Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Why Travel Matters


If you think traveling is expensive, try staying home. It’ll cost you everything.
            Travel, on any budget, changes you. It destroys your old boundaries, resets your trajectories, and lets you loose in a world where anything is possible. You’re challenged, and you grow. You come home stronger, freer, happier, and more alive. Staying home binds you to a provincial way of seeing and being in the world. Home isn’t bad. In fact it’s pretty great. You’re right to love it. Yet only when you leave it to venture out into the wider world do you come to know its true value.           
The first thing that confronts you as you contemplate traveling is fear. What about all of the things that could go wrong? Can I really afford it? What if I get lost? What about the language barrier? Am I clever enough to navigate all the surprises? The thought of traveling triggers every single one of your feelings of inadequacy. Then you stop, take a breath, and realize that people have been traveling for tens of thousands of years – you are not the first and you are certainly not the last. The paths are well-worn. There are scores of strangers along the road who will help you. You’ve been fortifying your home security system so long you’ve forgotten that people are inherently generous and kind – you can count on that. I wonder what else you’ve forgotten.
            Once you commit, once you surrender to the journey, all of your fear is replaced with excitement and wonder. And there’s a life-lesson for you. Our suffering is mostly generated by our own mistaken thinking. Once you let go and say yes your misery lifts like a fog. All that’s left is a warn sun high in the sky lighting the open road before you.
            One of the greatest realizations gained from travel is the conviction that wherever you are, you are home. More than 95% of humanity lives outside the United States. Everywhere you go you are in someone’s hometown. Stop into a tavern. Feel the warmth of a neighborhood. See old friends strolling arm in arm. Walk through a farmer’s market. Hear piano music drifting out of an upstairs window. Feel the truth of Robert Louis Stevenson’s words pull into focus: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Next thing you know, you’re lingering in a cafĂ© long after the meal to swap stories with new friends and fellow travelers, your foreignness washing away with the wine. Then, walking back to your hotel in the twilight along the river it finally sinks in – I am as much at home here as I am in my own home. That’s when it overwhelms you, a feeling of oneness, of the deep interrelationship of all sentient beings, and of our primal rootedness in the earth. These realizations are hard to come by back home. But in a village halfway around the world, they come with your afternoon tea.
            Americans are timid world travelers, but we’re getting better. In 1990, only 3% of us had a passport. By 1997 that number had risen to 15%. Ten years later it climbed to 27%. And today, an astonishing 42% of Americans have a passport. We still lag far behind most other countries in per capita passports, but we’re not as provincial as we used to be. And sure, some of this is class related – international air travel is a costly privilege not available to everyone for purely economic reasons. But a few simple adjustments in most middle class family budgets could make international travel a reality. Once you make the decision that travel is a core value, you find ways to make it happen. It dawns on you – I’d rather spend my money on experiences than things.
            Lori and I are putting the finishing touches on our summer travel plans, a European river cruise with my two older brothers and their wives – the six of us on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basil, Switzerland – a two week vacation when you add in the pre-cruise time in Amsterdam and post-cruise time in Lucerne. This trip has been two years in the making, and it’s not the kind of thing we can afford to do very often. But with our parents gone now we felt like it would be a fitting ritual to return to our ancestral homeland the Netherlands and spend some quality time slow-cruising up the Rhine with family. The benefits of river cruising are many. You unpack only once. Your room travels with you. Every day you wake up in a new town to explore. So you have the best of both worlds – the stability of consistent lodging, and the novelty of ever-changing surroundings. You and your travel party have ample opportunities for planned outings, communal meals, and alone time, as well as chance conversations over muesli in the morning or sunset drinks on the deck. And unlike ocean cruising with thousands of people to contend with, these river boats only hold 200 or so – far more cozy.
            If you add up the cost per day, counting air travel and everything, it’s a pretty scary number. But you cannot measure the value of a trip by a daily cost average. The fact is, when you go on a trip like this, every single day of the rest of your life is transformed. How do you count up that? There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about the glorious two weeks Lori and I spent in London and Paris last summer. Our lives are immeasurably enriched because of it. Not everything that counts can be counted.
            My relationship with the United States is changing. I’ll always love my homeland, but it hasn’t felt like home for a while. In some fundamental ways I don’t recognize her anymore. Her brutality and unconsciousness frighten me. More and more I see myself as a citizen of the world. Whenever I travel, I feel affirmed in the feeling that the very idea of nations is an increasingly outmoded idea, and that our deeper and truer allegiance ought to be to humanity as a whole, and for all sentient beings, and for the earth itself. The ugly squalor of nationalism is transcended by the weave of humanity that knows no borders. From a plane you can’t even see them. Travel does that to you – everything looks different from out there. Travel shatters your paradigms and reorients you into the wider cosmos. And that’s priceless.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Religions Are Like Boats


What is religion for? Is religion the destination or the vehicle? Is it the purpose of religion to provide pat answers, or help us ask better questions? Are religions fortified bunkers from which we can safely attack the religions of others? This is certainly how some people see it. But what if this fundamentalist perspective misses out on the real purpose of religion?
            I’ve had the privilege of teaching comparative religion and philosophy for 27 years. On the last day of my world religions class I share Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of a poem written by Hafiz, the 12th century Sufi Muslim poet called “I Have Learned So Much.” It’s a perfect way not only to end our study of Islam, but to summarize the entire course, if that’s even possible.
            What Hafiz captures so beautifully is the Buddhist idea that religions are like boats – they get you across the river, but they are not the destination. Religions are the penultimate step. The ultimate or last step is realization, transcendence, oneness, and embodiment beyond all ideologies and doctrines. Then you come back to the world and get to work.
            I love religions, but I belong to none of them. I love wisdom, but I don’t know what it is. It isn’t even an “it.” I don’t know how to talk about it because, as Hafiz says, “love has turned to ash and freed me of every concept and image my mind has ever known.”

I Have Learned So Much

I have learned so much from God
That I can no longer call myself a Christian,
A Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.

The truth has shared so much of itself with me
That I can no longer call myself a man,
A woman, or even a pure soul.

Love has befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash and freed me 
Of every concept and image 
My mind has ever known.

Like mystics the world over, Hafiz affirms the fundamentally unknowable nature of God or ultimate reality because whatever ultimate reality is, it is beyond all names and forms. It cannot be thought, it can only be experienced. Religions, therefore, only work as catapults – to throw us out of our ordinary consciousness and into the boundless depths of the sacred.
In another twist on the boat analogy, Hafiz playfully puts it this way in his poem “The Great Religions”:

The great religions are the ships.
Poets the lifeboats.
Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.
That is good for business isn't it Hafiz?

Maybe he’s right. Maybe poetry, especially wry poetry with a sense of humor, is the medium that best strips away our intellectual and tribal defense mechanisms. But to poetry I’d also add ritual, prayer, meditation, service, study, community, reverence, appreciation, and love – especially love. All of these work just as well as poetry in washing us clean and leading us to the table where the divine feast is laid before us by the infinite abundance of the universe.
Maybe even poems do too much. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” ex-Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching.” Sometimes all of these clever words ruin what was almost ripe.

[This piece was first published in my column "A to Zen" inthe May/June 2019 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Wildflowers


After eight straight years of record-setting drought, the rain finally came to California. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are packed with snow, ensuring full rivers and lakes all summer long. The Giant Sequoias finally got the deep watering they so richly deserve. And the 40 million people who call California home can breathe a little easier after years of anxiety. Until next year anyway.
            But it’s the way the rains came that really made a difference. A long series of storms kept the water falling for much of January and February. Not only were the wildflower seeds lying dormant in the chaparral germinated, but the young plants received a steady rain growing deep roots, wide foliage, and setting a record number of blooms. When those buds began to unfurl in mid-March the foothills of the Golden State burst into flame – the good kind – golden poppies, lavender lupine, yellow mustard, deep blue ceanothus, and a thousand other varieties scattered by region and elevation. Then came the butterflies.
            Clouds of migrating Painted Ladies drifted over the many-hued landscape like fluttering prayer flags. It’s as if the flowers had taken flight.
            But flowers and butterflies aren’t meant to last. None of us are. We are all passing through, and the ephemeral nature of all embodied forms is once again brought home to us with bold alacrity. The flower fields of March and April rise up from the ashes of last season’s fires, and in a blink of an eye return to the dust from which they emerged.
            It is in our nature to look for meaning – to search the signs and symbols of the natural world for wisdom, wisdom that we can apply in our faltering, fumbling lives. Nature is a language to be read with the faculty of intuition, or so the Romantic poets claim. It is not facts and theories that flowers and birdsongs give us, but a just-as-certain resonance that defies conceptualization. Feeling in your heart the golden light of a California poppy field lifts you over all contradiction and paradox leaving you aloft in a knowing beyond the mind and its pedestrian definitions.
            This is what draws us into nature: freedom from the tyranny of our own thoughts. We think and think and think, thinking that this next thought will set us free. But it never works. Thought only leads to more thought. Meandering out into a flowering field frees us from the wearisome charade that life is a problem to be solved, rather than a reality to be experienced.
            Walking through the woods, or the desert, or the hills, or along the beach returns us to our bodies, and our bodies return us to our original relationship with the earth, our sacred Mother from which we and all forms arise and to which we return. Feeling her power and presence rise up through the soles of our feet and move through us like a wave realigns the scattered and fragmented bits of our psyche into an integrated whole – we’re too present now to drift into abstraction, too enthralled to argue. This beauty, this light, this scent, this sight, anchors us in something real – not lost in tired thoughts-about-things, but fully awake to things-in-themselves. This, finally, is the grounding reality we’ve been longing for.
            Over-thinking is killing us. Instead, just be. In his longest lesson, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the imagery of nature to lead us back toward groundedness. “Do not worry about your life,” he said. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you? Seek first his kingdom…and all these things will be given to you as well.”
            And what is it to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Christians and other wisdom seekers have been wondering what to make of that for two thousand years. For many in his audience, the familiar Jewish phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” meant a literal political kingdom – the reestablishment of the free nation of Israel and the end of Roman occupation. But many believe Jesus was pointing to something beyond nationalism. For him the phrase became a poetic metaphor for God-consciousness, a mind-body state of illumined realization characterized by peaceful loving kindness. And where are we to find this kingdom? “The kingdom of Heaven is within you,” Jesus tells us. And in the Gospel of Thomas he says, “The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” Turns out we have a perception problem, not a proximity problem. The kingdom of heaven is here and now. Only we are not.
            This is what the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart meant when he said that “God is always home – it is we who have gone out for a walk.” Entering the kingdom of heaven is not about going out there – it’s about going in here. And contemplating the beauty of nature’s fleeting forms draws us deeper and deeper into the eternity of the present moment, where all of the doors swing open. “What you look for has come,” Jesus said, “only you do not know it.”
            With this in mind, it seems clear that we need to drop the idea of the search for truth and exchange it for a process in which we simply slow down, stop searching, and realize what we already are. And one of the best ways to do this is to leave your four walls and walk out into a field beneath a wide open sky.
            In the beauty of a wildflower field, beside a seasonal creek, the puzzles, conflicts, and tortured logic of the discursive mind all unravel leaving in their place a soft, beautiful openness, a melodic indeterminacy, a timeless awareness beyond thoughts and forms. Enlightenment, awakening, nirvana, or the Kingdom of Heaven are not destinations, they are where we already are. As the twentieth century spiritual teacher Krishnamurti put it, “True spiritual practice springs from, not toward, enlightenment. Our practice does not lead to unity consciousness – it is unity consciousness.” When we meditate, pray, or walk with vulnerability, purpose, and open-heartedness the truth and presence that we already are wells up through the cracks between our thoughts and reveals itself as our essence, like wildflowers leaping from the dry earth in the spring rain.