What does “good enough” mean?

Most of us hear the expression “good enough” as rather negative. We tend to associate it with not being good enough. We hear the expression in almost every corner of our lives. We can be “not good enough” to get the job we want, the relationship we crave, to win a competition we are in, to understand a complicated issue or concept – all of which represent failure on some level. If we hear those messages long enough, we start to believe them. In truth, and in a very specific sense, especially early in life there are things we aren’t good enough to effectively engage, either because we lack knowledge, or skills, or experience in a particular area. We will always have areas where we aren’t good enough to do something. Running a four minute mile is something most of us will never do. Then again, most of us aren’t losing a whole lot of sleep over that fact!

There’s another “good enough” that we often ignore. Even worse, we may be blind to it! American Tibetan Buddhist Lama Surya Das, when asked if he was enlightened, responded, “I am enlightened enough.” Since enlightenment is seen as a kind of perfection, we might paraphrase this exchange as someone asking if we are perfect and our response being that we are perfect enough. In this way we see that, in common thought, being good enough has come to mean that we are perfect, able to handle anything that may arise, never hesitant or doubting. Can you see that for the distortion it is? None of us are perfect, and so if someone comes along and asks if we are perfect the best response may be laughter.

Imagine if we stopped beating ourselves up for not being something nobody is! We don’t feel bad about being less than eight feet tall. We can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound and we aren’t faster than a speeding locomotive, but we don’t feel bad about not being Superman. If we are asked if we are Superman, slightly disguised in the “good enough” language, we shouldn’t feel bad about answering “no” to that question, either. What would happen if we came to understand that we are all good enough to put forth our best effort, and that is the only good enough that mattered? What would happen if we stopped looking for the things we cannot accomplish and instead started focusing on the things we can do? What if we extended the same courtesy to others?

What would happen is that we would shift our current cultural focus on what is lacking to what is present, from the impossible to the possible, from the ugly to the beautiful that dwells in each of us. We should be aware that our minds are programmed from Neanderthal days to look for the things that are different or lacking and so might be threatening. Given that most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by sabre tooth tigers, maybe we could start to surrender all of our Neanderthal practices. If we don’t, we are putting an artificial cap on our potential, our progress, and our happiness.

You Can’t Do It That Way!

How often do we hear that from academics, especially in the field of spirituality and religion? I have heard it so often I want to vomit every time yet another insecure academic trying to justify their professional existence announces what does and does not constitute “proper” spiritual practice. Whatever currently popular spiritual trend catches their attention is dismissed either because it doesn’t pass their litmus test of what constitutes proper practice or the practitioners don’t have (in their mind) the proper qualifications to do the practice authentically, or both.

Mind you, I am far from anti-intellectual. I support the Academy and think it has a purpose and does good work. It’s when they try to dismiss everything that comes from anyone who hasn’t spent their lives in higher education as somehow inherently inadequate that I have a problem. When academics suggest that anything that doesn’t come from them or one of their colleagues isn’t “valid,” I feel compelled to point out that it’s a good thing for the rest of us that they aren’t in charge of social graces. I often wonder if when people from the theology department announce that the only people qualified to opine on any scripture are those who can read it in the original languages, the people from the foreign language department become insulted because their translation ability has been besmirched by their colleagues! Do the people from the history and anthropology departments wonder why the theology department disregards the truths that humans were illiterate through most of history and the printing press was invented only five hundred years ago?

Even more importantly, please don’t tell me I can’t do something a particular way when in fact I just did. For example, if you tell me I can’t investigate Celtic spirituality when I just finished reading a book about it I am afraid I already did investigate it. If you insist I cannot read a particular scripture because I am not a polyglot, I must tell you that most people who have read a scripture have read it in translation. While the subtle nuances may be lost in translation, I believe that translators do the best job possible. Unless I am obsessive compulsive, it is close enough for my purposes.

Most importantly, don’t let anyone making pious pronouncements about the validity of your particular practice discourage you. In everybody’s experience there are bound to be more or less useful spiritual practices. What I find helpful, you may find simplistic and foolish. It’s not that the practices themselves are less that perfect, because they all are less than perfect. It’s that we have different needs and are at different places on our journeys, so of course different practices and perspectives will appeal to us. It’s the nature of practices to evolve and adapt to current needs, so we don’t need to feel embarrassed that we don’t do anything the way it was done one thousand years ago. The point of our practice is to move us along on our spiritual journey, not to please anyone else or pay homage to what once was but isn’t any longer.

At Some Point, You Must Decide

What do we do when our values and our beliefs are in conflict with the decisions our government makes? If we are honest with ourselves and aware of what is going on around us, we will start to notice how often this happens with greater frequency. When we see those situations, we will begin to feel uncomfortable. As I see it, we are faced with three choices at that time. The first is that we can ignore the conflict and pretend it doesn’t exist. As anyone who has tried to solve a problem with denial can tell you, this isn’t a very effective solution to anything. The second is that we can fragment our world and our awareness by saying that our values are one thing and the government is another, with the two never meeting. That’s a false distinction, because government supposedly represents the people. This is little more than another kind of denial, as ineffective as pretending there isn’t a problem. The third is that we can choose sides, either saying that our government is always right or that we trust our own values to guide us toward what is right, regardless of what the government says.

What about when our values conflict with themselves? What do we do in these cases? Suppose we consider ourselves pro-life and one of our friends points out that our support of the death penalty conflicts with a pro-life identity. How do we resolve that conflict? Many people, unwilling to honestly examine their values and beliefs in any but the most superficial way, decide to forego resolving the conflict and insist that those are two completely different questions. The problem is that they aren’t different questions at all, and if we hope to be a moral person of integrity we need to resolve that inconsistency. What about someone who considers themselves pro-life but is opposed to offering free pre-natal care and well baby check ups to all mothers and children who can’t afford them?

Here is the hard part. You will likely never convince someone who doesn’t want to look at the inconsistencies in their values to do so. Nor is it our job to get them to look. Our job is to look at our own values and check their consistency, and then get on with the important work of implementing those values, period. If we waste our time and energy trying to convince people of the error of their ways, we won’t have the time and energy needed to work for the change we hope to see in the world. There will always be people who choose not to deal with reality as you and I understand it. Trying to convert the deluded is a fool’s errand that depletes the energy of the converter and leads to burn out. There is nothing that says we need to reach consensus with the rest of the world before working for change. In fact, striving for consensus only assures that nothing will change, because consensus is very difficult to achieve. Is it ever acceptable for a child to starve while we try to achieve consensus on a feeding program? Is it okay for someone to die of a preventable illness because we can’t agree on how to ship the vaccine? Wouldn’t it be better to fix the problem and allow those who are predisposed to meaningless debate sort things out after the fact?

Faith and Obligation?

If something is an obligation, is doing it really faith or rather fear of punishment? Those of us raised in small-c catholic traditions may recall the idea of holy days of obligation. These were days wherein church attendance was considered mandatory, and failure to attend was considered sin unless you had an officially sanctioned reason for not being in attendance. I want to ask, is it really meritorious to do something with a spiritual gun pointed at your head?

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee recently reminded parishioners that attendance at Mass, even during this pandemic that puts the demographic that comprises the majority of church goers at greatest mortal danger, is mandatory. In other words, “even if it kills you, Grandma, get to Mass.” Do we really believe that any God worthy of the Name would say something like that? Can we see that such statements are nothing more than coercive attempts to get people to do something they might otherwise not do, and for perfectly valid reasons? Is putting butts in the pews worth dying over? Can the Archbishop really feel good about what he has done at the end of the day with this policy? Might it be that the people’s money is more important to him than anything else about them, including their health and safety? If that’s true, could there be a bigger example of mortal sin?

Remember, as much as your particular tradition, Christian or other, claims to speak for God the truth is that it does not. Ultimately all institutions are about self preservation, even if they are loathe to admit it and so seek to blame a Bigger Authority for their irresponsible actions. If your tradition claims to be pro-life but makes decisions that may sacrifice Grandma on the altar of dead Presidents, it’s neither pro-life nor pro-God. If institutional religion is confused as to why it is breathing a death rattle, perhaps we should simply hand it a mirror.

Raise Your Hand if You Don’t Have a Body!

It seems like a silly title, doesn’t it? Despite that, to one degree or another, most spirituality and religion has encouraged adherents to deny that they are embodied and refuse to acknowledge the needs that come with embodiment. Whether it’s fasting, sleep deprivation, celibacy, dietary restrictions, self-inflicted abuse of different kinds, human sacrifice, or any of a number of so-called ascetical practices, religion and spirituality have sought to convince us to deny our physical selves. Some of that was rooted in a particularly perverse dualism that insisted the spirit was good and the physical evil.

I once knew a Pentecostal preacher who told the story of checking into a hotel to fast for forty days and forty nights. He recounted dreams and visions and all manner of spiritual experiences during this time. Delirium, whether caused by low blood sugar or something else, will do that to you but that doesn’t mean delirium is a desired or spiritual state. I have often reflected on the truth that there is little difference between his story and the account of someone on a crack binge beyond a difference in social acceptability. Being out of touch with reality, regardless of the reason, is never an exalted spiritual state.

So why the rejection of the body? For some people, rejecting the body is rejecting experiences that cannot be controlled. For others it is a mistaken association of pleasure with evil. Still others reject the body in search of transcendence, feeling that the body cannot be transcended in this life. I have long suspected that many people become preoccupied with their bodies to avoid facing their shadow, the part of themselves they would rather reject and push away, even deny. That’s as true of people who abuse their bodies as it is those who worship them and can’t seem to leave the gym. If I worry about whether I will inadvertently encounter pleasure today, I likely won’t pay attention to the pain I cause others.

To be human is to be embodied. Denying that truth or wishing it were otherwise doesn’t accomplish anything healthy. A life giving spirituality will offer ways for us to accept the realities of life rather than seek to deny or avoid them. An unwillingness to accept the reality of our circumstances is a curious kind of self-preoccupation that masquerades as spiritual accomplishment. In truth, the spiritual life is better served by increasing the time spent concerned about others and reducing our obsession with ourselves!

Experiences in Meditation

I recently received a question about experiences in meditation. I am reproducing in part my response here on the blog because I feel many people have a similar question.

The experiences you are having are sometimes called “consolations.” I tend to think of them as glimpses of awakening. Everything seems to make sense in those moments, to fall into place so clearly that we may wonder why we couldn’t see it sooner. We may want to stay in that space, but we cannot. I don’t believe that enlightenment, whatever it means, is dwelling constantly in those mountaintop moments because I don’t know that we could tolerate the view from the mountaintop all the time. I do believe we are given those moments of insight as a reward for the work we are doing. They are good, they are wonderful, and they aren’t the point at all.

In a sense, like a rich dessert, those moments of bliss can become a distraction if we start reaching for them or take them as a measure of “progress” (an awful word) on the path. Experiences will come and go, and if we start chasing them they become a serious problem. I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning (here’s a brief video demonstrating it https://youtu.be/TtfQlkGwE2U), but if we chase after the rewarding experiences in meditation we can become like Skinner’s pigeons, convinced that certain behaviors invariably produce a reward. 

In my experience, a more effective view is that in meditation practice the practice itself is the goal. Whether or not there are experiences, however we feel before, during, and after a practice session, we cannot fail because doing meditation itself is the point. There will be benefits, experiences, and changes within us, but they are best understood as wonderful but secondary gains that really don’t measure progress but are a nice reward – like that rich dessert. In this way, if we have experiences, that is great. If we don’t, that’s great too. 
I hope this helps!

Living in Mystery

There are things we don’t know. Some of you will feel that I am stating the blatantly obvious. Others will feel that my claim is patently false. Hopefully, the majority of you are willing to consider at least that we as individuals don’t each know everything there is to know. Our culture often seems to treat not knowing as a problem or a deficit to be overcome. Sometimes it’s true that things like not knowing how to cure cancer is a deficit we would very much like to overcome. Few people would disagree when I say that overcoming disease is always a valid goal.

Not knowing drives scientific progress and other legitimate curiosities. We wonder what is at the edge of our current knowledge, just beyond our reach at the moment but perhaps tomorrow’s discovery that changes lives. The quality that drives us in these situations isn’t a discomfort with not knowing but rather curiosity. When we are curious, we don’t feel we need an answer right away because we understand there are things to be learned along the way. When we experience dissatisfaction with not knowing we tend to want answer right now, even if it’s the wrong answer, because we can’t tolerate uncertainty. If what I have described sounds a lot like living in 2020, you are correct! It’s not just 2020 or pandemics that raise these questions, but they do raise them in a more intense fashion that we are used to.

Do you prefer to do things you have done before, things that are known commodities rather than things that may or may not turn out as you expect? When is the last time you tried a new food or a new recipe? How about a new author or a book or movie about a new subject? People who enjoy working large jigsaw puzzles understand that there is a time or varying length between starting and completing a puzzle when they dwell in uncertainty. Gradually, over time, the image starts to come into focus. That place between scattered, seemingly disjointed pieces and completion is a kind of dwelling in the unknown.

Dwelling in the unknown can be a time of great personal and spiritual transformation, but it can also be a time of discomfort and uncertainty. We need to be able to tolerate all of it, but that can be a hard sell in a world of microwave ovens and instapots. “I want it now” is the motto of a very shallow person, indeed, one who will have to settle for the mediocre because they cannot wait for the more complex, nuanced experience. You can yell “I want it now” until you are hoarse, but at the end of 2020 we are waiting for many things and intolerance of the waiting will not shorten it. As long as we are in the middle of waiting, why not explore it? Notice what it feels like. Notice how your choices in the past are challenged by this new future. See again that some things that work quickly, like instant men’s hair coloring, aren’t necessarily of the highest quality. Consider craftsmanship in every human activity, and find places in your life where slowing down and doing things the old way is actually beneficial to the outcome. If you have the courage to take these steps, this time of reduced frenetic activity may surprise you by revealing some appealing new habits!

Thirty-eight Thousand gods and Counting

Every religion and every subdivision of those religions purports to reveal God to us, and all of them fail. What they reveal instead are gods, middle managers at best, what the Hebrew scriptures called demiurges. I say this because, quite frankly, we imagine God should be our personal errand boy, taking care of this and that, allowing us to manipulate him into doing our bidding by virtue of our having obeyed some rather penny ante behavioral restrictions. It’s done in the name of explaining how God cares for us, but would any God worthy of the name be a micromanager?

The reason I say there are thirty-eight thousand gods and counting is that is approximately the number of Protestant denominations of Christianity at the present time. Leaving out other religions and the various catholic denominations for a moment, each of those thirty-eight thousand has their own particular understanding of their god and believe theirs to be the correct understanding. Some of them concede that some other groups come close to being right while other groups claim to be the one true church. Add on to that number all of the other religions and their subsets and we are left with an astronomical number of gods. They cannot all be correct understandings because they all contradict each other in more or less significant ways. They could theoretically all be wrong, but I suspect most of them are more right than wrong. The problem is that they all look at the local area office demiurge in charge of local affairs rather than God.

I am not arguing for a new Orthodoxy – far from it. I am saying that most all of our God imagery is way too small. In fact, all imagery is way too small. Whether we are arguing for the old man in his workshop creating all that is in seven days from leftover parts or something closer to the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we are quite simply missing the mark and settling for a god who is domesticated and pasteurized. If God is to be the Source and Sustainer of all that is, God simply cannot be stuffed into a meat bag obsessed with whether or not we are touching ourselves. A better vision of such a God would be much closer to consciousness, energy, potential, spirit, being itself, and other terms that reflect the type of being necessary to accomplish what we might call the work of God.

All of this is more than trivia for those of us who are spiritual practitioners. It has implications for everything from how we practice individually and in community to how we engage in service. Prayer in such a vision moves away from reminding daddy of what we need in case he has forgotten to listen to study, reflecting, becoming still and silent, and engaging in concentration practice. Morality in this vision is less about what we do with our reproductive systems and more about what emerges from our hearts and minds. Church in this vision needs a complete overhaul, including a massive dose of humility and a leadership that journeys with rather than demanding compliance.

This is a huge shift, and some won’t be ready to make the leap. For them, daddy god in a meat bag will continue to serve the purpose they can understand until such time as they are ready for more. If they are never ready, that is just fine. The demiurges do have a purpose because, quite honestly, this broader vision of God is part of a continuum that is built upon that demiurge foundation. What’s more, the lines of demarcation between the demiurge and God aren’t hard and fast. They are a huge, porous border that we cross one section at a time. That is how humans learn and grow, unless they close their minds to a bigger and better vision. Those of us who have come to a place on our journey where the old vision no longer fits and may feel patently absurd need this new vision. In fact, many of us have started to arrive there already, and need a format in which we can engage others at similar stations on the path. Shall we?

Pollyanna Western Christianity

I have noticed something about western Christianity lately. Across all perspectives, from conservative through moderate to progressive, there is an assumption that we all live and always have lived perfect lives. They act as if we are all the family from Leave it to Beaver or from Cosby. Parents are always wonderful, they are never divorced, everybody has plenty of healthy friendships and platonic dating relationships, nobody struggles with addiction or mental illness, unemployment and domestic violence are unknown, nobody is slinging drugs on the street corner or shooting up your street. Therefore, parents are a lovely image for what God looks and behaves like, the Trinity tells us about how God exists in (healthy) relationship, heaven is just like being in church for eternity, and on it goes. They are mystified that their metaphors fall flat.

More than sixty percent of American children experience at least one of ten possible adverse childhood experience or ACE. Around fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, eleven million families (32%) with children under eighteen are single parent families, one in fifteen children are impacted by domestic violence and ninety percent of those children witness that violence – and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite all of this, many if not most Christian teachers and organizations continue to assume that Pollyanna examples based in an almost completely nonexistent worldview speak to anyone. Remember that the Cosby family on television was headed by a serial rapist when everything came to light. If you want to lead with the idea that the love of God is mirrored in the family, you are going to lose more than half of America in the process.

A healthy spiritual life engages reality rather than running from it or hearkening back to glory days that never existed. A healthy spiritual life also addresses real problems in real life, using relevant spiritual teachings that speak to contemporary circumstances. Teaching that God’s love is just like the love of parents when in truth one parent may very well be absent or addicted and the other neglectful simply isn’t helpful! In fact, it is damaging! Much more helpful would be proposing a God who suffers with us when we are transgressed upon and who motivates people to work in the helping professions so children (hopefully) may encounter them when those adverse childhood experiences occur. This would be a good first step, but it is far from adequate. Much work remains to be done as we build religious and spiritual systems that work for the future, but if we don’t do so in a way that speaks realistically to the lives and struggles then our efforts will be in vain.

Complexity and Confusion

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day as I was walking the dog. I have a fair number of epiphanies walking Roxy. My epiphany came in the form of questions: Does the Divine have some sort of communicative disorder? Should we take up a collection for a special education teacher so that the universe can make Itself understood? I feel so bad that we have ignored the special needs of the Source of all that is!

Most religions love to trot out their clergy and theologians with advanced degrees. Here comes The Rev. Dr. Thisandthat to explain it all to us. My aren’t we special! For our part, those of us taking all of this in, we are duly impressed. I am reminded of a story told by a Buddhist teacher about a gathering of spiritual teachers in California some years ago. The gathering was attended by a number of quite respected Insight Meditation teachers, who tend to dress in casual clothing. Also present was a “teacher” who had long, matted hair tied in a knot atop his head and wearing the obligatory robes of an eastern renunciate. In truth he was a westerner who had just come off a months long drug bender. The person telling the story reported that a friend he was with was duly impressed with the externals of the hungover, but payed no attention to the wisdom of the real teachers in the room. That’s human nature, I suppose, but it’s not an effective tendency. Con artists of every stripe are well aware of this tendency and use it to their full advantage. Haven’t we all met that person who looked so good in that dress or suit but turned out to be a huge mistake?

So if the Divine, by whatever name you know It, is the Source of all that exists, why would It require an interpreter with advanced degrees? Does the Divine not know how to make Itself understood? Does God play hide and seek while trying to communicate? How could the Divine overestimate the intelligence of Its intended audience if It is the Source of that same audience? The obvious answer here is that none of those things are possible. We have been convinced by professional clergy and theologians that we need them if we are to understand the deep truths of the Universe. I am here to say that any explanation of anything that comes from God requires no translation. Teachings that do require translation tend to come from humans trying to stay employed. Of course people who study these things are able to tease out nuances that may slip past the nonspecialist, but if someone tries to convince you that they are passing along an as yet undiscovered essential Truth of the Divine, keep your wallet in your pocket.

The principle of parsimony states that things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way. It’s a principle that seems to be lost on professional theologians, clergy, and common core math teachers. Violating this principle may be for the most part quite harmless, except when someone tries to tell you that you need them to understand God. To be sure, each of us from time to time comes up with some pretty far fetched ideas. That’s why it is important to be involved in a spiritual community that shares and discusses concepts, beliefs, and claims. These communities keep us from drifting too far afield as well as providing us with essential friendship and companionship. If, however, someone shows up at your community gathering claiming to be your much-needed expert guide, send them packing. They represent a kind of thinking you don’t need.

I am not trying to discredit clergy or theologians. They can be an important part of our communities and often provide much needed leadership, but they aren’t perfect. The good ones help us to develop our understanding by using their considerable skills to tease out new ideas as well as helping us progress along the spiritual path. The bad apples try to take our power away and make us dependent on them. It’s important to know the difference and make good choices both as communities and as individuals.