Thursday, July 30, 2009

No castle in the sky

As an only child with two working parents, I grew up addicted to books. Books were my best friends, my entertainment, my mentors; they formed my ideas, my understanding of the world, and my dreams in ways that continue to haunt me now, so many years later.

My preferred diet was fairy tales: I had the complete tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm; The Children of Odin (a book of Norse mythology); and piles of other similar books. I also remember taking more fairy tales from the library on our weekly family visits: books of tall tales, and the Red Book of Fairy Tales, the Green Book of Fairy Tales, the Blue Book... etc. etc.

Suffice it to say that my head was full of castles and maidens, damsels in distress, princes, princesses, dragons and trolls; all wonderful archetypes to help me sort through my experiences in the real world.

Or not.

Because when you grow up essentially alone in a world populated by myths and legends -- and don't many of our children do that today, addicted as they are to television and computer games? -- you have a tendency to step out of reality and into those dreams, whatever they may be. If life is rough, you imagine being rescued. If only ugly boys want to date you, you imagine a handsome prince. If you live in a rundown shack, you imagine being a princess in a castle...

You can get addicted to romance -- the sort of thinking and hoping so beautifully captured in "At Last," that old Etta James song (recently made popular by Beyonce in the movie, Dreamgirls):

At last, my love has come along,
My lonely days are over,
And life is like a song,

Ohhh at last
The stars above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover,
The night I looked at you

I found a dream that I could speak to,
A dream that I, can call my own,
I found a thrill, to press my cheek to,
A thrill that I, have never known,

Ohhh you smile, you smiled
And then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven,
for you are mine, at last!

It's a great song, great lyrics, lots of passion; speaks to that hunger inside all of us that seems to be consuming my blog this week. But if we get hooked into that kind of thinking, instead of being present, attuned to reality and coping, we can find ourselves drifting off into a world where someone else is taking care of us and making everything nice -- and in the process we can miss the blessings that are staring us in the face, fail to take responsibility for our own rescue (or salvation), or even turn everything that seems to block our way to dreamland into some sort of demon.

It seems to me that this is one of the flaws of Christianity: that because we see God almost exclusively as some being outside and above ourselves, we come to expect that being to rescue us. And the words of Jesus -- which could so easily be construed as a call to presence and mindfulness, a reminder that the kingdom of heaven is here and now, living in each of us -- are more often interpreted in a way that makes him a savior, a knight on a white horse who instead of teaching us by word and example to live as he lived promises to come back from heaven to rescue us. And that kind of thinking has a way of removing us from reality and responsibility.

There is much I love about Christianity, and its central metaphors of grace, hope and forgiveness are critical to my own understanding of spirituality. But I am nonetheless drawn to the more Buddhist understanding of how we are to be in the world. And what I read in Thich Nhat Hanh this morning just seems eminently more practical than the traditional Christian understanding of how the world works:

"We long for permanence, but everything is changing. We desire an absolute, but even what we call our "self" is impermanent. We seek a place where we can feel safe and secure, a place we can rely on for a long time...We all need something good, beautiful, and true to believe in. To take refuge in mindfulness, our capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment, is safe and not at all abstract. When we drink a glass of water and know we are drinking a glass of water, that is mindfulness. When we sit, walk, stand or breathe and know that we are sitting, walking, standing, or breathing, we touch the seed of mindfulness in us...the light that shows us the way...the living Buddha inside of us.

"Mindfulness gives rise to insight, awakening and takes us directly to a place of peace and stability, to the most calm and stable place we can go. The Buddha taught, "Be an island unto yourself. Take refuge in yourself and not in anything else." This island is right mindfulness, the awakened nature, the foundation of stability and calm that resides in each of us. This island shines light on our path and helps us see what to do and what not to do."

And as I read this I remember how it is that I came to be so enamored of the Gospel of Thomas. Because, after years of knowing that I am absolutely rooted in Christianity, and years of being drawn to Buddhism, I heard the words that somehow, for me, bridged the gap and helped me see that what Christ calls us to is exactly where I was longing to go -- and it isn't some castle in the sky.

Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. No: the divine Reality exists inside and all around you.

Only when you have come to know your true Self will you be fully known-- realizing at last that you are a child of the Living One. -- The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 3

Yes, there is a castle, a safe place, where we will be loved and cared for beyond our wildest dreams. And even Jesus tells us that place is not imaginary, or in the sky, or even in a stained glass window in a restaurant in Wisconsin. It's right here, right now, both inside and all around us -- we have only to pay attention.


I AM ROSE said...

Beautiful words.
In Love.

karengberger said...

Amen, Sister.
I love Thich Nhat Hanh!