Archive for April, 2013

My father was a person of few words, spoken or written.  When he spoke, we paused to listen.  One of the reasons I would pause was that my father would often say something that did not fit the context. I took great glee when he spoke this way.  For example, he was quickly passing through the family room one afternoon and I asked him where he was going in such a hurry.  His reply, as he motored by was, “I am going to see a man about a dog!’  He moved on and I stared into the empty space that was, a second before, filled with my father.  Then I laughed.  One night I had a question for my father, I was reading a story for class and the word ‘paradox’ appeared before my eyes.  I could have looked it up but I wanted a few minutes with my father and so I trundled off to his den where I knew he would either be reading or working with his stamps or coins (he had a magnificent stamp collection).  I knocked on the closed door and he invited me in.  He was reading (he was an avid reader).  I asked him, ‘What is a paradox?’  He looked up, gave me ‘the look’ that suggested that I go look it up in the dictionary; then he paused and said, ‘Among other things, it is two doctors.’  He then returned to his reading.  As I turned to leave I noticed a smile cross his face.  My father had just told me, in his way, to go look the definition up and he also gifted me with his quick humor.  I could hardly wait to go to school the next day and tell the class what I had learned.

So, gentle reader, in addition to being two doctors, what is a paradox?  The word, paradox, comes from two Greek words, para meaning ‘beyond’ and doxa meaning ‘opinion.’  Literally, then, a paradox is something ‘beyond opinion’ – today we might say that it conveys the sense of being beyond the pale of current opinion or ‘contrary to current thinking.’  In Shakespeare’s time it had a negative connotation, suggesting something that was fantastically unbelievable or even heretical (I learned this in reading Bill Bryson’s wonderful book, The Mother Tongue – if you, gentle reader, are not familiar with this gem I invite you to check it out).  Over time, the meaning shifted to how we use it today – something that is true even though it may seem untrue.  Here is one that was given us by the poet Robert Browning: ‘Less is more.’  We are not speaking logically when we use this now common paradox.

Now, in order to grasp a paradox one must be able to think abstractly which is probably why young children become confused when one offers them a paradox [of course, I have also met many adults whose strength is concrete thinking and they do not find them interesting and frequently experience them as a bother – the same could be said of ‘literalists’ who are not enamored with word-play].  Here’s another common paradox given to us by the French writer Alphonse Karr: ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’  Literally, the statement is false.  However, Karr provides us with an important life-lesson.  Even though I change, often dramatically, as I age I remain in a real sense the same.  One more before I finish today’s posting.  I am drawn to the wisdom of the ancients and one of these folks is the Chinese wise-man, Lao-Tzu.  He noted that to lead the people, walk behind them.  Followers must truly feel that the leader ‘has their back’ as it were.  Leaders must also be willing to serve the followers and one way of doing this is making space for them to choose which direction to go.

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The mystics counsel us that spiritual transformation requires sustained nurturing [a reminder that ‘transformation’ is a fundamental change in character or structure].  Our commitment and our capacity to sustain spiritual transformation is often hindered, if not interrupted, when we discover that we are unsure, or hesitant, or full of doubt and angst or when we simply question — especially when we frame questions from that deep place of not-knowing.  At these times, the mystics remind us, that we become aware that we would rather be someplace else rather than on this particular threshold.  It is at these times that we make like a rabbit and run away (or is it hop?).  We know, deep down inside, that if we remain committed and step over the threshold that we will never be the same again and because we don’t know, truly know, what lies on the other side of the threshold we are filled with a little dread and perhaps fear.  It is no accident that the most often used words in the Torah, the New Testament and the Qu’ran are ‘Be Not Afraid.’

Now it is true that not all threshold experiences are so daunting, nor are they so transformational.  Some are quite manageable and we nurture our spirit in more gentle and yet just as profound ways.  I have been nurtured by crossing the threshold in response to a poem, or a story, or even a sentence or a word.  These ‘seeds’ enter into my spirit-garden, into my soul, into my heart and I savor them into life.  I might find myself questioning a long-held truth, for example.  Or I might find myself considering something I had dismissed as not worthy of my time and energy.  Some of these thresholds open pathways of peace — when I cross the threshold of ‘living in the moment’ I can experience this type of peace.  Some of these thresholds open the pathways to deep, or deeper, relationships.  Some of these thresholds help me cross over from ‘being asleep’ to ‘being awake and aware.’  Some of these thresholds lead me onto a path that brings discomfort, uneasiness, dis-ease, anxiety, and pain.  Some of these thresholds, I have experienced, open the pathway to the ‘dark night of the soul’ and some of these thresholds open the way to the wasteland — not the desert.  Some of these thresholds open the pathway to the land of the lost.

No matter which of these are presented to you-me-us, thresholds connect the mundane with the mysterious [or is it ‘mystery’?]; they connect you-me-us to both to the commonplace and the awesome. Thresholds ‘call’ us to a different territory; they open the road-less-traveled to us.  The word ‘threshold’ originally referred to the doorway leading to the place where the threshing of grain occurred.  Beyond the entrance lay the place of separating the wheat from the chaff.  Do I really want to know what is the wheat of my being and what is the chaff?  Do I really want to separate them?  The types of thresholds I am thinking about invite me to consider these two stretching questions.

Am I willing to frame these thresholds as a gift?  I have experienced that when I choose to step over one or more of these thresholds and enter into the land of the unknown that I am affirming that I do want to grow, that I do want to become wiser and healthier, that I do want to lose some of the burdens that weigh me down and that hinder my development.  Am I willing to be a bit more aware of these types of thresholds that will open before me today?  Am I willing, then, to step across just one of them today?  I am not sure, right now I feel more like the rabbit ready to run (or is it hop?).

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The great Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi writes:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
        Don’t go back to sleep. . .
    People are going back and forth across the doorsill
        where the two worlds touch.
        The door is round and open.
        Don’t go back to sleep.

As I awoke this morning for a brief moment I was aware of the world of unconscious slumber and conscious awareness touching.  As I stretch and yawn and breathe deeply I move from one world to the other; it is not a linear movement, it is a movement — a rhythm? — back and forth or a movement from inner to outer or a movement from being asleep to being awake.  The unseen, but deeply experienced, boundary between these two worlds is called a threshold.  Just as we cross over physical thresholds many times a day, we also cross internal thresholds.  These thresholds provide access to the deep mysteries of our inner life.

Our inner thresholds signify a separation between the known and the unknown, between the spirit and the body and between the hidden and the manifested dimensions of my life.  The ancient Celts believed there was a thin veil that covers the threshold between the concrete world and the spiritual world of their ancestors.  Certain members of the Clan were gifted with a special inner sight that would enable them to communicate with the ancestors; this gift allowed them to cross back and forth between this world and the world of the spirit.

For me, the concept of threshold — a metaphor perhaps — clearly describes a crucial component of my own spiritual journey.  The threshold marks the division between who I am today and who I am choosing to become — between who I am and who I am called to become.  Throughout recorded history images of thresholds, gates, arches and doors have served as symbolic passageways into new worlds.  Thresholds symbolize the possibility of the ‘new’ — new life, new experience, new identity.  They provide us a way of marking the divide between two very different worlds — the world of the mundane and the world of the sacred and the world of the sacred and the world of the profane.  They help us move between the internal and the external, between the subjective and the objective, between the visible and the invisible and between being asleep and being awake.

A physical threshold announces a passageway between two different external spaces.  A nonphysical threshold announces a passageway between our external life and our inner life.  The threshold ‘announces’ these only; we have to choose — we do choose — whether to cross the threshold or not.  The threshold also provides us an opportunity to ‘pause’ and ‘reflect’ before we decide to cross over or to withdraw.  In literature the term threshold experience indicates a significant crossing over not just any crossing over.  A threshold experience involves a search for clarification of one’s essential beliefs, core values, guiding life principles, life-choices and life-markers.

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My Carpal Tunnel is acting up….No Posting Today.

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This morning I am sad.  I am sad for the families and friends of those who were killed in Boston this week; I am sad for the families and friends and for those who were wounded and maimed.  I am sad for the two young men who perpetrated the killing and wounding.  I am sad for their families and friends.  What is ‘man’ that we can move from the light to the darkness?  What is man that we can move from choosing good to choosing evil?

Taken in the abstract, ‘man’ is a being possessed of self-aware reason and the power to act from love and duty, a being ordained to be steward of the earth, a free and conscious servant of the Source [God, Allah, The Great Spirit, etc] of all things.  Taken as such, our human existence can be understood not only as part of the all-encompassing greatness of Creation, but as its crown jewel.  Ah, but ‘man’ in the concrete — man as he actually is, how we actually are; this ‘man’ at times [for me, times like this] passes beyond all possible comprehension.  Human evil cannot be contained in the same mind that contemplates the beauty and order of the universe.  The contradiction seems too extreme.  Yet it does exist as potential and, as we are learning about two young men, as a reality.

I cannot begin to count how many times during these past 49 years I have thought about and spoke about the ‘paradox of evil’ [good and evil, light and darkness, virtue and vice, or the sacred and the profane].  I don’t see evil as a problem to be solved. I do, at times, see it as a dilemma (that is, we have to choose between ‘good and evil’) and I do see it as part of a paradox (the paradox that as healthy human beings we are potentially both good and evil).  Periodically, evil runs amok among us.  At these times I think of the collective ‘mankind’ and our ability for collective cruelty.

My thinking is triggered by glimpses or fragments or events like Boston.  I move from the particular to the general; I remember the intentional destruction of millions of human lives in the service of the insane ideas or ‘noble’ purposes.  Ideas and purposes that conceal the greed for power, massive resentment, the false honoring of the ‘self,’ the false collective identity for the illusion that ‘we are right and you, if you are not with us, are evil.  I recall film footage of walking human skeletons being herded into camps and into gas chambers.  I recall a statistic dropping from a book into my mind and down into my heart and down further into my bones — a report of numbers, of many, many numbers a report of  thousands and hundreds of thousands, of millions and of tens of millions: Armenians, Rwandans, Slavs, Jews, American Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Slaves.  I can hear them choke and cry; I can hear them beg and pray. I
can feel their pain and disbelief.  Today I hear their ghosts calling to me across the ages and I cry and I am in pain and I am in disbelief.

I pause.  What, then, of the greatness and the good?  What of the sunlit heights of human love, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom, beauty and intelligence?  What of the millions upon millions of small acts and small sacrifices that have occurred and continue to occur everywhere?  What of the greater acts of love and compassion and caring that emerge at the same time that evil is being perpetrated [as these smaller and greater acts manifested themselves in Boston and Texas this week]?  All of these acts remind me of the hope of ‘man.’  All of these acts remind me of the sacredness of ‘man.’  All of these acts remind me of the Divine within each of us.  All of us no matter our faith-tradition or humanistic-tradition and all of us no matter our ethnicity, nationality, race or culture demonstrate in so many ways each and every day that ‘man’ is also capable of being  the ‘good.’

How can we help one another choose to be good so that what happened to the two young men in Boston will not happen to two other young people who might be struggling with their own potential for good and for evil?  The potential for evil in the world and in ourselves makes a specific demand upon us — a demand not only to do whatever we can, but to be able to do, to be what we are meant to be.

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