Spiritual Psychology

Listen to Grandma

I just returned from attending The Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. I am still metabolizing the experience. On the last morning I attended a Healing Service for the World led by women indigenous leaders from around the globe. One leader, Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe Elder from Minnesota, shared the following for our consideration:

At night we adults gather around a table for conversation. Often a child will come running up to us, crying, out of breath, with a story accusing some other child of wrongdoing.

First, I check to make sure there's no injury. My next impulse is to embrace the child and hug away the tears. But instead, I tell the child to sit in the corner, still with us, but a few feet away in the corner.

Then I listen. I listen to the breath as the child heaves and sobs. Soon a surrender comes and breathing returns to normal. Then I invite the child to come sit by my side and tell me the whole story.

Afterward the story is done I say, "You are amazing! Look how you solved this all on your own."

In our efforts to soothe others, we disempower them and repress their natural ability to heal their own wounds.

While at the parliament I also heard a new term: "vicious empathy". Vicious empathy is when we take the time to understand another person's pain but then foist on them assistance that is uninvited or unhelpful. Instead of collaborating or supporting them to heal themselves, we soothe our own discomfort by trying to eradicate the other person's pain.

When we impose our preferred solutions on others, whether they be individuals or whole groups of people, we magnify misery. When we stand with the hurting, we make space for their own healing power to arise.

At the end of the service I approached Grandmother Lyons and thanked her. She hugged me and said, "No need to thank me. Be grateful to yourself. I just brought forward the good that was already within you."

Skilled leaders and grandmas work their magic leaving the impression that you've done it all yourself.

Throwing Control Out the Window

At a recent staff meeting, I said it was time to "throw control out the window". We paused to chuckle and ponder that possibility before returning to our meeting agenda. What would it look like for us to throw control out the window? Is that wise?

Throwing control out the window is particularly challenging for those of us who are addicted to figuring out the "right answer" and for those of us whose egos ride on the ebb and flow of getting things done and doing them perfectly.

The problem with control is that it is an illusion. Of course, we all know this, but like any addiction, we keep groping for its illusive satiation.

So how do we tend to what's in front of us without being controlled by control?

First, we have to realize that we've been seized by control. Are we holding tension in the body? (For me, it's usually tightness is my chest.) Are we snippy, reactive or defensive? Another sign is that a beautiful moment is occurring, but we have no capacity to embrace it. These are my clues that control is in control. What are your warning signs?

Once we are aware that we have become controlling, what can we do about it?

Many years ago I dated someone who was a manager of the men's clothing section of a department store. Every time there was a sale, customers wreaked havoc on the neatly folded apparel, rummaging through assorted colors and sizes to find the perfect bargain. The flummoxed salespeople griped about the hurricane of disorder that had befallen their department as they frenetically tried to restore order each morning. As their manager, he would say: "Get a grip people! This isn't the hospital emergency room. We're just selling shirts."

Everyone once in a while when surrounded by my own maelstrom, I'll remind myself to get a grip...or perhaps to loosen my grip on control and thus control's grip on me. The truth is that most of what I am trying to control is temporary, ephemeral, and nowhere near "emergency room" importance. I remind myself that this is all "just stuff".

I bring my attention back to who I am and how I am. I Am a manifestation of the Infinite Essence that precedes and endures beyond all that I'm trying to control. (Some refer to this as "made in the image of God.") That Essence includes yet exceeds all that my controlling little ego is trying to prove itself to be: right, smart, competent, lovable, worthy, important, better than, and...well, likable.

When I relax into that spacious awareness, my ego needs are mysteriously met in a way I can neither explain nor control. I have a sense that all is well on the deepest level possible.

Recalling who I am shapes how I am. Living from inner spaciousness frees me to be how I want to be: gracious, open, patient, creative, surprising, flexible, happy, present, grounded, and adventurous.

What I've been trying to control shrinks to the size of its actual importance.

Elusive solutions often reveal themselves to be already present.

How I treat others and myself is less Scrooge-like and more Christ-like/Buddha-like.

The situation hasn't changed, but how I am with myself and others midst the situation changes. And that changes everything.

My controlling efforts will likely have little import to anyone fifty years from now. But how I am today midst my efforts will send waves of loving energy beyond my tasks, myself, my imagination...far beyond anything I can control.

Child-like is the New Grown Up

While attending this year's Pride Parade in San Francisco, I was particularly amazed at the number of rainbow-flag waving teens, children and toddlers. They seemed to outnumber adults, and their enthusiasm was electric. Looking in their faces, I saw openness, joy, and wonder. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, I've been pondering why this youngest generation displays such acceptance. What makes these youth so open to embrace differences?

Jesus told his followers that their only hope of catching a glimpse of God was to become like little children. Unfortunately, many become childish rather than child-like in their search for God.

A childish approach fixes on one idea, one structure, and one perspective with inflexible rigidity.  Positions and personas calcify, and we confuse them for Absolute Truth. We shrink to the size of our prejudices, as does our understanding of whatever God is. God degenerates into a brittle icon in need of a defense that usually becomes offensive.

A child-like approach deals in curiosity, awe, and the fluidity of not-knowing. The boundaries of God and our understanding of who is included in "We the People" keep expanding. Such a Divine Essence needs no defense because everything and everyone is included in ever-widening circles of grace.

Such a God is neither gay nor straight, neither male nor female, neither Christian nor agnostic, neither Democrat or Republican, yet is all these and infinitely more. The Divine is both totally inclusive yet transcends every category that is included. Tuning in to that inclusive yet transcendent wavelength, identity and perspectives broaden. We are free to move and evolve. Our positions and personas are held more lightly. This is that path toward personal maturity.

What is true for an individual is also true for a group, a community, a nation, and a world. Will we see each other as interconnected and sharing the same Sacred Essence? Will we allow our hearts and minds to remain truly open? If so, we will have become more child-like, and in doing so, we may finally grow up.

Jesus Wasn't Nice

We confuse "being nice" with love. Jesus was loving, but Jesus was not concerned with being nice. Being nice is often an attempt to avoid conflict, prevent/repress anger, earn approval, and project a facade that evokes admiration and affection.

Love boldly enters into conflict with the goal of honest reconciliation. Love acknowledges and appropriately expresses anger. Love is transparent and emits adoration and affection.

Years ago a work colleague aggressively challenged a decision I had made. My fear told me to keep the peace, apology and reverse course. Upon reflection, however, I realized that my decision was appropriate and important. I held my ground. Though my coworker became belligerent, I remained firm and respectful, while also tending to my anger and hurt.

After some weeks, we worked our way through to a resolution and established a much stronger bond than we had before. If I had acquiesced for the sake of being nice, resentment would have smoldered against my coworker and against myself.

Jesus overturned vendor tables in the temple and told his friend Peter to "get behind me Satan" when Peter pleaded with Jesus to take the easy way out.

Love does not take the easy way out. It is the way through. Passing through fear, hurt, and anger, true love creates a deeper connection than is ever possible by avoiding issues for the sake of being nice.  Being nice is a seductive quagmire that lures us in with promises of safety and affection, yet which yields neither in the long run.

I grew up in the south, where being nice was seen as a supreme virtue by many. When I moved to New York, I found the abrasive honesty there both jarring and refreshing. No longer did I have to say, "Bless your heart", when I was feeling "go to hell".

Sometimes the best way to bless a heart is to call out devilish behavior. Truth without love is not true. Love without truth is not love. Ultimately, you cannot have one without the other.

Jesus never mastered being nice. If he did, he may have lived a longer life, but it's doubtful any of us today would know his name or want to be like him.

Doggie Shadows

Sometimes I feel like I'm chasing my own tail, round and round and round,

like a whirling dervish unable

to find God at the axis of spinning.


Dizzy and confused, I look down.

The Always Shining Light

shows me I've really been chasing

my own shadow.


When the silhouette is still,

I realize I have a choice.

It has no independent existence.


I can make the shadow wax and wane,

flicker in and out,

simply by shifting my position in the Light.


Realizing the truth,

I no longer need to chase my own tail.

My own shadow

stares back at me.

I finally catch up with myself.


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.

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.

Playfulness, Pace, and Presence

What do our dogs teach us? Can we learn new tricks from them? Our terriers, Flash and Cowboy, have started a new morning ritual. After breakfast and some free-range roaming in the backyard, they come into the sunroom and settle down together for a side-by-side morning coffee break…without the coffee. As I see them lying together, I become aware of their way of being in the world, which is becoming my mantra for how I want to be in the world:

  • Playfulness - Nothing brings them more joy than playing with their favorite toy: THE KONG. This indestructible rubber ball is both serious business and serious fun. How can I bring a sense of playfulness to those responsibilities that feel burdensome? How can I infuse my work with the fresh exuberance of a child or my dogs? My intention is to make all of my serious business bubble over with serious fun.
  • Pace - Our dogs move at the pace that is authentic for each of them. For Flash, our old Airedale, that pace is unhurried, like a sumo wrestler lumbering through a marathon. For Cowboy, our Fox Terrier, that pace is frenetic and hyper. Neither is right/wrong or better/worse. They move at the appropriate pace for their temperament. I have come to accept that my natural rhythm is closer to Flash's pace than Cowboy's. Yet, it seems like the world I live in wants me to move at Cowboy speed. I recommit myself to a pace that is authentic for me and own that without apology. The world is not best served when I fly at breakneck speed, multitask myself into a tizzy and feel the anxious weight of being constantly behind. The world needs me to be me: thoughtful and spacious, persistent and tranquil, forward moving yet with a sense of the deeper reality penetrating each moment. My intention is to own, accept, and celebrate my authentic pace.
  • Presence - Our dogs give no thought to yesterday or tomorrow. Only this moment has any meaning for them. Can I meet the inevitable interruptions and not-according-to-plan moments with compassionate attention and welcome rather than resistance, anger, and judgement? Can I focus on what is happening rather than what did or might happen? Can I be grateful for and open to what is, as it is? I intend to shift more and more of my attention to this present moment.

For our dogs, playfulness, pace and presence come naturally. For me, those traits require practice. Perhaps, some day, with more training, I will become as wise as they are.

A Tale of Two Pets

Does this look like the face of repentance? No, I don't think so either. This is our fox terrier Cowboy, sitting in the passenger seat of my car after I sprung him from jail. A couple of weeks ago, he escaped from the backyard and went on an adventure. After chasing him across town for four hours, we gave up for the night and went to bed worried. The next morning we called the Humane Society. They had him. Cowboy had travelled a few miles that night, crossed a highway, and ended up at a fire station and from there was taken to the Humane Society, where he joined the other incarcerated fugitives. After I posted his bail money, Cowboy appeared with a look on his face that said, "It's about time you arrived. The food here sucks. Take me home and feed me."

The woman at the front desk chatted me up about whether this had happened before. When I admitted that this was not his first expedition, she sighed in relief and said, "I roll my eyes when a person says, 'Oh my dog has learned his lesson. He'll never do this again.' Yeah right! We'll see them again in a couple of months because that dog hasn't learned a thing except that he can go on an adventure anytime he wants." Apparently, the adage is true: You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

I'm wondering if you can teach a human new tricks. Can we actually change? If so, how does it happen? Why do our wistful cries of, "never again" rarely lead to longterm behavioral change? And when we do actually change, what, outside of a dramatic shift in life circumstances, is the impetus?

Perhaps to learn new tricks we should seek advice from cats instead of dogs. Our cat Bebe, eleven years old, has long been referred to as "the fourth pet". Sweet, but not overly affectionate, she has typically been a loner. She usually has slept outside in warm months and in far corners of the house during cold months, while the other three pets (two dogs and another cat), jostle for position in the bedroom to sleep as close as possible to their humans.

But starting in February something shifted. Bebe now sits on my lap (as much of her as I can fit on my lap) and wants to be petted. Bebe constantly brushes up against me, marking me as her human. She hops up into bed each night and sits on top of me wanting to be nuzzled before the lights go out.  She then snuggles alongside me and settles into a contented, sonorous rest.

What changed? I think it was our insistence during some cold nights in February that she sleep inside. Something in her clicked that she was no longer "the fourth pet" but was loved as dearly as everyone else in the house. That sense of being loved shifted her behavior.

I notice that I too am freer to move from good intentions to changed behavior when I am steeped in love. What usually keeps me stuck is fear - of rejection, failure, isolation, financial distress - and what gets me unstuck is flooding myself, particularly those fearful parts, with unconditional love. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but it does seem to work. When I find myself closing down, resentful, and anxious, rather than stew in those ways of being, I shift my focus. I imagine every cell of my body filled with worth, acceptance and a love that can neither be earned nor taken away.

Now I do have one caveat. While I am finding this increasingly effective in my own life, and while I believe it has transformed Bebe into the most adoring of cats, I don't know that it has any effect whatsoever on fox terriers. Cowboy is lavished with more attention than any other pet in the household, and yet he remains an unrepentant, incorrigible, jealous escape artist who will jump at any chance to run away. And still, I can't help but love him.

Transformation: Becoming Who We Already Are

This past weekend my friend Hannah visited us. We had a lovely time eating good food, catching up, telling and retelling stories. We also explored the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. It's the start of an old joke: "An Irish Catholic sister and a gay minister walk into a hippie neighborhood…" On Sunday, we attended Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church and enjoyed a wonderful homily on transfiguration/transformation. Afterward we discussed how this transformation thing works. Is it something we do? Is it something that is done to us? To what degree can we move it along, if at all? And, what exactly do we mean by transformation anyway?

So here are a few thoughts on transformation:

  • Transform = trans (across or beyond) + form (to shape or change). To transform is to move beyond our personas, travel across self-imposed barriers, and morph into a fuller manifestation of our innate truth. In other words, we become a purer essence of who we already are.
  • Most self-improvement modestly improves a fixed self without risking any transformation. It is short-lived tinkering.
  • On the other hand, if we continue relating to life as we always have, we will continue to reap more of the same.
  • Life has a way of transforming us, but it usually takes great pain to pry us free from our smug, spiritually-lazy attachment to our habitual ways of being.
  • Can we choose transformation without trauma? Yes. And No. We can choose it, but we cannot will it to happen, at least not the kind of inside/out transfiguration we crave.
  • Transformation starts with a choice. We desire to change and commit ourselves to growing up as best we can, though we know not how. That simple decision is the key step that starts the process.
  • That desire then stokes a fiery intention: "I live my life by fear no more." "I choose gratitude here and now." "I pause to check in with my own wisdom." "I surrender perfection and welcome what is."    This is our "YES" to life.
  • We also say "NO" to all that conflicts with our intention, including our addictions to control, safety and making a good appearance. Usually this requires some sort of regular practice: a hobby in which we lose all sense of time, nature, meditation, art, music…the kind of activity in which you find yourself by losing yourself.
  • So far, this only makes us available for transformation, and yet this is as much as we can do. Then something mysterious happens. Our Wise Inner Self (a.k.a. Life/God/The Universe) meets us at the point of our willingness. The fierce intention to become more/better/truer is our part, the rest is done on levels beyond words, deeper than conscious mind, and more inter-connected that we imagine. Transformation is an alchemy in which our surrendered willingness activates sacred Energies and latent Potential on our behalf.
  • The process is not predictable, quick nor linear, but it is progressive, genuine and surprising.
  • One day we realize that, though still imperfect, we are nonetheless changed. And having arrived, we see that the transformation we sought was within us all along.

These are my reflections. What is your experience?

P.S. If you or someone you know is in need of a ceremony (wedding, memorial service, etc.), please see my new Ceremonies page.

Harry Potter to the Rescue!

I had a dream last night in which I was Harry Potter. In the dream I surprise the rest of the students when I fly without a broom. I decide to no longer hide this ability. When a malevolent, Draco-like student threatens Hermione, I swoop in and whisk them both away to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile the other students and professors join ranks to protect Hogwarts. Their focus is to venerate the horcruxes because, left untended the horcruxes would give rise to the dark lord. Apologies to anyone reading this who is not a Harry Potter geek. Harry Potter is the young wizard who with his friend Hermione battles an evil wizard who has spun off parts of his soul into objects called horcruxes. As I sat with the dream this morning, I went deeper and deeper until I got to two core themes, or horcruxes, that needed attention (veneration) so that they don't lord it over me. Those themes are abandonment and shame.

When I mess up, some part of me fears I'll be  rejected because of the error (abandonment). Another part of me takes it in as further proof that I'm a bad person (shame). And one other part of me tries to avoid these feelings altogether by being defensive: blaming others for what happened, making reasonable excuses, overcompensating by trying to be hyper-good, etc.

What I take from the dream is a way to hold all of this: with vulnerability. Be vulnerable enough to admit my error. And be truthful: this mistake says nothing about who I am. I'm neither good nor bad. I'm a human being who is learning how to integrate his virtuous and non-virtuous tendencies. I also admit my tendency is to go straight to shame when I make an error. Acknowledging this horcrux makes it less likely to become my lord.

As I sat with the theme of abandonment, I thought of Jesus. His friends and followers abandoned him when their expectations were not met and when his life path became treacherous. Among his final words were: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Perhaps there is no fear greater than that of being abandoned. No wonder part of me wants to manipulate and finagle circumstances to avoid that possibility...or even the fear of it.

Yet as I sat with it, a deeper peace arose. Knowing that Jesus (and for that matter the rest of humanity) shares my experience, I no longer felt alone. When we lean into how vulnerable we are as individual human beings, we realize how alike and interconnected we are. Shared vulnerability dissolves isolation, the fear of abandonment, and the lie of shame.

Moreover, by paying attention to my own fear of abandonment, I felt cared for, honored, and accompanied…by myself. I no longer felt abandoned. I had shown up for myself and realized I would never be alone. I am with me. (I also sense that a Sacred Presence is with me to support this process.) I integrate those virtuous and non-virtuous parts of myself into one human being, neither hero nor villain, neither all good nor all bad. I'm simply human, vulnerable, a mixed bag of altruistic and selfish, wholesome and devious, just like everyone else.

The alchemy of vulnerability transmutes shame into self-acceptance, fear of abandonment into self-love, all of which then ripples outward to embrace every other flawed human being with a bit more compassion and openness. Some call this salvation. Others call it grace. I call it magic.

Passion, Passion, Passion!

This is a photo of our passiflora loefgrenii, also know as the garlic passion fruit, which is known for its otherworldly beauty, lusciously hued petals and fruit with a translucent pulp that is proven to ward off vampires with hints of garlic midst the sweetness. Geeky gardeners like us are quite smitten with this rare perennial vine from Brazil. What are you passionate about? Faced with insurmountable mountains of work that never reach completion, intractable geopolitical crises seemingly beyond our ability to impact, and the exhausting challenges of mere day to day survival, it's easy for our passion to wilt. Yet without that spark, responsibilities become burdens and generosity degrades into resentment. So how do we reclaim our passion?

I recommend a blast from the past. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (or just Rumi to those of us who feel like old friends through his unsurpassed Sufi poetry) injected an unstoppable torrent of vivacity into ordinary script. His urgent plea was for everyone to connect with the divine essence beyond words. Yet even that is a limp description of his charismatic fervor. He urged us to forsake everything that does not drip, saturate and overflow with the Beloved juice that makes the universe run.

What's required to do so? Merely a single-minded dedication to pursue it wholeheartedly, and in the process discover that the heart...and everything else...becomes whole. That dedication says an emphatic "no" to extraneous wastes of energy (fool's gold) and "yes" to all that vibrates with the fierceness of being alive (pure gold). It's not about forsaking responsibilities but rediscovering them from a gut-emanating, all-embracing compassion. It is consciously living from our most root Essence until we are once again swept up in the passion of existence itself.

Whether you find that passion in your partner's smile, busting a dance move, singing off-key with every fiber of your being in the car, or exuberantly cultivating a passion flower, the invitation is always toward more life, more expression, more of the real stuff that makes everything else worthwhile. As Rumi said in a poem translated by the nearly-always-spontaneously-combusting Andrew Harvey:

Passion burns down every branch of exhaustion.

Passion is the supreme alchemical elixir, and renews all things.

No-one can grow exhausted when passion is born,

so don’t sigh heavily, your brows bleak with boredom and cynicism and despair—

look for passion! passion! passion! passion!

Futile solutions deceive the force of passion.

They are banded to extort money through lies.

Marshy and stagnant water is no cure for thirst.

No matter how limpid and delicious it might look,

it will only stop and prevent you from looking for fresh rivers

that could feed and make flourish a hundred gardens,

just as each piece of false gold prevents you 

from recognizing real gold and where to find it.

False gold will only cut your feet and bind your wings, 

saying “I will remove your difficulties”

when in fact it is only dregs and defeat in the robes of victory.

So run, my friends, run fast and furious from all false solutions.

Let divine passion triumph, and rebirth you in yourself.

P.S. Happy Birthday Rumi! Last week was your 806 birthday, and you never looked so good!

Mismatched Shoes

Yes, I did it. I was in such a rush to get out the door for an appointment that I put on two shoes that did not match. About a block away from my destination I realized what I had done...too late to turn back. We all had a good laugh when I arrived. [Yes, prepare the meds and set up my psych exam.} Sometimes, however, a mismatch is exactly what is needed. In many spiritual circles, we only dance with sweet qualities: love, peace and joy. God (the LIfe Source), however, is varied and diverse, encompassing a full range of energies.

In Muslim and Sufi communities, a list of 99 names for the divine provides endless opportunities for reflection. In the Sufi tradition, these names are divided into two categories: Jamal and Jalal. Jamal are names which relate to beauty, that is, they have a feminine sense of warmth and loveliness. These qualities include compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love. Jalal refers to those qualities related to majesty, which have more of a masculine feel. These qualities include power, independence, advocacy, and justice.

In the midst of these 99 divine qualities are some that are mystifying and off putting: "The Restrainer", "The Humiliator", "The Reckoner", and "The Distressor". We could chock these strange divine names up to the influence of patriarchal waters that have washed over our great religions. That's too easy. Part of the purpose of such a list is to normalize our human experience by finding in the divine every aspect of the psyche.

These qualities, especially the ones that repel us, are worthy of contemplation and cultivation in order to be well-balanced human beings. For what is the purpose of reflecting on the divine if not to become more divine-like ourselves? Each of us at times needs more restraint or humility. There are moments when we need to call up that divine anger when someone's harmful behavior requires a reckoning. Even distress has its place. An old adage says that Jesus came to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". Causing distress for the privileged is the first step toward justice and equality. For every beautiful/lovely shoe, there is by necessity a corresponding, seemingly mismatched shoe of majesty/justice.

The key, of course, is to know which quality, which shoe, is appropriate in each moment. If we only step with one foot, we don't move much. [Case in point...Washington, D.C....For most of his two terms, President Obama has focused on the qualities of gathering/relenting. Republicans have displayed firmness. To make progress, each needs to try on the quality displayed by the other.]

So how do we discern which quality is appropriate for the moment? Which do we overemphasize or underemphasize? Which quality does the divine yearn for us to put on? More and more I'm relying on my body to tell me. When my feet, my stomach and my jaw feel open, free, loose and buzzing with energy, then I sense that I'm embodying the appropriate choice for the moment: whether that be the bliss of compassion or the clarity of anger. When I feel constricted, devoid of life, or about to burst with frustration, that's a cue that a different quality is necessary.

Where is Aliveness in this moment? Step, walk, run after it! Whether or not your shoes match makes no difference. It may well be the mismatched pair that brings you closest to the divine and sets you on the truer path you've longed for all these years of forced marching.

Mr. Chawbridge and the Duesenberg

I had a dream last night. My partner Herb and I were at my grandparents' house. A man whom I had never seen before, Mr. Chawbridge, was on a riding lawn mower cutting the grass. Apparently he had been doing this ever since my grandmother's death in 1985. We chatted awhile. He asked about a car in his garage, a "Duesenberry", which belonged to my father. He implied that he'd like to have it as payment for mowing the grass all these years. That seemed fair, but I also wanted to find out the value of "Duesenberry" before giving it to him. Upon waking I started playing around with the dream. For one thing, I wanted to know what  a "Duesenberry" was. The classic luxury car was a Duesenberg. Duesenberry was an American economist who posited that poor people spend a higher percentage of their income on goods/services (the consumption economy) than do wealthier people, and even when their lot improves they continue to spend at a higher rate. Thus, according to his theory, improving the financial standing of the poor gives the overall economy a boost.

I also reflected on my grandparents, whose house always felt like home. I went there every day after school and spent most of my summers there. Dogs. Gardens. Building birdhouses. Amazing food. Board games. The memories are sweet and many. I knew I was loved and accepted there fully and unconditionally.

What about "Chawbridge"? Chaw... to chew. What was I chewing on? What was chewing on me? How was chewing or being chewed on a bridge forward? And what did this have to do with Duesenberg/Duesenberry or my grandparents? Or was all this just a meaningless response to our restless cat who was keeping me awake part of the night?

Dreams unfold one layer after another, deepening over time. One layer is that I'm returning to a safe place and am recovering my sense of happiness...ease...that it's all good...that I'm good. What had been chewing on me was a nagging sense that I'm not very worthwhile, in fact, that life itself is not good enough.

The bridge forward is sinking my teeth into how I felt when with my grandparents. They embraced every atom of my being. Around them I felt and still feel wealthy. LIfe's abundance, all that really matters, is in me, around me and overflowing. I am so full I can give without fear or resentment simply because it's who I am and how I want to be...and because I have so much excess joy, what else is there to do but share it?

The universe is generous. My grandparents were generous. I too am generous, or at least I cross a bridge into generosity when I practice gratitude...Gratitude for my talents, my joys, my unique ways of being magnificent and human, my flaws that on occasion prove useful, the blessings of people and animals who have touched my life, and for the Presence of a Mysterious Intelligence that communicates through winks, dreams, meows, and root beer floats shared with my grandfather on a hot summer day.

What have you been dreaming?

Seeing Right Through Disguises

Growing up I loved reading comic books. I could believe storylines about other dimensions, magical villains, and mutant superpowers. What I found hard to believe was the notion of secret identities, that superheroes could walk around in everyday life undetected. Why didn’t everyone notice that Clark Kent was obviously Superman? His disguise was a pair of glasses. That’s it. How was everyone so blind? All they saw was Clark, a mild-mannered reporter. I shouldn’t be too hard on comic book writers. Most of us wear disguises. We put on various masks to fit in and make ourselves look good, but they rarely fool anyone. On the other hand, our magnificent essence is often obscured by our faults and frailties.

In the Bible is a story about a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). Like most good stories, the irony is the point. The blind man sees what no one else does. The crowd of sighted people see their latest superhero, superstar, prophet and magician. Bartimaeus sees deeper.

The crowd tries to silence Bartimeaus when he calls out to Jesus. But Bartimaeus yells out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”...Son of David. David, that woefully imperfect king who nonetheless was said to be a man after God’s own heart. Bartimaeus sensed in Jesus that heart of God, the heart of compassion, Life Essence, the Web of care connecting all.

Jesus stands still. It takes conscious intention to stop midst the inertia of the crowd (or the inertia of our own ego), get still, check in and then act from a deeper place, from the heart of compassion.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks him. What an odd question. Isn’t it blatantly obvious? Not really. The unfortunate truth is that most of us would rather stay in the familiar dark. Did Bartimaeus really want to see? It would come with a cost: he'd have to let go of his identity as a blind man; he'd have to find a new line of work; he'd have to let go of all reasonable excuses and entrenched story lines about his life.

Do you really want to see? To see things as they are always requires that we sacrifice cherished illusions. The excuses, blame, judgments, self-centeredness, arrogance, self-pity, apathy…they fall like scales from our eyes. We see life as it is, stripped of our familiar narratives and prejudices. It’s liberating but uncomfortable.

Bartimaeus makes his choice, “I want to see again.” Jesus replies, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Does he physically see again? Maybe. We only know a small fraction of what is possible in this surprising universe. But if all we get from the story is that a man named Jesus performed unrepeatable magic tricks 2,000 years ago and therefore must be praised and obeyed, then we've missed the mystical juice that still heals today.

Bartimaeus takes a leap of faith, which saves him. Is it possible that Bartimaeus takes that leap out of the familiar toward wholeness and finds in himself the very Life-Essence that Jesus radiates? It's interesting that Jesus doesn't say "I saved you" but rather "Your faith has saved you."

The constant choice is between a familiar, fear-based existence and greeting life as it is, with openness and kind eyes. To see life as it is requires faith because we must be willing to surrender our set story lines for an unpredictable, emerging story. If we are willing to make that leap of faith, then we will be saved in every way a person can be saved. We will see right through every disguise, including the one we see in the mirror, to the very heart of God. We'll recognize the lively sparkle in the eyes behind those glasses.

A Broken Record

I had a dream a few nights ago. In the dream I am in charge of the Academy Awards. The show is about to start. I've entrusted the opening music to my mother. She plays the wrong song! I hear Bing Crosby's "White Christmas", and she's playing it on an LP, scratch vinyl! I frantically look through mounds of vinyl LPs for the correct song, which is Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade". I can't find it. I admit to those around me that for last year's show we used CDs for the first time. Suddenly, an obnoxious voice chimes in: "Why are you using vinyl? Who uses vinyl anymore, or even CDs for that matter? Why aren't there MP3s or other modern formats for your music? This is crazy!"

I ask those around me to make him shut up because I can't concentrate. Knowing the whole world is now watching and waiting, I keep shuffling through the vinyl LPs, hoping to find the right song. The End.

Here's what came to me as I played with the dream: A nostalgic "White Christmas" life, a fantasy existence, plays in my head like a broken record. That broken record says that my work should be like an idealized view of a past job. My friends now should make me feel just like beloved friends made me feel in college and young adulthood. The record skips from song to song,  replay old recordings about how community, work, a relationship, friendships, and even the divine should be. Why has my life not turned out to be the award-deserving triumph I envisioned?

I sensed that the deeper issue is the format, symbolized by vinyl LPs. They have deep grooves and ruts that are comfortable yet confining.  Digital recordings and live streaming are more flexible and adaptable. I don't need a new song, which would soon become its own broken record. I need a new format, a different context for listening to the music of my life.

The old format is one of comparisons, "should have been" and "ought to be".  Fantasies about the past become a broken record with which no current reality can compete, and I become too fogged with nostalgia or judgment to notice what's emerging around and within me.

An alternative is to savor the love available in real life here and now. This reality-based format is fluid, unpredictable and vulnerable. And yet the rhythm of goodness here is genuine and vivacious. All I need to do is feel the beat and move with it.

So, I thanked that obnoxious voice which I had tried to silence in the dream. I intend to come out of the nostalgic rut and savor my life here and now. Love...true, messy and omnipresent...is the only reality worth leaving nostalgia for.

What do you make of the dream? What do you relate to in it?

Ain't That a Shame

I've been a bit prickly lately. Negative internal chatter. Knee-jerk emotional responses. What's going on? Ah yes, one of those old issues which I had totally resolved (right!?!) was rearing its head again. It's the return of ye olde perfectionist streak. It goes deeper than just avoiding mistakes. It’s more of a feeling that I am personally wrong, that I'm not enough. I notice anxiety emerge whenever I sense that I might make a mistake or even be perceived as wrong.

I remembered a TED talk from a few years ago by Brené Brown, a researcher on shame and vulnerability. Her work focuses on the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, "I made a mistake." Shame says, "I am a mistake." Guilt apologizes for errors, learns from them and moves forward. Shame paralyzes with judgment and blame and is highly correlated with addiction and self-destructive behavior.

All of us have "shame triggers", those identities that we try to avoid at all costs but which persist beneath a thin veneer. To identify your shame trigger, complete the following sentence: "Above all, I don't want to be perceived as..."

Shame thrives in secrecy, silence and judgment. It withers in openness, compassion and empathy. When we bravely tell our stories, shame dissipates. "You're not good enough" and "Who do you think you are?" loose their oomph. We might even have a Stuart Smalley moment: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!" I think my version is, "Yes, I'm imperfect dammit. I make mistakes and often don't know what I'm doing. Thank heavens I'm enough, loved as I am and have nothing to prove."

Brené Brown's followup TED talk explores how creative innovation arises from the willingness to be vulnerable. We'll never shine unless we risk failure and imperfection. Here's the link to her latest TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html

Welcoming our failures and imperfections with an open door airs out our humanity. No longer expending energy on pretense, we are free to live wholeheartedly as a whole person. We lose concern for who might be watching and how they might perceive us. Playful enthusiasm bubbles to the surface. Even old Scrooge couldn't help giggling and dancing a jig after he faced his ghosts. The final words of Dickens' classic tale says of Scrooge that:

"Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them...His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him."

P.S. Please join us the first three Monday nights in June for Mindful Photography: The Art of Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes.

Waking Up to Your Dreams

I've had a series of interesting dreams lately. In one I am back in school, ready to graduate. A friend then reads my name from a list of people who have missing assignments. In spite of my protest that I have turned in everything, I have to go to the teacher and resubmit my assignments, including one which is disfigured beyond repair. After I walk away in disgust, the teacher admits to one of my fellow students that he had actually found my original assignments. I already had an "A", but this was the only way he could get to know his students. What does a dream mean? I take my dreams as messages from within and beyond that are prodding me toward self-awareness, wholeness and actions I need to take. I have numerous ways I work with my dreams. One way is to utilize the process below, which an amalgamation of dream classes I've attended. See which of the following practices might help you interpret a dream. I call them "Ten Steps Toward Understanding Your Dreams":

  1. Rewrite the dream in 1st person, present tense: “I am walking on the beach. He says…”
  2. Feelings. What feelings did you have during the dream? What feelings did you have when you awoke? What feelings do you have now that you are recalling the dream?
  3. Free association. Make a list of key images and actions in your dream. Write down your associations with each word. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Don’t try to interpret the images. This is free association. An orchid in the dream may remind you of grandma’s living room or of a trip to Japan.
  4. Puns, colors and imagery. Any puns? (A bee might represent the need to just “be”.) What is the predominant color(s)? What might it symbolize? (Blue for “the blues”?) Does an image in the dream represent part of your shadow/dark side? If so, what part?
  5. Key images. Notice which images have the most energy from the dream. Look up those images in a dream dictionary. Record anything that seems to resonate.
  6. Title the dream. Looking over your story and your associations, give your dream a unique and catchy title that would distinguish it from any other dream.
  7. Ask. “What is this dream trying to tell me about my life? What to know, change or do?” “How does this dream relate to some current circumstance in my life?” “Does this dream offer a message from the divine/Sacred/Mother Earth? If so, what do I sense that message is?”
  8. Walk the dream. Walk outside for a few minutes. Set the intention as you walk that any deeper wisdom from the dream would bubble up to conscious awareness.
  9. Summary of dream’s message. Review all that you’ve written and reflected on so far and complete the statement: My dream’s message seems to be…
  10. Gratitude. Thank your dreams and your subconscious for the message(s) received.

There are numerous other ways to work with a dream: draw it, turn it into a poem, pretend you are  conflicting characters in the dream and talk back and forth as each character until a sense of resolution or an "aha" emerges. The multi-layered meanings of a dream may continue to offer practical applications  to your waking life for many weeks, perhaps even years after the dream occurs.

Dreams can become valuable allies when we honor those that we recall by recording them and seeking the wisdom these messengers from the deep have to offer us. Sweet dreams!

P.S. Hypnosis can be viewed as a form of wakeful dreaming in which we access the full riches of the subconscious in service of our goals and aspirations. There is still time to register for Heal Yourself Through Hypnosis, a class on how to do self-hypnosis, which begins Monday, May 6. Click here for information and to register. 

Freedom vs. Safety

"Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Benjamin Franklin

Since the founding of our nation, the balance between liberty and safety has been delicate. Our history is rife with examples where liberty was sacrificed for temporary safety. From the Alien and Sedition Act in the late 18th century to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the indiscriminate surveillance of Muslim Americans today based solely on their religion, the perceived threat of potential miscreants and anarchists has led us to sacrifice the very values we were trying to protect.

In the post 9/11 era, our government has declared a war on terror. The irony is that terror has declared war on us. I'm not referring to the legitimate threat of Al-Qaeda, but rather to our own internalized fright. Terror's true victory is not a horrible plot that reaches fruition, but rather a people who cede their liberty and abdicate their commitment to justice for the semblance of safety.

Into this vacuum of fear step political groups and industries looking to profit. For instance, the domestic drone industry is projected to grow to $90 billion in the next decade. The FAA wants to ramp up the licensing of these unmanned surveillance aircraft that fly over U.S. airspace. Drone manufacturers also seek to offer local and state law enforcement officials the ability to add non-lethal weapons to drones, such as tear gas and rubber bullets. While domestic drones could be a valuable tool for public safety officials (e.g., assisting first responders with locating survivors after a natural disaster), the scope and implications of this program are slipping past the radar of most Americans. Will government entities have to obtain a warrant before using a drone to monitor a citizen's actions? Will domestic drones be weaponized? These questions remain unanswered.

Private companies will also be able to receive permits to fly over our residences, schools, parks, places of worship, and anywhere else we go. With over 10,000 drones expected in our domestic airspace by 2020, one has to wonder if these agents of security will erode freedom and privacy and unwittingly make us less safe. Citizens have successfully prodded officials at the local and state level to enact limits on how drones can be used. Legislation and policies are currently being drafted at the federal level as well. Make your voice heard.

Of course, all of this is just one example of the ongoing tension between freedom and safety.  The external debate mirrors our internal struggle in which we seek to balance our biological inclination toward self-preservation with the impulse toward authenticity, free expression of the truth as we experience it, and risk taking for the sake of that truth. Whether the debate is about government surveillance or personal integrity, I hope that we will find a sustainable balance between freedom and safety...and even tip the scales toward freedom.

Balancing on the Paradox Rope

"If it's not paradoxical, it's not true." Shunryu Suzuki

Life is a balancing act. When we walk across a narrow piece of wood or concrete,  we naturally extend our arms in opposite directions and find balance in the middle.

As we walk through life, we experience equilibrium when we simultaneously hold all of our conflicting ideas, habits, desires, emotions and thoughts. When we deny or obsess on some part of our human experience experience, we fall out of balance.  Focusing on certain aspects as "good" and repressing others as "bad" eventually leads to a fall. When we, however, welcome our paradoxes, those experiences and parts of ourselves that are true yet nonetheless contradictory...when we hold them all with compassion, we are walking that thin line of balance, truth and wholeness.

Here are a few paradoxes I've been playing with lately:

  • Selfless service to others requires I practice selfish self-care. Otherwise I fall into resentment and burnout.
  • Thinking repeatedly about my problems almost never yields new, helpful thoughts.
  • A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Do I really want the bird that wasn't smart enough to stay in the bushes?
  • Accepting things as they are is the first step toward making effective change in the real world. Making effective change requires a refusal to accept things as they are.
  • We rarely find answers to life's biggest questions through isolated navel-gazing. We are, after all, social creatures. Yet, the answers we seek are only found within.
  • The Pearl of Great Price, however you define that in your life, is worth your every waking moment's attention. Yet, even when that Pearl is in plain sight, it is usually tossed aside without looking inside the ordinary shell where it lives.
And a few more that go a bit deeper:
  • When I start giving to myself what I yearn for others to give and do for me, I find that the essence of what I've been seeking is already within me. Ironically, when I tend to my needs, I notice a blessed bonus: others start freely giving me what I used to try to get through manipulation.
  • The more I resist those parts of myself that I don't like or that make me feel uncomfortable, the more those parts tend to dominate my thinking, my feeling, and my doing. The more I have compassion on those same parts that seem so dark and wrong, the more they ease up and actually find a constructive purpose.
  • When I let go of my attachment to this limited human experience, I fall into the purity of limitless Spirit. Spirit only tastes the pure essence of being alive through me living my limited, imperfect human experience.
  • A dog is man's best friend. A cat is its own best friend. A true friend is both.

What paradox have you noticed? How does holding that tension create balance?