Everything has Multiple Causes

M. Scott Peck, of The Road Less Traveled fame, liked to save everything is multiply determined, which sounds much cooler than “has multiple causes” but isn’t quite as clear, so I surrendered coolness for clarity. That may be the story of my life, but that’s another post.

I was in a room full of people gathered around a common purpose last summer. As they moved about I suddenly saw quite clearly that they were all responding to one another out of the dysfunction of their histories. I could only see that because I knew some of the people, but the insight was powerful. In effect, they weren’t responding to one another at all but rather to a great combination of people past and present, most of whom (and in some cases all of whom) weren’t physically present. There were, however, dozens of uninvited guests who were psychically present. 

It was as if everybody had been handed a script as they walked in the door. Since there weren’t enough copies of the same script for everybody, copies from three or four different plays had been randomly distributed. Nobody wanted to be rude, so nobody mentioned the different scrripts. They simply read their lines at what seemed to be the appropriate time, whether or not they made any sense. At the end of the night everyone went home confident that a great time was had by all – except, of course, for anyone who tried to make sense of it all. Those people were mostly silenced by the others who were afraid that the mystique would be broken and actual sharing might occur, opening the door to emotions and other messiness not generally encouraged in polite company.

As a result nobody was transformed, no one experienced growth, no connections were made, and those with some level of awareness noted that they left a room full of people feeling somehow more lonely. Getting to the bottom of such things required time and, most often, some assistance, so most people prefer to just put such things away in a closet in the basement of their live. They carefully padlock the door so nothing can escape, but as the contents of the closet sit unattended they grow. The roots of the issues become entangled and potbound, depleting the energy of their host, until one day they demand attention and refuse to be ignored.

Far better to open that closet now.

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Projects

I wonder how manyidiot-mattress-604x437
Misadventures have started
As projects conceived
Early Saturday.
Ambition rushing out to
Home Depot, nothing
Save twine, a car roof
And what seemed like a master plan.
Roadside tragedy
Splintered hands, frayed rope
Shattered plywood, airborne bed
Witness plans awry.

Why are my religious friends jerks?

osteen megaIt’s a question I hear quite often. People will tell me that they like their “everyday” friends more than their spiritual or religious friends. They can easily relate to the former, but the latter – even for people with advanced formation in things spiritual – are hard to be around. They say or do things that are odd, or they act in ways that seem inconsistent with their beliefs. They are overbearing, intrusive, or engage in any of a number of less than well adapted behaviors. We tend to assume the problem is spirituality or religion. In truth, the problem is your friends and their religion or spirituality.

As I approach the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and enter into my thirtieth westboroyear studying world religions and spirituality, I can tell you without hesitation that none of the great religious traditions contains a teaching that says, in effect, “go forth and be an obnoxious fool.” Despite that, we have more than enough self-identified pious folks doing precisely that. What’s the deal? Who is to blame? Are religion and spirituality the problem, or is something else at work?

The truth is that religion and spirituality aren’t objective truths. There is a lot of wiggle room in both, and both are tied to human development. In other words, they can be understood at the developmental level in which the individual currently resides. It’s trivial eventsperfectly appropriate for a child to believe that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale. It’s problematic when adults believe that to be literally true. We also know that not every adult achieves the ability to process abstract thought. This means that a fair amount of what passes for religion or spirituality in our world today has little or nothing to do with any of the historic traditions.

Whether we are talking about more traditional expressions of religion or the more recently born expressions of spirituality, there are charlatans on every corner. Most of them are out to empty your wallet. Their methods differ, including overtly sexualizing their spirituality, claiming special powers or some advanced level of attainment (especially enlightenment/awakening), self identifying as a guru, seeking to charge people for having lunch with them at their request, and a host of other similar scams. If we just step back for a moment and look at their actions objectively, we can see through them quite easily. If we wouldn’t accept certain behaviors from the person who does our taxes, we shouldn’t accept them from a spiritual or religious leader! The fact that I claim to be following the teachings of a depression surrounded by assholesspiritual tradition doesn’t mean that I actually am following those traditions. Con artists, including those who con themselves, exist in every corner of life.

The truth is that every last human being is spiritual, whether or not they identify as spiritual. Even your “secular” friends are spiritual (in that they are trying to find meaning in life), the difference is they don’t run around carry on about how spiritual they are.  To paraphrase a popular meme about depression, before you dismiss all spiritual and religious folks, be sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes. They often hide in spiritual clothing.

Change

If you want your circumstances to change, you are going to have to take the first step and change how you relate and react to what is happening. If you are not willing to do that, the only one you have to blame is yourself. Nothing can change if everything stays the same.

Not My Stuff

I frequently encounter situations where someone has taken on the developmental or recovery work of a friend or loved one. They mean well, and they want to help their loved one in their process, but somewhere along the way a line gets crossed and their efforts turn from helping the individual in question to hurting everyone. Again, this is all with the best of intentions, but with terrible results.

We quite simply can’t do other people’s work for them. It may seem loving to try, but it’s anything but. The result is quite often the we inhibit their already overdue growth process. Housing the perpetually unemployed or the addicted person, tolerating inappropriate interpersonal behaviors of a loved one working through a trauma history, or allowing people to repeatedly overstay their welcome not only hurts them, it hurts the members of your family who are entitled to your attention and affection. Your partner and your minor children deserve to be the object of your love and support. Other adults quite simply need to grow up and figure life out. Their issues are not your issues.

Asexual Dating

There is an article currently on Huffington Post that details the dating difficulties of a person who identifies as asexual. I mention it because the issue can be generalized to a number of relationship questions. The author of the article was bemoaning the fact that, while there are asexual dating sites, they aren’t very well populated and some of the people on them she finds strange. It’s also difficult to identify asexual people in daily life who might be prospective dating partners. Her solution has been to date non-asexual people, both men and women, but that hasn’t really worked out because they are looking for sexual relationships. Go figure.

asexual makeoutsWhile we might be tempted to roll our eyes at the fact that she is baffled by all of this, many people enter into relationships where they know from the outset that some of their prospective partner’s strongest needs are something they just aren’t interested in. Foe example, perhaps one partner loves spending many of their weekends at Civil War reenactments, and the other finds them silly. This couple would need to ask themselves if they could tolerate spending many weekends apart. If not, there isn’t much point in continuing the relationship.

No relationship is going to feature two people who meet all of each other’s needs. Each partner is ultimately responsible for getting their own needs met. If we are talking about finding a tennis partner or someone to go to craft fairs with, there shouldn’t be a problem. If we are talking about finding someone else as a sexual partner, there is likely to be some question as to why we are in a romantic relationship rather than just remaining friends. If an asexual person is looking for a life partner, their best bet is probably another asexual person. If they chose to try to date sexual people, it seems to me they lose the right to be surprised when it doesn’t work out.

Other times, it can be a problem of mistaken definitions. I worked with a woman several years ago who told me she was bisexual. By this she meant she was attracted to gay men. It turned out that she had an extensive history of sexual abuse as a child, and she felt attracted to gay men because she could be fairly certain they wouldn’t want to be sexual with her. She didn’t understand why gay men didn’t want to date her. I referred her to a therapist. No matter the context, it’s good to know when you are in over your head!

The Spiritual Battle of the Sexes

You don’t have to be an anthropologist to know that spiritual and religious events across traditions are attended by more women than men. Leadership in this events tends to be more male than female. Both are huge problems. One of them impacts power and control, the other programming. Both alienate half of the population.

holding handsThe role of religious and spiritual leaders in congregations of all faiths has transformed over the course of my lifetime from pastoral leader to administrator. In the Christian world we can see this in the decline of the quality of preaching in many churches, in the decline and sometimes virtual disappearance of pastoral care in any form, even on the deathbed. These things have happened despite the fact that church attendance is down across all denominations. It’s true that the Roman Catholic Church has a clergy shortage and so their deficits are a bit more understandable, but virtually everyone else has a clergy surplus. What’s the problem?

When your pastor is primarily a business, marketing, and financial manager, he or she simply doesn’t have the time to do the things most of us want a pastor to do. In some settings, lay people have been appointed to fill roles such as parish administrator, director of religious education, pastoral care committees, and other roles in an attempt to take the load off of the pastor. The training these people receive varies broadly, but since the preponderance of regular attendees at houses of worship are women, those filling these roles are mostly women. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s a good thing in a world that was dominated by male clergy – though that trend is beginning to shift.

enemaThere’s just one hitch. One of the results of all this is that women are designing programming for women (understandably), and most of that is about as attractive to the average man as an enema administered through a bazooka. That trend continues across religious and spiritual organizations. Retreats and conferences across traditions offer specific programming addressing such topics as the Divine Feminine, and that’s great. Programming for men? Not so much. Presenters at the upcoming 2020 conference of Spiritual Directors International include one man. One. Remind me again why we are supposed to feel welcome?

You see, whether we like it or not, men don’t want to hold hands during the Our Father or sit in a circle facing one another and singing. We certainly don’t want to jump to our feet and engage in some ecstatic dance. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, they just aren’t our things. What are men concerned about?

  • the changes of aging
  • job security, or finding a new job over age fifty if we need one
  • are we still attractive?
  • why has our marriage become sexless?
  • understanding our roles in our families
  • finding meaning in our lives

The truth is that unless and until those issues start being addressed, don’t expect us to show up any time soon.

Trauma and A Bridge Too Far

A Bridge Too Far is a World War II movie about an Allied offensive that tried, as the title

a bridge too far poster

implies, to go a bit too far. Released in 1977, I loved this movie – but I probably wasn’t aware of all of the reasons I loved it. Elliott Gould was definitely not one of the reasons I loved it. For those too young to know, Elliott Gould was an earlier incarnation of Jeff Goldbloom – the kind of guy some women seem to love, but who most men would prefer to bitch slap until he cries, force him to wear a tutu, and then make him get us a beer. I digress, however.

Those of us who are trauma survivors are only too aware of the mentality that launched this offensive in WWII. In fact, if we could go back in time and examine the histories of those who pushed these kinds of overly ambitious plans into action, I would wager we would find more than a few trauma survivors among them. In a much more pedestrian way, those of us in civilian life who have endured trauma frequently push ourselves toward a bridge too far, failing to respect our limits because we have been taught to ignore them. If taking the dog for a two mile walk is good, then taking her for a four mile walk is twice as good, and an eight mile walk even better. Never mind that after eight miles our feet (and quite possibly the dog’s) will be blistered and bloodied. Never mind that we will be so stiff the next morning that we will walk as if we’ve spent the night riding a horse.

a-bridge-too-far-lg
Elliott Gould.

Trauma survivors tend to be disconnected from our bodies in varying degrees because we have been taught that bodies and feelings don’t matter. Only appeasing our abusers mattered. I sailed through basic training because no matter how many screaming lunatics in military uniforms and smokey the bear hats you lined up, they had nothing on my family of origin. In fact, they reminded me of Elliott Gould. As I see it, the biggest problems for trauma survivors as they move through life is that (1) we don’t respect ourselves, and (2) because of that we are easily manipulated.

elliot gould
Elliott Gould

When you are in your twenties you may be able to literally run through walls, but by your forties you start bouncing off them. We may not respect our limits, but at a certain point in our life cycle the universe starts enforcing them. Wherever we are on life’s journey, now is the time to start listening to our bodies and our feelings. If we don’t know how, a good therapist can help us. Living life while disconnected is not living a full life. In fact, it will make us reach for A Bridge Too Far.

There are no Gurus

The fascination that has grown in the west over the past several decades with eastern spirituality has become problematic, especially regarding gurus. As spiritual teachers and so-called gurus have moved from east to west, one thing that has become apparent is that they have a propensity toward sexual misconduct with their students. This in turn creates not only the problems that come with every form of sexual abuse and misconduct, but also a problem with the whole notion of gurus.

A guru is supposed to be a fully enlightened being. By definition, a fully enlightened being would never act out in any way – including and perhaps most especially sexually. The simplistic approach would be to say that anyone who acts out sexually is not a true barkley guruguru. I would agree as far as that goes, but what this approach leaves unanswered is whether we should just head on down to the next guru or whether the whole idea of guru is somehow part of the problem.

It seems you can’t scratch the surface of many so-called gurus without finding problematic behaviors. Whether they have quietly amassed fortunes, built large networks of volunteers who work for them without pay, have a secret stash of luxury automobiles, abuse their students physically or sexually, throw lavish parties that celebrate hedonism more than spirituality, or some other unacceptable behavior, many if not most highly regarded teachers who have migrated to the west have fallen from grace. What is the problem?

The problem is that most gurus achieve recognition as gurus in a highly protected environment. Living as celibate monks in a monastery, they are able to make spiritual progress is what is a very sheltered environment. In these environments money, sexuality, fame, and western style social interactions simply aren’t an issue. What these systems generate aren’t fully enlightened beings but rather semi-enlightened man-children. In a sheltered, cloistered environment they are just fine but they fall to pieces when they step out of the monastery and into the world. Stated another way, when they have to cope with the same things everyday people like you and I cope with, it becomes apparent they aren’t so enlightened after all. Go figure. You can’t “educate” someone in a sheltered environment and believe that will equip them to function well outside that environment. It’s not just ill-advised, it’s stupid.

We have this notion that spiritual leaders should live in an environment where they guru fraudnever have to navigate the complex web of human relationships (most especially romantic and sexual relationships) or be responsible for their own financial well-being. Then we let them into the world and they set about raping and pillaging. Would you give the keys to your brand new car to someone who had never seen a car, much less had any driver’s education or driving experience? Then why in the world do we send these adult children into the world and give them the keys to our spiritual well-being?

Spiritual teachers are precisely that – teachers. Since no human being is perfect, whatever enlightenment may be it cannot be equivalent to perfection. We still need to exercise our best judgment and to understand that when it comes to our safety, our opinion is the only one that counts. Never do something that feels wrong because someone you trust tells you it is right. The external guru, if such a thing exists, is there to show you the internal guru – and your internal guru would never betray you!.