28 April 2006

On natal anniversaries…

Time for some self-indulgent rambling and reflecting (as if there were any other kind), as today is indeed my natal anniversary.

Reflecting on the passage of time (for those of you who are curious, this is my 43d such natal anniversary), I began to wonder, is time linear or circular? Most of us consider time to be linear, and we have various ways of measuring the passage of time. Life is considered to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (I like to think I haven’t yet reached the middle of mine…) The longer I look at it, though, the more I see time as circular rather than linear, or perhaps circular is the wrong word. Perhaps the correct word is seasonal, or cyclical.

Whether we see it as linear or not, we often mark time with recurring events, rituals if you will. Birthdays are the most obvious marking in one’s own life – another year passed (enjoyed, squandered, take your pick), another new year yet to come (to be anticipated, to be dreaded, new chances to achieve, succeed, fail, despair). Other holidays recur year after year, and we develop complex rites and rituals to accompany them (but we have to eat such-and-such on this day, we’ve always had that!). The liturgical calendars of most religious traditions reflect this seasonality, the cyclical nature of time. We tell and re-tell the same stories, and yet (hopefully) we can find new meaning in them each time around the wheel.

As we get older, we also increasingly value time as a precious, scarce commodity. We talk about spending time, wasting time, not having enough time. For many of us, it seems that we don’t have enough time to do the things we want to do. Maybe our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough time, but that we don’t savor the time we have. There’s a catch phrase in there somewhere – instead of “seize the day”, try “savor the day” (hopefully someone who remembers their high school Latin better than I can provide a pithy translation). This is also known, in Buddhist teachings, as mindfulness. Often Buddhist teachers will communicate this idea with simple phrases such as “Pay attention!” or “Wake up!” The popular guru of the 1960s, Ram Dass, wrote a book called Be Here Now. That’s the same idea. It’s not so much a call to do things differently than a call to do things intentionally, with awareness of what you’re doing.

Of course, once you really start paying attention to what it is you’re doing, you might wind up changing the things you do. When you pay attention to those knots in your stomach and shoulders after your hour-long commute home after another eight or more hours at the daily grind, you might consider whether you can find another way to make a living. (Feel free to send comments about other things that might change once you really start paying attention to them.)

But how do we learn to wake up, to pay attention? I think that meditative practice is a great way to do this. Try spending even a few minutes every morning in some sort of meditative practice – this could be centering prayer, Zen meditation, or a walk on the beach or in the woods. Quiet your mind, settle your spirit, and pay attention to your breath. There are plenty of resources out there to learn more about this stuff – here are just a couple that I think are first-rate (with easy-to-us Amazon links):

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening – Cynthia Bourgeault

Check out these, or other types of practices that fit with your particular spirituality (just about every tradition has some form of contemplative/meditative practice). It’s not easy – trust me, I know – but even the attempt makes a difference.

Pay attention. Wake up. Savor the day.

10 April 2006

Fingers pointing at the moon

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like this – “All instruction is but a finger pointing at the moon, and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond.” Put another way, the whole point of religious teaching is to guide us toward enlightenment, toward a true knowledge of whatever you happen to call the Divine Reality. The problem is, too often devotees of one religion or another get their gaze fixed upon their particular interpretation of their particular teaching, and lose sight of the ultimate reality that’s supposed to be the true object of their devotion.

All religions and spiritual paths are ways of describing the indescribable, of knowing the unknowing. Fair enough? So what we do, in an effort to know and describe, is construct sets of religious metaphors – God is like a loving parent, God is like a stern white-bearded judge, etc. The problem is that people forget that these are only metaphors, and they start treating them like absolute divine truths, and then they start worshiping the metaphors, and they call anyone who doesn’t share their metaphors a heretic, and so on.

In order to reach a truer state of enlightenment, spiritual knowledge, closeness to God, or whatever you’d like to call it, I would assert that these devotees must move beyond worshiping their metaphor sets. I’ve described this in the past as moving from metaphor to meaning. You may recall my last posting about the guy on trial in Afghanistan for converting from Islam to Christianity; there’s a perfect example of a group of religious nutcases insisting that their religious metaphor set is better than everyone else’s, and that anyone who tosses their metaphor set for a competing set deserves to die. (Good news on that trial – I understand that the defendant was allowed to leave the country, and presumably he's now in Italy where his Christian metaphor set should get a warmer reception.)

This was a pretty egregious example, but I tend to spend more of my time bashing religious nutcases of the Christian variety than those of the Muslim variety. Why? Mostly because I’m better acquainted with the Christian variety, and there’s enough to deal with in trying to reform the faith I’m most familiar with. As Christians enter their Holy Week celebrations, it’s a bit ironic that this would be the time when researchers announced the discovery and translation of a new gospel, the Gospel of Judas. For those of you not familiar with this line of scholarship, there are many other writings out there that purport to tell of the life and teachings of Jesus. There are only four of these gospels included in the official Christian Bible, however. Why only those four, and not some others (such as ones named for Thomas and Mary Magdalene, e.g.)? Conservative Christians would say that’s because the other gospel writings are heresy – they don’t tell the truth about who Jesus was and what he was about.

Of course, who decides what’s heresy and what’s truth is always a tricky proposition. The work of Elaine Pagels, among others, is very enlightening in this regard – if you’re interested in this field of research, I highly recommend her books. According to Pagels, there wasn’t just one orthodox truth (or metaphor set) back in the early days of Christianity. In fact, there were many competing ones, with very different interpretations of the person, life, divinity and humanity of Jesus. This new Gospel of Judas, for example, apparently has a Gnostic viewpoint. In it, Judas is the recipient of a secret teaching from Jesus, and Jesus is glad to have Judas betray him, because once Jesus dies, he will be freed from the human body that clothes his true spirit.

Wacky stuff? Perhaps. But that’s not the point. The point is that there’s more than one way to understand Jesus, and there always has been. Similarly, there’s more than one way to understand God, ultimate reality, divine truth, the spiritual realm, or whatever it is that you’re seeking on your particular quest. This doesn’t mean that you can’t utilize a religious metaphor set to help you along the way. In fact, you probably won’t get very far on a spiritual journey without a good, workable metaphor set. Nor does it mean that all metaphor sets are equal - there definitely are some that are good, and some that are bad. What I do mean is that no one metaphor set has a corner on the market of truth, and no one set is a full, complete, and accurate description of reality. So choose one, run with it, work with it the best you can, but don’t close yourself off to the truths that other metaphors can illuminate. And if you catch yourself staring at a pointing finger, remember that’s it’s just a finger, and try to adjust your gaze moonward.