Dec 302010
 

This Yearning Itself

Today, Mysterious Lord,
for you pours out this pining.
It is a sweet grieving.

As though for a dear father
who has left this world,
or a lost first love,
your memory haunts me.

Reaching out to embrace you
these arms enfold emptiness
and wrap themselves
back upon this burning heart.

Yet here you are
in this very melancholy,
the darkness in waiting,
and the longing light,
this yearning itself.

Tree and Mountain

The tree meditates
and its leaves grow
youthfully green,
dance in summer winds,
age in noble red and gold,
and then fall
to leave the silvery limbs
outstretched in prayer.

And so may this meditation be
the chant,
the song,
the liturgy,
the ecstatic act of living,
of life flowering through me,
of being lived.

The mountain meditates
and gathers snow,
pours down streams
of tears of joy,
reveals veins
of precious beauty,
and opens it dark eyes
of timeless depths.

And so may this meditation be
the breath,
the silence,
the stillness,
the wonderful fact of mystery,
of mystery flowing through me,
of being mystified.

O mysterious Life,
O living Mystery,
Let me be Thy meditation.

My Bright Little One

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Matthew 19:14

my bright little one,
in your face shines pure joy
for the voyage you have joined

your sparkling eyes,
open wide, clear and deep,
welcome all the wonder of this life,
brimming with the simple strength, love and poise
of knowing beyond words
the indwelling, upwelling, outpouring Spirit

show me the way to let you shine through,
not only when in silence I turn within
to sit alone with you,
but always and everywhere, for everyone

you are my heart,
so let my face be yours,
my bright little one

May you know the blessings of
Faith,
Hope,
and Love
in 2011.

Dec 162010
 

Picking up from the previous post, I want to address two common challenges with spiritual practice: The first is discipline and the second is misunderstanding the value of experiences.

With regard to discipline, in observing my own practice and the practice of others, it’s obvious that consistency and persistence can be  huge challenges.  Quite frankly, I believe a central part of this problem is our wanting easy, low-cost, instant gratification. It might be a little reductionist, but it sometimes seems to me that we regard spiritual practice more like a form of entertainment than a way to greater awareness, wholeness, integration and depth of being in ourselves, in relationship with God, and in our presence in this world.  Many of us also want our experiences to be intellectually or emotionally profound, and perhaps even socially or materially tangible.  Any practice that doesn’t seem to fulfill these wishes can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different; we can also imagine ourselves as having already “advanced” beyond the need for that practice.   It’s so easy to ignore how often the great saints and sages have asserted the value of commitment to even the most basic practices.  It has even been said that it’s in persisting through boredom with a spiritual practice that we begin to gain the most significant, yet often most subtle, benefits.  Said another way, the most important experience can sometimes simply be the doing of the practice itself.

It might be obvious that we’ve already begun considering how confusion about the value of experiences can be inherent in our judgments about the value of a practice.  Plainly stated, the value of an experience, and therefore the practice that facilitated it, is not necessarily measured by its immediate magnitude. Another aspect of this confusion is in taking an extraordinary experience too literally; there are countless stories of visionaries who have brought horrible suffering to themselves and others because of knee-jerk reactions to their own inner experiences.  Strong desires can lead to mistaking an experience as a direct contact with something that the experience actually only represents.  For example, a flash of light experienced in the depths of meditation may reveal something to us about the presence and action of the Spirit, but it does not necessarily mean that the light was the appearance of a particular spiritual being.  Similarly, just as the on-screen image of a movie actor is not the actual character portrayed, or even the actual actor, so too can dreams and visions about spiritual beings be far removed from actual contact with them.  Even the images of these words are not the actual forms on the computer screen, let alone the actual thoughts in my mind, but are your mind’s perception of the words and the thoughts behind them.  Another potential confusion is taking the magnitude, frequency or total number of one’s experiences as an unquestionable sign of spiritual “progress.” Such an attitude is dangerously self-aggrandizing and a highly volatile fuel for wish-fulfilling delusions.

So, is there some way to minimize these risks without turning spiritual practice into nothing but a heartless drudgery or abandoning it all together?  Yes, to begin with, it might already be apparent that one guideline I’ve found valuable is paying careful attention to the overall integration and harmony of the soul’s different aspects and functions.   Of course, this guideline is itself based upon a very deep, broad and persistent practice of honest self-awareness and caring self-acceptance.  Said another way, it is the practice of being lovingly present with oneself, and thus becoming increasingly aware of the very fluid interconnectedness within us – head, heart, and gut.  Along with this practice of presence, all the great spiritual traditions recommend the mindfulness and application of certain virtues.  In Christianity we traditionally rely on the four cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – and the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and especially charity (or agápē, spiritual love, “the greatest of these“).  But it’s very important to understand that the practice of the virtues is not about forcing one’s external behaviors to conform to some predetermined model of perfection.  The object here is not to build up some new facade in the place of being more consciously whole; in fact, the virtues are first and foremost internal processes. When incorporated with the practice of loving self-presence,  they shed significant light on the ways one is at odds with oneself, suffering from psychic fragmentation and compartmentalization, while also pointing out paths toward greater integration and harmony.  Being fully present with ourselves and working with these virtues doesn’t provide a foolproof guarantee that we won’t make mistakes, yet it can reduce the risks in making them.  When we do make mistakes, these guidelines can help us lovingly embrace them as learning opportunities and thus become even more meaningful experiences in our spiritual lives.  Beyond these very significant experiences, the practice of presence and the virtues may also facilitate a deepening awareness of something in ourselves other than thinking, feeling, sensing and doing – something quiet and still, and at first seemingly tiny and insignificant, yet more vast and powerful than we can comprehend, let alone control.

For many of us mystics, awareness of this other within ourselves is both fascinating and frightening – fascinating in its penetration into a very deep mystery of the soul, and frightening in our awareness of the comparative smallness and powerlessness of that part of us we most often identify as “me”, or what we commonly call the “ego”.  One risk associated with the fascination is confusing such an encounter with the mystical union we desire. A risk with the fear is the ego coming up with all sorts of excuses to avoid accepting and adjusting to the greater reality, including quitting a practice because we’ve realized how much it has been motivated by serving the ego; sometimes that’s just a sign that the practice is actually working!

Finally, with spiritual practice, like the rest of life, let’s acknowledge that there is no way to eliminate risk; even in retreating to avoid some risks we fate ourselves to take others.  So the question I’ll leave you with is this: What risks do faith, hope and love call upon you to take?

Agape

Dec 122010
 

Across all religious traditions, there are warnings about risks in spiritual practice, and especially practices of the mystical variety. This post is about exploring some of those risks, all of which I have experienced the hard way.

I’ll begin approaching this issue from the observation that each of us has a tendency to judge some particular kind of experience as especially meaningful or rewarding, and so we can naturally focus our efforts on spiritual practices that we believe improve our chances of having such experiences.  However, because no practice has a 100% return of the desired results, the effect of partial reinforcement can push us toward a kind of addiction in which we feel compelled to try harder and harder to get the high, no matter what the cost.  In effect, we run the risk of our practice becoming a drug that we use to attain our particular favorite high. Casinos profit obscenely from this phenomenon, and so do some people in the spirituality/religion business, but I digress.

From this point, let’s consider some different categories for experiences and practices people commonly consider meaningful or rewarding in their spiritual lives.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place and you are welcome to add some ideas of your own.  It will probably be fairly easy for you to look at the list and pick out a few things at each end of your own like-dislike scale.

  • Intellectual – These experiences are about the discovery, acquisition, processing and communication of information, ideas, and insight.  Along with such effects through the usual academic pursuits, this category would include those from all forms of analytical, theoretical, and speculative thinking, as well as from visions and related psychic experiences.
  • Social – These experiences are dependent upon relationship with other human beings, and involve themes of acceptance, belonging, support. roles and responsibilities, status, esteem and power.
  • Physical – This category involves increased or decreased sensory stimulation.  Nature, art, ritual, ceremony, service to others, dietary observances, exercise, sex, austerities, and the bodily aspects of meditation and prayer all have relevance.
  • Emotional – Here we are speaking of heightened or lessened feelings, such as pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort, satisfaction, frustration, excitement, sadness, happiness, anger, peace, confidence, anxiety, fear, release of tension, relief from boredom, and so on.

It’s apparent that these categories aren’t completely discreet from each other; they are interconnected.   In considering that interconnectedness, you might have already noticed how much the emotional category serves as the final arbiter of our choices.  We can come up with lots of rationalizations and justifications for pursuing one thing more than another, but the deeper we look the clearer we see that we’re more likely to follow through with something if we believe it promises some sort of emotional satisfaction for ourselves, whether it is comfort in having done the “right” thing or even a kind of masochistic satisfaction.  Even the continuation or cessation of our own physical lives is subject to this dynamic.

It’s not my intention to encourage self-flagellation about our very deep and powerful tendencies to serve ourselves.  I am convinced that emotional self-interest is an inextricable part of human nature, and any attempt to pretend otherwise only leads deeper into a life of unhealthy illusion.   These observations are instead made primarily to point out some of the most crucial dynamics leading to imbalance, disharmony and fragmentation in our souls.  Likewise, they suggest that our choices about spiritual practice can actually contribute more to psychospiritual dysfunction than to well being, even when they really feel good.

There are many different directions we could go from here, and I encourage you to explore whatever seems to lead you into a place of deeper self-awareness, honesty and wholeness.  In the next post I will offer a few further considerations.

Agape

Dec 052010
 

Psalms 46:10a – Be still and know that I am God.

A thoughtful friend once gave me a plaque bearing these words, and it has a central place on the altar in my study. This scripture has long been very meaningful to mystics and non-mystics alike.  It suggests there is something about the act of being still, of letting go, of surrendering, that somehow brings us closer to God, or at least delivers us to a greater sense of peace.  Rather than go further with interpretations of how it can be meaningful, in this post I want to offer two different meditation techniques that incorporate this passage.   It is recommended that you not practice both in the same sitting, and perhaps not even in the same day.  In fact, I would suggest working with one for a week or two before moving on to the other.

A side note before going further:  I’ve added a link to the blog tool bar for a page about Meditation Methods.  It begins with a basic meditation you can use to lead you into and out of other methods such as these.

Meditation #1

(Please note, this meditation may not work exactly as described in languages other than English. I invite readers fluent in other languages to comment and/or submit appropriate variations.)

Once you have become settled, relaxed and centered, inhale fully and then slowly whisper aloud the full translation of this passage, stretching the words out through your entire exhalation. Open your heart, mind and body to respond naturally to the words. Be aware of your response in all ways, observing, attending to and absorbing in the whole – intuitively, intellectually, emotionally, and physically:

Be still and know that I am God.

Inhale, and then slowly whisper:

Be still and know that I am

Continue to shorten the statement by one word each time, stretching the words out through the entire exhalation, always allowing your whole being to respond naturally to the words:

Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
Be still
Be

Inhale and exhale silently, attending to the silence itself. Inhale again, and then, as you exhale, begin rebuilding the statement one word at time:

Be
Be still
Be still and
Be still and know
Be still and know that
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I am God

Once again, inhale and exhale in silence. You now have some options: You can repeat the entire process as many times as you wish, you can repeat it silently within, or you can simply sit in silence and stillness. No matter what course you follow, it is recommended that eventually you take several minutes to just be still.

Meditation #2

The original Hebrew of this sentence is beautifully poetic and makes a fine chant. It can be transliterated as, “Harpu u’de’u ki-anokhi Elohim.” The pronunciation is:

harpoo oo’de’oo kee-anokee eloheem

This meditation is not as oriented toward insight as the previous method, but rather is aimed at gently guiding you into deeper stillness and openness to God.

Once you have become settled, relaxed and centered, inhale fully and then slowly chant the Hebrew words in a strong clear voice, resonating from your chest.  Chant the words out through your entire exhalation. It should be louder than your usual speaking voice, and more like the volume you might typically use when singing with a group.

After a few repetitions, begin to gradually lower the volume, so that after at least a dozen repetitions you are chanting at a whisper. Within a few more repetitions you are only mouthing the words before you shift to continuing the chant silently in your heart and mind.

Eventually you can let go of the internal chant to more fully abide in the stillness and silence in which the chant has been occurring all along. Simply allow any sensory perceptions, thoughts or feelings to come and go like background noise as your awareness remains centered upon openness to God.  Even thoughts and feelings about God are not to be dwelt upon, but rather allowed to pass by as one abides in the silence and stillness from which they are born and to which they return.   If you find yourself becoming distracted and attached to some sensation, thought or feeling, that’s okay; just gently return to the silent chant for a while, and as often as you need.

I hope you find these methods beneficial.

Agape

Dec 032010
 

The New Man: An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of Christ

This book has been out of print for some time now, though there are reasonably priced used copies available.  The title and image are linked to free online versions.

Table of Contents

new man

Click here to read the book!

I The Language of Parable
II The Idea of Temptation in the Gospels
III The Marriage at Cana
IV The Idea of Good being above Truth
– The Miracle at the Pool of Bethesda
– The Good Samaritan
– The Laborers in the Vineyard
V The Idea of Righteousness
VI The Idea of Wisdom
VII Simon Peter
VIII The Idea of Prayer
– Introduction
– The Necessity of Persistence in Prayer
– The Necessity of Sincerity in Prayer
– Response to Prayer
– Request in Prayer
IX The Sermon on the Mount
X Faith
XI The Kingdom of Heaven
XII Judas Iscariot
Appendix

If you are a Christian, or any other seeker, who is beginning to look for more than literal meaning to the messages of the New Testament, then you’ll find this book a powerful starting place.  If you’re already well down that path, then you may also find things here that not only resonate with your own thoughts and experiences, but can bring fresh insights and challenge you in new ways.

Dr. Maurice Nicoll provides a profound view of the depths that we might plumb in the parables and messages of Jesus. Nicoll’s concern is not as much with historical or theological views of Jesus, but rather how the Gospel accounts of his life and teachings can show us the way to fulfill our potentials as spiritual beings. In the front of my copy (Fifth Impression), Nicoll clearly states his purpose in “A Note on the Author”:

The intention is to indicate that all teaching such as contained in the Gospels, and many other older and newer teachings, in the short period of known history, is about transcending the violence which characterizes mankind’s present level of being. It affirms the possibility of a development of another level of being surmounting violence.

Nicoll’s poignant interpretations are significantly shaped by his impressive background in medical, psychological and philosophical studies; he was a student of Freud, Jung, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. He believes the central psychological idea of the Gospels is the movement toward rebirth, which is to awaken as a person with a deeper understanding of self and others. Nicoll calls this movement “inner evolution”, and stresses that it must be engaged by the whole person – thoughts, feelings and actions.

One key he offers to using the Gospels for this kind of work is to view the various characters and elements as symbolic of aspects or dynamics of the soul.  For example, he takes up the symbolism of the Pharisee* not so much as a member of an historical group, or even a way of characterizing others in one’s life, but as:

…the Pharisee in oneself, to the insincere person in oneself who, of course, cannot receive any real and genuine psychological teaching without turning it into an occasion for merit, praise and award.

Another significant element of Nicoll’s view is a hierarchical appreciation of the relationship between the human and the divine.  In fact, this seems to be the very basis of his views on prayer.  He posits that prayer is an attempt to communicate upward to heaven, and as such requires persistence to the point of “shameless impudence,” yet, perhaps ironically, with a sincerity born of utter humility: “Unless a man feels he is nothing, prayer is useless….”  Even so, Nicoll makes it sound as though enough pious nagging will force God into serving us as we wish: “Only persistence and intensity can cause the higher level to respond.” (my emphasis)  On face value we might find these views troubling, but it would be extremely unfair to take Nicoll on face value, for he also says:

And let us also remind ourselves that the attainment of this higher level possible for Man is called heaven or the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels and that it is within a man, as a possibility of his own inner evolution or re-birth of himself, and that Man at the level he is on, as an unawakened creature, an unfinished experiment, is called earth. These are the two levels, the higher and the lower, and some very great differences exist between them, as great as the differences between a seed and a flower. Thus communication between these two levels is difficult. The mission of Christ was to bridge, to connect, and to bring into correspondence in himself these two levels, the divine and the human….

Nicoll insists that “by an evolution of the whole psychic man, that is by an evolution of all his mind, his love, his will and his understanding”, the “Man of the Kingdom”, the “New Man” of Christ in us, can be born.  In the end, it seems to me that Nicoll has essentially come around to saying one’s prayers are more likely to receive a positive response as one’s whole being is more attuned to the divine.  In other words, one is more likely to get what is wanted because one is more likely to persistently and sincerely pray for what is most in harmony with the divine.

Some readers will find one of the most challenging themes of the book to be about placing Good above Truth (Nicoll’s capitalizations).  For Nicoll, issues of Truth are inevitably interwoven with differing perspectives of understanding and opinion. His concern is that doctrines and laws too often stand upon that very subjective and all too often self-serving foundation, because the person who has not attained a higher level of Good “can twist the higher Truth to suit his vanity.”  It isn’t that doctrines about Truth are to be ignored, but rather should be seen as stepping stones meant to lead us to higher levels of knowing and being Good.  So it is that even the most hallowed doctrines are misunderstood if they are not considered secondary to Good:

The Mosaic Law, or, at least the ten commandments, are instructions from the side of Truth, as to how to attain a level of Good, where, as commandments, they have no further meaning. But if they are taken as an end, and not as a means of an end, they become stumbling blocks.

Nicoll speaks of this shift of priorities from Truth to Good in the Gospel language of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  He argues that this reversal is central to the mission of Christ, for it places our understanding of Truth within the context of Good, and not vice versa, which enables us to serve the higher purposes of doctrine, the spirit of the law rather than merely the letter.  This seems to connect well with Jesus’ statement that “all the law and the prophets” hang upon our love for God and our fellow human beings.

Finally, throughout the book it’s clear that Nicoll urges his readers to engage the challenging work of connecting with the higher levels within themselves.  While he speaks much about the honest self-awareness, genuine humility, integrity and commitment such attainment requires from the human being, he doesn’t have much to say about Divine Grace.  This omission is unfortunate because Grace is such a significant element of the Good News.  Perhaps Nicoll would say the capacity and the opportunity to do that work are themselves gifts of Grace.

[* In fairness, it’s worth noting that although the stereotype of the Pharisee is often used disparagingly among Christians, Jesus and the Apostles actually had some good friends and supporters among the Pharisees, such a Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel.]

Nov 232010
 

Happy Thanksgiving!  The following post was originally written in 2008.  I’m putting a revision up on this blog because it continues to capture an important part of the Thanksgiving experience for me.  It also connects with major themes of the previous post.  I hope it connects with something in you.

During the Thanksgiving season, my attention is drawn to contemplating an intimate connection between gratitude and compassion.  I suppose I have always had some awareness that these two sentiments are related; at the very least they can both be easily recognized as aspects of Love.  Still, I don’t always take the time to actually meditate on their relationship.

The inspiration for this meditation developed out of a recurring awareness of how much I experience gratitude in my closest relationships; in my most satisfying moments of serving others’ needs; when I am attentive to the beauty of nature and art; or when my meditations, prayers, and moments of mindfulness are most saturated with awareness of the Divine Presence.  More specifically, this meditation first began with pondering how the sense of pride in feeling worthy of another person’s approval has increasingly given way to feeling grateful for sharing in mutual experiences and expressions of acceptance, admiration, affection, caring, comfort, devotion, empathy, forgiveness, trust, and all the other wonderful flavors of Love.  While I still feel pride, it naturally diminishes in the face of gratitude as I gain appreciation for how little being a participant in Love is dependent upon anything I can do to be worthy of it.

In the big picture, Love has nothing at all to do with whether or not one has earned it or deserves it in any way.  There certainly are aspects of Love that we humans understandably express in greater or lesser measure in response to different characteristics, attitudes and actions; yet Love itself remains ultimately inextinguishable. There is a common adage with which we acknowledge something of this truth: God and our friends love us despite our flaws.

In Western religious language the eternal and all-pervading presence of Love is known as Divine Grace, and many of us consider its realization to be the key to salvation, the deliverance from a life consumed with fear, shame, remorse and self-loathing.  Just as God is understood to be infinite, eternal, and unbounded, so must God’s attributes be limitless.  Love IS.  Love doesn’t depend on us to bring it into existence.  Thus, while we can know Love very directly and immediately, it isn’t something we possess, or something someone else has for us to get.  On the contrary, Love has us. It is living and breathing through us, from and to us, completely encompassing and interpenetrating us, forever without ceasing.

Knowing this, I cannot honestly assume any other position relative to Love than gratitude, and so my angst-ridden struggles to be worthy of being loved increasingly give way to a profound peace.  That peace is grounded in the faith that I think and act more lovingly as the immanence of Love further weans my consciousness from illusions of power and control.  Even so, there is something of me, call it ego if you wish, that resists this surrender to Love.  Every student of his or her own psyche knows this resistance well.

The writings of many saints and sages use words that suggest a kind of internal battle between the forces of resistance and surrender to Love.  Yet it’s somewhat paradoxical, isn’t it, to think of surrender to Love as contributing to a conflict?  In truth the only conflict must be within the part of us that maintains illusions of power and control.  In this one-sided battle we experience the last stand of such illusions in the belief that we must inflict self-derision and self-punishment for our errors and shortcomings.  In short, we mistakenly think we must be less loving with ourselves in order to become more lovable and loving for others.  We thus condemn ourselves to suffering with thoughts and feelings that leave less room for gratitude. So it is that gratitude is a measure of awakening to Love.

Each one of us knows this self-conflict, and here we can begin to discern the connections between gratitude and compassion.  When we deeply appreciate the fact that others are suffering in this same way, compassion is already blooming in our hearts.  The fullness of that compassion grows as the self-conflict of our self-pride/self-derision dissolves in the warm peaceful sea of gratitude for the immanence and transcendence of Love.  The more we know Love within ourselves, including the experience of gratitude for Love, the more freely Love flows through us as compassion for others.  We also find that to express gratitude to another, perhaps when that person feels least deserving of it, can be an act of compassion that awakens her or him to the Divine Grace of Love.  Gratitude is therefore not merely a passive response to Love, but is also realized as an active expression of Love.

It may sound a little trite, but my sincere hope for all of us is that the attitude of gratitude grows in our hearts during this Thanksgiving, and thus Love will graciously shine through us into the hearts of others.

Agape

Nov 152010
 

The Good Heart:  A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus

In 1994, the Dalai Lama was invited by Fr. Laurence Freeman OSB to lead the John Main Seminar sponsored by the World Community for Christian Meditation.  The Dalai Lama, seminar panelists, and other participants meditated together and discussed eight key scriptures from the Gospels:

  1. Love Your Enemy, Matthew 5:38-48
  2. The Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-10
  3. Equanimity, Mark 3:31-35
  4. The Kingdom of God, Mark 4:26-34
  5. The Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-36
  6. The Mission, Luke 9:1-6
  7. Faith, John 12:44-50
  8. The Resurrection, John 20:10-18

This book is a record of their dialogue, and presents fascinating reflections on parallels, intersections and differences between Christianity and Buddhism.  While the focus is on Christianity, both traditions are represented authentically and respected as living embodiments of truth.  The Dalai Lama makes it clear, as he has often done in other venues, that he has no intentions of converting Christians to Buddhism or attempting to blend them into an amorphous universal religion.  Instead, he encourages people to plumb the depths of the religions to which they were born.  At no point does he presume to tell Christians what their scriptures should mean to them, but asserts that his views are only interpretations from an outsider.  It’s obvious that he admires Christianity and intends to speak in support of its followers.

Here is a beautiful story the Dalai Lama shared about his experience of Christianity through Christians he has known:

…on a visit to the great monastery at Montserrat, in Spain, I met a Benedictine monk there.  … After lunch, we spent some time alone, face to face, and I was informed that this monk had spent a few years in the mountains just behind the monastery.  I asked him what kind of contemplation he had practiced during those years of solitude.  His answer was simple: ‘Love, love, love.”  How wonderful! I suppose that sometimes he also slept.  But during all those years he meditated simply on love. And he was not meditating on just the word.  When I looked into his eyes, I saw evidence of profound spirituality and love — as I had during my meetings with Thomas Merton. … These two encounters have helped me develop a genuine reverence for the Christian tradition and its capacity to create people of such goodness.   I believe the purpose of all the major religions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts.

One of the most interesting things about this book may be how much it offers in the way of fresh and penetrating insight into some of the most well known Christian scriptures, and their implications for doctrine and spiritual living.  Not only are the Dalai Lama’s reflections poignant, but Fr. Freeman consistently offers views on Christianity that lead us well beyond the literalism that tends to dominate mainstream ideas about the Christian faith, and in so doing points toward freedom from many of the absurdities, self-contradictions, and oversimplifications that tend to characterize such ideas.   Consider this excerpt:

Dalai Lama: So that means we need not think of heaven and hell in terms of an external environment?

Fr. Freeman: No.  Hell would be the experience of separation from God, which in itself is unreal.  It is illusory because nothing can be separated from God.  However, if we think we are separated from God, then we are in Hell.  …  There is a poetical metaphor in the Bible in which God punishes humanity for its sins.  But I think the image of Jesus takes us beyond that image of God and replaces it with an image of God as one who loves unconditionally.  Sin remains. Sin is a fact. Evil is a fact. But the punishment that is associated with sin is inherent in sin itself.

This book is highly recommended for anyone with a dawning interest in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, for how it can enrich a Christian’s understanding and living of our faith, and for suggesting how we can embrace each other as spiritual siblings serving many of the same values and principles.  For the most part it is a light and easy read, and those who are looking for more extensive probing of intellectual depths or considerations of spiritual practice and service may be disappointed.  Even so, it’s a good starting place in its genre, and more seasoned thinkers in this area may enjoy it like a refreshing cup of tea.

Nov 112010
 

Welcome to the Way of the Heart!

I’d like to begin this blog with a spiritual practice that can be used to directly engage the mystical Way of the Heart.  The Heart of Love is a method of meditation and prayer that works with the most profound and powerful teachings of Jesus:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it, that you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

As you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done to me.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

It takes very little reflection to know this method involves everything taught in the quote above: Love for God and our fellow souls is at once the motive force, the immediate sentiment, and the practical aim of this work.  It makes use of our human intelligence in the most graceful and subtle of ways – an internal cultivation of love that stimulates a more living and visible operation of hope and faith in our relationships with others.  It puts the Way of the Heart into immediate practice.

This method is developed through four phases.  It is recommended that the first phase be practiced alone for at least a week, and then each phase can be successively added over a period of several weeks until you are finally practicing all four phases in each sitting.  Once a working familiarity has been developed with each phase, then the practitioner may place more or less emphasis on various phases, and even rearrange them, as desired. Some people might find this method suitable as the mainstay of their regular devotionals and inner work, while others might prefer to use it less routinely.  This method is an excellent practice for anyone who wishes to serve in spiritual healing, for it helps in keeping one’s soul open to the flow of higher energies and tends to infuse one’s healing prayers with the special sweetness of selfless love.

Phase One: The Heart of Love Received from the Exemplar

It is always advisable to begin and end such work with a mindful ritual such as lighting a candle and perhaps some incense, and crossing oneself. After settling into a centered and peaceful state of meditation, offer a prayer of submission to the Divine Will, expressing your desire to know and serve it through love.

Next, call to mind the image of someone you consider to be a great historical embodiment and exemplar of love.  For many Christians, Jesus will be the only suitable figure, though others may be attracted to another, such as Mother Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, or Mother Theresa.  Imagine this person standing in front of you with a loving smile.  See within his or her chest a flaming heart, radiating love out through the whole body in rich hues of pink, ruby and golden light, like a splendid sunrise.

Feel the warmth on your face and chest. Let yourself respond emotionally to this great soul’s love, smiling in return.  Imagine your exemplar reaching out to cup your heart in his or her hands, and the flames of love flowing into and igniting your own heart. If you feel moved to weep with gratitude, or smile or laugh with joy, allow that to happen as you continue to meditate upon this person as an embodiment of Divine Love, a living vessel through which God loves the world, including you.  To accept this love is itself an act of love for God, for the exemplar, and for yourself.  You may speak with your exemplar if you wish.

In your meditation, consider that to ancient people the heart was not merely symbolic of emotions, but was also the seat of intuition, inspiration, beauty, peace and harmony.  There is much to discover here about the nature of love, which includes far more than our feelings of affection and sympathy.

When you are ready to end the meditation, simply let the image fade.  Offer a final prayer of thanks and return your consciousness to the external world, though now infused with an elevated awareness of love.

While most people report this exercise to be positive and uplifting, some people may also find themselves challenged by various kinds of discomfort with the work.  For example, feelings of unworthiness, guilt or shame may arise.  It is important to simply be aware of all our feelings, both pleasing and uncomfortable, accepting them as indicators of deeper processes occurring within our hearts and minds.  In effect, they present us with opportunities to learn more of what we really believe about ourselves and our relationships with the Divine.  In response to such observations, it is important to remember that accepting the infinite grace of Divine Love is not about using the head to strategize a path toward righteous worthiness, but is rather about simply opening the heart to the immediate fact of God’s freely given mercy and affection.  With this understanding, where we find self-condemning thoughts and feelings of self-loathing, we have the opportunity to practice acceptance, forgiveness and healing of our own humanity, as well as truly nurturing ourselves toward more virtuous living.

Phase Two: The Heart of Love Shared with Those We Cherish

Proceed through the previous phase and just past the point where your heart is ignited by the exemplar.  Allow the image of the exemplar to fade, and in its place imagine someone among your friends and family with whom you share a deep bond of love.  Perhaps this is someone you know to be in extra need of receiving love at this time. See him or her smiling in the warmth of the pink, ruby and golden light radiating out through your body.  Imagine yourself reaching forward to hold that person’s heart in your hands. See and feel the flames of your heart flowing through your arms to ignite his or her heart with love.  Speak with this person if you wish.  Meditate upon the love you have shared, how it has been expressed between you, and how it might grow.

When you are ready, allow that person’s image to fade. If you feel moved to do so, allow the image of another cherished friend or family member to arise, and then repeat the entire process.  You can continue through as many loved ones as you wish, eventually ending the meditation as before.

As with the previous phase, this can be a very touching and joyful exercise, and yet it can also prove challenging.  In focusing on your love for another, you might discover areas of uncertainty or sense something lacking.  For example, you might realize that in some way you have not been as expressive of your love and affection as you might be.  This could be due to various fears or inhibitions for either or both of you.  You might also discover you have resentments, frustrations or other negative feelings about the individual that seem to prevent you from more fully and freely loving him or her.  As you practice the exercise with different people in mind, you may become more aware of how your love differs from one person to another.  With some people your sentiments might be more affectionate, with others more appreciative or admiring, while for others more compassionate or sympathetic.  In any case, this phase of the Heart of Love can help you learn about how you feel, think and behave in your relationships with loved ones, and thus provide you with many opportunities to refine your ability to love each person in your life in a way as unique and meaningful as he or she is.

Phase Three: The Heart of Love Shared with Those Who Challenge Us

Work through the first two phases, and now begin extending your love toward someone you feel has mistreated or offended you in some way, or someone you have difficulty trusting.  Give just as freely and energetically to this soul as you did in the second phase. Meditate upon the many pearls of wisdom in loving those we may not find easy to love. Reflect on what it means to love someone you do not necessarily like.  Ponder how you might manifest love for this person more outwardly. As before, repeat the process until you are ready to end the meditation.

Phase Four: The Heart of Love in All

After working through all the previous phases, meditate upon the universe as existing within the Flaming Heart of God, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Recall that your heart is aflame with that same Divine Fire, and that it is actually a spark of that Divine Fire, as are all the hearts of God’s children.  Allow all the implications of meaning, virtue and action to flow freely through your heart and mind, with neither resistance nor attachment, but with awareness, acceptance and love.