Friday, June 28, 2013

The Golden Rule

[This article first appeared in the July/August 2013 edition of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]

“One going to take a pointed stick to poke a baby bird should first
try it on himself to feel how it hurts.” – Yoruba proverb, Nigeria

Everyone knows the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  A quick Google search gives you all the examples you need.  In one form or another the golden rule is found in all religions and ethical philosophies.  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and beyond – all the world’s sages sing the one song of our inherent interconnectedness and our sacred duty to treat others as ourselves.
The golden rule begins in empathy and ends in right action.  First we must understand our identity with others and the mutually binding interests we share.  With this fundamental understanding in place the foundation is set – we are now free to act in accord with our principles, knowing that our actions co-create our highest good.  Right action is not born from self-interest but from a broader, more universal awareness of the good, an impulse grounded in the insight that I cannot thrive while my brothers and sisters are not thriving.  When we serve others our own interests are served, automatically and indirectly.  This is what the Dalai Lama meant when he said, “Considering the interests of others is clearly the best form of self-interest.” 
The simplicity of the golden rule heightens its appeal.  Properly followed, it renders all other rules moot.  In Confucianism the virtue of shu or reciprocity calls us to be aware of the impact we have others.  “What is hateful to you,” Confucius said, “do not do to others.” Every transgression would be prevented by the proper application of this simple maxim. If we saw our selves through the eyes of others, our words and actions would naturally soften and grow more compassionate. 
In an uncanny parallelism from the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” It’s as if the golden rule contains in encapsulated form all of the learned complexity of the world’s voluminous ethical and religious codes.  Even St. Augustine, a staunch teacher if there ever was one, leaves us with a simple task, reducing Christian ethics to a seven word motto: “Love God and do what you will.”  By calling for all thought and action to be rooted in a condition of consciousness in which one is lovingly aligned with God, Augustine bypasses all of the intellectual hand-wringing and second guessing that commonly plagues ethical reasoning and gets right to the heart of the matter – a child-like state where right-action and kindness flow like water.  When you begin with love for what is right and true, your actions will fall into accord with what is right and true, and the people will prosper.
The golden rule is not information.  It’s a reminder.  It calls us back to our higher natures, our inherent kindness and our commitment to affirm the infinite value of all sentient beings.  It’s simple enough for a child to understand, yet deep enough to occupy the most skillful philosophers for millennia.  It stands like an ancient monument, yet it’s perennially fresh and invites us in anew moment by moment.  And its universality points to a possibility – that regardless of the wide variety of surface inflections and cultural diversity found in the world’s wisdom traditions, there is an underlying commonality in the human experience that transcends time and culture.  We are far more alike than different.  Our unity is affirmed by our universal values.
We all carry the golden rule within us.  Whether we attune to it or not is another matter.  We are free to ignore it any time we want, and follow instead the dictates and longings of our endless woundedness.  But when we come back to our sacred core we feel once again the inherent wellness of our hearts, and know that we are safe, and that there is always enough.  Only then do we dare to love and be loved, falling into the arms of a truth unbound by space and time – the law of our own infinite value.  And with new eyes we immediately see that all the blessed others around us share in this infinite stance, this infinite abundance.  It is from here that the golden rule makes perfect sense.  We wouldn’t have it any other way.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

[A version of this article was originally published in the July/August 2013 edition of Unity Magazine in the "A to Zen" column, and is reprinted here with permission.]

“Truth is One, the sages call it by many names.” – Rig Veda

Religion is the ugliest thing in the world.

Religion is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Now what?

Even a cursory glance at human history reveals a long parade of pain, often driven by the drumbeat of religious arrogance and ideological fanaticism. From prehistory to today’s headlines, drop the needle anywhere on the sad record of human affairs and a mournful noise threatens to drown out the fragile beauty of the world. Again and again the spiritual insights of brilliant teachers were pounded into oppressive ideologies by fearful overlords. The alloys of our compassionate wisdom were forged into swords by the fires of hatred. Crusades, conquests, tribal genocides and ethnic cleansings have always been with us. It’s easy to sympathize with John Lennon in his immortal classic Imagine as he wonders if the human race would be better off without religion. But even in the midst of the Holocaust, Anne Frank saw something bright and everlasting through the vale of tears. “In spite of everything,” she wrote, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Incalculable human suffering is rooted in religious and ideological acrimony, but a contrary fact is also true: the cure for the disease of hatred and violence is found within the principles and practices of the world’s religions. People with deep religious and spiritual convictions do enormous good in the world. Because of their experiential knowing that something sacred and profoundly real is at work in the world (some call it God), religious and spiritual people are willing to emerge from their comfortable cocoons and join together with others in communities defined by purpose, sacred service and right action. They are willing, often at great risk to themselves, to help others. As an antidote is crafted from poison, religion is both the disease and the cure.

As both a blessing and curse, the paradoxical nature of religion has caused great confusion and, in some, debilitating apathy. No matter how you slice it, religion is a many-headed Hydra that defies simple classification. You’ll find whatever you’re looking for. Horrors and beauties abound. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

What we intend to search for in this column is evidence that religion and spirituality in all its many forms offers the best and brightest hope for spurring humankind toward an awakening – an awakening that draws us toward the manifestation of our highest good both as individuals and as a whole. We will comb the world’s wisdom traditions from the Vedas to the Qu’ran, from the Gita to the Torah, from Patanjali to Pythagoras, from the Tao te Ching to the Dhamapada, from the Gospels to the Simpsons – in short, everything from A to Zen. We know, as the Vedas proclaimed three thousand years ago, that “Truth is One – the sages call it by many names,” and no matter where we look, we will find gold.

Truth may be One, but religions are not all the same. They emphasize different facets of the human dilemma, they are founded on often wildly conflicting assertions about human nature and the nature of the universe, they are crafted from different levels of consciousness, they seek specific solutions to specific cultural, social and historical contexts that may no longer exist. But despite the differing surface inflections, there is an underlying unity beneath the waves. It is our goal to look below the surface and find that underlying unity. Despite the apparent cacophony, the great religions of the world are echoes of one ancient song, a song best sung in the here and now by all of us raising our beautiful, disparate voices together as one.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Intention vs. Attachment

It’s important to have goals. How can you build or create anything without first envisioning it, imagining it, wanting it?

Yet clinging too tightly to a specific outcome is destructive to the living, breathing evolutionary process that any real growth entails. How can we make peace with this paradox? How can we simultaneously hold fast while letting go?

An essential quality of wisdom is the ability to discern between intention and attachment.

Intention is a powerful condition of consciousness, a thought-action that reverberates out into the surrounding field re-ordering the elements of the field. Like radio waves, intention travels unseen at the speed of light, bending around corners and influencing the fabric of space and time. Our intentions draw things toward us the way magnets attract and align iron filings. In true intention there is no attachment to any particular outcome – that would be hubris and ultimately destructive to our aims. We simply set intentions, take the next indicated step and let go.

Attachment, on the other hand, is a pathological, egoic, fear-based need to control the people, situations and events in the world around us. Imposing our private preferences on the uncarved whole of the world robs life of its spontaneous, evolutionary energy. Our short-sighted craving places limits on the unlimited potential of the now moment – limits that ultimately restrict the flow of the universe’s infinite abundance into our lives. It’s a terrible irony – by craving we push everything away.

Intention is a state of deep receptivity. Attachment is an impenetrable shell.

Intention is a state of deep cooperation with what is. Attachment is a futile struggle against what is, characterized by resentment, fear and victim-consciousness.

Intention roots deep in the consciousness of gratitude and savors the journey. Attachment is a childish sense of entitlement fueled by grandiose fantasies and fixation on selfish and arbitrarily contrived expectations.

So how do we put this into practice?

Let’s start with a vision. If money were no object, and if the path was wide open, what would you be doing with your life? In other words, if the how were taken care of, what would you be? It’s vitally important to separate the how from the what because once you really commit in full intention to the what, the how takes care of itself. Intention is an aligning energy that orders the surrounding field. Fixating on the how – the logistical complexity and all the hurdles – draws precious energy and resources away from the womb of intention, the great Mother that gives birth to the what.

So you want to be a large animal veterinarian, or a professional musician, or publish a book, or create a non-profit service organization, or work to reverse environmental degradation, or write the next great app. How do you begin?

Let’s talk about farming.

A farmer intends to raise a crop of tomatoes. But she knows she doesn’t really control the process. She merely cuts the channel through which the power of life flows, fully aware that she is not the source of the power. Her stance is one of deep cooperation, not imposition.

It begins with the end in mind – a vision of a bountiful yield. Then comes all the hard work – learning everything you can about every aspect of your endeavor, preparing the soil, finding the right seeds, putting the right kind of team together, co-creating the best possible conditions in which your seeds can unfold from the core of their essential nature, willingly and reverently sacrificing your time, talent and treasure in the singular focus of your aim, all the while knowing that anything and everything could change, and at any given moment you might have to start dancing.

Then you wait.

Remember, you are as much witnessing this process as creating it. A state of deep humility is far more productive than arrogance. We don’t control the weather – the frost, the rain, the heat, the drought – nor do we control the caterpillars or the blackbirds that come and pluck the caterpillars away. We do everything we can to prepare for all likely situations, but in the end our only sane stance is complete and utter surrender. When our fists are clenched we feel only our own fingernails digging into our palms. When our hands are open we feel the sun and the moon and the wind and we are more readily able to receive what is given. And when the harvest is ready, a budding joy comes to fruition along with our tomatoes because there is nothing more satisfying than aligning our energies with the larger forces around us.

This is the great paradox – it is only through surrender that we grow strong, it is only through generosity that we receive everything we need, it is only by emptying out that we become full, it is only by letting go of our slavish attachment to a particular outcome that the highest possible good is able to manifest itself in our lives. Yet there must be intention and clarity of vision. Cooperating with what is already unfolding is different than sitting back and waiting for something to happen. The first requires a state of great alertness. The second looks a lot like napping.

When we fail to discern the difference between intention and attachment, two confusions emerge. The first confusion is the mistaken belief that intention and attachment are the same – that intention is just a fancy word for self-centered craving and hence is to be avoided. People who hold this mistaken view tend to hide from the world, hide their own light, shun success and see ambition as a dirty word. They distrust powerfully creative people while secretly envying them. They bad-mouth the trappings of success and cop an attitude of smug superiority to ward off the chill of their own poverty of spirit.

The second confusion is the mistaken belief that self-seeking and clawing your way to the top is the highest good. Here the line between healthy growth and selfish craving is blurred. The empty pursuit of fame, wealth and glory may result in an accumulation of the outward trappings of success, but the hole inside is never filled. In both of these mistaken approaches, our authentic joy is never realized.

That’s why discerning the difference between intention and attachment is so important. It may be the most important thing of all. Otherwise, all our work is muddled and confused, lost in the dark and far away from the light of the truth that our deepest joy is inexorably intertwined with the joy of others, and only when we work in the consciousness of service are we liberated from cage of our own ego.

Have a vision. Feel deeply where your heart wants to go, and cultivate the courage to follow. Be truthful, have clarity and be specific. But keep a loose hold on the reins and let the road show you where to go. The end is secured by the confidence of the intention. Attachment, on the other hand, constricts the flow and leads only to stagnation. Stay open and highly alert. Perception and awareness are more important than cleverness and guile. Answer the call of your soul – begin now to do the important work of discerning the difference between intention and attachment.