Thursday, March 27, 2008

Liar, liar, pants on fire

I'm back reading the Gospel of Thomas again, up to Logion 6, in which the disciples are asking a lot of stupid questions about religious rituals and Jesus cuts to the chase, saying "Stop lying, and don't do what you hate."

This verse is one of the many reasons I am so fond of this Gospel: I love that Jesus sees through our piddling attempts to look like Christians and do "Christian things" to the meat underneath.

I also love what Lynn Bauman does with Thomas in his book, "In Trouble and In Wonder," and I find the related verses he offers at the end of each explication to be particularly illuminating. Today there was a verse from Meister Eckhart that particularly struck me:

"What a cruel act to be untruthful.
Earthquakes happen in the heart that hears sounds that are amiss.
Havoc is created in the mind that can no longer trust someone once loved,
and schisms devour alliances that helped support life....
There are fields in the soul -- lush organic meadows,
though sounds and words that fall there can be, at times a poison.
A plague is spread by one who cannot tell the truth."

...and I see that in one of my previous readings I highlighted this passage from A.H. Almaas:

"...the process of learning to see the truth will bring up a lot of pain, fear and humiliation. So when you are faced with the choice of seeing the truth about yourself or someone else, or avoiding the pain, which is the compassionate action? If you choose to hide the truth in any situation, no matter how devastatingly painful it might be to face it, you are sentencing yourself to living the World of Lies."

It seems to me that these two verses pretty much cover it: lies hurt other people, and lies hurt you, too. But of course things are never quite that clear-cut. Speaking as a person who struggles with pretty serious trust issues, I would say that though in my life I have certainly been hurt by obvious lies, it has been the less obvious ones that have caused the most damage.

I think these less obvious lies fall into two categories: the ones that feel like truths when they are said, because the speaker is terribly out of touch with him/herself; and the ones that were put in place to protect me and/or not hurt my feelings. My issues with the church stem primarily from the former, from both lay and clergy people who have over the years acted primarily and rather obviously out of self-interest while earnestly believing they were serving a higher good.

And my issues with men stem primarily from the latter: a father who, in attempting to protect me from the truth about his infidelity, ended up severing the connection between us completely; and a former husband who would say "I love you" even as he was walking out the door to an assignation with another woman.

But of course none of these passages -- Thomas, Almaas, or Eckhart -- is really about the damage others do to us. They are all REALLY about the damage WE do, to others and ourselves. And the important thing, it seems to me, is not just that it is damaging to lie in obvious ways, but that it is the other two kinds of lies -- the ones that result from being out of touch with ourselves or from trying to protect others -- that are ultimately the most devastating. Those are the ones that make "earthquakes happen in the heart."

So however difficult it might be to share hard truths with a friend or a loved one, how much worse is it to be condemned "to living in a world of lies"? Wouldn't that feel more like death than like life -- at least within the context of that relationship? To have to close off a part of yourself would, I think, drain the lifeblood out of the relationship, and leave the other person feeling awkward, cut off and confused -- not to mention there would be whole parts of you that could never come up for air, never have the blessing of love. And, given the likelihood truth has of always coming out eventually, wouldn't there be feelings of anger and betrayal when at last the truth emerged?

And on the other side: however difficult it may be for me to sit with the truth about myself -- to notice as I did yesterday, for example, that I get absurdly cranky when things don't go my way -- how much harder is it on those with whom I live to continually be manipulated into tiptoing around my control needs? Because if I don't admit the truth to myself, I can't work on it. And if I can't admit the truth to them then they can't call me on it safely. And safely, I think, is a key word here.

I was thinking about that last night, as I watched a meeting of our city council and listened to our mayor attempting to quash rumors of a gag order. I don't know where the truth of the situation lies; don't know who on the staff spoke to whom on the council, or about what. But it seems to me that whether or not an official gag order was ever placed, it is quite possible (having worked at least three times in environments where certain truths were not safe to say, and so were bandied about constantly in private sessions behind closed doors) that someone somewhere -- probably someone in a position of power -- is out of touch with the truth about themselves.

I remember going to a workshop years ago, given by the late Edwin Friedman, on family dynamics as expressed in a church environment. Friedman had a special concern with emotional fields created by leaders that value togetherness over individuality, creativity, and/or imagination. He observed that when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member (low in the organizational hierarchy) is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, 100 percent of the time it will be true that, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, the person at the very top of that institution will be a peace-monger, a person who believes good feelings are more important than progress, and who goes to great lengths to avoid anxiety and conflict at all costs.

One common way to avoid anxiety and conflict is to hide truth. In fact, I've had bosses who would get furiously angry if I, as a person designated to communicate news, would even consider communicating news that might conceivably create anxiety or conflict. This behavior usually led to extremely dysfunctional environments, where no-one could tell which truths were safe and which were not, so all truth was stifled.

Another way of putting this is to say "When people are afraid to disturb things and their fear of change is greater than health, then they are not going to get healthier. Most people would prefer peace to progress. That works against us. Most people find that there is no way out of a chronic condition without being willing to go through an acute phase. We’d all prefer the dullness of the chronic pain to the acute pain necessary in change. And yet, there is probably never a chronic situation that you can work through unless you are willing to tolerate more pain intensely over a shorter period of time. That is as true about a toothache or standing up to a vestry."


We are all human, and most of us are surely peace-mongers at heart. But Jesus is asking us to question that tendency, and our motivations for peace. Maybe it really is time, however painful it might be, to follow his advice.

"Stop lying. Do not do what you hate."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mystics have shadows, too

Traditionally Lent, for me, has been a time for getting in touch with my shadow -- never a particularly pleasant experience, though always illuminating -- and so it is that I greet Easter with extra joy, confident that I have done enough "getting in touch" and can now move on with the fun stuff.

But as I have mentioned earlier, Easter doesn't always arrive on schedule. So this morning, lucky me, I had lots of opportunities to find myself right back in the throes of Lent.

I suspect it all began yesterday, when an old friend in Maryland called to tell me his wife had died. Luckily my husband works at home on Mondays, so I could go down to his office and cry in his arms a bit. Sarah, who had been my older daughter's first nanny, was only a year older than me, so my husband and I both had those intimations of mortality that always hit when death takes a contemporary, which meant there was a bit of extra tenderness between us for the rest of the day.

But this morning came, and my husband left the bedroom without kissing me goodbye, and my first thought was "How could you be so thoughtless when life is so short?" But as I lay in bed and listened to the sounds in the house, I realize he wasn't leaving after all; in fact he was taking care of some of my usual morning duties, feeding and walking the dog. Very sweet.

I came downstairs shortly thereafter and his office door was closed, but there was a light underneath the door so I called out to him that I was awake, at which point he asked if he could let the cat out. I grumbled a bit: traditionally I meditate after my morning coffee, and this particular cat has a habit of jumping on my lap and clawing at my face, so I prefer to keep her locked up until I am done. But I let her out of the office, picked her up, and cuddled her a bit.

And then the dog started demanding to go outside. I knew he'd already been out to pee, so clearly this would be a poop run (sorry about the graphic language) and usually those take longer, and can be delayed til later in the morning. So I told him to lie down and settled in for my cup of coffee. He continued to periodically scratch at the door, and I continued to remonstrate with him.

By the time my coffee and reading were done the cat had established herself elsewhere, so I thought it might be safe to meditate. I lit my candle, curled up in my chair, adjusted my blanket, hit my meditation gong, and the dog scratched at the door again. Clearly this was an urgent need for him; usually he knows to curl up on the couch til I'm done.

So I took him outside, still in my robe and slippers, careful not to slip on the icy steps, and walked him down the path a bit. And there, silhouetted against the sunrise, were two geese: beautiful. So when he had done his business, I took him back in, ran upstairs and got my camera, and went back out to photograph the geese. The first shot was perfect -- except. I had been photographing the moon the night before and the camera was set to a very long exposure.

By the time I realized and reset the camera, the geese had begun to move out of the frame, so I got the picture you can see here (they are way off on the lower right). I took another shot or two, then went back inside, curled back into my blanket, hit the gong again, and the cat jumped into my lap to begin her tentative clawful pats at my face. I found myself grumbling: stupid husband. Is the cat more important than I am? Why can't he keep her in for another 20 minutes?

Sophie finally jumped off my lap, and while I sat with my eyes closed I heard my husband come out of his office and into the living room, stop, and then head up the stairs. GRR, I thought: if you were going to go back to bed anyway, why did you get up in the first place? Because of you my whole morning is off.

Yup. I am not a very nice person, I thought: can you spell CONTROL FREAK? There's something pretty funny -- and yet not funny at all -- about a mystic who is so picky about everything. Shouldn't all this meditation lead me into a space where nothing bothers me, where I roll with the punches, go with the flow, feel at one with the cats and the dogs and the husband and all their needs and decisions? On the other hand, if I am this obnoxious WITH meditative practice, imagine who I'd be WITHOUT it!

And then I stopped. Took a breath. Looked tenderly at the whining child I had become and breathed myself into the space around her, holding her in my arms and smiling. And in that moment I could feel the relief of the dog, and the tiredness of my husband, the sore gums of the cat who just wants them rubbed, and the joy of the geese as they begin their morning rounds.

Yes, Lent is still very much with me. But so is Easter. And it's all good.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

When it rains on Easter Sunday

So what do we do when Easter Sunday dawns cold and wet, and the view from the bedroom window is still the same? When the marriage is still in tatters, the job lost, the disease or pain still with us, the precious seat at the breakfast table still heartbreakingly empty?

I wish I had the answer. What I know is that it is tempting to close my eyes, roll over, and go back to sleep, praying that when I do finally awaken it will all have been a dream. Which is what we are doing when we take refuge from the present in food, or alcohol, sex, drugs, or television; by wallowing in memories of the past or dreaming of the future; by immersing ourselves in anger or drama; in computer games or internet surfing or shopping or politics or the stock market or in any of the other substances and experiences out there which help numb us to the emptiness and hopelessness of the present.

Perhaps it's just that we got the question wrong in the first place. Because the truth is that we are not the rainy day. We are not the victim; we are more than the job or the illness; more than the children or the love we are given for all too short a time; more than the clothes or the house or the car or the health or the youth or the beauty or the family that we thought defined our role in life.

Of course we miss whatever we have lost. We are human, and attachments are all too easy to form -- centuries of art, poetry, literature and music would tell us that if we did not already know it ourselves. But we are not our attachments. We are what is left when the attachment is gone; we are the empty space inside, into which we breathe fresh new life every few seconds without even having to think about it. And those centuries of art, poetry, literature and music are achingly beautiful to us because they serve as reminders that we are not alone in our loss; that others, too, have experienced devastation yet survived, even thrived, and found new hope and life in spite of it all.

It is perhaps foolish to expect that Easter will actually arrive on its designated day; like the groundhog expecting to see his shadow on February 2nd, it is inevitable that there will be years when we are disappointed. But spring, too, is inevitable, even when it is delayed. We will continue to breathe, and the sun will continue to rise every morning, filling the sky with light even when the clouds obscure its shape and color.

Yes, there is the temptation to bury ourselves in fruitless activity or waking sleep. But the message of Easter is about the promise of resurrection. And if we stop burying ourselves, even just for a moment, and breathe, and breathe again, we hear that the birds are singing from their rainy branches; we can smell the promise of fresh earth, see the daffodil stems beginning to poke through and feel the gentle patter of rain on upturned cheeks.

It is in that moment, when we are fully present to our surroundings, that we can know, however briefly, the joy of the empty tomb. Surely, like all of us, when Mary saw the stone had been rolled aside and the body was gone, she was devastated anew at her loss. But it is in that moment that we have the opportunity to experience the promise of eternity; of Christ no longer separate from us but one with us.

And if we can stay present, even for just that moment, there is a contentment that fills us, and echoes warmly through the space within. In that emptiness, if we are willing to sit with it, we have an opportunity to watch it fill with love; to learn that all we hoped and longed for now resides within us, filling us with wholeness, love and compassion for the journeys yet to come.

So listen to the rain spattering on the windows and breathe, and know the rain will stop, the sun will rise, the flowers will grow and die and the rain will fall again. And through it all Christ's spirit of love continues to fill us with every breath we take.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Blessing Lent into Easter

As we enter the last hours of the long trudge through Lent into Easter, I offer you this blessing from the great Irish poet/priest/wisdom figure John O'Donohue (Anam Cara, Divine Beauty, etc.), who died peacefully in his sleep in early January of this year.


On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue

Friday, March 21, 2008

Reminders of the space within

My friend Karen posted this wonderful Henri Nouwen quote on her daughter's Caringbridge site:

"When we honestly ask which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness...makes it clear that whatever happens in the external world, being present to each other is what really matters."

I am not sure how good I am at living up to this definition of friendship, but it seems to me that it has something to do with creating space for people. I am still reading Eckhart Tolle's newest book, A New Earth, and in it today I read the following:

"When you contemplate the unfathomable depth of space or listen to the silence in the early hours just before sunrise, something within you resonates with it as if in recognition. You then sense the vast depth of space as your own depth, and you know that precious stillness that has no form to be more deeply who you are than any of the things that make up the content of your life."

It is easy to become caught up in the things and events of our lives. But however those things and events may influence us, they do not define us. When we realize that something in us exists apart from the thoughts, challenges and emotions that absorb us for so much of the time; when we can move -- however briefly -- into that space within which rests untouched by fear, tension, anger, or sadness, it can be very freeing.

Which is, I think, what Nouwen is suggesting a good friend provides: an opportunity to be aware of the space around that which troubles us, a chance to remember that our trials are not all-consuming; that there is a larger world out there, full of invitation and love.

Perhaps that is what I strive for -- mostly unconsciously, I must admit -- in my photography. My mind is always churning, my thoughts darting restlessly back and forth -- from past to future, from fears to hopes, from guilt to pride -- and yet my eyes live mostly in the present, watching always, waiting for that which calls to me in what I see. When I stop, in response to that call, and capture the moment with my camera, I am stepping out of past and future into the present, into the space of the moment.

And in that moment, Tolle says, "When you are aware of space, you are not really aware of anything, except awareness itself -- the inner space of consciousness. Through you, the universe is becoming aware of itself!"

Perhaps this is why, every time I drove up or down my friends' driveway in Vermont, I found myself drawn to this image: the space in the image calls out to the space within me, a reminder of that inner space of consciousness.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Season of Promise

I have just returned from a week in Vermont, an all-too-short visit with my daughter and some dear friends.

Before I left, my husband asked if I would be taking my camera, and I said, yes, I would take my camera, but I didn't expect to get much in the way of photos -- Vermont, in mud season, is not, to my memory, a very pretty place.

But as I began the drive from the Albany airport to Bennington, I was surprised to discover how incredibly alluring the Vermont browns of spring can be. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I've grown used to year-round greens that just become more vibrant in spring; I had forgotten how much promise there is in a brown just beginning to warm. Everywhere I looked I felt this sense of anticipation, a welling-up of joyful green just below the surface; a determination to bloom and grow, to burst into flower when the moment comes ripe.

Nowhere is this more evident than beside the streams and rivers, bordered with ice and snow with water breaking through in its determined rush. Hearing that sound always in the background, seeing those faint touches of green, smelling the hint of fresh earth on the cold wind, was exhilarating.

It was, for me, a lovely reminder that there is hope; that lives and families and nations can change; that even the deadest garden carries within it the seeds of life. I pray that this will be a season of promise, not just for me and my family and friends, but for all humanity.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It's the storm, not you, that's bound to blow away

There are days when you feel yourself sinking: the buoyancy of whatever has been "floating your boat" lately seems to have disappeared.

Okay, I can deal, you say, and then the wind begins to pick up, the storm is brewing, and you wonder again if you will survive the storm. I think we all know this feeling. And though, intellectually, we understand that it passes, we still brace against the turmoil to come, forgetting that someone has roped us to the dock and we will be safe.

I'm in rehearsals at the moment for
A Secret Garden. I had read the book as a child, of course, so I knew the plot -- roughly, at least. But the musical takes that plot and draws some wonderful larger conclusions about the garden that lives inside each of us and the possibilities for redemption of even the most pervasive sadness or depression.

And I love that it is the simplest characters to whom it falls to voice the most profound truths. My current favorite lines are from a song sung by Martha, a scullery maid:

When you see the storm is comin',
see the lightning part the skies,
It's too late to run
there's terror in your eyes,
what you do then is remember
this old thing you heard me say,
It's this storm not you,
that's bound to blow away.

Hold on,
hold on to someone standin' by,
hold on,
don't even ask how long or why,
child, hold on to what you know is true,
hold on til you get through.
child oh child,
hold on.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Katie's birthday

Today, March 8, would have been Katie's 13th birthday. And my heart goes out to her mother, Karen, as she makes plans for the day. How, in the face of so much loss, do we go on? And wouldn't some of the blythe pronouncements of my last blog -- "All shall be well," and "How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having" seem horrendously callous under the circumstances?

I think, if I were Karen, my lip might curl in bitterness hearing these thoughts -- as my own lip often curled in the months after my father died, when I would go to church and hear the language church uses around the core concept of the loving father God. Because it is hard not to be angry when life is grossly unfair.

Thanks to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, most of us now understand that anger is a natural part of the grieving process. But what are we supposed to do with that anger? And what purpose does it serve?

My own daughter, who was celebrating her 16th birthday in this old photo from the family archives, came home over Christmas for what her college calls Field Work Term; two months of work (in her case volunteering at a local theater) in "the real world," preferably in her field of interest. At the beginning of February, 2 weeks before she was to return to college, she was desperately missing her school friends and eager to return. But when it came time to fly back to school, 2 weeks later, she was wracked with grief, a grief that kept her in tears for another 2 weeks after her return.

She is better now, which can be attributed to any number of factors. But one defining moment, I think, happened two weeks after her return. She encountered a situation which was grossly unfair, in which she felt, first helpless, and then furious. When she called to tell me about it, though, she was remarkably calm, and her voice, which had been weak and trembly in most of the multiple daily phone calls we'd received since her return to college, was firm and strong. And when I asked how she was doing, she said, "Well, the good thing is, I'm too angry to be sad."

I should back up a bit here and say that, as an only child, I was raised to believe that anger was bad, and I had no right to it. I was well into my thirties before I learned that it was okay, not only to feel, but to express anger. And only later that I learned how easy it is to get stuck in a pattern of righteous anger, that insidious ego-feeding voice in your head that feels superior because someone else has done something so obviously wrong.

But what do we do with this other kind of anger, that hurt, frustrated, furious trapped feeling when life seems so grossly unfair? I'm not sure I have the answer. Feel it, I guess -- and forgive yourself for feeling it. Maybe healthy anger works like a fire, burning away the other confusing thoughts that muddy our hearts and brains, clarifying the memories of beauty and joy; the sense of purpose that lies beneath the mud?

Perhaps the heat and the flame of that anger, the healthy kind, releases something in us, like the balloons Karen will release for Katie's birthday. And when the time comes to blow out the candles of rage, perhaps some peace will come. I hope so.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Mystic, soothe yourself!

Our house is in turmoil at the moment. We are turning a closet/office into a laundry room/closet, and turning what had been jokingly referred to as the world's largest laundry room into an office.

Since both of these rooms were basically receptacles for whatever- doesn't- obviously- go-somewhere-else, and both had to be emptied for the transition phase, there is "stuff" everywhere. My beloved desk is in the upstairs hall, our clothes are in the guest room, and there are boxes of books, papers, fabric, and camera equipment scattered throughout the house.

The cats' favorite hiding and sleeping places no longer exist, and I am temporarily working on a table in my daughter's room, so they are at loose ends and restless, constantly jumping into boxes, disrupting electrical connections and knocking things over. This triggers the dog, who sees any unexpected cat movement -- or the sound of my computer suddenly dying -- as an opportunity to bark or chase.

In and out of this already busy picture move the various workmen who come to make the project work: the men who tear out the cabinets, the plumbers, the floor guy, the wall guys, the mudders, the painters, "sparky" the electrician, and over it all the contractor, managing this relatively small job in the midst of all his bigger jobs.

It would be easy to feel disoriented, even resentful of all the change, the intrusions, the disruption of routine. But since I am reponsible for initiating the whole thing, and it is my vision of the future that we are all working together to achieve, it would be silly to complain.

On my meal breaks from the chaos, I read Eckhart Tolle's newest book: A New Earth: Awakening to your life's purpose. Though I confess I never made it through Tolle's most famous work, The Power of Now, I have found other works of his very inspirational, and New Earth is no exception. What amuses me is that the passage I read this morning is about complaining, which seems totally appropriate for this particular stage in my life.

It began with this sage observation:

"One thing we do know. Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment."

One of Tolle's major points is that the voice in your head that is always thinking, analyzing, excusing, complaining, assessing, comparing, etc is not really you, it's your ego. YOU is that consciousness which NOTICES that voice, that which is connected to the great I AM that lives in all of us -- what I like to call "the unfathomable oneness that ignites us all."

So after saying the above Tolle continues, "Notice the voice in your head, perhaps in the very moment it complains about something, and recognize it for what it is: the voice of the ego, no more than a conditioned mind-pattern, a thought. Whenever you notice that voice, you will also realize that you are not the voice, but the one who is aware of it...Don't take the ego too seriously. When you detect egoic behavior in yourself, smile. At times you may even laugh."

So I look at my response to all this upheaval in my familiar living space, and I have to chuckle. Because the voice in my head is worried that the last blog wasn't really a blog, just a picture. Because the voice in my head wants to make excuses. Because the voice in my head feels threatened: how "good" a contemplative can she be if something as minor as a small construction project threatens her ability to contemplate? Uh-oh! Someone might notice that she doesn't always think noble thoughts!

And how can I presume to offer help, or advice, or encouragement, or wisdom to others when my own serenity is so easily disrupted -- by something completely under my control? What about all those whose lives and emotions and well-being are constantly challenged by situations NOT under their control?

It's good to be shaken up, to feel the mask slip, to remember the wise old sage is just a doll. And reassuring, once again, to remember the practice of tonglen; to take what life gives us in any given moment, and breathe in awareness of all those who struggle with these particular challenges. Breathe in the turmoil, breathe in the shaking up of ego, breathe in all the masks that slip. And breathe out the brief moments of insight and certainty, the ability to laugh at it all, to pick up and soothe a stressed out cat, to watch the candlelight flicker on the face of the buddha and know, for even a moment, that compassion and peace which the English mystic, Julian of Norwich, described so beautifully:

"...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well"

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Angels in our midst

This is -- or these are -- what greeted me yesterday morning when I left my hotel at 7:30 am in search of an ATM machine. Given that there is a cat lying on my wrist at the moment, I think I'll let the picture speak for itself!