The perceived need to shut down dialogue on any topic is always a sign of a weak argument. If I feel like I can make a solid case for my point of view, then I’m not threatened by an honest discussion or a different point of view. On the other hand, if I know my position is on shaky ground, I’ll want to end discussion before it even starts. Watch and you will see I am right.
My wife had a sister from another mister who passed more than ten years ago now. When we went shopping with Helen, we would joke about “good, better, best,” a marketing technique popular at the time that tried to categorize products by quality – and ultimately by price. It pained Helen to buy “good,” and even “better” was a rough sell. “Best” was definitely the preferred option for her nine times out of ten. Not surprisingly, she had a lovely home filled with lovely things.
There is a place where “good, better, best” doesn’t apply, and that place is the spiritual life. I suppose it’s human nature to wonder if we are doing the spiritual life in the “best” way possible, but ranking our practices according to perceived quality is never appropriate because spirituality is an individual thing. What makes one practice good for you might make it terrible for me, and neither of us is wrong – we are just different, and that is okay.
The most common place I see this problem playing out is with proponents of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian Mediation taught by (among others) the late Fr. Thomas Keating. I am absolutely certain Fr. Keating never asserted that Centering Prayer was the best form of prayer practice, but it’s a belief that many Centering Prayer aficionados seem to hold and love to proclaim. Recently I was listening to a podcast that I have a love/hate relationship with when one of the hosts tried to get their guest to agree that Centering Prayer is the best form of prayer and the rest are only poor substitutions. Sadly, the guest – a highly respected authority on contemplation – didn’t correct his host.
You see, when we fall into debates about who has the best method we have left the spiritual arena and moved into the arena in which we spend our time trying to prop up our egos. This always happens at the expense of spiritual growth, and it reflects a level of spiritual immaturity and competitiveness that is most unattractive. Walk your path, do your practice, and don’t look to the left and the right to make comparisons and justify your own journey. We will all be better for it.
I wonder how many
Misadventures have started
As projects conceived
Ambition rushing out to
Home Depot, nothing
Save twine, a car roof
And what seemed like a master plan.
Splintered hands, frayed rope
Shattered plywood, airborne bed
Witness plans awry.
We are an extremely competitive society. We can turn anything into a competition – to our detriment, I am afraid. If you can measure it, we can fight over who does it best. If you can quantify it, I guarantee you mine is bigger – unless being smaller is better, but to be honest most males struggle with that concept. You might think that spirituality would be exempt from this nonsense, but you would be mistaken.
Imagine coming across a group of kids playing kickball and feeling compelled to ask them if any of them are going to play major league baseball or professional soccer. Then imagine none of the kids saying they are going to do either of those things. Would you tell them that they are wasting their time playing kickball and in fact being unfaithful to the higher meaning of playing with their balls? Of course you wouldn’t, but that is precisely what many of those who imagine they are quite far along the spiritual path do to others all the time.
Consider for a moment those who consider themselves contemplatives but then criticize popularized forms of mindfulness in corporate and other non-Buddhist settings as “McMindfulness” because it doesn’t contain the fullness of the Vipassana Buddhist tradition. How is that any different than calling kickball “McBaseball?” Just as some of those kids playing kickball will go on to play more complicated sports, some of the people whose entry into contemplative practice is a popular mindfulness application will go on to deeper spiritual practice. More importantly, those who don’t go on may still have perfectly wonderful experiences playing kickball or practicing mindfulness as a stress reduction technique. None of us has the right to tell anyone else what’s best for them!
Fundamentalism rears its ugly head in many different settings, even on the kickball diamond. What we can know about those people who are only to eager to insist that others “aren’t doing it right” is that they are plagued by insecurities about their own practice and struggling with some significant control issues – both of which are a lot less attractive than a kickball game.
There are times on the spiritual journey that I feel a kind of hunger that I tend to (at first) interpret as a need for more input. I then find myself trying to read more, acquire more information, listen to more podcasts, feeling that there is some tidbit I need to find to open some door or window. However, when I try to do any or all of the above it all seems to fly away like two magnets with the same poles trying to come together.
It is at those moments I finally realize that what I need is not more flow of information but rather quite the opposite. I need to shut off the information faucet and sit with what is already there, substituting silence for intake. I need to process, to steep, to just be with what is already there.
You would think, after going through this process repeatedly, I would figure it out sooner than I do – but you would be wrong. Perhaps that is my growing edge, my thorn in the flesh, my reminder to slow down. Whatever it is, I believe the important thing is that I recognize that it is, and sit with that, too.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the horror of things that we never get around to asking why they happen. I don’t say that as a criticism at all, I think it’s just part of how our mind works. We hear of something so out of the ordinary, or at least out of what we are ordinarily exposed to, that our minds seem to get stuck at the initial hearing and not dig deeper.
Some tragedies don’t really have an answer to the “why” question, or don’t have one we are capable of discerning or understanding at this point in human development. We know why hurricanes happen, but we really can’t explain why they turn at the last moment and destroy town B instead of town A. These kinds of things are relatively isolated incidents. I am wondering why we can’t discern the answer to the “why” question for trends, for things that seem to happen repeatedly.
Here’s a question I believe we need to address with urgency: Why all of the sexual abuse and sexual violence? It’s pervasive. It happens in the home, in our schools, in the office, in our places of worship and spiritual practice. It happens to children and adults, men and women, boys and girls, and the perpetrators come from all areas of life. We never seem to get around to asking “why,” or when we do the answers are so simplistic they are really no help at all. We tend to prefer single cause answers, but most problems are much more complicated than that. If we are going to change our culture around this, we are going to have to get serious about asking “why?”.
Many people have one or more chronic concerns. These may be things from their personal or health history, newly arisen medical issues, or simply things they worry about. If I had a nickel for every person who described themselves to me as a “worrier,” I’d have a lot of nickels. Other people believe that if they go to the doctor to ask about an issue that’s been troubling them that the doctor might diagnose the problem and then it will become “real.” Children often believe there is a monster under their bed and as long as they don’t look the monster will stay there and not harm them.
Of all the people listed in the last paragraph, only children get a break. It is developmentally appropriate for children to engage in magical thinking. Adults, not so much – yet that truth doesn’t seem to stop adults from trying to protect themselves by using magical thinking. That magical thinking is quite harmful, as cancers continue to spread and psychological dysfunctions continue to grow as we hide out for fear that a diagnosis is the thing that makes us sick. Rationally, we know that is absurd (I hope), but our rational minds aren’t always in control. An African American friend tells me that his black friends won’t go to see a therapist because they believe that doing so will mean that they are “crazy.” In truth, that belief reflects a lot more on their mental status than any trip to the therapist ever could.
One thing is certain – whatever the issue might be, waiting to get it checked out doesn’t solve a problem. Suppose nothing is wrong. Would you feel better knowing that? Suppose something is wrong? You will feel better beginning a course of treatment. It’s a no-lose situation. Make that appointment today!
If the exercise of your “rights” harms others, then you are not exercising “rights.” What you are doing is evil.
Like many progressives, I’m not big on the idea of any person being evil nor do I believe in a personal devil, with or without red pajamas. I do believe that actions can be evil, beliefs can be evil, and while I prefer to separate person from behavior it is pretty hard to make a case that someone who spends most of their time engaged in evil actions isn’t an evil person.
You may be asking yourself, “How can we tell when an action is evil?” I feel that sometimes we don’t look deeply enough when trying to decide where evil exists. Over the weekend a man was fired from his job went on a shooting spree with an assault rifle in west Texas, killing seven and injuring more than twenty people. Was he evil? I suspect that something in him may have snapped when he was fired, and I don’t believe that people who have a mental breakdown have enough volition to be judged evil. That’s not to say there isn’t evil at work here, however.
Jesus and all the other great spiritual teachers and leaders were quite clear about our obligation toward children and other members of what we today call at risk populations. One of the victims in west Texas was a seventeen month old little girl who was shot in her face. When we fail to protect and care for children and other at risk populations adequately, we are committing evil. There is no appeal to the Second Amendment or any other “right” that justifies such a failure.
If those who continue to insist they have a right to assault weapons in this country want to see evil, all they have to do is find a mirror. Innocents – in fact, all people, but especially innocents – have the right to go about their daily lives as free from danger as possible. The fact that some members of our society want to pretend to be soldiers, cowboys, or terrorists doesn’t override that right. There is no debate to be had.
If you want to see evil, all you need to do is find a meeting of your local chapter of the NRA or find a politician who opposes gun control. It’s just that simple. The question that remains is, when will we wake up and make the necessary changes no matter the cost?
I have resumed the practice of spiritual reading each morning and mixed things up a bit by resisting my nature and waking up early to do it. Over the past several weeks, I have noticed the sunrise moving later in my practice. I now wake in complete darkness rather than with the first glow struggling to break over the horizon, the beak of a chick struggling to break through its shell and greet its first day. By the time I finish, the sun is risen, but before long I will begin and finish before dawn even ponders peeking out at me.
You might think I would find that thought depressing, but quite the opposite. Having spent my life in colder climates, the onset of autumn and the winter that follows is a reassuring reminder that rest follows exertion and renewal follow rest. Everything in nature works that way, yet humans want to believe we are special, not subject to the laws of life.
How foolish we can be! How much worry, hand wringing, and poor behavior at deaths and funerals that brings about! How can we imagine that we are any different than leaves preparing to let go, their tree resting confidently in faith that new buds wait around the corner?