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.]

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Hero's Journey

 In his classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Pantheon, 1949) Joseph Campbell mapped out the 17 stages of the archetypal hero’s journey. Throughout mythology, literature, and film, the hero’s journey crosses all cultural and temporal boundaries, from the first Paleolithic camp fire to the surround sound multiplex. No matter the medium, the message is the same – we must journey beyond the boundaries of our ordinary life, risk it all, and, figuratively speaking, die to be reborn into our authentic nature. In the end, the hero’s stories are our story. Each of us is the hero of our own life.

            It turns out hero stories are not about extraordinary people – they’re about ordinary people unlocking extraordinary powers both within and around them. To the true-hearted hero, nature itself becomes an ally. The trick is awakening those latent powers and wielding them with wisdom. And we don’t have forever. This is it. As Campbell liked to say, “If you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere.”

            The only thing required to unlock these powers is the willingness to take the journey, to say the holy word “yes,” and to trust. When the hero commits, the whole of nature rises up as an ally.

            So you begin right where you are, and allies appear, the money works out, and doors open where there were only walls. This, says Campbell, is the first third of the journey – the departure. Then comes the initiation phase. You cross into the unknown and fall into the belly of the whale – think Jonah. This is a period of darkness and despair where none of the old rules apply. You’re powerless and stuck. Yet somehow you’re spit out of the other side and find yourself on the road of trials. Here you quest, struggle, and strive, usually with a band of fellow travelers, to eventually face the most powerful force in your world, what Campbell calls the atonement with the father. For Luke it’s Darth Vader. For Harry, Voldemort. In The Wizard of Oz it’s the wizard. And every time, when you muster the courage to confront the dragon, the monster, or the angry god, you realize two things – they weren’t as scary as you thought, and, you see yourself in them. You’re not that different.

            Boon or prize in hand, the challenge shifts. Now the hero, (that’s you), must begin the third and final phase of the hero’s journey, the return. Simply put, you must break away from the bliss of realization and choose, in the consciousness of service, to bring the prize home. This is often the most dangerous phase of the journey. You might collapse and need rescuing. You might succumb to your own ego and sabotage yourself – think Darth Vader. The successful hero moves finally into a state of deep reconciliation and, like a bodhisattva, has one foot in nirvana and one foot in the world. The spiritual realization that transformed you becomes the elixir that will transform the whole world.

            Then, returning home, one learns how to wield and integrate all of these insights into the ordinary world. In your heart, peace. In your mind, clarity. And in your gut a willingness to work for the healing of the world without anxiety or attachment to outcomes. And this, in the end, is the bliss that drew us out on the hero’s journey in the first place. 

[This piece first appeared in my A to Zen column in the March/April 2021 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Well and Faithfully: A Day in the Life of a California Elector

 Monday, December 14, 2020 6:50 A.M.

       Monday morning Sacramento under a deep blanket of fog. From the 10th floor of the Citizen Hotel the city seems a dream, barely here at all. Yesterday’s rain soaked streets have turned to ethereal suggestions.

       Yesterday I caught an Uber to the airport and flew Southwest Airlines to the State Capitol, leaving sunny San Diego and dropping into a Sacramento rain storm. Another Uber brought me downtown to this venerable old hotel three blocks from the State Capitol building. The forecast says no rain today. Walking will be a delightful relief from all these back seats and plane aisles.

       I am in Sacramento to serve as one of California’s 55 electors. Nationwide, there are 538 of us. Established in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, and advocated for primarily by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the Electoral College was an awkward compromise between the sheer lunacy of mob rule (the popular vote), and the equally sheer lunacy of allowing the legislative branch to select the President. The Electoral College was envisioned to be a rational check on both of those whirlwinds.

       Each state gets as many electors as they have U.S. House members and U.S. Senators. California, being exceptionally populous, has 53 House districts and, like every other state, two Senators – hence 55 electors, the most of any state by a wide margin. I was granted this honor by my friend Ammar Campa-Najjar, who earned the power to appoint an elector by being the largest vote-getter in the March 50th House district primary.

       So because today is the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, electors are gathering in all 50 states to cast their votes for President and Vice President – the only two elected officials in America not elected by popular vote. This, in the United States, is how we elect Presidents, and it’s how we’ve always elected Presidents for 233 years.

       The Constitution, obsessed as it is with state sovereignty, left the details up to the states – how electors are selected, and how they vote. Forty-eight states including California have a winner-take-all approach, where all electors vote for the winner of the popular vote in that state. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, divide elector votes up proportionally.

       Like I said, there are 538 electors – party luminaries like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Stacey Abrams – and unknowns like me. One thing we all have in common is our connection to party politics, and our relationships with candidates. The only thing the Constitution says is electors cannot be federal office holders. Madison and Hamilton wanted citizens from outside the direct influence of national politics, but still educated and informed enough about the issues at hand to be rational actors.

       While the idea of electing the President by popular vote was floated at the Constitutional Convention, it didn’t get much traction. In 1787 no country on earth elected their leaders by popular vote – it was an untested, radical novelty. Even today that method remains exceedingly rare. In 1787 there was no compulsory education, literacy was low, and there was no widespread journalism or media. Only one in six Americans could vote – property holding white males. Today, America is a very different place. Conditions have changed. The old rationale for having an Electoral College has worn thin. Many see the Electoral College as fundamentally undemocratic. Take California for example. Biden got 64% to Trump’s 34%. But because of California’s winner-take-all Electoral College policy, all of California’s 55 Electoral College votes go to Biden. It’s as if those millions of Trump voters never even existed. And in other big states like Texas and Florida, the opposite occurred – Trump beat Biden by a few percentage points, but took all the electors.

       Those who defend the Electoral College point to this very dynamic as its strength – that state’s rights, especially smaller states, are preserved by this curious process. If we went to a nationwide popular vote, they argue, a small handful of populous states – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio – would have disproportionate power effectively erasing the influence of smaller states. The same dynamic is in play with the US Senate, but that is a conversation for another time. It’s an argument I’ve never understood – democracy is supposed to represent people, not tracts of land.

       Kowtowing to the autonomy of states was the only way the framers of the Constitution could get the colonies to band together into a fledgling nation. But now, it seems a costly anachronism that warps and distorts the noble aim of all democracies – to represent the will of all the people.

       Still, abolishing the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment – a Herculean undertaking.

       In a few hours I will walk the three blocks to the State Capitol to cast my elector vote, not as a singular citizen (I already did that in November), but as a representative of the 700,000 people of the 50th district. I vote on their behalf, not my own. Fortunately, California chose the ticket I chose – Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – so this will be painless.

6:05 P.M.

       Long, amazing day. And now I’m sitting in Sacramento International Airport waiting to board my 7:15 Southwest flight back home to San Diego. Today was truly historic – politically and personally.

       This morning the rain stopped, and in its place a cold, thick blanket of fog. After breakfast I went out for a walk and promptly got lost. I thought…never mind what I thought. I was wrong. After ten minutes of no Capitol in sight I consulted the Google Maps app, and soon the storied dome loomed into view. I walked around the grounds which were mostly barricaded from a rough summer of democracy on the streets. As in many large American cities, quite a few downtown storefronts are still boarded up – vast sheets of plywood bearing spray painted editorials, portraits of George Floyd, and the phrases seared into all our minds: Justice for Brionna, Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe. Police cruisers sat parked and empty at the main entrances to the State Capitol like robot sentries – reminders to behave yourself. I spotted my entrance, made a mental note, and headed back to the hotel with a Starbucks flat white warming my hand. My thick grey tweed Ted Baker pea coat was doing good work – it was a bracing 40 degrees in the damp morning shadowed streets.

       Back in the hotel I showered and dressed for the big event. Priya Sridhar, the political reporter from NBC 7/39 in San Diego, emailed me for an interview. Sitting on the bed I did a quick Zoom with her on my iPhone as the morning light outside grew brighter and the fog began to lift.

       I will never be able to explain what happened next. I mean on one hand it was all rather ordinary. One thing happened after another with proficient regularity. But beneath the surface of this bureaucratic process, or perhaps all around it, was an unmistakable air of gravitas. Buildings like this are filled with ghosts and the focused yearning of 40 million Californians. We were there for all of them, for their dreams and longings. The loftiest endeavors of men and women – to govern themselves with wisdom and reason and decorum and dignity – that collective yearning informed everything here, from the architecture to the carpet. The California State Capitol was built for days like these.

       We entered the building at 1:00 and began the check-in. Medical grade masks, temperature checks, TSA-style security screening, enforced social distancing, long walks down long corridors, and one-by-one elevator rides to the California State Assembly chamber. It was a grand space with Corinthian columns, coffered ceiling, ornate molding, pleated drapery, and desks with a weathered feel – this is a working room, not a museum. All presided over by a towering portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

       After being escorted to my assigned desk, and before the proceedings began, I slipped out and walked the halls of our State’s Capitol.

       The Capitol dome, like all domes, is based on the Pantheon in Rome, commissioned by Emperor Hadrian and dedicated in 126 C.E. Rife with Platonic symbolism and archetypal radiance, grand domes like this bridge the gulf between heaven and earth. Looking up into their vast, luminous space – it takes your breath away – you feel yourself lifting off of your feet, swept up in a conviction that more is possible than you ever thought possible. Domes do what they’re supposed to do – remind you that here, in this secular cathedral, we're trying to do something damn near impossible – to bring the eternal imperative of Natural Law to bear on the temporal world of human endeavor; to mold chaos into order; to wield reason and persuasion in the service of a noble aim – the nudging of our imperfect union ever closer to perfection. It is our tireless work. Lives and souls depend on it.

       I slipped back into my seat in the Assembly Chamber a few minutes before the gaveling at 2:00. The room was filling up. A few of us said hi and nodded – congeniality was challenging with the masks and distancing. And besides – something about the room and what we were about to do shushed you and put you in a mood.

       Each of us found at our desk several pieces of paper: a program, an oath, and two paper ballots – one with the name Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, Democrat, and the other with the name Kamala D. Harris of California, Democrat. After a few opening remarks, we rose to our feet, put our hands on our hearts, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t think I’ve said that out loud since grade school. I remembered it. Then we were all sworn in, raising out right hands and repeating our oaths: “I do solemnly swear that I will defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies foreign and domestic, that I will bear truth faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter.” A fleeting thought crossed my mind – Donald Trump took this oath too.

       After that, we elected a chair person by voice vote, California Assemblywoman, head of California’s Legislative Black Caucus, and fellow elector Shirley Weber. She took the podium and said a few words. Then we voted by signing our names on the two ballots. First for Joe Biden, and then for Kamala Harris. The votes were collected and counted.

       When Shirley Weber announced the vote total, “55 votes for Joseph R. Biden, Democrat” the solemn decorum of the room broke as we leapt up and erupted in cheers. And when a few minutes later the second vote total was announced, “55 votes for Kamala D. Harris, Democrat,” the room exploded again into boisterous cheering. Some of us were crying. It felt like a dam broke.

       My phone began to light up – thanks, congratulations, and screen shots of us on CNN, MSNBC, and more. The networks were broadcasting our vote live because California’s 55 votes put the Biden-Harris ticket up over 270, locking in victory. This final nail in the coffin of the Trump Era.

       I think that’s why we were all yelling and cheering – the sheer relief of the concrete act of sending Trump packing. Of putting a Black woman in the White House. Of fulfilling the will of the people, not appeasing a petty autocrat and his fact-free followers. Of participating in a Constitutional process crafted 233 years ago by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others on that long, hot summer in 1787. Of officially bringing an end to the rein of a petty tyrant. These last four years had been an unending carnival of upended protocols, shattered norms, and worse – far worse. To participate in something so sane, reasonable, and sober was in a strange way utterly intoxicating.

       Now I’m on the bus – a bus built by Boeing that flies at 39,000 feet and gets me to San Diego in an hour. Soon I’ll be home, quarantined yes, but home.

       When we adjourned we poured out into the cold, sparkling, bright Sacramento winter afternoon and scattered back to our ordinary lives. I walked slowly to the Citizen Hotel, savoring each step in the new world we helped create. In the lobby I took a call from my friend Chip Franklin for a quick interview on his drive time KGO AM San Francisco radio show. It felt good sharing this powerful experience with that great city.

       I played a very small part of a very big thing – a peaceful transition of power, guided by reason and the group conscience of the people. I will always remember how today felt. Thank you Ammar for that phone call.