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Archive for May, 2013

TWO PATHS. . .

A common metaphor for life is that ‘life is a journey.’  As we travel along we have many choices; one of these is which path to follow.  We can choose a wide path or we can choose a narrow path, for example. Many of the ancients suggest, if not directly tell us, that the wide path leads to destruction and that the narrow path leads to life.  What might this mean?  I am not sure, but not being sure has never stopped me from speculating.  So, consider the following.  The wide path indicates an expanse so broad and vast that we can bring along with us anything we want.  We do not restrain ourselves, we do not seek discernment as to what might be nurturing and what might be depleting.  There are no limits as to what we can bring with us — anything goes.  I don’t have to stop and step back and reflect.  Oh, I will at times be reactive but I might not be response-able.  I don’t have to think of consequences — the effects upon me or upon others or upon my relationships with myself, with the other and with the transcendent (or God or Allah or Mazda — the god, not the car).

There is so much stuff that comes with me when I travel the wide path that I am easily distracted by a wide variety of . . .[you name it].  I can easily become distracted from one or more of the four dimensions that constitute my being — my Physical dimension, or my Intellectual dimension, or my Emotional dimension or my Spiritual dimension [my P.I.E.S.].  It is then an easy step to move from distraction to ignoring them with the consequence that I will begin to deplete them and I will enter into a life of dis-ease.  Choosing the wide path is, for me, a cause for considerable concern.

The narrow path, by its nature, is limiting.  I have to be more discerning as to what I will carry with me.  I still have choice AND the narrow path provides me the opportunity to stop and reflect before I choose what to carry with me along my journey.  There is a paradox here for me for the narrow path feels constricting and the wide path feel liberating; my experience is, however, that the opposite is the reality.  The narrow path is liberating in that it provides me the freedom and discipline to choose and to be response-able.  The narrow path also provides me the opportunity to become discerning regarding my ‘call.’  It provides me the opportunity to become aware of my life’s purpose.  The narrow path provides me the opportunity to gain clarity about who I am and who I am choosing to become.  The narrow path provides me the opportunity to discern and choose what will be more nurturing and less depleting to my P.I.E.S.  The narrow path also provides me the opportunity to take the time to savor my life experiences and to reflect upon them and hence to learn from them.

For me, these paths run parallel to one another; they are so close that I can — and at times I do — easily step from one to the other.  At times they intersect and even merge into one path.  If I am not awake and aware, if I am not intentional and purpose-full, I can easily ‘get lost’ and not be aware of which path I am traveling (my personal experience is that when I am not awake or aware or intentional or purpose-full then I end up walking the wide path).  As I sit here this morning I can see the seductiveness of the wide path and I can feel the anxiety that the narrow path generates within my heart and soul.  I can easily react to the seductions of the wide path; in order to choose the narrow path I must be response-able and intention-all.  Excuse me, I need to pause and look about me to see which path I am on today. . . oops. . .more later.

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At times I feel whelmed over by humanity’s cries and then I seek to turn down the volume.  These cries cannot be eliminated nor silenced and when we try to do so we are disconnected from one life source that connects us all.  What, then, are we to do?  For me, this question seems unanswerable.  What I am aware of is that whatever I experience invites me to be open to the doors of grief, pain and suffering that others have gone through.  For years now I have lived with pain — physical, emotional, spiritual — and so I am more aware of and patient with others I meet along the way who are in pain.

When I am whelmed over by humanity’s cries or when I am whelmed over by my own cries, I can find myself closing my heart — and at times I find myself with a hardened heart.  What I continue to experience is that deep within my closed or hardened heart lies compassion and love waiting to be called forth.  They wait patiently.  They are the balm of Gilead that heals and revives my heart and soul.

I know that I cannot really avoid humanity’s cries; nor do I really want to avoid them.  I know, by experience, that at rare times my refusal to stay vulnerable will morph into its opposite.  I will accept, if not relish, the suffering of others.  Like the Romans of long ago, I will take a ‘Roman Holiday’ and take pleasure in the spectacle of others battling to the death in the arena of life.  As technology has advanced, this danger has intensified — we are bombarded by news each moment; we are, in less than a second, brought into the world of 9/11, of Boston, of Syria, of Newtown, of . . .  This endless replaying of tragedy can easily push us over the edge until we fall into the perverse Roman arena that is our world today.  To view tragedy with insensitivity or defensiveness — perhaps even with a bit of ‘pleasure’ — moves us to the dark side of the force.

The light and the darkness reside within each of us, individually and collectively.  The seeds of both are waiting to be nurtured into life.  We are more likely to nurture into life seeds of light if we choose to remain open to and vulnerable to the cries of humanity.  If we choose to nurture the seeds of light — of compassion, love and vulnerability — then we choose to be changed, if not transformed, just as Na was changed and transformed.  Like Na, we can choose to listen deeply to the cries of humanity and we can, then, choose to care for others that we meet along the way.  Will I listen?  Will I care?  Will I love?

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My heart has been aching for months, it seems; I am aware that I continue to be on the verge of tears.  I want to share an old, old story with you.  Whenever I recall this story and whenever I share it I also connect with the cries of humanity and my heart opens and aches.  The great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke says to me: ‘Don’t be afraid to suffer.  Return that heaviness to earth’s own weight; heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.’  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds me that ‘A saint (is one) who does not know how it is possible NOT to love, NOT to help, NOT to be sensitive to the anxiety of others.’  And the wise Lakota shaman, Black Elk, suggests that ‘Perhaps the most important reason for lamenting is that it helps us to realize our oneness with all things, to know that all things are our relatives.’

As I mentioned, the story is an old, old story; probably Indo-European in origin; but no one seems to know for sure.  It is a story that continues to speak to all of us and like all stories the one I will share with you, gentle reader, has been adapted, has been added to, and has been altered many times; I am reminded to never let facts interfere with a good story.  In this telling, our central character is a man, let’s name him Na.

Na was a warrior and had been walking for days and one morning he came upon a valley.  He stopped and stared.  There was a village in the valley and it had been demolished, the people massacred.  As he walked among the deceased his heart opened and he felt the pain of suffering.  Suddenly Na heard a plaintive cry.  He pulled several bodies aside and found a young woman struggling to breathe; she held an infant close — the infant had a terrible head wound, but was alive.  Na fell to the ground and embraced both of them; their blood washed over his face, chest and hands.  Although Na did not understand her words; it was clear that she wanted him to take her child.  Na was not prepared for this; he hesitated.  The young mother grasped his hand, looked deeply into his eyes and died.  In an instant Na’s plan for his journey dramatically took another path.  He could not close his heart and walk away.

He gently took the child into his arms and walked out of the valley.  With each step he heard the cries of the villagers, his heart was torn asunder and he cried their cry.  Na came upon a cave.  He made a fire, and held the child close.  Eventually he fell asleep and when he awoke he discovered the child had died while he slept.  Na held the child for a long time and as he looked upon that innocent face he began to feel the cries of all humanity — humanity long gone and humanity today and humanity yet-to-be.  The cries of humanity became so intense that his breath came in fits and starts.  Na had begun to hold the world in its brokenness; he began to hold those who suffered; those who were betrayed, the sick, the marginalized, the lost, the forgotten.  As he listened deeply to the cries of humanity, his heart opened like a rose and amidst the cries of humanity he became stronger.  Na committed himself to caring for the wounded, the lost, the marginalized; he committed himself to hold the dying and he committed himself to keep the cries of humanity alive.  Humanity’s pain, held by one person, opened the pathway to humanity’s healing.

Na may have been an ancestor of the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Kuan-yin, whose name means ‘hearing the cries of the world.’  Many stories merge over time into one story; the story that is our story.

As Black Elk reminds us the reason to lament is that it helps each human being — You-Me-Us — to realize our connection to all, past-present-those yet to be born.  We are, each of us, called to deep listening to the cries of humanity.

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In concluding my three part posting focusing on Sikhism, I have chosen to share some of the values Sikhs hold, some of the behaviors that are prohibited, and a few ‘other’ observations.

Sikhs value EQUALITY.  All humans are equal before God; therefore, no discrimination is allowed on the basis of caste, race, gender, origin, color, education, status, wealth, or belief system.  The principles of universal equality and brotherhood are important tap roots in Sikhism.  Sikhs value a person’s RIGHT TO BE ALIVE.  Sikhs value the FAMILY.  Sikhs are encouraged to provide for and nurture members for the benefit of creation [each has a contribution to make to the world].  Sikhs value SHARING; it is important to share with those who do not have enough and it is important to give 10% of one’s net earnings to ‘charity.’  Sikhs value the FOUR FRUITS OF LIFE: Truth, contentment, contemplation and ‘Naam’ [in the name of God].

Some of the Prohibiting Behavior includes, but is not limited to: Material Obsession [‘Maya’] and Material Attachment.  Sacrifice of Creatures, including self-sacrifice.  Non-family oriented living — a Sikh is encouraged NOT TO LIVE as a recluse, beggar, monk, nun, celibate, etc.  Worthless Talk — bragging, gossip and lying are not permitted.  Intoxication — using alcohol, tobacco, certain other drugs are not permitted.  There is no priestly class in Sikhism; a priestly class is prohibited.  Sikhs are prohibited from having premarital or extramarital sexual relations.

Sikhs are encouraged to ‘meditate upon God’s name (‘Naam’); they are encouraged to earn an honest living while remembering God; and they are encouraged to share with those in need.

There is but ONE GOD.  God has infinite qualities and names; God is Creator and Sustainer.  Sikhism does not acknowledge the belief of a Personal God, as does Christianity, for example.  God is usually interpreted as being unfathomable, yet in a true sense God is also knowable.

Every creature has a soul and upon death, the soul is passed from one body to another until ‘liberation;’ the journey of the soul is governed by the deeds and actions that we perform during our lives.

Sikhs strive to REMEMBER GOD: Only by keeping the Creator in your mind at all times will you make progress in your spiritual evolution.

Sikhs live so that they are prepared to give their lives for Supreme Principles.’

Sikhs believe that there are many paths to God; they are not the only path nor do they consider themselves to be ‘the chosen ones.’

For a Sikh, no particular day is holier than another.

ALL ARE WELCOME.  Members of all faith traditions are welcomed and can visit and pray in the temple (Gurdwara); there are ‘rules’ to be followed when visiting a temple: cover your head, remove your shoes, no smoking once you cross the temple’s threshold.

The MOOL MANTAR sums up Sikhism’s basic beliefs:  There is one creator, whose name is truth; a creative being without fear, without hate, whose timeless spirit is throughout the universe and who is beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, who is self-existent; by the grace of God (the Guru), God is made known to humanity.  Chant and meditate on God’s name who is True in the beginning, True now, and will be True forever.

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Although we might not know the name, when a male Sikh enters the room we all know it.  Why?  We know it because of his dress.  Our eyes are drawn to his turban and his beard; if we look closely our eyes might well be drawn to his eyes.  Why the turban and the beard?

The Sikh I met in Singapore told me that “The turban is God’s [Guru — you might remember from Part I that another name for God is Guru which means ‘teacher’] gift to us. It is a sign of our commitment to our own higher consciousness. For men and women alike, this projective identity conveys royalty, grace, and uniqueness. It is a signal to others that we live in the image of Infinity and are dedicated to serving all. The turban doesn’t represent anything except complete commitment. When you choose to stand out by tying your turban, you stand fearlessly as one single person standing out from six billion people. It is a most outstanding act.”

The “bana” or form, the personal appearance of a Sikh, is one of the foremost ways that a Sikh maintains his or her consciousness as God intended. God has given the Sikh specific instructions to keep his or her natural form as created by God. Thus, all hair is maintained, uncut, and untrimmed. God has given the Sikh a standard of dress which distinguishes him or her as a human being dedicated to a life of truthful living. God has instructed all Sikhs to maintain high moral character, symbolized by the wearing of the steel bracelet, (“kara”) and to stand prepared to defend righteousness, wearing the “kirpan” or sword [this sword is worn on the side when Sikhs dress ‘formally’ and at other times the sword is small and is worn on a chain that is hung around the neck].

The long hair of a Sikh is tied up in a Rishi knot (Joora) over the solar center (top of the head), and is covered with a turban, usually five meters of cotton cloth. (The man’s solar center is nearer the front of the head. The woman’s solar center is further back.) A female Sikh may also wear a chuni (chiffon scarf) draped over it rather than wear a turban. All Sikhs cover their head while in Gurdwara [temple]. With the historical awareness of the non-sexist nature of Sikh Dharma and the Sikh lifestyle, many Sikh women wear turbans on a consistent basis, as the men do. The turban of a Sikh is his or her primary identifying feature. It is a statement of belonging to God, and it is a statement of the inner commitment of the one who wears it. The uncut hair and the turban are a declaration to live in accordance with, and if necessary die in support of, their commitment to God, the Teachings of the Sikh Gurus [there are ten of these Gurus] and the Siri Guru Granth Sahib [the Sikh ‘scriptures’]. Regardless of the circumstances or the type of employment or activity, a Sikh keeps his or her form and identity as a Sikh. Clothes are modest, and exemplary of the identity and character of a soldier-saint [early in their history the Sikhs were forced to physically defend their lives and developed into the ‘most feared’ warriors — during World War II, the soldiers the Japanese feared the most were the Sikhs of India].

In addition to the ‘hair’ [Kesh] and ‘sword’ [Kirpan] there are three additoinal ‘Ks’ for the Sikh.  There is the Kanga (comb) that is used in order to keep one’s long hair clean and hygienic [remember, the Sikh will not cut his or her hair during their lifetime].  There is also the Kachera (a plain white cotton undergarment); this reminds the wearer of higher character and modesty.  Finally, there is the Kara (a simple metal bracelet) which reminds a Sikh of honest living and of restraint.

For the Sikh there are also two important beliefs — spiritual contemplation [meditation] and selfless service.  There are three supporting pillars — chanting meditation, self actualization and community living.  There are also five ‘thieves’ [vices] that tempt the Sikh — Kaam [lust], Krodh [wrath], Lobh [greed], Moh [attachment], and Hankar [pride].  Finally, to complete today’s posting, there are also five virtues — Sat [truth], Santokh [contentment], Daya [compassion], Nimrata [humility], Pyar [love].

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I experienced my first in-depth conversation with a Sikh during my first trip to Singapore in 2001.  This was a man with caring eyes, a gentle soul and a compassionate heart.  I can still recall his face when I close my eyes.  Sikhism was founded during the 1400’s in the Punjab region of India by Guru Nanak.  Today there are approximately 35 million Sikhs with the majority still residing in India.  A Sikh believes that ‘realization of truth is higher than all else.  Higher still is truthful living.’  Sikh teaching emphasizes the principle of equality of all human beings and rejects discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, and gender.

Sikhi is a monotheistic religion; God is shapeless, timeless, and sightless (i.e. God is unable to be seen with the physical eye).  The beginning of the first composition of Sikh scripture is the figure ‘1’ — this signifies the universality of God.  God is omnipresent and has infinite power over everything.  Sikhs believe that before creation, all that existed was God and God’s ‘will’.  When God willed, the entire cosmos was created.  God must be seen from the ‘inward eye’ or the ‘heart’ of a human being.  God is revealed through deep meditation.  God has no gender — God is without form.

There is no final destination of heaven or hell; there is a spiritual union with God that is salvation.  One of the core deviations from the pursuit of God and salvation is ‘Maya’ — illusion or ‘unreality.’  Humans are distracted from devotion by worldly attractions which give only illusory satisfaction.  In ‘Maya’ one values worldly distractions rather than God.

Another word for God is Guru (teacher) for God is the source and guide for knowledge and salvation.  Knowledge and salvation can only be reached via rigorous and disciplined devotion to God.  Our purpose in life is to reconnect with God; this is an inner journey taken through the heart, with the spirit and soul.  Our ego is our biggest hindrance when it comes to reconnecting with God and, paradoxically, our healing from this disease also comes through how we use our ego.

Sikhs are called to balance work, worship, and charity and are also called to defend the rights of all creatures, in particular, fellow human beings.  Sikhs are encouraged to have an ‘optimistic-resilience’ view of life.  All are equal in God’s eyes and hence, men and women share the same rights.

The philosophy of Sikhism is covered in great detail in the Sikh holy book: ‘Guru Granth Sahib’.  Detailed guidance is given to followers on how to conduct their lives so that peace and salvation can be obtained.  The holy text outlines the positive actions that one must take to make progress in the evolution of the person.  One must remember the Creator at all times — it reminds the follower that the ‘soul is on loan from God, who is ever merciful’ and that the follower must dedicate his or her life to all good causes — to help make this life more worthwhile.

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More than fifty years ago now a young man was hired away from a research company to head up an important research project at another company.  Within 18 months the young man, now project director, made a crucial decision and it so dramatically affected the project that within a short period of time it crashed and burned.  It also cost the company millions of dollars (some say up to 20 million).  Soon thereafter the man was called into the president’s office.  As he walked out of his office he told his assistant to ‘pack up my things for I am on my way to being fired.’  With great resolve he entered the president’s office.  The president was standing behind a long table that was covered with papers.  He looked up and said, ‘Smith, you really blew this one didn’t you!’  ‘Smith’ said that indeed he had really blown it.  The president continued with, ‘Smith, do you know why I asked you to come up here this morning?’  ‘Smith’ quickly replied, ‘Because you are going to fire my . . . !’  The president looked down at the papers and then looked up.  He then continued with, ‘Smith, that’s what I thought you would think. Why would I want to fire you, I just spent millions educating you.’  Pause: ‘I want to know what you have learned?’  Pause: ‘I will also tell you when I will fire you.  I will fire you, Smith, if you ever make another mistake like this again and I will fire you if you stop taking risks.’  Pause: ‘Now, let’s sit down and talk about what you have learned.’  Thirty years later this young man became the president of this prestigious organization and he successfully guided them through a very difficult time.

Too often I am a repeat offender; perhaps, you gentle reader, have also been a repeat offender.  There are many others who are also repeat offenders.  I also find it easier to observe others do so and I also find it easy to judge them.  Why do I choose to do so?  Because I am a fallible human being?  Because I have developed certain habits?  Because I convince myself that ‘this time’ it will be different?  Because I am fearful of succeeding?  Because I am just full of fear?  Because I am self-destructive?  Because I am pride-full or because I am full of that Greek pride of hubris?  For me, all of these come into play.

I learned to play golf more than 57 years ago.  I quickly learned that practice does not make perfect; practice simply makes permanent.  Over the years I have known many golfers who know they have integrated a ‘bad habit’ into their swing and yet they don’t take the time to ‘correct’ it AND each time they play they complain about the shot they hit; the one that was a direct result of their integrated bad habit.  Aristotle suggested that we become our habits.  Now, golf is perhaps the most difficult of sports.  It is played counter-intuitively — for example, the harder one tries or the harder one swings the worse it gets.  It requires at minimum good eye-hand coordination.  It requires patience.  It requires forgetting about the last bad shot.  It is 90% mental and 10% physical; although one must develop specific physical skills in order to play well.  It requires ’emptying the mind’ and yet it also requires a ‘pre-shot’ routine.  Although the ball is just sitting there — inviting you and mocking you at the same time — the player must continue to have movement of some sort (this pre-shot routine helps) for standing still causes the muscles to tighten and this always contributes to a bad shot.  One holds the club lightly and softly in the hands for bad things happen when one tightens one’s grip on the club.  The swing itself is also counter-intuitive; the body, it seems, is not meant to contort in the way a good swing requires it to contort.  To state it bluntly: Golf is not only difficult it is the home of repeat offenders.

I-You-We know that we are to learn from ‘failure’ — we don’ go through life walking the talk; we go through life stumbling the mumble.  I-You-We know that ‘success’ involves facing life’s dilemmas and then learning from them.  I-You-We know that life is lived incrementally, gradually — moment to moment, choice to choice, now to now.  I-You-We know that in order not to be a repeat offender we must reflect upon our experience, then learn from it, then discern what we might do in order to obtain a different result/response/outcome and then we need to choose to act differently.  But like the millions of golfers in the world we strive to get a different result by engaging the same choices and habits AND it drives us and others crazy (didn’t Einstein tell us this?).

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