Monday, June 25, 2012

The Practice of Discernment: Which Inheritance to Remember When?

Sufis tell this story. Every day the king’ greatest counselor disappeared for an hour. No one knew where he went. One day one of the servants followed the great man. He went down to the lowest room in the palace. He unlocked the door and entered the cold, dusty room, and opened a small wooden chest. Slowly he removed the gold chains around his neck and his silk robes. Then he reached in the chest and pulled out a patched and ragged cloak and put it in. He stood in his ragged cloak and prayed. Then he removed the rags, put them in the chest, and once again put on his finery. AS he locked the door to the room, the servant asked, Why do you do this?” The great man answered, “To remember who I am.”

Hasids often quote this saying: “The greatest sin is to forget that one is the son of a king.”

Both of these stories are true spiritual guides. And they belong together. Remembering one without the other will lead you astray. For we human beings are complex creatures; we have two inheritances, two truths of origin that we must remember: that we are dust and ashes, and that we are the daughters and sons of royalty. Hazrat Inayat Khan refers to this complexity of the human conditions as “the aristocracy of the spirit and the democracy of the ego.”

The trick is to know, to discern, which one of these inheritances to remember when—our humility or our nobility—which way to champion in our lives at any moment—democracy or aristocracy. Wise spiritual teachers know when to use a story or saying to remind us which one we should be remembering at a particular moment, like the Sufi story of humility and the Hasidic saying of nobility. That’s the power of story over a rule for action—the storyteller or the story itself can speak straight to the heart what the hearer needs to hear at that moment in her life or his life.

We need stories like this and storytellers, too, to help us discern which one of our inheritances to remember at any moment in our lives. But sometimes the right story cannot be found, and there is no wise storyteller near to help us. Then we must discern on our own. And the Hasid Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha, Blind Bunam, has a story to help us. It is a wonderful story that speaks to the instability and challenge of the human condition and the ongoing need for discernment.

Rabbi Bunam said to his disciples:
“Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: “For my sake the world was created,” and in his left: “I am but dust and ashes.”
Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, v. 2: 249-50

Try it some time. Write each of your inheritances on a separate piece of paper and place them in your pockets as Blind Bunam counsels. Then pull them out as needed. It will build your power to discern between on your own and know how to live gracefully moving between humility and dignity. It’s the practice of discernment.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

No Easy Answers Either—Discernment Is the Way

The path is rugged and the traveler is weak, says Ghazali in The Path of the Worshipful Servant to the Garden of the Lord of All Worlds. How then do we make the journey? With this single provision—“worshipful obedience.”

Aha! say some religious folks. Good! Tell me the rules, tell me what I must do, that I may obey them and reach the destination.

Aha! say the rationalists. Terrible. This is what faith always comes down to—blind obedience.

Aha! Say I. Ghazali means something completely different. In describing “worshipful obedience” in this first chapter on sustenance, he refuses to give a set of rules than can be applied by the faithful or sneered at by the enlightened. Instead, he presents a view of worshipful obedience along the path as something akin to discernment of the heart.

We are to trust absolutely only in the Creator to provide our sustenance, he says. What does that mean in our lives?

Is the person who does not take along provisions for his or her journey the pious person, then?

Or is the person who takes along his or her own sustenance on the journey the pious one?

The answer to both questions is: Sometimes. Depending on the state of the traveler’s heart, whether it is truly free or it is attached to the provisions.

A person who takes nothing into the desert on a pilgrimage, professing to depend absolutely for all provisions on the Creator, may deep in the heart be attached to those provision left behind. And person who takes nothing along and then whines and begs provisions from fellow travelers would have done better to take their own provisions. There are some, however, who set out with no provisions, completely detached and wholly dependent on the Creator.

A person who takes many provisions on a pilgrimage may be taking them along without any attachment to them, with complete dependence on the Creator to provide. They may be taking the provisions instance, so they will be available to whomever on the journey needs them, according to God’s plan of provision.

It is not simply the act itself, but the heart out of which the action arises that describes “worshipful obedience.” In each case, discernment is the key. Each person must discern for himself or herself where they are in the journey and whether they are to take provisions or not at a particular moment. It is not whether or not they carry provisions with them that matters; it is how complete their trust in the Creator is. Their discernment may lead them to take provisions at some points, and leave them behind at others. There is no absolute rule of action to follow at all times, only the rule of what is required of the purely trusting heart in a given situation.

That is part of what makes the path so difficult: it requires constant discernment of what is required of one in this moment, in this place along the way.

Discernment is a spiritual muscle cultivated not only by Ghazali and other Sufis, but by the Hasids and Christian mystics as well, as we’ll see in a later post.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Secret? Law of Attraction? Beware Dr. Feel Good

It seems we human beings never grow tired of easy answers, especially Americans. We want the easy fix, the cheapest way, the short cut, the pain pills. Who wouldn’t want this? But wanting is not living. And living as a true human being requires more of us. More than simply the will to have what we want.

How many people have you heard lately talking about “the secret to life,” the law of attraction,” or the power of “manifesting”? Sure, it all sounds good. But this is just the latest recycled version of the power of positive thinking approach to life that has led so many people astray over the centuries. I’m not against people enjoying life, an optimistic approach to living, or taking responsibility for one’s life. I am suspicious, however, of anything that tempts people to believe that: their individual happiness is the ultimate goal of living; that however they define that happiness or the fulfillment of their needs is fine, as long as they choose it for themselves; that they are fully in charge of their lives and do not need to depend on any other; and that a life worth living is always pleasant and easy.

I Want, I Want, I Want
Most purveyors of the law of attraction (and yes, these people are manifesting making lots of money off people who want to hear this easy talk) encourage people to ask, What do I want to manifest in my life? What we should be asking ourselves is the questions that come before and beneath that question: How can I know what to manifest if I don’t first understand what is illusion and what is true? How does it help me in the long run to manifest my desires if what I desire is as ephemeral and unsatisfying as smoke when what I really need is fire? What have I gained if I become adept at attracting to myself what feels good for an instant but what cannot prove an enduring foundation for the future? A new car? A six-figure income? A romantic partner? All good—perhaps. But should these be the object of our heart’s deepest and purest intention?

Are these the questions we should be asking ourselves, What do I want? What do I want to attract? What do I want to manifest? I, I, I, I! That’s the second part of why this recycled power of positive thinking talks is so tempting: it focuses not only on desire without asking what is worthy of human being’s deepest desire, but on the “I,” the individual ego. In this age of consumerism and economic fearfulness, of “social” networks that seem not to slake our isolated and alienated selves’ thirst for community but only increase it, we don’t need anyone to coach us to focus on ourselves more. For most genuine paths of salvation in the world, the “secret” of living well is never to focus on the self, but to go beyond the healthy self to recognize that one belongs to something larger and that one has a role to play in that something larger, a role that does not always lead to one’s personal happiness or needs being met in the moment.

It’s common today to bash traditional religions as being external, authoritarian, or the enemy of the spirit’s evolution, and to valorize the “spiritual” movements that focus on the internal individual making free choices. But true religion, whether it is in the form of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, or whatever, has always pointed the self beyond its self. Obviously traditional religion can be corrupted to serve lesser forces. Unfortunately history shows us this over and over again. But so can spirituality be corrupted. Has Ayn Randism brought peace to the world? No, it has brought injustice, violence, and suffering. What will the followers of the law of attraction bring to our world, beyond their one personal desire for their individual happiness.

Beware the Highway Robbers, Find Yourself a Trustworthy Guide
One of the most trustworthy life coaches I know is that doctor of the heart called Ghazali. At the end of his life, after writing countless books of spiritual counsel for theologians, mystics, and other adepts, he wrote a guide for the spiritual life for ordinary persons, The Path of the Worshipful Servant to the Garden of the Lord of All Worlds. He wrote the book because the path is so difficult and “the danger involved so enormous.” He explains why it is so in his introduction:

It is indeed a rugged path and a hard road, fraught with many obstacles, serious hardships, remote distances, enormous difficulties, frequent hindrances and impediments. It is beset with deadly perils and interruptions, abounding in enemies and highway robbers, and offering very few companions and followers. This is exactly how it needs to be, since it is the path of the Garden of Paradise….

Then, in addition to all of that, the servant [of the Lord] is weak, the time is difficult, and religious commitment is subject to retrogression. There is little leisure and much preoccupation. Life is short, and there is incapacity in work. The critic is perceptive, and the appointed term is near. (The Path of the Worshipful Servant to the Garden of the Lord of All Worlds. Tr. Muhtar Holland, Amal Press, p. 2)

Whom would you trust when you set off on a journey to a destination you want to reach before you die? A person who tells you, It's easy, all you have to do is want it and it will be yours? Or the person who has been traveling there a long time and tells you, The way is hard, there will be help all along the way, the destination does not belong to you but you to it, and it is the only place worthy of your travels? Dr. Feel Good? Or a true doctor of the heart?

But first, make sure you know where you’re going.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why are we so restless?

Lately I've been wondering: What makes us so restless? So restless that we go searching, searching, searching, pursuing what will scratch our itch, feel satisfied, and let us rest at last?

St. Augustine is not everyone's favorite these days, just as he wasn't in his own day in North Africa. People tehn and now take him to task for his denial of free will, his association of lust and sin, coupling of sex and original sin, his suspiciousness almost fear of beauty. The list of his "sins" against our enlightened minds is practically endless. But beyond all the Neo-Platonic-inspired Chrisitan resolutions he discovered for his restlessness, this Augustine still knew a thing or two about seeking God and losing the way. He was a true mystic, one whose journey teaches us more perhaps than his arriving, as it does with all mystics, seekers; for true seekers never arrive--they arrive only to set off again. Augustine the passionate seeker, in his spiritual autobiograrphy, Confessions, wrote this: "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee."

Look around you. Look at yourself. Look within. What do you see? People desperately seeking something that will cure their restlessness. Work. Accomplishments. Fame. Acquiring money, things, connections, knowledge. Romantic relationships. Family obligations. Exercise. TV. Surfing the Internet. Video games. Food. Alcohol. Marijuana. Prescription painkillers. Heroin. Xanax. They feel that restlessness inside, that urge that they can't ever quite quiet, the urge to get up and do soemthing, seek something, find something,something,anything, that will let them rest.

The restlessness, the urging toward something we know not what, is good. That is the human condition. It is our willingness to settle too quickly for that which cannot truly satisfy that urging that trips us up time and again. Our eagerness to believe that what is finite can soothe our restless hearts yearning for the infinite. So we go seeking and finding, seeking and finding, while our restlessness only grows and begins to tear at our spirits, tear us apart, which drives us to seek more desperately.

What can we do? Being born restless and needing to seek? Sit still and ask oursaelves if what we have found, what we are still looking for, still chasing, can cure that restlessness or if it will only exacerbate it and drive us to disappointment and despair?

Seeking is good; it is what we are meant for. But be careful of what you find. Far better to be found than to find.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Four Cs that can change your life

I don't like lists of rules. They make me squirm and want to argue. But there is one brief list of guidelines for cohabitating the earth that I keep on my refrigerator, keep reminding myself of, and keep finding myself offering to friends and strangers because it is so brief, so simple, and so radical in its power to reorient one toward greater openness and love--the four Cs often heard where Sufis gather. Just four simple tasks. So easy and so difficult. To follow the first one alone, truly follow it in one's life, lifts one's spirit and redirects it immeasurably.

1. Don't complain.
2. Don't compare.
3. Don't criticize.
4. Don't condemn.

There is a reason why these are express4ed in the negative--to call our attention to them and powerfully break out proclivity toward them.

But it's interesting to think of what their positive coorelates would be. Here's one set of possibilities:

1. Give thanks for everything, walking humbly on the earth.
2. See everything as a new creation and see that it is good.
3. Act justly, toward justice, bringing greater integrity into the world around you.
4. Act in mercy and compassion toward your neighbor, who is like you.

That's my list of positive correlates, drawn of course from the prophet Micah's (6:8) summary of the law:

He has shown you, O earth creature, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

What's your short list that keeps you on track?