COVID 19, aka the corona virus, seems to have brought the world to its knees – with some notably stupid exceptions. In the United States, we have seen increasingly restrictive measures taken by state and local governments as they try to control the spread of a virus that we still aren’t completely sure of its method of transmission. Some of the measures taken seem sensible, others seem profoundly silly if not outright stupid. Among those is the elbow bump, which we are told is preferable to the handshake for limiting transmission of the virus despite the fact that two people need to stand significantly closer – twice as close, in fact – to bump elbows than they do to shake hands. Given that transmissions seems to be droplet transmission, moving in closer to the potential business end of an unexpected sneeze doesn’t seem advisable.
Meanwhile, as government officials are finding new and better ways to look foolish, Americans have been panic buying and hoarding any number of products from toilet paper to hand sanitizer. Oddly enough for a flu virus, kleenex doesn’t seem to be the object of hoarding, which is only one of any number of things about this virus and our government’s response to it that makes very little sense. Public gatherings were restricted first in a general sort of way, then to groups smaller than fifty, then to groups smaller than ten. Tomorrow I would expect the restriction will be groups no larger than three people and a goat. Meanwhile the twenty-four hour news cycle rolls on, and people are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by seemingly endless and endlessly changing information.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, I have some suggestions. The first would be to limit your news intake to thirty minutes a day. You can break that up however you like, but once you hit your thirty minutes you are done with any news source until the next day. The second thing is to decide what you can control. You cannot control the spread of the virus, but you can control your own activity and behavior. If you really don’t want to contract the virus, stay in your house and don’t have guests over. Between Amazon, services like Door Dash, and other delivery services, we can now have everything delivered. Choose “no contact” deliveries so you don’t have to expose yourself to the delivery person. The virus can’t get in your house unless it is riding in someone who has it. Finally, distract yourself. Read a book, watch a TV show or a movie on Netflix, go for a walk, bake a cake, take up origami, perfect the paper airplane. This will not last forever, and some perspective mixed with distraction will make the time pass much more comfortably.
My wife and I share a car these days, and when I get to her office early to pick her up I sit in a little vending room on the first floor and write. I let her know I am there by sending her a graphic that indicates I am in detention. Some of the best posts on my blogs start as ideas while “in detention.” There is an office down the hall from my detention room from which regularly emerge two women who head outside, presumably to smoke. One of them almost never talks. Even if she wanted to, I don’t know how she could possibly get a word in because the other one – let’s call her, “Sewer Mouth” – never stops talking. Wait, that’s not fair. She never stops complaining, except when she pauses to launch into a profane tirade that would make a sailor blush. Mind you, I can cuss with the best of them but old Sewer Mouth makes me feel like an Amish beginner. I want to ask her if she eats with that mouth, but she won’t stop talking long enough for me to try.
Leaving aside for a moment how unprofessional it is when going on break to start spewing “motherfucker” before the office door has closed behind you, I have no idea why her coworker wants to be around her. When we constantly ooze negativity, we aren’t much fun to be around. When we blow it out of a fire hose, I have to wonder why this woman even shows up for work. Could her life be even remotely as miserable as her mouth suggests it is? If so, it’s long past time for the people who care about her to get together and mount an intervention.
It’s good practice to listen to ourselves every now and then. By doing so, we can get a feel for our own mental state – or at least the one we present to the world. A good exercise if we find our talking self to be more negative than we might like is to decide to say a certain number of positive things each day. We should work to increase the number of positive things we say week by week. It would be long until we feel like a new person, because that is what we will be!
I had a conversation with someone the other day about the fact that they got a snowplow to come plow the driveway after about an inch and a half of light, fluffy snow had fallen, She said, “we’re lazy, so we had a friend come and plow the driveway.” I responded that I didn’t think that was lazy, and if I found myself in the same position and had the opportunity for someone to plow the driveway I would do the same thing. We might say that such a choice is but a judicious conservation of energy. A few days later it snowed again, this time a bit heavier, and a different plow appeared to banish the snow from the premises. Good for them!
Then still a few days later it snowed again, this time a wet, heavy snow. Nothing was done except a path to the garage. It wouldn’t matter, except the property is a multiple family dwelling. The driveway remained untouched, the front walk a tortfeasor’s wet dream. No plow would arrive this time. Predictably, the driveway partly melted and then froze again, a combination skating rink and lunar landscape of ice. The same people had delivered to them before all of this started three large bags of salt to treat the ice with, but it remained in its bags. This is laziness. If it was a laziness that impacted only them, nobody would care. There is a larger point at work here.
When we commit to do something and honor that commitment, we grow. In a similar fashion, when we commit to do something and fail to honor that commitment, we diminish ourselves. There is a segment of the population that seems to believe doing the least you can to get by is somehow an honorable thing, a demonstration of cunning, but our souls know better. Inside of us, every time we skirt our responsibilities, we are diminished and our life becomes smaller. This shrinking can be overcome, but not easily. In our more reflective moments, usually a bit later in life, we will likely come to realize that we could have been better, our lives could have been richer, but we chose to circumvent those opportunities. Life is about engaging opportunity, not running away from it. Many people don’t realize that truth, and that is the true tragedy.
We all have blind spots. Some of us have physical blind spots, but almost all of us have metaphorical blind spots. Part of the spiritual life is searching out those blind spots and working to heal them. We may well never eliminate them all, because they can pop up throughout our life. When teachers we respect suddenly reveal (most often unintentionally) a blind spot, we may find ourselves making a difficult choice. It may seem we are stuck between two choices, but there are always at least three choices.
The first option is to say that the blind spot we have discovered renders everything the person may have said or offered null and void. We see people choose this option all the time, but if I am correct in asserting that we all have blind spots then this choice means that none of us have anything to offer. We will run around covering up our blind spots and other flaws for fear they will eventually render us irrelevant. In truth, those flaws render us human, not irrelevant.
The second option is to say that since we all have blind spots we will ignore the blind spots that we discover in others. We will pretend they aren’t present, and if anyone points them out we will vigorously defend our heroes by insisting they are perfect. This, too, dehumanizes them by rendering them a caricature of themselves and forcing them to run about claiming to be some distortion of a messiah figure. Denying the truth is never a healthy was forward.
The third option is to recognize that we all have blind spots. From a spiritual perspective, all people have inherent worth and value. We each have to make a decision about whether or not it is possible to have a blind spot that is so large that it destroys that inherent worth and value. I choose to take the position that there is nothing we can do to destroy that worth and value, even though there are things we can do that may necessitate our being isolated from society at large for a time. If a spiritual teacher has a long history of mistreating his or her students, we may decide that we will no longer be their student or support their organization. On the other hand, we may see that the issue at hand is a blind spot but not large enough for us to separate ourselves from them.
Can we see that if we belong to or are influenced by a tradition that says all life has value, then we simply cannot say there are people who no longer have their basic needs met – needs for food, clothing, shelter, companionship, fresh air, and mental stimulation. A colleague I greatly respect took me to task recently when I suggested that a certain political figure had the right to have friends and human contact. In my friend’s mind, the politician in question had committed war crimes and therefore wasn’t entitled to companionship. That’s contrary to the traditions from which both of us have emerged. So how does this happen?
Emotions often cloud and complicated our decision making process. In the heat of the moment, our own blind spots may show – even in response to the blind spots of others! One of the bigger benefits of spiritual practice is that practice affords us the opportunity to work through these issues in a methodical way and at a reasonable pace – even if, in our western impatience, we want everything resolved now! Rushing to judgment is always problematic, so let’s all take our time as we assess what we can and cannot accept!
From Mirabai Starr’s wonderful book, Wild Mercy:
You follow the footprints of the Beloved across manifold spiritual landscapes. You catch the same ancient, spicy aroma of love in Judaism that you have tasted in Islam. Your attraction to the lush sensuality of Hinduism does not in any way preclude the way you rest in the intellectual purity of Buddhism. Contemplating the Tao Te Ching strengthens what the Hopi elders have taught you: that the Earth is alive, that she is your Mother, that she is the love of your life.
Institutionalized religious authorities discourage this kind of roaming; they will call you a lost soul. You lie down with the Beloved in so many forms, the purists will call you a slut. The more open-minded may still accuse you of hoping to get to water by digging many shallow wells. As if you were a fool. You are no fool. You are in love, and you will use every available means to reach the living waters of love itself, which you can’t help but notice bubbling up from the altar of every sacred space you have ever entered, including—and maybe especially—the wild spaces of this earth.
You embrace your Beloved through your friendship with Jesus alone or through Jesus plus Buddha. You walk one path or three or eleven different spiritual paths that all bring you home to the One Love. Maybe you say, “No, thank you” to any kind of organized religion and, instead, cultivate a direct relationship with the Beloved in the temple of your own heart. The singular true believers will advise you against all of this multiplicity, recommending that you pick a single tradition and “go deep.” As if your polyamorous spiritual proclivities render you a dilettante. They will mistakenly judge your way as superficial and undisciplined, rather than as the mind-blowingly, heart-openingly, soul-transfiguringly rigorous spiritual practice that it is.
You don’t care that much what they think anyway. You are not about to miss any opportunity to encounter your Beloved and bow down and rise up and take refuge.
Life hands us all a variety of wounds. These wounds are of different sizes and depths, different intensities and duration, even of different quantity and quality. Our task is not to avoid them, but work through them; not to pass them on to others or try to ignore them, but to understand and heal them.
These important parts of life aren’t always fun. Quite often they cause pain and struggle. This important work is, in part, what our spirituality should equip us to undertake. Doing this work constitutes enlightenment, salvation, awakening – whatever your word for the goal of life may be. We do this work best in community, which is why friends, colleagues, and groups to which we belong are so important.
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.
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.