Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stop Comparing. Start Accepting.

We have not come into being to criticize; nor have we come into being to compare. Our intellect, our ability to make distinctions and to connect things, has far, far better uses than looking for comparisons that lead to judgments about which of the two (or three or more) is better than the other. Why do we compare? To make ourselves feel better, or worse, than another. Why do we complain? Because we center existence on ourselves, and feel the harm to ourselves, the slights, the pains, the injustices. Why me? Why do I have to suffer this and that one doesn’t have to suffer it? Why is this one given this and not me, who is equally deserving? Why are they rich and I am not? Happy and I am not? Because our perspective is so narrow that we think only of our little selves and our hearts do not open in compassion to others. If we could only stop comparing ourselves to others, or comparing people we meet, we would know true acceptance and joy.

Here are four stories that reveal the folly of comparing—our suffering, our efforts and rewards, our lives.

First, there is a famous Hasidic story about a man who complained and complained of his suffering and compared his life of woe to others who had easier lives. One day, he was given a chance to be free of his suffering. He was invited to enter a cloakroom where the cloak of every human being’s suffering was hung. He was to walk through the cloakroom and examine each cloak carefully and choose the one that seemed lightest and best. He spent many years trying on the cloaks and left wearing his own.

Another famous story is one told by Jesus, the parable of the vineyard and the laborers, as recorded in Matthew 20:1-16 (King James Version).
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
The strange logic of “how much more” of the kingdom of heaven (which does not nullify fair wages) means comparison is futile. Accept what is yours, what has been given to you. Are you diminished because another is favored?

Actually, this parable of Jesus reminds me of one of my favorite Hasidic sayings:
If I am I because you are, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.

To know oneself and the world truly is not to compare but to be.

Finally, here is a Sufi story that reveals yet another view of comparison and the limits of our perspective, one that shows how to compare, if one must compare.
There were once two brothers who jointly farmed a field, and always shared its yield.
One day one of them woke up in the night and thought:
‘My brother is married and has children. Because of this he has anxieties and expenses which are not mine. So I will go and move some sacks from my share into his storeroom, which is only fair. I shall do this under cover of night, so that he may not, from his generosity, dispute with me about it.’
He moved the sacks, and went back to bed.
Soon afterwards the other brother woke up and thought to himself:
‘It is not fair that I should have half of all the corn in our field. My brother, who is unmarried, lacks my pleasures in having a family, and I shall therefore try to compensate a little by moving some of my corn into his storeroom.’
So saying, he did so.
The next morning each was amazed that he still has the same number of sacks in his storeroom, and afterwards neither could understand why, year after year, the number of sacks remained the same even when each of them shifted some by stealth. (Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams, p. 143)
Stop comparing. Start accepting, yourself, as you are; all others, as they are; all else, as it is.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

We Have Come into Being to Praise--Not to Criticize

We have not come into being to hate or to destroy;
We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.
Last week, in talking about the three fundamental actions of being human, to praise, to labor and to love, I focused on praise in relation to the One, the Source and End of All Existence. But, like the other two, labor and love, praise has two directions: toward the One and toward all that is created.

It is not enough to praise the One, That Which Is Without End, That Which is Beautiful, True, and Prefect, the Creating, Judging, Redeeming, and Sanctifying Power. Human existence depends also on praising all that is part of the One, all that flows from and back to the One. Few of us would stand in front of a great painter and criticize her painting. Or in front of a great sculptor and point out all the flaws in his sculpture. Or in front of a weaver and find fault with the pattern or the colors or the looseness or tightness of the weave. Yet that is what we do every day as we go about criticizing friends or family members or strangers—whether their clothes or their bodies or their actions or failures to act or habits or their wishes and dreams—or a landscape or the weather or the food we are served. This isn’t enough that. That isn’t enough this. We find it so easy to find the one flaw in all that is good. We do it out of habit, without thinking, as if it were our right to cast judgment in this way on everyone and everything.

We criticize so often, so carelessly. It seems as if it is nothing. Yet to criticize the works of a great artist is a grave offense. It means we are not acknowledging the good, not appreciating the beauty; we are not being grateful. But there is another deleterious effect we often forget about as we rush to give our opinion. (Our opinion! How consequential our preferences are! How important we are, we who can pass judgment on all things, with our profound knowledge, our wide perspective, our deep experience of the many ways a good life can be lived!). Here is the great harm we do with our careless flinging of judgments: our rush to criticize, our failure to praise, covers what we see with a dark, oily film, which makes it harder for others to see the beauty underneath. And it also makes it hard for that creature we have covered with our criticisms to breathe out all its beauty and goodness; like a seal or a seabird after an oil spill, it begins to die a slow, painful and cruel death, unless someone comes and removes that film of oil.

One of the stories Idries Shah tells in Tales of the Dervishes reveals the ingratitude and harm of criticism. It also points to the foolishness of making judgments of any kind from our limited perspective.
An idiot looked at a browsing camel. He said to it: “Your appearance is awry. Why is this so?”
The camel replied: “In judging the impression made, you are attributing a fault to that which shaped the form. Be aware of this! Do not consider my crooked appearance a fault.
‘Get away from me, by the shortest route. My appearance is thus for function, for a reason. The bow needs the bentness as well as the straightness of the bowstring.
‘Fool, begone! An ass’s perception goes with an ass’s nature.’
The next time you are about to open your mouth to criticize, remember the talking camel.

Try to go for a day, just one day, without criticizing anything, another human being, yourself, your life, the world around you. It’s a hard, hard habit to break. Our little selves, our false egos love this game. It makes us feel so superior. But try. And instead of looking for fault, just look at all that exists, look without judgment or expectation or preference, look with deep acceptance of and appreciation for what it is, for what is. And give thanks for it.

That would be a day of praise.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Freud’s Summary of Why We're Here or This One?

Freud famously summed up the basic drives of human existence this way: to work and to love. Pretty good summary.

Here’s the summary of human existence that my heart thrills to, every time I hear, say, or read it:

We have not come into being to hate or to destroy;
We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.
So close to Freud, yet so far away. This wisdom comes from a place Freud, with his views on Moses and monotheism, wouldn’t care to frequent: the siddur, the prayer book of the Conservative movement of Judaism. The lines, written post-Freud, I believe, are part of the Prayer for Peace.

That addition of the third phrase, “to praise,” is an obvious parting of the ways. It acknowledges that human beings are not limited to the world we experience here as we labor in relation to the natural world in a social context and as we interact with others. We are built for work and for love, much as we might like to deny either one at times.

But as this poem/prayer reminds us, we are also built for praise. Meaning what? That everybody has to have a certain kind of religion or they have “failed” the third test of being human? No. We don’t require that people labor in a certain way only, or love in a certain way only—only that they do labor, that they do love, each in his or her own way, according to her or his unique self and circumstances.

So too with praise. Each of us can praise in our own way. For some this means chanting ancient psalms in shul, singing gospel songs in church, kneeling in prayer in the mosque, or dancing ecstatically in the sema. For others it can mean making room in one’s life for a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude for the gift of existence, a gift one is not responsible for and is not in control of. To praise: to recognize an inestimable good beyond oneself, a gift that one can never exhaust, never repay.

To me this is as basic to our existence as working and loving. It’s a third way of being in the world, interacting with all that is not our self, that cannot be reduced to labor or to love. When we labor, we interact with the world to produce a good. When we love, our desire for union and communion binds us to another. When we praise, we are not trying to produce a good by our efforts in nature, and we are not desiring or experiencing union with another—whether nature or another self; when we praise, we are acknowledging the vastness and goodness of all that is, all that is beyond us yet includes us and is related to us, and giving thanks for it, this gift that we can never exhaust and never repay.

Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice, as the saying goes. So the presence of these three basic ways of human existence in the Prayer for Peace mean: we are to acknowledge these three—all three—as fundamental to the dignity of each human life, to be able to work, to love, and to praise, and not to prevent anyone from fulfilling these basic needs or to have contempt for them when they do fulfill those needs; and we are not to judge the manner in which others work, love, or praise, though it may be radically different from our way of fulfilling those needs. Does this one pray once a day? Good. Does this one pray morning, afternoon, and evening, as Jews do? Good. Does this one pray five times a day, as Muslims do? Good. Does this one pray in the woods, silently, wordlessly? Good. For, we have not come into being to hate or to destroy; we have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why Is It So Hard to Live at Peace with our Body-Selves?

We human beings like to think we are such amazing animals. And we are. We carry forward with us the successes of eons of creative trial and error, a spectacular inheritance that enables us to act with deep wisdom and freedom in our ever more complex environment. But being human, becoming truly human, is also the greatest challenge of our existence. Because we are not at ease in these evolved animal-selves, this amazing body-self we have inherited. Why not? You’d think it would be the most natural thing in the world to feel at home in our bodies—not even to feel at home, but just be at home in our bodies in that wonderfully unconscious or innocent way most children have and some graced athletes retain as they mature.

But most of us don’t experience this natural grace. It’s not even that we’re not at home in our bodies. We seem to be ill at ease in our bodies, or even at war with our bodies. Why?

Answers abound—sin, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Greek Christianity, Christianity, Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, dualism of all kinds, spiritualism of all kinds, gender stereotypes, the media, the Freudians, our mothers, our fathers, those who have abused us physically or sexually. Whatever truth there may be in these answers, I want to look beneath them for a moment.

Look at how we’re built. Lumps of clay animated by some kind of breath who then go on to some kind of restless existence. Whatever you think of creation stories, all those observations, from so many different times and cultures, point to a deep truth about our existence here on earth. Whatever you make those stories or our interpretations of them, it’s hard to deny that we’re an unstable union of two different ways of being, matter and spirit, body and mind, and instinct and consciousness. The terms don’t matter; it’s the relationship between them that’s what trips us up. We want to resolve that instability once and for all, so we deny the part of it that we understand least and live with what is more comfortable for us. For some of us, that means landing in our bodies, tending to them, following their lead always, and ignoring anything beyond the realm of the physical because it is beyond our reach or comprehension. For others of us it means living the life of the mind or the ethereal life of the spirit and just plain ignoring the body, giving it its due, but treating it as a second-class citizen at best.

So we live as if one side of this difficult and de-stabilizing experience we call human be-ing doesn’t exist or doesn’t really matter. That’s one way to live out the challenge of what I like to call, using the language of physicists, “the “coexistence of incommensurates.”

But what if we took this unstable and difficult two-at-onceness of our being seriously? What if matter is coming to consciousness through us, the human creature, as many scientists, philosophers, and mystics have argued? What would our task as human beings look like then? The Sufi Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan puts it this way: “the reconciliation of irreconciliables.” Our job here on earth is not to give ourselves over to the needs and limitations and desires of our bodies and the physical universe, to just sink into it, whether by addictive behaviors or ordinary habits. Nor is our task here on earth to transcend matter by leaping into the spiritual realm, escaping the limitations of the material world by getting “high” through prayer or meditation or other spiritual disciplines. Our task is much more challenging: it is to live in such a way that these two irreconcilable ways of being are reconciled in our every feeling, thought, and action.

Why are we here? For this, says Pir Vilayat Khan: “the materialization of spirit and the spiritualization of matter.” It’s not enough to stay low or get high. We have to bring that animating force of the universe to our limited, cloddish, friable existence here on earth, to make it a thing of true beauty. And we have to incarnate that animating force, bring it to new beauty, a beauty never before seen on earth until this moment, now, in our lives, here on earth.

Forget alchemy. Forget fairy tales of dwarves spinning straw into gold. That is all child’s play compared to this task we have each been given: incarnating spirit and breathing life into our bodies and the world around us.

Our bodies are not our enemy. They are not the “prison-house of the soul” or second-class citizens. They are not simply the vehicle for higher purposes.

Our bodies, their jumble of needs and limits, desires and pleasures and pain, are not the whole of human existence.

Our bodies are the meeting ground where spirit is materialized and matter is spiritualized—a moveable tabernacle we carry and that carries us as we wander through the wilderness.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Another Good Saying for the Practice of Discernment

There is a famous Hasidic saying whose words are often sung, “The world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is not to be afraid.”
This is the spiritual counsel of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Like all his teachings, this one is rich in meaning. Here is one way to understand what he is saying.

I envision this bridge not as the straight and narrow path through sin on all sides or over a chasm of transgression, over which the faithful cross safely to purity, planting each foot on the solid wooden plans leading straight ahead. Instead, I see this bridge as some others do—as a razor-sharp high-wire that one must walk across gently, arms outstretched, eyes fixed on the horizon.

What lies on the two sides of that bridge? We are walking the high-wire, constantly balancing. What is pulling us to one side and what to the other? Name your paradox and it probably fits: mercy and justice; patience and boldness; or the paradox we spoke of last week, of our earth-ness, our humility and our spirit-ness, our dignity. For we human beings are creatures built of paradoxes and our challenge, though we meet it awkwardly, is live gracefully with all these paradoxes, to walk between these forces pulling us to one side and the other.

And here is where discernment comes in. We do not walk this high-wire in fair weather at all times. The weather is constantly changing. So we cannot find our “balance” once and for all and then think we have it made. There are gusts, there are heavy rains, there are tornadoes and hurricanes. We must adjust the way we walk that narrow bridge as the weather changes. When the force pulling us to one side is stronger, and threatens to topple us, we must lean more to the other side, to stay standing upright so we will not fall. Is the pull toward justice too strong? Then we need to lean to the side of mercy. Is a strong wind pushing us to take bold action? We need to lean toward patience in order to stay upright.

Sounds terrifying. It is terrifying. This is the human condition—never to be at rest, always to be facing new dangers, always to be at risk. Everything changes. Everything is changing.

As the Prophet Mohammed says, “Everything perishes but the face of God.” The main thing is to walk through all that is changing with our heart fixed on the One who is constant. And that is what Rabbi Nachman reminds us when he says, “The main thing is not to be afraid.” Fear, that is, lack of trust, makes us lose our balance and our steadying eye of discernment. It is love for the One keeps us walking steadily forward, discerning which side to lean toward to stay upright, which pocket to look in.

Think of the story of Thomas in the Christian gospels, when Jesus told him he could walk on water just as he did, that he needed no special spiritual powers to walk through life on earth in this way, heart fixed on the One, never sinking into fear, drowning in a sea of possibilities. Thomas tried. He sank. Fell in. Because he did not trust.

Trust is the root of discernment.