Tuesday, October 28, 2008

breathing in and breathing out

Someone born to this world should do many good deeds,
as a garland maker makes garlands from a heap of flowers.

Just as a sweet-smelling lotus blooms
beside the highway upon a heap of filth,
so does the disciple of the perfect Buddha
rise above those bound blindly
to the limitations of the world.
(Dhammapada 4:7-10, 15-16)

There is a theory in philosophy, with which may of you will be familiar, that has gained more and more popularity in the past hundred years or so concerning what is called the Axial Period. The idea is that about 2500 years ago, over the course of a few hundred years, a great shift in consciousness took place in the human race, and that that shift of consciousness had the effect of shaping the world’s religions to the extent of giving them the form that they have today. In a sense you might say that it was either a psychological shift or a cognitive leap forward. It’s when human beings realized rationality; it’s when, in philosophical terms, logos or the logical mind pierced through the veil of mythos or the mythological mind. It’s when we came to realize that God (or the gods) was/were not someone to be manipulated or cajoled by sacrifices and rituals, but instead that religions and spirituality were about personal transformation––not changing God but transforming me, and my world. And so, for one thing, the interior path opens up. The way of meditation is explored in India and China. Self-knowledge becomes important in Greece; the philosophical watchword for the Greeks is “know thyself.” These paths offered for the first time a vocabulary for personal transformation on an individual spiritual path. It is also from this era that the first examples of monasticism come, which is the best example of mapping a practical path for someone to move away from the tribe and follow a path of individual self-transformation.

You can also detect this same shift going on in Judaism. This is the era of the late prophets. But it occurs to me that Judaism and the late prophets have a unique contribution to offer this shift in consciousness, an accent that still abides today. The specific contribution of Judaism is the realization that, yes, it’s not enough to offer sacrifices and fast and pray: but that we must also live justly and treat our neighbor well. My favorite example comes from the prophet Isaiah Chapter 58 when he says: Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, the let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your house…? But really it is there already as far back as the revealing of the covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai: aside from all the admonitions concerning our relationship with God, the second seven Commandments were all about our relationships with others, and they are not capricious commands, but rules about proper ordering of society. And that includes, as we also hear in the Book of Exodus (Ex 22:20-26), justice and even deference for the alien, the widow, the orphan and the poor. So neither the path of ritual and sacrifice, nor a supposedly more enlightened path of inner transformation through things like self-knowledge, meditation and yoga, are enough by themselves. Especially the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us that we must incarnate that personal transformation in charity, in service, in justice, in the way we live.

Now, I was formed in the monastic tradition, the paradigm of the individual spiritual path; it’s all about self-transformation through self-mastery and self-knowledge. So I can safely say that there tends to be a bit of inflation and projection around monks and monasticism. You’d be amazed how many people would stand in a kind of awe of our life, whether we deserved it or not––and usually we don’t! They would say, “How spiritual you must be to spend that must time in prayer and meditation; how holy you must be from spending so much time in solitude.” I heard one guy refer to us as “spiritual Olympians”! I used to think, and every now and then say out loud, “What about the elderly man caring for his wife who’s dying of cancer and Alzheimer’s? What about those who have dedicated their life to the serving the poor or fighting for justice? What about the ordinary married couples all over the world struggling to make ends meet and feed their children?” Those seemed as much if not more like the spiritual Olympians as any solitary monk.

And Jesus, good Jewish boy that he was, gives as perfect a summary of that teaching as anyone in history ever had or has since. The one greatest commandment, he says, is really two: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

There are always two dangers in the spiritual life: the first one is over-spiritualizing. In this day and age, especially in this area, we have a certain fascination with mysticism; I myself do as well. I meet many people lime me who I call “bliss junkies.” And there is something good about that. In this day and age we have developed a hunger for and an appreciation for the interior path and a way of personal transformation that has lain buried in the Christian West for centuries in the midst of all our extroversion. But there is a danger to our fascination with mysticism. There was a good interview with Andrew Harvey in the last issue of the Sun and in his word––himself a rather famous bliss junkie––mystical systems can tend to get addicted to transcending reality, and that also may be part of the reason why the world is being destroyed. We can give our honor to an off-planet God, and sacrifice the world and its attachments to the adoration of that God. But God as revealed in the Scriptures is both immanent and transcendent, and this world is not an illusion, and any philosophy that says it is, is only a half-truth. Perhaps in mystical experience the world does seem to disappear and reveal itself as a kind of “dance of divine consciousness,” he says. “But then it reappears,” and we realize that God is in everything. That’s the vision that completely shatters you. We can be so addicted to either materialism or to transcending material reality, “that we don’t see God right in front of us, in the beggar, the starving child, the brokenhearted woman; in our friend... We miss it, and in missing it, we allow the world to be destroyed…” He goes on in his typical fashion in a pretty funny passage:
The Mystics as we know them will be praying as the last tree is cut down. They are junkies of ecstasy and bliss, and they’re hooked into the IV of their own self-created mystical experiences. There are too many bliss bunnies running around, presenting the divine as a kind of cabaret singer in hot pants, available for ay kind of fantasy you may have. Then there are the activists, who are noble and righteous and give their lives to their cause, but they are divided in consciousness. They demonize others and often burn out. Neither mystic nor activist balances transcendence and immanence, heart and mind, soul and body, presence and action.
The other danger of course is the danger of empty activism. We can also tend to be so extroverted in the Christian West––and this applies to people in ministry and service professions as well as workers of all stripes––that we burn out, we lose our spiritual root ad source, and/or turn to materialistic solutions to recuperate and strengthen ourselves: entertainment and diversions, not to mention the more insidious lure of escaping through all kinds of intoxicants and addictions, instead of spiritual sustenance.

Fr Bede describes Jesus as having reached what the Hindus call the state of sahaja samadhi, the highest state beyond the active and the contemplative life in which one “can be a contemplative, in perfect stillness, and at the same time fully active.” He wrote:
Many Christians interpret Jesus in the New Testament simply as a man going about doing good, helping people and always busy and active, and they do not realize that he had gone beyond. In his six weeks in the desert and in the depths of his being he was enjoying pure samadhi. He was a pure contemplative, always abiding with the Father as the source of his being, and always seeing what the Father does as the source of his action. He is in that state of transcendent awareness in which he is one with the Father, and at the same time perfectly natural and human.
So, until we reach that sahaja samadhi, what we are always looking for is the balance, or perhaps a better word is “proportion.” I like to think of it as simple as breathing in and breathing out: we have to do both. If we are active people, along the way we learn that we need to breathe in: we need prayer, meditation, self-care of our bodies and minds, times of withdrawal, recovery. If, on the other hand, we are bliss junkies hell bent on a course of grabbing enlightenment by hook or crook, no matter how much money it costs and what distant lands we have to travel to, we eventually learn that we also need to breathe out and contribute to our world, or else the energy goes bad inside of us, turns rotten like seed sitting too long in the silo; whereas if it falls into the ground and dies, it can yield a rich harvest. Maybe this is the practical part of the marriage of East and West that is taking place in our world today, an opening up of the rest of our souls, and both of our lungs, rooting our activity in prayer and meditation, and incarnating our prayer and meditation in action, breathing in and breathing out. Finding that proper proportion is a lifetime struggle perhaps, but maybe today’s readings can serve as a simple reminder that both of those dynamics of our spiritualities must be in play for us to healthy, happy and holy.