Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Soul Force

Bad vegetarian food at the boarding house sent Mohandas out into the streets of London in search of something better. The young law student found a vegetarian restaurant nearby, and it soon became a regular haunt. There he met a group of Theosophists, Yanks and Brits passionate about the world’s wisdom traditions. They invited him to join their study of the Bhagavad Gita. Even though he was born and raised in India, he had never really paid much attention the Gita. Mohandas K. Gandhi had to journey all the way to London to discover his own spiritual roots.

The Bhagavad Gita would become Gandhi’s most beloved book. He carried chapter two in his pocket and read it every morning, along with the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. The words of Krishna and Jesus formed Gandhi’s blueprint for how to bridge the gulf between the inner and outer life. Should spirituality be a refuge from the field of action, or a stance to take in it?

For Gandhi, a life-long commitment to social justice was born on the metaphorical battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita. In this 2,000 year old text, our hero Arjuna leads an army poised on the edge of battle. Across the field he sees the other army arrayed. He unburdens his heart to his friend and chariot driver Krishna. "Killing is a sin," he says. "I can’t do it." Arjuna collapses in moral paralysis.


Krishna spends the rest of the book encouraging Arjuna to take action, in the process revealing that he is no mere mortal, but an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Krishna speaks with divine authority, and Arjuna has to listen.

On a literal level it seems that Krishna is authorizing violence. But Gandhi interprets the Bhagavad Gita metaphorically – the real battle is waged within each of us. Arjuna’s battlefield symbolizes the field of action in which all of us make the difficult decisions of our lives. If you take action, one set of consequences unfold. If you do not take action, another set of consequences unfold. There is no escape from action. The only freedom we have is the freedom to shape our actions consciously, compassionately, and without self-centeredness. It is not our enemies we must kill; it is our ignorance, ego-attachment, and delusion. We must slash our attachments to self-obsession with the willingness of a warrior.

As Krishna reminds Arjuna, we are at core imperishable spiritual beings, identical with the ground of being itself. Outer forms come and go, but our essence is timeless – it simply is. Therefore, why worry? As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not be anxious.” Is God in charge, or not?

Our role in this messy life is simply to show up and do the work that is ours to do, without attachment to outcomes or ego-expectations. When we perform our duty, Krishna says, Brahman works through us – we become instruments of the divine. When we renounce attachment and act in the consciousness of service, we are free. This, for Gandhi, is how we are to tackle the social justice work of our times: without rancor, without attachment to specific outcomes, and relaxed in the conviction that even a little spiritual progress is enough. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King reminded us, “but it bends toward justice.” And as Gandhi taught, if our means are pure, the ends will take care of themselves. It is not body force or violence that accomplishes our goals, but soul force. When we show up as the consciousness of loving-kindness and cultivate the courage to speak truth to power, while harming no one but ourselves, we have the best shot at co-creating a world that works for everyone. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “There is no way to peace – peace is the way.” Loving our enemies and turning the other cheek are not just inspiring ideals – Gandhi showed us that they are the foundation of pragmatic political action. Soul force knows no limitations, no barriers, and no bounds.


[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, February 6, 2017

Forest Bathing


In the new age of multitasking it’s radical to monotask. Stripping away all distractions and focusing on a single thing seems quaint, dated, or even seditious. We pay a lot of lip service to mindfulness and being in the now, but we rarely do it.
            In Japan a new practice is taking shape called shinrin-yoku or forest bathing – a slow, meandering walk in nature without plan or purpose. A growing body of evidence shows that contemplative immersion in any natural environment produces significant shifts in body chemistry and consciousness. In a series of controlled experiments, people who practiced shinrin-yoku for as little as fifteen minutes experienced lower concentrations of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than their counterparts in city environments. In plain English, they felt better – a lot better.
            The term shinrin-yoku was first coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982. Initially researchers supposed that the benefits of shinrin-yoku came from ingesting (through the breath) volatile substances called phytoncides, the essential oils of wood such as a-Pinene and limonene. But determining causation for the measurable, beneficial effects of shinrin-yoku is not as easy as experiencing them – just get outside. Besides, not all of us have easy access to woodland forests. Some of us live in the desert, or by the sea. Trees aren’t essential for shinrin-yoku. Any kind of natural setting will do.
            There’s no doubt that human life has changed dramatically in the last century. For hundreds of thousands of years we lived mostly outside without the benefit of electric light. Up until quite recently, the vast majority of us were engaged in hunting or agriculture of one kind or another – working long hours under an open sky in close contact with nature and the cycles of the seasons. When electric light, central heating, and air conditioning brought us all inside our lives changed forever. We lost touch with the natural world. We no longer know the names of the stars, let alone the plants and animals. Then came screens: first television, then computers, and now all manner of hand-held devices. For all the benefits of these wonderful machines, there’s a cost – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
            So how do you do shinrin-yoku? The first thing to realize is that this is not hiking. Hiking is goal oriented. You set a destination, choose a path, and measure success by distance traveled. Some hikers even talk about “bagging peaks” as if they were possessions to be carried home and stored on a trophy shelf. Shinrin-yoku, on the other hand, has nothing to do with conquest and acquisition.
            Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when you head out to shinirin-yoku.
1.      Leave your phone/camera in the car.
2.      Move slowly, stop often, watch, listen, and breathe.
3.      Go alone.
4.      If you go with others, make an agreement to refrain from talking until it’s over.
5.      Include some sitting. Feel your way to a special spot, sit down, and just be.
Why no cameras or phones? Because the whole point of shinrin-yoku is to shift consciousness from one modality to another. We all love our screens, and every time we look at one there’s a release of endorphins. That’s why it feels good. In shinrin-yoku we set aside this habit for a little while. Also, as much as I love photography, it distracts from the focus of shinrin-yoku. We don’t want to spend our time thinking about how best to record this wonderful experience. Making art is important, but let’s leave that for another time. For now, just be in the experience. In shinrin-yoku, the less you do, the more you’ll be.
When we move slowly, mindfully, and without a destination in mind, we come out of our busy-mind and into the present moment. The wind comes alive – we hear it in the trees, we feel it on our skin, we see it in the waving meadow grasses. And through its scent we come to know something of the wider world – the loamy earth, the salt of the sea, the rain on distant mountains, and the warmth of coming spring. These are the things we usually miss, and they’re right under our nose.
Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh teaches walking meditation – slow and mindful walking, matching the steps with the breath, not talking, not thinking, just feeling the loving support of the earth with your bare feet. When we walk mindfully we give ourselves the opportunity to get back in touch with our body. We are not walking for outer purpose – to get to the store, to get to the office, to get back to the car – we are walking just to walk. We are free. We simply enjoy the wash of gratitude and beauty that comes over us as we awaken to the unbroken intimacy we share with our Earth Mother. We feel a deep sense of wellness and belonging rise up from our core. We know we are home in the world. We are no longer strangers here. The boundaries dissolve.
In his 1836 book Nature Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about such a moment:
“Crossing a bare common in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master of servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
Even before we first crawled down from the trees in the African savannah a million years ago and began walking upright, we have always been at home in the wild world. Why would now be any different? We are made of the stuff of the world. The earth is our mother, our brother, our sister, and our father. We have walked a long way. But we are always home.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Call to Arts



Never before have the arts mattered so much. As hate crimes escalate across the country the need has never been greater for the artist’s sacred calling: to enlarge our imagination, enflame our empathy, awaken our compassion, and inspire us to action. If you are an artist, you are hereby summoned to ply your craft with renewed passion toward a specific aim: bringing light into a darkening world. 
            This is a call to arts.
            Ultimately this isn’t about politics. It isn’t about who won or lost an election. It’s about moral rectitude and the sacred obligation we have by virtue of our birth. We are human beings first, and members of political parties second, and we owe refuge and solace to one another. When the rightful order of the world is threatened, we must rise to defend it, and when the most vulnerable among us are under attack, we must dig deep and find the audacity to fight back.
            But the last thing we need is pedantic art – art that talks down to us and bosses us around. We don’t need art that scolds us about peace and harmony. No sermon’s please. What we need is art that opens our hearts, quickens our minds, and leads us to the courage of our own convictions. Dear artists: please trust your audience to reach its own conclusions and plot its own path. That is not for you to say. But what you can do is this – wake people up and draw them deeper into the unimpeachable authority of their own inner experience. Tell the little stories that connect us to the big truths. The heart knows what to do – it must simply be provoked out of its slumber.
            Those of us who make art must use every means at our disposal to hold the vision of what is possible. We must both illuminate the dark places as well as the way forward. It is not art’s place to craft legislation, draft policy positions, or establish institutions, but to incite the imagination, because without imagination we cannot have empathy, and without empathy we cannot have morality.
            In his 1821 essay “In Defense of Poetry,” British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the quintessential manifesto on the proper role of the poet:
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
For Shelley, poetry, and by extension all art, performs an essential function: by exercising and strengthening our imaginations, art increases our capacity to empathize – to feel the feelings of another – and this is the bedrock foundation of compassion and morality. We cannot be good, in other words, if we cannot imagine deeply and powerfully. Dull imaginations cannot empathize – they cannot imagine the suffering of the other. And if the suffering of others isn’t real for you, you are incapable of compassionate action. To those with extinguished imaginations all talk of morality is but the clanging of bells. This then is the importance of art – to heighten the awareness of our deep and unbreakable interrelationship with one another.
            Instead of instruction, the artist must offer pathos. The best art makes us feel more than think – it piques our dreams and floods the parched earth of our once fertile imaginations. Remember being four years old and playing for hours with dust motes suspended in sunbeams pouring through the window? You didn’t need a toy – the world was your toy. Imagination is its own truth.
            Poetry, and indeed all art, is inherently subversive because is slips through the cracks of our rational minds and leaks into the depths beyond thought. Art is an end-run around the official position, the norm, the narrative favored by the elite. That’s why the Nazi’s vilified intellectuals, artists, and the media, and it’s why they burned books and paintings as “degenerate art.” They rightly feared art’s transformative power and the fundamentally ungovernable spirit of free-thought. Tyranny requires order. Art defies order at every turn.
            Woody Guthrie, the archetypal folk singer, understood art’s seditious nature. He painted the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, and he meant it. In 1950 Guthrie moved into the Beach Haven Apartments in Brooklyn, New York. They were owned by Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, who had secured millions of dollars in federal funding to build post-war public housing. Trump, arrested at KKK rallies in his youth, displaced people of color from their neighborhoods and established racial codes that excluded non-whites. Then came the rent gouging. Guthrie moved out two years later and wrote a scathing song called “I Ain’t Got No Home/Old Man Trump.” Here are the last two verses:

Beach Haven ain't my home, I just can't pay the rent
My money's down the drain and my soul is badly spent
Beach Haven is a haven where only white folks roam
No no no old man Trump, Beach Haven ain't my home

As I look around it's mighty plain to see
This world is a wicked and a funny place to be
Gambling man is rich and the working man is poor
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

What art will you create in the coming months and years? More so than any other form of expression, art is a powerful way of responding to the absurdities in which we find ourselves. Facts, evidence, arguments, and rational discourse have failed. But we still have songs (and novels, short stories, plays, films, photographs, poetry, choreography, painting, sculpture, and mixed media). Art has the uncanny knack of loosening the ties of our despair, turning our attention away from hopelessness, and teaching us to trust ourselves again – that we are enough, and that we, together, can dig deep into our inherent goodness and bring that goodness to bear on a troubled world. Art encourages us, literally. It makes us brave again. No matter how daunting the struggle.

Friday, December 2, 2016

And So This is Christmas



To whom does Christmas belong? Is it a private event or a come-as-you-are potluck?
Although Andy Williams’s dulcet tenor claims that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” some of us wonder. Still, there’s something sweet and beautiful about Christmas flowing all around us. It would be a shame to get to January and find we’ve missed the whole thing.
But what is Christmas, really?
In mainstream, Christianized culture, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But it’s really so much more than that. Over the last two millennia a flood of cultural appropriations have added their unique flavors to the stew. And it continues to evolve. Our modern Christmas is a family tree with roots in Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Norse mythologies, as well as Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Dutch, British, and American culture. Even capitalism and commercialism left their indelible mark on this mutt of a holiday. If it's purity you’re after, better look elsewhere.
We don’t know when Jesus was born, but it wasn’t December 25. Most scholars place it in summer because that’s when shepherds were “watching their flocks by night,” as the Gospel of Luke claims. When Christianity became Romanized in the fourth century, the celebration of Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25 to align with the birth of Mithra, another popular savior in the Roman mélange. Mithra was a Persian god who, like Jesus, was born miraculously, had twelve disciples, healed people, raised the dead, then died and resurrected. To the Romans, Jesus and Mithra were a perfect pair.
            Christianity had been illegal in the Roman Empire until 312 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing it. For the first time, Christians could worship in the open. They made up for lost time. Within a hundred years the Bible was finalized, ritual and liturgy were codified, and a holiday calendar took shape. But Roman Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we do, if at all, even though many of the pieces of what would become Christmas were laying all around in plain sight.
            In honor of the god Saturn, Romans set aside the last seven days of the year for the Festival of Saturnalia. Norms and laws were suspended, the courts were closed, and ribald mayhem ensued. Everyday Romans decorated their homes with lanterns and evergreen boughs, held lavish drunken parties, increased charitable donations to the poor, went singing door to door, and closed out the week with a gift exchange. Sound familiar? Early Christians found these pagan practices so repugnant that they avoided them for years. But by the 6th century, they had adopted them all.  
            Then Christmas moved north.
            Many of the elements of our modern Christmas celebration come from Norse and Germanic paganism. The now ubiquitous Christmas tree was adopted from pre-Christian Germanic nature worship, then popularized in Victorian England. As the obelisks of ancient Egpyt (and the Washington Monument) represent the earth god Geb’s longing for his sky goddess wife Nut, the Yule tree represents Odin’s, um, shall we say, perpetual readiness. And Santa Claus with his flowing white beard seems a lot like the Norse god Odin who soared through the sky on his eight-legged horse. The eight reindeer would come later.
            In Dutch culture, an obscure Turkish or maybe Greek saint called Nicholas was raised into prominence as Sinterklass. Known for his love of children and his generosity to the poor, Sinterklass was a gift-giving god of sorts, dressed in red and accompanied by his Moorish attendant Zwarte Piet or Black Peter. As Sinterklass spread abroad to the UK as Father Christmas and America as Santa Claus, his black “attendant” was ditched. Um, awkward.
            But it was from the mind of an American poet that the rest of the Santa Claus legend took shape. Clement Clark Moore was the son of Benjamin Moore, the bishop who presided over the inauguration of George Washington. The younger Moore penned a poem in 1823 that would blend and concretize all of the details swirling around the story of Santa Claus. “T’was the Night Before Christmas” established a number of elements we now take for granted: the sleigh, the eight reindeer (complete with names), and the bit about Santa landing his sleigh on the roof and sliding down the chimney. This was new. And we loved it.
            In a 1931 ad campaign Coca Cola papered over America with its new corporate mascot – a jolly old Santa Claus with rosy cheeks, a generous smile, and an irrepressible twinkle in his eye. The image of the American Santa Claus was fixed forevermore.
            In 1939 ad writer Robert May was working on a coloring book insert for the Montgomery Ward catalog. Thinking back to the exclusion and bullying of his own lonely childhood May created a ninth reindeer named Rudolf whose oddity, an illumined red nose, would turn out to be a tremendous asset to the boss in a pinch. Then May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song called “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” When the singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it in 1949 it went to number one, and remained the best-selling record of all time until 1980. From bullied nerd to celebrated hero – an archetypal tale of the emergence of our latent excellence through the cracks of our imperfection. It is because of our uniqueness that we are best able to serve.
            From the very beginning, Christmas belonged to all of us. It is not the sole property of any one religion or culture. Christmas is a metaphor for the international diversity of our messy human family – bits and pieces from everywhere blended into one glorious celebration. Christmas is collaborative community theater and the world is our stage. We all make Christmas. It’s folk art and no one’s in charge. It’s an alchemy of high-brow and low-brow, sacred and profane, silly and sublime, elegant and tacky. In our modern Christmas celebration there is room at the table for everyone – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, pagans – anyone willing to wear an ugly sweater, lift a cup, break bread, and celebrate the coming of the light into the darkness. Santa Claus is the embodiment of the abundance of the universe, and every time you wrap a present you participate in the ritual of generosity and embody the truth that love is always hidden right beneath the surface of everything.
            Let’s make Christmas a holiday for everyone, not yet another opportunity to divide our human family into warring tribes. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were aliens in a strange city. There was no room at the inn. From the humblest of people, and in the humblest of places, the light still comes into this darkening world. That’s the real meaning of Christmas – that the Divine Light shows up as the most vulnerable of creatures, an infant, and draws us into the one love that emanates from every heart, heals every wound, and lifts all eyes to the brightening days ahead. At this darkest time of the year, may we be a light to one another.
            Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hang my Saturnalia lights and erect the Odin tree.