Sunday, October 24, 2021

My Coyote Teacher

I live in San Diego. I know, I’m lucky that way.

Yesterday as I was doing yoga on the back deck, my dog began to bark. The breeze through the Eucalyptus trees and the coos of mourning doves were instantly replaced by the most jarring alarm calls my dog knows how to make. My breath quickened and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

I guess I’ll meditate later.

I peered over the back fence into the field of chaparral that slopes down to the lake in the distance. There he was, six feet from the gate – the biggest, healthiest coyote I’ve ever seen.

Coyotes are a part of life around here, as they are in many places. In the dawn’s early light they’re often seen trotting home after a night of foraging. We’re regularly awakened by their yipping, mewling, howling, and barking as they convene their mysterious meetings in these fields beneath the stars.

But this was different.

He was alone, walking slowly, deliberately through the mid-morning light. His coat was thick. He looked strong and at ease with the world. Something opened inside of me – a wordless knowing, a content-free awareness. Being beyond all categories was showing itself in the simplicity of this moment.

His slow-walk recalled the walking meditation of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher who used to lead his students meditatively along the dirt paths around the monastery, aligning each step with a breath, moving silently, deliberately, lovingly through the garden. This was holy like that.

Then he stopped and stood in the shade of a tree, turning away from me. I stood too. We stayed like that for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I don’t know. Time skittered off its rails.

I felt his presence, his absolute aliveness, his unadorned being-ness, without a whiff of artifice or pretense – how unlike him we are, caught up in the never-ending pageant of trying to make a good impression and checking our look in the mirror. His naturalness started me. His shocking authenticity slapped me across the face.

What would it be like to be free from the never-ending plans, desires, and so-called needs that torment us? What would it be like to show up without apology, without explanation, without excuse? What would it be like to live always in harmony with current conditions, without the burden of endlessly wishing things were different than the way they are? What would it be like to be free of endless speculations, ornate plans, egoic ambitions, and the need to be special?

These were the questions my visitor elicited in me.

Then he turned and ambled off.

Great teachers don’t tell you what to think. They help you ask better questions. My coyote teacher inspired a whole series of bracing, transformative queries. Of course I want to stop short of anthropomorphizing that wild animal, and imposing all kinds of stories and qualities on him that are purely the fruit of my own fervid imagination. But this fact remains: coyotes have been living in these hills for 400,000 years. Our civilization is a blip on that time-line – here and gone. Yet in the timeless eternity of this now moment, when we meet one another in authenticity, we all enter the heaven that has no name; a condition of consciousness the great religions can only point to. This is the holiness ever-present that we miss solely by paying attention to the wrong things.

[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Change Your Mind

 The Gospels were written in Greek, the lingua franca of the day. But Jesus, as far as we know, spoke Aramaic. If you’re reading the Bible in English, you’re receiving Jesus third-hand – Aramaic to Greek to English. The Gospel writers have Jesus using a Greek word: metanoia. There’s no way of knowing if Jesus used this word himself – such is the unbridgeable chasm between us and the things Jesus actually said. Maybe Jesus knew a little Greek. Maybe he didn’t. Who knows?

It was the King James Bible of 1611 that first rendered metanoia as redemption. But that’s misleading. “Redemption” sounds too much like salvation, which suggests damnation, which paints humans as wretches incapable of self-repair. Originally, metanoia had a far simpler meaning, one less charged with, shall we say, religiosity. To experience metanoia in the purest sense was to simply change one’s mind – to let go of old ways of thinking, and adopting new paradigms and priorities. With new thought comes a new world. As the Jewish book of wisdom the Talmud put it: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

Perhaps deeper still, metanoia aligns with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or awaking. In metanoia it isn’t new knowledge we’ve received, but a new way of knowing. This higher consciousness – prajna in Sanskrit – isn’t just the attainment of more or more accurate information. It’s an entirely different mode of awareness, beyond the realm of words and concepts.

In the gospels, the first use of metanoia appears in the oldest gospel, Mark. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent…” (Mark 1:15 NRSV) If we read this passage not with repentance, but metanoia in mind, what is Jesus suggesting? One thing’s certain – the kingdom of God is neither a place nor a future event. It is here and now, available only to those who have undergone a deep-tissue shift in consciousness. Whenever you read the word “repent,” swap it for the word “shift” and you’ve got it.

In the Buddhist tradition, the running metaphor is sleep vs. wakefulness. Budh means “to awaken,” and Buddha means “the awakened one.” In the Gospels the running metaphor is blindness vs. sight. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Jesus asks. (Matt. 7:3 NRSV) And in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: “For now we see as through a glass, darkly.” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV) No matter the image – awakening or envisioning – the shift is the same. These master teachers reached for every tool in the kit to lift us out of the darkness of our habitual slumber. If, as Buddha claimed, our life is a product of our thoughts, then we not only need new thoughts, but an entirely new way of thinking.

Another facet worth noting about metanoia is this – that in this more fully realized state of consciousness we don’t just think different – we are different. Destructive behaviors fall away, old obsessions fade, and things that used to matter don’t matter anymore. Now we’ve arrived at the most empowering aspect of metanoia – as all of the flotsam and jetsam of life slips through our grasp, our feet touch down to the ground of being. There, firmly planted, we root deep into the real, finally finding an inexhaustible strength to love and serve the needs of others. 

[A version of this piece first appeared in my A to Zen column in the September/October 2021 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, June 7, 2021

Still Water Runs Deep

 When water courses through a narrow passage it speeds up. When the canyon opens into a wide valley, then an open meadow, the water slows to stillness – the river becomes a lake.

            So too when we rush about on our important errands, crushing our to-do lists like a boss, something is lost.

            The narrower and more constrained our lives become, the more turbulent the course of our thought-stream. Only in the stillness of contemplative prayer, meditation, or restful pause do we root back down into the ground of being, instead of skittering across life’s surface – unsure where we’ve been, unclear where we’re going, and never knowing why.

            Without periods of stillness, all movement becomes meaningless. As Mozart said, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

            This is why, after over a year of pandemic quarantine, cooped up in our home offices and narrow routines, our morning and afternoon walks took on such sacred significance. To be out under a wide open sky, knowing that the stars arch over us like a jeweled lattice, obscured by the midday sun, then emerging one by one as night turns the sky indigo denim, then black velvet. So too the glare of busyness blinds us to the unfathomable beauty ever-present.

            Truth is never far away. We’re simply paying attention to the wrong things. We don’t have a proximity problem – we have a perception problem.

            It is time to recommit to our contemplative prayer and meditation practice. Taking our cue from nature, we see that all things turn through cycles of decay and regeneration, silence and sound, darkness and light. So too we spend long hours of each 24 hour cycle completely unconsciousness, unaware of our surroundings. And it is through the long, fallow night that our mind-body restores itself to newness. Following this model, may we learn to better step outside the stream of busyness that threatens to drown us in its lifeless undertow and instead, climbing out onto the warm, flat rocks midstream, rest in the sun, and simply be. Nothing less than heaven itself awaits in the gaps between each harried thought.

            I think we are simply afraid – afraid to fully trust ourselves. That’s why we rush about in search of the next answer, the next church, the next coach, or the next book. Fear drives us like a lash. Instead, coming into a rare and unrehearsed intimacy with our innermost depths, we find a rest so complete, so natural, and so healing that we wonder what we were ever afraid of. The mystics of all traditions tell of this inner space, this boundless realm beyond all doctrine, dogma, theology, and belief – a place of nameless wisdom and voiceless song. What we hear and know there can never be brought to the surface. The formless cannot take form. But we can be in-formed by it. It leaves a mark. We carry its scent into the activities of our ordinary lives. The only word that even comes close for this transformative knowing – love – sounds tinny and trite in the cacophony of the marketplace. Oh, that cliché, they say. We simply smile. Yeah, we know. So it’s better to say nothing at all, letting our actions do the talking. As Jesus told his disciples in the days before his death, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 NRSV)

[This piece first appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the July/August edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproducted here with permission.]

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Pathless Path

             In my many years in and around the edges of the New Thought movement, Unity in particular, I’ve noticed something: We feel a bit like a refugee camp. So many of us have come from other religious perspectives, sects, and movements – former Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and more. We went wandering and ended up here…for now. Something about the non-dogmatic openness of New Thought felt like a safe haven in a world where partisan and sectarian chest-thumping rends peaceful hearts into tatters.

            Here, finally, was a religion for people who didn’t really like religion.

            It turned out it wasn’t a different or better religion we were after – we were after an experience, not an ideology. We wanted the nameless mystery and boundless peace beyond all the names of God. As Stephen Mitchell’s rendering of the 131st Psalm puts it: “My mind is not noisy with desires, Lord, and my heart has satisfied its longing. I do not care about religion or anything that is not you.”

            I came to New Thought as a philosophy student writing my master’s thesis on Ralph Waldo Emerson. But I didn’t set foot inside a Unity Church until middle age, decades later. Emerson’s nature mysticism and unaffiliated spirituality kept me on the outskirts of any organized movement. I preferred the squawking of a jay from the boughs of a sugar pine to any Sunday sermon.

            The traditions that spoke to me most clearly were Asian traditions – Daoism, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism. There I felt the nameless draw of the pathless land of the soul. The silence of meditation seemed to hold more truth than any doctrine or belief, no matter how eloquently stated or ardently held. Maybe it was just my philosophical training, which taught me to love questions and distrust answers.

            Still, in the family of New Thought I found a sangha, a community of fellow-wanders. If you’re going to make a nest in the tree of mystery, it’s good to have a flock around you.

            My Unity teachers – Rev. Will Newsom, Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell, and many others – taught me with their focused presence and loving kindness that there was something I had been missing all those years out on my own. And the New Thought community, being as it is nominally Christian, opened that door for me – a door I had studiously avoided. Sure, in college I devoured the Christian mystics because there I found brothers and sisters in mystery. But ordinary, everyday Christianity with its emphasis on the redemptive power of the risen Christ never spoke to me. Until my immersion in New Thought, where I eventually came to appreciate the Christian narrative as yet another metaphor for the perennial philosophy: Here was yet another dying, gift giving god, another incarnation – the eternal, sacred, formless source taking form in the temporal world of impermanence.  

And that if you want to know God, look no further than where you are, and who you are. 

            I’m still not a very good joiner. No matter where I am, I’m an outsider looking in. But I’m eternally grateful for my time in New Thought, and for all the glimmers of truth it has shown me.

            But today I think I’ll go hiking with Li Po, the 8th century Chinese poet: “The birds have vanished into the sky, and now the last cloud drains away. We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”

 [All quotations are from Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry.]

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the May/June 2021 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]