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Archive for March, 2014

I am a philosopher; you, gentle reader, might also be a philosopher.  Philosophy is our English word for a Greek word: philosophia.  ‘Philo’ means, ‘the love of . . .’ and ‘Sophia’ means wisdom.  Thus, a philosopher is a lover of wisdom.  We can thank an old Greek, Pythagoras (as in the ‘Pythagorean theorem’) for giving us this word.  For centuries, philosophy was a ‘lived experience’ – it was ‘who’ the person was; it was their second nature (see Socrates, Plato and Aristotle).  Recently I have been thinking more about philosophy and so I thought I might write a few words; I am not sure as I type these words how many postings I will make, it feels as if what is emerging from within as I search and seek will require a number of them.

The important ingredients needed for the philosopher to emerge had to be in place and during the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. they were in a small country emerging into its adolescence: Greece.  Actually, ‘Greece’ was composed of a number of small city-states and one of these, Athens, had more of the ingredients in place during this time and gave us the philosophers many of us know, by name at least: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.  But they were not the only ones and they certainly were not the first philosophers to make an impact.

In Greece, there were ‘citizens’ (all Males and all ‘free’) and there was everyone else.  I find it interesting (is this the word?) that our founding ‘fathers’ (again, males that were free) defined ‘citizen’ in the same way (citizen was one who had both voice and vote – our ‘founding fathers’ were fearful of giving women and freed-slaves the vote; today many of us are fearful of giving the vote to the ‘wrong people.’).  As it does today, the appetite of the layman (today, layperson) grew as a result of what they fed on (‘What are we ‘feeding’ on today?’ is a question that raises my anxiety).  For the Greek citizen, philosophy became important because it was, literally, a matter of life and death (don’t believe me, ask Socrates).  The citizens of Athens learned that there was no short-cut to wisdom nor to knowledge.  They also learned that wisdom and knowledge were threats; they were threats to religion, to politics, to ignorance, and to any number of ‘belief systems.’  For them, wisdom and knowledge went hand-in-hand.

Consider that today, in our culture, we seem to value knowledge and are less interested in wisdom just as in our schools we seem to value ‘learning’ more than ‘education’ – we can, by the by, thank science and technology for these splits.  How so?  Science and technology nurtured into life the ‘specialist.’  Then over time the specialist put on blinders in order to shut out from his vision all the world but one little spot, to which he glued his nose.  Perspective was lost.  ‘Facts’ replaced understanding; and knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generated wisdom.  It is not that science, technology nor the specialist are ‘bad’ – it is that we have lost ‘balance’ and one discipline that had helped maintain that balance, philosophy, is no longer honored by the ‘common folk.’  Today, consider that our culture is in a race between achieving a re-balance and catastrophe [historically, great nations and great cultures ‘failed’ because they lost and could not regain the balances they needed in order to survive and thrive].

Philosophy can help us search for wisdom and for meaning.  As the poet Browning noted: “Life has meaning, to find its meaning is my meat and drink.”  It is in our DNA to seek ‘meaning’ and to ‘seek to understand.’  Science and Technology can help us ‘seek to understand’ and we need philosophy to help us seek ‘meaning’ and, if we continue to deepen the search, ‘wisdom.’  Religion can also help us seek ‘meaning’ and ‘wisdom’ but too often religion gets caught up in ‘sureties’ and once one is ‘sure’ then one stops searching and seeking; philosophy is inherently rooted in doubt and questions [Theists, by the by, are rooted in faith and faith is rooted in doubt – which is why it is called ‘faith;’ I recall that the Pharisees were rooted in ‘surety’ and that a certain Rabbi often took them to task for this – but I digress a bit].  The Oracle at Delphi, when asked, ‘Who is the wisest man?’ replied that it was Socrates.  Why?  Because Socrates knew that he did not know.

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Discipline = an activity that helps one develop one’s capacity.  Given this definition, ‘discipline’ is ‘neutral’ and becomes nurturing or depleting depending in large part upon what we choose and what we choose to do over and over and over.  Aristotle noted that we become our habits and so it is with ‘discipline’ – if a certain ‘discipline’ is habitual then over time we integrate it so that it can actually become ‘second nature’ to us.

I am a pre-cradle Roman Catholic; I write ‘pre-cradle’ because I was baptized while I was in the delivery room for I was frail, sickly and not expected to live (surprise!).  I learned to ‘pray’ early in life and prayer became a ritual (not a discipline).  When I was 18 years old I spent a year in a Monastery and that is where I was introduced to the ‘discipline’ of prayer.

Prayer = a devout petition to an object of worship; a spiritual communion with an object of worship.  For some the ‘object of worship’ is a transcendent being; for some it is truly an ‘object’ – e.g. money – that is worshiped.  We petition these via our prayers and we can also seek a ‘spiritual communion’ with them.

As I noted, prior to entering the Monastery, my prayers were primarily ‘ritual’ in nature.  I prayed when I awoke, I prayed prior to breakfast, from the age of 6 on I attended daily mass and prayed some more, I prayed for meals, I prayed before formal games, I prayed at night and I prayed before I went to bed.  I also prayed during severe thunder storms or when someone was ill or when someone had died.  Some of my prayers were prayers of ‘thanksgiving’ but most of them, as I recall, were prayers of petition or ‘begging.’

My time in the Monastery transformed my idea of prayer [Transformation = a fundamental change] – Now I need to be clear: I still offer prayers of petition and I am really good when it comes to ‘begging’ prayers; I have not changed my habit when it comes to these two types of prayers.

What changed for me was that prayer went from being a ‘ritual’ to a ‘discipline.’  In addition, I learned the power of the prayer of thanksgiving, I learned the power of prayer as ‘conversation,’ I learned the power of prayer as ‘connection,’ and I learned the power of healing prayer.

I still pray at certain times of the day; some of these prayers can – and do at times – simply be ‘ritual’ prayer.  On good days, I catch myself and can move from ‘ritual’ prayer to ‘disciplined’ prayer [I am awake and aware of my prayer and I am intentional and purpose-full about the prayer itself].  I often prepare myself for prayer by imaging my walking with God – who shows up in a number of guises; sometimes God shows up as ‘light’ or as a wise woman, or as a man about my age, or as a breeze that is gently moving throughout the universe; sometimes God shows up as a mentor, or as a wise person that I have read about – a Socrates, for example.  I do not try and force God into a certain image; I allow God to come to me as God wishes (God is God after all and can show up as God wishes…if I allow God to do so).

There are two other prayer disciplines that I have integrated: Meditation and Lectio Divina.  These help me to slow down, to become centered in my heart and soul and they are two disciplines that I use to nurture my spirit.  I learned the discipline and the power of both during my year in the Monastery.  Few things draw me closer to understanding who I am, to having a relationship with God, and to trusting that I really do not walk alone.

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What is the ‘Good Life’?

I am considering three ingredients that if, over time, they are balanced, complementary and in alignment that one by-product might well be the ‘Good Life.’  Are these the ‘only’ ingredients?  Are these the ‘key’ ingredients?  I don’t know; I am not sure.  My life experience is such that these three are crucial for me if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  I do invite you, gentle reader, to emerge the ingredients that must be balanced, complementary and in alignment in order for you to experience your ‘Good Life.’  Here are my three:

Provide Enough.  I must be ‘provided enough’ if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  As I look out upon my/the world I am aware that if one is not provided enough then misery is the by- product.  I have learned that I cannot, on my own, provide enough – either for me or for the other(s).  What is it that I need (not want, not desire, but need)?  I need to be provided enough opportunity – opportunity to grow and develop the talent, skills and capacities that will help me address my highest priority needs.  I need to be provided enough opportunity to then use my talents, skills and capacities to meet the needs that exist in my/the world.  Both needs must be addressed – mine and the needs of the other(s) – if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  For others they will need to be provided enough food, shelter, good health, education, freedom ‘to’ and freedom ‘from,’ and they will also need to be provided enough opportunity to develop their talent, gifts and capacities so that they can also address their needs and the needs that exist in their/the world.  There is also a crucial question here: What is enough?  Who determines this?  I live in a culture where ‘enough is not enough;’ there is never enough.  I have held this question for years.  Sometimes I have a real sense of what is enough for me and at others times I know that what is ‘enough’ is not enough (my desires and wants take over).

Identity.  I am thinking of an African tribe where the greeting is ‘I see you!’  This ‘seeing’ provides the one being seen with an identity.  I am thinking of another culture where the ‘naming’ of the person is communal in nature.  I am thinking of another culture where the new-born is welcomed with the belief that he or she has come to them because they need his or her gifts (and one task of the community is to help the person identify, develop and use their gifts to meet the needs of the community).  Part of my identity comes from my name – my given name, my middle name, and my family name(s) – I say the plural for family names because it is not just my father’s family name that is important it is also my mother’s family name (even though I do not formally carry this name).  Part of my identity is the result of the many relationships I have had since my birth.  I have chosen part of my identity; the motivations for this are many.  Part of my identity comes from the stereotypes, prejudices, judgments and ‘naming’ that others ‘put upon me’ – as we know, some of these take root and frame our identity.  Some questions I continue to hold include: To what extent do I choose my identity?  To what extent have I accepted the identity others have ‘put on me’?  To what extent have I ‘resigned myself’ to my identity?  To what extent do others resist my choosing to ‘alter’ my identity? 

Four Dimensions.  In other blog entries I have addressed these four dimensions, for our purpose today I will briefly explore them again.  I call these my P.I.E.S.  These are the four dimensions that contribute to my wholeness as a human being.  My experiencing the ‘Good Life’ is directly related to whether I am nurturing them more than depleting them – and as an imperfect being I will do both.  I am the steward of each of these dimensions.  I am the steward of my Physical dimension, my Intellectual dimensions, my Emotional dimension and my Spiritual dimension.  Not only am I entrusted with these – to nurture them more than deplete them; I am asked to make sure they are balanced, that they complement each other, and that they are in alignment.

These three – Provide Enough, Identity, and Four Dimensions – are, for me, integral to my responding to the question: What is the ‘Good Life’? 

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What is ‘the Good Life’?

As human beings, at our healthiest we are living paradoxes.  We are virtue and vice, we are light and darkness, we are good and evil.  A few years ago a guy named Aristotle offered us another way of looking at this; he said that we live in tension within a multitude of polarities and that our task was to find and live by the ‘Golden Mean’ [This ‘Mean’ was not the middle, but was the ‘Mean’ that is the healthiest for me as a fully human being].  So, for example, ‘Courage’ is the ‘Mean’ between ‘Cowardice’ and ‘Rashness.’  Depending upon ‘who I am’ my ‘Courage’ will reside closer to one of the extremes than to the other – thus, Socrates’ (and the Oracle at Delphi’s) suggestion (requirement?) that one must ‘know thyself’ becomes important.  The ‘Good Life’ then is composed of paradoxes and polarities and it is our challenge to find the ‘Golden Mean’ that best serves who we are.  Thus, a starting place involves getting to ‘know one’s self.’

What do we need to know?  Consider that it will be helpful to know the following: Our Core Values – those 2-4 values that to the best of our ability we will never compromise them; Our Core Guiding Life-Principles – those 2-4 Principles that we rely upon to provide us guidance as we move through life; Our Core Deep Tacit Assumptions – those 2-4 assumptions about ‘the world’ and about ‘others’ (for example) that influence our choices and our judgments.  There are a number of others that it will be helpful for us to know but these three will be enough to get us started – the questions for each of us include: How well do I know these? How do they affect me and others? Do they get me what I want?  What do I want?  Here are three examples, one from each of the categories above.

Core Value: A ‘Core Value’ might be ‘integrity.’  The polarities are: Lying  . . . Truthfulness.  Why ‘truthfulness’ as one polarity.  Kant might be of help.  Kant said that no matter what, it is our duty to always, I MEAN ALWAYS, tell the truth – even if it will cost someone his or her life.  For me, I can image a number of scenarios where I might well choose to lie and to do so rooted in integrity.  So, for me, being unconditionally truthful is not a ‘Golden Mean.’

Core Guiding Life-Principle: What enables me to embrace a ‘Core Value’ of integrity is that it is rooted in a Core Guiding Life-Principle: To act with integrity at all times.  Because I am a living paradox (i.e. I am imperfect) and because I have choice I might choose not to act with integrity.  One by-product of not acting with integrity is ‘guilt’ (justly ‘earned’) and thus ‘recompense’ and ‘forgiveness’ and ‘healing’ and ‘reconciliation’ also come into the picture.

Core Deep Tacit Assumption: For me one is: Human beings are inherently good.  There are folks who believe that we humans are inherently ‘evil.’  I also assume that human beings are inherently trust-worthy [because we are living paradoxes I also know that some will choose not to be trust-worthy and that some, because of a physical or emotional disorder will not be ‘trust-worthy’ but it seems to me that it is not because of ‘choice.’]

Given this, we will continue, next time, with our exploration of ‘What is ‘the Good Life’?   

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What is ‘the Good Life’? 

In our culture all one has to do is turn on the t.v. and what is offered as ‘the Good Life’ screams at us, over and over again.  Because we are told, over and over and over and over, that we will experience ‘the Good Life’ if we seek to smell a certain way, if we have enough hair, if the hair we have is colored a certain way, if we take any number of pills (the speaker’s voice becomes softer when the ‘side-effects’ are listed), if we dress a certain way, if we drive a certain car, if we use a certain credit card (don’t worry about the balance on your card for there are any number of folks that can help you reduce your monthly payment ), if we sculpt our body a certain way, if we shave off nature’s ‘hair’ (whether you are a man or a woman, certain body hair, if not removed, will certainly keep you from ‘the Good Life’), if we drink the right alcoholic beverage (in moderation, of course), if we buy the winning lottery ticket, if we make sure that our houses are protected with certain alarm systems, if we join this ‘dating service’ we will – whether we are young, old, black, divorced, single, white, Christian or Jewish – meet the perfect person for us, if we have ‘identity protection,’ [given all of the above it is a wonder we have a sense of our identity anyway], if we buy our energy – we no longer have to take care of ourselves so that we have enough energy.  Ah, this list could go on and on.

In our culture ‘the Good Life’ is also defined as having the ‘power,’ the ‘status,’  the ‘money’ and the license [I was going to type ‘freedom’ but freedom is joined at the hip with responsibility and what is held up to us is ‘license’ which means we have the right to do whatever we want – we can be as uncivil, as mean-spirited, as demeaning, as demonizing, as hateful, as marginalizing and as insensitive as we want; we are NOT our brothers keepers – no wonder the ‘stranger’ is having such a tough time, we are not even our brothers keepers…of course there are some who say that ‘the stranger’ is our brother].

This ‘Good Life’ also leads one into fear (especially of the ‘stranger’) and into attempting to ensure ‘protection from’ (again, the ‘stranger,’ or old age, or illness, or hair loss, or wrinkles, or …).  The ‘Good Life’ offers us an ‘illusion’ of ‘no worries’ and yet, attempting to live out the ‘Good Life’ as I have described it actually contributes to our anxiety and worry [and there are pills that can help us manage our anxieties and worries – so, again, ‘no worries’].

I am smiling – it is a ‘sad smile.’  On the one hand we are told, over and over, to trust that all of the things I have mentioned above will indeed lead us to the ‘Good Life.’  On the other hand, we are full of distrust and cynicism when it comes to certain people, not products: politicians, people who sell_______[you, gentle reader, can fill in the blank], attorneys, for some the police, for some the clergy, for a growing number, the stranger, for some those who are ‘different’ [again, gentle reader, you can fill in the adjective – Jew, Muslim, Catholic, Fundamentalist, Ex-Con].
Should it not be the other way around?  Should we not question, doubt, be skeptical about ‘things’ and be more trusting of ‘human beings’?

Of course, I might be wrong about all of this.  Perhaps my ‘rant’ is simply my own cynicism manifesting itself.  Perhaps I ‘don’t get it’ – it won’t be the first time.  Perhaps if I ‘really understood’ then. . .  Perhaps, PART II, will help me – and you, gentle reader – consider a different response to the question: What is the Good Life?  

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What does it mean to live a spiritual life?

Our culture values progress and achievement.  Given this, we seek ‘markers’ that help us know how well we are doing.  Thus, when we seek to respond to the question we are holding – What does it mean to live a spiritual life? – we can quite easily become seduced by the following questions: ‘How far have I advanced?’  ‘In what ways have I matured since I started along this spiritual path?’  ‘What step of the spiritual ladder am I on and what will it take for me to get to the next step?’  In certain contexts, questions such as these can be helpful; yet I invite you, gentle reader, to consider that it might be important for us to leave these questions aside as we think about and engage the question.  One of my recent reflections might help serve as an example.

[From a 2013 Journal Entry] ‘When I think about where I am when it comes to my spiritual life I come up with as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism.  For more than 40 years now I still have many of the same searching struggles: I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, for the ability to ‘let go’ the image of relationships that are dramatically changing, and I am still searching for God especially during the times I am wandering in the deep woods, the deserts, the wilderness and the wasteland.  Am I really living more of a ‘spiritual life’ than I was living five or ten years ago?’ 

What I have learned about myself is that I frequently find myself living within three polarities (are they paradoxes?); there is a tension that comes with living here.  I don’t think I am alone when it comes to these polarities, nor to the accompanying tensions; it seems to me that many of us who seek to engage the question – What does it mean to live a spiritual life? – hold these, or similar, polarities.

The first polarity is a personal one; it focuses on the first relationship I have – the relationship I have with myself.  For me, it is the polarity between ‘loneliness’ and ‘solitude.’  The second polarity focuses on the relationship I have with the other(s).  For me, it is the polarity between ‘hostility’ and ‘hospitality.’  The third polarity focuses on the relationship I have, or seek to have, with God.  For me it is the polarity between despair and hope [despair is rooted in illusion and disillusion and hope is rooted in prayer and service].

For me, my spiritual life is a constant movement between these polarities.  The more I embrace both as part of who I am [this is where the idea of ‘paradox’ comes in – this is not an ‘either/or’ proposition; it is a ‘both/and’ proposition] the more I am able to live a life that is not divided (again, ‘either/or’) but that is truly a life of wholeness (again, ‘both/and’).  Living a spiritual life is living a life of wholeness.  It means accepting that I am, at my healthiest, a living paradox – I am good and evil, I am light and darkness, I am virtue and vice, I am despair and hope, I am fully human.

I am remembering the monk who was approached by the student.  The student asked what it was like to live a spiritual life.  The monk replied that ‘before I lived a spiritual life I was depressed.’  Now that I am able to more fully live a spiritual life I am depressed.’  I hold onto this little story for it provides me hope, makes me laugh and allows me to affirm that I am fully human.

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What does it mean to live a spiritual life?  I have held this question since mid-September, 1962.  It is a question that I periodically engage and it is also one that I continue to hold.  Like the great German poet, Rilke, at times I believe and at times I hope that someday, in some way I will live into the answer.  Mostly, I continue to believe that my quest to live an authentic spiritual life is worth the doubt, despair, anxiety and pain – to spend time in the deep dark woods or in the wilderness or in the desert.  Amidst these feelings and these locations I experience little glimpses of light, I experience hope, and I experience faith.

In 1962 I began to learn that my parents, my teachers, my spiritual guides, or my counselors could do much more than offer me their support, care, love and guidance as I strode along my way – a way that I had/have to take alone.  At times I have expended a great amount of energy seeking to avoid the pain that comes with accepting the responsibility and response-ability for my own life.  I had to learn to move from ‘some say’ this is what I should do or this is who I should be and say, in response to the great question Mark offers us in his gospel [Mark 8:27-30]: ‘But what do you say?’

The question about my spiritual life is a daunting one.  It reaches down into my core.  It challenges me to take nothing for granted – neither good or evil, virtue or vice, life or death, neither other humans or God.  This is my question AND yet I need much guidance as I step along my way.  Like all significant, personal questions I hold, this question requires that I seek support as I step along.  Even after 58 years of stepping along I still hold Dante’s words in my head and heart: In the middle of the way of our life I find myself in a dark wood.  I also hold Wendell Berry’s quote – it provides me a little piece of light: Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of  curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread.  It is ancient fear of the unknown and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.  What you are doing is exploring.

For me, my spiritual life entails reaching in to my deepest self; it entails reaching out to others I meet along the way and it entails searching for and perhaps reaching for God [or is it more like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says: God searches for us.]  I am called to ‘go inside’ and seek with courage (‘courage’ comes from the French word for ‘heart’); I am called to reach out and care for others, especially for those I meet along the way; I am called to seek and to be open to God through meditation and prayer.  In order to do this I must also accept my own inner doubts and fears and anxieties – these are the tap roots that can nurture my faith; I must also accept the wide variety of feelings and judgments that I offer to others I meet along the way; I must also be able to continue to hold my doubts about God – God’s presence and God’s absence.

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