Sunday, April 26, 2020

Fighting for Planet Earth

Nature is under attack, and all the regulatory defenses that once protected her are being dismantled. Human activity, especially in the industrialized, high-consumption cultures of the first world, has accelerated environmental destruction to historically unprecedented levels. We are in the fight for our lives, literally.
Instead of cataloging, yet again, this dystopian withering, let us turn our gaze to the good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. Since we can no longer rely on the gutted Environmental Protection Agency to protect us, we’ll have to fight for ourselves. But our activism must be grounded deep in the soul. We’re going to need spiritual guidance.
German mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) entered the monastic life at 14. For medieval women life in the monastery afforded a freedom unavailable to married women. Released from the constraints of child rearing and housekeeping, monastic women focused on study and contemplation. Hildegard became one of the leading intellectuals of her day (though her work was not recognized until centuries later). Her writings covered the gamut from theology to natural philosophy. But it’s her startling defense of the natural world that strikes us most today. For her, respecting nature was the same thing as respecting God. It was just that simple. “Every creature,” she wrote, “is a glittering, glistening mirror of Divinity. There is the music of Heaven in all things.”
Hildegard’s message was a startling departure from the other-worldly emphasis of Augustine’s Christianity of the 5th century. For Augustine, the natural world was a fallen world mired in sin and insignificance – our true home was in heaven with God. Earth was simply to be endured. But for Hildegard, “everything that is in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.” This beautiful world was God’s best work, and our defense of it a sacred calling. But it isn’t easy. We often feel overwhelmed and defeated. Still, we can’t give up. “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked,” she wrote, “remain brave and strong.”
It is not from alien invaders that the earth must be defended. Human activity has accelerated environmental degradation at an unprecedented rate. There aren’t two sides to this. Scientific consensus is 100%. Only one question remains – what are we going to do about it? For Hildegard, the answer is clear: “We shall awaken from our dullness,” she wrote, “and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.”
The answer is love. Not personal love, but passionate universal love for the ground of being and all her manifest forms.All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance,” Hildegard wrote, “emerging from God like the rays of the sun.” The government isn’t going to save us – certainly not now. Only we can save ourselves. “Dare to declare who you are,” she wrote. “It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.” And when you leap, know that “you are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” God and the world are one. We and the world are one. There is nothing but oneness. When we fight for the earth, we fight for ourselves.
[This piece was first published in my my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2020 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Care of the Soul in a Time of Grieving

Along with the very real loss of income so many of our neighbors are experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the very real anxiety that loss of livelihood produces, I also want to address a different kind of grief -- the loss of identity.

My work is interacting with rooms full of people. I have been a professor of philosophy for thirty years. For many hours a day I run groups of 45 students, leading them through a guided inquiry into the life-changing insights of the world's wisdom traditions. My tools? My voice, my face, my hands, my body, my mind, my heart, and my words. I tell stories. I make analogies. I cajole, I hover, I lead, I follow, I ask, I tell, I show, I wonder, I weave metaphors, I wax poetic, I orate, I preach, I pace, I stammer, I sing.

All of that is gone. Now I am forced to hammer all of that into screen and keyboard transactions. Every class is an online class now.

Experienced distance education (DE) instructors create highly interactive and engaging online classes, or so I'm told by people committed to online teaching. But in my years of informal surveying, most students see DE as merely a means to an end. What they love about it is the convenience -- no class meetings, no buses, no driving, no parking, no tardies. I have never met a student who preferred online education to face to face. DE is educational triage for students who for any number of reasons cannot attend traditional class schedules -- mothers of young children, 9 to 5ers, deployed military members, and now, pandemic isolators.

All of my judgements about online education should be viewed with great suspicion. I just don't know enough about it yet. I am a DE outsider. Here in the infancy of my abilities as a DE instructor I'm coming face to face with my woeful inexperience and deep ignorance as to how to use DEs many tools. So I feel pretty lost and pretty stupid. But there's something deeper going on, beyond simple technological frustration.

I'm grieving. I'm grieving the loss of my way of life, my life's work, my identity as a public speaker, as a weaver of spells with words and ideas. Canvas announcements, video snippets, discussion threads, and digital quizzes are a profoundly impoverished way of "interacting" compared to the living, breathing communion of an actual classroom. Human beings have been learning and teaching face to face for hundreds of thousands of years. That is a hard habit to break.

I know my students are feeling it too. And there's not a damn thing any of us can do about it. We didn't even get to say goodbye.

None of this amounts to anything near the hardship so many of my friends in the culinary/restaurant/bar/nightclub world are experiencing. Or any of my many friends in the arts -- singers, musicians, actors, and all the production support surrounding the performing arts. They've lost their identities AND their income. At least I'm still getting paid, well, for my Southwestern College job anyway. I've lost thousands in off-campus gig work already. But I can weather that. It's the grief that's getting me.

Now is also not the time for sunny speeches about gratitude, or looking on the bright side, or not giving in to fear. People are raw. People are scared. People are lost. Things are falling apart. Be with that. Let that be true. Move through it with hearts and eyes wide open.

We can talk about Phoenix rising from the ashes later. What this is is the great burning down.

So know that everyone is hurting. Know that behind the "funny" memes and the brave faces there is confusion, fear, sorrow, and grief. We're all adrift and no one can see the shore.

Our physical health is in jeopardy. We're all taking precautionary measures to avoid infection, and to slow the infection rate so that others may survive. But now is also time for the care of the soul. Follow your soul down into the Center. The soul holds secrets, wisdom, and music we rarely hear. Listen. It will lead you through this dark forest, no matter how badly we stumble and sway down this path we cannot even see. Don't try to manage your soul -- let your soul manage you. Like a river, it knows the way.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Love in the Time of COVID-19

With each passing hour there are more announcements of closures on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. I won’t even bother listing the latest ones here. By the time you read this, there will be many more.
Social isolation is keeping us at home as much as practically possible. We are drawing inward.
            It looks like for the next few weeks and months the patterns of our lives will be dramatically altered. There is reason for fear. Many people will die. Many more will have their family savings decimated. Businesses will be crippled. People will lose their homes. The suffering will be real, and it will be widespread.
            Differences in class pull into focus. Those of us privileged enough to be able to work from home, and who have money in the bank, will be alright. Most Americans do not. The average American cannot work from home, lives paycheck to paycheck, and has a cash reserve under $1,000. That’ll be gone in a few days. Then what?
            But this is also true: there is an opportunity in the heart of this deep and real trouble. This looming disaster is a pathway to a startling authenticity, a vibrant aliveness that our soul has been longing for. As the veneer of our oh-so-organized ordinary life is ripped away, a normally hidden depth is exposed. As they say, this shit is about to get real.
            Real is good.
            In any social upheaval the best and the worst of us is revealed. Be prepared to come face to face with who we really are.
            In a matter of days everything-all-the-time America has vanished. Wholesale disruption is the new norm. We have all become refugees in our own homes.
            Sure we haven’t seen real social breakdown yet, and we probably won’t. The water still flows from the faucets. The stores are well-stocked, despite early flourishes of panic-buying. The pharmacy is open. Basic services remain uninterrupted. But it all feels so…different.
            What’s happening is this: we are being thrust into the realization of our oneness. COVID-19 has made one thing patently clear: there is no such thing as my health. There is only our health. We do not practice social distancing or social isolation for our own wellbeing alone – unless you are over 65 and have underlying conditions, you are in relatively little danger. We practice social distancing as an act of loving-kindness for the most vulnerable among us. Our health is their health.
            There aren’t enough tests. There is no vaccine. There is no treatment. There is no cure. The only tool we have is social isolation, and all of the scientific projections indicate that if we can flatten the infection curve we will save tens of thousands of lives. Socially isolate as much as practically possible, not for yourself, but for the beautiful strangers whose lives you are saving. Again, social isolation is an act of loving-kindness.
            In the book of Genesis, when God finished making the world, he rested. Nothing in the world needed his further manipulation or interference. He stepped back and let it run according to the natural laws with which it had been imbued.
            So too now is the time for us to let the world run without our manipulation or interference. Now is the time to shelve our self-importance. Our absence from that thing we were going to do isn’t going to kill anybody. But our presence might.
            Now is the time to let the song of the universe sing itself.
            Now is the time to step off the hamster wheel and turn away from this incessant doing.
            Now is the time to feel more than to know.
            Now is the time to shift down into the center.
            Now is the time for releasing others from their obligations, and relinquishing the commands we place on ourselves.
            Now is the time for a deep and final forgiveness.
            Now is the age of love, and the epoch of mercy.
            Now is the time to know that this breath, this air, this light, this aliveness, is enough.
            As Rumi said, there are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground. Let your kitchen counter become a holy altar. Let your bedroom become an ashram. Let your garden become a tabernacle and the canyon path a Camino de Santiago.
            When you awake at three in the morning, savor the darkness, wait, and listen. Hear the world sleeping, worrying, praying, crying, longing. Feel it all in your bursting heart. Be startled by how much you feel it, as if it were your own worrying, praying, crying, and longing.
            Know your oneness with all that is – all matter, all energy, and all consciousness.
            Know that love in the time of COVID-19 is a light in the darkness of our unknowing. Let our chaos, uncertainty, and suffering be a cleansing salve that purifies us of triviality, strips us of banality, and drives us deep into the heart of our boundless, brilliant aliveness. Let this upheaval overturn our complacency in the face of each other’s pain. Let the beauty that we are finally, finally reach the surface. Let the wonder of this being alive lift us over every obstacle.
            We are buried in fear, encased in self-obsession. Let the love that we are find its way to the surface the way a seed bursts forth from its muddy grave.
            May we be the bursting forth.
            Amen.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Unraveling Racism - How Real Conversation Creates Change


David Campt cried.
In the final moments of his all day White allies workshop at The Unity Center in San Diego, David’s throat caught. Unable to speak, he turned to look up at the slide on the screen – an old black and white image of James Reeb. It was all just too much – the grief, the loss, the hope, the courage, and the promise. Reeb was a White Unitarian minister so committed to the Civil Rights movement that he drove down to Selma, Alabama in 1965 to help register African Americans to vote. He was beaten to death by segregationists. White ally work is hard. Sometimes it’s very hard. But if Reverend Reeb can give his life, we can learn to navigate an awkward conversation.
As students of New Thought we are keenly aware that we do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are, and that any real or meaningful spiritual transformation begins with a courageous act of introspection and house cleaning. Most of us have spent decades plumbing the depths of our own minds, rooting out error, and recalibrating the very mental processes by which we construct our realities. And yet the work is unfinished.

Focusing on the Racism Skeptic
There’s a shift happening in the American zeitgeist, and it has been a long time coming. Throughout our cultural discourse brave people are daring to peel back the layers of shame and denial that hide from us the last frontier of our awakening. It’s time. It’s time to finally put the issue of racism and implicit bias front and center in our New Thought work.
The good news is that there is a growing body of resources to help us accomplish this sacred work. At the forefront of this movement is Dr. David Campt.
I met David for lunch at a waterfront restaurant in San Diego. On the road half of every month, David travels the country offering lectures and workshops centered around his White Allies Toolkit, a training program designed to help progressive White people learn how to have transformative conversations with their White racism skeptic friends, colleagues, and relatives.
So what’s a racism skeptic?
55% of White Americans can be described as racism skeptics. They believe that racism is no longer a significant problem. They believe that White people are just as likely to suffer from discrimination as people of color. They’re tired of talking about race. They say things like, “I don’t see color.” They think the only racists left are those guys carrying Tiki torches at Klan rallies. But White racism skeptics are everywhere – they’re teachers, principals, police officers, mayors, ministers, and parents – and the narrative they share holds center stage in our political and media environment.
So how do we begin? That’s the question that haunted Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell of The Unity Center in San Diego. After deep, open, and heartfelt conversations with the African American and White members of her congregation, Wendy began to carve a path out of the wilderness. Built around Dr. Campt’s White Ally Toolkit, Wendy created a curriculum that began the great unlearning. In our White allies groups we read Debby Irving’s Waking Up White, we watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, we shared numerous other articles, videos, and resources. And we sat in a circle and began to open up about what it means to be White.
It was a dizzying ride, filling in all the gaps of our incomplete education – the truth about slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, work gangs, lynchings, sundown towns, voter suppression, inequities in the GI Bill, redlining, the criminalization of color, disparities in crack and powdered cocaine sentencing, mass incarceration, and the insidious presence of implicit bias in all of us – and all of it missing from the official history we teach our children and tell ourselves. It isn’t easy learning that so many of our American institutions were intentionally engineered by White supremacists generations ago to shore up their own power and deny it to others. And that as White people, we have unwittingly benefitted from this unearned privilege our whole lives. But this is where the work begins – with honest truth-telling. But now what? How can we entice racism skeptics into this broadening understanding?

The R.A.C.E. Method
Dr. David Campt
Dr. David Campt’s White Ally Toolkit training program evolved out of his many years of expert work as a dialogue coach and corporate trainer. In the late nineties, Ph.D. fresh in hand, David worked for the Clinton White House. From there he began to design and implement dialogue training that led to numerous consulting jobs across the public and private sector. But after the 2016 Presidential election he was led to devote his now seasoned professional expertise to the project of healing the racial and ideological divides that threaten the unity of our nation.
David calls his work the R.A.C.E. method.
As we initiate conversations with our racism skeptic friends, relatives, and co-workers, the first step is to reflect. What do I need to do to remain in an open and empathetic listening mode? How can I avoid falling into the old habits of argument, judgement, and condemnation?
The second step is to ask. What are some key questions I can ask to draw them out? How can I gently guide them to talk not about their beliefs and opinions, but about the personal experiences that led to those opinions? If they tell you that “Racism isn’t a serious problem anymore. We even had a black President” ask them, “Oh that’s interesting – tell me about an experience in your own life that makes you to think that?” They might tell you a story about how integrated and diverse their workplace is.
The third step is to connect. Here we tell a story that aligns with and supports the story they just shared. Tell them that you notice it too, that there’s a lot more diversity in the workplace than there used to be. There has been a lot of progress. That’s a point upon which you can both agree.
Finally it’s time for the fourth step, to expand. Now that you’ve connected and found common ground, gently nudge them just a little bit further. Help them see, preferably with a personal story instead of a sermon, that racial discrimination against people of color is still very real. You might offer an anecdote where your own implicit bias reared its ugly head. With any luck your confession will nudge them toward the recognition and acknowledgement of their own implicit bias. I know it seems small, but it’s actually huge. When a racism skeptic comes to see implicit bias within themselves, their whole edifice begins to crumble.
As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
We’ve argued, we’ve preached, we’ve scolded, we’ve marched – and yet the problem of racism persists. In fact it seems to be getting worse. Maybe it’s time for a new approach. Maybe it’s time for empathy-based dialogue with our ideological opponents. No one’s saying this is going to be easy. But the stakes are high. If we are serious about awakening ourselves, and contributing to an awakening world, it is essential that we break our silence about the wounds that still scar the American heart.

Becoming a White Ally
As we finished our lunch I asked David, “So what happened at the end of the workshop the other day? When you showed us that picture of James Reeb and the other White martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, and you choked up. After all these years, and after all this work, what about that moment stopped you in your tracks?”
He looked up from his plate and spoke very slowly. “I think I’m moved most by the tragedy of all the lost opportunities for love and connection.”
So many of us have seen our families, friends, neighborhoods, and faith communities ripped apart along partisan and ideological lines. So many of us have given up.
“It’s really hard to empathize and connect with someone who says a bunch of racist stuff, or who believes that racism isn’t even a problem,” I said. “Every fiber of my being just wants to walk away.”
 “You think having a conversation is hard?” David asked. “I’ll tell you what’s hard. Sitting down at a White’s only lunch counter and being arrested, that’s hard. Getting your bones broken by state troopers, that’s hard. Getting killed by Klansmen, that’s hard. If James Reeb can die, you can have a conversation with your cousin Brad.”
Being a White ally means becoming willing to wield our privilege as a force for good. It means coming out of our denial and apathy and taking action. White people have the power, and the moral obligation, to undo the structural racism built into our consciousness and our institutions. My black friend Robyn put it best. Pointing to herself she said, “We can’t do this. You have to do it.” She was right. White people have to do it. It’s the only way to finally unravel the stranglehold racism still has on the unrealized promise of America.

[This feature was originally published in the February 2020 issue of Science of Mind Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]