Tag Archives: humanity

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #3

     Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

     Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

     Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

~ Postcard #3 THERE ARE MANY PATHS UP THE SAME MOUNTAIN ~

(Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark) Mother Teresa caring for the sick and dying.

(Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark) Mother Teresa caring for the sick and dying.

THERE ARE 7.3 BILLION NON-MORMONS currently on the planet. I’ve met some of them. In India, we worked together in the leprosy colonies. Some of my fellow laborers found inspiration in the teachings of Guru Nanak or Muhammad or Jesus or Swami Vivekananda. Others were motivated by a love for Vishnu or Shiva or the Mother Goddess Devi. A few held no religious convictions at all, yet seemed as devoted to serving humanity as their god-fearing counterparts. In serving together, I never noticed a hint of difference in the love conveyed by Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Baha’is, Seventh-Day Adventists, Hindus, or non-theists. Any notion I’d carried into India that we Mormons were going to radiate a unique quality of goodness quickly evaporated in the sweltering heat, along with any lingering cultural arrogance. 

My Mormon beliefs have provided a well-spring of goodness in my life, and I continue to be grateful for the ethical grounding and strong sense of moral purpose that my faith system has endowed me with. But when I look around, I witness the same measure of goodness, the same infusion of moral purpose, in my non-Mormon brothers and sisters. I can’t honestly claim that my religious beliefs have been more fruitful in my life than theirs have been to them. This is not easy to admit, having donated tens of thousands of dollars and two years of my life as a full-time missionary inviting people to change their beliefs. Had I been more wise, I might have helped them connect to that well-spring of goodness found at the heart of their own tradition instead.

There is goodness everywhere. But within any belief system, there are lower laws and there are higher, more elevating laws. If we, like eagles, could find in the landscape of our own traditions those rising currents of warm air, those spiritual thermals, we might use them to soar to higher and higher states of consciousness. It was, after all, a rabbi named Jesus who pointed to the higher laws in his own Jewish tradition—leading no one out, but only up.

Huston Smith made the study of world religions his life’s work. The introduction to his popular and illuminating book, The World’s Religions, begins with this observation:

“..the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal…. It is possible to climb life’s mountains from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge.” 

(Photo by Kristofor Gellert) Puu Keahiakahoe summit in Oahu.

(Photo by Kristofor Gellert) The famous “Stairway to Heaven” to Puu Keahiakahoe summit in Oahu.

This idea of elevation and convergence echoes the experience of Ramakrishna. The Indian mystic earnestly practiced Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity and discovered that, by shedding any religious biases, he could find God in each tradition. He insisted that

“As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo or a staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways.” 

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

While my Mormon beliefs provide me with a sturdy ladder, well-suited to its task, I now must acknowledge that others are climbing just as high by means of bamboo, stairs, or rope. 

Happily, as we ascend, the fog of provincialism fades, and we find our narrow views giving way to more expansive vistas.

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Facing “Peace and Violence” in our Collective Memory

“His duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.” 

Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface

It’s hard to look honestly at our past. Especially when some of our actions fall so short of our ideals. And when we do take a good hard look, Memory finds she’s not permitted to publish her report until it’s first been redacted by a team of lawyers and then forwarded on to the suits at PR for a slick revision. I’m not making this observation theoretically; I experience it personally, time and time again. My own ego keeps thousands of employees busy night and day crafting narratives that preserve its sense of self-respect. This is human nature, isn’t it? Portraying only the most flattering versions of ourselves?

My own trouble confronting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about myself inclines me to be understanding when others flounder in the same attempt. So it’s without condemnation that I observe this all too human tendency on full display in the series of essays being added to the LDS Church’s official website. Taken as a whole, the essays suggest a growing willingness by Church leaders to acknowledge decidedly unflattering moments from our history. This may be a watershed moment in an organization for whom transparency has been a one-way mirror where they could see us but we couldn’t see them.

As one who takes seriously the call to be a peacemaker in this world, I find myself encouraged by the arrival of the newest essay, “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints.” But also disappointed.

For me, this essay falls short in the same way the others fell short: it seems more intent on deflection than reflection.

Let me explain what I mean analogously by way of a familiar scene at our house:

Hearing some commotion, my wife and I discover that one of our children has struck a sibling. Called to explain, the child recites a litany of abuses to which they’d been subjected. Once they’re certain that I fully appreciate the extent to which they themselves are the real victim, they will mention their own misdeed, but in terms that make their actions seem justifiable—or at least understandable—given the circumstances.

In “Peace and Violence,” the Church seems to be following this pattern. The anonymous author(s) appear to have been given the task of explaining egregious acts of violence, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in a way that reinforces our persecution narrative while also acknowledging a few isolated incidents in which Mormons were the aggressor. Throughout, allegations of violence perpetrated by members of the LDS church are either dismissed as being unfounded or over-blown, or, in the case of the well-documented Mountain Meadows incident, characterized as a tragic instance of the early Saints reacting poorly to the religiously-motivated hostility and sustained aggression they’d so long endured.

I don’t object to context, mind you. Indeed, as the essay takes pains to establish, a pervasive culture of violence typified 19th Century frontier life (as any even-handed treatment of the subject would recognize). But this essay’s portrayal of early Mormons as peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek folk who only occasionally lost their cool falls short of being fully candid. More importantly, it misses the opportunity to identify elements in our own church culture that kindled a spirit of vengeance and retaliation in our past, and which, I will argue in a future essay, continue to plague our present.

The audience for this and the other topical essays is most likely the member or investigator who has encountered deeply disturbing facts of history and returns to the official Church website seeking the most comforting explanation possible.

But what if we want our past to be a catalyst for transformation?

Comforting explanations only reinforce our sense that “all is well and was ever thus.” Such an approach lulls us into spiritual complacency and retards our growth, both personally and collectively. Sometimes we should squirm.

Hamlet’s words touched the nerve of his mother’s guilt. She wanted comfort, but he wanted her redemption. So he sat her down and said

…you shall not budge;

You go not till I set you up a glass

Where you may see the inmost part of you.

If we are honest, and if we are willing to squirm, we can use our history as a catalyst for transformation.

I’ll share two ways the essay fails to be transformative.

First, the authors of the essay didn’t invite us to learn from our past. While we can’t undo our historical failings, we can recognize the factors that contributed to those failings. As a Church, are we ready for those hard conversations? Can we recognize the presence of institutional factors that may still exist today, rendering us violence prone? I’m sobered by a passage I read in the prologue to Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Walker, Turley, Leonard), in which our own historians identify conditions that increase the likelihood of institutional violence:

Episodes of violence often begin when one people classify another as “the other,” stripping them of any humanity and mentally transforming them into enemies. Once this process of devaluing and demonizing occurs, stereotypes take over, rumors circulate, and pressure builds to conform to group action against the perceived threat. Those classified as the enemy are often seen as the transgressors, even as steps are being taken against them. When these tinderbox conditions exist, a single incident, small or ordinary in usual circumstances, may spark great violence ending in atrocity. The literature suggests other elements are often present when “good people” do terrible things. Usually there is an atmosphere of authority and obedience, which allows errant leaders to trump the moral instincts of their followers.

sermon-mount-jesus-christComing to recognize that many of these same elements are systemically perpetuated in our contemporary Church culture, these kinds of insights could be truly transformative, helping us to become a peaceful people whose discipleship is more Sermon on the Mount and less “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The second way the essay could have been transformative is by telling the truth in a way that lays bare our greatest vulnerabilities. No spin. Serve it up plain, without any dipping sauce. And when it comes to recounting our crimes against others, it seems to me we are under a special moral obligation to be completely and unreservedly honest.

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The poster exhibits the slogan of the Commission: “The truth hurts, but silence kills.”

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

By trying to preserve our own sense of our goodness, we fail to achieve a remission of our sins. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela taught the world this insight—that there is a redemptive quality found at the nexus of Truth and Reconciliation.

In a harrowing scene from Red Prophet, a fictionalized re-imagining of Mormon history penned by Orson Scott Card we see this principle of Truth and Reconciliation. Here, in a meadow flowing with the blood of innocent men, women, and children, the otherwise honorable men who did the killing are about to hear the conditions of their redemption:

From elbow to hands, they dripped with blood. Some tried to wipe it off on their shirts. Some searched for wounds that might be bleeding, but there were no wounds. Just bloody hands.

“Do you want your hands to be clean of the blood of my people?” asked the Red Prophet. He wasn’t shouting anymore, but they all heard him, every word. And yes, yes, they wanted their hands to be clean. “Then go home and tell this story to your wives and children, to your neighbors, to your friends. Tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. Don’t say that someone fooled you – you all knew when you fired on people who had no weapons that what you did was murder. No matter whether you thought some of us might have committed some crime. When you shot at babies in their mothers’ arms, little children, old men and women, you were murdering us because we were Red. So tell the story as it happened, and if you tell it true, your hands will be clean.”

Let’s tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. And when we tell it true, our hands will finally be clean.

 

Leggo of my Ego: An “East”er Look at Atonement 

HAVE YOU EVER STOOD BEHIND a Buddhist at a hot dog stand? It’s always the same thing:

What would you like?   

Can you make me one with everything?

This craving for a sense of one-ness is at the heart of my spiritual practice. I want to dissolve the boundaries of self that separate me. I know that sounds like New Age mumbo-jumbo, but I’m hard pressed to think of any spiritual tradition that doesn’t try to tackle the problem of alienation.

the-prodigal-sonChristianity, for one, explains this alienation as the “fruit of man’s first disobedience” and nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s Beloved Son could appease the decree of Divine Justice and thereby reconcile us to God. And in the Jewish narrative, alienation takes the form of exile and the promise of return, a theme woven throughout Hebrew myth and history. In the East, Vedic traditions (Hinduism) make Yoga–or Divine Union–the aim of their spiritual disciplines, which entails penetrating the facade of individual selfhood to realize the Divine Spark that infuses the whole of creation.

Buddhism, for its part, understands this sense of separateness as a dream, a delusion from which we must awaken. The notion of having a “self,” some enduring entity, is considered to be a trick of the mind, just a deeply entrenched mental construct. I find myself resisting this idea, sometimes viscerally. Other times, I’m drawn to it. Especially as I come to understand the idea more clearly.

tumblr_kunc3zNFEx1qatlijo1_1280You see, it isn’t so much that Buddhism rejects the notion of a self, but it rejects the notion of a separate self, a self-contained, independently existent identify. The truth, in this way of thinking, is that we are not independent, but interdependent. This is a spiritual ecology: we are woven into the web of all existence, and each strand is inextricably linked to the whole.

And yet, how persistent is the delusion, how unshakeable it’s resulting feeling of isolation. Einstein offered us a Humanist’s lens through which to understand this phenomenon when he observed that:

Albert-Einstein-5-900x1440A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

I know this. I bow to the beauty of this. So why am I still locked up inside that prison? Why do I persist in labeling everything in terms of “Me” and “Not-me,” depending on which side of my epidermis it happens to be? Am I destined forever to view myself, to borrow a phrase from Alan Watts, as an “isolated ego inside a bag of skin”?

Ah, the ego. That “I” which renders us so utterly myopic. There’s a term in Vedic philosophy—ahamkara in Sankskrit —that means, literally, “I-maker.” It refers to the part of us that creates a sense of selfhood. So, does the universal instinct to create a sense of self arise because this, in fact, accords with reality? Or is it merely a mirage? an abstraction? a term for something imaginary, like the number zero, which doesn’t actually exist but is nonetheless useful? And whether real or imagined, how do we keep the ego from overstating its place in the cosmos?

For Zen Buddhists, the practice of zazen, or seated meditation, is one way to silence the ego, or at least blur the lines between us and other. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Roshi Suzuki explains that, during breathing meditation,

When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door…”

 

zazen

This is part of my spiritual practice, and it works for me. At least it works until I notice it’s working. Then my ego stands up to take a bow (Look at me! I’m so . . . enlightened!) or else, ignored too long, it throws a tantrum and starts banging its tin cup against the bars of my mind.

If sitting cross-legged isn’t your cup of green tea, I’m happy to let you in on a secret: the prison warden has also (temporarily) let me out of my ego-cell at the following moments:

  • drifting in a kayak at Monterey Bay with sea otters
  • partaking of the sacrament of communion
  • sitting in a field of birds (without my field guide and lists)
  • those first two minutes of the “Adagio” in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, as interpreted by Julian Bream
  • in the union of love-making with my beloved
  • watching a camp fire when everyone’s done talking
  • lying on my back facing a big sky
  • bowing to a bowl of soup at Deer Park Monastery

6ac287a7b4e6ddc9c36184b34b07120c_fullThese are fleeting moments of liberation, to be sure. But they suggest more is possible. What they teach me is that, regardless of whether that “bag of skin” I call myself in fact envelopes an enduring identity or is just a soul-stunting illusion, I can experience times when I am deeply connected to those around me—indeed, with the whole universe.

For now, I choose to think of my identity as a constituent cell of some vast and beautiful organism. That cell has shape and definition, and perhaps a crucial function to perform, however small. But the vitality of that cell—that individual self—requires that it be encapsulated in a membrane that is not sealed off from the rest of the organism. In biology, these kinds of cell walls are said to be semi-permeable. The osmotic exchanges upon which life depend happen only when a cell is willing to give and willing to receive—to remain open and vulnerable to possibilities.

In the meantime, if I can’t be subsumed like a dewdrop into the ocean, then let me, like the poet, say to all the universe, Let there be commerce between us.

 

dewdrop.jpg.html

From Peek-a-Boo to Pale Blue Dot: An Earth Day Reflection

Eye-Spy1You know how a small child can make the rest of us disappear simply by shutting her eyes? Psychologists tell us that babies lack the capacity to conceive of perspectives beyond their own field of vision. It’s something they must develop as they mature—understanding that their perspective is not the only perspective, that they are not the axis around which the universe turns.

Civilization passes through developmental stages, too. As hunter-gatherers, family and clan affiliation were sufficient for our success. But in making the switch to agriculture, success meant  cooperation across family lines. Family and clan loyalties extended to tribal loyalties, chiefdoms, and city states. A robust population could now undertake labor-intensive enterprises like erecting walls and building infrastructure, and, critically, when attacked by marauding bands, a strong city-state could defend itself.

And so it went. City-states waged war with their nearest neighbor. Then a greater threat would inevitably come along that threatened to destroy them both. Leaders that could see past their mutual differences would form an alliance with their erstwhile enemy, ensuring their mutual survival in the face of a common enemy. Create a confederation of such alliances, and . . .voila! . . . nations are born.

And the cycle continues. Nations fight neighboring nations. A common enemy threatens their destruction. True leaders see past their mutual differences and form alliances with their erstwhile enemies, working together to solve global problems, collaborate on mutual interests, and increase the likelihood of an enduring peace.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Is civilization now poised to make the next leap? Can we transcend the arbitrary boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and geo-politics? Can we conceive of an identity so inclusive that it circumscribes the whole human family?

400px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseIn 1968, on Christmas Eve, the crew of Apollo 8, in lunar orbit, snapped a picture of Earth rising from the moon’s surface. This was humanity’s first chance to see ourselves from a distance. (Shout out to Bette Midler) Beamed from the lunar orbiting capsule, it was as if the people of earth were the recipients of a Divine Greeting Card.

If this was humanity’s attempt at launching into a new era of pax cosmos, it soon became apparent that, to achieve escape velocity, we’d need to overcome the gravitational pull of old paradigms. When we landed on the moon that next summer, Neil Armstrong announced one giant leap for mankind, and then promptly jabbed an American flag deep into the moon dust.article-2193737-14B2A689000005DC-359_964x635

Still, it’s often the wide-frame perspective that we get from space that best expands our vision of what it means to be a citizen of Earth. I know of no more stirring call for a global ethos than that offered by Carl Sagan, whose Voyager I project afforded us a view of Earth as seen from the edge of the solar system. We were just a pale, blue dot.

I’ll close with Carl Sagan’s stirring words:

JO-D-111016-Sagan02-1“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

~ Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, (1994)

earth-glint

 

If you enjoyed this, stay tuned for my next post, in which I explore the challenges of dissolving personal boundaries of self that prevent atonement. “Follow” this blog to receive updates on new posts, or subscribe through email.