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 an 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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Three Breaths

I woke up, again, at 3:30 in the morning. Outside in the Eucalyptus trees a pair of Great Horned Owls called across the chaparral. The stillness wrapped the world like a blanket. But inside my mind there was anything but stillness.
            It’s not that I wasn’t exhausted – it’d been another tough week, and I was only halfway through it. Deadlines, challenges, and a thousand expectations loomed ahead in the darkness. How was little old me going to meet all those lofty goals? Was I even the right guy for the job? Who did I think I was anyway?
Hoo, hoo, hoo?
The Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes and teaches about the importance of mindful breathing. In his work he often focuses on the deceptively simple act of breathing in and breathing out, and turning that natural function into a focal point of meaningful transformation. Lying in my bed in the dark, I began to practice a version of his mindful breathing technique – three deep, intentional breaths, each with its own affirmation: letting go, being here, and opening up.
            With the first breath, inhale, paying attention to the way your body instinctively draws in air. As you exhale, silently say the words “letting go,” allowing your exhalation to empty you out. Inhale again, noticing that this inhalation is a little longer, a little deeper than the first. As you exhale, silently say the words “being here,” coming out of your mind and into this present moment. Inhale a third time, feeling the way your body is enlivened by the vital breath the cosmos so willingly provides. Exhale in the consciousness of gratitude, silently saying the words “opening up,” allowing the doors and windows of your small sense of self to swing wide. Feel yourself becoming diaphanous, borderless, unified.
            Letting go. Being here. Opening up. Feel the stillness spread throughout your mind-body system the way ink spreads in water. Witness yourself growing calm as the thoughts that plagued you dissipate like clouds in a clear desert sky. Emptiness. Spaciousness. Boundless awareness.
           
Letting Go
            When you practice letting go, you are relinquishing the illusion of control. You simply drop the pretense that you’re in charge. You affirm the fact that everything is transitory, and that we don’t really own anything – it’s all borrowed, and we have to give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. As we let go we shift from fear and covetousness to love and gratitude – gratitude that we even got to touch, enjoy, or experience any of it. As we let go, we feel a deep sense of freedom and joy welling up from within. We know that our being, our essence, is not defined or supported by outer forms – the things we own, our houses, our cars, or our job titles and reputations. Even the dear loved ones who fill our days and nights with love, laughter, creativity, and surprise don’t belong to us. We walk alongside each other for a while, then we part ways, one by one, until we stand alone again at the precipice. We’re born alone, and we die alone. These sweet lives we’ve been given are a fleeting gift of infinite value, but they are not our private possession. The great paradox: only when we let go do we truly receive. Grasping, clinging, craving, and attachment produce only suffering.

Being Here
            When we mindfully decide to be here now, a great transformation begins. Moving into present moment awareness is a simple shift, but it requires on-going recommitment and affirmation, so tenacious is the old habit of living in the past or living in the future. One of the things we let go with the first breath was our story, that long and laborious narrative we drag around with us where all of our so-called disadvantages and all of the wounds inflicted on us are replayed ad nauseam. We think we need our story, because it is an archive where we store the evidence used to prove our unworthiness. All of the messages we ever received from harried, distracted teachers who didn’t notice us, emotionally distant parents whose self-absorption kept us at arm’s length, or the lovers who retaliated against us, not realizing that the pain they felt was self-inflicted – when we come into this now moment those old messages lose their meaning and power. We are free. And when we let go of fantasies of the future, whether worried anxiousness or utopian escapism, we put both feet in the here and now, the only place there really is.
The past doesn’t exist. What we call the past is a thought that occurs only in the present moment. The future is even less real than the past. There are no memories in the future to cling to, only imaginary projections. Like the past, all future-thoughts occur only in this present moment. Returning to the now moment of pure awareness, we feel a certain groundedness and immediacy, something you just can’t get in the thought-realm. The present moment isn’t a thought, it’s a vibrant, lived experience prior to thought. The present moment is the only place where you stand a chance of coming out of the ethereal world of the thought-stream and into the real world of experiential awareness. Only here can you experience real freedom, real love, and on your best days, glimpses of bliss.

Opening Up
            When we let go and enter fully into the present moment we feel a great unfolding, an opening up. No longer girded like a warrior in battle, we show up vulnerable, full in our faith that the universe is a nurturing, supportive, abundant, and generative place. We are not strangers here – that was part of the illusion we released – we are part and parcel of the totality that arises from its own infinite intelligence. When we open up we commit the final act of absolution. We know that there is nothing left to seek, nothing left to defend, nothing apart from anything else. We are home right where we are, in this skin, in this house, in this town, in this beautiful, miraculous world. We are divested of all notions of hierarchy. We are humbled and proud all at the same time – paradox like that no longer has any hold on us. We see past duality and conflict to a spacious peacefulness and loving-kindness. We know that all work is service, and we show up earnest and cheerful and do the work that is ours to do.
            Three breaths. Letting go. Being here. Opening up. It’s a practice you can carry with you anywhere you go. It works at the office, in traffic, on the tarmac, at the awkward family gathering, or in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Wherever you are, take the opportunity to move into the freedom of your own essential nature. You don’t have to seek it, create it, or understand it; you have only to allow it. And breathe.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Optimal Health

In our quest for optimal bodies, optimal skin, optimal hair, and optimal minds, we face a danger – the delusion that life is a consumer product and we the disgruntled customer. We believe that if things aren’t quite right, we’ll just keep shopping until they are. As soon as all my desires are met, we think, everything will be fine. But life is short, and death inevitable. We can’t shop our way out of that. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about health a little differently.

           Health is not mastery and control. Health is cooperation with the will of nature. Our best healthcare practices augment and amplify the restorative processes already underway. When we pray for healing we are not issuing marching orders to an otherwise indifferent supernatural entity. God, or nature, will not be coerced. True prayer is a sacred opportunity to abandon fear and come into accord with what is. “Prayer doesn’t change God,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “but it changes him who prays.”

           It’s a miracle that any of us are even alive. When you consider the baffling complexity of the human body-mind system it staggers the imagination. How on earth did such an intricate web of consciousness and matter ever arise, let alone survive? But it did. A round of applause, please, for Mother Nature.

           Optimal health is a noble pursuit. We have every right to feel good, be strong, and thrive. For Aristotle, this innate urge for optimization sets us on the path toward our best lives. It’s only natural that we put these big brains to work finding and perfecting ways to increase our well-being. Science has brought us a long way. We understand things we didn’t used to understand about the workings of the mind and body. But all our collective knowledge is still a façade, a veil behind which lays a vast and unknowable mystery – the namelessness of being.

           In Greek tragedy, the fatal flaw of the protagonist is called hubris, or excessive pride. Most of the time this malady manifests itself as thinking erroneously that we’re in control. It is the downfall of Oedipus, and it is our downfall too. Our medical and scientific prowess has spawned an illusion, namely, that we’re running the show. Again and again nature rears up to remind us of the folly of our collective hubris.

           There are three mistakes we make.

           First, we view death as a curable disease, an enemy to be vanquished with our cleverness. Instead, we must learn to see death as a part of the natural cycle, as beautiful and welcome as birth.

           Second, we view healthcare as overcoming nature, rather than cooperating with it. We falsely frame our efforts as combat – the war on cancer, the war on Alzheimer’s, the war on mental illness. Instead, we must frame our healthcare efforts as cooperation with natural processes already unfolding.

           Last, we mistake influence for control. Thanks to modern surgical practices, increasingly insightful therapeutic modalities, and modern pharmacology, we exert enormous influence over our mind-body systems. But we are still gnats flying in a hurricane – so much of what transpires is far outside our influence, let alone control.

           The bottom line: We are self-healing. It is the body’s nature to correct its imbalances, and to eventually wither and fail. At their best, our healing modalities are an effort to co-create the conditions in which the body can best heal itself, and when the time comes, let go and accept our impermanence. We are not in control. We never were. Health is not a consumer commodity to be purchased and possessed, any more than a beautiful sunset is. You can’t own the sky, and you don’t control the movements of the stars and planets. So too we don’t control our health. Health is not something you have – it’s something you are. The best and brightest healthcare professionals understand this. They see their role as optimizers, not controllers. They know what the rest of us are still learning – that health is our natural state, and it is more allowed than achieved


[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column as "How to Thrive" in the November/December 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]


Monday, October 3, 2016

The Three Truths



Life is dizzyingly complex. It’s easy to feel lost, confused, and overwhelmed. So many conflicted voices clamoring for our attention – it seems impossible to cut through the clutter and find the essence. But in the end there are only three truths: impermanence, presence, and love.
Impermanence
On the surface, everything’s impermanent. Nothing lasts. All forms arise and fade. Not only does every wisdom tradition attest this truth, but more importantly, we see it confirmed in our own experience over and over again. There is a graceful fluidity to the process of becoming and be-going that makes life achingly beautiful. But it’s also true that impermanence sparks continual suffering. Everything we touch slips away. For the 2nd century Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius this unimpeachable fact was liberating – our impermanence frees us to more fully live in the moment and truly enjoy our lives. Even as Emperor he knew his fame and importance was illusory and fleeting. His writings are filled with the names of previous luminaries – Augustus, Caesar, Plato, and the question: Where are they now? Reduced to dust. One day we will be lowered into our grave, and all the mourners standing around will one day be lowered into their graves as well, and their loved ones after that, until many, many years from now no one will know any of our names. It will be as if we were never here. The whole world will come to an end. Far from lamenting this, Marcus Aurelius suggests we look with clear eyes at this truth so that we might live with authenticity, courage, and enjoyment. An awareness of impermanence drives us into the depths of the significance of this now moment. This is, after all, all there is.
Presence
When we fully acknowledge, accept, and even celebrate the transitory nature of all things, we are freed of our debilitating attachment to any of them. Coming out of the mind and its endless dissatisfactions, desires, and fears we show up disarmed and awake in the simple, uncluttered, and concept-free awareness of this present moment. No longer enamored with the thought-world, we fully enter the real world. Even our sense of self is amended – we experience ourselves not as a separate entity, cut off and alienated from the whole, but as an egoless aspect of the whole. This is a freedom the conceptual mind can only imagine.
Through practices such as meditation, contemplation, reverie, aesthetic rapture, and immersion in nature we begin to experience for ourselves a realm of being formerly hidden from us – the background beneath the surface of the fleeting surface of impermanence. This abiding presence was always with us – in fact, it is us. It has many names in the world’s wisdom traditions – Inner Christ, Buddha-Consciousness, Atman, Inner Witness, Holy Spirit – and yet no name can fully describe or contain this depth-reality. It eludes our conceptualization and defies any attempt to clothe it in language. All of our words and concepts merely point to it the way a trail sign points to the path ahead. The sign is not the destination, the menu is not the food, and the map is not the place – yet we rely on these referents to show us where we need to direct our active engagement, knowing that when you walk the trail you leave the signpost far behind.
One thing that all the sages and seers report, and a claim we can confirm in our own experience, is the idea that this nameless presence hidden just beneath the surface of the fleeting world of forms is silent, still, abiding, and changeless. Unlike the world of surface forms, it never wavers. It hovers beyond all qualities, categories, processes, and concepts. It just is. And in its stillness it seems apart from the impermanent realm. Calling it permanent is probably excessive and unnecessary – we should avoid calling it anything. Names and concepts distort more than they reveal. But what we’re left with is this – it feels like something. We may not be able to think it, but we sure experience it. There’s a deep, abiding stillness and peace in the presence. We experience an aliveness here, a sense of refuge, and a loving warmth. It’s easy to see why in many belief systems this sacred background, this abiding presence gets personified as a deity, and how teachings, doctrines, dogmas, rituals, and institutions spring up around this primarily experiential awareness. You can call it God if you want to. But you don’t have to. It is possible to remain in the presence of this abiding, underlying reality without clothing it in language, concepts, or religious ideologies.
If we had to name the feeling we have when we realize this presence, we’d probably just say “love.”
Love
Love is the only word left standing after we’ve eliminated all the others. Of course it too is inadequate. But it’ll do.
The most immediate and acute way to experience this for yourselves is in the wake of the death of a loved one. Your beloved is gone. They took form, graced your life, and have now returned to the formless realm. And yet in their absence, you feel more keenly than ever before their presence and the absolute love that you shared. Love is unaffected by the passage of time and the transience of forms. Love is the name of the infinite field out of which forms arise and to which they return.
Armed with these three truths – impermanence, presence, and love – we return to the battlefield of our lives full of humility, yet brave enough to take a stand and do what needs to be done. Love is our power now, and love overcomes every fear, every foe, every lie, and every limitation. We see clearly the beauty and pathos of these lovely, fleeting forms around us. We accept the changes that we and everything else are going through. We no longer cling to the past or crave private happiness. We simply intend the best outcomes, and work diligently to bring them about, letting go of attachment and practicing deep-tissue acceptance of whatever comes our way.
We cultivate a practice of conscious intentionality. We live our lives on purpose. We leave time and space for reverie, joy, meditation, prayer, contemplation, and connection, knowing that these are the windows through which the sacred presence behind the veil of impermanence floods into our lives like sunlight after a storm. No matter what is happening in the outer world, we remain aware of the sacred background, the stillness and silence of our inner being.
Love and only love enables us to withstand the suffering brought on by impermanence. In our pain we reach inside to touch the presence within and are in an instant restored. Love is who we are, what we are, and what everything is. When we live and have our being in love, we are on the beam and held aloft from darkness, ignorance, and meaninglessness. In love we rise to our full stature as beings of infinite value. And we fall in love with the whole messy, beautiful world.