Category Archives: religion and spirituality

Waging the War I Am

I quote W. H. Auden’s observation “We wage the war we are” so often that I think it should be the name of my blog. And, it is so readily available for my “usage” because it is so relevant to me personally, revealing to you and the millions who read this blather each day that my heart is a war zone. (Oh, well…hell…let me be truthful, the number is far less than “millions”.!)

My heart has always been a war zone, a battle field where conflicting impulses sought for primacy and dominance in my life. But I could not handle that duress, the “duress” of being an “alive” human being, and solved it very early in my life when I adopted the stance that I now refer to as “literal lew.” “Literal lew” allowed me to live above the fray, ensconced in my analytical cocoon, obsessively “standing in the rear of my affection, out of the shot and danger of desire.” (Hamlet) But even then, looking back on my life, the underlying tension and duress was trying to seep through, just as it did with Macbeth who lamented, “my dull brain is (was) racked by things forgotten.”

But in my mid-thirties, “literal lew” began his “Damascus road” conversion, a process which is still underway and will always be underway; for spirituality is not an accomplished fact but a process, the “process” of being human. So now I am very conscious of this duress that I earlier could not handle and it comes to me in the form of…for want of a better term…anxiety. Rollo May called this “existential anxiety” and said it is the experience that we “feel” when the battle between a basic drive in the heart comes to the surface—“to be” or “not to be.” This is the conflict between the Spirit of God leading us to authenticity, i.e. “be-ing” and the antithetical drive to remain inauthentic, desperately clutching our fig leaf and trying to cover our nakedness.

I just recently realized that what is happening is that my ego, that part of our heart which I so often castigate, is gaining maturity. With this maturity, my ego is not so “full of itself” and can be a bit more humble, allowing the experience of reality to seep in. (I like to think of this as “the Spirit of God” seeping in.) My ego can now handle this duress which used to scare the hell out of me though as I make this assertion, I’ve given pause and want to add, “Knock on wood!” Another dimension of this ego maturity is that my mind can now more or less comfortably live with contradictions, realizing that in my heart diametrically opposite things are present; such as, I am “good” and “bad” at the same time, ultimately meaning that I simply “am.”

The most important dimension of this ego maturity which I purport to be finding is that I can now handle the tension and at the same time realize that what is most important is not my internal tension, not the “war” inside, but what I do in the outside “real” world which always leads me to the wisdom of the Buddhist notion of “chopping wood, carrying water.” Though the internal machinations of the heart are powerful and important, I find that I can remember to focus most of the time on the mundane responsibilities of day to day life, tending hearth and home– loving my wife, doggies, friends, and family–and hoping that my feeble efforts each day will make the world a bit more hospitable for others.

 

GOD IS IN THE WATER

Taos, New Mexico  continues to teach me. I have long since learned to “pay attention” to what we think and do in our life, especially when it is a significant change. When I arrived here in early February, one of the first things that serendipitously offered itself to me was a weekly get-together with those who would enjoy reading and discussing Karl Jung. Shortly thereafter I “knee deep” in dream work again and paying attention to how the unconscious was guiding me and my wife. And I began to understand what this whimsical move to a new state at age 62, leaving friends and family behind. It was a “cutting of the cord” of sorts and an opportunity to explore worlds unknown.

One of the first things I noted was, “Where are the white people? Where are the white people?” Brown-skinned people appeared to predominate i the population, Hispanic and Native American. And for the first time in my life I experienced “being different” in terms of skin color though this “difference” is not as significant as I felt. Statistically, there are many “honkies” just like me. But it was interesting and emotionally provocative to feel in a minority. It was also provocative to see and feel the whole of a different culture and to take up residence in a house far different than that to which I was accustomed to.

There are many, many differences present which are teaching me. But I want to focus on one of them, the Native American presence here which is reflected in architecture, art, and….skin color, all of which is beautiful. Present just north of Taos is the Taos Pueblo which dates back over a thousand years. This Pueblo is officially not part of the United States and has its own legal and educational system. For more information, see (http://www.taospueblo.com)
And there are many other Native American tribes represented here which contributes significantly to the cultural atmosphere of the region and the state.

Just two weeks ago I attended a poetry reading at our local literary society, SOMOS, Society of the Muse of the Southwest. I was privileged to hear a lovely young Cheyenne woman read several poems and was just stunned at the wisdom she offered. Here is one poem that she recently published on Face Book.”

GOD IS IN THE WATER
by Lyla June Johnson

When I close my eyes at night
I can feel the rock being cut open
by water.

I hear a grandfather song
and it sounds like sand
walking down the river bottom.

In this song they talk about how even
the mighty canyon rivers began as
a meandering stream.

Beneath the gentle waters there are people.
Not people like you and me.
Stone people.

When I close my eyes at night
I am one of them
and God is the water.

Over lifetimes She eats at me
until I am polished and smooth.

She teaches me
about being gentle and persistent,
about patience and commitment.

Her voice
hums in my blood
quiet as a stream in the night
and it is a song about how
we are all
just
so loved.

When I close my eyes she says to me
in trickles and bubbles:

“Journeys.
Take them.
Try to remember who you are along the way.
I have nothing for you but these words.
Take them with you
and I will see you again when you arrive
at the ocean’s throne
as one million kernels of sand”

The eagles dip their talons into Her soft body
and pull a fleshmeal
from the water.

They sing this grandfather song with her
and it sounds like feathers
cutting into the sky.

It is a song about how even
hatred surrenders
to wonder.

Breaking my heart apart like
a stubborn puzzle of granite.

Even the hardest doubts and sorrows crumble
into bits and give way to
Her infinite grace.

And who knew that
growth can sometimes mean
standing in the wind until
everything we think we own
is torn away from us
and replaced with a weightlessness
so profound that we can’t not cry
tears of absolute praise
and run all around the river banks shouting to the
the minnows and the cattails and the crawdads
about the truth of beauty?

The truth of a God that
breathes through the trees
weaves winter from water and night
weaves bodies from dust and light
and carries us down the river of life over
and over until we finally understand
the meaning of forever.

In the language of the stones there is
no word for mistake.

Only the complete understanding of what it
means to be a beloved son or daughter.

I am the rock
and God is the water.

 

I would suggest you look her up on FB. She and many other young men and women have much to offer this world and are now establishing their roots and getting ready to shake up this dog-and-pony show that we are “strutting and fretting” in.

Belated Easter Thoughts

Easter Sunday always brings back pleasant memories though always tinged with sadness for so often my dear momma had to work. And then, in retrospect, there was the “hell fire and damnation” emphasis of the sermon and the obsessive, self-indulgent emphasis of the passion of Christ….recently vividly illustrated in the Mel Gibson movie. Oh, I believe in the “death, burial, and resurrection of Christ” but I’m now mature enough to venture into the work of hermeneutics and interpret it for myself. I now see the obsessive emphasis of Jesus’ suffering on the cross….because of our complicit presence in the “eating of the apple”…does not have to be taken literally and in fact, should not be. I would never minimize the suffering of Jesus as he was certainly, like “moi”, a human being (at least) and torture hurt. I do not like pain and would not have the courage to endure what he did when, according to American hymnology, “He could have called ten thousand angels, to destroy the world, and set him free.” Jesus knew that life involved pain and offered to us “the way of Cross” in which, per W. H. Auden, we must climb the rugged cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”

But, while Jesus was being tortured and humiliated on the cross, he uttered the incredible words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” My “guru”, Richard Rohr, in recent months explained that Jesus was saying, “Hey, they are not conscious. They do not know what they are doing. Forgive them.” Now I have been mistreated, misunderstood, and have “suffered” to some degree in my life. But my “sufferings” were always of the neurotic variety but I have yet to find the courage to offer the words to oblivion, “Father forgive them. For they know not what they did.” Why not? I certainly realize and understand that “they” were conscious and didn’t know what they were doing and their “mistreatment” of “moi” was so minimal, weighing so heavily on me only because I was a “highly sensitive person”, meaning
I was “thin-skinned” and vulnerable. So, why don’t I let the memories of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” just fade into oblivion? Well, I think that Shakespeare had the answer to his own question, suggesting that we would “prefer to cling to our present ills than fly to others that we know not of.” In other words, our present misery…or “discomfort”…is preferable than letting it go and deigning to encounter the mystery of life part of which will be “pain” of some sorts.

Twenty years ago a psychiatrist, Scott Peck, offered incredible wisdom in his book, “The Road Less Traveled.” In the opening chapter of that book he noted, “Neureosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Neurosis is a maladaptive response to the difficulties of life, some of which are very intense.. Likewise, psychosis…or worse…is an even less adaptive to these same circumstances or perhaps even trauma. Now psychotics are not really capable of forgiving their malefactors. But neurotics are very capable. So, why not? Why do they cling to their pain? Why do “I” cling to my pain? Well, I have to follow my own reasoning and admit that I just don’t have the courage to abandon the neurotic structure that has comforted me all these years and in the primordial Absence that follows, dare to make a choice that can be
“Redemptive”,  not just for “moi” but for those that are nearest and dearest to me. In other words, do I dare to be “real” or, better yet, “Real.”  As T.S. Eliot asked “Do I dare disturb the universe?” It comes down to “getting over ourselves” which for some of us is industrial strength neurosis. Do we dare to escape the safe cacoon of our anguish and engage the rest of the world?

Nah, nah! Personally, I prefer my lofty thoughts and the smug satisfaction that I am in control. But then I, again today, avoid the redemptive power of the Resurrection which is always available in any spiritual tradition though expressed in different imagery.

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

“Scare the world. be exactly what you say you are and tell the truth.” Someone posted this simple little admonishment on Facebook last week and it grabbed me, making me think of T. S. Eliot’s famous question, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” For, if I ever gain the courage to become authentic and act and speak out of that authenticity, I will “scare the world” and “disturb the universe.”

Now, the “world” and “universe” that I will startle will be very small for I am not a person of note; or, as I like to facetiously put it, I am merely a “small clod of cholesterol in the mainstream of life.” The first universe that I must disturb is the private one that I live in, that narrow prism through which I view the world which, if unexamined, is but a prison. And, if I can find the courage to experience the disturbance of “awareness” this cannot but have an impact on my thought, speech, behavior and consequently my little corner of the world.  (W. H. Auden noted, “O blessed be bleak Exposure on whose sword we are pricked into coming alive.”)

The key is awareness. The key is realizing that we “have eyes to see but see not” and “ears to hear but hear not” and if we ever understand that…in the depths of our heart, and do so with feeling, it will give us pause. For then we will understand that we will never be able to do anything but “see through a glass darkly.” And to see, and feel, this “darkly” dimension of our perspective field is very humbling and even frightening. It has been, and is, for me for I was taught that I could see things objectively.

Authenticity is a dangerous phenomena for the world as it mechanically, relentlessly grinds on day to day under the collective dictate of “the way things are.” The unexamined life is always driven by unquestioned assumptions which are merely those which we have imbibed from the little corner of the world in which we were born and have not dared to question. And as Adrienne Rich once noted, “We cannot begin to know who we are until we question the assumptions in which we are drenched.”

A Dalliance with Meaninglessness

My “church” yesterday was a discussion-group with some other retired people who are associated with the local Unitarian church. The announced topic for this occasion was, “How to find meaning in your life.”

Well, let me explain. This group was comprised of highly educated and successful men and women who were “imports” to Taos, New Mexico from various parts of the country. So it didn’t take but a few minutes for “literallew” to stir and want to announce with resolution and ardor, “Back to the bible! God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Of course I didn’t as I too do not look at life through the narrow prism of conservative thought and see…and feel…the ambiguity inherent in life. For an hour and a half we sincerely and honestly shared re our struggles for meaning through the course of our lives, struggles which continue today. Initially “literallew” did feel the leering glare of meaningless and want to revert to “well-worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” But as the discussion deepened, my spirits actually lifted as we wrestled in the morass of meaning/meaninglessness.

On the way home I mused with my wife about why this discussion had lifted my spirits. And it was readily apparent—I felt connection! I realized…and felt…that I was in the midst of other human beings who had, and still do, wrestle with the same doubts and fears that I do. And there is a “nakedness” that is apparent in moments like this but a very appropriate “nakedness,” simple acknowledgement of human doubts and fears. And it is this “nakedness” that ultimately unites us all. Beneath the surface of our “strutting and fretting,” beneath the veneer of civilization, we are vulnerable, fragile little boys and girls who hunger to know that we are not alone.

This discussion demonstrated “faith” as I now see and feel faith to be. Now certainly many of these people would not describe themselves as persons of faith and even more so, certainly not “Christian.” Faith is the word I wish to use to describe their courage to live their life purposefully when life often appears to her without purpose.

Here is a perspective on the matter from T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

More Blasphemy!

As I increasingly find comfort using my literary license to approach Holy Writ, I find that I’m leaving behind almost daily the carcass of sacred cows. And it dawned on me recently, as “literal lew” whispered to me again, that my view of faith appears to invalidate that of the people I grew up with. In the childish mind of “literal lew,” those people are “going to hell” while “I am saved because I believe the ‘right’ way.” For in that mind set, there is only one way to believe, one way to think, one way to feel and if you don’t comply you will immediately find yourself banished to the prison of “them,” not allowed to bask in the comfort of being one of “us.” In other words, you won’t have the comfort of belonging to the tribe.

But I don’t think that Jesus had in mind rigidly carving the world up into categories like “good”, “bad”, “us”, “them”, “saved” and “unsaved.” Jesus came to tell us that we were free and always had been as He was “the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” He was the embodiment, the “en-fleshment”, or incarnation, of a freedom that had been written into the depths of the human heart from the very beginning, a freedom that at that moment was finding an expression in terms of time and space. So, Jesus said, “You are free but freedom is very risky and takes a lot of courage. In fact, you will have to die. You will have die to your pre-conceptions about everything including your faith. But you don’t have to and I won’t make you. You are free to do as you choose. In fact, you are free to take my teachings and turn them into another version of the same bondage you are under now if you wish…possibly even under my name…but that is your choice.”

The conservative believers that gave rise to “literarylew” were and are just as saved as he is. The story of Jesus is that we are all forgiven, we are all free, but that freedom finds expression in our life only if we are willing to die, only if we are willing to allow His Spirit to loosen the grip of our ego a bit even in the area of our faith. But when the ego is threatened, it is very skilled at calling in reinforcements and fending off the assault as disillusionment is too painful. As W. H. Auden noted, “When Truth met him, and held out her hand, he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

NOTE — See I have blasphemed again! “Universalism” is verboten in the faith I was presented with as a child.

“Closed canon” equals a “closed mind/heart”

n the “closed canon” reflects a refusal to venture beyond the confines of one rational consciousness, or even to consider the possibility that such an enterprise is possible. Emily Dickinson beautifully described this encapsulated, endungeoned mind/heart in the mid-nineteenth century with the following poem:

The Soul selects her own society,

Then — shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing –
At her low Gate –
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat –

I’ve known her — from an ample nation –
Choose One –
Then — close the Valves of her attention –
Like Stone –

Her choice of words describing selective attention– “closing the valves of attention like stone”— is intensely vivid and cold. This is the quintessential person that Eric Hoffer had in mind when he wrote, “The True Believer.” These people live in a hermetically-sealed prison and will probably gravitate toward a social/denominational group in which people of a similar persuasion are similarly ensconced on “the heath of the agreeable, where we bask, agreed upon what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light of the collected lie.”  (W.H. Auden) This is the “group lie” or “group think” which sometimes is described as “epistemic closure.”

This rigid certainty has infiltrated to conservative right of the American political spectrum which is replete with hyper-conservative religiosity. This close mindedness gave rise to the ludicrous phenomena in 2012 of running a presidential campaign whose slogan, upon close scrutiny, was simply, “We hate Obama.” In in the budget battle of last fall, more than one of them were quoted saying, “We are right” on the issue and in a key Republican committee meeting on the issue they concluded with prayer and a spontaneous singing of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” And it is no accident that this wing of the party is vehemently against scientists’ warning of global warming and are anti-science in general. They might well be saying, “God said,I believe it, that settles it.”

Life is uncertain. No matter how much we try to deny it, we are extremely vulnerable little critters whose biblically assured “threescore and ten” might prove considerably shorter at any moment. But it is this vulnerability that makes us alive, that reflects a “quickened” spirit, which is what Jesus had in mind with his observation that to find our life we must lose it.  As Norman Brown put it, “To be is to be vulnerable.”

 

 

 

 

Karl Jung: Our Life is a “Flimsy”

This move to Taos, New Mexico has been every bit the adventure I had anticipated…and more. Yes, the “adventure” has been intense at times as I found that “literallew” is very much alive and kicking in the depths of my heart and does not like change. I wish that rascal would go away! (But, not really! He is a key element in my heart and always will be.)

One of the first discoveries I made out here was a Jungian study group that was being organized by a Jungian analyst who was trained at the Jungian Institute in Zurich. My wife and I joined the small group and proceeded to explore several chapters of Jung’s Tavistock Lectures. This experienced as renewed my interest in exploration of archetypal energies present in my own life and in life itself. Jung had a tremendous ability to explore the depths of the heart, having explored his own even to the point of nearly suffering a “nervous breakdown.” Jung believed that dreams were very revealing about what is going on in our life and will announce what our hidden issues are and will continue to do so until we address them. But in the current reading I have now discovered that he felt that life itself is but a dream, that even our conscious life is the playing-out of our unconscious fantasies and is itself a “fantasy” of sorts. This is what Shakespeare had in mind when he said that “our life is but the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Now of course, Jung was not nuts and realized that “reality” is just that, “real.” But he felt there was more to this “real” world than what most people realize but that most people prefer to live life on the surface, not daring to look beneath that surface and begin to explore those subterranean depths where monsters and ghouls roam about at will. But as Jung noted, “What we resist, persists” and so the hidden dimensions of our life always find expression “out there” in the world, usually in other people. My favorite example of this projection is what I call the Chicken Little phenomena, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” I grew up in a sub culture in the American South where impending doom was a basic assumption of life, where “the judgment of God” was always imminent, where “the sky is going to fall” was a constant fear. I now see that this subtle assumption of that culture…and primarily its religion…reflected a deep pessimism about life and an awareness of just how precarious our grip on life was. This belief system reflected a deep-seated existential insecurity which always requires the compensation of rigid belief systems. The more uncertain you are in the depths of your heart, the more fiercely are you certain about your belief system. And to consider that someone else’s belief system might be equally valid would threaten this certainty, requiring that other belief systems must be opposed or demonized in some fashion.

Here is the full context of the Shakespearean quote above, from “The Tempest”:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Flight 370: An Existential Observation

I’ve read some speculation in the press about why we are so “obsessed” with the flight 377 disaster. On this note, I always think of Aesychlus observation thousands of years ago, “The gods send disaster so that mankind will have something to talk about.” That is a cynical viewpoint but certainly worthy of consideration. However, our fascination, i.e. “obsession,” goes much deeper than that, reflecting a deep-seated connection that we feel with each other in this precarious adventure we are all immersed in, one from which there is “No Exit” as Sartre once noted. But I believe a story like this taps deeply into our individual and collective unconscious and stirs a sense of vulnerability that we all carefully avoid each day of our life. The notion of floating innocently through the air and being suddenly sucked into oblivion by the caprice of circumstances is a metaphor for the fragility of our life.

Here is a short poem by Eugene Mayo which beautifully captures this existential predicament:

THIS WIND
By E. L. Mayo

This is the wind that blows
Everything
Through and through.

I would not toss a kitten
Knowingly into a wind
That blows like this
But there’s no taking

Anything living
Out of the fury
Of this wind
That we breathe and ride upon.

Ego-Ridden, Ersatz Spirituality

I’ve shared here several times that Richard Rohr steal’s my thoughts. He continues to do that and is rich and famous and I am still poor and unknown. Life is just not fair! In today’s email he again chides Christians for their “dualistic” thinking and points out how the ego is hard at work in this process. It is really unnerving to realize that something as personal as one’s faith can be little more than an ego function, an escape from life, and not the expression of the Divine that one purports it to be. And that is what I’ve had to learn and am continuing to learn about my own faith. But when this truth began to sink in, the first faint glimmer of light dawned in my soul allowing me to see the darkness in which I lived. And I still live in this “darkness” and will always do so even as that “glimmer of Light” brightens each day. For, I now know…and feel…more clearly what the Apostle Paul meant when he declared that “we see through a glass ‘darkly’”.

Let me explain just one facet of the ego’s presence in the spirituality of my early life. One of the first things I learned as a child was the distinction of “saved” vs “unsaved”, a distinction which paralleled the infinite variety of other distinctions I was learning as my innocent world was being carved up into various categories. And, of course at some point I learned that I could recite the correct syllogism, the magical words, and presto I would join the club of “the saved.” This bifurcation of the world followed me through the first half of my life as I hid behind the facade of being “saved” and from that subjective prison lived and felt separate from the whole world, radically disconnected. Now, I didn’t know about this disconnection as I participated in a “saved” culture which daily reassured me that I was “one of them” because I spoke the right language and lived the right life…at least out in public! However, there was always unrest in my soul, an unrest which in the middle of my life began to grow and became a veritable tumult which is now blossoming fully in my life. But this “tumult” is merely the experience of life unfolding in my heart as it opens up and becomes, “filled with penetrable stuff” as Shakespeare once put it.

Rohr presents spirituality as a “personal” phenomena, not an ideology. Spirituality is not a mind-set or a template through which we are to view the world as “out there” and needing to be made like me. Spirituality is the process of letting boundaries down and seeing the connection between “me and thee” and between the whole of God’s creation. And the process never ends. We never “get it” as there is nothing to “get”. It is a process. “Saved” and “unsaved”???? Well, the concept does exist in Christianity and most religions have some way of setting themselves apart and reassuring its followers that they are “special.” I now feel that the only “saving” I am responsible for is the saving of my own soul…a life long process which always involves relationships with other people…and which the Apostle Paul had in mind when he instructed us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” This “fear and trembling” is the tumult I alluded to earlier.

Here is Rohr’s observations for today:
DUALISTIC THINKING

Resistance to Change
Friday, March 21, 2014

Sadly, the mind trapped inside of polarity thinking is not open to change. How else can we explain the obvious avoidance of so many of Jesus’ major teachings within the Christian churches? Jesus’ direct and clear teachings on issues such as nonviolence; a simple lifestyle; love of the poor and our enemies; forgiveness, inclusivity, and mercy; and not seeking status, power, perks, or possessions have all been overwhelmingly ignored throughout history by mainline Christian churches, even those who so proudly call themselves orthodox or biblical.

This avoidance defies explanation until we understand how dualistic thinking protects and pads the ego and its fear of change. Notice that the things we Christians have largely ignored require actual change to ourselves. The things we emphasized instead were usually intellectual beliefs or moral superiority stances that asked almost nothing of us—but compliance from others: the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement theory, and beliefs about reproduction and sex. After a while, you start to recognize the underlying bias that is at work. The ego diverts your attention from anything that would ask you to change, to righteous causes that invariably ask others to change. 1 Such issues give you a sense of moral high ground without costing you anything (e.g., celibate priests who make abortion the only sin). Sounds like an ego game to me.

Whole people see and create wholeness wherever they go. Split people split up everything and everybody else. By the second half of our lives, we are meant to see in wholes and no longer just in parts.
1. Adapted from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, p. 94
2. Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
p. 151