Saturday, April 30, 2011

Just say "Yes!"

A man who’d never before seen olives was given a bag of them and told they were full of oil. He took them home, sliced each one open, and was disappointed to find no oil at all. It was there, of course. The fruity essence was simply hidden within the pulp.

“So it is with God,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi who was one of the first to introduce eastern meditative practices to the west. “Everything in the universe,” he continues, “is saturated with His presence—the twinkling stars, the rose, the song of the bird, our minds. But one has metaphorically to “squeeze” God out of His material concealment.”

So how do we squeeze God from our everyday experiences? Since the Divine is omnipresent and we are multifaceted, there are an untold number of avenues. Graciously greeting whatever comes our way is one such approach.

Author and social activist Reverend Deborah Johnson encourages us to adopt a “sacred yes”. She points out that we tend to say yes conditionally and “on the backend”, after we’ve decided that a particular experience will feel good and comes with sufficient guarantees to make us secure.

“This concept of yes has to be on the front end,” Johnson explains. “The declaring of the yes opens up the doors…so that we can be more accessible to resources that are all around us.” In other words, by welcoming what comes our way, we greet the Divine within it all.

So does this mean we say yes to injustice, for example, and go about our merry way? Of course not. We can, though, say yes to this injustice arriving in our life at this moment. We can say yes to determining and enacting our unique response. And we can say yes to allowing ourselves to be transformed through a profound engagement with what is.

Welcoming every person and event, every pleasant and difficult experience, saying a resounding “Yes!” to them all, is undeniably a formidable practice. But the alternative is to live on life’s edges, never fully entering the stream. When we say yes, we open ourselves and step into that vast current. We present ourselves as we are and touch life as it is. In the process, we open ourselves to the Sacred.

“In joy, the devotee sees God playing hide-and-seek with him in the blossoms,” Yogananda writes. “When his eyes are spiritually opened, the devotee beholds, peering at him through the eyes of everyone, the eyes of the Infinite. Behind the kind or unkind voice of everyone he hears the truthful voice of the Infinite.”

The Sufi poet Rumi says it this way in his poem, The Guest House.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

In this column, we’ve traveled from India to present~day California and back in time to 13th century Persia. We now reach further back, to a village on the way to Jerusalem. In Luke 17:21, Jesus says“…for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

The message is the same. God is right here, right now. All we need to do is open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to be touched.

Yes! Yes! And a thousand times, yes!

Loanne Marie

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Look Within

There has been much discussion about Terry Jones’s decision to burn the Qur'an, as well as the subsequent retaliation of Muslims in Afghanistan. Now it’s time for my two cents.

I won’t spend time critiquing the acts of Jones or condemning the backlash it released. I’m sure most who read these essays agree that neither was justified and that, moreover, Jones’s intentionally going after this kind of response was particularly disturbing. My current theme, though, is a bit different. First, some background.

Several years ago, my husband ran a program to treat court~ordered perpetrators of domestic violence. Whenever there was a high profile case in the news~~ a man having murdered his wife, for example~~the men in my husband’s groups would immediately jump on the bandwagon of self~righteousness, detailing the ways in which they were different from that man. My husband’s job, bless his heart, was to lasso them from this easy avenue of discussion and insist they address a much harder question~~in what ways were they the same?

Consider yourselves lassoed. In what ways are we the same as Jones and the rioting Afghanis?

Few of us will be tempted to burn a sacred document of another faith or to murder someone in retaliation for an insult to our cherished beliefs. No, our temptations are of a subtler nature, but in their essence not so very different.

Most of us can be judgmental and harsh in our dealings with others. We often act out our mistaken assumptions and our upset, while justifying our own negative behaviors. Our emotional reactions can close our hearts, allowing whatever personal agenda is primary at the time to make us unresponsive to another’s pain. These very human tendencies routinely cause harm to ourselves and those close to us and, given the right provocation, they can explode into something much worse.

Terry Jones is not the problem. He is an angry, wounded man who finds temporary relief in public acts of hate that garner him notoriety. Muslims who commit atrocities are not the problem either. They are simply using their sacred text to justify the violence within their own hearts, as have folks from many religious traditions over the course of time, including Jones.

While we certainly need to speak in opposition to such acts, our real foe is not another person, religion or culture. Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, who watched innocents die as his country was torn apart by hatred, has earned the right to teach us something on this subject. He writes, “Human beings are not our enemy. Our enemy is the violence, ignorance, and injustice in us and in the other person.”

He reminds us that we humans are more alike than different, that the seeds of every human impulse lie within us all. Those seeds that have been “watered” by our life experiences grow sturdy, while the ones that get little attention lie fallow, waiting only for the right conditions to sprout.

Anger, wonder, despair, compassion. Hatred, delight, competitiveness, kindness. We share these tendencies and more with our fellows. We each have a responsibility to curtail our unhelpful tendencies, while nurturing our wholesome impulses~~the ones that accurately reflect our spiritual traditions. Thus, we grow in our ability to live together in peace.

So, while we rightly speak out against hatred in its various forms, let us not forget that we are capable of behaving similarly. And let’s also not shy away from looking within ourselves and assessing~~and transforming~~the ways in which we behave unconsciously and thereby hurt, either directly or by proxy, our fellow human beings.

In so doing, we pay true homage to our sisters and brothers the world ‘round who are being harmed~~even as I type these words and even as you read them~~by cruelty of any kind.

Blessings, please, on our whole complex, amazing, confused, endearing, often misguided, yet ultimately redeemable species!

Loanne Marie

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"We Are All Alike"

A few weeks ago, we watched in rapt horror as a tsunami washed away whole communities. Our minds struggled to grasp the intensity of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the kind of damage it could do. And our spirits sank further as we learned of damaged nuclear reactors and the multi~system breakdown that prevented their cooling.

In the midst of such devastation, though, another type of story began to emerge from Japan. Tales of folks banding together, of perseverance in the face of so much destruction, of workers at the Fukushima nuclear facility risking death to protect so many others.

In a report by Diane Sawyer, we were given a name for the phenomenon we were witnessing. “The Japanese call it etai,” she explained. “It means to come together as one person.”

Etai shone through again in an online letter from an American named Anne who is living in Sendai, Japan, one of the hardest hit areas. “We share supplies,” she writes. “We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candle light, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful."

"During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes," she continues. "If someone has water running in their home, they put out (a) sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets.” Upon returning one day to her abandoned house, she writes, “I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there.”

Last week I had lunch with a friend of mine, Nancy, whose dear mother is entering the final stages of Alzheimer's disease. Iris sleeps a lot, rarely speaks, seldom calls her daughter by name, often doesn't recognize her.

Recently, family members were gathered in her room discussing events in Japan. Nancy's father was sharing his struggles understanding how God could allow something like these triple disasters to happen to a people. Iris, who had seemed oblivious to the conversation, sat bolt upright and said very clearly, "It's so we can learn that we're all alike." She then fell back into herself.

Iris was right. We are all alike.

All of us live and learn on a tiny pearl of a planet we call home as it spins within a vast and ever changing universe. Our bodies are made of the same clay, and we are each enlivened by a spark from the same divine source. We can be devastated by tragedy and we can awaken through it to the truth of our common bond.

We are profoundly interconnected. The same radiation that seeps into the air above Japan will find its way into our bodies as well. And the same love that flows from our hearts in the West will surely reach our friends in the Far East.

So as we attend to the tragedies ravaging this earth we share, we would do well to honor Iris’s brief, but stunningly clear awakening, through living her insight while remaining awake ourselves. We are all alike, and we can come together as one person.

Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy gave a speech that included the line, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” While I have no idea how to write this in Japanese, today we can each truthfully say, “I am a citizen of Sendai.”

After you read these last few lines, please pause with me for a few moments to hold our Asian brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and all our Japanese kiddos in our hearts. Please do it now and frequently throughout this day and those to come.

Loanne Marie

PS. You can read Anne's letter from Japan HERE.