Saturdao 8

Dao De Jing, verse 5a
16 translations

1. James Legge (1891):
Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be
benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt
The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they
deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
2. Archie Bahm (1958):
Opposites are not sympathetic to each other.
Each one of the many kinds of opposites acts as if it could get along without its other.
But Nature treats opposites impartially, dealing with each of every pair of opposites with the same indifference.
And the intelligent man will regard opposites in the same manner.
3. Frank MacHoven (1962):
Nature is indifferent to life. It realizes everything is as a straw dog. The truly wise are also indifferent to life. They realize humanity is as a straw dog.
4. D. C. Lau (1963):
Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.
5. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972):
Heaven and earth are ruthless;
They see the ten thousand things as dummies.
The wise are ruthless;
They see the people as dummies.
6. Stan Rosenthal (1984):
Nature acts without intent, so cannot be described
as acting with benevolence, nor malevolence to any thing.
In this respect, the Tao is just the same,
though in reality it should be said that nature follows the rule of Tao.
Therefore, even when he seems to act in manner kind or benevolent,
the sage is not acting with such intent, for in conscious matters such as these, he is amoral and indifferent.
7. Jacob Trapp (1987):
“Nature Seems Unkind”
Nature seems unkind,
As indifferent to its own offspring
As if they were but sacrificial straw dogs.
The Sage, too, seems unkind,
As impartial as Nature;
Yet, like Nature, he benefits all.
8. Stephen Mitchell (1988):
The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.
9. Victor Mair (1990):
Heaven and earth are inhumane;
they view the myriad creatures as straw dogs.
The sage is inhumane;
he views the common people as straw dogs.
10. Michael LaFargue (1992):
“Heaven and Earth are not Good
they treat the thousands of things like straw dogs.
The Wise Person is not Good
he treats the hundred clans like straw dogs.”
11. Peter Merel (1995):
Nature is not kind;
It treats all things impartially.
The Sage is not kind,
And treats all people impartially.
12. Ursula LeGuin (1997):
“Useful Emptiness”
Heaven and earth aren't humane.
To them the ten thousand things
are straw dogs.
Wise souls aren't humane.
To them the hundred families
are straw dogs.
13. Ron Hogan (2002):
Tao's neutral:
it doesn't worry about good or evil.
The Master's are neutral:
they treat everyone the same.
14. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (2003):
The heavens and earth are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They take things (wanwu) and treat them all as straw dogs.
Sages too are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They treat the common people as straw dogs.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004):
The Kosmos is not humane;
Impartially, it treats all things as transitory.
The sage is not humane;
Impartially, he treats all people as transitory.
16. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (2007):
Heaven and Earth are not kind:
The ten thousand things are straw dogs to them.
Sages are not kind:
People are straw dogs to them.

Eight of the 16 translations use the phrase "straw dogs." What are straw dogs anyway? Besides the title of a movie, I mean? ("Straw Dogs" is a 2011 movie with James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, which is a re-make of a 1971 movie with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. A couple moves to a rural town and face increasingly vicious harassment from the locals. It's a psychological thriller.) In ancient China, straw dogs were ceremonial objects -- sacrificial animal-images. "These sacrificial objects are artifacts that are treated with great reverence during the sacrifice itself, and then after the ceremony, discarded to be trodden underfoot" (Ames and Hall). So when nature/reality/heaven and earth treats us as a "straw dog", are we talking about during the sacrifice itself or after? Interesting. If you find that life is treating you really well, it means you're about to be sacrificed. If life is trodding you underfoot, at least you know the sacrifice is over.

Lao Tsu begins by telling us what our parents and teachers so often repeated: Life isn't fair. Heaven and earth aren't kind. In particular, they are not "partial to institutional morality," -- which means the world isn't bound by your ideas of what's fair, or your ideas of right and wrong and good and bad.

Then Lao Tsu tells us that, if we are to be as the sages, then we, too, must treat people the same way. What does that mean? Kimura indicates this means treating them as transitory -- not getting attached to them, just as earth and sky don't appear to be attached to any particular individual. Others suggest this means treating people impartially, the same: "she welcomes both saints and sinners."

Virtue really must be its own reward. Nature won't treat you any better for it. Nor will the wise.

Likewise, it's not your job -- it isn't anybody's -- to praise and condemn, as if the world would want to change itself to accord with your judgment of what it should be.

* * *
See: Saturdao Index


A Merry Unitarian Christmas

Christmas is, after all, you know, our holiday. Unitarians made this season what it is.

Consider: what does Christmas mean? It means, of course, the mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of a Palestinian prophet named Yeshua, or Jesus. But what exactly does that mean? Historians have no idea what time of year Yeshua was actually born. The early Christian church celebrated his birthday in April at first, and then in June for a while, before settling on a strategy of co-opting yule and solstice. The first December Christmas wasn't celebrated until around 380 CE.

In the last 200 years, Christmas has been radically transformed -- and Unitarians were at the forefront in most of the transforming.

Christmas now means we put a tree indoors, and we decorate it. It was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by Charles Follen.

Charles Follen was a Unitarian.

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs. It means bells that jingle, and it means laughing, all the way. That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by the James Pierpont.

James Pierpont was a Unitarian.

Christmas means music. In addition to "Jingle Bells," other Christmas songs include "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Watchman Tell Us of the Night," by John Bowring, and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by Noel Regney.

Henry Wadsworth Longgellow, John Bowring, and Noel Regney were all Unitarians.

Additionally, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," is by a Unitarian minister. More about that one later.

The instantly recognizable Ebenezeer Scrooge
Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy. Charles Dickens, in 1843, published A Christmas Carol, and Christmas has never been the same.

Charles Dickens was a Unitarian.

In Dickens' tale, Scrooge confronts his past, when as a young man, his need for money -- that is, we suppose, his need for security or status -- caused him to lose his fiancee, Belle. He is shown the present reality of joy in gatherings of families, whether they are poor like Bob Cratchit's or relatively well off like Scrooge's nephew Fred. Then he is brought to an awareness of his own impending death. It's not that Scrooge had explicitly believed himself immortal. It's just that he had pushed the fact that life is temporary out of his mind. In pushing away death, he had pushed away life, for the two are the same.

Dickens' novella received immediate popular and critical acclaim, and almost as immediately shifted the way that Victorians celebrated Christmas. Over the next years, Dickens received hundreds of letters from complete strangers
"writing all manner of letters about their homes and hearths, and how the Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a very little shelf by itself."
A Christmas Carol was regarded as a new gospel. Critics noted that the book was, in their experience, unique in that it actually made readers behave better.

A Christmas Carol remains the most widely read-aloud book. It is still theatrically performed in various venues around the country every year. It has been made into numerous movie versions. Other popular Christmas tales such as It's a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are but re-workings of Charles Dickens' Unitarian gospel. "According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol."

The Christmas gospel of generosity, gratitude, and the joy of family gathering is fundamentally Unitarian. The Christmas social gospel is also Unitarian.

Edmund Hamilton Sears
1810 - 1876
Christmas means the message of Peace on Earth, to all goodwill. In 1849, just a few years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a Unitarian minister, Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote the words to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." With the war in Europe and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Rev. Sears wrote a carol that urges us to hear the angels sing of peace on earth, to all goodwill.

The Gospel of Luke tells of angels proclaiming Peace on Earth -- but for most of the history of Christendom, that has been taken as referring to a private, personal peace. Few imagined that peace on earth actually meant we should stop killing each other.

Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, however, was at the vanguard of a movement to understand peace on earth in social, community terms – instead of merely a personal, private peace. He called us to task for not heeding the angelic call to peace.
"Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong,
and man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring,"
he decried.

His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time. Many people said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian.

Yes, it is.

If Christmas season today is a time when our hopes turn to ending war and truly bringing peace on earth, it is because a Unitarian minister wrote a song inviting us to imagine the day:
"when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing."
This is our holiday. From the Christmas tree, to the jingling bells, to the Scrooge story, to the message of peace on earth, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today.


Respond to WHOSE Love?


The living tradition we share draws on many sources. . . . [including:] Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.


"God" is a difficult topic among Unitarian Universalists. Some of us resist any use of the word or concept. For others of us, God is a central part of our understanding and our life. Is this an ontological disagreement (involving competing claims about the nature of reality and what reality does and does not include)? Is it a semantic disagreement (involving competing claims about what words do and don't mean)? Or is it neither of these so much as a matter of identity and group loyalty?

Respond to Whose Love?

My Mom recently recounted to me a story from my childhood. I had no recollection of the incident or any previous retelling of it. It’s an anecdote that reveals something of my mind, and my mother’s. I was about five years old, and we were at a fair or carnival where there were helium balloons. I'd never seen such things before, and I was fascinated.

“Mom, why do they go up?” I asked – or so I’m told I did.

Mom, rational scientist that she was and is, answered, “Why wouldn’t they?”

“Things go down,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”

“Because of gravity,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloon goes up because of levity.” And this satisfied me. What could I say?

When I heard Mom tell this story, it did not occur to me to think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? Yes, it might imply a kind of Manichaean physics. (Manichaeans believe that good and evil are both substantive forces at war with each other, and in my five-year-old mind, maybe I had some inkling of a similar notion of there being two opposing physical forces named “gravity” and “levity.”) But I was also prepared to learn, had it ever come up again, that “levity” was the name for how, when something is less dense than air, gravity pulls the air down and under it, pushing the less dense object upward.

Mom wasn’t ready to explain all that – or, rather, she knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she me gave this word, “levity.” I delight in this new family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it’s so true. I had entirely forgotten it, but I love knowing again what apparently I first learned at age five: things go up because of levity.

The world is full of wonder. Just when I think that gravity makes everything go down, I discover that some things go up. Language is full of wonder, too. The words we select to express our experience give the experience meaning -- and sometimes delight.

The wonder of world and word comes to mind when I reflect on our text for today: the fourth source of the living tradition we share, "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves." (See all of the seven principles and six sources: click here.)

“Respond to whose love?” I have heard asked. It’s a topic that calls for both gravity and levity, isn’t it?

Unitarian Universalists have different experiences of the world -- different from people in other faith traditions and different from each other. People have different stories to make sense of our world.
  • Some stories about reality feature a creative force that is person-like in that it knows and it wants.
  • Other stories tell of a creative force that kind of has beliefs and desires – in a rather metaphorical sense.
  • Still other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying utterly without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose.
We have different senses of what’s out there. Of course we do. We’ve had different experiences, so how could we not? I want a world in which that is not a problem, don’t you?

Besides different feels for what does or does not exist out there, we have different feels for how words may reasonably be used. I was poking around for definitions of "God" and I discovered that a blog up in Rhode Island had quoted me about that. It said,
Meredith Garmon . . . once observed, “The word ‘God’ points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics.” (Rev. James Ford, click here.)
After some further rummaging, I confirmed that, yes, I actually had written that some months back. OK, I’ll take it.
  • Source of beauty and mystery; 
  • power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; 
  • ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; 
  • widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; 
  • a basis of ethics. 
This is what people have pretty-much-always been referring to when they said ‘God’ – regardless of whether they thought that these qualities attached to a person-like creator or not. Others, though, insist that the word ‘God’ unavoidably implies a person-like creator.

I believe that theology is a kind of poetry, not a kind of science or natural history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. I want a world in which that, too, is not a problem. Don’t you? Is this so hard? A world in which different experiences of what’s real are honored, in which different styles of poetry and metaphor are honored? Why is that hard?

Call it tribalism. Tribalism was named as an issue in the controversy around Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins. Reverend Bell argued, as Universalists have been arguing for over 200 years, that there is no after-life hell of eternal damnation. A loving god would not condemn creatures of God’s own making to an eternity of agony. While many Christian readers were affirmed and moved by Rob Bell’s universalism, a number of other Christians attacked Bell (as their predecessors attacked John Murray and Hosea Ballou) as a heretic. One of Bell’s defenders -- in fact, the editor of Love Wins -- decried the attacks. He wrote:
“As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an ‘enemy’ in order for you to feel ‘right with God.’” (Mickey Maudlin, source click here)
There is an awful lot of religion that is neither about a sense of what’s out there, nor is about a sense of the proper use of words. It’s just about: whose team are you on?

Religion can become talismanic – a mere talisman. Consider for example a report from this week’s Christianity Today: “Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition." Or, as Gallup and Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding, “Americans revere the Bible but by and large they don’t read it.” Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels. Fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert have made sport of Americans' inability to name the Ten Commandments—even among members of Congress who have pushed to have them posted publicly. (Christianity Today, click here.)

Yet Bible sales continue at a brisk clip. For many, apparently, the Bible is a sort of talisman: an object to possess as a symbol of tribal loyalty, not a text to study and understand. In a similar way, tribal loyalties get in the way of honoring and respecting different experiences about what is real, and different poetic inclinations for choosing words. We have a hard time simply accepting our differences when those differences symbolize what team you’re on – and when team membership requires being opposed to certain other teams.

Tribalism isn’t always bad. Recall that religion fundamentally is about three things:
  1. It’s about how you live -- the ethics and values that guide your life.
  2. It’s about community -- who you choose to come together with and share in rituals that strengthen your sense of group connection.
  3. It's about those moments of transcendence, one-ness, or mystery.
The task of faith and faith community is to bring those three functions together in such a way that each one supports, encourages, and strengthens the other two. Community is, indeed, an important part of religion. Being a part of a tribe can be a good and healthy part of the deal. We are social beings: we need community, and loyalty to our group is, by and large, a virtue.

The problem arises when the #2 function isn't facilitating either the #1 function or the #3 function -- that is, when one's tribal connection neither affirms and supports any ethic or value other than tribe loyalty, nor facilitates or helps integrate one's transcendent experiences of interconnection and peace. If the primary function of my community is to nurse a shared sense of who the enemy is, then my community isn’t healthy. People who want to post the ten commandments but don't know more than a couple of those commandments, are using the issue as a test to identify who their enemies are.

What about our own Unitarian Universalist forms of tribalism?

It's worth noting that where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words. For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither.

We simply adjust to different ways of using words. Longfellow says, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee,” and most of us can go with that, without the annoyed feeling, "If he meant Lake Superior he should have said 'Lake Superior.'"

Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky tells us:
Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
all mimsy were the borogoves, and ye mome raths outgrabe.
Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that.

Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God. To see how this works, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability beginning to stiffen dogmatically when it comes to grammar. Attitudes about grammar illustrate how attitudes about "God" work.

For example, take me (. . . please!) I am sensitive to the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too. I have my pet list of words not to be used as verbs. Loan is not a verb, I say. Neither are impact, mandate, or critique. These words are nouns! The perfectly good verb forms are lend, affect, require, and criticize. Even more hideous: transition. Transition is not a verb.

You might remember a Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin uses verb as a verb.

I have mellowed out a bit through the years. I actually rather like the Southern expression, might could, as in, “We might could do that.” I know that grates on some ears, but isn’t it more elegant than “might be able to”?

When LoraKim and I were first dating, I was a bit of an insufferable grammar dogmatist. I think that if I had corrected her one more time after she said "with you and I," the engagement would have been off. We Grammar Nazis like to make protestations about preserving the language, facilitating clarity of thought, and guarding against language so decaying that it becomes an impediment to understanding. Those protestations are hollow. What it's really about is loyalty: tribal -- or, more precisely, class -- loyalty.

It would seem a betrayal of our grandmothers or parents or beloved English teachers if we were to allow ourselves to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate saying “got” when they should say “have.” Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes. Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me – the degree that I desire to preserve privilege and separation between the other and me.

I'm talking about separation between the other and me. But if it will help close that separation, then I will say, "between the other and I." Hurts a little bit.  But I can learn. If it will help me connect with others, then I will (gulp) transition to the next phase. Any noun you might could verb, go ahead. And if I don’t know what you mean, I’ll ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, a whole lot clearer.

Tribal – or class – loyalty might make us balk at some language, but we noticed that when loyalty isn’t at play, as when reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s relatively easy to practice the gentle arts of flexibility and charity.

I’ve come to understand that whether or not I want to insist that “God” necessarily must imply an entity with awareness and intentions is mostly about my tribal loyalty, just as my grammar pet peeves are. Can we Unitarian Universalists engage in a process we identify as discerning what God is calling us to do? Can we have conversations about the question, "How do we serve God?" Yes, we can. In talking about serving God, we would be talking about serving life, and good, and the flourishing of all beings, while also reminding ourselves of the finitude and corrigibility of our own conceptions of life, good, and flourishing – which is just what I think Jews, Christians, and Moslems are talking about when they speak of serving God.

When we say, with our fourth source, that we are called to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as our selves, we are saying that the moments when we have felt the greatest belonging and connection inspire us to want to help our neighbors also feel connected and know they belong – which is what I think it truly means to respond to God’s love, whether or not God is conceived of as a person-like entity.

This was once hard for me to say. I was the proud "Class Atheist" at my rural Georgia public school from fourth grade through high school. To change my language seemed like a betrayal of my standards, which, of course, really meant a betrayal of my tribe: us rationalist humanists standing courageously intolerant of the language used by certain people whom we accused of intolerance.

My journey slowly and unevenly brought me to a place where I could see connecting with others as more important than separating myself from them. If they -- if even, say, you -- talk to me about your faith in God, and if you do so with certain phrases that trigger in me remembrance of enemies past, if you use religious words that conjure the battle lines in culture wars in which I have fought for much of my life, please give me just a moment, and I will dismantle my trigger. I will. That's my promise. There might be some days where it takes me a minute to remember myself, but give me that moment, and I am committed to disarming that particular reactivity in myself. I make that commitment because . . .

. . . because if I have a chance to connect with you, whoever you are, then connecting with you is more important than separating myself from you;

. . . because I know that if you and I have each felt mystery, wonder, and beauty come together with peace, compassion, and the softening of ego defenses; if we have opened our hearts to love; then we have a shared commonality that transcends both your dogmatic opinions about God and my dogmatic opinions about how wrong your dogmatic opinions are;

. . . and because that shared commonality matters more than maintaining my tribal identity.

It turns out that I can still oppose mandatory school prayer, support mandatory inclusion of evolution, favor reproductive rights, legal recognition of same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and public programs to take care of all our people -- and talk about God. I can talk about the impetus of the universe as God’s call for us to improve our understanding, respect our differences, serve life and freedom, and share God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Willing to employ "God talk" judiciously, I can be more effective than I ever could by a fastidious refusal to invoke the one word that, more clearly than any other, conveys a sense of spacious mystery tugging us toward the better angels of our nature.

I find my wholeness and healing growing the more I perform the imaginative exercise of pretending that the world might be whispering to me, calling, inviting me to love if I but listen, listen. Listen: it is God’s love calling me to respond by loving myself and my neighbor as my self. It is God’s love lifting me up . . . as levity lifts a child's balloon.

May it be so. May it be so for all of us.


Journaling Your Way to Peace

Who am I? Whose am I? What is mine to do?

Anything that I say about being good at some things, or not so good at other things, is going to be as much about other people as it is about me. If I think I’m good at something, it’s always good compared to somebody else. If I think I’m not good at something else, it’s always not so good compared to someone else. If I assess myself smart, or intellectually inclined, or big-hearted, or hard-working, or committed -- or if I assess myself as dim, or histrionic, or disorganized -- warm or cool, old or young -- I’m equally assessing other people as being, on average, less of whatever quality, positive or negative. If I were to say I thought I was a pretty good preacher, I'd be opining just as much on the quality of my colleagues preaching as on my own.

Who am I apart from what other people are? Who am I without the judgments, with neither positive nor negative self-assessments, for judgments are always comparisons? Who am I now?

There is a story that runs along through our heads, telling us about who we are. It’s a largely unquestioned story because we don’t take it out and look at it. Fragments of the story push us this way and that. The process of journaling invites us to take it out and look at it. When we start articulating our story, we begin to make it more coherent. We fit the fragments into larger chunks. Some fragments don’t fit. This is a new discovery for us! Only then can we choose to drop the incoherent fragments so that they won't pop up to push our life one way or another anymore.

Slowly, slowly, life begins to have a greater coherence. This increasing coherence naturally happens for many of us as we age anyway. Journaling helps it happen sooner, clearer, more thoroughly.

Anne Frank, a young girl imprisoned in hiding in an attic, was able to fashion a coherence out of self and life with a pen and some bound pages. Through journaling, she brought herself into being. It was not an ordinary girl’s diary, after all. As Anne Frank wrote at the beginning:
“I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried in my heart.”
What is it that lies buried in my heart? I don’t know, cannot know, what is in there until I see it manifest somewhere. Seeing it manifest on the page helps me see its manifestations elsewhere, too.

What lies buried in your heart? The journal is a life companion, always ready to help you be who you are but didn’t know it.

Life is lived, of course, day by day. The meaning of a life is the meaning of its days. Day by day we forge the chain we wear, link by link. Or, day by day, we walk an uncertain path to liberation. Or both.
Day by day.
Day by day.
Oh, dear Lord,
Three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.
Life comes at us and flies past us day by day, or, as the French say, au jour le jour. The French jour, meaning “day,” is the root of both journey and journal. Journey originally meant one day’s work or the distance traveled in one day. And journal is the record of the day, the recording of our life's journey.

Each fleeting day of our life, we travel one day’s distance. What did it mean? What was it for? Where did we go? Even though we were there, it is inchoate until we pull together the fragments and bind them together into a coherent accounting to ourselves.
Christina Baldwin
“Writing is sorting. Writing down the stream of consciousness gives us a way to respect the mind, to choose among and harness thoughts, to interact with and change the contents of who we think we are.” (Christina Baldwin, Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, 9)
In All the Big Questions, Rebecca Hill says:
“What is the purpose or meaning of life? To get your story straight. To create a safe and gentle environment for yourself, and help create one for other folks, for living what truth you can stand.”
Without some way to do what journaling does, I will not know who I am, and will even forget that I don’t know.
“On the days when I’m not sure what the journey is or why I’m on it, I can still be sure what the journal is and why I write. I can hold onto my journal, write in it, lament and question and celebrate. . . . The format changes, the pens change, the contents vary, the cast of characters comes and goes. Yet this tangible object reminds me that my life is being lived on many levels, it reminds me that I need to act, watch, reflect, write, and then act more clearly. It urges me to remember to pay attention to spirit,” (Baldwin 11)
to the impulses and intuitions that may not be getting things exactly right but that nevertheless have a source in something important.

Sometimes I want to say that it feels like finally taking charge of my own life, finally defining for myself who I am, weeding out the impulse fragments that do not cohere. Or I want to say just the opposite: that it feels like letting go of the illusion of control. Life knows better plans than I can imagine. Much of what I write is to recognize where my clinging is. Recognizing makes possible releasing.

Whether it feels more like taking charge or more like letting go, over time, the repeated noticing of the conversation the mind is having with itself begins to change that conversation.
“One of the greatest powers of journal writing is that over time it helps us notice, influence, and change the conversation the mind is having with itself. This dialogue is nearly constant. All I'm suggesting is that some of it, especially that which is directed to specific questions, is extremely helpful to write down.” (Baldwin 27)
The journal writer’s mission is reclamation:
“to reclaim a sense of place, a sense of empowerment, a sense of healthy relationship between our lives and times.” (15)
I called the journal a companion, for there is a sense of conversation, of dialog, in journaling. It’s common for journalers to give their journal a name, and write entries addressed to the imaginary personage. Anne Frank called hers Kitty.
“Spiritual writing expands the interior conversation of consciousness to include your relationship with the sacred. You are no longer alone on the quest, or on paper. You are in conversation with Something you perceive as beyond, or deep within, yourself.” (23)
There is no map anyone can hand you for your spiritual journey. So you must make your map as you go. As Ponce de Leon, we are voyagers into a new world. As he explored this land we call Florida, having no idea of its coastline, let alone its interiors, he mapped as he went. So must we.

The map we make as we go is a rough sketch of where we have been with maybe some even rougher indications of what may lie ahead, gathered from unreliable scouting reports. Since it shows only the path we’ve traveled, not the surrounding area, not the destination, or possible routes to get there, it doesn’t do much of what we want a good map to do for us. Nevertheless, the map we make as we go is essential in trekking this unchartered wilderness called life. Only with careful attention to where we have been, laying out the experiences of the day so as to clarify their spatial relation to one another, will we be able to recognize, and thus avoid, going in circles. Our journal is our map of where we have been on our spiritual journey – a sketch of the terrain covered during each day, sometimes with some guesses about what may be ahead. Without it, I go in circles and do not even realize that I am.

It is a terrain of questions: questions to explore rather than to answer, to savor rather than resolve. As writer Ingrid Bengis says,
“The real questions are the ones that obtrude upon you consciousness whether you like or not, the ones that make your mind start vibrating like a jackhammer, the ones that you ‘come to terms with’ only to discover that they are still there. The real questions refuse to be placated. They barge into your life at times when it seems most important for them to stay away. They are the questions asked most frequently and answered most inadequately, the ones that reveal their true natures slowly, reluctantly, and most often against your will.”
Questions propel the spiritual quest and mapping them fills the pages. You might sometimes take a journal entry just to list questions you have, big and little:
“What’s for dinner? Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing with my life now? Who am I supposed to be doing it with? Will I have fun? What is the nature of spiritual fun? Will I recognize it when it happens? Is there a God out there, or is God all in here? Is God laughing at all the silly questions I ask? Are these silly questions? Is there life on other planets? Do they care about life on this one? Do I care about life on this one? What would I be willing to give up to save the world? What are life’s real essentials for me?” (36)
“The comfort that comes from questioning is this: even if there isn’t an answer, there is response. There is a sense of the sacred reaching toward us, as we reach toward it. . . . The voice of the sacred appears gently on the page, written in our own handwriting but carrying a message of support and comfort, sometimes challenge, which we do not generate alone” (39)
– at least, the conscious part of us does not generate it alone.

Open the covers, lay the page before you. The soul whispers vieni spirito creatore: come creative spirit. Be with me on this quest to create meaning from the flotsam and jetsam of this, the shipwreck of my life.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, instructs:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . . . Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I like that. I neither find the answer nor have the answer nor know the answer. Rather, I live into my answer -- if, that is, I first put in the time living the question.

Nuts and Bolts

If you are just getting started, your question is: "How do I journal?"

There are two rules.

  • Rule #1: date your entries as you go.
  • Rule #2: don’t make any other rules.

The spirit listeth where it will. Try to get out of its way and let it. Spirit, however, sometimes requires some coaxing to speak up. You must decide upon a discipline. You can change it as you feel the need – yet creative freedom thrives best within a clear framework.

Here are five journaling exercises.

First exercise: timed entries.

Set a timer for 5-7 minutes, and write until the timer goes off. Stop writing when the time is up, even in the middle of a sentence. Close the journal and put it away until the next day. This primes the creative pump, helps give you a sense having more to write than you have yet written.
“The frustration of stopping creates the impetus to write more. You become more interested in the ideas and thoughts you want to put down,” (25)
more eager to get back to the journal. “A week of timed writing will sharpen your writing focus” (25).

Second exercise: flow writing.
“Pick a tangible object from your surroundings and use it as the opening image in your entry. Let your mind free-associate from one thought to the next.” (24)
You can go until you have arrived at a place that feels finished, or you can combine these two exercises, and make this a timed entry. You’re writing the stream of consciousness, “learning to trust that no matter where you start, words will come to you” (25).

Flow writing rides the surface of the stream, rather than diving deep. It glances among tips of icebergs, “touching on thoughts that ride deeply. You can expand the ideas that interest you at a later time.”

Third exercise: Dialog writing.

First, write a question at the top of the page. Take a breath, pause, listen. Write down the first response that comes. Ask follow-up questions, so as to create a rhythm of question-answer, a sense of back-and-forth dialog. Trust yourself to play both roles, to write in multiple voices. If you feel stuck and don’t know where to go next, bring in a third voice – an “overvoice” observer “that comments on how the dialog is developing and helps you see where it needs to go” (26).
“For example, if every time you talk to your exspouse, the two of you reach an impasse, don’t faithfully recite your exact words when you dialog about this situation, but drop beneath the verbal exchange. Ask yourself and ask the other with whom you write: Why do we get stuck at this point? What do you think is going on? How do you suppose we could get beyond this point? What are you willing to do? Here's what I'm willing to do. The more specific the quetion, the more specific the response will be. Dialoguin is such an imporatnt journal-writing tool, it will show up in many variation. Whenever you get stuck in your monolog, open your mind to dialog. You will be amazed at the insight waiting for you to ask instead of tell” (29).
Fourth exercise: Unsent letters.

Most of the time in journaling it is important that your only audience is yourself. If you are thinking that someday your journals will be discovered and published, or read by your descendants, then you begin to self-censor, to tailor yourself to your audience, to push aside the impulses that won’t make sense to them. Journaling is for your eyes only. So even when you imaginatively address yourself to a particular other person, be clear with yourself that this is to be an unsent letter. For your first foray, it might help to address a letter that cannot be sent: address it to yourself as a child, or to a child you never had, or to a fictional character in a novel you love, or to someone you knew who has died.
“The purpose of the unsent letter is to discover what impetus motivated it – which you may not know at the beginning – and decide what you need to do next, having discovered that impetus” (31).
The unsent letter may bring closure to an unresolved area of life – or it may bring new opening to a closed area.

Fifth: gratitude journaling.

I really recommend doing this one once a week. Do something else the other six days, and once a week, simply list things for the last week that you are grateful for. Nurturing the attitude of gratitude moistens the soil from which everything else green and joyful can grow. Please see the New York Times article yesterday (2011 Nov 21) on the value and power of gratitude: click here.


We might think of journaling as the keeping of a ship’s log. Note where you are, or you will be lost at sea.

Come to the edge of the ship's deck.

Through the telescope of the page, gaze out in wonder.

Cast your questions into the deep.
The wide universe is the ocean we travel.
And the earth is our blue boat home.
(Peter Mayer, "Blue Boat Home")


Nurture your Spirit? Help Heal Our World? For real?

Primary spiritual practice is whatever one does just to be doing it -- for its own sake -- without thinking about achieving anything or whether it's being done "right." One's primary spiritual practice can be almost any activity, and primary practices vary widely from person to person. Secondary spiritual practices support, amplify, expand, and deepen the primary practice. Secondary, supportive spiritual practices are much fewer and less individual: there are five of them, and all five are for everyone.
Physical Health, Cognitive-Intellectual Health, 
Emotional-Social Health, and . . . 
Spiritual Health?

About a month ago, I signed up at a web site for brain exercises. It's called lumosity dot com. (Click here.) I log on in the morning and I play a series of brain puzzle games that are supposed to keep my neurons strong. Some of the games exercise memory, others mental flexibility, or problem solving, or speed, or, attention. I don't know if it's really going to improve or help in maintaining cognitive function. But it might. It's only about 15 minutes a day, and it's kinda fun, so it seems worth a shot. And I got LoraKim signed up, too, so we can compare our scores.

I also do some physical exercises -- stretches, sit-ups, go for walks, ride my bike. Brain exercises for cognitive fitness (maybe), and physical exercises for physical fitness (definitely).

Then there's emotional fitness -- also called “emotional intelligence”: the ability to detect and identify emotions in self and others, harness emotions to facilitate the task at hand, and understand the language of emotion, including ability to recognize slight differences between similar emotions. Some of us are really good at that -- others, not so much.

A pyramid showing Physical, Intelligence,
Emotional-social, and Spiritual Quotients
Closely related to “emotional intelligence” or fitness is social intelligence -- because really resonating with someone, clicking with them, is a matter of knowing your feelings, recognizing theirs, and being able to synchronize with the emotion.

There's physical fitness, cognitive fitness, emotional fitness, and social fitness. So: Is there such a thing as Spiritual Fitness – spiritual health, spiritual intelligence? I have two things to say about that.

Number one, yes, there is a way to measure spirituality, and there are exercises to boost your spiritual fitness.

Number two, no, spirituality is not at all one more kind of fitness, and the very idea of spiritual fitness completely misses the point.

First, let’s look at number one: there is spiritual fitness; it can be measured; and training can improve it.

Defining Spiritual Fitness

According to psychologist Robert Cloninger's work in this area, "spirituality" cashes out as self-transcendence -- an orientation toward the elevated, whether that is experienced as compassion, ethics, art, or whether it is experienced as a divine presence. By orienting toward the elevated, we transcend the ego defense mechanisms by which most of us spend our lives governed.

Self-transcendence is the sum of three subscales:
  • self-forgetfulness; 
  • transpersonal identification; and 
  • acceptance.
C. Robert Cloninger (b. 1944)
Self-forgetfulness is the proclivity for becoming so immersed in an activity that the boundary between self and other seems to fall away.

Transpersonal identification is recognizing myself in all things, and all things in myself. As the poet Kabir said, "Everyone knows the drop merges into the ocean, but do you know that the ocean merges into the drop?"

Acceptance is the ability to accept and affirm reality just as it is, even the hard parts, even the painful and tragic parts.

Cloninger has devised a questionnaire to measure self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. Add those three scores together to get the self-transcendence score. Voilá, we have measured "spiritual fitness."

(See Wikipedia's entries on Robert Cloninger, here
and on Cloninger's Temperament and Character Inventory [TCI] here
More on the TCI is here.
You can take the TCI on-line [payment required] here.)

Many different phrases have been used to express the spiritual capacity – the capacity to:
  • see beyond walls,
  • commune with divine mystery,
  • experience an internal caress,
  • hear our deeper consciousness,
  • experience epiphanies,
  • become awake,
  • usher ourselves into right relationship with life,
  • open our heart to life's blessed mysteries,
  • foster a greater love of self and greater caring for neighbor and earth.
According to Cloninger, what we’re really talking about with these metaphorical and poetic phrases, is self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance.

Now let me say where all of this seems to me to miss the point, to go astray.

The Paradox of "Spiritual Fitness": Judging Ourselves for Being Too Judgmental

Our culture has a mania for self-improvement -- whether it's in the physical area, the cognitive, the emotional, or the social. Get more physically fit: Exercise, diet. Be smarter, train your brain for greater memory, speed, attention, flexibility, and problem-solving. Hone your emotional skills, sharpen your social skills. Here's what you need to do to win friends, influence people, get the promotion, achieve success, make your marriage work and/or get that cute man or woman to notice you, find fulfillment, be energized, get the respect you deserve, prevent wax build-up, and fight tooth decay.

These are the themes that fill the shelves of the self-help section. There's even a self-help book on how to write a bestselling self-help book -- because, you don't really have it all together unless you have written a book to explain it to the rest of us.

Over and over we are told: whoever you are, you're not good enough. Wherever you are on life's journey, you really ought to be further along by now. Whatever your grief or burden or wounding, get over it. Get fixed.

Oddly, at the same very same cultural historical juncture at which we judge ourselves unworthy at every turn, we are also more prone to judge ourselves greater than we are.

Ninety-three percent of US drivers identify themselves as above-average drivers. Ninety-four percent of college professors believe they have above-average teaching skills.

"In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a 'very important person.' By the '90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were" (David Brooks, citing Jean M. Twenge, New York Times, 2011 Mar 11. Click here.) And it's no wonder: our young people, more than any previous generation, have been "bathed in messages telling them how special they are."

We think we're better than most others -- better than average -- and at the same time, think we're not good enough. We yearn to be further and further above average -- which means more and more distance (perceived distance anyway) between ourselves and other people. There is actually no contradiction: we simply judge ourselves inadequate, and we judge other people – average people – even worse. Our more agrarian great-grandparents were certainly capable of passing judgment, but I don’t think it consumed their lives as often as our judgmentalism consumes ours.

There is a place for judgment, evaluation, good-bad, better-worse -- and there always will be. Judging Mind has important work to do. The problem is that it works overtime. Judging Mind seems to want to take over when what we would like it to take is a break. Spirituality is about seeing the appropriate, limited role for judgment -- while also holding in our awareness the wider context within which judgment has its little corner. That wider context transcends our petty assessments of better and worse.

Your spirit is the part of you that understands that you are good enough – that you are, in fact, perfect – and any approach that says spirituality is one more area where you’ve got to get better undermines the very spirituality it purports to encourage.

We might look back on moments of self-forgetfulness and realize we were performing very well. At the time, in the moment, we weren't thinking about our performance as good or bad. We had lost the sense of being a separate self to judge better or worse and were just flowing, like a current in a river that has no concept of itself as separate from the rest of the river or from the rest of the earth's waterways. As soon as the thought enters your head, "hey, I'm playing superb tennis today," or "I'm painting a real masterpiece here," the spell is broken.

Transpersonal identification is recognition that we are the other -- and there's no place there for judging ourselves better than others, better than average.

Spirituality involves acceptance, the affirmation and embrace of reality exactly as it is, not judging ourselves or others as needing to be better.

That's why I say the very idea of spiritual fitness misses the point. We aren't going to learn to be nonjudgmental by judging ourselves for being too judgmental. The spiritual path is not about fixing something that's broken about you. It's about the abiding truth that you aren't broke, and don't need fixing. You really are perfect exactly the way you are, and couldn't possibly be any better.

Here I am with my judging mind, asking: How can I turn off this judging mind? I can't make it happen. However I might characterize it -- being awake, more epiphanies, inner peace -- I can't make that happen. As soon as I think there is such a thing as a separate me, and soon as I judge it as not spiritually healthy enough, I have erected an impassable barrier. My very effort to take it down is what makes it stronger. I'm telling myself: "Try harder . . . not to try so hard."

It's Not Up to You. Except the Part That Is.

I love Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalists, and have committed my life to our faith. I love us, and I do want us to be all we can be. I know that one criticism of UUs goes like this:
Unitarian Universalists are dabblers and dilettantes -- highly knowledgeable and intellectually curious, but spiritually rather frivolous. They seem to think they understand the taste of the food just from reading the cookbook. They seem to believe they'll get strong muscles by attending a lecture on weightlifting. UUs, by and large, are not serious about their spiritual development.
Some of that criticism is unfair. The criticism results from misunderstanding the way that valuing diversity works. Our commitment to diversity and our appreciation of the rich rewards of a diverse community do not mean that each individual UU is required to be uncommitted to anything other than diversity itself. It does mean that a UU’s spiritual practices include cultivation of, and delight in, affectionate relationships with others with different practices, perspectives, and understandings. "Include" does not mean "are limited to." Unfortunately, too many UUs themselves seem to have accepted the misunderstanding and approach religious life as if diverse community were sufficient. Thus, the criticism has some partial truth to it. So here's what I want us to know:

Number one, know that it's not up to you. You can't make it happen. You can't fix yourself. Indeed, you're not broken, and can't possibly be any better. That's the first lesson, and that's also the last lesson, because only in rare moments do most of us manage to truly believe that.

Number two, in order to really "get" number one, there are some things that are up to you. There are spiritual practices. Why would I do practices since I'm already perfect? I might start doing them because I don't feel perfect. As contradictory as it is to judge myself for being too self-judgmental, that's exactly what I do.

Embrace Your Demons

I began spiritual practice because I was beset by my various demons. I had been fighting them for years, and was not winning. Apparent victories were temporary, fleeting. The fighting just gave the demons a good work-out and made them stronger.

Spiritual practices are ways to stop fighting. If I embrace my demons instead of fighting them, then they aren’t such a problem for me, or for the others in my life.

I can't make this happen, but what I can do is practice stepping back to see what my fears, my insecurities, my judgments of inadequacy might do on their own if all I do is steadily acknowledge them. They start to fade away on their own. Of course, they don't entirely leave. They come back for visits. They send me a card on my birthday. (They're so thoughtful, these demons!)

I sit and try to notice the thoughts and feelings that arise: "There's judgment. Again. There's the judgment that I shouldn't have judgment. Again."  Don't resist, just notice.

Will that do anything?

Ah, this is why we call it faith. I take the leap of faith of opening myself to all those demons, opening my heart to the unknown, trusting that they will sort themselves out as they need to. I can't make myself be at peace. What I can do is pay loving attention to the things that give me turmoil. What I discover is that the waves gradually get smaller, and further apart.

Nothing to Attain: The Primary Spiritual Practice

We might start a spiritual practice wanting our spiritual muscles strong, toned, trim, and limber. If we do keep at it, we might gradually come to see that there's nothing to attain – except the knowledge that there’s nothing to attain.

A visitor to a Zen center heard the master give a dharma talk saying Zen is about being ordinary. Afterwards the visitor asked the master, “Ordinary? So, then, what is the difference between you and me?”
The master said, “There is no difference – only, I know that.”

We do the practice not to attain something. We do the practice just to do the practice. Dishwashing becomes spiritual practice when you aren't washing the dishes to get them clean; you are washing the dishes to wash the dishes.

There are many, many forms of spiritual practice. There's the traditional idea of spiritual practices: Bible study,  prayer. Unitarian Universalists have many other spiritual practices: yoga, martial arts, social action, vegetarianism, living simply, cooking, eating, not eating (fasting), quilting, art. There's gardening, hiking in the woods, walking along the beach, playing a musical instrument or singing or listening attentively to music. Any number of things can be spiritual practices if they are approached with a deliberate intention to get out of our judging mind for a while, and just accept, affirm, and appreciate -- allow self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification to come over us if they will.

Think about something you do just to be doing it, something you do without thinking about achieving anything, without thinking about whether you're doing it the way you supposedly should be doing it. There's your spiritual practice. It is the place in your life where you are liberated from your own judgmentalism, freed from the pursuit of goals and purposes, and allowed to bask in just being.

It feels nice, doesn't it?

And then there's all the rest of life.

Five Secondary Spiritual Practices for Everyone

Maybe you would like to infuse all of your life with a bit more of that spirit. As I say, we can't make that happen. All we can do is invite it to happen. There are five particular practices to invite our spirituality to infuse more of our lives. Whatever your main spiritual practice is, these five supplemental practices will provide a foundation for it. Our main spiritual practices are highly varied -- these five support practices I recommend for every single one of us as a way to strengthen and extend your spiritual practice and your "spiritual fitness."
  1. Journaling
  2. Reading
  3. Silence
  4. Group
  5. Mindfulness
First, journaling. Fifteen minutes a day. There are many different approaches to journaling. Here's a simple starter plan. Six days a week, “just keep the pen moving.” Write whatever comes to mind for 15 minutes. Then, on the seventh day, list in your journal five things that week that you are grateful for.

Noticing is the key to spiritual acceptance, and writing down whatever comes to your mind is helpful for noticing what is alive in you. (My further reflections on journaling: click here.)

Second: "Scripture" study -- with a very wide understanding of "scripture." Again, 15 minutes a day. Select a text of “wisdom literature.” The scriptures of any of the world’s religions are worthy texts for spiritual study. The Dao De Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hebrew Bible's book of Psalms are wonderful places to start. Also worthy would be books like Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, or reflections like Thomas Merton's, or poems of Rumi, Hafiz, or Kabir, or writings by St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh. Any of these will do nicely. Choose works that resonate with you, and commit to study them a few minutes every day.

What this does is enlist your cognitive capacity to assist your spiritual. We live through our days full of ideas and concepts -- and most of them are connected to some form of judgment, some form of not wanting things to be as they are. Wisdom literature helps give us some concepts that can nudge some of those other concepts a little bit into the background more often.

Third, silence. Another 15 minutes a day. I know, this is adding up -- and, gosh, aren't we all too busy anyway? Who has time for stuff that has no purpose? I can't answer that. When the quest for peace is urgent, the time is not the issue.

Find a posture that will allow you to remain still. Bring attention to your breath. When (not if) your thoughts wander, simply notice where they wandered to and return to your breath. This simple practice begins to cultivate awareness of your own thoughts – and helps you get to know the true person you are that is so much more than just your thoughts.

Fourth, group practice. Monthly is good. Bi-weekly is better. Go weekly, if you can manage it. A group that shares in your primary spiritual practice, whatever it may be, is a great boon for deepening in that practice. If walking on the beach is where you have had the best luck experiencing serenity, get together a beach-walking group -- in addition to having some time to walk alone. If it's cooking, get in a cooking club -- only, be sure it's a cooking club that intentionally approaches cooking in a spiritual way.

Just as study helped enlist your cognitive to assist your spiritual, the group experience enlists your social brain on behalf of the spiritual. And that helps invite the spiritual to infuse more of your life. It's so important to know that you're not going it alone!

Fifth, resolve for mindfulness. Continuously. Develop the habit of bringing yourself back to the present moment whenever you find that you’re somewhere else. These are not the practices that will make you perfect. You’re already perfect. They might not change anything at all -- and that's going to be discouraging for that judging mind that wants results.

My intention is for my Judging Mind to just do its job and stop being such a totalitarian tyrant. I can't make that happen, I can only keep inviting it, over and over, day after day, year after year.

My faith is that an awakened life is possible. I am called toward that possibility -- not because it's better -- that would be a judgment -- but just because it is who I am.

Nurturing my spirit. Helping heal our world. For real?

For real.

* * *
For a somewhat revised and expanded version, posted in seven parts, begin here.


November 11: Armistice Day

Eleven! Eleven! Eleven!

It's a day we call Veterans Day. It began as Armistice Day -- commemorating the armistice that ended World War I on 1918 November 11. Armistice: A cessation of hostilities as a prelude to peace negotiations. On the first anniversary of the WWI armistice (1919 Nov 11), President Woodrow Wilson announced:
"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."
Notice the double purpose of Armistice Day: (1) to honor the veterans, and (2) to show our "sympathy with peace and justice."

World War I was thought -- hoped -- to be the "war that ends all wars." No such luck, it turned out. Still, the idea of ending war, of governing our world nonviolently, of spreading peace and justice across the globe should not be forgotten.

In 1954, the US government changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. The motive to honor all veterans, not just the World War I vets, was nice. But in the process, the other function of Armistice Day was lopped off. Attention was diverted away from "armistice" -- the laying down of arms, the ending of hostilities, the commitment to peace.

The hopes that lifted the hearts of North Americans and Europeans 93 years ago at the end of WWI may have seemed, by the 1950s, sadly deluded -- perhaps even a cruel hoax. The US had been through the carnage of WWII, and then embroiled itself in a Korean War for three years. The notion of ending all war seemed hopeless and unrealistic. The attitude was: war is going to go on, and on, for as far into the future as imaginable -- so let's just commemorate the courageous ones who fight our wars for us.

The building of peace is much tougher than many Americans in 1918 knew -- the skills of peacemaking require much more development. But the task of peace and justice (for no peace will be lasting, or worthy, without justice) should not be abandoned. Unitarian Universalists committed to that task with a 2010 Statement of Conscience, "Creating Peace." On this November 11, please re-read and re-commit to that statement -- click here.

So today I am celebrating Armistice Day. I honor the fire of youth -- the energy, the camaraderie, the commitment to a cause, the way they can fling themselves so passionately into harm's way. I acknowledge that it has been a while since our country has actually deployed that fire to protect the freedom of US residents, but I honor the effort and training and bravery that our veterans have displayed nevertheless. I also take this day to recommit to armistice; to lay down all instruments of violence; to promise again to myself and my world to forego thoughts, words, and deeds that treat a being as an object or diminish any being's sense of value or security; to truly walk the path of nonviolence.

* * * *
It's November 11, it's 1918, it's Armistice Day, and I,
I would have no arms.
I would have no legs.
I would live in Europe, Asia, America, south and north, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and all the wide deep blacken blue oceans.
I would have no Western front.
I would name myself Peace Among the Nations.
Finally undisappointable,
Hanging over the beleaguered of nations like a happy gracious fog, I would
Penetrate everywhere.
I would weigh you down with uplifting serenity.
I would double you four times, Woodrow Wilson World War.
All ate of you, consumed by love, would have a thousand arms each reaching and embracing every dying soldier every wailing mother every broken-legged horse, enfolding them in doesn't-change-a-thing compassion.
I would have no arms.
* * * *


Shaken And Stirred, 007?

We are 007 -- that is, Oh! Oh! Seven billion! According to the UN, the world population has reached 7 billion. That's a lot of people.

To put this in historical context: In 1350, estimated total world population, following a number of years of famines and the Bubonic plague, was down to 370 million. A mere 661 years later, it is 2011, and we have almost 20 times that number of people.

(Interesting aside: 661 years is about 30 generations. The folks living in 1350 were my 28th-great-grandparents. Since the number of my ancestors doubles with each generation, then I have slots for over 1 billion 28th-great-grandparents. Each of the the 370 million people on the earth in 1350 would appear in an average of three slots on my family tree -- and that's true of each of the 7 billion of us alive today.)

In 1804, world population reached 1 billion.
123 years later, 1927, we reached 2 billion.
The next billion took only 33 years to add: in 1960 we reached 3 billion.
And the fourth billion took us only 14 years: 1974: 4 billion.
We reached 5 billion in 1987, and 6 billion in 1999.

We've been adding an additional billion people every dozen years since 1987. The total numbers are going up, but the rate of growth is declining. From 5 billion to 6 billion is a 20 percent increase while 6 billion to 7 billion is a 16.7 percent increase -- yet both the 6th and the 7th billion took 12 years.

In fact, the growth rate peaked in 1963 at 2.2 percent per year. Does 2.2 percent per year seem mild? During the 1960s, Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, attracted a lot of attention, yet 2.2 percent per year might not seem very explosive. If the economy is growing at only 2.2 percent per year, that's regarded as sub-par: average US economic growth was 3.8 percent per year for the first 27 post-war years (1946 - 1973), and has averaged 2.7 percent per year since then (1974 - 2010).

However, it takes only a constant growth rate of 0.45 percent per year to get from 370 million to 7 billion in 661 years.

Here's a breakdown of that 0.45 percent overall Average Growth Per Year (AGPY):
AGPY for the 454 years, 1350 - 1804: 0.22 percent
AGPY for 123 years, 1804 - 1927: 0.57 percent
AGPY for 33 years, 1927 -1960: 1.24 percent
AGPY for 14 years, 1960 - 1974: 2.08 percent
AGPY for 13 years, 1974 - 1987: 1.73 percent
AGPY for 12 years, 1987 - 1999: 1.53 percent
AGPY for 12 years, 1999 - 2011: 1.29 percent

So the population growth rate is slowly coming down from its peak -- but is still higher than the AGPY  between 1927 and 1960 -- or any period before that. In fact, a growth rate of 1.29 percent per year would still produce a population doubling every 54 years. If the AGPY of the last 12 years were to continue, we'd reach 14 billion (twice the current population) by 2065, like so:
2022    8 billion
2031    9 billion
2039    10 billion
2047    11 billion
2054    12 billion
2060    13 billion
2065    14 billion

Fortunately, this is not  likely. The growth rate has been declining since 1963 and is expected to continue to decline. The US Census Bureau projects that we'll reach 8 billion in 2027 (rather than 2022), and 9 billion in 2046 (rather than in 2031). Most of the studies predict the growth rate to reach zero around mid-century. World population would then flatten out around 9 or 10 billion, and may even begin to decline a bit.

Education -- particularly the empowerment of women is a crucial variable. The more we can accelerate empowerment of  women, then the sooner we'll see a variety of positive developments, including faster declines in the population growth rate.

Can the earth support 9 or 10 billion of us? Can it even support, sustainably, the present 7 billion of us? If all 7 billion people consumed resources at the rate of the average US lifestyle, the answer is clearly no. It would take 5.3 earths to supply 7 billion people with what the average US resident gets. 

So. One of  the following must occur:

1 - Sharp population declines. We'd have to get down to less than 1.5 billion if the one earth that we have were to supply us all at a level of the average US citizen; or
2 - Substantial reductions in consumption for the wealthy. Those who consume at or above the US average will need to adopt lifestyles consuming less than a fifth of what we now consume; or
3 - Massive poverty for the majority. We might try continuing to let a few people consume vastly disproportionate shares of the resources by forcing 90 percent or so to live in poverty; or
4 - Some combination of #1, #2, and/or #3; or
5 - We'll run out of earth -- with attendant massive famines, resource wars, etc.

Your assignment, Agent 007 -- the assignment of the oh, oh, seven billion agents on the planet -- is to avoid #5. We also need to avoid #3 as much as possible. The risk of instability, unrest, and violence -- not to mention the moral wrong -- of #3 should be avoided. #1 ain't gonna happen -- unless #5 happens first, thereby causing #1. So that leaves #2 -- or some form of #4 that consists mostly of #2.

That's what we gotta do. It's enough to leave us shaken. But will we be stirred to accept this assignment?

Start by learning more:
Good introduction to the population issue: here
Ian Angus and Simon Butler argue that enviornmental crises come much more from the wealthiest 1 percent than from the rest of the 7 billion: here.
Article about Bill McKibben's take on climate change and population: here.



Scary! Tomorrow is Halloween. Will you be choosing the trick? Or the treat?

Life is such a treat – yet sometimes we choose the trick. We choose to trick ourselves into allowing the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid instead of letting them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what is scary.

Ah, Halloween! Ghosts, goblins, spiders, haunted houses. It’s a strange holiday, isn’t it? Every culture has its celebrations, festivals, holidays, but modern Halloween in the United States is just bizarre – celebrating, as it does, a roughly equal mix of fear and chocolate.

Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy!
Dressing in costume and going door-to-door begging!
Pumpkins, candied apples!
The day of the dead! Samhain! The evening before all saints’ day, or all hallows’ day.

Through the accidents of history, a lot of very different things are all cobbled together and called “Halloween.” If there is a center, it’s: Being Scary. For the children, it may be a way for helping them cope with their fears. By dressing up as something that scares them, they move toward accepting their own fears. Dress up as a monster, get a bag of candy, and monsters aren’t so frightening anymore.

It works for children. Maybe it would work for us, too. What is that you’re afraid of? What bogeymen haunt your dreams? Maybe it would help grown-ups to dress up as the things that we are scared of. We worry about our health. We worry about our finances. Disease, and running out of money take the place of zombies and werewolves as the things that scare us. It might seem self-indulgent, or in bad taste, or insensitive, maybe, to dress up as a cancer cell, put on the costume of a osteoporotic bone. Or maybe we could dress up as a bank statement with a zero balance. If we had a costume party and dressed up as the things that scare us, it would not make the fears go away – but it might help the fear weigh a little more lightly. Or maybe we could go door to door dressed up as the thing that most scares us, and instead of candy, at each house, have a little wine. What we can bring right out in the open and laugh about we can live with more comfortably, don’t you think?

Go to the places that scare you. That was the advice of a Tibetan spiritual teacher. He said:
“Confess your hidden faults. Approach what you find repulsive. Help those you think you cannot help. Anything you are attached to, let it go. Go to the places that scare you.”
 Go to the places that scare you – that’s kind of what children do at Halloween, dressing up in scary costumes. They’re plunging into the places that frighten. So maybe us adults should try it. Maybe the thing that scares us most is loss. How could there be a costume for that? Loss has touched each of us – and it was no fun – and we are afraid of losses to come. We have lost, and will lose again. Living means losing. Out of our very loss, we are able to turn to each other, reach out, take hands and enter into covenantal relation of community.

The Rev. John Corrado, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Michigan, writes:
In a culture that worships winners,
Some people say the church is a place for losers –
And they are right!
This is a place for losers!
This is a place for people who have
Lost their hair,
Lost their teeth,
Lost their memories,
Lost their savings,
Lost their jobs.
It is a place for people who have
Lost their parents,
Lost the love of their life,
And even lost their children.
It’s a place for people who have
Lost their way,
Lost their faith,
And, worst of all, lost all hope.
This is a place for losers – us!
Let’s see who we are
And how we are
And how much we need and can help one another.
We are the losers.
God bless us, every one!
"This is a place for losers!" So "Let’s see who we are And how we are. And how much we need and can help one another." From the very loss we fear emerges the community we need.

We’re also afraid of failure. Yet failure is a good thing. I don’t mean that failure is good because we learn from it, and pave the way for success. I suppose that failure does pave the way for success, but it’s equally true that success paves the way for failure. A character in Tom Robbins’ novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, put it this way:
“…if you have any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. Embrace failure! Seek it out! Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.”
Paving the way for success is not the point of failure, any more than paving the way for failure is the point of success. The point of failure is to set you free. Its message, if we will but hear it, is that what you are is enough. You don’t need more. As the losses come: hair, memory, health – at each step, what we are left with is somehow also enough. Yet fear constricts our lives, shuts out the beauty that is all around us right now by filling our consciousness with a future in which we’ve lost something we cling to, or have gained something we really didn’t want.

More precisely, it isn't fear that constricts our lives, it is we ourselves who do that in an attempt to make the fear go away. "If I stay within my protected cocoon, then I won't experience fear," we think. The genius of Halloween is its encouragement to go toward our fear rather than pull back from it -- for the pulling back is what constricts our lives. When we simply experience fear just as it is -- without wanting it to go away, without fighting it, without the judgments and opinions and reactions that we throw up to protect ourselves from it -- then fear isn't nearly so frightening.

Let’s look again to the children. The lessons we try to impart to them, are the lessons we still need. You remember Robert Fulghum’s 1988 book: All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten? It’s so true. Be kind. Say please and thank you. Remember to flush. The seed in the paper cup – the shoot goes up and the roots go down. Hold hands when you cross the street. Stick together. Take naps. Play some and work some everyday. Share your toys. As grown-ups, we so often forget the very lessons that we teach our children.

So let me share with you a children’s story about fear.
Let’s remember together the lessons simple enough for children.
Scaredy Squirrel, by Melanie Watt.
Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree.
He’d rather stay in his safe and familiar tree than risk venturing out into the unknown.
The unknown can be a scary place for a squirrel.
A few things Scaredy Squirrel is afraid of: Tarantulas. Poison Ivy. Green martians. Killer bees. Germs. Sharks.
So he’s perfectly happy to stay right where he is.
Advantages of never leaving the nut tree: Great view. Plenty of nuts. Safe place. No tarantulas, poison ivy, green martians, killer bees, germs, or sharks.
Disadvantages of never leaving the nut tree: Same old view. Same old nuts. Same old place.
In Scaredy Squirrel's nut tree, every day is the same. Everything is predictable. All is under control.
Scaredy Squirrel’s daily routine:
6:45am: Wake up.
7:00am: Eat a nut.
7:15am: Look at view.
Noon: Eat a nut.
12:30pm: Look at view.
5:00pm: Eat a nut.
5:31pm: Look at view.
8:00pm: Go to sleep.
But let’s just say, for example, that something unexpected did happen. You can rest assured that this squirrel is prepared.
A few items in Scaredy Squirrel’s emergency kit: Parachute. Bug spray. Mask and rubber gloves. Hard hat. Antibacterial soap. Calamine lotion. Net. Band aid. Sardines.
What to do in case of an emergency, according to Scaredy Squirrel:
Step 1: Panic.
Step 2: Run.
Step 3: Get kit.
Step 4: Put on kit.
Step 5: Consult exit plan.
Step 6: Exit tree (if there is absolutely, definitely, truly no other option).
Exit plan: Top Secret
Exit 1: Parachute. Note to self: Watch out for green martians and killer bees in the sky.
Exit 2: Note to self: Do not land in river. If unavoidable, use sardines to distract sharks.
Exit 3: Note to self: Look out for poison ivy and for tarantulas roaming the ground.
Exit 4: Note to self: Keep in mind that germs are everywhere.
Remember: If all else fails, playing dead is always a good option.
With his emergency kit in hand, Scaredy Squirrel watches. Day after day, he watches, until one day… Thursday. 9:37am. A killer bee appears.
Scaredy Squirrel jumps in panic, knocking the emergency kit out of the tree. This was NOT part of the plan. Scaredy Squirrel jumps to catch his kit. He quickly regrets this idea. The parachute is in the kit. But something incredible happens. He starts to glide. Scaredy Squirrel is a flying squirrel. Scaredy Squirrel forgets all about the killer bee, not to mention the tarantulas, poison ivy, green martians, germs, and sharks. He feels overjoyed, adventurous, carefree, alive. Until he lands in a bush, and plays dead. 30 minutes, 1 hour, two hours.
Finally, Scaredy Squirrel realizes that nothing horrible is happening in the unknown today.
So he returns to his nut tree.
All this excitement has inspired Scaredy Squirrel to make drastic changes to his life.
Scaredy Squirrel new and improved daily routine.
6:45am Wake up.
7:00am Eat a nut.
7:15am Look at view.
9:37am Jump into the unknown.
9:45am: Play dead.
11:45am: Return home.
Noon: Eat a nut.
12:30pm: Look at view.
5:00pm: Eat a nut.
5:31pm: Look at view.
8:00pm: Go to sleep.
P.S. As for the emergency kit, Scaredy Squirrel is in no hurry to pick it up just yet. (It fell into a patch of poison ivy.)
That's a helpful story for kids -- and for grown-ups. All we really need to know, we learned as kids -- or we could have learned, had we had stories like Scaredy Squirrel.

"Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree. He’d rather stay in his safe and familiar tree than risk venturing out into the unknown." The unknown is filled with scary things. Maybe the fears of your life lately have not included tarantulas, poison ivy, green martians, killer bees, germs, or sharks. Whatever it is, the fear, or your attempt to avoid fear, keeps you from life.

What do children learn from the Scaredy Squirrel story?

One. Plans are silly. The glory of life is most present when we stop pretending to be in control, stop trying to control everything, jump into the unknown. That’s what faith is about. Faith is not about believing without evidence. Faith is the act of opening our hearts to the unknown. Faith is about taking that leap. So faith is the antidote of fear.

Two: Fearlessness is our unfinished project. Scaredy squirrel has learned to jump into the unknown. At exactly 9:37am. And then he plays dead for two hours. He has let some of his fear fall away, but he is not yet living in each moment, present to what is there without trying to control it, creatively open to engaging in joy with what’s there, whether it be killer bees, poison ivy, or green martians. Scaredy squirrel has more work to do. I know. Because I'm Scaredy Squirrel. And I know I have more work to do. I can tell myself: live life as an experiment. Inquisitive. Open. Curious about everything. Flexible. But telling myself that reminder quickly fades. It takes doing the work to build the habit of openness into our lives.

What’s scary is THE UNKNOWN. Learning more about whatever you are afraid of can help, but that’s not real liberation. Real liberation is in our attitude to the unknown. Liberation comes from having a heart of faith -- that is, a heart that is ready to open to the unknown.

The Zen monastic, Fayan, lived from 885 to 958. He studied under Dizang. After a number of years with Dizang, one day Fayan went to tell Dizang that he was leaving.

“Where are you going?” asked Dizang.

“Around on pilgrimage,” said Fayan.

“What is the purpose of pilgrimage,” said Dizang.

“I don’t know,” said Fayan.

“Not knowing is most intimate.”

Intimacy. Leaping into the unknown might help you learn some things about that world out there that had previously been unknown. You don’t know: go out and learn. Sure, that’s valuable. That’s great. It is not, however, the intimacy that Dizang was talking about. It’s not about, "go get one more bit of knowledge and add it to the stockpile so as to diminish the realm of unknown." It’s about bringing an openness to every moment.

Every moment is filled with the unknown – even when all we do is cower in our nut tree. In fact, knowing about something can get in the way of learning about it. Oh, that’s a pine tree. I know about pine trees. Evergreen. Pine needles. Flaky bark. And then you’re not open to what that particular experience of a pine tree might offer. There’s a saying, attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism.
"For knowledge, add. For wisdom, subtract." 
To grow truly wise is an ongoing project of paring away your conceptions, peeling back what you’ve learned before, so as to more closely – more intimately – approach what’s right here now. Not knowing is most intimate. In the space of not knowing is the liberation.

Loss and sadness come – and we can take them in as one more experience of life.

Pema Chodron tells the story of being a child herself. Six years old, walking in her neighborhood one day feeling lonely and unloved. A neighbor woman saw her and laughed and said, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”

So Pema writes years later:
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” 
And I think each of us have known people who made each of those choices. I think you know people who experienced a deep loss or failure, and it hardened them. They became the disillusioned cynic. Nothing in life was ever again beautiful or good enough for them.

If you are lucky, you have also known people who were able to go the other way – like my friend I'll call "Clare" [Mentioned in previous post, "The Upsides and Downsides of Spirituality."] Clare had one daughter, Zoe, a love of her life and shining light of her heart. Zoe grew up, went away to college. Clare and Zoe remained close, spoke often by phone. Zoe was 20, still in college, living in an apartment, when an intruder broke in and murdered her. Clare felt that loss as deeply as a human heart can feel. She lost her child! She wept, wailed, and cried curses to the heavens. She also knew how to do her work. She knew how to go to the places that scare. She understood grieving, and was able to be with her feelings instead of wanting to push them away. There was no denying that rebuilding a life of meaning and hope for Clare was hard and slow work that, at some level will never end, yet Clare had a deliberate plan for doing that work – various spiritual practices. I first met Clare two years after the tragedy. I know her as a woman of remarkable joy, a ready laugh, and a lovely friend.
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” 
What do you choose?
Trick or treat?