Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Mothers of God

I language the world for a living. And though I hate to admit it (because it’s bad for business) it really can’t be done. As a writer, lecturer, and singer-songwriter, my entire career has been a quixotic battle to achieve the impossible. I strive to express what cannot be expressed. I oversell and under-deliver every single day.
            And yet I keep trying. Because you get close. Once in a while you pierce the fog with the bright shard of an idea, a fortunate turn of phrase, an apt metaphor. You get close to naming the mystery. You almost sing truth. But stepping off stage you know you missed it. Your old friend disappointment comes to visit. You didn’t get it, not really. But on the calendar a string of speaking events, concerts, and writing deadlines loom before you, like downstream towns on a river journey – chances to try again. You’ll do better next time.
            I guess all work is like this. Raising children, starting a business, writing books, mastering any craft. You begin with the end in mind, or at least what you imagine the end to be, and you get busy. But you don’t really know what you’re doing, or where this is all going, or what value any of it will have. You have nothing to guide you but your gut sense that this is worthwhile, that it matters, that it will somehow help others meet their own nameless needs. Because that is one thing you do know – that all work is service, that we are all here to play our part in a symphony of infinite complexity and breathtaking beauty. Seen this way, life begins to shimmer with significance, and you begin to see your choices as instruments wielded not by your narrow self-interest but by the cosmos itself. It no longer feels like you alone are doing this. It’s more like you are being led or called or compelled by something not you. Maybe the way we show up and offer our gifts is how the universe shows up and offers its gifts. Everything in the foreground is the mouthpiece through which the background depths speak. When you get out of your own way your true voice emerges.
            When you begin to understand this better, you begin to relax. You let go of the illusion of control and you renounce the need to be perfect. You know that who you are, how you are, and what you are is enough. And with a sense of play you go about improving your work in a thousand little ways, not because what you did last time was lousy – it wasn’t – but because something better is trying to emerge through you, as you. And who are you to interfere with that?
            It’s liberating to know that you don’t have to have all the answers before you begin. It’s inspiring to know that your own nameless longing is the same nameless longing that courses through everything. And it’s empowering to know that our private suffering connects us to one another in a web of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.” We are never alone. There is no such thing as alone.
            As we deepen into the realization that our yearning is not a private pang of deficiency, but the cosmos longing to give birth to itself through us, we surrender, let go, smile, and shift into optimism and wonderment. Being a witness and a participant of this great unfolding is our highest bliss.
            The 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it this way: “What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1,400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”
            And 13th century Sufi poet Rumi put it this way in his poem Each Note:

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us
a passion, a longing-pain.
Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!

Sing loud!

When we live authentically, answering the call and courageously trading security for the danger of self-realization, we honor ourselves and the universal source in one fell swoop. How can this not lead to rewards unimagined in more timid hours?
We do not breathe – we are breathed. We do not sing– we are sung. We do not make art – art makes us. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” And when you begin to experience life this way – not as a private event but as a wave in a boundless sea of waves – you slip into illumined stillness and from there everything is possible.
It is the role of the artist to bring forth these realizations in ever new forms relevant for their time and place, and to show us our oneness. Art connects us all in a binding ritual and reminds us of our common humanity. Art crosses all borders, no, annihilates all borders. The storytellers and film makers who reveal our secrets through the lives of their characters, the musicians who color our silence with sound, the poets who say the unsayable, the painters who show what cannot be seen, the sculptors who wrest shape from shapelessness – artists re-present the ineffable power of our own lives to us over and over again, and in this way affirm us in our limitlessness and infinite beauty.
As Meister Eckhart said, we are here to give birth to God – the formless source that takes form as our thoughts, our bodies, our words, our actions, and the majesty of the entire cosmos. “God is always needing to be born,” he wrote, and he was right. As we midwife one another’s birthing, and as we endure the sometimes agonizing process of our own birthing, we honor ourselves, each other, and the sacred source. Our lives are the instruments through which the universe sings. And as Rumi wrote, “Let your note be clear…be your note. I’ll show you how it’s enough.”

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Unhealed Wound

How One Unity Minister Broke the Silence and Started the Brave Conversation About Race

Wendy was restless. On the surface she had everything – a great marriage, a beautiful family, and a long, successful career as the senior and founding minister of The Unity Center in San Diego, California. And still, no matter how many lives were changed for the better by the Unity teachings she taught and by the beloved community she shepherded, it wasn’t enough. There was unfinished business. With every book she read, with every documentary she watched, with every deep and honest conversation she had with both her black and white congregants it became increasingly clear – there was a hidden wound we in the New Thought community weren’t doing enough about: the wound of racism.
            She decided to do something about it. Her conviction to act came out of a bedrock Unity principle – that we create our life experiences through our way of thinking. If we in Unity and the larger New Thought community are serious about that principle, then it is of paramount importance that we examine our thinking in ways we never have before. Especially when it comes to hidden, unconscious bias.
            Like a lot of Unity and New Thought ministers, Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell’s lessons from the pulpit often centered on cognitive or psychological dynamics – how our thinking affects our lives. Drawing from a wide variety of sources – world scripture, scientific journals, and her own spiritual experience – Wendy built a case, Sunday by Sunday, for the rectitude of living the examined life; that if we really want to awaken and contribute meaningfully to an awakening world, we must be willing to exhume our deepest and most hidden thought-structures, drag them out into the light, and let go of any thinking that no longer serves our highest good.
            Racism is the crisis that never seems to go away. No matter how much progress we make, and the progress is real, there are still dangerous undercurrents flowing through the American heart that threaten to drown us all. And the message Wendy received from the African American members of The Unity Center was clear. White people are the ones that have the best chance to change the whole game. Wendy got to work.

An Incomplete Education
            My wife Lori and I jumped at the chance to join a white ally group that Wendy was forming. Twelve of us gathered in her home early last year. We sat in a circle and looked at each other, not knowing what would unfold over the next five months. But we were willing. And that’s the biggest piece.
            In preparation for our first meeting Wendy had us read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving’s memoir does a remarkable job, largely through confession, of delineating the extent of both structural racism and white privilege. In the same way that fish do not know what water is, white people are generally unaware that they benefit from unearned privilege simply by virtue of the color of their skin. I began to see it everywhere. As a straight white male I’m treated differently on the car lot, at the bank, by the police, and at job interviews. But don’t take my word for it. There are decades of research documenting the unconscious bias we all have, and the devastating impact this has on people of color.
            We also watched documentaries like 13th, Ava DuVernay’s essential film about the tenacity of racial inequity. When the Civil War and slavery ended, white supremacists simply changed their tactics, finding new, cruel, and innovative ways to keep African Americans oppressed. It’s disorienting and worse to realize how little you know about the real history of America. I kept thinking about that line from the Tao Te Ching: “The more you know, the less you understand.”
As we learned about black codes, work gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, inequities in the G.I. Bill, redlining, and racial disparities in arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates, it became painfully clear that many of the structures of American society were intentionally designed by white supremacists to benefit themselves and harm people of color. And that I and every other white person had unwittingly benefited from these structural advantages, even if we had no hand in creating them.

What Racism Is and Is Not
            White allies are used to being angry about racism. Some of us even take comfort in a sense of moral superiority over those we consider less enlightened. So it was particularly transformative to begin to realize that racism is not so much a moral failing as it is a cognitive error. In a way that’s good news. We can drop the moral condescension and simply work to expand everyone’s understanding, including our own, about the pervasive and destructive nature of unexamined implicit bias.
            That’s why Wendy introduced Dr. David Campt’s White AllyToolkit into the curriculum of our white ally work. Dr. Campt is a nationally-recognized leader in dialogue training with a long resume of ground breaking work in both the private and public sector. The underlying premise of the White Ally Toolkit is that the only thing that’s going to move us out of our centuries-long entrenchment in racist consciousness is honest, compassionate, and empathy-based dialogue with our “racism skeptic” white friends, relatives, and co-workers.
            Racism skeptics run the gamut from explicit white supremacists to ordinary white people unaware of their implicit biases. Racism skeptics comprise 55% of white America. They believe that racism is no longer a significant problem. They express the view that talking about racism makes racism worse, and that we ought to “just move on.” They say things like “I don’t see color.” So this is where white allies must focus their work – on their racism skeptic friends, family members, and co-workers. If we could bring even a small percentage of these folks out of their skepticism and into racism awareness, real change would unfold.

The R.A.C.E. Method
            It starts with conversations. Dr. Campt suggests a four step process called the R.A.C.E. method.
            First, reflect. Make sure you’re emotionally ready to begin this challenging work. Come out of judgment, drop all your arguments, and don’t try to win. Bite your tongue, get ready to do some deep listening, and use your compassion and empathy to find common ground.
            Second, ask. If your racism skeptic friend says something problematic like, “I don’t see color. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin just like MLK said,” then you might say something like, “O.K., that’s interesting, tell me more about that. Tell me an experience you had that leads to you think that.” (It’s key that you lead them away from their beliefs and toward a story about a specific experience that led them to have that belief.) They might tell you about a project they just completed with their black colleague at work, and about how well they get along
            Third, connect. Mirror their story by describing a great relationship you have with a person of color at work. Now, your friend’s worldview is not under attack, so he has no need to get defensive. You’ve established an empathetic bond. When we talk about our beliefs and opinions, we argue. When we talk about our stories, we connect.
            Fourth, expand. Now it’s time to gently lead your friend out of their racism skepticism, not by citing statistics or quoting studies, but with another personal story. Here you might tell them a story about a time when you caught yourself being biased. You might say something like, “So one time this black guy in a hoodie came into the store where I work, and for a second I got a little nervous. But then I saw that he had his baby in one of those slings around shoulders, and he was just buying some diapers and formula. Man did I feel like an idiot. Here I am this open-minded guy, or so I thought. I mean, I’m not a racist right? And still this unconscious bias leaped up out of nowhere.” And with any luck, your friend is nodding his head. He’ll probably share a similar story. By using self-disclosure, empathy, and compassion, you’ve enticed him to admit his own unconscious, implicit bias. He’ll take this with him. It is slow work, but it’s powerful, and when done properly, truly transformative.

What it Takes
            What it takes is leadership. For years Reverend Wendy has been building programs at The Unity Center designed to draw her congregants from the inherently interior work of spiritual practice toward the challenging application of our insights and principles in the field of action. Her “Brave Conversations” initiative brought a large group of African American congregants into Wendy’s home to explore paths forward (an effort out of which the white allies groups were born). Her “Muslim Outreach” initiative built ongoing interfaith dialogue and joint activities with a neighboring mosque. Her “Bolder Together” initiative brings Unity, CSL, and other New Thought ministers into her home to form coalitions committed to meaningful social justice action and community service. With these programs and others, Wendy is teaching us how to wield our time-tested Unity and New Thought principles as tools of transformation.
            If we are serious about both our own awakening and the awakening of the world, then it is time to come out of our privileged timidity, safety, and comfort and practice being bolder together with the fullness of our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. To no longer just witness suffering, but to be party to its diminishment and end. This is where our spiritual work has been leading us. It is time to finish the job. Our compassion demands it.