Friday, December 17, 2021

You Are With Me

Susan Crouch
A young musician in ancient Israel named David killed Goliath of the Philistines with only a rock and a sling, a feat no one else had even been willing to try. Word traveled fast. That’s what happens when you achieve the impossible. When it came time to replace the aging King Saul, David was a shoo-in.

Forged from an unruly alliance of nomadic tribes beset with rivalries, resentments, and incompetent middle managers, running ancient Israel was no picnic. Add to that constant warfare with neighboring enemies, high-stakes palace intrigue, eight wives, a few assorted mistresses, and 18 children – you get the picture. David was over-extended.

Life for David and his people was complicated, dangerous, stressful, and sodden with grief. Sound familiar?

As beloved as David may be throughout Judaism and Christianity, he was far from perfect. As the saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If it’s a paragon of virtue you want, look elsewhere. But if you want an eccentric brimming with the pathos, perception, and panache of a rock star, David’s your man.

On top of everything else David was also a poet of startling sensitivity and depth. His 23rd Psalm is a declaration, a prayer, a plea, a song, a dream, and an affirmation.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want./He makes me lie down in green pastures;/he leads me beside still waters;/he restores my soul./He leads me in right paths/for His name’s sake.” So it begins. The central metaphor is God as shepherd, and we as the vulnerable in need of guidance, sustenance, and protection. David’s idealized pastoralism draws us into a world where the generative bounty of nature extends beyond the food and water it provides – the restorative love of God pours forth from every blade of grass. And the holiness inherent in all things edifies our innate wisdom to choose the right path forward.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley,/I fear no evil;/for you are with me;/your rod and your staff – /they comfort me.” Whether our problems are personal, (a dissolving marriage, a drunk driving conviction) or global (a pandemic with burgeoning death tolls), we long for the transcendent perspective of this passage: to recognize and acknowledge the divine presence with us, and within us. A rod and staff, shepherds tools, viscerally convey the practiced skill and ineffable wisdom of this innate divine guidance.

And true to his warrior lifestyle (for who can ever escape their lived context?) David closes with this: “You prepare a table before me/in the presence of my enemies;/you anoint my head with oil;/my cup overflows./Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me/all the days of my life,/and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord/my whole life long.” (Psalm 23, NSRV) Here we feel the world-weary maturity of the king – how he no longer wishes to conquer every enemy seeking instead the peace of coexistence. Not every conflict has to be resolved – sometimes the best we can hope for is that our conflicts be endured with a modicum of dignity and grace. How? By recognizing our infinite abundance: “my cup overflows.” As do all of ours. And finally, David’s glowing affirmations: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” When we know and embody these truths, we find not only the strength to endure the hard road we’re on, but the freedom to enjoy it.

[A version of this piece was first published in my "A to Zen" column in the January/February edition of Unity Magazine as "David's Poetic Affirmation," and is reproduced here with permission.]

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.]