Why “Working on Myself” Isn’t Enough

Meditation in all of its various forms is great. I am a practitioner myself and can attest it has brought wonderful change to my life. Mindfulness meditation has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, and I would recent stay at home orders in some communities have afforded a wonderful opportunity to start or build a practice. After all, you can only reorganize your closets so many times!

It’s great to “work on ourselves,” particularly since so many of us are over committed, work too many hours for too little pay and spend much of the time that is left shuttling kids and grandkids to various activities, sporting events, classes, and meetings with friends. Then there are our various classes, personal meetings and involvements. Whether we enjoy these things or not, sooner or later our bodies and minds need a break. This is where self care comes in and practices like meditation can be an immense benefit. We should take advantage of opportunities for personal growth. The truth is, however, that working on myself is not enough.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism. Americans love to look inward, but it can easily become an exercise in avoidance. Several years ago a clergyman I knew said, “all that matters is my meditation.” At that point, I knew we had lost him. In those six words he summed up the profoundly selfish life quite succinctly. The reason we do inner work is to make us better functioning members of a society. If we never engage that society, all our work is little more than an exercise in masturbation.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism.

Craig Bergland

If we are engaging in spiritual and wellness practices in their appropriate framework, the needs in our environment will become apparent. In fact, our practices will help us see those needs. Practice causes our compassion to grow, but compassion that doesn’t lead us to action is quite shallow, indeed. I fear that many Americans use Eastern spiritual practices as an reason to avoid life. That’s a corruption of the practice. Our time looking inward should always lead us to look outward!

This is not a political post

This is not a political post, though it does involve people in politics. Think of it this way – if I wrote about the personal choices of a football player, that post wouldn’t be about football. I wouldn’t be saying that I like the team the person plays for more than another team. The same is true when I write about politicians. Writing about the choices and attitudes of a politician does not constitute a judgment on their political party. Now that we have established what should be a self evident point, we can continue.

Across party lines, we are facing corruption and cowardice in government like at no point in American history. A would-be dictator occupies the White House surrounded by yes men and women on a scale that would make Nixon blush. Politicians of all stripes are loathe to stand up against the nonsense that passes for leadership in Washington, making them complicit in the largest threat to democracy America has seen. The great unwashed have elected one of their own. Should we be surprised the whole thing stinks?

Remember when character mattered? Remember when John Kennedy wanted to sleep with every woman in sight but had the decency to know that it was wrong, and so had them slipped in the back door of the White House while Jackie slept and the press looked the other way? Remember when Nixon was regularly too drunk to function and so others ran the country? Remember Teapot Dome during the Harding administration, the corrective for which the current administration has undone?

Okay, maybe it has only been the appearance of character that has mattered. Still, qualifications did matter. The old adage that any boy could grow up to be President of the United States simply wasn’t true. Candidates for President and even Congress were expected to have a certain pedigree that suggested the educational and experiential foundations to effectively serve. We have a man who has made his living deceiving the public now in the highest office in the land, a massively unqualified con man who has very little idea of what he is doing – and was elected on that basis!

Not surprisingly, we now hear that there is nothing more important that pretending everything is normal during the worst mismanagement of a pandemic imaginable. We are told that if only we create the appearance of normalcy, everything will be fine. It doesn’t matter if grandma and grandpa die to create a lie; it doesn’t matter how many workers – most often in poorly paying jobs – risk their lives to open restaurants, bars, and beaches; it doesn’t matter how many teachers and students will get sick and die to reopen schools. This is true not because it will change anything, it will only change the appearance of our circumstances. It will seem like everything is normal if we can just slip the bodies out the back door in the middle of the night and send them to the mortuary without anyone noticing.

Does that make any sense to you?

Good Lord, I hope not. I hope there is enough decency and intelligence left in this county to know that, whether we like it or not, what happens to one of us impacts all of us. We have failed at education and are reaping the rewards of that folly. We have failed at morality and in exchange made money our God. Our politicians worship that God, and we are reaping the rewards of that folly as well. We have taken a deep dive into selfishness from which we may never emerge as a nation.

These days it seems like everyone with a cause wants us to believe that their cause is the only one that matters. Nonsense. There are many, many causes that matter, so many that if they all are the only one that matters we will never make any progress. The way out of this morass is for each of us to find a cause that matters to us and dedicate ourselves to it in the way that best uses our unique sets of skills and abilities. This will take both time and persistence. There are no magic bullets, there are no overnight fixes, but that makes it even more imperative that we start today. Rest assured we will encounter criticism in a country with no shortage of do-nothing armchair quarterbacks. Everyone has an opinion, but that doesn’t mean we need to take their opinion to heart. Don’t read your reviews, solve the problem.

Behavior and Spiritual Credibility

To be completely honest, I have struggled with this issue for years. Living, as we do, in an era where a constant procession of spiritual leaders of all stripes have been outed as serial abusers of those in their charge, I don’t see how we can avoid dealing with the issue and asking the question:

At what point does the abusive misbehavior of a spiritual leader render their teachings invalid?

Craig Bergland

Suppose we attempted to construct a spectrum of abuse that started with a spiritual leader having an adulterous affair with someone not involved with his ministry in any way and progressing to whatever the most horrific offenses we might imagine. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s say up front that consensual sex between non-married adults is perfectly fine. What transgressions are redeemable and what transgressions invalidate a person’s spiritual teachings? It may help to establish some categories of offense for sorting purposes.

Can we agree that any sexual activity involving minors should preclude that individual being allowed to teach? Would it render their teachings null and void? Catholic priests involved in the pedophilia crisis would fall into this category, but so would Rumi due to his pederasty. Many of Rumi’s supposed love poems to God weren’t written to God at all but to Shams, his adolescent protege. To be honest, that turns my stomach more than a little.

Can we agree that teachers who engage in sexual relations with their students have crossed a line? Buddhism in particular seems to struggle with teachers who can’t keep their hands to themselves, assaulting female students during spiritual interviews. Others overtly create situations wherein sleeping with the teacher is presented as being spiritually advantageous, even when the student is married. Perhaps the most notorious example of this in Buddhism is Chogyam Trungpa, who established an entire lineage replete with sexual misconduct. Only recently has anything been done or said about this, but it has been an open secret for almost fifty years. Despite that truth, there is no shortage of former students of Trungpa who still speak effusively about his teachings. What are we to make of that? In the interest of candor, for me, Trungpa’s behavior does invalidate his teaching.

What about with colleagues or the parish secretary? We talk about imbalance of power as being an important factor in determining if a relationship is appropriate, but I suspect that power is much more complicated. There is power in hierarchies, but there are all sorts of power structures in social and cultural settings that muddy the waters. When Jim Bakker had an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn, there were surely multiple psychological factors at play. It’s hard to know who was being manipulated more, but I suspect there was mutual manipulation at work. Then again, since Bakker’s teachings were vacuous at best, perhaps he is a bad example.

Complicating all of this is the truth that nobody is perfect. All of us make mistakes on a regular basis. That being said, abuse is a mistake of a different stripe. I am not concerned about clergy who fall in love with the parish secretary. I would be concerned about clergy who fell in love with every parish secretary they ever had. I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned about a spiritual teacher who once fell in love with a student. I would be very concerned about a teacher who slept with many or most of his students. These issues are important because we all share a responsibility in ensuring those seeking to develop their spiritual life can do so free from harassment. They are also important because they speak to the character of the teacher, which has a direct impact on the teacher’s ministry and teachings.

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!

Happy Interdependence Day

On this 4th of July we don’t need any more independence. Americans are obsessed with independence, to the point where it has become a hindrance. We have so perverted the idea of independence that it has come to mean that I can do whatever I want, no matter who it hurts, and everybody else has to deal with it. What we fail to see in all of that is the truth that we need each other. If we didn’t live in a society, we wouldn’t have jobs on Monday because our employers would have no customers. If we didn’t live in a society our trash would simply sit at the curb because we couldn’t come to an agreement with all the other “independent” jackasses to get it collected. The truth is that our “fierce independence” is quite selective and overblown.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a global era. That means we have a global economy. Our businesses have customers around the world, not only around the corner. We all depend on each other, and what we do impacts people way beyond our line of sight. When we act out in ways that hurt those people, we hurt our own best interests. If the corona virus has taught us anything, it should be the truth of interconnectedness. The choices I make and the actions I take during this pandemic may infect other people, who in turn may unwittingly infect others while they are still asymptomatic. Those people may further spread the virus before they become symptomatic. Since very few people are sociopaths who spread this virus intentionally, the process I just described is how we developed a worldwide pandemic – and still Americans want to talk about independence.

We need to wake up. We need to stop championing independence on the one hand and on the other engage in spittle-filled screaming episodes trying to impose our distorted view of reality on other people. As a nation we need to make healthier choices, and we cannot allow people who cannot or will not see the wisdom of those choices to hold us back. In any relationship, as one partner becomes more healthy the other partner or partners are called by the healthy example to do the same. No explicit persuasion is necessary. It’s time for us to grow up as a nation.

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!

A Post-Truth World?

Seriously? What would make us think such a thing was even possible? Who would choose a name like that, a name that implies that truth no longer exists? Of course it means that in our world today many people believe that opinion matters more than truth. I reject that notion! I reject the idea that truth can ever not matter, or matter less than opinion. What we have is narcissism run amok, including in the office of the President. What we have is propaganda passing as news, bald faced lies being presented as alternative facts, and attempts to confuse and distort in an attempt to do whatever we want to do without being held responsible for it.

If this is a post truth world, then I think those who assert that notion must be willing to put the law of gravity to the test. When I was a teenager, every now and then someone would drop acid and decide they could fly. Some of them climbed up onto the roof of their parents’ home and “flew” off. The results were predictable and swift. The next week the family would have a ramp built to the front door so that when young Orville Wright was discharged from the hospital his wheel chair could get into the house. Believing you can fly doesn’t make it so, R. Kelly.

Have you noticed how often millennials begin a sentence with “I feel…” and then go on with content we would have introduced with “I think,” “I know,” or “I believe”? Linguistically, for them, feeling is fact. Except feeling isn’t fact, it is feeling and can be influenced by any number of dubious factors. In fact, feeling doesn’t require fact at all, it’s completely subjective. After the big football game, the fans of the winning team feel happy. The fans of the losing team feel sad. Those who are fans of neither most likely don’t feel much about it at all. The fact is that one team beat another. There are not three underlying facts.

The notion of a post truth world cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged. We must have the courage, when we encounter someone who believes their opinion is equivalent to or more important that verified fact, to challenge that idea for the nonsense it is. We might assure our feeling friends that their feelings are valid and we would be happy to discuss them – while reminding them that they are not, in fact, facts. There is much reeducation to be done, and we need to start right away. We don’t want to build any more ramps.

Do Values Still Exist?

Remember values? They were those old fashioned things that gave us a somewhat consistent outline of what we would and wouldn’t do. Most people would say, for example, that killing other human beings is wrong. Other values included the idea that it was a good thing to be honest, to avoid cheating, to act with integrity, to be a reliable friend and a good parent. Most people would agree that stealing is a bad thing and that fairness is good. Sleeping with someone else’s spouse was frowned upon, even if it was a value to which we didn’t universally adhere. A man’s word was his bond, and a oral agreement was binding.

Back in the days when we had values, conservatives generally held forth against what they called relativism or situational ethics. Something that was wrong was always wrong, no matter the circumstances. Of course, that proves a rather immature ethical stance that doesn’t hold up, but they tried. You may hold that it’s wrong to go into another person’s home unless invited, but going into a burning house to save someone doesn’t require an invitation. Today those same conservatives seem to have no problem with deceit and outright lying. All you have to do is listen to a politician to know that neither conservatives nor liberals have any problem with selling the Brooklyn Bridge over and over again. What would be the consequence of acting that way in our own workplace? I suppose that depends on where you work and who your customers are.

One thing is certain. A society without values cannot survive long because a lack of values erodes trust. If we cannot trust one another we will not long be able to live in proximity to one another. In America, our society is polarized as never before, and some would counsel learning to get along no matter the cost. I disagree. It simply isn’t possible to get along with valueless, deceitful fools. What we need to do is rise above this nonsense and vote. Those of us with integrity need to reassert our influence in society and speak truth to power and deceit, reemphasizing the value of character. Nothing less will do.

Nothing is Ruined or Lost

I have been seeing articles lately, mostly aimed at millennials, declaring that this summer or this year is lost. I confess that I am mystified by this feeling, though I am not unfamiliar with it. In fact, I hear similar things from my thirty something daughter all the time. The summer is lost because the pools may not open, festivals are cancelled, concerts aren’t happening, and all manner of interruptions are taking place in an effort to mitigate the impact of the corona virus. In places where those precautions aren’t being taken the number of cases are rapidly rising, just as the experts predicted they would – imagine that!

We tend to confuse what is typical or what is normal with what is mandatory. Just because things most often play out in a certain way doesn’t mean that is the only way our lives can unfold. Most of us have likely seen a DVD of a popular movie that included alternate endings. Suppose that a movie was released to theaters with different endings that were randomly chosen. Would that mean that people who saw the second ending didn’t see that movie and had wasted their time and money going to the theater? Would it mean they had never seen the movie?

Life unfolds in ways that are often unpredictable. That’s what keeps it interesting. I once watched a movie with a friend who had seen that movie six times. For some reason they thought I would enjoy it if they continually told me what would happen next. They were like a talking, popcorn munching spoiler. I finally had to tell them to shut up or turn the movie off because knowing what would happen next took all the fun out of the movie! Life is the same way. Knowing what’s coming next may keep us safe from unpleasant surprises, but it keeps us safe from the pleasant ones, too!

Whatever happens this summer, trust that life will unfold just the way it is supposed to unfold, even if that is very different from previous years. Decide to enjoy the unusual rather than bemoan missing your thirty-fourth Phish concert. Think of the rest of this year as an adventure, because that is what it is. Celebrate the break from routine and look for the new and the positive. I promise you that what you look for is what you get. That means you ultimately decide whether this year is wasted or lost – and you are the only one you can blame for the outcome!

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.