21st Century Spirituality

Stop Trying So Hard

A month ago my aquarium was teeming with longtime inhabitants swimming playfully in a vibrant aquatic community. My aquarium was wonderful. Why not make it even better by adding more multi-hued fish? Soon after adding new residents, guppy fry were born. Even greater success!

Then the decline began. I realized I had added too many fish too fast. The ecosystem was overwhelmed with the amount of waste, and the most vulnerable perished.

Every few days I changed out some of the water. I added a bit of baking soda to restore alkalinity and stabilize the ph. The water quality was soon the best in had been in months. And more fish died.

Yes, the water was nearly perfect. But in my haste to get it right, I had not given the fish enough time to acclimate to the improved environment. While their liquid haven was vastly superior, their little bodies were unable to adjust to the radical shift.

I sense the aquarium is echoing the wisdom I sense being offered me by my deceased loved ones when I see their photos on my altar: "Stop trying so hard."

What am I trying so hard to do?

I'm trying to silence my inner critic's proclamations that I'm not enough, haven't fulfilled my potential, and need to try harder and do more. My ego says that I'm special. I came to this life with special gifts, and it is my responsibility to use those gifts to improve the world.

I look around, and the world looks no better than when I arrived five decades ago. What have I done to make it better? What have I truly accomplished? What will finally prove that I've fulfilled my destiny and potential? I don't know, but if I try harder, get one more thing done, fix one more problem, then maybe I'll feel peace and contentment. But trying so hard has made me less peaceful, less content.

What I'm realizing is that peace and contentment are the starting point, not the end goal. When I soften, when I stop trying so hard, a clarity in my spine that is both solid and gentle, warming my heart and ascending upward into my head where it pulsates a spacious presence.

In this space, I'm no longer responsible for saving the world. Instead what's present is a deep knowing of Loving Being that cannot be enhanced or made whole by trying harder.

Wholeness is already given. This is who I am. This is my destiny. This is my potential.

As for the world, and as for the aquarium that is an entire world for my fish, my worth is not dependent on saving them. In fact, proving worth is a silly game. Worth, like our true essence, is a given, and any feeling or message to the contrary is false.

Identifying with that essence is peace and contentment. There never was a world to save. That's the ego talking.  There is only a loving presence from which to respond moment by moment in real time.

Starting from inner contentment and peace, I embody a salvation that will accomplish everything necessary in this lifetime. I lovingly take care of my fish day by day without needing to save them or make them more than they are.

Released from the need to try harder, I love bodily and appreciate the beauty of now. I'm free to respond with grace midst hardship. Without a world to save, I am free to be myself.

Peace and contentment. Love and beauty. There's really nothing more to do or be.

Kittens and People Seek A Home

A few months ago, my partner Herb and I went to a rescue foundation to look at a few kittens. We had chatted about getting a kitten in the next year or so, but had no intention of bringing one home...yet. We went to get a better feel for what we wanted. I’m sure you can already see where this is headed. We were allowed to visit, hold, and play with three cats. The first one was named Paco. Paco had been found roaming the streets of Sacramento. He was sick and was taken from the street to a shelter to a foster home to this rescue center, where he was recovering. A six-month-old Abyssinian mix, he was playful, affectionate and had chutzpah, which we knew any cat would need in order to hold his own with our two older cats and our two dogs.

We left Paco behind and met two other kittens, both adorable but rather shy. We went back to play with Paco and were mesmerized by his cuteness.

Just as we started to ask, "Are we ready to...", the door flung open. Our staff guide, who had been showing us around, returned with a camera.  She said, “There’s no need for you to look at any more cats. It’s obvious he’s coming home with you. Stay there for a moment while I take your photo with your new kitten.” And in an instant, we went from cat window-shopping to kitten parents. Beware cat window-shopping!

We got him home and renamed him "Cougar" because, well, he looks like a Cougar and acts like a wild animal. While he was a bit reserved at first, after a few weeks he began to trust that we had made a permanent commitment to him. No more shelters. No more foster parents. He understood that we are his forever home and family.

We are promising Cougar that he has a forever home that is not dependent on how well he behaves, but rather is based on our unconditional love for him. And his behavior is sometimes challenging.

  • Cougar wakes us up at 5:30 every day meowing for the first of at least two breakfasts.
  • So far Cougar has demolished four dining room chairs, two orchids, and an avocado tree in our sunroom that I had grown from a pit. Cougar decided that it was the perfect spot to curl up for a nap.
  • We have given him the nickname "Destructo".

Yet, we adore him, and he is family.

Our relationship with Cougar is a metaphor for our relationship with The Sacred. Even when we bite and scratch like a "Destructo", the Source of All Life has made an unconditional commitment to us. We are forever family.

I prefer the metaphor of family/adoption over the metaphors of transaction or atonement. Much religion feels like a business transaction with The Divine: “I’ll do my part if you do yours.” The focus is on appeasing a deity and then determining who's in and who's out; who's good enough and who's not good enough; who's accepted and who's damned; who's in relationship and who's "other" and "outsider".

Much Christian religion orbits around Atonement Theory. This view, which gained prominence through Augustine, holds that a just God cannot abide our sinfulness, but takes out wrath on Jesus instead of us, thus fulfilling the need for punishment yet saving us from everlasting torment. For many of us, this was the only Christian metaphor to which we were exposed. It is, however, just one of many perspectives that co-existed from the earliest days of Christianity. Like any metaphor it was originally crafted as a symbol, that is, something which was not to be taken literally and which pointed to one aspect of the Infinity Mystery, which is beyond words.

What if "sin" is primarily the forgetting that we are family with God and with each other? Then the central metaphor is not a wrathful God pardoning undeserving, miserable beings, but a God incessantly taking in strays, reminding us of who we are and where we belong, what our place is in the Universe.  We are made in the image of God, made of God stuff. That makes us family with Sacred Mystery, with each other, and with all life.

The spiritual life is about awakening to that Sacred Mystery within us and all around us.  As we remember who we are and whose we are, we find family everywhere. We allow ourselves to be taken in by Love, and we take each other in as we embody Ultimate Love.

  • How deep will you let Love penetrate and permeate you?
  • And receiving that Love, what is your response?
  • How will you respond to a Cosmos that adores you?
  • What is the next action your soul calls you to take on behalf of your family?

Through us The Sacred closes the gap between current reality and a potential future of justice and thriving for the whole human family, our family. We join with The Sacred to close that gap in tiny increments.

That's the paradox. The Love of The Holy is unconditional, yet it calls us to wake up and step up. The more we attune ourselves to Unconditional Love, the more we recognize the Universe as kin and can't help but respond. When we awaken to Who We Are, we expand the definition of family until there are no strays left out in the cold

Herb and I adopted a kitten named Cougar. We call him to act like a more mature cat, and he is improving. However well he meets expectations, when he curls up next to my head, and purrs as he nuzzles my cheek, and I rub his chin and scratch between his ears, we both experience the promise of home fulfilled. In those moments I start to understand how God feels about us.

Stumbling into Grace

Author and speaker Wayne Dyer passed away a few days ago. I remember watching him on PBS years ago. He spoke about a much-anticipated meeting with a guru from the East. He had to wait quite some time for his audience with this spiritual teacher. As he waited his mind raced through questions to ask:

  • What could he learn about God?
  • About life?
  • About the mysteries of the universe?
  • How could he make the most of this rare meeting?

Finally, he was invited into the room and was seated a few feet away from the guru, just the two of them, alone at last. And every pre-meditated question went right of Wayne Dyer’s head.

The guru looked at him and held silence. The guru’s gaze emanated compassion that seemed to fill the room. Wayne felt embraced by a tangible, unconditional acceptance. Tears began to flow down his face as he soaked in divine love radiating from the guru.

No words were said.

After about an hour of sitting silently together in tears of loving joy, the guru said, “My son, do you have any questions for me?”

Wayne responded, “No. They’ve all been answered.”

There's a place, a consciousness, within each of us, where all questions are answered...in fact, where no questions need be asked. In that open space, possibility, love, expansion, and pure bliss dwell. It's not a pollyanna denial of reality, but it puts reality in a different context. It unveils a Deeper Reality that is our core identify midst the mutating clouds of external turmoil.

Centered in that Deeper Reality, we know more than our spinning mind knows. We understand beyond our preconceptions. We love beyond our normal capacity. Cherished illusions dissolve, and truth emerges.We act cleanly.  We are aligned with the God (Life Essence) Within.

How do we get there? We create space to notice what wants to emerge from within. We let our striving questions fall right out of our heads. In that moment, we are likely to stumble into grace.

"Within you is an infinite, passionate soul that wishes to express itself. It’s the God within you, urging you to fulfill a deep sense of what you were meant to be." Wayne Dyer

On a Foggy Day You Can See Forever

Each morning, the gentle breeze of meditation clears my foggy mind.

For a moment, the haze of what I thought I knew


I remember Who I Am.

Freed from plans, expectations and my

house-of-cards identity,

a clarity emerges up my spine,

and I know eternity in my body.


Then my eternity collapses into an angst-ridden

list of to-do's, the end of which,

like a highway mirage,

is always two miles ahead.


Eternity doesn't abandon me when minutia becomes my idol.

Through hints and invitations,

I AM calls me to remember

That I Am.

No predicate. Simply I Am.


Then the dense cloud of my momentary concerns

vaporizes in the way that

all passing weather systems must.


Today's reminder comes as

as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge

into mystery.

A cotton candy blanket of fog envelops

the bridge with its velvety precipitation.

The road ahead, a soup of uncertainty,

offers no answers.


I surrender to the Unknowing.


In that surrender of

grasping for answers

and striving for perfection,

I am left with one thing I know:




The infinitude of possibility

opens before me

...in me

...as me.

Taking a Space Rocket to God

This is a Space Rocket Epiphyllum that lives on our front porch. The diner-plate-sized blossoms explode in shades of fuchsia and crimson and then dissolve after a couple of days. The blooms, though short-lived, transport me in my imagination to another world where magnificent, over-the-top flora abound. I've been thinking that the Space Rocket Epiphyllum is an apt metaphor for the spiritual journey. Our awakenings and "aha's" burst into consciousness with mind-altering vivacity. Then they fade as the the "normal world" recaptures our attention.

At that moment of inevitable fading, we have a choice. We can cling to the outer form of our experience, or we can integrate the Essence (the "aha") to which the form was pointing and from which it came.

The deeper one goes into devotion...the more that the form [of the Divine] which he has visualized fades into formlessness...Paramhansa Yogananda gave further advice on the subject: "Whenever God comes to you in form - as, let's say, the Divine Mother - try to see in those eyes, not a human personality, but the consciousness of infinity." The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, p. 168

Herein lies a difference between beneficial spirituality and ineffectual religion. When the Holy bursts into consciousness, healthy spirituality integrates the experience into body, mind, and heart without holding on to the form it came in. The integrated experience transforms our habitual behaviors and tightly held views. Ineffectual religion clings to the outer form without integration or transformation.

Maturity is to relish those blossoming moments when they occur...and remember them as touchstones...but to look through those moments to the Pure Essence. That's the content, the message, the insight, which is to be integrated.

You can recall the form anytime as a way to re-enter the experience, but then release the form and pivot attention to the bodily sensations that arise. Do you feel open, free, connected? What do you sense? Where in your body do you sense it and what is the sensation? Observe  insights emerging in the spaciousness. Notice the different perspective from which you are experiencing life.

Let these gifts permeate your body, unsettle your ego, center you in your heart, and liberate your thinking.

Whether it's a Space Rocket Epiphyllum, a delicious meal, a kiss, or a panoramic vista, the form soon disappears. But what it evokes within us can endure if we integrate it. And what are we integrating? An Infinite Consciousness that holds the humdrum of our daily lives in a broader perspective of compassion, bliss, and equanimity. The reminders of this Consciousness quickly fade. The Consciousness itself is eternal.

A Bit of Heaven on Earth

We have a rose variety in our backyard called "The Pilgrim". This is a photo of its latest bloom, which graces passersby with a candy-sweet-almost-tastable fragrance. The Pilgrim is named after pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, who swapped stories on their long journey. A pilgrim seeks to find a bit of heaven on earth. Certainly this rose fits that description. Where in your life do you sense a sliver of bliss midst the ordinary?

Sometimes we go on pilgrimages in our dreams. I had a dream last night in which my aunt was caring for many children. One was a luminous little girl who received special guidance and encouragement from her older sister, who realized her giftedness.

The children went on a journey. After some travel, the little girl ascended a hill and sat down. She placed a white sheet over her head, which then draped her body. She used mud to make a faux beard for herself. She then gathered her congregation and became their rabbi.

She looked around at her siblings and gave them each a wafer of bread saying, "This wafer is heaven come down to earth to nourish you."

My partner and I were watching the whole scene in my dream, and I heard a voice saying, "This is your something beautiful you have been looking for." I woke up with tears of joy in my eyes.

Whether we go on a long pilgrimage or never leave home, the destination is the same. Our life journey's goal is to find a little bit of heaven here on earth. We can search the world over, but if we don't find it first and last within ourselves, it will always remain elusive.

Eventually, the end of all our wonderings is to realize that the heaven, the beauty, we have been searching for was in us all along. A dream or a fragrant rose can evoke the inner heaven, and we well up with tears of joy and break out in a smile.

But that bliss is present even on the most mundane of days. How do we access it? The better question is: how do we let it access us? Bliss is waiting to explode in us and through us every moment. When we lay down our fixed positions, stories, and strivings, the bliss naturally emerges. Even if we only bloom for a few moments, we will have become a bit of heaven on earth for ourselves and everyone around us.

Momentary Freedom

The photo is of a papaver hybridum, or "Queen's Poppy", in our backyard. Each magnificent bloom lasts only a day before its ephemeral beauty blows away. Like a short-lived blossom, each moment is a purity unto itself. Ephemeral. Unrepeatable. Unique. Having its own meaning apart from any other moment.

Our minds try to categorize and order our moments. We assign them meaning and place them in the context of other moments. That's normal and necessary in order to function in daily life. The downside is that we lose the purity of the moment. We create stories to explain or control events, which takes us out of experiencing the next moment freely, as it is.

I go out into the yard and step in dog poop. I'm annoyed. I clean off my shoe. It's an unpleasant task. As I approach the door to the house, I have a choice.

One option: Will I carry the annoyance inside with me? Will I keep it alive with a narrative about how the dogs always poop in the most inconvenient places and then blame myself for not picking up the poop every day? As I turn the door knob, I'm still in the backyard, irritated, and I bring that foul mood into the house.

Another option: I leave the annoyance in the backyard. It happened. I choose to move on to the next experience. I turn the door knob and am greeted by two dogs, tails wagging, whose exuberance lights me up.

"Just know, 'I am not the imagination' and be free." Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj (as rendered by Prasanna)

Our imaginations birth art, weave tales, invent products, and dream us into new potentials. They also generate unnecessary drama, prolong suffering, and create negative fantasies that have no root in reality.

You are not what your imagination generates. Know this and be free.

Experience what is happening. Feel the emotions. Perhaps even indulge in weaving a tale around that experience.

Then realize you have a choice:

Buy into the tale as absolutely true and fan the emotional flame it evokes for minutes (or hours, days, even years).

Or hold the tale lightly as one possible perspective and then let it go in order to experience the purity of the next moment.

If the moment is "sticky" (hard to release), breathe and refocus on what is currently happening. Focused attention on the present is an easier path to freedom than trying to let go of the past.

There is choice in every moment. What will you choose next?

Do You Know Jack?

Last month a colleague from Interfaith Center at the Presidio invited me to Pantheacon, which is a conference for indigenous religions, paganism, and a diversity of other earth-based spiritualities. While there I attended a presentation by author Christopher Penczak entited "Four Jacks, a Queen, and the Wheel of the Year". He led us through a guided meditation in which we met four "Jacks", each representing a different season of the year, a different season of life:

  • Jack of the Green: Spring. Return of the green as the Spring Equinox inaugurates the growing season. Last year's seeds sprout, emerging from their winter slumber.
  • Jack of the Corn: Summer. During the summer harvest of corn and wheat, the sun reaches its peak position in the sky, symbolizing our full creative powers.
  • Jack of the Lantern (Pumpkin): Fall. Squashes and gourds are sacrificed to provide food through the winter. The hallowed-out pumpkin has surrendered its flesh to sustain life, and its seeds go into the ground.
  • Jack Frost: Winter. The earth rests, and the seeds lie dormant in the ground awaiting the return of Jack of the Green.

The Jacks revolve around the Queen, the Lady of the Lake, who turns the wheel of the seasons with ever-flowing water. She represents the eternal midst the changing seasons. The cycle of birth, maturation, sacrifice for future life, and death/burial continues unabated, and yet, the wheel turns around an Eternal Presence that renews and sustains.

How might these four Jacks speak to where you are on your wheel of life?

  • Jack of the Green: Pause. Observe. What life-giving newness is just starting to sprout around or within you?
  • Jack of the Corn: What is the new level of maturity to which you are being called?
  • Jack of the Lantern: What is life calling you to sacrifice so that LIFE may flourish?
  • Jack Frost: What type of rest/restoration do you need?

You can also look at these seasons as a mirror for the stages of life. Where are you in the life cycle? Are you in the autumn years yet still clinging to summer or spring?

What enables us to transition through seasons and cycles is a deep trust in the Eternal Presence. Called, experienced and defined in many ways, the Eternal Presence, when trusted, enables us to let go of each season when it has passed and immerse ourselves in the next season with equanimity.

Notice the changing season.

Trust the Center that holds you.

Surrender that which is passing.

Engage with what is emerging.

When we stop our striving against seasons and cycles, life flows with grace.

Do You Have Phantom Conversations?

I was walking up a steep hill in our neighborhood on a sun-baked late winter day with unseasonably early irises blossoming my path and wild turkeys chit chatting in the distance. Yet, I barely noticed any of it. My mind was busy having an unpleasant conversation...with someone who wasn't there. Do you ever have "phantom conversations"?

There are wonderful conversations to be had with someone who is not present. Perhaps we might seek support or advice by connecting with the essence of a deceased loved one. Or we might want to prepare...once or twice...for an important meeting by rehearsing what we will say.

I define a phantom conversation as repeated, agitated internal conversations with someone not present. It's not a one-time rehearsal for a talk I plan to have, but rather ongoing inner disturbances that often occur in lieu of actually speaking my truth to someone.

Now there is one helpful thing about a phantom conversation. Sometimes in the midst of my internal rant I realize that my self-righteous position is absolutely ridiculous. I end up saving myself and the other person a great deal of unnecessary drama.

Mostly these inner diatribes are just a ticker tape of my judgments and self-defenses. When I can liberate myself from their addictive lure, I realize the total futility of proving myself right to someone not present.

So how do I liberate myself when caught up in a phantom conversation? Midst my rambling, I realize that I've not been hearing the gobbling turkeys or savoring the jasmine fragrance. The present moment intrudes on my illusion, and I return my attention to what is right in front of me.

I then choose to open my heart with the power of gratitude and let this moment nourish me. For me gratitude is often the key that will open my mind and free my heart. Otherwise, the lure of the internal drama is simply too strong. In that gracious space, a smidgeon of compassion for the person I've been "talking at" might sneak up on me.

Perhaps such a shift is what it means to live a contemplative life. Contemplation, originally comes from the Latin templum, which is a "place of observation". So, contemplation is to engage from a place of observation. The contemplative life is cultivating the ability to observe both our inner workings and our outer reality simultaneously, and then take an appropriate action here and now with a free mind and an open heart.

Of course, this is not easy. We have spiritual "practices" because this game of life is challenging.

Cultivating inner freedom through non-judgmental self-observation is my daily commitment. Like an addict, I have to return each day to the admission that I'm hooked by phantom conversations and other unhelpful habits of my psyche. Then I return my attention to the Highest Power of the current moment, reconnect with gratitude, and pick up my conversation with the here and now. Some might call that a return to sanity. I call it prayer.

My God's Bigger Than Your God

Years ago when I was an assistant pastor of a church, an elderly couple asked me what would be the eternal fate of some dear friends of theirs who were Jewish. I struggled to answer their question. What I was supposed to say as pastor of their church conflicted with what I felt to be true in my body. This inner conflict was but one instance in an ongoing series of experiences that led me to question, and eventually to leave, that church. What I eventually realized was that the particulars of my religion had come to violate the essence of my religion. Claims of exclusivity and doctrinal purity created a sense of "Us vs. Them" and a worldview in which we were right and virtually everyone else was on the highway to hell.

Why would a God who is defined as love create a spiritual system in which most of the world's humans are destined for eternal damnation? Theologians have vomited volumes trying to get God off the hook, but I think we are actually the ones on the hook for promulgating a theology which says, "My God is bigger than your God". We have largely created a God in our image, and the image is ugly.

Violence in the name of religion thrives...ISIS and Boko Haram...Buddhist violence agains Muslims in Myanmar...verbal violence against LGBT folks spewed from Christian churches in the U.S. and Africa that inspires physical violence...misogyny justified by patriarchal interpretations of scriptures...economic and racial oppression...desolation of our planet in the name of "subduing" the earth.

What would it look like if peace, justice, and compassion thrived in the name of religion? Much progress as a species has been informed by the world's religions (the work of Gandhi and MLK, for example), but such progress came from a deeper understanding of religious tradition that appropriated, interpreted, and refashioned ancient texts for modern reality, rather than use religion as an excuse for immature, ego-centric, privilege-protecting, fear-based, oppositional, self-aggrandizing, oppositional behavior that betrays the original spirit of the religion. Such religion transforms neither an individual nor a society.

We can fall in love again with the Sacred Mystery of Life to which religious traditions originally pointed and become more compassionate, understanding, just, kind, engaged, humble, open, curious, joyful, accepting, and peaceful.  Then it will no longer matter whose God is bigger or better because. In the name of God, we will have become bigger and better.

From the Sufi poet Rumi:

Something big is coming. It’s still a secret, but arriving everywhere. The atmosphere is charged with longing and searching. The pilgrims and the mystery-lovers know. They are gathering now The sound of prayer drifts across the dawn. It’s Muslim, Jew, Christian All mingled All religions All this singing One Song. The differences are just illusion and vanity. The sunlight looks a little different on this wall Than it does on that. And a lot different on this other one. But it’s still one light. We have borrowed these clothes These time and place personalities From a Light. And when we praise, We’re pouring them back in.

Getting the Best Deal Possible

My mother and I used to plan our Christmas shopping days like two generals preparing for a military campaign. We'd lay out flyers, ads and coupons on the floor and map out our goals for each store, each of which was grouped by location, all of which was coordinated with a list of which gifts to buy for whom. Armed with our agenda, we'd set out for the day. Part of the strategy included procuring the right gift at the lowest price. In those pre-Internet days, we'd often visit two or three stores and compare prices until we felt reasonably certain we had found the best deal possible. Only then would we make the purchase. Sometimes these shopping days would last 10-12 hours. We'd come home exhausted but satisfied that we'd done well.

I wonder if there's some aspect of this approach to Christmas shopping that permeates other areas of life. Do we hold back a part of ourselves, never "making the purchase", because somewhere out there is still that "best deal possible"? 

What if, however, we already have the best deal possible? What if the friends, partner, job, home, etc., we have right now are exactly what we need? Rather than continually search for the best deal possible anywhere for anyone, can we recognize when we already have exactly who and what we need here and now?

And what if this yearning for the best deal possible is, at its root, really a spiritual matter?

What we are ultimately yearning for are love, happiness, self-acceptance, and inner peace. These graces can't be bought or sold. It is the essence of all spiritual practice to cultivate an awareness that they already and only reside within us.

Will we choose to trust that we are unconditionally lovable and loved throughout eternity? Will we open to the wellspring of gratitude so that all the glory of the Universe is available to us every moment? Will we cultivate self-acceptance and inner peace so that our daily successes and failure rarely rattle our core sense of identity?

When we invest ourselves wholeheartedly in these inner graces, we no longer need fantasy because our outer experience begins to mirror our inner reality. And it is in our inner reality that we discover we've had the best deal possible all along.

Is It Time for a God Break?

I've been struggling to keep my "God space" throughout the day. Every morning I meditate and pray. I often sense a deep inner stillness, an aliveness within me that transcends yet embraces all my problems, foibles and unanswered questions. By mid-morning, noon at the latest, I've lost most of it. It's vanished midst the detritus of unending tasks, interpersonal challenges, and E-distractions (email, Facebook, etc.) Where did God go? Where did I go?

At the conclusion of his book Resurrection Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, Adyashanti writes:

Ultimately, what allows us to embody the full measure of our life is a sense of stillness. One of the underlying, almost unspoken themes of the Jesus story is the stillness of eternity. It's Jesus in the desert, Jesus on top of the mountain. In such moments of aloneness, we give ourselves to that which is quiet within, to the deepest type of listening. True spiritual action in the world comes from a deep sense of inner stillness, rooted in that point around which the changing world revolves. And within the changing world is the spark of eternity - always free, always content, always the quiet and silent life-giver to our lives.

How can we possibly find inner stillness midst such a flurry of activity that is our lives? I think Jesus embodied the Way: take a break. Reconnect.

Even when thousands clamored for his attention, he would go off to pray for a bit up the mountainside. When those in authority demanded an immediate answer to a delicate situation, Jesus paused, bent down, and drew doodles in the dirt. Then, he stood up and gave an answer. (John 8)

So today, when I feel like a spun top that's losing balance, rather than plow through, I intend to pause and take a God-break.

When I become aware that I am no longer rooted and inwardly still, no longer in alignment with my Inner Compass...or when I face a particularly challenging situation...or even as a preventative measure throughout the day...I intend to pause and go even deeper into "God space".

The way to stretch "God space" is not to lengthen morning meditation time or detach from the world, but rather to disperse "God breaks" throughout the day. It's not magic nor wishful thinking but rather a decision to pause long enough to remember deep in my bones who and what I AM so that I can be busy and inwardly still simultaneously.

Cat in a Bag

The other night Bebe decided to make a "cat cave" out of a paper bag. Safe and snug, content and tranquil, she hid inside her protective sack. After a few minutes, however, she had her fix and hopped out of the sack and onto the bed with her two humans and the Fox Terrier. All of us need to be like a cat in a bag from time to time. We need a place to escape and hide out. Yet, after a respite, we too need to come out of the dark caverns and rejoin life. While it is comfortable to stay small, cozy and unnoticed, within us is a drive to express, connect and shine.

For the past few weeks before my morning meditation, I've been reading a selection from Adyashanti's Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic. This morning's selection (p. 159):

We turn away from the light and into the darkness, because sometimes the light is hard to bear. It's a myth that the light of being is always easy to bear; sometimes the radiance of the divine asks us to do difficult things. To remain oriented toward the spark of divinity within us is not always easy, and to act from that space can take great courage and faith...Do we embody the radiance of spirit, or is it simply a passing experience? The whole Jesus story is the story of embodied spirit, of what it means and what it looks like to embody and act from divine being.

To embody and act from divine BEING. Wow! What a life that would be. It would shift the energy with which we do everything. It would mean pausing throughout the day to ask:

  • Am I acting from a place of openness, centeredness and compassion?
  • Am I emanating that essence of my divine spark, no matter how menial the task?
  • Am I consciously choosing to be the presence of Christ/Buddha/My Best Self as I interact with people today?

For most of us shining this brightly is a terrifying prospect. Would people think we are crazy? Would we be on a different wavelength than our loved ones and coworkers and feel isolated? Would we have to change long-cherished patterns and behaviors?

We usually just slink back into our paper bags.

But everyone once in a while, the divine spark turns into a flame, and we can no longer ignore it. Those critical moments change the trajectory of a lifetime if we decide to come out of our "cat caves".

Perhaps no one has said it better than Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Meryl Streep and The Pocket Knife

The other night I dreamed that I was watching Meryl Streep while she mourned the death of her lover, Robert Redford, who had died in a plane crash. (No, I hadn't fall asleep watching Out of Africa.) In the dream, Meryl goes to the reading of Robert Redford's will. He leaves to her one item: his pocket knife. She holds it as if she has found the greatest treasure on earth.

What was the pocket knife about? In the dream it seemed to symbolize the need to cut away anything unnecessary so as to live more fully. A pocket knife is incisive, yet it had an almost benign or humane quality about it, much like pruning sheers that pare down in order to spur new growth.

Each of us has a sense of calling, an invitation from within to live truer and bolder. Few of us need to be told what that is. Just a few minutes of honest sharing with a loved one about what we truly desire will easily reveal it, and we will likely hear ourselves saying what we already know.

We know the way forward. What we lack is wholeheartedness. We lack a fierce commitment to what we know resonates with our being because it seems too costly, lonely, scary or unpredictable. We lack a "pocket knife" to prune away anything, even good things, that keep us from coming fully alive.

What is your true north? What keeps calling you? What must you prune away in order to move forward with a whole heart?  

Sometimes what we most need is not another epiphany but a pocket knife.

Meanest Dog I Ever Had

I took Cowboy, our Fox Terrier, to the dog park last week. He outraced all other dogs to the thrown tennis ball time after time. Then Cowboy started to mount other dogs, each of which was two to three times his size...and none of whom welcomed Cowboy's dominant display. As I was apologizing to the other people in the park, an old man looked at me and said, "Don't worry about it. I had a Fox Terrier once...meanest dog I ever had!"

I don't think Cowboy is actually a mean dog. He simply doesn't comprehend why the universe does not organize itself around him. Why would any human give attention to another dog or cat when Cowboy is available? It simply doesn't make sense to him.

Of course, humans and their animal companions often share traits. This morning I picked up an orchid, which was tangled with another orchid. Both dropped to the floor, splattering debris.

After yelling a few choice words, I realized my deeper anger: The universe was not organizing itself around me. Why were these plants, whose lives I'm sustaining, making my life harder when my intention is to care for them? Why had The Universe/God not cooperating? Why am I not getting what I want? I was howling like a Fox Terrier.

Once I realized these self-absorbed expectations, I pondered what to do:

  • Embrace these patterns with compassion, knowing that we all have selfish tendencies that need loving attention.
  • Put the lie to these false expectations. I could say, "Get thee behind me Satan!", or in other words, "You are present within me but not helpful. I choose to move forward and leave you be. Get behind me."

What do you do when self-centered craziness takes hold of you? Which method liberates you? 

After a few minutes, I couldn't help but smile at myself. The simple awareness on this self-centered illusion called its bluff, and it seemed to dissipate as quickly as it arose.

Perhaps the spiritual path looks much the same as becoming a skilled human companion for a Fox Terrier. The wise human learns when to say "no", when to embrace, and when to laugh and simply let things be.

The Question is: "Are You?"

Sometimes a question becomes its own answer and clears up all confusion in an instant. I recently had such an experience with my partner when we sent to visit a wise septuagenerian from India, who teaches non-dualism through provocative questions and art. We sat down to chat, and I wove a story about how childhood experiences still create specters of anxiety, self-doubt and over-functioning. After listening carefully, he explained that most of our conscious energy goes toward modifying our stories or replacing them with better stories.

Our stories, however, are illusions; they are mental constructs without permanent substance. There's nothing wrong with having stories about our lives. We can choose to enter into and enjoy our stories, but unless we realize them for the illusions that they are, we will be trapped in their web.

Of course, I wanted to know how to break free of my illusions. He mentioned the usual prescription: meditation. Focusing on a candle, the breath, a chant, or a word can break the addictive trance of our thoughts/stories.  We can then take a step back and be the witness of all that comes and goes without becoming identified with what comes and goes.

He hinted, however, that there was something more, something beyond the witness. What was he talking about? I got that I'm not my stories. I understood that there was something more to me than these mental constructs, but in that moment, I couldn't seem to get past the web of my stories. And I admitted that although I meditate daily, the effect doesn't seem to last throughout the day. That's when everything shifted.

He looked at me and said, "I have a question for you: 'Are you?' I'm not asking, 'Who are you?' or 'What are you?' but 'Are you?'"

We let the question linger in the air. Within me I felt this crystal clear, potent answer surface: "Yes, I AM!"

He said, "That which answered your question is The Answer itself. It is Self knowing Self. God knowing God. That which answers the question, 'Are you?' is the pure Essence, Being Itself. It is the creative intensity from which all stories arise and into which they all subside.  This is what drew people to Jesus. He mirrored the divine within people back to them."

In that moment I felt I AM.  I could neither describe nor grasp what was happening, nor did I want to. I was Being!

My stories, once frozen in my mind, seemed fluid, no longer solid. I realized this Presence/Being is who I am. I knew it in a way that was beyond forgetting. This knowing grew in intensity through art he showed us, living canvases which seemed to exist on the border between inanimate and animate.

I left feeling free and grounded. Of course, the stories have come flooding back, but in their liquid state, they tend to flow through me more readily. If they start to solidify, I realize what is happening and ask myself one question, "Am I?" The Answer to that question answers everything else.

Is Robin Williams in Purgatory?

Robin Williams' death hit me hard, just as the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman did earlier this year. My partner Herb showed me a James Lipton interview with Robin Williams. Lipton asked, "If heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the pearly gates?" Robin Williams replied, "There's seating near the front. The concert begins at 5. It will be Mozart, Elvis, and one of your choosing. Or if heaven exists, just to know that there's laughter. That would be a good thing. Just to hear God go, 'Two Jews walk into a bar...'"

Even though he lived just a few miles south of me, I never met Robin Williams. His neighbors seem unanimous in their recollection of him as someone who was unfailingly kind, generous and humble.

Yet, we hear the stories of "demons" that haunted him. Depression. Addiction. As Margaret Rutherford said, "You never have a comedian who hasn't got a very deep strain of sadness within him or her. Every great clown has been very near to tragedy."

So where is this great clown now? What happens after death? After someone takes his or her own life?

I'm not a Roman Catholic, and I don't believe in purgatory. It's always seemed like one of the oddest among many odd doctrines. I simply wrote it off as silliness...until I read Ronald Rolheiser's Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears. There I read these words about purgatory and praying for the dead:

"Purgatory is not a place separate from heaven, a place you go in order to be punished for your sins so as to prepare you for heaven. Purgatory is the pain of entering heaven...

By praying for the dead we share with them the adjustment to a new life (which includes the pain of letting go of this life). In our prayers for the dead, we offer encouragement and love to them as they, just born from the womb of the earth, adjust to a new life...

Purgatory should not be understood as a place distinct from heaven. It is rather the pain of entering heaven and of being embraced by perfect love when we ourselves are less than perfect. Love itself can be a painful experience." pp. 277, 281

I believe that our essence is enfolded in The Essence now and beyond death, and we remain energetically connected with everything and everyone now and beyond death. So, it makes sense to me and is my practice to send positive energy/prayer to those transitioning to Perfect Love.

Is Robin Williams in purgatory/heaven? I'd prefer to say he is preparing for a new role and would benefit from loving support as he adjusts. Whether we call it heaven or purgatory or just Mystery, I can only imagine that what comes after death is as wonderful and jolting as being born into this world.

Perhaps we should also say a prayer for heaven. From what I know of Robin Williams, I think they are in for quite an adjustment too.

First World Problems

"Weird Al" Yankovic's new album "Mandatory Fun" just became the first comedy album in over 50 years to top the Billboard charts. Buoyed by a viral campaign to release eight videos in eight days, the album's new videos were watched over 46 million times during the first week of their release. One of the more interesting songs is entitled "First World Problems". In it, "Weird Al" parodies the trials of modern life:

  • The angst of missing the breakfast menu because of oversleeping on a weekend.
  • The moral outrage of a barista failing to create an artsy design in latte foam.
  • The unbearable burden of having to brush one's teeth manually because the electric toothbrush isn't charged.

What are your "first world problems"? How do you respond when they arise? 

I've noticed my own irritation lately with first world problems. My newish iPhone is past its warranty and is virtually impossible to charge because the lightning port is damaged. My car's air conditioner takes ten to fifteen minutes to kick in. How can I possibly live with such misery and injustice?

Meanwhile, in my county, activists are pushing (against ongoing opposition) for local governments to create a permanent shelter for the homeless. Health Affairs Blog, a public health policy website, estimates that between 7,000 and 17,000 people will die because they live in states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children crowd detention camps along our southern border. Not all problems in this country are "first world problems".

First world problems narrow my aperture so that my immediate pesky concern becomes my entire universe. In that moment, I can become a self-entitled, raging diva, or I can widen my aperture and let in the light of gratitude. Gratitude shrinks first world problems down to their appropriate size.

My spiritual path tells me to "not worry about your life...but seek first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6). What does that mean? Isn't it human nature to worry? Of course, but seek to keep your worries in perspective. What's the bigger picture here?

Yes, my iPhone isn't recharging. And I'm also breathing and walking. I had a wonderful dinner last night, have interesting work to do today, have a great partner, and I live in an amazing home nestled in a glorious, sunny valley. I seek first to remember that I'm blessed, I'm loved, and I'm part of a bigger Cause called Life.

Check out "Weird Al" Yankovic's new video and take a moment to share how you deal with "first world problems". How do you widen your aperture and regain perspective?

What is God?

Children are the best theologians. A colleague told me about a recent conversation with her seven-year-old granddaughter. "Grandma, I don't believe in God. Do you believe in God?"

"Yes, I do."

Pause....."What is God?"

Grandma felt a flash of anxiety, "Oh God, how do I answer that?" she thought.

I love the question. Not, who is God, but what is God? How would you have responded? In some traditions, any answer to that question is by definition not the answer because whatever God is cannot be defined.

I'm reminded of the story where Moses encounters the Divine Presence at the burning bush and asks for a name to take back to his peeps. All Moses gets is a riddle: "I AM THAT I AM".

What is God to you?

Lately, I've been experiencing God as "The Background", that backdrop of existence upon which all reality plays out. I've been contemplating God as the Silent Oneness from which all the particulars arise.

I recently had an amazing conversation with a Hindu teacher/holy man who described God as "Is-ness". There is an energetic "Is-ness", always present, but seldom in our awareness. The point of meditation and other such practices is not to escape reality but to return awareness to the "Is-ness" beneath, behind and permeating all reality. The contemplator, that being contemplated, and  contemplation itself, all become one.

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” Meister Eckhart

Why is this important? It's not because "God" is some narcissistic, overbearing parent needing fawning attention. Rather, in awareness of "Is-ness" or "The Background" our lives find context. Only when we experience ourselves in the midst of this infinite background do we find the expansiveness needed to hold our woes and worries.

How to cultivate awareness of "Is-ness"? It's more a matter of subtraction than addition. The Hindu teacher reminded me that my attempts to get there with my agenda to be in that space was counter-productive. This background is omnipresent. Every spiritual practice from chanting to gardening, from prayer to dancing a happy jig, is ultimately aimed at dislodging us from our self-absorbed stories so that we experience being absorbed into the Energetic Essence, which we often call "God".

From that space we are free to see things as they are and make appropriate choices. We can let go of the narratives that keep us miserable and stuck.

One would expect this Silent Emptiness to be devoid of character, but oddly, I don't experience this Background as neutral. I sense a grace,  a compassion, a gentle lovingkindness, a beneficence filling me when I return my awareness to "Is-ness". Even the horrors of life, which we may think are opposed to this Presence, ultimately arise from it and are surrounded by its graciousness.

So, how would you have answered the seven-year-old granddaughter? I'm not sure I have an answer...only an experience that immediately vanishes as soon as I try to put words to it.

When my colleague was put on the spot to answer her granddaughter, she resounded with the first thing that came to mind:

"I think of a Bible passage I like which says, 'God is Love'."

Perhaps that's about as good an answer as any.

Did Jesus Poop?

I was talking to someone who is on the borderline between acquaintance and friend. She mentioned an important personal fact as if I obviously already knew, which I did not. But I pretended that I knew and tried to piece together the the facts from the rest of our conversation. Afterwards the self-analyzing questions: "Why did she think I already knew? Why didn't I just admit that I didn't know and own up to my ignorance? What am I trying to protect by pretending to be so knowledgable?" I decided to take these questions with me on my morning walk. During these meditative walks, I often invite God/Jesus to join me (although at times I listen to the chant "Om Nama Shivaya" for a Hindu-infused jaunt).

As I walked, I pondered how my view of Jesus might affect my response to my earlier behavior.  In popular Christianity, much focus is placed on Jesus' compassion, wisdom, and divine/supernatural abilities. But the Gospels also present a fully human Jesus who gets mad, cries, and has problems with his biological family. Which Jesus was I calling on to gain perspective on my behavior?

This led me to the crucial theological question that dominated the rest of my morning walk: Did Jesus poop? Of course he did, but somehow that thought seems, well, "unChristian". We have sanitized Jesus to the point of being non-human, and in so doing, we have lost any hope of becoming like him. If he's only for veneration, then he's of no use for transformation.

According to the Gospels, God said of Jesus, "This is my beloved with whom I'm well pleased." If the Divine Essence can inhabit that biologically messy, emotional, limited human being known as Jesus...and be well-pleased, then shame, blame, judgement and self-judgement have met their match. That's the heart of Christianity. The Divine Mystery looks at us, loves us, takes up residence in us, as us, in all our humanness, and is well-pleased.

While my walk didn't yield a psychological cure-all that magically erased all my self-protective foibles, I did gain a deeper experience of Jesus that is proving to be just as therapeutic.  To experience Jesus is to experience that we imperfect beings are embraced at such a deep level that we cannot fail at life, cannot be a disappointment, cannot be anything other than loved.

Within such truly unconditional love, our masks and pretenses are acknowledged without push or pull. No need for judgment, angst-ridden self-analysis, or a $10,000 self-help course. We, like God, see the messy, human reality...and smile.

Did Jesus poop? Absolutely. And thank God he did.