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.]

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.]