1. The “Other World”
Primal peoples always believed that the visible world is grounded upon the invisible world. The invisible world is the world of the unconscious (because we are not conscious of is), but it is the source of consciousness and life. It is the spiritual world, and the ground of the physical world. Of course, I have no factual, rational, basis for alleging these things. I cannot prove it. Nothing we say about the invisible world can be ruled valid or invalid. We don’t know if such a world exists. It has always been thought to exist. But it is easy to start with the fact that the invisible world has always been thought to exist, and move into fantasy in an “if then, therefore” kind of way.
The unconscious world does not operate according to the laws of reason and logic, but we treat it as though it is just like this world of normal, apparent, reality. Motives that operate here, operate there. All of the emotions that hold sway here, hold sway there (God is a jealous God, you know, wrathful, angry and loving). We simply will not have a world we cannot see, hear, touch, taste, smell, understand or comprehend. We will make one up and say that’s it.
People talk about “extrasensory perception,” and say they talk regularly with the dead. Well, maybe. I know fooling ourselves is what we do best, and we can imagine the realest kinds of things. Whether anyone has ever actually talked with the dead, or had a legitimate out of the body experience—where they were able to read the title of a book, say, on a slip of paper placed on the top bookshelf by one of their friends—I don’t know. For all the reports of telepathy, and telekinesis, and teleportation, there are a greater number of studies debunking each one. As long as people have been claiming to have talked with the dead, they haven’t heard anything that has made much difference for the good in the way the world works, so we have to say, at the very least, that the dead aren’t much to talk to. They don’t appear to know any more than the rest of us, and if they do, they keep it to themselves.
If there is another world beyond this one, or another entire universe of worlds beyond this one, there is nothing in this world that would allow us to know anything about it. That hasn’t stopped us. We’ve been imagining worlds beyond this one for as long as we’ve been here. We generally populate those worlds, or that world, with supernatural beings, with gods, who have an unaccountably intense interest in this world—an irrepressibly compulsive stake in our lives—and who seem to be a lot like we are, only bigger, and, sometimes better, sometimes worse.
It may be supernatural, and God may be Omni-everything, but everything in that world seems to hinge on how things go in this world. God can’t be happy and at peace if we aren’t minding our P’s and Q’s. God’s mirth depends upon our obedient and faithful service. We may be little squirmy nothings, but we have the power to make God boil, seethe, and punish us with lakes of lava, and fire and brimstone everlasting—or reward us with blessings and glories beyond imagining in a world without end amen.
So go the stories.
Is there a bit of compensation going on here, in these stories we’ve made up about the other world, to console ourselves about the life that is forced on us by this world? Quite possibly. What we do know is that we have always told ourselves stories about the world, or worlds, beyond this one, and in those stories, we always play the central role. The gods revolve around us. They can’t get us out of their minds. We are the sole focus of their lives.
Which leads one to wonder, what would the other world be like without us, without this world? We are always looking to the other world as an escape from this world, but if this world is the primary concern of the powers that hold sway in the other world, what’s in the other world for us except more of this world? And, what exactly is it about this world that rankles us so? That warrants escape? That lends itself to fantasies about UFO’s, and the internal structure of the spiritual realm? From what are we trying to save ourselves? From what do we need to be delivered? What is so bad about this life in this world that we have to distract ourselves with imaginative speculations about life in the other world? What does thinking about that world keep us from thinking about in this world?
What do we not like about our lives in this world? Suffering and pain and things not going our way? Except for that, is everything fine? Life on terms not our own sends us right up the wall. You would think that we would be better adjusted to that by now. Better adjusted to the idea that this is it. Why hasn’t time developed a peace and tranquility gene? What’s the evolutionary advantage to maladjustment, to discontent? Could it be that Neanderthal had a knack for settling for the way things are, and lacked the internal dissatisfaction, the resistance, the “No!” that pushed Cro-Magnon out of the caves and into the high rises? Is a too-easy acceptance of “the facts,” death to the species? Is the curse of disgruntlement the secret to our success? We’ll probably never get to the bottom of it.
Suffice it to say that the other world has a remarkable degree of entertainment value for those of us eking out an existence in this world. We have no idea if any of the stories we have concocted have any correlation with what, if anything, lies beyond. But, if we are going to make up something, if we are going to believe something, it may as well be helpful. We may as well believe the other side is interested in helping us. We may as well believe that the idea, the organizing principle behind all of it, is something like integrity, or alignment-of-being, and that the interest of the other world, the investment of the other world, is in the expression of beauty, goodness, and truth in this world—that this world exists to give tangible existence to the intangible spiritual values of the other world, and that our cooperation is essential in that enterprise.
I don’t know if it’s true, of course, but it does no harm to think so, and it is a comfort to me to believe it—much more so than thinking that the other world is about revenge and vindictiveness. There is enough of that just down the road.
2. Help With Our Life
Where is chaos erupting in your life? Where has change become unmanageable? Where are the barriers protecting you against the forces of turbulence and upheaval beginning to crumble ? Not to worry. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. It all starts with chaos, you know.
Carl Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” We do not grow up in a life that is exactly like we want it to be. The path through “the heaving waves of the wine-dark sea” is laid out nicely for us in all of the myths and legends of the ages.
All of the old creation stories begin with a chaotic, unstructured, unformed, swirl. None of them start with nothing. “Creation out of nothing” was a uniquely Christian, and late, formulation. The Bible never says there was nothing. Nothingness was not a concept the ancient ones could entertain. “In the beginning, the earth was without form, and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep.” That’s the way the Bible describes it. There is always something. And, it’s a mess.
The creative act is not bringing something out of nothing. The creative act is bringing order to chaos. The creative act is structuring the mess. It is what every newborn has to do upon entering the world. We meet chaos, and have to make sense of it, have to order it. We are greeted by a terrifying swirl of colors and sounds. It’s up to us to do something with it. We have to find the patterns, impose structure, separate foreground from background, create order, and discover ways of making our experience meaningful. That remains the task of life throughout life.
We are always coming upon something that throws everything out of kilter. The harmonious pulsation of the womb is shattered by lights, action, cameras, nurses, blankets and someone saying, “I’m your mommy.” Home is gone forever, and we have to make our peace with that—and find our way in a new world that we hate, and want nothing to do with. About the time we get comfortable there, it happens all over again. “This” is snatched away, and “that” is handed to us. Chaos is always “right there,” ready to break into our lives and destroy everything, laughing.
To make it bearable, we structure our lives in ways to keep chaos at bay. We develop systems, rituals, and routines so we don’t have to wake up every morning, and start the day with what we are going to do to maintain life that day. Of course, this only gives chaos something else to play with, and “like that,” a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami comes along to destroy our routines and regimen—and, we are lost, undone, traumatized and disoriented, and have to reorder our lives, again.
“The whole catastrophe,” to quote Zorba the Greek, amounts to intrusions into our ordered universe. Tornadoes, death, marriage, divorce, disease, job loss, the baby going to kindergarten, or graduating from college, or marrying and moving away from home, or divorcing and moving back home, are all places where it seems as though “the rug has been yanked from under our lives.” Some of us never recover.
Recovery is a matter of coming to terms emotionally with our loss, and finding the wherewithal to impose new patterns on our lives. In order to regain our stability, we have to regroup, revive our sense of purpose, reorient our lives, and reorder our world. The creative act of structuring chaos is ongoing and unending. We live, you might say, to create small islands of stability and sanity within a great sea of rolling madness—and the work is never done.
When the dike that is holding back the chaotic forces begins to leak, and the turbulence becomes unbearable, and the forces of upheaval and destruction sweep over the landscape, where do you go to breathe, regain your composure and your perspective, and map out a plan, in order to step back into the action? What are your resources for dealing with the turmoil? What do you rely on when you have nowhere to turn?
In order to tackle chaos, it helps to have a community of the right kind of people—people who understand—or, at least, understand that they don’t understand—and care about each other. Creation is a team sport. Artists talk with fellow artists. Poets have coffee with other poets. Inventors call up inventors. Scientists hang out with scientists. Composers have lunch with composers. We cannot manage our lives alone. People who are working to be awake, aware and alive have to spend time in conversation with people who are working to be awake, aware and alive—about the things that are essential to their work.
We need a community of like-minded people who recognize and embrace the importance of listening one another to the truth of who each is. We need a community that makes understanding each other the core of their life together—in the belief that being understood is all we need to understand ourselves, know who we are, and live in ways that align us with ourselves and put us in accord with our life, in service to our life.
And that is all we need.
3. Blurring the Line Between Ourselves and God
Jesus had a unique perspective of God which stood apart from the quid pro quo, tit for tat, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” way of thinking about God that was the prevailing view among the people and the religious authorities of his day—and is quite the rage in our own day. Before the Babylonian Captivity (when the army of Israel was defeated and all of the people who mattered were led along their “trail of tears” to Babylon, where they lived for about 70 years), the popular view was that of God as Champion and Deliverer who rescued Israel from oppression in Egypt, and established them in an everlasting covenant as the Chosen People of God in the never to be repossessed Land of Promise.
Babylon put an end to that happy fantasy, and the people and priests had to re-think some very fundamental matters. After their release from captivity, and in the process of rebuilding the destroyed temple in Jerusalem, an old text containing the Law of Moses was discovered (Or planted, and “discovered”), and an “Aha! Moment” occurred. “Of course!” they said, “That’s it! Now we see!”
What they saw was that they hadn’t properly kept the Law all those years, and Babylon was the result of their failure to walk the straight and narrow! Their idea of God then evolved to allow God’s Covenant with Israel to be contingent upon their faithful obedience to the divine commandments and ordinances! In order to get something from God, they had to give something to God. If they wanted God to protect and defend them, they had to be really, really good. From Babylon on, God becomes Watcher and Judge, and the people have to live carefully pleasing lives, in every respect, or else.
Jesus stepped into this framework and trashed it. He healed on the Sabbath, associated with the disenfranchised, the outcast, and the unclean. He presumed to speak for God, but said the most outlandish things, and greatly offended the religious sensibilities of practically everyone who mattered. His behavior was seen as a threat to the people. If they didn’t deal quickly with him, God would surely be incensed. How they responded to Jesus’ blasphemy and irreverence was a test of their own faith. If they didn’t shut Jesus up the whole nation would be obliterated: “It’s better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed!” said the High Priest, as they consulted one another about the “Jesus Problem.”
Jesus’ crucifixion was nothing personal. The Jewish authorities were simply acting out their idea of God—in accordance with their deeply held beliefs about God, and what it took to please God. They were certain that if they didn’t keep God Very Happy with them, a repeat of Babylon, or worse, would follow. Even in Christian circles, in the Book of Revelation, Rome was considered to be the modern—for those times—equivalent of Babylon. The Jews knew they had to be ever so careful.
Jesus, of course, didn’t see it that way, and that is the reason for his death. Jesus saw God, not as a vengeful, revengeful, Killer God, but as compassionate as the prodigal’s father, or a kind Samaritan. God, from Jesus’ viewpoint, was gracious, generous, and very present for good in the lives of the people, all people, no matter what. Jesus saw himself as an extension of the qualities of God in his own relationships, and lived with the people as God would live in his place. Jesus reflected his idea of God—his understanding of God—to the people, and said, boldly enough, “The Father and I are one,” and “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
That’s what we all should be saying, “The Father and I are one.” We all should be living so that the line between God and us is blurred—so that no one can be sure where we stop and God starts. It isn’t a morally pure kind of life that blurs the line, but a compassionate life, a kind life, a gracious life, a generously loving life that sees into the heart of things, and offers exactly what is needed to each moment as it unfolds. This is the Categorical Imperative: If we have what is needed in the situation as it arises, we must offer it, no matter what, or, to put it a bit differently: Those who can help must help, and whose who need help must be helped!
Our lives have a way of asking for exactly what we have to give. What is needed is always the gift—the genius, the art—that is latent within us waiting for an opportunity to come forth and grace the world. It is our place to offer ourselves to the moment, to the time of our living, to each other, to the situation as it arises—when and where our gift, and the need of that here and now, meet.
It’s easier to hide out in the Law and the Prophets than to put ourselves on the line in each moment, bringing forth what is ours to give for the good of the moment. We can do that only out of an orientation of heart and soul that cares about other people, and the world in which we live, as God would in our place, so that it could be said of each of us: “The Father and I are one.”
4. The Quest for God
The quest for God requires specific things of us. We don’t just roll over, and there’s God. Well, actually, we do just roll over, and there’s God, but in order to recognize God when we roll over, we have to be at the place of readiness to recognize God. Readiness comes about mostly through our handing over (or having stripped away) our ideas about how life should be, and who God is. This reflects another of the 10,000 Spiritual Laws: “The only thing standing between us and God is us.”
Our ideas about how life should be, and who God is, keep us from perceiving God. We cannot know the God Who Is as long as we are attached to Who We Think God Ought To Be. One of the functions of the cross in the lives of the disciples (and in our own lives, if we could step away from everything we’ve ever heard about the cross, and confront in it the vulnerability and helplessness of God) was to separate them from their ideas of God and of the Messiah. This is the “scandal of the cross.” The Coming One is not supposed to die at the hands of his enemies! What kind of sense does that make? None whatsoever. And, that’s exactly the point.
The God Who Is makes no sense. It’s utter nonsense to think God is the way God is. God, by our definition, is bigger, better, finer than anything we can imagine, but somehow always manages to be exactly what we imagine. God is Almighty, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Thoroughly In Charge, and Completely In Control. We will not have it any other way! We must have a universe in which everything that happens, happens for a reason—happens because God makes it happen, or, because God allows it to happen as a part of the Plan. Our God has a Plan, and a fine Plan it will prove to be! We are convinced of it. We believe more in the Plan than in the Planner.
This is the idea of God, or one of them, that we have to hand over (or have stripped away), if we are going to perceive God, apprehend God, know God. Our idea of God disintegrates in one of two ways. Life can take it from us by exposing its inadequacy, or we can recognize its shortcomings by thinking about it until it becomes absurd. I recommend thinking about it.
Thinking about our idea of God immediately places some distance between God and our idea of God. Once we recognize that everything we hear about God, including what I’m suggesting here and now, is just someone’s idea of God, and not God, we put a bit of space between what is said about God, and God. Or, to come at this another way, we might say that everyone knows what they are supposed to think about God, and everyone knows what they do, in fact, think about God, but, not everyone knows what to do with the discrepancy. It is when we think about the discrepancy that new ideas of God come into being. Among those new ideas is the idea that the ideas are only ideas—they have nothing to do with the God beyond all ideas of God.
At the point of knowing that God is beyond knowing, we enter a level of openness to the paradoxical nature of truth, which includes what is true to our experience, and what is also true to our experience (which might contradict what is true to our experience), and what is beyond our experience. This reflects another of the 10,000 Spiritual Laws: “Truth is found between the hands,” that is, “On the one hand, this, and, on the other hand, that and on some other hand that over there!”
This openness to the paradoxical nature of truth lends itself to a state of mindfulness, and playfulness, that is more intuitive than rational—that knows without knowing how it knows—without being able to articulate what it knows. Sheldon Kopp said, “Some things can be experienced, but not understood; and some things can be understood, but not explained.”
God is everywhere. There is no distinction between sacred and secular, between holy and profane, between God and Not-God. God is all, and in all, and through all, and beyond all. God simply IS. Everything is a doorway into God, an avenue to God, a path to God. Or, can be if approached in the proper frame of mind. That which is Not-God can lead to God. So, there is a sense in which Not-God is God.
But. Even though God is everywhere, it takes a unique perspective to see God anywhere—a peculiar openness, a radically present presence. We have to be God to see God, or on our way to being God. We cannot sit back, looking for God at a distance, through binoculars and telescopes, concepts, doctrines and discussions. We know God by living God-like lives. And, we are back to the fundamental spiritual law, “In order to know God, we have to live in certain ways.”
We cannot know God if we do not live compassionately. Association with God, awareness of God, leads to, is exhibited in, is expressed by, and flows from, a life which radiates the high (or deep) values, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, mercy, justice, hospitality, grace, etc. Association with God does not lead to careless, reckless, dispassionate living. God is everywhere, yet, the only life that leads to God is lived toward goodness, love, kindness and peace—toward the best we can imagine. We cannot expect to find our way to God by living just any life at all—The wedding guest is cast out of the banquet because he wasn’t dressed appropriately, and the “Evil doers” are turned away because “In as much as you did, or did not do, it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it, or did not do it, unto me.”
The way we live is of God, or not. The quest for God that finds God is the life of God. We have to be what we seek. The life of godliness, of goodness, of compassion and peace cultivates godliness, goodness, compassion and peace. It enhances life, deepens our connection with God, and honors the reality of God within us and all people.
We honor the reality of God when we exhibit the high/deep values, treating one another, and all people, with honor and respect—loving one another, and all people, for who we/they are—and creating a community of presence, the membership of which is not based upon agreement, or conformity, or mutual allegiance to a common creed, or system of beliefs, but upon mutual esteem and reverence for the person of the other, for the perspective of the other, for the aspects of God that are hidden in, and revealed by, the other.
We create the God we seek in the way we live while seeking. And Zen is like a man sitting on his ox, looking for his ox—like a woman holding her car keys, looking for her car keys. And heaven is where we laugh at all of the things we thought were important that kept us from seeing what was important.
5. God is the Stream of Life
The most recent old idea of God has carried us as far as it can. We are at the point—and have been for some time—of re-imagining God, of understanding “God” in a way that squares with all that we know about the physical universe, and what we can intuit of the spiritual/invisible/unconscious (Because we are not conscious of it) universe. We can take up the process of re-imagining God from within the Bible itself, and carry it forward in ways that are compatible with what else we can know, and intuit.
In the Bible, we find a wonderful old hint about the nature of God in a text that is lost in the mass of texts with a different, more Godly view of God in mind. In that ancient passage, the Israelites are making good progress in their conquest of the Promised Land, when they come upon a group of Philistines who have chariots and horsemen. The text (in Judges 1:19) reads, “The Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but (he) could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron.”
As the story plays out, God comes up with something, and sends the rain which creates the mud, which mires the wheels of the chariots, removing them from the equation and making victory possible. But, the opening has been created. God can be, at least, temporarily, stumped. Even God has to find a way. God cannot merely will iron chariots out of existence. But. What kind of God is that?
We are always having to come up with a God we can believe in.
The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and the deportation of a large portion of the Jewish population to Babylon, resulted in a theological crisis typical of all encounters with a devastating reality: What can we believe now that our beliefs have been invalidated, and our God has let us down? The religious leaders of the Jews in Babylon put together an idea of God that took the defeat of the nation into account, and saved the religion by giving it a foundation that could withstand any shock.
They said, in essence, that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses was not defeated by the army of Babylon, but used Babylon to punish the people of God who had been shamefully faithless and disobedient. If the nation repented, good things would come its way again. But, if it persisted in its pattern of behavior, it would be lost forever.
The idea of God as “a very present help in time of trouble” that was operative prior to the fall of Jerusalem, had to be re-imagined by those whose task was to give the people a God they could believe in—and they gave them the God we are at the point of re-imagining today.
The God who came out of the Babylonian Captivity, was very different from the God who went into Captivity. The spin doctors took the experience of God’s failure to be the God the people believed God to be, and said, “God is Almighty, Omnipotent and Stupendously Awesome Beyond Measure, but. Only in the service of those who are utterly obedient in every way.
This is the same theory of God that resurfaces following the crucifixion of Jesus to declare that Jesus lives, and that God blesses those who believe it with life that will never die. God, it was said, used the Romans and the Jewish authorities as pawns in the Almighty’s Plan of Salvation, so that Jesus could die as a sacrifice acceptable to God, and all the world could be saved if it repents and believes. If it doesn’t, then, just like the theorists in Babylon suggested, there is going to be hell to pay—and the Book of Revelation emphasizes just how terrible hell will be.
Missing both in Babylon, and in the aftermath of Jesus’ death, is the idea that God is as vulnerable and helpless as a stream on parched ground. The text in Judges hints at this possibility, and the birth and death of Jesus shout it from the housetops.
The Messiah, the Coming One, the Christ, the Anointed One, is born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger. God, we are told, comes to us as a baby in a manger and dies as a man on a cross. The Babylonian theorists would have been appalled at this turn of events, but, in Jesus, we get an image of God that is quite compatible with that of the God who is confounded by iron chariots.
In Jesus, God is impotent, powerless, “up against it,” and dependent upon us for sustenance and support. God is not powerfully apart from us, but one-with-us, one-of-us, in the work toward the good. God is a partner with us in doing what needs to be done—and needs our total participation and collaboration in effecting God’s will upon the earth. It is a full partnership, a joint effort, a coalition of mutual support from start to finish.
God is the Stream of Life flowing through us, around us, within us, calling us to wake up, and live in accord with the Stream of Life.
God is the Stream of Life flowing downhill, dealing with beaver dams, landslides, fallen trees and droughts—finding a way to deal with everything that comes its way—flowing on, drying up, and flowing on again, without ever losing its “stream-ness,” giving up or forgetting its purpose.
God is the Stream of Life, as helpless and vulnerable, yet as unrelenting and eternal, as water flowing downhill in its search for a way to the sea.
The Stream finds a way. The Stream is one with us, one of us, in the mutually dependent dance of life with life. The Stream needs our willing participation, cooperation and collaboration to deal with iron chariots, crosses, and the harsh facts of life in the world of physical reality.
The Stream flows through us and with us to help us imagine the way forward—to encourage us and sustain us in the work of preparing its way in the wilderness, in the work of serving and establishing the high values of Life upon the earth, and is the expression and exhibition of the art of life, living and being alive.
6. Good Faith Is the Best Kind of Faith
You may have heard this already, if not, you will hear it again: Truth is found between the hands. On the one hand, it’s like this. On the other hand, it’s like that. Socrates said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That is certainly true as far as it goes. Sheldon Kopp said, “The unlived life is not worth examining.” The circle is complete. There is the way things are. And there is the way things also are. And that’s the way things are. This is symbolized neatly in the yin/yang of Taoism. Yin is the way things are. Yang is the way things also are. And the circle containing them is the way things are. Reality, you might say, is one in its duality, in its polarity.
William Blake put it beautifully: “Without Contraries, is no progression” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). This means our work is “working it out.” We are always and forever “working it out.” We integrate the opposites, reconcile the contradictions, live between the polarities, and maintain the tension between disparate truths. We go too far in one direction, and have to be reeled in, called back, by the forces contained in the opposite direction. This is “finding the center” or “walking the straight and narrow.” We live on the boundary—on “the razor’s edge”—between yin and yang. We have to be “rounded out” by the opposition in order to “square ourselves with” that which is true, and that which is also true. We find our way forward in a conversation with the contraries within and without. The opposites do not cancel each other out, but open each other—and ourselves—up to worlds, to possibilities, we could not imagine, or enter on the strength of one point of view alone.
This opening is enabled by the right kind of conversation with the opposites, between the opposites, among the opposites. The right kind of conversation enlarges, deepens, transforms, integrates, reconciles, unites, makes whole. The right kind of conversation is the way to the Way, individually and collectively. The kind of community that is required for living properly aligned with Inner and Outer Reality, centered, in synch, and on the Path, is a community of opposites, of polarities, where all persons take each other seriously, treat each other with the deepest respect, honor each other’s perspective, and allow conversation with one another to expand, deepen, and enlarge one’s own sense of how things are, and what needs to be done in response.
In this kind of community there is not one way of seeing, thinking, believing and doing. There is no sense of “our way” being the Right Way and “their way” being the Wrong Way. The right kind of community is not “one big happy family” in firm agreement about what to think, feel, believe and do. It is a community that values contrary views, and finds the way to the Way by taking all pertinent perspectives into account, and allowing them to inform, and guide, the development of each participant in the community, and each participant is responsible for determining, and doing what she, what he, thinks needs to be done in each situation as it arises.
The heart of the kind of community that is necessary for the development of individuals who are living lives aligned with the Way, and who are bringing forth their gifts in ways that serve and save the world is, what Rumi calls, “good faith.” He says, “If you are not here with us in good faith, you are doing terrible damage.” Good faith is the key to our life together.
“Good faith” describes our commitment, our covenant, to each other to do right by one another, to be with one another in ways that are good for the other, to offer the right kind of help in the right kind of way, and to help others help us by not being too needy or too dependent ourselves. It also recognizes the old truism that “good fences make good neighbors,” and carefully observes the Old Testament commandment (One that did not make—but should have made—the Top Ten): “Thou shalt not remove thy neighbor’s landmark!”
We do not do violence to our neighbors’ boundaries by offering the wrong kind of help in the wrong kind of way, and we trust our neighbors to do right by us, as much as they trust us to do right by them. And we live to not let each other down.
7. The Doctrine of The Two Ways
The Doctrine of the Two Ways—the Right Way and the Wrong Way—has been the central religious view in the Near East and the West for thousands of years, and is the predominant religious outlook today. We are seeped in the Doctrine of the Two Ways. We believe deeply that the way we believe (and think, and do) is the Right Way to believe (and think, and do) and that all other ways of believing (and thinking, and doing) are the Wrong Way to believe (and think, and do).
It gets worse. We believe that if we believe the Right Beliefs, we will go to heaven when we die, and that if we believe the Wrong Beliefs, we will burn in the everlasting fires of Hell. The idea of heaven as a reward for Right Belief, and hell as a punishment for Wrong Belief is the fundamental religious curse that people carry with them throughout their life—and with which they infect all who come their way.
Because we cannot risk being wrong, and going to hell, we cannot question what we have received as Right Belief, and have to believe what has been believed unquestioned through the ages. In so doing, we create a hell on earth populated by the walking dead—empty-eyed and soulless—talking about the joys of Eternal Life as compensation for the life they are not living, and never have lived, thanks to the Doctrine of the Two Ways.
Darkness and Light, Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Truth and Error, the Way of Life and the Way of Death, etc. are set out before us, and the wise among us choose well, and the foolish, or evil, among us choose poorly. Believers are urged to pray, therefore, that they will choose well in order to be ushered into the Kingdom of Goodness and Light with the accolade: “Well done, good and faithful servants!”
There is, of course, a different way of looking at things—if you dare!
Good, at some point, goes over into evil. Evil, at some point, goes over into good. Not only that, but from some point of view, good is evil and evil is good. Floods, for example, that destroy homes, lives and livelihoods, also fertilize the land to produce the crops that feed the people. Are floods good or evil? Both! What’s good for the fox is evil for the hen, which raises the question: Whose good is the good we call good? As the old saying goes, “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, it doesn’t behoove any of us to talk about the rest of us.” Absolute Good, and Absolute Evil, are theoretical concepts without precedent in the lived experience of human beings. Given the truth of the relative nature of the options set before us in the Two Ways, we can’t long avoid the realization that it is not as simple as we have been led to believe. It is nothing at all like we have been led to believe.
Think not of living a morally pure and upright life, and deserving heaven when we die. Think instead of living aligned with the Way of Life, and living the life that is our destiny, our life to live—of being properly engaged with inner and outer reality, and offering what is needed out of what is ours to give to each situation as it unfolds. It is not a matter of matching our behavior up to some ancient standard, or code, but of responding appropriately to the moment, in each moment of our lives, doing what is needed there, never mind what our parents, or preachers, declare ought to be done.
If we are wrong about what needs to be done? Shake it off! Get up! Get ready! Get back in the game! The next moment is on the way!
The beauty of The Doctrine of More Than Two Ways is that getting it wrong is just a step on the way to getting it right. The meandering of the river is no threat to the sea. The roots of tomorrow’s Right are firmly grounded in yesterday’s Wrong.
Learn from your mistakes. Learn from your successes. Learn from everything. Living is the lesson and life is the teacher. We have a lifetime in which to learn what being alive is all about. Wake up! Pay attention! Be alert! Take a chance, and another one after that! There is life to be lived! We are not dead yet, and we must not live as though we are! Do not die before you are dead! Live with all that is within you for as long as life is possible no mater what! That’s the way that is the Way of Life for us all! Step into your life with your eyes open, and see where it goes! What’s hard about that?
Destiny is not the same as fate. Our fate consists of the givens present in our life situation—the time and place of our living, our genetic make-up, who our parents were, what is available for us to work with, how things are with us across the board, around the table. Our fate is also what becomes of us, what happens to us—what we are left with—if we reject, deny, or ignore our destiny. We either embrace, and serve, our destiny, or we succumb to our fate. There is no third option.
Our destiny is what/who we are called to become within the time and place, the context and circumstances, of our living. Destiny is what we do with our fate, what we construct with the materials that are available for us to work with, who we show ourselves to be through the process of living our life. We are called to a particular destiny in exhibiting the gifts that are—the genius that is—uniquely ours within the circumstances of life, which are generally the same for a large number of our contemporaries, though our destinies are quite different.
You can think of destiny as “God’s will for our lives,” or “the way of Tao.” What is called “the will of God,” or “the way of Tao,” is the same way. It is the same as the destiny that is ours to live out within the fate that is ours to deal with.
When we live aligned with our destiny, and live to bring ourselves forth, we also bring what has always been thought of as God, or the Tao, forth in our life and into the world of normal, concrete, apparent reality.
Here’s the problem: We are conflicted at the core. Our heart’s true desire is to be one with its destiny and we have eyes for a life of our own, with lights, glamor and action. The work of maturity is connecting with, and living aligned with, our heart—and dying to our idea of what is important. We embrace our heart’s idea, our soul’s idea, of what is important, and let our idea go. This is the conscious ego becoming conscious of its role, and playing it out, exactly as it needs to be played out: “Thy will, not mine, be done!” “Those who would be my disciple must pick up their cross daily and follow me.” The conscious ego submits to a will and a Way greater than its own. Our cross is the difference between our soul’s idea of what is important and our conscious ego’s idea of what is important. Our cross the price we pay for doing what is ours to do within the context and circumstances of our life.
The heart knows its true joy/love, its destiny, and it is our place to align ourselves with the drift of heart/soul toward its sense of where it belongs, and what it needs to be about. This is going with the flow in the deepest, truest sense of the term—and going against the flow of our own idea of how things need to be.
In living this way, Jesus is the “first born of all creation,” calling everyone with his “come follow me!” and his “No one comes to the Father but by me—no one comes to the Father but by dying like me!” We have missed the point of these sayings, thinking that Jesus was talking about himself. Jesus was talking about his perspective, his orientation, his attitude, his point of view, his focus on living out his destiny within the context and circumstances of his life, his refusal to let anything deter him, untrack him, in the work to bring forth his genius, his gift, in doing what was called for by the situation as it arose before him. This is bearing our cross. This is what he calls us to do in our own life.
This is the work that always been called salvific. Salvation is restoration, being restored to, being aligned with, that which is our destiny, our true life. It is the work recognition, realization, awareness, understanding, enlightenment. It is the work of maturity—and of grace. Maturity because no one can do this work who is not growing up, and grace because no one can claim any credit for the growing up that we do.
Our life’s work is awakening to our heart’s true joy—its love for, and affiliation with, its destiny—and letting that become our life. We are here to live the life that is ours to live in serving our destiny within the context and circumstances of our life (Our fate). As we do that, we become who Jesus was, who God is, and live at one with ourselves, and with the Source of Life and Being.
9. Directing Our Lives
As things currently stand in the culture, getting, having, owning, possessing, consuming, controlling, amassing, achieving, accomplishing, succeeding, winning, defeating, conquering, and the like direct our living. We live to get these things done. We do what we do with these things in mind. Our living is governed by things outside of us which we hope to get, have, own, possess, etc., and what we do is determined by what we want our doing to do for us. We live to have our way done on the earth. Ours is a getting, owning, acquiring, having, etc., culture. We live to get what we want, and have it made, and bask in the wonder of having done it. Everything serves that end.
Education is not about knowing, thinking, comprehending, feeling, intuiting, expressing or understanding, but about positioning ourselves to succeed, basically, by being gainfully employed. A good job has nothing to do with the goodness of the job, but everything to do with how much money we are paid for doing it. Ask any child or adolescent what they want to be when they grow up, and see how many of them say “kind,” or “compassionate,” or “generous,” or even “honest.” They might say “rich,” or “independently wealthy,” but they would most likely talk about the kind of job they hope to have. The want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, firefighters, engineers, accountants, or astronauts. They already know that what counts is “out there,” and that what really counts is how much of it we can get before we die.
A spiritual orientation calls this cultural assumption into question, and places us on a different track, a different path, than the one the culture would have us walk. Spirituality is counter-cultural. It is a radical departure from the way we think we are supposed to be. We cannot be spiritual without raising questions about the way life is being lived around us.
Jacob Bronowski said, “If you want to know the truth, you have to live in certain ways.” He said that we don’t find truth the way we find the checkbook, or Yankee Stadium. We don’t get directions to truth, or receive instructions. We don’t knock on the door of the wisest person in the neighborhood, with a pad and pencil in hand, ask questions, and take notes. We do not think our way to truth, or believe our way there. We live our way there. Knowing the truth is a matter of direct, personal experience.
You eat an apple, and you know the truth of that particular apple. The truth of a Granny Smith apple is somewhat different from the truth of a York apple, or a Red Delicious apple. There is a wide variation of apple truth, which has to take into account ripe apples, green (in both senses of the word) apples, and rotten apples. All of which you have to experience firsthand in order to have anything like a working knowledge of the truth of apples. As it is with apples, so it is with love, money and life. We live our way into the truth of all these things. How we live determines the truth we perceive, the truth we understand, the truth we know. “If you want to know the truth, you have to live in certain ways.”
We have to live with our eyes open. We have to live with our mind open. We have to live open to the experience of our life. We have to live with a little of that Missouri “show me” spirit in hand. We have to ask questions, and ask questions generated by the answers to our questions, and wonder what the questions are we haven’t asked. We have to poke, prod, investigate, wonder, imagine and explore, and we cannot ever, under any circumstances, take anyone’s word for it without asking what makes them think that they know what they are talking about. We have to know what we know, think what we think, feel what we feel, see what we see, hear what we hear, and sense what we sense—without buying into what anyone may tell us about the right way to do any of these things. We have to know what we know to be so because we have lived it, experienced it, and not because someone else told us it was so.
Got it? Then, here’s one for you: What do you know to be true about God that no one told you? How long is your list? Live to lengthen it!
We have to understand that what we do, and how we do it, are properly directed by our being, by who we are, by who we are endeavoring to be, and not by our having or getting, or by what we are endeavoring to have or get. The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has to be understood in light of the qualities and characteristics we want to exhibit—in light of the life that we want to have lived—not because we expect it to pay off in some way, but because these ends are simply good in themselves.
When we fail to act in ways that are commensurate with this vision, we have to realize it, and take a deep breath, and place ourselves back into the practice of being the kind of person we want to be. Michael Jordan at his best would let himself down on the basketball court, and he would have to go back to practicing, working, striving to be the kind of basketball player he had it in him to be.
What do we want to be when we grow up? We have the rest of our lives to answer that question. We begin living toward the answer by having a vision of the kind of person we would like to become before we die—practicing every day to incarnate the vision, and become the person.
10. The What and the How
Distractions abound. I am continually amazed at, and dumbfounded by, how little it takes to switch me from the main track into the trackless wasteland. We have to be mindful of the distractions swirling around us, avoid those that can be avoided, wake up quickly to those that blindside us, and bring ourselves back to the task at hand: Being who we are, doing what we are about—what is ours to do—in the time and place of our living.
We work with the day everyday. In each day, we have to remember what is important, what we are doing, as we step into the day, and allow the day to bring us forth in meeting the day while remaining true to ourselves. The day brings us into focus. The day clarifies for us the things we need to be clear about: What are the gifts and characteristics—the qualities of heart and soul—that we are working to bring to life in our lives? The day enables us to see how we are doing, and where improvements and alterations need to be made.
The day provides a steady stream of encounters and information that we can use in making mid-course adjustments on the path to wholeness. The day shows us where we are in relation to where we have been, and where we need to be. It may start with oversleeping, or with the dog throwing up on the carpet. We come into focus in the smallest details of living.
The spiritual life is lived between the What and the How. The What is about what is happening and what needs to be done about it. If we miss the bus, we may have to find a taxi. The “Now what?” brings the present moment into sharp focus, demanding that we assess the situation, and come up with a plan of action for dealing successfully with it—using, relying on, the gifts, preferences, interests, enthusiasms, aptitudes, talents, etc., that come with us into the world.
We are born as a bundle of latent abilities. As we grow up, the hope is that we will gravitate toward what we do best, and that our lives will be proving grounds—where we experiment with who we are, and develop an increasingly clear notion of what is “us” and what is “not us.” We aren’t born knowing what that is, but there is a homing device, of sorts, within us, and we know “when we are on the beam, and when we are off of it,” when we are on track with our lives, and when we are off track, where we belong, and where we have no business being.
Writing has always been “it” for me, and I have fought my way through a lot of internal resistance, and a pronounced lack of external encouragement, to write no matter what. I can say now, after all these years, that writing is one of my “things.” I couldn’t have said that at twenty, or thirty, or forty. I certainly couldn’t have said that at fifteen, or eighteen. I did not grow up in one of those loving, attentive spaces without answers. There was not much in the way of listening beneath the surface in my experience, of inviting to the table what else is there. If you were a boy in the deep south, you did the things boys in the deep south were supposed to do. And, you pretended to like it, because there would be something wrong with you, if you didn’t do it and like it.
So, it’s been a long and curious route that has brought me to the place of writing no matter what. The process could have been assisted, and shortened, with the proper mentors, coaches, advocates, listeners, encouragers, and friends, but the process was going to unfurl somehow, some way, over time no matter what.
Carl Jung said, “We are who we always have been, and who we will be.” Who we are born to be is always a part of who we are, and will be, and is waiting to be seen, recognized, received and loved into being. It takes a lot to block the process of our growing into the person we are to be in the world. That process is life itself. It’s the dandelion growing through the asphalt. Our lives are about being who we are no matter what. If we live long enough, we will get there. It only takes living to figure it out. We all learn to listen over time.
The What is one facet of the spiritual journey. The other is The How. How we do it is about the spirit, the attitude, the demeanor, the guise, the manner, the shape and form, the style and tone, etc., that we exhibit in doing what we do. How we do it is about the qualities and characteristics of heart and soul, and the way in which we bring them to life in our lives. Generosity and compassion; grace, mercy and peace; awareness, and mindfulness, and attention; love, joy, hospitality, kindness, gentleness, and a propensity for justice and doing what’s right, to mention a few, are essential requirements of the spiritual life. Never was a saint who wasn’t generous and compassionate. Never will be one.
It may be easier for some of us to be generous and compassionate (and all the rest) than others of us, but it isn’t easy for any of us all of the time. Generosity and compassion (and all the rest) do not come naturally. Snatching and grabbing, whining and pouting, snarling and grouching, complaining and moaning—these are the things we can do without trying. Anybody can do them without practicing. It takes no effort to be all sour and crabby. For some of us it’s as easy as having no half-and-half to start the day.
The work is to go against the grain; to swim against the current; to do what’s hard; to be generous when it would be easier to be greedy and self-centered; to be compassionate when we want to tell them a thing or two. The spiritual journey is a walk toward who we are called to be. The Promised Land is a metaphor for what we are here to do, and the spirit with which we are to do it. We live toward that every day of our lives. The days are filled with opportunities to assess how well we are doing, and places to practice doing it as we work to get it down.