Staying Present

It has been rightly said that the only moment we have is the present moment. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future has not yet arrived and so is beyond our reach. It seems so obvious, so simple, yet how much time do we spend fixating on the past or dreaming of the future? How often does “if only I had…” cause us to completely miss new opportunity when it arises? Certainly there are things to be learned from past mistakes, but those learning opportunities aren’t a bottomless well. Most mistakes we make are relatively small and so offer a paucity of learning. Even our major mistakes only offer a few lessons. If we find ourselves ruminating about something months or even years after it has happened, we aren’t trying to learn, we are trying to avoid something.

I find it helpful when I am stuck to remember that the “why?” question is most often not very helpful. Most often we cannot know with any degree of certainty why things happen. When we allow ourselves to get stuck there, it may well be that we are actually trying to avoid moving forward. Why something happened or why someone did something is much less important that what we will do next given what has happened. What is the lesson in our experience? What is it trying to teach us? How can we avoid whatever mistakes we made in the future? We need to ask these questions not to berate or otherwise punish ourselves, but to learn. Once we have learned, it is time to move on.

The truth is that, no matter what a perfectionist might tell you, mistakes are a normal part of life. I believe that every experience, positive or negative, arises to teach us something. Our goal shouldn’t be perfection, it should be learning and growth. There are very few activities in which a mistake means we don’t get to try again, and most of those can be avoided. Mistakes are much less critical outside the arenas of sky diving and bungee jumping! Learn, and then move on. Don’t let life pass you by as you seek a perfection that doesn’t exist!

Morality and Your Genitals

The Puritan streak that remains deeply embedded in American culture would have you believe that morality and your genitals are intimately connected. The resulting attitudes are perhaps among the most unhealthy ones possible. They lead us to see the physical as bad, as somehow distinct from the spiritual and the holy. This view has caused more damage to the American psyche than any other allegedly religious truth, and it is a lie. After all, if it weren’t for genitals, none of us would be here.

Reproduction aside, the problem with a morality that has as its primary focus human sexuality is that it creates a disconnect between human and their bodies. They have a name for people without bodies: dead. We suffer a kind of death when we become disconnected from our bodies. When we start feeling bad about the truth that we need our bodies, we ignore signs and symptoms of illness and disease or – worse – come to see illness as a punishment for being embodied. Many of us were taught there are certain parts of our bodies we should never touch. That kind of teaching leads to some serious hygiene deficits, to say the least.

The truth is that our bodies are a blessing and not a curse. So is our sexuality. Unhealthy attitudes toward our bodies and our sexuality destroy relationships at a frantic pace. Quite simply, there is nothing you can do with your body that is morally wrong as long as any other people who might be involved are able to consent and do so. Those who would rail against “premarital” sex need to realize that marriage as we understand it in America today (as a legal institution in which the State is involved) began in 1913 CE. That means that everyone who has sex prior to 1913 had, by definition, premarital sex. Do you see the problem here?

If your idea of morality is completely defined by your genitals, you have a mighty tiny morality. The things that really damage society and its members aren’t done in the consensual bedroom. War, violence, poverty, hunger, lack of the basic necessities of life, neglect, abuse, pollution, selfishness, greed, hatred, exclusion – these are among the great harms that humans inflict on one another. All of these things become much easier to do when we are disconnected from our bodies and spend most of our time in our often rather distorted thoughts. When we live at a distance from our feelings it can be very difficult to act in a compassionate way. Selfishness follows close behind, and before we know it “genital morality” becomes a very efficient way to distract others from the awful things we do to one another with our clothes on.

The next time you hear someone (even yourself) being critical of our embodied nature, ask yourself what they are trying to hide. Ask why they are so uncomfortable with the bodies we all live life through. Peek into their closets – literal and metaphorical – but step back as you open the door. The odds are that some skeletons will come tumbling out, and you don’t want to get hurt.

Wallowing in Feelings?

I was listening to a podcast today in which a group of four spiritual leaders in a particular tradition were discussing a scandal that hit their tradition a couple of years ago. Who they are and what there tradition is are really unimportant because I believe there is a larger trend at work in this discussion. They are in their thirties to early forties, two males and two females, and ethnically diverse. Except for the fact that they are all spiritual leaders in the same tradition, they area pretty decent cross section of that age group in America. What I heard astounded me.

As they discussed how they were faring since the scandal hit two years ago, to a person they said they had spent the time getting in touch with their feelings about the scandal and processing them. Clearly, they are still engaged in that process. It’s important to note that none of them were victims of any misconduct, though they did all witness their tradition crumble around them. What remains of that tradition is anyone’s guess, and what the future might be is not yet apparent.

Now, to be sure, when something like this happens there is a grieving process that needs to take place. Many of us have worked through that grieving process as institutions sacred and secular we had come to depend on crumbled around us. With covid, there will be more and more institutions crumbling. It is certainly true that no one can tell any of us how long grieving should take. Generally speaking, though, if you are still trying to sort your feelings out two years after a loss, it’s probably time to find a therapist.

As I reflected on this it occurred to me that this talk of staying in our feelings is very popular in certain circles. We have almost set up a cultural requirement in touchy-feely circles that processing feelings is a full time career. Instead of working through things, we just park the car and sit in the midst of them. I suspect that many more Americans, if they are going to go off course in the feelings world, repress their feelings and don’t process them at all. What I want to say is that both approaches avoid the issue at hand. Whether I am repressing my feelings or making a career out of them, what I am really doing is avoiding them.

In some circles, this is known as “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing happens when I assume what seems to be a very spiritual posture but in reality that posture is a way of avoiding my issue. Processing our feelings can become spiritual bypassing if we are still processing them two years later. Presumably, long before two years are up, we will have identified what are feelings might be and determined what action they are calling us to take next. It’s certainly true that as we move into action there may be times we need to do more processing, but we need to remember that processing is a way station on the journey, not our destination!

What if bad isn’t bad?

First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.

What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?

I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.

Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Craig Bergland

When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.

This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!

How Many Balls…

…can we keep in the air at once? We are currently besieged with change on many different planes. On the one hand, we continue to battle a worldwide pandemic and everything that comes with it, including massive unemployment and economic shutdown. On another hand, we are in the midst of a long overdue assessment of our horrific legacy of racism and discrimination. We are also suffering through what may be at least a partial return to the Dark Ages in the form of the exultation of foolishness at the expense of rationality. Many people don’t seem to grasp the difference between opinion and fact, while others deride science in favor of superstition.

Meanwhile, those advocating for change are demanding that we all get involved in their cause the way they would have us get involved. Most all causes believe theirs is the only one that should receive our attention, an attitude that is bound to backfire. After all, if the only help you will accept from me is complete full time dedication, then the odds are you will get nothing. If you don’t understand that, please reread the first paragraph of this post. Many of us are experiencing our coping ability wearing thin. Having multiple causes vie for our attention, all of them asserting they are the only cause, isn’t helping – especially when many of us are struggling to put food on the table or secure the non-corona virus medical care we desperately need. What’s a poor boy or girl to do?

The first thing to do is recognize that we are all in charge of our own decisions. At times such as these there tends to be no shortage of people volunteering to be in charge of everyone else’s life. While we may or may not appreciate their service, we don’t have to partake of it. You are still the only person who gets to make decisions about how your time and energy are allocated. Don’t let anyone pressure you into surrendering your autonomy! When Sally from down the street starts paying your bills, you might give her some input. Until then, send her packing.

The second thing to do is to recognize our own need for nurturing and understanding. Take time to do the things you enjoy. Be aware that those things may look a bit different now than they did a year ago, but they can still happen. Your gym might be closed or you may not be comfortable going there, but the outdoors are still open for business. Get outside, get exercise, eat as healthily as you can, get sleep, and socialize – even if only virtually. Take regular breaks from screens and especially the news cycle. They will be there when you need them. Stimulate your mind with something healthy. Read a book, watch a documentary, sit in a park and observe nature. If you are tired, take a nap. Listen to your body.

Finally, insert a sacred pause before every substantial action or commitment. I used to be an Oblate of a monastery that had a policy of never responding to email communication the same day. We have all had the experience of hitting “send” and regretting it. They never did. Before agreeing to something, ponder it overnight. This also helps put requests in their proper perspective and thereby reduces stress. Everybody wants our answer now, but it is seldom needed now. A sacred pause helps us see the truth of that. Unless a request begins with words like “look out,” “duck!”, “fire!”, or “get out of the water!” the request can wait.

By taking some simple, concrete steps we will better be able to navigate these unknown waters in these confusing times. If we will trust ourselves and care for ourselves and each other, things will get easier. Don’t confuse how things used to be with the only way things can be. A new normal will emerge. Who knows, it could be much better than the old normal in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine!

I am a strong person?

I have noticed something in the midst of pandemic life. I have seen many people interviewed who have expressed surprise they have contracted the corona virus. They often say some version of “I am a strong man/woman, I am really active, I keep really busy, and still I got this virus.” I find the number of folks who say some version of this to be quite intriguing. I started reflecting on the sentiment and have some suggestions.

Our culture equates busyness with strength. If we are constantly on the go, involved in many different things, dashing from here to there, we are strong. We confuse endurance with strength, but if you compare the physiques of marathon runners and power lifters it’s easy to see there is a difference. More importantly, there are important differences between physical strength and endurance and psychological strength and endurance. We really need to consider both kinds of strength to assess what constitutes a strong person – and then remember that a virus is no respecter of strength. All it respects is immunity, and we don’t have much when dealing with a new virus.

I am interested in why we are so busy. Could it be that we are busy because we are hiding or running from something? My father once counseled me that if you have problems the best solution is twelve to sixteen hours a day of hard work and a twelve pack of beer. That’s terrible advice, but it revealed his strategy of not solving his problems but instead being too busy and too intoxicated or hung over to think about them. That strategy isn’t unique to him. When I hear people with corona virus saying the worst part is having to sit in their hospital room, I can’t relate. When I am sick all I want to do is rest, I have no problem sitting still. What is going on with these people?

What’s going on, I suggest, is that sitting still allows all of the issues they have been running from to catch up with them. Those issues, even when ignored and repressed, increase our stress levels which in turn decreases our immune system’s ability to fight off illness. There are real physical consequences to our avoidance. We need to come to see that frenetic activity isn’t a measure of strength at all. We need to practice spending some time each day sitting still. When we do so, if we feel compelled to get up and dash around it might be time to sit longer – and consider finding a spiritual companion and a good therapist. Your health depends on it!

The Demise of Institutional Religion

ventIn case you haven’t noticed, institutional religion is on a ventilator and not expected to survive. The reason is very simple, though many experts would make it very complicated because you can’t write a book with only a few sentences.

It doesn’t matter what religion we are talking about, all religion began with a charismatic teacher presenting new ideas – and never intending to start a new religion. Most often they were simply trying to reform the one of which they were a part. The Buddha sought to address problems in what we today call Hinduism, Jesus wanted to reform Judaism and free it from Roman occupation, Muhammad didn’t believe Judaism or Christianity had quite hit the mark. Protestant Christianity started when people thought Catholicism had drifted off point. The New Thought movement started as a place for overly educated people to gather, Baha’i began as a reform movement within Islam, and New Age started so that people who had serious cognitive deficits from drug abuse to have a place where nobody would notice their issues. The important point is that each of these movements began as small gatherings around a teacher or teachers. As they grew, some of the followers of the tradition decided they needed to build a structure to preserve their new tradition. That sounds great in theory. healing wounds institutional religionIn practice that decision to build a structure is always the beginning of the end.

Once you form an institutional structure around a religious movement you have created an organization in which survival of the organization is the primary concern. The religious teachings become secondary at best. The leaders of a religious institution will only too gladly change their official beliefs to gain acceptance from the local governing authority. There is no small irony in that churches under persecution grow while churches that are officially accepted decline, but church officials crave that acceptance. They see it as key to the survival of the institution despite all evidence to the contrary. They seek that acceptance because they crave power, but power corrupts every time.

End_of_Service_BDThe truth is that the death of the institution is good news for religion, but the dying process can be extremely painful. There is a lot to let go of as an institution dies, perhaps most importantly the need to replace one institution with another before we take the time to learn the lessons from the failure of the last institution. We need to trust ourselves and come to see that we are capable to making spiritual and religious choices for ourselves rather than take orders from “on high.” Just as so-called rebound relationships almost always fail, rebound churches do, too. Can we come to see that, whatever our names for the Sacred might be, we don’t need an intermediary to be in contact with it? Stated another way, are we willing to take responsibility for our own spiritual development – especially since nobody else can do it for us?shit happens tatt

If we are willing to take on the sometimes hard work of spiritual growth, seeing others on the path as companions rather than dispenser of truth from on high, the rewards are plentiful. If we chose not to undertake this path, we will just have to have the tattoo with our old religion’s name covered up yet again and replaced with the new one. One day we may learn not to put anyone’s name on our bodies – but I digress.

 

Our Histories are Cyclic

santayana learn from historyWestern culture tends to believe that history is linear. In truth, at least as far as our personal histories are concerned, it’s more accurate to believe they are circular. We keep returning to the scene of our trauma by recreating it with a new cast of characters and hoping it will turn out differently this time around. Of course it doesn’t and so we recast the play and have another go at it. Because we tend to choose that new cast because it resembles the original cast, the effort is doomed from the start.

Are you a heterosexual woman who finds herself repeatedly in relationships with a certain type of ruggedly good looking, athletic, rather narcissistic man who ends up treating you poorly and at times abusing you? Find the man in your past, likely in your family or very close to it, who fits that description and you will have found the reason you make the same “mistake” over and over. You will never succeed in your efforts because this kind of man is constitutionally incapable of treating you well. The excitement you feel when you meet another one of these guys isn’t attraction, it’s danger – but you have come to conflate the learning_from_historytwo. You have somehow come to associate danger and being treated poorly with being loved, and that simply isn’t true. Ultimately, the answer to “why does this keep happening to me?” lies in the bathroom mirror.

If we take an honest look at our history and discover we keep making the same mistakes, it’s a good time to pause and examine that tendency more deeply. We need to unpack our histories and discover the roots of our unhealthy tendencies so that we can sever the connections and start making better choices. We may well find that there is a part of us that doesn’t believe we deserve to be treated in a kind and loving manner, quite likely because we believe we have a horrific defect. We haven’t yet skeleton closetfigured out that everyone has a defect they believe is horrific but that very few other people would notice if the owner of the defect didn’t keep pointing it out!

In truth, we all have skeletons in our closet. If we examine them and come to terms with them they will stop being problems. If we come to see that everyone has the odd bony inhabitant in their closet, we will stop feeling the need to hide ours. When we stop hiding ours, something decided different than showing them to everyone we meet, we will stop feeling compelled to replay the unsatisfactory parts of our collective past in the hopes that things will turn out differently this time. When that happens, Cowboy Bob won’t seem appealing any more. Imagine!

Let the Cleansing Begin!

It is almost predictable. Watch the White people scramble to purge the record of racism and White Supremacy in America. Scrub the history books and convince yourselves that you have done something worthwhile. No more “Gone With the Wind,” get it out of here so we can pretend that never happened. For the record, I never watched that movie anyway so I won’t miss it, but that’s not the point. Then there is a sketch from “Whose Line is it, Anyway?” that lampooned racist police practices but is now seen as racist because, after all, we can’t have any record of any racism in America! Oh the liberals gather appearing skynews-gone-with-the-wind_5010033to want to do something about racism, but in truth what is happening is an attempt to remove the evidence of racism so that we can look good without becoming vulnerable enough to effect actual change.

Country group Lady Antebellum has apologized for having “antebellum” in their name because the word refers to the pre-Civil War south in America, a time in which slavery was legal. They are now “Lady A,” something their fans (who may or may not be able to spell “antebellum”) have called them for some time. There is an unfounded rumor that the name “Fucking A” came in a close second in balloting for the new name, both because of doubts about spelling and a desire to avoid being known as “F-n A,” but I digress.

The point is that when we remove every trace of bad behavior from our memories we become complicit in perpetuating them. Ask you kids if they learned about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in school. You may be shocked to learn they didn’t. Ask them if they really know why Martin Luther King, Jr. is important and you may find out your kids believe it’s because streets and plazas are named after him. It’s vitally important that we work to eliminate racism in our society today, but purging records of racism from the past is counter productive and uses energy that would be much better expended in addressing what is happening in 2020!

A Tightrope We Must Walk

I believe we are living in a crucial, historic time. The opportunity is in front of us to, at long last, address racism in a substantial way. It will require deep listening, thoughtful dialogue, and a whole lot of deciding to let the little stuff go.

One thing about language that makes it alive and interesting is that it evolves very quickly. If you don’t believe that, listen to someone forty years older or younger than you are and notice how usage has changed. Notice how the trendy words or phrases they are using are different from the ones you are used to. If they are forty years older than you there is a good chance they seem silly and dated to you. If they are forty years younger ellenthan you there is a good chance you aren’t exactly sure what they are saying. Consider things your parents or grandparents say such as “cool” and how uncool it sounds to you. Consider that your children or grandchildren might say “sick” even when they aren’t. A few weeks ago I heard someone criticizing someone they heard using the term “woke.” They said, “nobody says woke any more!” Well, somebody just did and you just did. As that critic ages they will likely learn that it gets harder and harder to stay on the cutting edge of language.

Ellen DeGeneres was recently harshly criticized for using the expression “people of color,” which is apparently no longer acceptable. George Floyd was Black, so only Black people are the victims of racism? News to me. I must not be on the appropriate email list. I guess Ellen isn’t either, so I don’t feel quite so left out. How many times has the preferred term changed from Black, to African American and back again? On what date, precisely, did those changes occur? Why was I not informed? Where do I write to get the updates? What are we supposed to call people who are not White? Under what circumstances, when talking about racism, can we include everyone who is a victim of racism?

Most of us are well intended and want to say the right thing. I believe that a substantial number of White people want to change racism. If, however, we are going to get bogged down in eviscerating everyone who uses terminology we don’t agree with then we aren’t going to get anywhere. If we can’t say anything for fear we are going to say the wrong thing, then dialogue can’t happen. White people need to engage in deep listening and all people need to cut others a bit of slack. That’s how learning happens.