Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Divine Feminine

     Everyone ever born emerged from the body of a woman. All over the world primal cultures understood the sacred source as feminine – the earth as a woman, the sky as a woman, the ripening of the grain as a woman. Then, somewhere along the way, God became a man. Yet the divine feminine sleeps just beneath the surface, waiting to awaken.

      In the 1970s the nascent environmental movement resurrected the Greek goddess Gaia to personify our growing understanding of earth’s ecosystem as a single, living organism. Conceiving of nature not as a series of disjointed mechanical processes, but as a living, breathing, conscious, and interdependent entity restores our intimacy with our mother. We cannot help but care for her better, knowing that as we care for her, we care for ourselves.

      Personification is at the heart of all religion and mythology. We have always attributed human qualities to the forces of nature and the energies within us: thunder a god, rain a goddess, malice a demon, and compassion an angel. Joseph Campbell called these personifications the “masks of eternity.” For Campbell mythic images are externalizations of internal psychological realities – all of the gods, demons, heavens and hells are within us. By projecting them into the outer world of forms we more easily face them, and hopefully, understand them.

      And nowhere is the feminine divine more richly expressed than in Classical mythology – the myths of ancient Greece and Rome. Here we find an extensive pantheon of goddesses exhibiting the diverse energies of our inner experience. Their powers are our powers, no matter our gender. See how many of the following qualities and characteristics you recognize in yourself.

      The Greek goddess Aphrodite, (Venus in later Roman nomenclature), personifies love, sensuality, and beauty. She represents our softer side, our longing for pleasure and luxury, and the transformational power of love. When we lose ourselves in indulgent ecstasy, we are Aphrodite.

      Artemis (Diana) personifies fierce independence, wildlife, and the love of the hunt. Unlike Aphrodite, she never goes to the mall, and doesn’t mind getting dirty. She’s most comfortable beyond all boundaries, alone in the wilderness. When we feel the thrill of the hunt, the surge of ambition, and the joy of freedom we are embodying Artemis.

      Athena (Minerva) personifies wisdom, discernment, and leadership. Here we celebrate the power of the intellect to master mystery, see connections, and chart a path forward for ourselves and others. When we trust ourselves, feel confident, and calmly solve problems with clarity and insight, we are manifesting Athena.

      Demeter (Ceres) personifies abundance, nurturing, the harvest, and fertility. She is the Great Mother, the source of life, and the heart of compassion and care-giving. Everything that grows bursts forth with her energy. She hears and answers the needs of all. When we nurture, cultivate, care for, and honor the life coursing through all things, we are honoring Demeter.

      Hera (Juno) personifies marriage and partnership. She has endless energy, strong confidence, and zero selfishness. Her identity is defined by her ability to strengthen others. She favors mediation over domination. She avoids the spotlight, preferring to apply her many skills in the service of the team. When we sacrifice our private wants for the betterment of our partnerships and draw satisfaction from those we help, we are celebrating Hera.

      Hestia (Vesta) personifies hearth and home. She is the sweet fire that burns within each of us, our center, our comfort, and our refuge. The English words “vest” and “investment” come from her Latin name Vesta, and in both cases, we see the way we are wrapped in self-care when we honor this essential goddess. When we nest and attend to our homes, we are revering Hestia. 

     No matter your gender identification, the qualities of the Classical goddesses are powerful expressions of our own innate powers. The goal is not to identify which of the goddesses we most closely resemble, but to honor and integrate all of them. The goddess is us. So it is that each of us is a manifestation of the Divine Feminine. 

[This article first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the March/April 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Storms Don't Last

When hard times come there’s one thing you can always count on. They don’t last. The world has a way of righting itself. But not before a lot of damage gets done and a lot of people get hurt. Still, it is life’s resiliency that most surprises us. Just when you think the darkness will never end, here comes the sun.
            This is not only true about the affairs of the world – it is also true about our inner life. There are days of sadness that drag you down and days of joy that buoy you over the waves of adversity. There are days when you can’t stop talking, and days when you have nothing to say. These are the natural ebb and flood tides of the cosmos, a field of interconnected energy of which we are an inextricable part. One day stormy, the next placid – why would we be any different?
            4th century B.C.E. wisdom teacher Lao Tzu left us a wealth of insight in the immortal classic Tao Te Ching. This brief collection of cryptic poems speaks to us from deep within the hidden folds of our own wisdom. In chapter 23 of the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation Lao Tzu writes:

To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.
Heavy rain does not last all day.
Why is this? Heaven and earth!
If heaven and earth cannot make things eternal,
How is it possible for man?

Or in the Stephen Mitchell translation:

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

            In Chinese metaphysics, Tao is ultimate reality. Not personified as a deity, Tao pours forth all that is without conscious intention. Unlike the western God who is transcendent, that is, outside of space and time, Tao is imminent or found within the processes of the world, guiding all things, all events, and all processes, including us, from within. Like logos for the Greeks or dharma for the Hindus, Tao is the cosmic pattern of which everything is a part. Heaven and Earth stand for yang and yin, the primordial, complementary modes of energy through which the Tao unfolds. Heaven, or yang, is the assertive, forceful structure that shapes reality, while Earth, or yin, is the receptive stillness within which both cosmic and human affairs unfold. These two polarities are not opposites – they are understood as complementary aspects of a singularity. You can’t have one without the other.
            At the heart of Taoist philosophy is a fluid sense of purposeful change. Things come and go, tides rise and fall, storms rage and dissipate, all with an implacable sense of inevitability and majesty. The wise person, then, learns how to wait. If conditions are not to your liking, they will be soon.
            In light of this portrait, Taoism counsels us to engage in the world with a light touch. Avoid imposing your preconceived plan onto the unfolding Tao. Instead, learn how to harmonize your energy with the energy already flowing around you. In this way, by doing less, you accomplish more.
            When things are chaotic, frightening, and destructive – when the storm is raging – it’s probably best just to hunker down. Soon the tempest will pass and then we can get to work cleaning up the mess and turning the broken pieces of the past into new forms and new solutions. Destruction and chaos are opportunities, even on the personal level. It is from hardship that our wit and wisdom emerge. As Epictetus wrote, “The trials we endure introduce us to our strengths.”
            When Lao Tzu suggests that we “be like the forces of nature,” he is advising us to allow the strengths that well up in us to have their say. It’s o.k. to be angry – just don’t be angry all the time. It’s o.k. to be sad – just don’t let sadness define you. It’s o.k. to celebrate joyfully the beauty of life – just don’t turn frivolity into denial and escapism. As the Hebrew book of wisdom Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” (Eccles 3:1-8)
            Wisdom literature like this reminds us to accept the fluidity of life with all of its sometimes frightening extremes. And to stop evaluating everything from the perspective of how does this affect me? See the bigger picture. It isn’t about you. There are larger forces, larger stakes, larger processes in play. Sometimes you lose, and your loss creates space for the victory of another, or for your own unforeseen bounty, heading inexorably toward you from its hiding place just over the horizon.

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.