Only Love Is Big Enough to Hold All the Pain of This World

Sharon Salzberg tells a story of going to India in 1970. She says:
“The most shocking experience I had was when I found myself walking down a street in Mumbai where young women were displayed in zoolike cages to be sold as prostitutes. May of them were children who had been sold by their relatives to the criminal organizations who control the sex trade in India, so that the children’s families would not starve.”
They were consigned to lives of misery, shortened, perhaps mercifully, by sexually transmitted disease or abuse or malnutrition.
“The powerlessness of women in the culture means that prostitutes who ask men to use condoms might well starve, and wives who do so might be beaten or simply put out on the street.”
We know that putting it out of our minds only ensures the suffering continues. Yet we also find that putting it IN our minds can be overwhelming. And what good is helpless despair?
“In order to do anything about the world, we first must have the strength to face it without turning away…. By opening to the pain we see around us with wisdom and compassion, we start to experience the intimate connection of our relationship with all beings...”
Sharon Salzberg discovered, she says, that,
“in some subtle but very real way, my own suffering and freedom from suffering are clearly interwoven with being willing to face the pain of those caged children in Mumbai, as well as facing my own disquiet in becoming aware of their situation. The shift in my worldview to include them – rather than ignore them or reject them as not having anything to do with me – is the same shift in perspective that dispels our deeply held mirage of isolation…. It is only by not denying reality that we move into a knowledge of our interconnection with the whole of life.When we relate with wisdom and compassion, there we find true shelter in a community of all beings. Opening to the suffering of others may bring us uneasiness, but we, and potentially the world, are transformed by that opening. We become empowered to respond to the suffering with an unfathomable love, rather than with fear or aversion. Only love is big enough to hold all the pain of this world."
Opening to the suffering opens us to love, and brings a surprising joy. I don’t mean to say that other people’s suffering is a tool for your happiness – because the equally vital other half of the story is that your connection and peace is a tool for easing others’ suffering. Both halves of the story are true: true when it comes to large-scale social injustice; true, also, when it comes to one-on-one care. A son tending to his dying father writes:
“For the remaining months of his life we were totally at peace and comfortable together. No more self-consciousness. No unfinished business. I usually seemed to know just what was needed. I could feed him, shave him, bathe him, hold him up to fix the pillows – all these very intimate things that had been so hard for me earlier. In a way, this was my father’s final gift to me: the chance to see him as something more than my father; the chance to see the common identity of spirit we both shared; the chance to see just how much that makes possible in the way of love and comfort. And I feel I can call on it now with anyone else.” (from Ram Dass, How Can I Help?)
The transforming power of his love transformed the son.

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Part 5 of "Transforming Power"
Next: Part 5: "Then We Will Know What We're Here For"
Previous: Part 4: "Flip Sides of the Same Coin"
Beginning: Part 1: "Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams"


Flip Sides of the Same Coin

At a recent installment of that conversation about who we are, where we're going, and what is ours to do, we were talking about evil.

Liberals are also called progressives – we believe in the progress. We have an optimistic view of human capacity. As liberal religionists, we stand against John Calvin’s idea of “total depravity” – that basic human nature is depraved, corrupt, utterly unable to do anything good on its own, and thus utterly dependent on unearned and unearnable grace from God. Instead, we view our ourselves as capable of learning and moral improvement.

The danger is that a rosy assessment of humanity’s goodness might blind us to the harm we do. James Luther Adams, that great 20th-century Unitarian theologian, went to Germany in 1935. As a result of what he saw, he gave us powerful teachings about evil -- the human capacity to do harm. He helped us understand better than we ever had before, that the way to respond to Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity is not to turn our backs on the ways we are doing harm, but to turn our faces toward the ways we are doing harm; not to deny the powers and structures of evil; but to confront them with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

I asked the group whether they thought the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville had enough awareness of the wrongs going on. There seemed to be a general consensus that we don’t. There was also the sense that what we need from each other – when we gather for Worship and in various smaller groups – is not a deadening litany of details of human awfulness, but a message of hope and uplift.

So. Are we here to comfort the afflicted, or afflict the comfortable? Are we here to save the world, or to savor the world? Peace, beauty, joy? Or: confronting evil, toiling to ease suffering, sounding the alarm to let others know about the awful and preventable harms being inflicted? Inner peace – or outer justice? Both, of course – and they are flip sides of the same coin. There it is, in that final phrase of the second source: the transforming power of love.

When you first read that – "confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love" -- maybe you were thinking like this:
"There’s us: the good people, the right-thinking ones, and then there’s those evil oppressors. We good guys have to confront the bad guys. Instead of drawing our six-shooters, though, let us confront them with love and transform them."
Uh. No.

While the strategy of loving them into submission is arguably an improvement over shooting them, the whole “us” and “them” thing is simply a recapitulation of the very oppression we like to think we are resisting. When I am able to bring love to a situation, it is I who is transformed. Whether this transforming power transforms the other is a big maybe – and isn’t up to us. Love transforms those who love.

And we thus arrive at the comfort by facing full-on the affliction. We savor the world by saving it.

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Part 4 of "Transforming Power"
Next: Part 5: "Only Love Is Big Enough to Hold All the Pain of This World"
Previous: Part 3: "Why Did Channing Go to Baltimore?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams"


Why Did Channing Go To Baltimore?

The living tradition we share includes words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. We’re having an important conversation in the “Engaged Spirituality” class that meets once a month on the second Tuesday evening. (The next one will be Tuesday March 13, 6:00pm). We’re talking about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, what is the nature of liberal religion. It’s our own version of, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?" Why did William Ellery Channing go to Baltimore?

William Ellery Channing, 1780 - 1842
Channing was a Boston minister. In 1819, we went down to Baltimore to deliver the manifesto of a new denomination, and thus the Unitarian church in America was born. Why? What if he hadn’t? What is it for? What difference does it make?

Two centuries later, we are the inheritors of this liberal religious movement. It has evolved a bit since Channing’s time. It comes to us in its present form: what are we supposed to do with it? What does liberal religion ask of us?

We gather here in Gainesville, and in about 1,000 other rooms across the continent every Sunday morning. We are Unitarian Universalism today. So what? What do we do with this tradition bequeathed to us? What is ours to do? We need to have that conversation.

You might say it’s an ongoing conversation that is never finished, and you'd be right. It’s a conversation that has periods of intensity, creativity, and discovery, and periods of settling in. We need to be having the more intense version of that conversation for about a year or two. We need to hear each other, develop a deeper familiarity with where the people sitting around you on Sunday morning are coming from – and coming for -- when they come to liberal religion.

We need to hear the sometimes surprising things we find our own selves saying in that conversation. There is no book that can tell us who we are, what we’re here for. There are some wonderful books, and they’ll give us the information to think about, and tools to think with, but we have to get together ourselves and arrive at what all this means for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida, established 1952.

We are the word made flesh. Clarity about our meaning and our mission is no simple matter of amalgamating our opinions. It’s a matter of creating an understanding together that none of us has, or could form, alone. We don’t need a good wordsmith to draft us a mission statement. We need to discover in each others’ faces and stories – in each others’ words and each others’ hearts -- who we are. Then we’ll know what we’re here for.

When we know it viscerally, beyond words, then we’ll be able to find some words that will remind us of that deeper, nonlinguistic awareness.

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Part 3 of "Transforming Power"
Next: Part 4: "Flip Sides of the Same Coin"
Previous: Part 2: "Buddhism, The New Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalism"
Beginning: Part 1: "Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams"


Buddhism, The New Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalism

The living tradition we share draws on many sources, [including] words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with compassion, justice, and the transforming power of love.

One of the sources of the living tradition we share as religious liberals is this tradition of the prophets – those who called attention to harm, to our failures to live by the ideals we espouse. Whether you are Jewish, or identify as Christian or not, we Unitarian Universalists are a branch of the tree that springs from the prophetic tradition in Hebrew Scripture. Justice is integral to Unitarian Universalist faith. James Luther Adams’ “prophethood of all members,” was but an extension of the prophetic tradition going back 3,000 years in Western spirituality.

It’s not in Eastern religions. Thousands of years of Taoist sages and Hindu gurus and Buddhist monks: hardly a word of anything recognizable as social critique. A lot on compassion. Not much on justice. Thousands upon thousands of pages of writings and hardly a drop of ink about systemic oppression and the moral as well as spiritual imperative to resist structures of social injustice.

There are a number of Zen Koans in which a student asks a teacher, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" Bodhidharma, according to legend came from India, west to China, where he is credited with founding Zen. The students are asking: "Would life really be any different if he hadn’t? What does it mean that we have this set of practices and customs called Zen? What was Bodhidharma doing in coming from the West and establishing this thing? What’s it all for?"

Monks wrestled with that question through the centuries. They’d ask their teacher: "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?"
Master Zhoazhou answered: "The oak tree in the yard."
Master Xianglin answered: "From sitting a long time, I am tired."
Master Linji said, “Pass me that cushion” – and he then hit the student with it.

The question is why Bodhidharma came from the west. They’re not asking, "Why are there poor?" They’re not asking, "What principles of fairness apply even to the emperor?"

Many of you know, I identify as a Zen Buddhist. I was born and raised Unitarian Universalist, and now I’m a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist. Meditation, and chanting, and reading the sutras and trying to take them to heart – these are important parts of my spiritual life. For me, they are necessary. They are not sufficient. My faith also needs that prophetic tradition: the tradition of social critique that includes Amos and Jeremiah and also Socrates and Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Karl Marx, and thousands of muckraking journalists exposing corruption. My faith needs our prophetic tradition reminding me that nothing less than the sacred ground of being, the source of healing and wholeness that we call by many names, the creativity and aliveness of reality, calls out for social justice. I need a community of shared understanding that justice work is not merely good work. It is holy work.

I'm attracted to something called "the New Buddhism." It's the Western Buddhism emerging as an Eastern tradition meets Western habits and assumptions. The traditional Buddhism as practiced in Asia for millennia, by itself, doesn’t grab me all that much. When that wisdom and those practices are combined with the West’s prophetic tradition -- when, that is, the Western spirit and the Eastern spirit meet in a synergistic merger greater than the sum of its parts, something very real and very hopeful is born.

More and more people are seeing how inner peace and social justice support each other.

Inner peace has always been a grounding for compassion. The application of peace and compassion, nurtured in contemplative practice, to working for social change is a development within my life time.

Social justice has always felt righteous. But the idea that signing a petition or camping out in Zuccotti park to occupy Wall Street might flow from – and toward – a deepening sense of union with all things, is fairly new.

The New Buddhism looks a lot like Unitarian Universalism – just a bit more of the sitting still and being quiet thing. The lessons from the East can help us be better Unitarian Universalists because, as we are coming to better understand, inner peace supports outer justice.

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Part 2 of "Transforming Power"
Next: Part 3: "Why Did Channing Go to Baltimore?"
Previous: Part 1: "Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams"


Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams

The Protestant Reformation: Priesthood of All Believers

Our Unitarian Universalist story is the tale of our emergence from within Protestant Christianity. Protestant Christianity got started about 500 years ago when the German, Martin Luther, sought a remedy for the abuses he saw occurring in the church of his time. “The Priesthood of all believers,” proclaimed Luther.

The church of 500 years ago had become corrupt, with priests claiming special access to God, and therefore enjoying special privileges. The priests lived in relative luxury and believed they were entitled to. They were out of touch with suffering, concerned only to preserve their positions of privilege, which they justified in their own minds by their position as the mediators between heaven and earth. Luther countered with this doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We all have the same access to God, and confront the same ineffable mystery.

It was a great step toward equality. We’re all priests – the one standing in the pulpit no more so than the ones in the pews. The new word for the guy in the pulpit became “minister” – meaning servant.

The Unitarian Reformation: Prophethood of All Believers

James Luther Adams
1901 - 1994
The Protestant Reformation of Christianity was taken another step by the Unitarian Reformation of Protestantism. Our Luther – that is, James Luther Adams – the great 20th-century Unitarian theologian -- expanded on “The priesthood of all believers.” Adams declared the Prophethood of all believers.

The prophets of old – Hebrew Scripture figures such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos -- traditionally, had been those possessed by God – maybe against their will – and compelled to speak a message from God calling for justice, repentance from wrongdoing, a more fair and equitable social order. James Luther Adams told us that, just as we are all priests and all have access to the divine mystery, we are all prophets, and all of us have the ability to see and engage injustice, and all of us bear the burden of the responsibility to do so.

Chris Walton, UUWorld, 2005:
When James Luther Adams, a young Unitarian minister and newly appointed professor of theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School, went to Germany in 1935 to study with some of the greatest theologians of the time, he confronted a deeply unsettling fact: Germany's churches were not effectively resisting the rise of Nazism.  A convert to Unitarianism from Baptist fundamentalism, Adams had high expectations for Germany's long tradition of liberal theology. But German liberalism hadn't foreseen the Nazi threat--nor did it seem to offer adequate resources for resistance. Adams came to admire the German "confessing church" movement, whose members did actively oppose Hitler at great personal risk. 
He later described the impact of his experience:
In Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, "What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?" It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then.  But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society...requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense that there's something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.
Transforming Power, Transforming Liberalism

Adams's experience in Europe left a lasting mark on his thinking.  At Meadville Lombard, the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Andover Newton, Adams became famous as a teacher and mentor to a generation of scholars and ministers.

Adams was concerned that liberal religion could become complacent – that our broad acceptance too easily slides into being accommodating to certain cultural trends when resistance is what is called for. Transformation was Adams's great theme – the transformation of ourselves and of our world. His direct experience of Nazism taught him to be less optimistic about human progress – yet through the more-than-90 years of his life, much of it as a leader and hugely influential teacher in our movement, his faith in the transforming power of love grew steadily deeper.

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Part 1 of "Transforming Power."
Next: Part 2: "Buddhism, The New Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalism"


Stone Soup for the Soul

Yesterday's post was about identifying your "primary" spiritual practice: some activity that you do without judgment, without thought of whether you're doing it "right," without any attachment to any particular outcome -- some activity that allows you just be. It may not have occurred to you that your favorite pastime qualified as a spiritual practice, but if it helps you nonjudgmentally affirm and appreciate reality just as it is, then I'd call it a spiritual practice.

Today's post is about some secondary practices that will help infuse more of your life with more of the nonjudgmental feeling you have when you're engaged in that primary spiritual practice. As I say, we can't make it happen. All we can do is invite it to happen. These secondary practices are ways to issue that invitation. Whatever your main spiritual practice is, these five supplemental practices will provide a foundation for it. Our primary spiritual practices are highly varied: gather a room of 1,000 people and they might have 1,000 different primary spiritual practices. These five supporting practices, I recommend for every single one of us. They will strengthen and extend your spiritual practice and increase "spiritual fitness."
  1. Journal
  2. Read
  3. Be Silent
  4. Go to Group
  5. Be Mindful
1. Journaling. 15 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.)

2. Studying "Scripture" -- 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.

Such study gives us concepts to knock out our concepts. Study of a spiritual text enlists 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.

3. 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? If your quest for peace is urgent, you do. If it isn't, you don't.

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.

4. 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!

5. Minduflness. Continuously.

You won't be able to be continuously mindful. Still, try. Resolve to be continuously mindful, and remind yourself of your resolve every time you notice it has waned. Develop the habit of bringing yourself back to the present moment whenever you find that you’re somewhere else.

The mind loves to spend its time going back and forth between two places: the past and future. If you let it, your mind will spend all day alternating between dwelling in the past and projecting into the future. Your life, however, is RIGHT NOW. If you're somewhere else -- the past or the future -- you'll miss it. And most of us, most of the time, are somewhere else.
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." (John Lennon)
In the children's story, "Stone Soup," a traveler comes to town. He claims to have a magical stone that, when cooked in water, will produce nutritious soup. "But it will be even better if we add a little potato," he says. The traveler proceeds to coax the villagers to add cabbage, onions, carrots, etc. In the end, the stone didn't really add anything. Or did it? The stone was the starter without which the other ingredients would not have been brought to the pot. That's pretty potent magic.

Like that traveler. I suggested adding five "secondary, supporting" ingredients -- nice additional enhancements. Yet if you'll keep the pot cooking, over time, these "secondary" practices will make the soup. Your primary practice -- the first ingredient -- may turn out to be the stone. Its magic was that it got you started.

These are not the practices that will make you and me perfect. We'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. You?

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This is part 7 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."
Previous: Part 6: "Finding a Spiritual Practice"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"


Finding a 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 dharma talk. In the talk, the master spoke of how Zen really 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. Dish-washing becomes spiritual practice when it is done just to be doing it. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:
"There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes."
The second way is the way that makes dish-washing a spiritual practice. There are many, many forms of spiritual practice. The traditional idea of spiritual practice in the West has been Bible study and prayer. Possible spiritual practices also include:
  • yoga
  • martial arts
  • social action / charitable giving
  • vegetarianism
  • living simply
  • cooking
  • eating
  • not eating (fasting)
  • quilting or knitting
  • painting or sculpting
  • dancing
  • gardening
  • long-distance running
  • hiking in the woods
  • walking along the beach
  • playing a musical instrument or singing
  • listening attentively to music
This is only a suggestive "starter" list. Many other activities and intentional commitments might be spiritual practices. 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. If we invite ourselves to equanimity as we undertake the activity, or if the commitment brings attention to compassion, or if we find the activity a vehicle for self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification, then it can be, for us, a spiritual practice.

At the same time, none of these activities is necessarily or inherently spiritual. Bible study for the purpose of getting an "A" in a Bible class is not a spiritual practice. Nor is a "prayer" asking God for a Mercedes Benz.

Not Goal Directed. If you're new to the concept of spiritual practice, I recommend beginning with an activity that is as utterly without a goal or purpose as possible. Purpose invites judgment about accomplishment or not. Later on, though, it's OK for your practice to include a goal: as long as the goal isn't really the reason you're engaging in the practice. For example, it's OK to give some notice to whether or not the dishes are getting clean as long as your real reason for washing them isn't to get them clean . . . but just to wash them. Any hint of being upset if the goal isn't met indicates the activity isn't a spiritual practice.

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 primary spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice 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.

And then there's all the rest of life.

Tomorrow's Lake Chalice will look at five practices for supporting the Primary Spiritual Practice and gradually infusing "all the rest of life" with spiritual awareness.

* * * * * *
This is part 6 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."

Next: Part 7: "Stone Soup for the Soul"
Previous: Part 5: "Embrace Your Demons"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"


Embrace Your Demons

Spiritual fitness is about inner wisdom guided by compassion; equanimity; inner and outer peace; replacing jealousy with mudita (taking joy in others' good fortune); replacing blame with compassionate understanding; replacing the illusion of separation and control with the awareness of connection and flow; a proclivity to periods of self-forgetfulness; and loving reality just as it is, even the hard parts. In yesterday's post, I sounded a cautionary note about the notion of spiritual fitness. If we "should" ourselves, or others, about being more spiritually fit, we undermine the shy spirit we are ostensibly wanting to encourage. If, then, we admire the traits of spiritual fitness and would like to cultivate them to a fuller flowering in our lives, is it possible to be intentional about doing that? Considering that question, I'll begin with the situation in which I find Unitarian Universalism today.

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. They may go to the "gym" once or twice, figure they've now "learned" it, and stop going. 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 committed only to 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. Too many of us 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 that cultivate the attributes of spiritual fitness. "Cultivate" suggests a gardening metaphor, and, indeed, the gardener doesn't make the plant grow. The gardener cares for the soil, waters it, and pulls up weeds: she creates the conditions in which the plants can be unhindered to do what they do on their own. Plant growth, however, is much more regular and predictable than spirit growth. As cultivators of spirit, we are like gardeners who have no fertilizer and no irrigation. The seed is there, and we can till the soil and labor to pull up the weeds of fear, isolation, and anger. But drought, flooding, and the fertility of the soil are entirely out of our control. No matter what we do, this plant may grow quickly or very slowly; may grow for a while and then shrink, shrivel and appear dead.

"Meredith," you may ask me, "why would I undertake the discipline of a spiritual practice if I'm already perfect?" It's a logical question. I can only say that I started a spiritual practice because I didn't feel perfect. As contradictory as it is to judge myself for being too self-judgmental, that's exactly what I was doing (and, yes, still do).

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.
There's nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight -- nothing that confuses them more than our embrace. (Philip Simmons, UUWorld)
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.

Embrace your demons
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. What they do is 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 this 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 -- and so many others who have walked the path of spiritual practice -- have discovered is that the turbulent waves gradually get smaller, and further apart.

Tomorrow's Lake Chalice will look at the variety of spiritual practices and how you can determine what your Primary Spiritual Practice is.

* * * * *
This is part 5 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."

Next: Part 6: "Finding a Spiritual Practice"
Previous: Part 4: "Being Judgmental About Being Judgmental"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"


Being Judgmental About Being Judgmental

In yesterday's post, we looked at a way to define and measure spiritual fitness. The implicit message of any measurement is: "measure up!" With measurement comes judgment. Judgmentalism about our own or other people's physical fitness or cognitive fitness or emotional-social fitness can sometimes provide short-term motivation, but can also increase unhappiness and be counter-productive. Judgmentalism about our own or other people's spiritual fitness is directly contrary to the spiritual fitness we are judging inadequate.

Our culture does have 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. The message seems to be that 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 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. The spirit's message isn't that you are special or important. You're not. You're merely perfect. You're not in the 99th percentile as a human being (or, for that matter, as a vertebrate). You're not in the 90th percentile. You're not above average. You are just what every other sentient being is: perfect exactly the way you are.

My concern with such instruments as Robert Cloninger's Temperament and Character Inventory is that it might be taken as making spirituality into one more area where you aren't good enough and you’ve got to get better. That would undermine the very spirituality it purports to encourage. I rather like Cloninger's break-down of the three constituents of spirituality: self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. Let's just remember that judgmentalism precludes all three.

Self-forgetfulness. Although 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," that judgment ends the self-forgetfulness. In the first game of the 1992 professional basketball championship series between the Portland Trailblazers and Chicago Bulls, Bulls star Michael Jordan was evidently "in the zone." He scored 35 points in the first half alone. He also hit six three-point shots in the first half. Three-pointers were not Jordan's forte, yet on this day he was popping them in like candy in the first half. After the sixth one swished through the net, near the end of the half, he shrugged with palms upward as he trotted back up court. The gesture seemed to say, "I don't know why I'm playing so well." With that moment of self-consciousness, the spell was broken. Jordan hit no three-pointers the rest of the game and scored only four points in the second half. His period of unusual self-forgetfulness, it seems, had passed.

Transpersonal identification is recognition that we are the other. In that identification, there can be no judging ourselves better than others, better than average.

Acceptance means affirmation and embrace of reality exactly as it is. This is hindered by 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. If I'm thinking there is such a thing as a separate me and I'm judging it as not spiritually fit enough, then I have erected an impassable barrier. My very effort to take it down makes it stronger. I'm telling myself: "Try harder . . . not to try so hard." So relax. Remember two things:
  1. You are perfect.
  2. Perfection is not static.
An essential part of your present perfection is its dynamic quality. You are, at this moment, in the midst of processes of change and growth. The ways that you are improving are integral to your current perfection. The spiritual path, however, unfolds slowly, and in its own way, on its own schedule. If we try to push spirit, spirit will push back, and we'll get nowhere. Rather than setting out to "correct" our "faults," spiritual development comes from loving our faults. Slowly, acceptance (a sub-scale for self-transcendence) extends to every part of who we are (which another sub-scale, transpersonal identification, recognizes as all of the universe), even the parts we wanted to "fix."

You can make your biceps strong by forcing them to do the exercises. The spiritual "muscle" doesn't work that way. You can't make it strong. Love it and accept it in its weakness. Then -- only then -- might it decide to grow strong on its own. Even if it does, it's liable not to tell you. One day maybe you'll notice that it's been a while since you yelled at the other cars in traffic -- or someone will say you're "a peaceful presence" -- or you'll realize you used to worry a lot more about finances. None of these, of course, mean you've "arrived." But they are among the possible signs of a spirit that's been given the affirming space it needs.

In tomorrow's post I'll say more about embracing our demons.

* * * * *
This is part 4 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."

Next: Part 5: "Embrace Your Demons"
Previous: Part 3: "Defining Spiritual Fitness"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"


Defining "Spiritual Fitness"

Psychologist Robert Cloninger and his team at the Center for Well-Being of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis have developed the "Temperament and Character Inventory" (TCI). The TCI is a 240-item questionnaire that measures temperament ("the basic emotional predispositions with which we are born") in four dimensions (novelty-seeking, harm-avoidance, reward-dependence, and persistence), as well as character ("what we make of ourselves intentionally") in three dimensions (self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence).

In this last dimension, "self-transcendence," we find the equivalent of "spiritual fitness." Self-transcendence, or spiritual fitness, is 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 quantifies the extent to which individuals conceive themselves as integral parts of the universe as a whole. Self-transcendent individuals are spiritual, unpretentious, humble, and fulfilled. These traits are adaptively advantageous when people are confronted with suffering, illness, or death, which is inevitable with advancing age. They are disadvantageous in most modern societies where idealism, modesty, and meditative search for meaning might interfere with the acquisition of wealth and power. People who are low in Self-Transcendence are described as practical, self-conscious, materialistic, and controlling. Such individuals are expected to be well adapted in most Western societies because of their rational objectivity and materialistic success. However, they consistently have difficulty accepting suffering, loss of control, personal and material losses, and death, which lead to adjustment problems particularly with advancing age. (From Washington University's Center for Well-Being website; page on "What Does the TCI Measure?")
Self-transcendence, Cloninger has found, 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. Hungarian psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi has examined these experiences of self-forgetfulness in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. No one is "in the zone" -- in a "flow" state of absorption in what they are doing -- all the time. Those who more often enter "flow" -- i.e., those who regularly become immersed in an activity to the point that there seems to be no boundary between self and world --  have greater self-transcendence (spiritual fitness).

Transpersonal identification is recognizing oneself in others -- and others in oneself. If you have ever found yourself looking at another person -- or another being -- with a feeling that you are that other, their body embodies you -- or if you have looked at yourself with a sense that your being embodies others -- then you have experienced transpersonal identification.

Spirituality involves connecting with the world's suffering and apprehending that suffering as our very own. The sentiment, "there but for the grace of God go I," can be a start toward a compassionate response. Transpersonal identification goes further. It's not that grace saves you from the unfortunate circumstances others endure. Nothing saves you. You are not saved from those circumstances. If anyone is hungry, then you are hungry, for the hungry are you. That's transpersonal identification. As the poet Kabir put it:
"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.

Spiritually fit people are in touch with the suffering of the world (transpersonal identification), yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection (acceptance). "Acceptance" does not mean complacency about oppression, injustice and harm. Indeed, the spiritually fit are also often the most active and the most effective in working for peace and social justice. They are energized to sustain that work because they can accept reality just as it is, even as they also work to change it. Because they are not attached to results of their work, they avoid debilitating disappointment and burn-out and are able to maintain the work for justice cheerfully. Because they find joy in each present moment, they avoid the recrimination and blame ("Those evil oppressors!") that would recapitulate the very reactivity that is at the root of oppression.

Add together the scores for self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. The sum is the self-transcendence score. Voilá, we have defined and 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.

In tomorrow's post, I'll say where all of this seems to me to miss the point and go astray.

* * * * *
This is part 3 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."
Next: Part 4: "Being Judgmental About Being Judgmental"
Previous: Part 2: "Health and Fitness"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"


Health and Fitness

Physical "health" is a norm-based concept: it means being within the "normal" range for things like heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, body fat, cholesteral, triglycerides, etc. etc. etc. Anyone in the normal range on all the measures of physical health is "healthy." The notion of "fitness" invites us to go beyond population norms and, like Olympic athletes, be "faster, higher, stronger" than we have been, regardless of what the population norms might be.

Physical fitness is a long-established idea and ideal. We have more recently begun to develop a notion of cognitive fitness. IQ tests have been around for only about a century, and we are not as clear as we are with measures of physical fitness just what, if anything, they measure. While some doubts and ambiguities remain, the idea of cognitive fitness is much better developed and supported than it used to be.

A few months 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 20 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 of 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. Because our skills at managing our feelings and managing our relationships (i.e., managing other people's feelings) are so interrelated, let's treat emotional and social skills together as one thing: emotional-social fitness.

There's physical fitness. There's cognitive fitness. There's emotional-social fitness. Is there such a thing as spiritual fitness?

I have two things to say about that.
  1. Yes, there is a way to measure spirituality, and there are exercises you can do to boost your spiritual fitness.
  2. No, spirituality is not at all one more kind of fitness, and the very idea of spiritual fitness completely misses the point.
In tomorrow's post, we'll look at number one: the point that there is such a thing as spiritual fitness; it can be measured; and training can improve it.

* * * * *
This is part 2 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."

Next: Part 3: "Defining Spiritual Fitness"
Previous: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"


Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice

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."

Primary Spiritual Practice: This can be almost any activity. Primary Spiritual Practices vary widely from person to person. Nature hiking, cooking, gardening, music playing are the primary practices for some people.

Secondary Spiritual Practices: These support, amplify, expand, and deepen the primary practice. Secondary, supportive spiritual practices are less individual. There are five of them, and all five are for everyone.

This week, Lake Chalice will be exploring spirituality and the practices that encourage it.

* * * * *
This is part 1 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."

Next: Part 2: "Health and Fitness."


Saturdao 10

Dao De Jing, verse 6
16 translations

1. James Legge (1891):
The valley spirit dies not, aye the same;
The female mystery thus do we name.
Its gate, from which at first they issued forth,
Is called the root from which grew heaven and earth.
Long and unbroken does its power remain,
Used gently, and without the touch of pain.
2. Archie Bahm (1958):
The tendency toward opposition is ever-present.
Opposition is the source of all growth.
And the principle of opposition is the source of all opposites.
The principle of opposition is inherent in Nature, so oppositeness will continue forever, no matter how many opposites may come and go.
3. Frank MacHoven (1962):
The concept of Yin is ever present. It is the Mystic Female from whom the heavens and the earth originate.
Constantly, continuously, enduring always.
Use her!
4. D.C. Lau
The spirit of the valley never dies.
This is called the mysterious female.
The gateway of the mysterious female
Is called the root of heaven and earth.
Dimly visible, it seems as if it were there,
Yet use will never drain it.
5. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972):
The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.
6. Stan Rosenthal (1984):
Like the sheltered, fertile valley, the meditative mind is still, yet retains its energy.
Since both energy and stillness, of themselves, do not have form,
it is not through the senses that they may be found,
nor understood by intellect alone, although, in nature, both abound.
In the meditative state, the mind ceases to differentiate between existences,
and that which may or may not be.
It leaves them well alone, for they exist,
not differentiated, but as one,
within the meditative mind.
7. Jacob Trapp (1987):
“The Mother”
The deathless valley
Of the Abyss is yin,
The Mystic Mother of all.
At the door of yin,
The Mystic Female,
Is the threshold of earth and heaven.
This is the ever-renewing
Source upon which men may draw:
The more they take, the more is given.
8. Stephen Mitchell (1988):
The Tao is called the Great Mother:
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.
It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.
9. Victor Mair (1990):
The valley spirit never dies –
it is called “the mysterious female”;
The gate of the mysterious female
is called “the root of heaven and earth.”
Gossamer it is, seemingly insubstantial,
yet never consumed through use.
10. Michael LaFargue (1992):
“The Valley Spirit is undying.”
This is mysterious Femininity.
The Abode of mysterious Femininity:
This is the Root of Heaven and Earth.
It seems to endure on and on.
One who uses It never wears out.
11. Peter Merel (1995):
Experience is a riverbed,
Its source hidden, forever flowing:
Its entrance, the root of the world,
The Way moves within it:
Draw upon it; it will not run dry.
12. Ursula LeGuin (1997):
“What is complete”
The valley spirit never dies.
Call it the mystery, the woman.
The mystery,
the Door of the Woman
is the root
of earth and heaven.
Forever this endures, forever.
And all its uses are easy.
13. Ron Hogan (2002):
Tao is an eternal mystery,
and everything starts with Tao.
Everybody has Tao in them.
They just have to use it.
14. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (2003):
The life-force of the valley never dies –
This is called the dark female.
The gateway of the dark female –
This is called the root of the world.
Wispy and delicate, it only seems to be there,
Yet its productivity is bottomless.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004):
The Tao, the Spirit of the Valley, is immortal.
It is called the Primordial Female.
The Gate of the Primordial Female,
Through its opening and closing
Performs the kosmic intercourse,
And is called the origin of Heaven and Earth,
Eternally existing,
Forever tireless.
16. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (2007)
The Valley Spirit never dies.
It is called the Mysterious Female.
The entrance to the Mysterious Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth,
Endless flow
Of inexhaustible energy.
You have Dao within you, Valley Spirit, whether you are male or female. This Dao is here described by analogy to the female: an emptiness that births, that nurtures and creates. Dao is immortal, deathless -- it can't be exhausted because it is always empty. It's also the same in everyone. You are the distinctive, unique person you are through the uses to which you put the Dao that is common to all beings.

The Valley Spirit is inexhaustible, infinitely useful and productive. How do you use Valley Spirit?

What do you make of Bahm's "opposition" as the name for the fecund vacuum?

* * *
See: Saturdao Index