Saturday, August 25, 2007

east and west, alpha and omega

Strive to enter through the narrow door.
Luke 13:24

I just finished doing a Spirit, Soul and Body week at Omega Institute in upstate New York. Even a year ago I didn’t know anything about the place, but was told vaguely that it is like the “Esalen of the east coast.” The place has been around 30 years now and considers itself “a pioneer in exploring, teaching, and embracing new ideas focusing on health and wellness, personal spiritual growth, and self-awareness.” They also have another mission: to create a peaceful oasis in a hurried world, and an environmentally aware one as well. To give you an example of what goes on there, the same week that I was presenting there was a workshop on the “Sexual Body and the Yoga of Light,” another very popular one on shamanic healing and shape-shifting, one on yoga and one on Thai massage yoga, and one called “the Natural Singer.” This weekend as we were leaving they were going to be hosting Robert Bly and Arlo Guthrie, and local boy Noah Levine of the Dharma Punx¬¬––the name of whose latest book I love: “Shut Up and Sit Down.” The last weekend of August there will be the ecstatic chant weekend with Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, both of whom I love, and would I love to be there! (There is actually kirtan singing regularly, as well as an all cultures pow-wow.) The place is beautiful in the lush countryside of the Hudson River Valley, near Poughkeepsie, Westpoint and Hyde Park. The staff was very gracious in accommodating me, sent a limo to pick me up the airport when I arrived (three hours late) and hired a driver to take me all the way to Princeton, New Jersey when we finished Friday.
The architecturally and in other way inviting and contemplative library is named after Ram Dass, who I have admired for some years, especially for three things of his: his book “The Journey of Awakening” was one of the foundational teachings for me on meditation; the album he recorded with Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, “Amazing Grace,” on which he reads the poetry of eastern mystics has been one of my favorite listens for years and also was the inspiration for some of the recorded work that I have done; and a cassette tape of a talk he gave called “Death is Not an Outrage,” during which he told the story of his own life. I was tempted to buy the new DVD about his life, “Fierce Grace,” which I hear is wonderful, but it seemed a little spendy at $32.00. Anyway, when I first walked into the Ram Dass Library the woman who was working there (I later found out her name was Page––“No jokes, please!” she said) looked up from the counter and said, “Cyprian!” I asked her if she knew me, and she said that she had been looking at my picture in the catalogue for some time and had been waiting for me to come in. It was so nice to be welcomed like that, and we became pretty good friends over the course of the week.
Coming so recently off of the Esalen experience, I couldn’t help but make comparisons, mainly about the experience of the workshop. At Esalen we had people from a wide variety of spiritual traditions take the workshop, which was pleasing to me, but the description of the workshop had not made it very clear that I was coming mainly from a Christian background, even though bringing in elements from other traditions (Universal Wisdom). I was also hopelessly naïve thinking I could slip in things like Bede’s version of the Our Father and Hail Mary without more than raising eyebrows. In the end it went well, but there were some rough moments that could have been avoided, and I was actually afraid that the ritual was so much of a buzz factor that they were not getting the stuff of the talks. On the other hand, even though the material and ritual was more inclusive and universal at Omega, it had been advertised in such a way as to make it seem off-putting to non-Christians (one Jewish man told me so), and so all the participants were Christian, (at least nominally so; I made it a point not to pry into their affiliation or involvement, though some of that came out). One of the attendees was an articulate ordained Baptist minister, who was a delight to have around. As a matter of fact, they were a little surprised (though, thankfully, delightfully so) that I was drawing so much on Universal Wisdom, so I found I couldn’t always assume that everyone knew what I was talking about when I referred to the Upanishads or the Dhammapada.
Though it was a long week, it was a good thing to have four and a half days this time. I knew I had enough material and I also didn’t have to rush, so I could relax and sit back and talk more off the cuff, as well as review and make sure folks were following along. The participants were wonderful, engaged and committed to the work of the week, which of course included chanting, prayers, yoga and lots of meditation. We also, each afternoon, had a period of group lectio divina. This is the first time I have been able to do it fully this way: on Monday we read from the Gospel of Luke, but then all the other days we read from non-Judeo Christian sources: the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita, as we do with Sangha, applying the same method of reading four times, pulling out one word, then one phrase before opening the floor up to discussion about how we were encountering this word (Word!) today. I think the best discussions of the week came out of those lectio sessions. I have two things in mind when I do them: first Abhishiktananda having the lectio sessions on the Upanishads, and second how Bede said over and over again that he wanted to encourage people to be able to meditate each others’ Scriptures––hence, of course, the book Universal Wisdom. So we were very much in the lineage.
Outside of my particular group, I was delighted to be in an environment like that. Once again, for all the bad press that the Roman Catholic church has gotten these past years––and especially ordained Roman Catholics––I felt as if people treated me with a great deal of respect even before I had earned it. I also love being in such an idealistic environment––I am a hopeless optimist about the human race––where people really believe that they can change the world by changing themselves and the way they live (and they can––“with my own two hands…”). My optimism carries over into all of these creative, and sometimes seemingly whacky, new approaches to spirituality mainly, I posit, trying to invite the body and the earth back into the temple. That, of course, is a large part of what we deal with in the Spirit, Soul and Body sessions. I explained this time that the reason I spend so much time talking about Christianity during the “body” section is not so much to try to convert others or be an apologist for Christianity, but because western Christianity is largely to blame for the mess we are in because of its dualistic and decidely non-incarnational approach to spirituality. It is other traditions who are teaching us westerners, Christian or not, how to bring our body into the temple. (I am halting here before I start quoting my whole first two talks, Wendell Berry and Sam Keen.)
But yes, optimistic, that these kids and other folks at Omega are not only sincere (even a murderer can be sincere) but are quite often on the right path, discovering truth, beauty and goodness, discovering new wine for their new wineskins in many ways. I was thinking of the two preceding popes, first of all how Pope Paul VI at the opening session of the Second Vatican Council urged the Council fathers to change their attitude to the world––“not to conquer but to serve; not to despise but to appreciate, not to condemn but to comfort.” Specifically as regards the ritual/prayer service I had been worried about diminishing the Christian element too much, not wanting to make it seem as if I were ashamed of Jesus somehow, remembering Martin Marty’s warning that we are in danger of losing the cross, “and that,” he wrote, “as they say, is crucial.” But then suddenly I remembered John Paul II’s hopeless naïveté in 1983 when at the Assisi gathering of the world’s religious leaders he announced that they would now all “go and pray together,” a remark that was later stricken from the record since there are those who think that people of different traditions cannot pray together. I can celebrate Eucharist and the other sacraments, the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours on my own. When I am with others not of my tradition, I want to find a way that we can pray together, find some words that we can all agree on or at least words that do not exclude each together, and/or of course, to sit together in the sacred silence.

To my surprise I ran into someone I knew there, a girl named Rebecca who I had met over a decade ago through the Four Winds Council when she was living at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. We had had a few nice visits back then and had also exchanged a few letters but I have not seen her since. She appeared at the door of the building where I was doing my sessions and I was both surprised and not surprised to see her again, and there. This was her kind of place. We had a long hug and a quick visit, and then she was whisking off to be with her yoga gurus for a few days, so we made plans to visit later on Thursday when she got back.

They have open “sampler sessions” on some nights of the week so that people from one workshop can get a taste of another. My sampler was Tuesday, and I had planned to do my musical presentation that evening, even though it wasn’t typical of what the rest of the week was. We had a nice little crowd come besides my own participants, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing the concert again, which is also always a relief from speaking. Through it I got to meet another handful of great folks that I would run into again over the course of the week. And somehow I still feel like this is what I really do––I’m a singer not a teacher! It is true: music cuts through all the ideology, especially since we have really been able to develop a repertoire drawn from poetry from many different sources.

Thursday I had dinner with Rebecca and then a long visit with her again after my evening session over a cup of tea. She is so impressive. She has traveled the world partly for the experience, partly finding ways that she can be of service. She has been heavily involved in animal rights activism and nature causes. She has taken lay ordination in the Soto Zen tradition and has studied yoga extensively in the jivamukti lineage, and also seems very conversant in Sufi mysticism. We had a thousand things to talk about and by the end of the evening, well after midnight, I was so charged up I could barely sleep. I am just so glad that there are people who are that alive in the world, who care that much about the future of the race and the planet, and who care so absolutely little for social convention and security. She is a real sannyasin. She had had no idea what had become of me over this past decade and so was equally excited to hear about all my wonderful spirit, soul and body adventures, and was a captive and appreciative audience when I sang three or four of the new songs for her. I had this same feeling that I get from time to time, like singing for Jojo and his friends in Durango, that I was able to write these songs just for them, just for Rebecca, just so I could have a bridge to cross over into Rebecca’s world and she to mine.

The weird thing is I feel like I get all my naïve optimism from my reading of the Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah says some shocking things. In regards the above quote of Paul VI, that’s also what comes to my mind when I hear the words of Isaiah 40 at the beginning of Advent: “Comfort, give comfort to my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” And I think of Isaiah 43:18-19––“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”––when I read this passage from Is 66:18 that we use in the lectionary today: “I know their works and I know their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come to see my glory… to the farthest coastlands far away that have not heard my fame or seen my glory… and I will take some of them as priests and Levites.”

Isaiah seems to be already pointing toward the universality of the covenant, that at some point, even if it has started with Abraham’s children, his seed by blood, it is soon to include people from all nations and tongues, from the farthest coastlands. (Jesus will take that to its extreme when he says in Matthew 3: “I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”) This has got to have been a shock for the Hebrews to hear at that time. The monotheistic religions––Judaism, Christianity, Islam––have all inherited this tendency to turn the scandal of particularity into a scandal of exclusivity. But how could it be so? How could God be so small? Now, ripped away from the security of the temple in their exile, the people of Israel have had to discover a new interiority––the 1st Axial period––and that new interiority in some marvelous way is also calling for a new inclusivity.

In the Gospel of Luke (13:22ff.) when they ask Jesus how many will be saved, Jesus doesn’t answer. He turns it back on the questioner: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” I find it very funny that he doesn’t answer. “Many will try to enter and will not be able to”; on the other hand “people will come from the east and west, from the north and south.” And if it will be in keeping with the rest of Jesus’ ministry, those who will enter might be all kinds of unexpected people, the blind and the lame, the tax collectors and prostitutes, unclean and outsiders, people from Omega Institute and Esalen, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Mount Madonna, white guys with dread locks and Jewish girls with multiple tattoos and body piercings––not who we thought was going to be first, but those we might have thought of as last. Not the ones who are necessarily calling “Lord, Lord” but those who are showing that the law is written on their hearts.

Many of the people who frequent and run places like Omega are those who have turned the backs on institutional religion (for the most part Christianity) because they feel as if institutional religion turned its back on them, or because they weren’t finding transformative experiences or inclusivity inside of churches, and so they have built an environment of transformation and inclusivity. I know a lot of people in Christianity scoff at folks like this, and giggle and snicker at their costumes and antics and diet and drums and dancing, but I see, “They were hungry and no one was there to feed them. They were like sheep without a shepherd.” And so now they, the children, are leading the way.

There’s a movement in the human person, a natural movement that must be respected. We all start out selfish; we’re supposed to be selfish as children. It is our survival method. We automatically know how to cry when we need to feed, when we are too hot or too cold or in danger, so that we will be cared for. (It’s actually amazing to me just how helpless human children are for so long. Other creatures in nature seem to be self-sufficient a lot sooner.) But slowly, slowly our parents wean us not just from our dependence on the breast, but also from our selfishness, and teach us that we belong to something bigger. The first something bigger that we learn that we belong to is the tribe, or our family; we learn even that our personal survival also depends on survival of the tribe. Some people say that in women it is the growth from selfishness to care, meaning care for the tribe, for the family; and in men the growth is from selfishness to rights, to protecting the family and the tribe. But there is a greater belonging too that we learn, and another move that we need to make: from care for the tribe to universal care; from rights for the tribe to universal rights. In a sense this is the ultimate selflessness, extending care, extending justice outside of our known categories and cultures. At some point we are going to realize that our personal survival also depends on this universality, that we are all one body. (I’m thinking again of the marvelous experience of Malcolm X just before he was murdered, what he called his “second conversion,” when during his hajj to Mecca he realized that all these people around him, black, white, brown skinned, from every nation and language group, were all his brothers and sisters, and he left the Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammed to form Organization of African-American Unity, and eventually moved from fighting for civil rights to fighting for human rights.)

In some ways I think that it is contemplatives, meditators, who should be able to understand this the best. “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” The narrow door is the one leading into the inner chamber, ascending to the depths of the heart, and then all of this will make sense. It’s narrow because we have to shrink and shrink and shrink some more to fit through, like the healthy ego that is lean and mean, servant and friend and messenger, like the seed that falls to the ground and dies, like the yeast that disappears into the dough, like salt disappears into whatever it is flavoring. We have at some point to cast off all our bloated self-importance and our cultural baggage if we are to be people of the spirit. The new interiority gives birth to a new inclusivity. Bede Griffiths wrote that at the level of the body and the soul we are all separate, and constantly yearning for the re-connection. But at the level of the spirit we are one. We are all contained in God, permeated by the Spirit, swimming in Spirit.

Bruno writes that this new period of post-modernity and globalization is marked by a transition from a Eurocentric to a global consciousness, and that both monasticism and the church in general are being invited to open themselves toward “a larger emergent reality, which can itself be seen as a fruit of continuing incarnation––of the working of the Christ mystery in the earth of humanity.” Instead of the scandal of exclusivity we move from the scandal of particularity to the scandal of the Incarnation. This, of course, is why we study Universal Wisdom, and why we teach of the Universal Call to Contemplation, why we watch for and applaud it wherever it is happening. This has great implications for and is the very basis of inter-religious dialogue.