Blessed Are The Cheese Makers

In the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian”, Jesus is heard from a distance saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” People on the periphery of the crowd mangle Jesus' words. “What did he say?” 

“I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’”. 

"What’s so special about the cheese makers?”

“Well, it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

Sounds like a theological conference where wisdom teachings are readily parsed into meaninglessness. What was Jesus really up to? Was he merely saying, "Cheer up. It gets better, if not in this life, then the next"?

I believe Jesus was inviting us into a series of paradoxes:

  • Deep within our lives we already possess what we have been seeking.
  • What we avoid and resist contains a seed of life that can blossom into what we yearn for most.
  • Buried within the last place we'd think of looking (grief, lack, a hunger to make the world fairer, being opposed when taking a stand for a good cause) is where we find that we already have all we truly need.

I've tried my hand at crafting a new translation of Jesus' words from Matthew 5:1-12. They are often called "The Beatitudes", which literally means blessed, happy or fortunate. I prefer the word "grateful".

Look through the list below and see which human experience most resonates with your life now. Then lean into it.  What is the yearning or human need nestled at its core? How might the fulfillment of that need already be present in your life? (If the term "God" does not work for you, try substituting another term like "Life" or "Universal Love" into the sayings below.)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. When he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He opened his mouth and began to teach them saying:

Grateful are those who don’t put on spiritual airs, for it’s much easier to get close to God when one’s ego is not in the way.

Grateful are those who have the courage to mourn, for in the epicenter of their grief they encounter a love that comforts them.

Grateful are those who don't act like the world revolves around them, for the whole earth becomes their next of kin.

Grateful are those who long and hunger for fairness, for their bellies are full of grace, which alone will satisfy.

Grateful are those who risk compassion, for their kindness will return to them many times over.

Grateful are those whose hearts have been scrubbed clean of narrow self-interest, for they see God everywhere.

Grateful are those who do the hard work of making peace, for they find the world is full of their brothers and sisters, all children of God.

Grateful are those who are oppressed for doing the right thing, for they feel a connection to God seldom experienced this side of heaven.

Be grateful even when you are insulted, oppressed, disrespected, and lied about because you have aligned yourself with me. Celebrate! Shout for joy! Everyone who takes a stand for something or Someone bigger than themselves receives the same treatment, but they also receive the same reward: the secret of eternal life.

Lord of the Dance

My prayer time and meditation practice has felt rather stale and empty lately. The emptiness I'm ok with because I want to be emptied of all my silly stories and ego patterns. Yet, even in this necessary spaciousness, I've sensed that something essential has been missing, though I could not put my finger on it. Well, they say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. My partner Herb recently gave me a lovely miniature bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja. Nataraja means "Lord of the Dance". This figure symbolizes the heart of both Hinduism and of our human experience.

The statue depicts the contradictions that define our lives. In Shiva's upper right hand is a drum that beats the sound from which the universe was born. In his upper left hand is fire, which destroys creation, reminding us of the constant cycle of birth and death, creation and destruction. The ring of fire represents everywhere that this dance occurs, which is the whole of the universe. And the statue sits on a lotus flower, symbolizing that the whole of the universe rests in the human heart or consciousness.

What Herb and I find most intriguing is the only moving part: Shiva's hair. The hair strands winging out to the side of his head look like a halo and are reminiscent of the Biblical character Samson, whose locks gave him great strength. The tradition is that Shiva's hair, usually wrapped up in a pyramid atop his head, starts to unravel and flails with reckless abandon as the dance becomes wild and ecstatic. He is fully embodied, sensuous, and on fire with life.

Oddly, Shiva's face is impassive. His expression represents that tranquil nothingness out of which all creation springs, reminding me of the emptiness I've been experiencing in meditation. It identifies neither with the joy of creation nor the pain of destruction, but rather holds it all with an accepting perspective. His gaze is eternity; his dance is the temporary, fully-engaged rhumba of the here and now.

I am realizing that this symbol speaks directly to my own spiritual path. I have focused so much on the gaze of eternity, that I've been missing the dance of life. Both are essential experiences. So, I'm starting to experiment. My morning devotional time still features quiet, but I'm also incorporating movement, vibrations of a singing bowl, images from my dreams that lead to inner dialogs, St. Francis' prayer spoken aloud while standing, and the warming beams of the sun's early rays. The silence and the sensuous are starting to spill over into the rest of my day, enabling me to experience that tango between the infinite and the finite.

While I don't have any hair to fling wildly in ecstatic dance, I am sensing the drumbeat of the universe in my own heart...and in my spontaneously tapping toe.

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?

The Crescent Sun

"You are perfect just as you are. And you can use a little improvement." Suzuki Roshi

This is one of my favorite quotes because it gets to the heart of our human predicament. We are part perfect and part neurotic, part evolving stardust and part self-absorbed couch potato, part divine and part selfish pig. The journey toward maturity and wholeness travels through the uncomfortable terrain of this paradox.

This past Sunday I watched the moon journey across the sky to eclipse the sun. As the moon obscured the sun's radiance, an unusual phenomenon occurred. The crescent sun created crescent shadows. Then, at the peak of the eclipse, the moon upstaged the sun's brilliance to form a mischievous Cheshire-cat grin.

This astronomical moment reminds me of our human condition: a centered Source of Brilliance orbited and occluded by ego's stony mass. Our inner greatness casts long shadows when ego blocks its light. The ego, which helps us survive by creating stories and strategies to cope with life, takes itself a bit too seriously. As those stories and strategies calcify into rigid ways of thinking and a defended self-image, we experience ourselves more as stony mass and less as Inner Brilliance.

That stony mass we've built up over a lifetime isn't going anywhere. So you can stop wasting energy trying to get rid of it or pretty it up. It is what it is. A more productive pursuit is to focus on embodying your Inner Brilliance each day. When you do that, ego's stories seem less solid. Is that really true about me, about that other person, about how life works? Are there other possibilities? Is there room for some light here?

When you step more fully into your human potential, don't be surprised if the most unattractive, controlling, selfish parts of yourself also arise and try to eclipse your sunlight. Ego's job is to maintain a comfortable homeostasis, and growth is rarely comfortable. So don't freak out when you cast crescent shadows. This is normal. With time and intention, you can become more skilled at seeing and navigating your ego's patterns so that eclipses become rarer and your true humanity shines more freely and brilliantly. Who knows? Perhaps the crescent shadow you've been casting is a sign that a luminous part of you is ready to blaze like never before.