01 May 2011

The Bright Week Offensive

3 Comments Self Development and Transformation

“Religion is [can be] a defense against the experience of God.” C. G. Jung

A dear friend invited me this week-end to participate in a special brunch to celebrate Bright Week. Bright Week, or “Renewal Week,” is a tradition observed by many Eastern Orthodox Christians to commemorate the seven days following the resurrection of Christ. The entire week is considered to be one really long day, with each day being labeled “Bright,” such as Bright Monday, Bright Tuesday, etc.

I like the concept of bright days.

Brunch was initiated with several prayers, chants and even a didgeridoo performance. Attention was offered to intention, not dogma or liturgical correctness. It was beautiful and I felt honored to be included.

As I sat and enjoyed the mindful discussion and dialogue that guests engaged in throughout the afternoon, one thought persistently pierced my awareness:

At what point does religion serve as a springboard for a person to plunge into their own unique experience of the Transcendent and likewise, where is the point at which religion serves as a distraction from that personal encounter?

As a former practitioner of an orthodox religion I know for myself the experience of maintaining the dogma, rituals and rules was a very important practice. For one thing, I learned a great deal about myself and how I resist rules! However, I also learned how much easier life can be once one consciously follows a set of rules and the magical space it can create for spontaneous spiritual experiences to occur at the interface between the unconscious and transcendent realms.

I found that adhering to specific, organized, physical parameters seemed to create a greater platform for metaphysical moments.

That’s a bright thought in my good book.

17 Apr 2011

Flashes of Enlightenment

1 Comment Humor, Relationships, Self Development and Transformation

One of my favorite places in Israel was the “Crusader Building” at Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. This was a spot I’d go most days in order to meditate. It remains one of my most favorite spots in the world. The Crusader Building is a building with three levels just outside the stone wall of the ancient city surrounding the Temple. At the basement exists a shrine for Jews where hundreds each day come to pray at King David’s tomb, chanting psalms and singing their hearts out. At the center of the building, thousands of Christian tourists pour out of tour buses to enter the room of the Last Supper. There is no long wooden table or scraps of bread and wine to be found, just a big, empty room where some believe Jesus shared his last meal, a Passover seder, with his nearest and dearest. Upstairs, beneath a great dome exists a mosque where the Turks erected a place of prayer when they took over the city several hundred years ago.

While no one ever really knows where anything took place two thousand years ago, the fact that at any one moment it is likely to find Jews, Christians and Muslims praying, visiting, and essentially existing in alignment with one another is enough a reason to frequent the place. I liked to come here when I was a young man focused on finding that deep, authentic place of love within myself. Lots of folks believed me to be a loving dude, for sure… I was nice to people, kind to strangers and I smiled a lot. I was a spiritual hippie, of sorts, open to the beliefs and practices of most everyone and moved through life ready to break bread in most anyone’s home.

Yet, I knew within myself that I felt like a spiritual fraud and worried that one day I might be found out. I felt a disconnect within that troubled me immensely. I felt like I did and said all the right things, however when it came to truly embodying unconditional love in a completely integrated, unconscious way, I felt like I had a lifetime of work to do before I reached that level. Over time I had become friendly with the regular guard who served as security for the Room of the Last Supper. Each afternoon, the room was closed for a couple hours during ” national nap time” in which tourists were not permitted entrance. My friend allowed me to stay in the space by myself for an hour where I could meditate in what felt like one of the only truly silent spots in the Old City. These opportunities seemed to do more for the deep unfolding of my authentic presence than praying at the wall, studying ancient texts or eating healthy food. Breathing mindfully into silence was the gold that filled my pockets to be shared with others well into the future.

On this particular afternoon, I slipped past frustrated tourists who had come too late to be admitted and assumed my usual spot on the floor at the center of the great room. I liked to chant at the start of these meditations as it seemed to create a certain vibration around me into which my silence could rest. I sat in my white raw silk clothes, a colorful hand knitted kipah covered part of my head while large curls of long hair sprung out from all sides of my Jew-fro. As I chanted a favorite mantra taken from one of David’s psalms about faith that I learned from a Sephardic Jew, I rocked back and forth over my crossed legs, gently swaying a little like Stevie Wonder.

I was gone.
Lost in my chanting, lost in the moment, enraptured by the sound of my heart passing through my lips, the rocking of my body like a boat on the Galilee, gone.

As my consciousness passed through portals and gates, through the pardes (garden) of enlightenment, across marble stairs that resembled the ocean and a gentle breeze that tasted like pomegranate, I began to experience waves of light, bursting through me like flares through my third eye. They seemed to burn my eyelids and crackle out through the back of my head as my breath disappeared and my thoughts ceased. I was surely gone or, perhaps, more present than I had ever been. Was it enlightenment? Nirvana? Transcendence?

As I sailed through time and space, beyond thought and feeling, a familiar sound called me back to the room from where I had launched myself. I began to hear clicks and murmurs, whispers and shuffling and soon, distinct voices. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by dozens of German tourists flashing cameras at me, dumbfounded by my presence, attire and what must have seemed to be very strange behavior. I silently stared at them and said nothing. Was the profound light of my experience nothing more than flash bulbs from tourists’ cameras? How long had they been there? How long had I been “gone?” I stood up and the sea of Germans parted as I walked out the door.

Rabbis are literally translated as teachers. I learned (often the hard way) that I had a tendency to want my teachers to take me all the way rather than point me in the right direction and allow me to figure out the specifics, even if it meant getting lost along the way. I remember being a boy waiting for my dad to come home from work so he could “help” me with my math homework. It was all strategic as he’d be exhausted from a long day and not have the energy to “teach” so he’d simply fill in the answers out of frustration.

I sat in the Southwestern desert initially with the same desire that my teacher would simply fill in the blanks for me. He was not that kind of teacher. He left my ass in the middle of nowhere and knew that I had to struggle through a narrow passage in order to emerge a stronger, more confident young man. He was a spiritual midwife of sorts, like Shifra and Puah, the midwives who secretly saved the first born Hebrew slaves from instant murder, hiding babies or even sending them down the river in basket boats in hope that someone would take pity on them and rescue them from certain death.

Like Rabbi Moses, we all have to find our way to personal growth and enlightenment through a combination of grace, hard work, intention and focus. Like Rabbi Jesus, we all have to move through the world believing that transcendence is our birthright, that we are all children of the Breath of Life and that loving kindness is the bridge between here and there, inside and outside.

So, may you be blessed this holy week with the chutzpah to believe that you are both the leader AND the follower of many. May you trust from deep within your being that YOU are the resurrection and the life; there is no separation between some transcendent being and your essence, there is only the experience of being in this body at this time. And, if these words make you uncomfortable, I invite you to ask yourself what really makes you uncomfortable, the thought that it can’t be true or the thought that it just might be true?

21 Jan 2011

Religion Must Be Revolutionary…

6 Comments Relationships, Self Development and Transformation

The paladins of the great Charlemagne were the twelve knights, or the “Twelve Peers,” who moved through Europe fighting for king and “the good of men.” These twelve companions have also been associated throughout time with the Twelve Apostles of Jesus and the Twelve Knights of the Round Table. The palatinus were members of the Imperial Guard of Ancient Rome and were named after Palatine Hill, the mythical founding place of Rome. On the other hand, in Nazi Germany, Hermann Göring was also graced with the title “Paladin,” referring to a tradition of powerful titles that made the carrier second to the monarch.

The underlying common denominator for all of these incarnations of twelve organized warriors was the belief that their convictions were what kept them together and kept them strong. Paladins were almost always holy missionaries who intervened in the name of something bigger than their separate parts, almost always God or God’s emissaries on earth.

In the old days, these elite orders of men were powerful not simply due to their job description as handed down by king or pope, they drew power and prestige from the oath, the commitment and the communal belief that they were sworn to each other. The Knight’s Templars are an excellent example of a group of men sworn to protect Christianity during the Crusades who actually became more powerful after their original goal was achieved. The fact that they were banded together under a common belief and unified purpose made them so powerful that eventually the kings of Europe tried to eliminate them. The fact remained, however, that the common people of Europe believed that these Christian militiamen were holy crusaders long after the Crusades. Folks wanted to trust a group of semi-regular people who wore white and appeared to act in the interest of the common good!

In many ways, modern religion has gone the way of the Crusaders. Anyone can become a clergy person these days. Ideally, the person is “called” to the mission of spreading the Word, however one no longer needs to be able to read and write as the primary criteria for higher religious service. In fact, the past century has witnessed more democratization with respect to religious leaders than we have seen since the days of the Essenes and Gnostics.

Thousands of Americans now find their way to a pulpit or a website (or blog for that matter) and assume the role of religious teacher, adviser, disseminator, mentor and for some, spiritual link to a higher power. For some of these lay clergy, there is little training and little guidance or support. Much like roaming spiritual teachers two thousand years ago, people have their own version of the “truth” and it is up to the average person to decide if they are a crackpot or a true beacon of light. Much like average people thousands of years ago, average people today are not so sure what to believe and are susceptible to the passions and persuasions of others who claim to have the ANSWER.

Essentially, the challenge is as old as organized religion: We have been conditioned over time to believe that the emissaries of religious doctrine and practice are somehow above or “specially” separate from the thoughts, feelings and personal motivations of “regular” folks. We expect them to think and act differently, because they are supposed to be different. Is this really the case?

We often look to religious leaders for insight and direction with regard to issues that we feel are somehow too challenging or uncomfortable to handle by ourselves, yet those who have chosen paths of spiritual leadership had to grow up with parents who said “no” like the rest of us. All of us wearing human skin carry with us human emotional baggage so it is fascinating to imagine that because someone embraces a full time religious life (usually with benefits) that they somehow do not also carry the same emotional challenges or longings.

As designated religious leaders, clergy of any faith are in a unique position to offer guidance that common folks might not normally feel open to explore or accept as viable. The religious mantle often adds a degree of gravitas to a decision or path that makes many people feel safer than had they come to the same determination on their own.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that “in order for religion to be viable anymore, it must be revolutionary.” I fully believe this to be the case now more than ever. Religious leaders volunteer to wear a mantle of dogma and faith therefore whatever they choose to do or not do is under close scrutiny by those of us who pay attention. Even non-believers pay attention to the ideas of religious leaders. A person may not agree with the perspective of a clergy person, but somehow their perspective seems to matter more than a non-clergy person because of the mantle.

I don’t think Heschel had knightly orders of armed rabbis in mind any more than an order of Templars. I do believe he envisioned a commitment for religious leaders to embrace social change, environmental integrity and social justice as the core of their spiritual work in the world. In fact, Heschel claimed he was “praying with his legs” as he marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. People united for a common purpose are a force to be reckoned with…

I hope that more people take the notion of socially conscious “paladinism” seriously as we move farther down the road of personal responsibility when it comes to finance, education, spirituality, and so forth. When a tragedy like the one this month in Tucson serves more to separate the “parts” of our democracy rather than unite us, I fear that there is nowhere near enough “praying with our legs” happening in our great nation.

24 Dec 2010

Bat-Sh*t Crazy or Blessed with a Calling?

1 Comment Uncategorized

We in the modern world of sound bytes and star crazed shallowness have a tendency to read or hear a 140 character, tweet sized encapsulation of another person’s perception of a thought, policy or persona and make our own determination of thumbs up or thumbs down in that instant.

First impressions are tough to change and in this day and age of digital dissemination, without some old fashioned “face-time” or the slow drip of getting to know someone so they “grow on us” it is even more challenging to survive the PR landslide of a bad review or commentary.

There are more than a few examples of people who are quickly condemned today by the media as nut-jobs. Take John Yettaw, the man who tried to single handedly free the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest by swimming to her rescue across a locked down lake. He reached her, spent the night on her couch, and led to five more years of imprisonment for her hospitality. It took a Clinton to win his release from prison.

Or Gary Faulkner, the Colorado gentleman who says he is called by God to single-handedly track down Osama bin-Laden in the mountains of Pakistan, handcuff him and bring him to the authorities as his prisoner. He has made eleven attempts thus far and has almost killed himself numerous times trying.

We have a tendency to encounter these folks on Letterman or the View and after their five minute spot, we decide whether we approve or disapprove, agree or disagree, like or dislike. Likewise, it’s hard not to watch Dateline or Paula Zahn and not have an instant “gut” determination of an accused person’s innocence or guilt.

Then again, we like to believe that the information we are being presented isn’t biased but objective, un-altered, free of spin, award-winning journalism… If Sarah Palin’s Alaska is hosted by the Learning Channel, then we’d like to think subconsciously that there is no make-up crew or massive editing, colorization and manipulation happening.

Remember the Reuters photograph a few years ago in Beirut during the Israeli attack on the city that was proven to have been digitally manipulated with enhanced color, smoke and fire? All the news that’s fit to print, but if it isn’t quite fit, we can give it a nip and tuck and we’re good to go…

Mohandas Gandhi was a British educated attorney who one day shed his three piece tailored suit for a loin cloth and a sheet. He decided it was his destiny to lead the underclass of his society against one of the mightiest superpowers of the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a little known black preacher who felt it was his destiny to lead the underclass of his society against the racist policies of local and national government. Lech Walesa was an un-educated Polish factory worker who felt it was his mission to lead fellow workers against the oppressive, hypocritical government in the Solidarity movement.

So, what’s the difference between “one who is called” and one who is “bat-shit crazy?”

Some people believe that Santa Claus is real. Some people believe that Jesus could walk on water and raise the dead. Some people believe that it is their mission in life to stop gay people from getting married. Some people believe that one person’s beliefs are right while another’s is wrong.

Sometimes the line between a loss of reality and a creation of reality becomes so blurred that there really is no difference.

25 Nov 2010

40 Years and One Revolution Short

4 Comments Uncategorized

Well, today’s my birthday. 40. Wow.

I suppose as a kid I figured 40 would mean something. It seemed so old, so up there…

And yet, here I am. And well, it doesn’t mean much. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my birthday. Each year, I love to celebrate myself, my birth, my annual rebirth and the recognition of another cycle that has passed. However, the numbers? Well, they feel rather arbitrary. I only tend to compare myself to people in terms of their age when I am feeling bad about myself for something. Something akin to the notion that perhaps I have not lived up to my potential thus far.

Jesus accomplished so much before he was 34. In fact, he accomplished so much that people wanted him dead for all that he had done in 33 years. That’s impressive, no?

John Lennon died when he was 40 and he was a Beatle, for God’s sake. He was John Lennon, man. Imagine that. He was gunned down just a few blocks from Strawberry Fields Forever.

Martin Luther King Jr. died at 39. He had dreams just like me, but somehow he was able to mobilize a generation and well, yeah, um, they killed him for that.

Each of these role models changed the world, lived revolutionary lives and catalyzed paradigm shifts on the planet, all before they were 40 and they all wound up dead.

Now that I’m here, I suppose the idea that “I have plenty of time” seems a bit foolish. On the other hand, staring at the long list of my personal heroes leads me to wonder whether it is so surprising that I’ve been slightly resistant to changing the world. Everybody ends up dead. Seems like in order to make a profound difference on the planet, the price to be paid is often one’s life. Hmm.

Maybe I can still get something important accomplished and just squeeze under the radar, body, mind and spirit intact. Perhaps that is a worthy goal in and of itself: Develop a new paradigm where changing the world leads to respect and positivity without the desire to snuff out the messenger. I’m on it.