Thursday, May 31, 2012

Change, change, change...change of fools

Dramatic and enduring change is hard. You have to be a bit of a holy fool to believe it can be done and that you, even you, can do it. Being inspired by other holy fools who have taken the leap, cast off all that weighed them down, and flown into a new way of being helps. They are the cloud of witnesses that sings to you in your despair, "Jump. Jump. It's not inevitable that you'll crash and burn. How else will you learn to fly? Cast off your fear and jump."

Friday, May 18, 2012

People Don’t Change?

“People don’t change.” I was surprised recently to discover how many people believe this. Or at least how many people who post online dating profiles profess to believe this. These three words are one of most the common nostrums that appear when people summarize what they’ve learned from relationships. This disturbs me. Because it belies the reality of profound change that I have witnessed in many people’s lives. This view of human nature seems a great disrespect, for I have known so many incredibly courageous people who have transformed their lives from victims to survivors, turning from fear, insecurity, and self-loathing to love, joy, and self-confidence; from violence against the vulnerable to protectors of the vulnerable. They are ordinary people who, in taking the trauma and suffering that life dealt them or that they dealt to themselves and transforming it into life-giving love, became heroes of their own lives. Schooled by circumstances for death and destructiveness, they chose life and worked hard to become fully alive. I could name so many people who have done this, who have worked so hard all their lives to overcome destructive patterns they inherited or developed in order to become more and more alive, more and more loving. But most of these ordinary heroes remain invisible to the wider world, their profiles of courage known only to their intimate circle. They may or may not have degrees or other accomplishments or money or nice houses or high positions, but these are the people whom I respect most in life. They bear witness every day in their lives that no matter how low or dark or enslaved we find ourselves, we can change.

People do change. They change so radically they surprise themselves and others. Why close your heart to this possibility in another? Or in yourself? Why be so pessimistic about human nature? Yes, we get stuck in ruts. Yes, we keep making the mistakes over and over again. Yes, genuine change is difficult and it takes a long, long time and it requires trust and great courage and infusions of love and grace. But people do change. Instead of giving people the message that changing their selves or their lives is impossible, we should honor and celebrate the changes people have made and hold those up as encouragement.

But maybe those online romance hopefuls who assert “people don’t change” really do believe (or hope) human beings are capable of change and all they mean to say is this: “You can’t change another person.” That statement is true. Radical, life-transforming, enduring and sustainable change has to come from deep inside a person; it can’t come from outside. Anyone who has experience with addictive behavior of any kind knows this. But if that’s what they mean, that’s what they should say. Words matter—especially in relationships with other human beings.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why I Love the Blues—and Dervishes

Last week, listening to one of my favorite programs on NPR, All Blues with John Kessler, I heard Albert King sing his version of the famous saying “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

Everybody wants to laugh,
Ah, but nobody wants to cry.
I say everybody wants to laugh,
But nobody wants to cry.

Everybody wants to go to heaven,
But nobody wants to die.

King reminded me why I love the blues: the blues knows that life is music with an ever-changing rhythm and you have to sing, sing and even dance, the downs along with the ups. The world’s mystics agree. Give thanks for the evil as well as the good, the Hasids and other mystics say. In The Call of the Dervish, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan says:

The dervish sees this happening in the lives of people—how at some times so much grace is given to them, and at others it is taken away. The person himself is perplexed and wonders why sometimes the sun shines upon him while at other times he seems to be the object of God’s wrath or curse: the dervish sees this as the breath of God, inhaling and exhaling. If people would let themselves be drawn into the solitude of the divine unity when God draws them out of their unfoldment in the manifest, they would realize it as a higher initiation instead of regretting it and considering it to be an injustice of destiny. That is why the dervish accepts every gain as a gift of God and also every loss as a gift of God, like al-Hallaj, who said, “Even when I am deserted by you this isolation is a companion for me. Does not God try those whom God loves?

So the mystic in the world, the dervish, dances in ecstasy, whether because abandoned by the One or drawn close by the One, all in love. “If I can’t dance, what am I?” asks the dervish, according to Pir Vilayat.

This wisdom of the unity and beauty of life is what the blues knows and gives to all who have ears to hear. I once heard in a documentary on gospel music—Say Amen, Somebody, I think it was—that the blues and gospel music came up at the same time and that deep down they carry the same message. They do.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Writer/Self Steps Aside for the Work—Again

Lately I’ve been lost. Feeling anxious, fearful, an overwhelming sense of the uncertainty of life pulling me away from the center, as if I were spinning in some great centrifuge run amuck, the better parts of me flying off into space and the baser parts coagulating inside, gumming up the machine.

For years, as I writer, I have followed these words of the poet and novelist Edmond Jabès, “The writer steps aside for the work.” To write something beautiful and true one must put aside the ego and surrender to the world of the story. It’s not easy to do, but it’s what I strive toward as a writer.

This morning those words of Jabès came to me not as a writer as a seeker, one struggling to become truly human in this world and who has lost her way. “The writer steps aside for the work. “ To be present to the world, in but not of it, one must de-center the self. How can one see what’s really going beyond all the illusory doings if one is blinded by one’s own needs or concerns? How can one hear what the world is saying, singing, with every breath in and out, if one’s mind is chattering away about what dangers to look out for or what needs to be done? To know what needs to be done, realize what one can do in the moment, any moment, every moment, in order to be a messenger of hope or peace or grace or joy or justice to another, one needs to get out of the way, to return to an empty center of radical trust from which all things radiate in beauty, joy, and love.

Anxiety and insecurity constrict the heart, seal it up in itself, a hardened mass of scar tissue that shuts out the world.

Trust releases the heart so it can soften, open outwards toward the world, infinite in its beauty, in love.

The major turn in life announced by all mystics is that from fear to love; but the turning comes through trust.

How hard, though, to get out of one’s own way and release oneself into the surrender of trust. I may manage for a time, and then, as now, I lose that still center of trust that carries me beyond my little self to the larger world. It happens over and over again. When I lose that center I am tempted to berate myself. How can this happen, I wonder? Why can’t I hold on to the peace, the joy, the calm at every moment, in every season and situation? Am I not trying hard enough? Not advanced enough? Was I fooling myself about trusting so deeply? Often it doesn’t even take an external event to set that centrifuge in motion and get me spinning out of calm and focusing all the me-ness at the center to gum up the works and throw everything off. It just happens. Because with all my efforts I am not as constant as I would like to be.

Then I remind myself that whipping myself is part of that centrifuge run amuck. Begin again. And again. And again. There is no arriving. The Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan often quotes his father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, to remind seekers that there is no arriving. As we move forward, Khan says, the horizon recedes and seems to grow even larger. We never arrive. We are always on the way. Always setting out toward the horizon, that larger world beyond our little selves in which our selves find their true place, their true home, their true rest. Always beginning again.

So today, once again,I must give up that moaning and self-loathing of the little, constricted, hermetically sealed self and just get on the way. Today I must travel back toward that empty center of surrender, radical trust, and begin the journey toward the horizon again.