Anthony DeMello – Awareness

I am reading Awareness by Anthony DeMello. One of the comments on the book’s back cover is “You may not have even realized you were sleepwalking.” I remember having a dream in which I woke up remembering my dream, but then realize that I was yet asleep and that my waking up was part of my dream. I had only entered a new place that felt more like being awake. Awareness, it seems, is a relative thing. One is never fully awake, only more awake than yesterday or than a few minutes ago.

DeMello was a psychologist/therapist as well as a Jesuit concerned with spirituality. “I have this great conflict within me when I choose between psychology and spirituality,” he wrote. All a psychologist can do, he says, is relieve pressure. (But) “nothing is more practical than spirituality.”

This idea seems strange to me. While spirituality feels good and important to me, to understand how my psyche works seems much more useful in the workings of the world and in my relationships with those around me.

What is spirituality? I separated it out of my religious experience a long time ago. Religion is a tool that can assist me in finding and staying on a spiritual path, but it is not the path. Spirituality, I have come to realize, is a relationship with God or with Spirit or with whatever that is that is not material. Words like “Higher Power”, “Divine Energy,” and “Life Force” come to mind. These are pretty lame yet useful attempts to describe an indescribable reality. “Love” serves well if it were not for the misuse of the word.

Psychology is the study of the psyche. I understand the psyche to mean the mind. This is why I would go to a psychologist, to discover how my mind works, how I think about and interpret the world. The role of a psychologist is to help a client see where their perceptions are misguided and then help them understand why. The “why” is not necessary but can be very helpful in order to move beyond misconceptions.

This sounds very practical to me. DeMello says that spirituality is even more practical than this. Understanding or realizing that we have been misinterpreting the world (or asleep) is no small accomplishment. In other words, waking up is when we see that what we thought was true isn’t. But psychology is less about finding truth than realizing our obstacles to the truth. “I cannot describe the truth,” he says, “No one can. All I can do (as a psychologist) is give you a description of your falsehoods so that you can drop them. All I can do for you is challenge your beliefs and belief system that makes you unhappy. All I can do for you is help you to unlearn. That is what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned – unlearning almost everything that you have ever been taught. It is about a willingness to unlearn and listen.” This reminds me of a well-known book on spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing. But not knowing is very painful and scary. Not knowing why things happen or why people are acting as they are, not knowing outcomes, not knowing why I do what I do or think the way I think (remember Paul?)…this is very frightening, indeed.

DeMello says that most people listen for what confirms what they already think. It is hard, he says, to listen in order to discern something new. We want to think we know – it feels safer and powerful. I think DeMello is suggesting surrender, or a leap into the unknown ie. faith! Faith, he says, is an openness to the truth, no matter the consequences, no matter where it leads you and when you don’t even know where it is going to lead you. Your beliefs give you a lot of security, but faith is insecurity. (Ouch!) Faith, he says, is “being ready to listen.” He says to be open does not mean being gullible, swallowing whatever (someone) is saying. Challenge everything, he suggests. But if you want to wake up, you have to be open to the possibility that you have been asleep, or that what you believed is not the truth. Like my dream experience. “When you do that,” he says, “that is the first step to waking up.”

This is spirituality as I understand it. Much of my prayer consists of sitting in silence. My silence is not necessarily peaceful. Sometimes it feels like sitting in shackles. It is a place of not understanding what is happening around me much less what to do or say. As one who seeks God’s will in my life, it is frustrating to not know clearly what that is. Jesus said in the end, “Not my will, but thine.” Don’t deceive yourself into thinking he understood what God was up to and therefore surrendered. He had not a clue and all he could do is either fight or surrender while the shackles were attached to chains that had soldiers on the other end pulling him to places he did not wish to go.

Aware of the circumstances of my life at any given moment, I don’t know whether to act or to wait, to speak or be quiet, to let others guide me or to take control. I am in the Cloud of Unknowing. Strangely, it is out of this place that I seem to act rightly, but that is beside the point. The reason spirituality is practical is that it enables me to walk forward even when I don’t know what comes next. I may not see the road before me. I may not have the assurance that what I say or do next is the perfect thing to do or say.

In my twelve step program, we say to people who struggle to find the will of God in their lives, “Just do the next right thing.” Deep down inside we know what that is. It is the kinder of two choices. It is whatever we committed to, the responsible thing to do. It is simple. It is putting the left shoe on after the other shoe is already on the right foot. It is answering the phone with a cheery hello even when we don’t know who is on the other end. It is letting interruptions come when someone needs us more than we need to be doing our thing. It is listening more than talking because we don’t really know much anyway. It is suiting up and showing up to life as life is, not trying to recreate it into the way we would prefer it.

Waking up is what I do as I walk this spiritual path. I am aware of my steps even though I can see only a few feet before me. Once in a while, the cloud lifts and I can see the landscape. But that is temporary, for I am yet a little asleep. But I am learning to be okay with seeing only a little way before me…it is enough. This is what spirituality does for me.

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What are people afraid of?

I was having a conversation with a woman last night about the event in France, a truck crashing into a crowd and killing 84 innocent people. We agreed that these are fearful times. Where can one go that is safe? She said, “People in some other countries don’t have the same sense of the value of human as we do in America.”

“The acts of terrorism that have been happening here have been done by our own citizens,” I said.

“But it is the influence of those other nations,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say. I knew she was afraid. I have fear, too. But I am not inclined to attribute the cause of my fear to any one person or group. The only way I can imagine the source of such horror is to call it evil. Sometimes people put a face on evil and give it a name, Satan or the Devil. However you imagine it, it seems like there is some kind of force that is powerful and scary, that has the power to take over someone’s thinking and drive them to do awful things.

When people assume that evil exists particularly in a person or in a nation or neighborhood or a religion, I think they are trying to gain some kind of control. If they can say, “All Muslims are evil” all they have to do is stay away from Muslims or keep them from coming into their space; then they will be safe. This was the irrationality of the woman I was talking to. She couldn’t hear me when I pointed out that most terrorist attacks in our country are done by American citizens. I concede that they were influenced by the sick propaganda put out by terrorist groups now rampaging the world, especially the Middle East, but that is just the evil pocket of the moment. Terrorists of the past would have used a different ideology to justify their terror. In my thinking, evil occupies a space or mind wherever it can find an opening, then it will grab onto any ideology to get its victim to do evil acts.

Sounds like spirit possession, doesn’t it? I guess that is, in a way, what I am saying. I imagine evil is some entity that is floating around like a disease-carrying bacteria and looking for vulnerable human beings to attach itself to. It takes many forms, hate being one. Others are fear, anger, judgement, self-righteousness…sin might be a good name for that sort of thing.  Acts of terrorism are symptoms, like the rash that breaks out over the skin or the pain that grips the gut. These are my thoughts this morning. Gruesome, huh!

Well, if I am going to go the route of looking at evil as a disease, I might as well go a step further and think of the solution as an antibiotic an antidote. First of all, we need to understand the disease. To realize that cancer may be effecting only one part of our body is important. This is true of evil. Only a small number among human beings are vulnerable to become terrorists. Who are these people? Many folks are working on identifying them and have found that they are usually young disillusioned men or women who are also suffering from mental illness. They usually have a predisposition to violence and have access to and knowledge of weaponry.

As for Muslim terrorism, one antidote I am seeing is the work being done in mosques around the country to reach out to their youth teaching them the tenets of their faith that promote peace and hope. I saw a similar effort during the 60’s and 70’s when religious cults were rampant. Churches and other organizations stepped forward by creating groups where young people could experience a sense of belonging along with education. Another is communities that are trying to help Muslims, especially new immigrants, to find a place in society by opening the path for education and meaningful work.

As for an antibiotic, I suggest Love. Like Evil, Love can have a face. For me that face is God. Love looks for openings to come in just as Evil does. It doesn’t force itself on anyone. I believe Love is more powerful than Evil, but it doesn’t seem so. Fear and anger grab our emotions in such a way that they feel much more powerful and make us lose faith in Love’s ability to overcome Evil. The power of Love can be seen in action, but one has to be still to see it. That doesn’t fit the image of power. Power, in our way of thinking, holds a gun or pushes someone aside. Love, as we have heard is patient and kind and forgiving. Where is power in that?

For me, I have to choose to love rather than hate. It doesn’t make logical sense so I can’t enter a debate about it. I can only act using Love in any given situation. I can make an effort to listen when people speak hateful words to hear the fear or the distortions and address them if I can.

Evil yearns to take residence in me but so does Love. I know what Evil looks like because it once dwelt in me. I try to avoid it or I try to stand firm in love when confronted by it. Not easy. If I let Evil take up residence in me, it is the same as allowing cancer to jump from one organ to another. It will eventually take over the whole body. I will do my best to keep that from happening. I believe that others, too, are working to let Love reign in them. This is where my hope lies.

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A young innocent black man shot four times after being stopped by a police officer because of a broken tail light. His girlfriend records the whole event and we watch it on Facebook. Meanwhile, a four-year-old sits in the back seat watching.

Fear and anger are in the air. People take sides. It is not a good moment for America. It is a moment of crisis in the progression of our national disease.

What can one do? Pray. Care. If you must take sides, take the side of the One God who loves all, the one who is weeping right now.


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Rhetoric and the Political Campaign

My spirituality book club is reading a Karen Armstrong book right now. When it was suggested, I thought, “There is no way in hell I can read one of her books in time for the next meeting.” If you have read any of her books you know what I mean. She is the Michener of nonfiction. I was surprised that Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is only 200 pages. I wonder what kind of feat it was for Armstrong to control herself like this.

I am well into the book now. This morning I read a chapter on communicating: “How Should We Speak to One Another?” It is very pertinent in today’s world in general but especially to our current election process.

She started out talking about the tradition of debate inherited from the ancient Greeks. “In the democratic assemblies of Athens, citizens learned to debate competitively, to marshal arguments logically and effectively, and to argue their case against one another in order to win…The object was to defeat one’s opponent: nobody was expected to change his mind, be converted to the other side, or enter empathetically into the rival viewpoint.”

Socrates didn’t really like this form of dialogue. “In true dialogue,” he said, “participants must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.” For him, Armstrong says, “dialogue was a spiritual exercise designed to produce psychological change in participants, and because its purpose was that each person should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody would win”

What is passed off as political discourse today is as far from Socrates’ ideal as Pluto is from the sun. Armstrong writes, “We do not engage in many dialogues like this today. The debates in our parliamentary institutions, the media, academia, and the law courts are essentially competitive. It is not enough to seek the truth; we also want to defeat, even humiliate our opponents. The malice and bullying tactics decried by Socrates are embraced with enthusiasm as part of the fun.” She goes on to say,  “A great deal of this type of discourse is a display of ego…Admitting that your opponents may have a valid point seems unthinkable. The last thing anybody intends is a change of mind.” In a debate to win an election, I’d have to say that the intent is to change minds, at least long enough to last until election day.

When the debate process began, first between Republican candidates and then Democrat, there was a strange conciliatory attitude among the debaters, a willingness to concede to the rightness of an opponent’s view on some matter. At least there was respect for a person even within disagreement. But that didn’t last long. I suppose part of the problem is that if you are really honest about the things you and the other candidates are in agreement about, people don’t know who to vote for. In time, the differences have to come to the surface. This is normal to the process, I think.

But what is happening right now is not about discourse or even about good debate. Lies are  being spewed, name calling, inferences that put an opponent in a bad light, statements taken out of context, and personal attacks concerning behaviors that have nothing to do with qualifications to serve. “No attacking family members” was an agreed upon rule as recently as in the last national election, a rule now being broken right and left.

We will get through this. I believe in the pendulum theory, though I know that people get hurt as the pendulum swings. I am disturbed by the bigger picture: the endorsing of racist attitudes and behaviors, the use of abusive rhetoric, the acceptance of throwing out lies and distortions as though they were facts, and the indifference to those who are hurt by our thoughtless blubbering. I think about children listening to words and tones even if they don’t understand their meaning. We are giving them permission to behave in ways we will punish them for later.

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A Blog Long-in-Coming

I haven’t written a blog in a coon’s age (what is the age of a coon, anyway). The reason is clear to me. Back when I was blogging faithfully, I would set out and write a piece in the morning when my brain was fresh and I was feeling quite opinionated. Then later in the day, when I would go to write something else…like a book…there was no brain power left. So I decided to shift my priorities and work on my book project first thing and do a blog later. As you might expect, there was no brain power left for the blog. Alas. There is a power shortage in this old brain.

Today I thought I would write a blog because I read something this morning worth sharing. It is the Fourth of July. I am celebrating by doing the laundry and Bernie and I plan to have root-beer floats tonight and listen to the boom boom of the fireworks from our front porch. We can’t see them from here, but we can listen. But the Fourth of July isn’t what I set out to write about.

I like to write about Jesus. Some of you know that. If you are on my Facebook page, you will see me post a story about some kind human act and say something like, “Another WWJD moment.” Unlike most people, I think the Second Coming has already happened. Rather, I think the First Coming was enough and if we open our eyes and ears, we can see and hear Jesus all over the place.

So, here is what I read this morning, a thought from Richard Rohr sent to me by a dear friend. Rohr writes, “Christians have historically thought that God was saving us from our sins. Maybe another better way to say it is that Jesus was saving us through our sins.” Now that is a statement I can get my teeth into! I have never understood the meaning of the first. I knew that even though I claimed to believe in Jesus (another idea that baffles me…what does believe in mean?), I knew from the the life that followed that I was not in any way shape or form free from my sins. I mean, I kept doing pretty much the same old things I did before. I got better, but I wasn’t particularly transformed. I wasn’t the “new being” the bible told me about. I was the same old Judy.

Now, the idea of  being saved through my sins makes way more sense, because this is exactly how my life has unfolded. Walking through life in my self-centered way,  being inconsiderate of others, trying to control outcomes, being crabby about people, places, and things, I found myself at odds with the folks around me. I found myself depressed and confused and angry. In other words, my sins (or self-centered habits) were causing me problems and this is what spurred me on to search my soul, to face the truth, to take steps to change my attitude and correct my behavior.

I am not ignoring Jesus in all of this. When I read all that Jesus did I compare it to the way I lived and when I read his words, I ask myself if I am doing as he said. As a result, I have had many a wake-up call. More than that, the Spirit of Christ was shared with those who followed him (remember Penticost?) so that they were not only challenged to change their lives but empowered to do so.

It feels good to write on this beautiful day. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I hope my thoughts are useful to you in your spiritual journey today.  Peace!

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Thoughts – Just Thoughts

I have been a bit off my track, whatever that means. I am a routine person. There are things I do daily that are so ingrained that when my pattern is interrupted, I have to take deep breaths and focus on acceptance of the things I cannot change, namely those circumstances or persons that are interrupting my plans for the day. I remind myself that these things, and not my plans, are my real life. My schedule is just there to keep me grounded.

I realize that I haven’t blogged in a while and I come to the page today without much to say. I miss blogging, or rather, I miss the inspirations that make me want to speak out about something. Even the political climate is failing to stir me this time around. Strange. There sure is a lot that could be said about politics. The last two presidential elections had me emoting beyond the speed limit. I was loaded with opinions and felt a compulsion to share these with the hopes that I was somehow going to influence the outcomes. I was motivated by fear. There were lots of forces out there wanting me to fear so that I would vote a certain way and I played right into their hands.

The forces today are even more adamant than in the past. I just seem to be in a different place inside myself than in the past. I am not as inclined to jump on the fear wagon. People can argue with me on this. “Don’t you see what will happen if so-and-so is elected?” Well, I can guess what will happen, but only guess. So much can happen that can change what we have predicted.

When the time comes to vote, I will. I have preferences already. But my vote is one among many and there is the electoral college thing that seems to water down the power of our individual votes. I have no idea what the rest of the citizens are thinking and believing. I do know this: I have no control over the outcome of the election. I do, however, have control over my attitude and what I do in the next few minutes…

I will post this little piece today. Then I will do the next thing on my list. If I get a call for help or the electricity goes out, I will shift to accommodate the interruption. If I hear something political that is disturbing, I will not let it disturb me. I will file the information for possible reflection when the day comes to vote.

Have a good day, folks. Only you can make it good.

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The Problem with the Bible

Sometimes when I read a book, I wish that I could discuss it with someone. This is true of a book written by John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism. I read it a couple of years ago and I have been suggesting it to my book club ever since. Finally, it has been decided that Spong’s book be our next read. I am two chapters in and, already, I am seeing things I missed the first time through.

This is what is written about the author on the back cover of the book: “John Shelby Spong is the Episcopal bishop of Newark and is also author of Living in Sin?, This Hebrew Lord, Beyond Moralism, and other books.” Given a Bible for his 12th birthday with the instructions from his mother to read it every day, he began what one would call a love affair – love-hate affair might be a better way to put it. Once the Bible entered his life, it was meant to stay. He could never “ignore it, forget it, or walk away from it.” He said that from that time forward, he to “engage it, probe it, dissect it, transcend it. It is a volume that has been a source of genuine life for me.”

His engaging and dissecting led him to the path of biblical scholarship and one only has to read a small passage to know he has looked at the Bible from just about any angle possible.

This morning I read what he eventually came to see as problems with the Bible, or at least problems with what he had been taught about it. He cites first language problems. A simple one he shares is the translation of the passage that talks about the camel going through the eye of a needle. The Aramaic word for camel and the word for rope are almost identical, he says. He suggests that maybe what Jesus actually said was, “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle…”. It is a more appropriate metaphor, he says, yet still possesses the power of the impossible.

He also wrote about differences in moral codes that we today would find repugnant. Examples Spong gave included the endorsement of behaviors outside the Hebrew clan including murder, theft, rape, dismemberment, and slavery. Even within their own community, violence was seen as God-directed, such as killing of children who disrespect their parents or the stoning of wives caught in adultery. When I read the examples I was struck by the similarity between divinely endorsed behaviors and what we are now witnessing in the actions of extremist groups in the Middle East. Those with roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition should be careful about pointing fingers…three are pointing the other way.

The New Testament is not exempt. “There are passages in the Gospels that portray Jesus …. as narrow-minded, vindictive, and even hypocritical.” Yet other passages present an opposite Jesus who exhorts people to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors.

I have been down the path of discovering the dark side of the Bible myself. I have read it several times and done a considerable amount of research. Yet, I notice that many people who vehemently defend the Bible as the literal Word of God have not actually read it from cover to cover. The Bible is not an easy read. Try trudging through Leviticus and Numbers and you will know what I mean.

The most significant point Spong makes is the effect of the violent and judgmental passages on societies since. We see the impact on women who are portrayed in the Bible as incompetent, weak, temptresses and on children who are said to have been born into sin and rebelliousness. Not only have the Scriptures been used to justify violence toward women and children, but throughout history it has been used to justify war, oppression, and genocide.

It all sounds so bleak, these early words by Bishop Spong. But I have, as I said, read the book before and I know that this man’s love for the scriptures as a source of spiritual guidance and inspiration will win out in the end. I would highly recommend the book. I would also recommend to people who profess that the Bible is the infallible and literal word of God to read it.

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