query re what one must do to have eternal life with the response, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.”  Now, I don’t think these words were to be taken literally but were merely his ways of pointing out how deeply attached humans are to their possessions, their “stuff.”  And his teaching that we find our self only in losing our self is another example of the same them.  This detachment from the material world was, and is, a motif in Eastern spiritual teachings as eastern thought reveals less of an investment in the object world.

 

In my culture, interpreting the teachings of Jesus as “Let go of your stuff” would real ring dissonant with most people.  For, we are very attached to our “stuff” and attached to such a degree that we can’t understand the notion.  Asking anyone to see this attachment is like asking a fish to see water.  And this attachment issue also pertains to spirituality for in the West we tend to approach faith as just another item in the category of “stuff” and so we glom onto it and proceed to exploit the hell out of it just as if it were like any of the rest of the “stuff” that we are so attached to.  And, in most cases it is!  And this is actually just a form of addiction and even if the object of our addiction….the substance is something purportedly noble…it is still an “addictive substance” in our case and thus is used to avoid reality.  And this is the reason that so much of modern day religion appears to be absurd to anyone with a capacity for critical thought as they can readily see that it has nothing to do with anything other than practitioner himself.  This is what Karl Marx had in mind when he described religion as “the opiate of the masses.”

 

Shakespeare understood this sin of misplaced concreteness so well, that sin of taking for real that which is only ephemeral.  He saw that our investment in “stuff” reflected a disregard for our subjective experience…our heart…in preference for an inordinate investment in the object world.  His conclusion was “within be rich, without be fed no more.”

Here is the entire Shakespearean Sonnet:

 

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,

Thrall to these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.