Monday, February 21, 2011

Joy--The Last Frontier

We are more comfortable with pain, grief, anger, anxiety, fear,  resignation, frustration, irritation, worthlessness, alienation, loneliness, boredom--almost any state--than with joy.  Why?

I once had a theology student who had been severely abused as a child and young adult.  She told me this was her prayer: "God grant me greater and greater tolerance for joy."  The most difficult part of her spiritual journey was welcoming and trusting joy. She knew her way around and finally through the other feelings.  But allowing herself to experience joy was a challenge.

For many years I have carried her teaching with me.  And several times over the last decades I have experienced the truth that she had come to know.  How joy hides under layers of anger and grief.  How if you dive below those layers,deep, deep, deeper, it is there, a fundament of joy.  I have felt it, touched it.  It always comes as a surprise.  A calm rejoicing in the beauty of the world, as it is, in this moment. An experience in which you feel profoundly at home in the world and grateful for all that is, overflowing with gratitude for the beautiful garden in which you live.  A moment that changes your way of being in the world, chasing out all anxiety, shame, grief, care and catching you up in wonder and oneness. This is joy. 

I know that fundament of joy is always there, supporting my existence at every moment, making it possible.  I know how enlivening, transforming it is to touch it.  And yet I still hesitate to touch it.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps I fear its intensity?  No. Does it make me uncomfortable because I feel I am not worthy of it?  Not any longer.  Maybe I fear the loss of joy, once that glorious moment of peace and oneness has worn off and I am once again left in my familiar and dull world drained of joy--better not to know what is possible, or to forget. Maybe.  It is hard to remember joy.  For in remembering our experiences of joy--with other people, in nature, with the One--we become acutely aware that that experience has passed, and we grieve its absence. Yet I would rather the pain of remembering.  No. None of these.  

                Remembering Joy

Once, undressing for bed, I found
my thighs—knees to hips—blooming with bruises,
smoky purples, brilliant reds, patches of dull yellow
washed with green, and blackened paths wandering
through the twin gardens.
A sudden shock of beauty.
Tender to the touch.

Had I fallen? Bumped a countertop?
And forgotten as one forgets the last breath?
Had a steel bar fallen from the roof and struck me?
Had someone truncheoned me for secrets?
But why?  And when?  Surely I would remember.
Was it disease then?  Hidden in my flesh for years,
surfacing now to announce my death?
I laid my palms on each warm thigh to hear
what they would tell me.
It was you, they said.  This morning. 
To learn the drumbeat of the songs, so you would not forget,
your hands were beating out the rhythms
on live animal skin stretched over a frame of bone.
You were dancing and drumming.  You would not stop.  It was you.  It was joy.

It took me over ten years to remember how surprised I was by this experience of joy.  It took the hard evidence of my bruised body to show it to me, then and now.  And what it showed me was  not only the surprise of joy, but my fear of it and resistance to it. 

Here is what I realized:  I fear joy itself.  Being truly alive.  If I touch that living reality, what will happen?  What waves of change will sweep my life, my world out from under me?  For nothing can remain the same afterwards. Something will be bruised.  And what will be required of me?  For something will be required.   Not as payment but as gift.

This memory of the joy I experienced drumming and the teaching of the remarkable student I once knew have urged me forward.  My prayer is this:  Wellspring of Joy, turn my fear into trust and open my heart to the fundament of joy.  Let me peel away the habits of fear, anger, and grief and learn the habit of recognizing and welcoming the joy at the heart of existence, the life-giving joy that is constantly present around, among, and within us, in our reach.  

May our trust and joy increase.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Simple Practice: Eat Your (Spiritual) Vegetables and...

Ghazali often quoted this Persian proverb:
"Eat the vegetable wherever it comes from, and do not ask where the garden is."

He quoted this, for example, when counseling people how to fight demons (The Marvels of the Heart). Why get caught up in origins, ontology, and metaphysics, asking what world demons come from, what level of being they occupy? The main thing is to conquer their temptations in your heart, with your heart so you can walk uprightly in this world, with love, justice, and humility.

But this proverb also expresses Ghazali's view of truth. He pulled his writings and teachings (which influenced many Jewish and Christian theologians) from many different sources, the Qur'an, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, colloquial sayings, Greek philosophy, and much more.

This practice and understanding of wisdom is a welcome one in our current situation, in which fundamentalists (among all religions) and militant secularists (from among all religions) have crowded the stage, pushing all people of faith seeking understanding off the stage, calling us "rebels" or "infidels" for holding a view of God with which they do not agree, or "idiots" for trusting in God at all.  Both these dogmas, as different as they seem to be, share a belief:  that the origin of an idea contaminates or purifies it.  For religious fundamentalists, any idea or image of God that does not come from the one true source that  their group identifies (the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian scriptures, the Qur'an, or others), as interpreted by them is not only suspect but false.  For the materialist or secular fundamentalists, those who reject any possibility of the reality of God, any idea or image  of God, especially if it comes from an organized religion, is false because it is nonsense, meaningless. For them, any statement that is not objectively verifiable, that does not originate in scientific thinking, must be false.

For both these varieties of fundamentalism, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. For the religious dogmatists, whatever does not come from (their) faith comes from human reason and is therefore deception (because human reason is clouded by sin and it is only pure revelation that can be trusted).  For the secular dogmatists, whatever does not come from (their notion of modern scientific) reason comes from faith and is therefore self-deception (because human beings are weak and childish and want an illusion of something greater than they are to depend on).

I am reminded here of the logical fallacy called "poisoning the wells." One identifies the one pure source of truth as the well one drinks from, and claims that all other wells, and everything springing forth from them,  every word, thought, idea, practice, is, by necessity, contaminated. Thus, they drink only from their wells.  They eat vegetables only from their gardens.

Ghazali's proverb can show us another way. "Eat the vegetable wherever it comes from, and do not ask where the garden is."

Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive.  Throughout history, in all religious traditions, western and eastern, there have been thinkers and communities who have not been afraid to recognize truth no matter what its source.  Not just mystics and radicals, but people at the heart of religious traditions have recognized and absorbed truths that came to them from outside their tradition or culture.  Philo, Jews returning from captivity in Babylonia, Augustine, Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Maimonides, John Calvin--the list could go on and on.  It was the medieval Christian theologian Anselm who gave us the common motto for this approach, faith seeking understanding.  But the approach knows no historical, cultural, or religious bounds.  Trusting in the Oneness and infinite wisdom of God, they strove to recognize truth whenever and wherever it appeared, even if that truth came from Greek philosophy, Persian religion, or the best science of the day.  For them, to reject a truth simply because one is unfamiliar with its source is to be ungrateful to the One; it is to reject the Oneness, infinite wisdom, and overflowing abundance of the One and the gifts that flow from God.  When one recognizes a truth, one sees that its ultimate origin is in God, not another person or community.  That is why one accepts it if one does.

So let's be discriminating, yes.  Don't eat cardboard or rancid meat.  Know what you're eating.  Seek out nourishing vegetables. And when you find them, don't subject them, or their growers or deliverers, to a long inquisition about the garden they came from, the mineral content of the soil, the rain levels, the integrity of the gardeners, and so forth.  Did this truth grow in the garden of faith?  No matter.  No reason to condemn it.  Did it grow in the garden of reason?  No matter.  No reason to reject it out of hand.  Let's move beyond the false dichotomy of faith or reason and start talking about what truths nourish us and that we share with others.

We could die of spiritual starvation in this desert of fundamentalism before all the garden questions are raised and answered.   The practice is simple and profound:  Eat your vegetables; and leave the garden, Pardes, paradise, which is more glorious and abundant and various than we could ever imagine, to The True.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Emptying, Emptying, and Again Emptying Our Vessels

Mystics often use the metaphor of “polishing the mirror of the heart” to point to the ongoing process of coming into deeper communion with the One. Ghazali speaks of the heart as being made of iron. It inevitably rusts unless we keep polishing away the grime and other impurities in the surrounding atmosphere that build up on it. This work is never ending. Once one has polished that iron into a brilliantly mirror that can reflect the beauty, love, and glory of the One, one still must work daily to keep that surface free from blotches, smears, and scratches, or the cloudy mists that settle on it and darken it. This is the work of the heart.  Part of this work is forgiving oneself for the spots and layers one must polish away and thanking God for the grace to see and remove them, and  giving thanks for the times when the mirror remains clear. Here is how he expresses this in On Knowing Yourself and God, or, as he called it in Persian, The Alchemy of Happiness, the summary of spiritual teachings he wrote near the end of his life.

     The heart is like a bright mirror; repugnant traits are like smoke and darkness which, when they touch it, darken it so that tomorrow one will not see the Divine Presence and it will become veiled (to one’s view).  Good traits are the light which reaches the heart and wipes away the darkness of sin.  It is for this that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)  said:  “Follow a bad deed with a good (deed) so that (the bad) may be erased.” At the resurrection, it will be the heart which comes into a desert, either bright or dark.  None will be saved except him who comes to God with a sound heart. (Qur’an 26:89)

     A person’s heart, at the beginning of creation, is like (raw) iron from which –if a person keeps it as he should—is made a shining mirror that displays the entire universe.  If not, it will all rust and become so that nothing will be reflected in it.  As God Most High said: Nay, but that which they have earned is rust upon their souls. (Qur’an 83:14) [Al-Ghazali On Knowing Yourself and God, tr. Muhammad Nur Abdus Salam, pp. 18-19]

Recently I had an experience that showed me a different image for this daily work, an image which led me to a deeper understanding of this process of cleansing or emptying the heart and the goal of this daily work. Here is the image that came to me.
This world was God’s storeroom.  Lined up on the shelves were billions of clay vessels of all sizes and shapes, each one unique.  When God needed a particular vessel, God would reach directly for it.  Only if the vessel was completely empty could it be used. If it was not completely empty, it remained on the shelf, for it could not contain what God needed it to contain; it could not be used. 
Different religious traditions emphasize different kinds of imagery for experiencing God and pruifying our hearts to serve the One in truth.  Roman Catholics often prefer visual metaphors—to see God or have a vision or the truth; “For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light do we see light,” as the Psalmist (36:9) sings, and Augustine and others love to chant with him or her. Protestants, picking up on the prophetic tradition of Israel, often prefer audial metaphors—to hear the call or listen for the Word of God, whether it comes in thunder or a still small voice.  Mystical traditions vary, too, with some, like Ghazali, using visual images and others audial images. Still others use sensual images—the fragrance of the spirit, the warmth of God’s love.  Individuals, too, though formed by traditions, have their preferences.

The visual and tactile image of the clay vessels that came to me helped me understand not only the process of emptying, but the goal of this emptying as well. What fills us up and makes us not useful?  Things and desires, distractions and addictions, yes.  But also anger, fear, grief, and disappointment.  And hope and expectations and longings—even the longing to serve, to be used.  These all crowd around us in out vessel, forming a barrier so we cannot feel the true shape of the clay vessel that God has shaped for us at creation.  To be present to the One, one must be wholly empty.

And how do we empty ourselves?  For many of us, it is God working through out lives who empties us, who batters our hearts until we exhale all we have been clinging to, leaving room for the presence of the One.  Some of us do what we can to aid and abet this emptying process:  We chant the name of God, Yud-He-Vav-He, the Jesus Prayer (Lord, have mercy), or Al-lah,  exhaling all that fill us up, all that is definite, the Yud, the Vav, the have mercy, the Al, and inhaling the Nothingness that is the One, the He, the Lord, the Lah.  

This was not all the image that came to me made me see.  When I saw the storeroom of clay vessels, I realized that not all the vessels that were empty were used.  They had to be ready to be used by God for whatever purpose whenever they and only they were needed, but being ready, empty, was no guarantee that they would be used, ever. Some vessels might wait 80 years to be used, some only a day.  Some might empty themselves  every day for 50 or more years, only to be full on the one day that the hand of God reached for them.  Some might empty themselves every day of their lives and never be used.  The goal was not to be used, to be of service.  That was a goal of the ego, a hope and expectation and longing that filled the vessel and made it unusable.  The goal was simply to be empty, to be usable, to be serviceable, to be ready, if and when God needed one, and to accept that this was up to God, not oneself.  If one sat empty on the shelf one’s entire life, then one sat empty on the shelf.  One does not guide her own destiny, chart his own path.  One surrenders, empty, emptied, emptying, to the One. This is our daily work and our daily spiritual nourishment.

Give us this day our daily bread—empty us. Give us this day our daily work—emptying.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Is Patience Always a Virtue? Protesting in Egypt and Beyond

Last week my car was in the shop, and the mechanics kept it longer than expected so they could figure out the mystery of its erratic behavior.  The last time they worked on it, I told them, “I love this car.  It has to go 20 years (it’s 17 now) or 200,000 miles (it’s now at 125,000).” When I picked it up this time, I told the woman at the desk that I didn’t mind being patient while they worked on my car, and I joked about how loyal I was—to people and things.

“Maybe you’re too patient with us,” she said, laughing. She paused, and then added, looking straight at me, “You’re good wife material.”

I laughed with her and then drove home—without stalling once.

But her words stayed with me.  “The wise person learns from everyone,” say the Hasids and many other spiritual teachers. 

After youthful years of speed and frustration, I have learned to wait patiently, for appointments, traffic, people, God.  It’s a peaceful feeling, this surrender, trusting that everything is working together for good, every detour and delay, postponement and cancellation, all nothing put passing outcomes that will be folded into a larger whole in which their meaning or lack of meaning will become clear.  I am thankful to experience it at last.

And now my teacher at the auto repair shop asks me to see something new.  Patience is a way; it is not THE way.  Walking through life requires not only steadiness but rhythm.  We walk in a world of seeming opposites—mercy and justice, security and risk, patience and seizing the moment. Our task is not to balance them, but to hear the rhythm so that we will know when we are required to lean to the side of mercy and when to lean toward justice, when to bear all things patiently and when to cry out for change, when to breathe slowly and when to run toward love and forgiveness. 

The people of Egypt have waited patiently for change for 30 years. They have trusted God and the destiny God has written for them as individuals and a people.  And now they are responding to a new call and a new cry—a call for an end to patience and a crying out for a new beginning for greater justice for all.  Should they be “good wives” and bear with a situation they know is harmful to their people?  Wait meekly for their autocratic “husband” to change?  No.  They are responding to the rhythm of abundant life in their country. Their protests have arisen out of their careful discerning that the moment for waiting has passed and the time of acting in creative fidelity has arrived.  Who are we,  who do not live and breathe their world, to tell them to go on waiting?
Life has taught me patience and acceptance. I have also learned how to speak up for justice, for myself and others  What I am still learning is how to dance to the ever-changing rhythm of life so that I make the right move at the right time.  I love dancing.  I want to be come a better dancer.

In all our lives, as individuals and as peoples, there is a time to be patient and a time to act,a time to hold back and a time to race ahead. Knowing how to hear the rhythm of life and move gracefully with it, listening deeply to discern when it is more life-giving to wait and when it is more life-giving to act decisively—that is a daily spiritual practice, one we can do only for ourselves, not for others, whether they are in our own homes or across the world.
May there be justice, blessing, abundant life, and joy for all the peoples in Egypt, soon.