Monday, July 21, 2014

Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love: Rumi and Shams

Layla and Majnun at School, Persian Painting, 15th Century, Courtesy of the British Museum

         Elif Shafak is a captivating novelist and one of the foremost cosmopolitan Turkish writers. Her recent book, The Forty Rules of Love, uses a middle-aged American housewife yearning for existential meaning in her life, to frame an underlying narrative about the relationship between Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi from Afghanistan, fleeing from the Mongols to Konya, Turkey and Shams, the itinerant Sufi cynic from Tabriz in Persia. Her magical realistic prose stirs up the reader's faculties of imagination and empathy. Shafak's writing is alluring and deep and points us to an alternative interpretation of their relationship that is far beyond prurient sexual speculation and dutiful mentor/mentee hierarchical respect.
        For Shafak's Rumi, Love is the underlying presence of God in creation. And, like an artist's uniquely envisioned painting, Rumi's love for Shams, is way beyond the sensual and points us a symbolic realm, full of emotion and tenderness, that elevates both us and Rumi to compassion for all humanity.
       In some ways, Shafak's Shams' relationship to Rumi is analogous to Universalists'  relationship to Unitarians. Rumi is a bit intellectual, a skilled professor and preacher, but quite a bit emotionally constrained, while Shams consorts with thieves and prostitutes, seeing God's image in everyone, all the while encouraging Rumi to discover the common grace inherent in all of God's creation.
       But, The Forty Rules of Love, is not just a theological thriller, but reflects a long tradition in Persian Sufi poetry of elevating Love to being that glue that binds the universe together.
       The painting, above, from the British Museum, is a rendering of the love saga between Majnun and Layla. Majnun, whose name means madness, and Layla, night, fall instantly in love. They spend the remainder of their lives seeking each other, fracturing all social restraints and constrictions. For Sufis, the love between Majnun and Layla, is a symbolic representation of Love for God. Layla is God's name for Majnun and that is sufficient--maybe love devotion, itself, is the spiritual discipline that draws us closest to the Divine.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kali in the Forests of Symbols

Hiking along Patrick's Point State Park
Kali Yantra-Painting on Cotton Courtesy of the British Museum
Is the Divine abstract or personal? The beauty of many spiritual traditions is that it is both. I am fascinated by images of the Goddess. While walking along the Northern California coast, the image of the inverted triangle, the yoni, in the religious symbolism of Tantric Yoga and in the devotional practices of worship of the Hindu goddesses, suddenly struck me, riveted me. The soft breezes wafting through me, the vivid sea foam green, the startling triangular frame, all raised in me the roaring presence of the goddess, Kali.

Like the yantra from the British Museum, the scene was both formal in its geometric boundary lines and personal: in one case the fragrance, the trees and the stream gurgling below, in the other, the image of Kali mounted over a demon underneath which lies an inert Shiva. 

The multiple correspondences between nature, the abstract and the personal is not just limited to the religions of South Asia, but, from time to time, can also be discovered in the Western tradition. The 13th century Theologian Saint Bonaventure wrote in his "The Soul's Journey into God":

“Concerning the mirror of things perceived through sensation, we can see God not only through them as through his vestiges, but also in them as he is in them by his essence, power and presence.” (Ewert Cousins, St. Bonaventure, Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ, (1978), pg 69).
Bonaventure, in his Neoplatonic style, viewed all of Nature, as vestiges or footprints of God. We can through contemplation of Nature, trace back these footprints to the Divine. Even more recently, the irreverent, bad boy poet, Baudelaire, wrote in his poem, Correspondences:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

So Nature, the Goddess, and form intermingle. Each encircles the other, spinning threads of  corresponding hints, bringing us to the awareness of our world of symbols.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sublime and the Beautiful in Spiritual Life

Patrick Point State Park and the Mad River Mouth, North of Arcata CA

I have often contrasted the sublime and the beautiful after the fashion of the 18th century philosophers like Burke and Kant: the sublime being an aesthetic experience of dizzying heights of awe or infinitude leading to, maybe, "anxiety attacks" in contemporary psychological parlance, while the beautiful being an experience of calmness and color and harmony of form that can soothe or nurture us.

Like these aesthetic philosophers, I also have categorized people's character or attitudes; some prefer the beautiful, others the sublime. They went so far as to categorize nations with Northern Europe aligned with sublimity and the Mediterranean with beauty. I have even suggested that Unitarianism, in its unifying theology is akin to the sublime, while Universalist love is kindred to the beautiful. But I oversimplified and reduced the complexity of spiritual lived experience to two overly constrained boxes.

As I have reflected more deeply on my own experiences in nature, I've grown to realize that the experience of journeying in nature embraces both poles of awe and love and that the structure of outdoor experience alternates between the beautiful and the sublime, like the sonata form in music. In fact, walking in the woods is like the exposition of a plot--from moments of peaceful steadiness immersed in the splashes of the colorful to those heart pounding times standing near a precipice overlooking the vast Pacific. You literally feel almost swallowed up by the sea.

So living out the beautiful and the sublime, is a little like breathing or similar to the dance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system: the former gearing us up for fight or flight; the latter, slowing our breath and restoring calm.

Let us dance in beauty and let us dance in awe.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Flowers Drifting in a Riverine Field

Spring Flowers in Edgewood Park

"Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeated all things."
Heraclitus fragment 41 (translated by Brooks Haxton) 
The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, grew up in the city of Ephesus, near the coast of present-day western Turkey. He is famously remembered for the quotable, "All things flow and nothing remains the same"--a different model of the universe from the more standard Platonic vision of reality of stable ideas behind appearances. Well, spring in Northern California, (probably quite like spring in Ephesus), shouts out Heraclitean. Spring is a process here; a rapid shift in blooming verdant grasses, embedded poppies and yellow florets of rock parsnip. If we liken ourselves to spring wildflowers, momentarily floating in grassy field, then the oneness of mind ferries us across the season. 
The Ohlone people lived near Edgewood Park and must have witnessed the many colored wisps of spring. An archaeological site at the nearby garish Filoli Mansion was home to an Ohlone group; did local and permanent opulence of Filoli supplant the seasonal and processual life of the Ohlone? Did we try to substitute Being for Becoming in California?
But our parks remain an ironic and enduring witness to natural process. Let us live in awareness of unifying wisdom, a wisdom through which we drift and are sustained and guided. An every changing field.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Love and Wisdom: A Unitarian Universalist Tagline

An Early Christian Sarcophagus from the Arles Archaeological Museum

Love and Wisdom, or the searching for Love and the cultivating of Wisdom, intertwine so finely that they appear as one thread in our lived spiritual experience. In the image above, Christ as the good shepherd and a devotee with her arms upraised in the orans prayer posture, together visually condense the best of loving devotion and wise guidance. But Love and Wisdom as aspirations and activities extend far before Christianity in the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East. Sumerian and Egyptian religious literature are chock full of scribal advice on how to swim through the uncertainties of life, including being slow to anger and peacefulness. Love and devotion to goddesses, such as Inanna, Cybele and Isis formed the cornerstone of religious practice in Sumeria, Anatolia, and Egypt.

While Unitarian Universalism often seems to lack a spiritual grounding, turning its attention to the profound need for social justice and activism, our history, arguably, could reclaim Love and Wisdom as rightful heirs to the Universalism and Unitarianism of the 19th century. The Universalism whose basic tenet identifies God as loving creation so much that no one would be sent to Hell and Unitarianism which sought to strip Christianity of multiplicity in the aim of a logical unity of the Divine, in tandem express a Love and Wisdom theology. 

Let us love, wisely and never forget our hearts in wisdom.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Harmony of the Spheres: Om and Mantra Meditation

"Om" in Tibetan Script with Bodhi Tree leaf from Bodhgaya

Mantra meditation is the bread and butter of Yoga. Through recitation of what are termed "bija" or seed syllables such as "Om" or "Hrim" (for Goddess followers), we can turn the mind to the deeper sources of Ultimate Being. "Om" recitation is central to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain meditation practice. But does mantra meditation also extend to the West in a version adapted to Western philosophy and religious prayer? Many have argued that the Jesus prayer: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner" (sounds less daunting and self-denigrating in Greek) is an adoption/independent innovation of Buddhist/Yoga mantra meditation, but I would search for a connection to Greek/Hellenistic/Roman philosophy before tagging the correspondence to Buddhist-Christian interactions. 

What is prototypical about mantra meditation is its use of sound to arouse and shift consciousness into a meditational state of mind. The Neoplatonists, like Plotinus, actually sought for ideas from India to fertilize their philosophical ideas and contemplative practices. The Indian emperor Ashoka in his 250 BCE edicts  used the word eusebeia as a Greek translation for the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu concept of "Dharma". Eusebeia means good reverence or good awesomeness or or good spiritual worship and, in the Buddhist context, includes right moral action.
If reverence for the Divine includes the production of sound syllables then we are in good company.  John Coltrane is his Jazz paean to Nature, "A Love Supreme", also repeats the core melody "A Love Supreme" with riffs by solo horns and woodwinds. Iamblichus, the Neoplatonist philosopher, also heard music as a symbol of divine harmony. He asserts, "Music is moving and sensuous, and that the sound of pipes causes or heals disordered passions...sounds and tunes are properly consecrated to each of the gods, and kinship is properly assigned to them in accord with their proper orders and powers, the motions of the universe itself and the harmonious sounds rushing from its motion." (Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, Emma Clarke, John Dillon, and Jackson Hershbell, trans., (Society for Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Ga, 2003, 118-119). So, according to Iamblichus, "Hrim" connects us to the Goddess, "Om" to the ultimate ground of Being, "Brahman" and the Jesus Prayer to Christ.
Music and mantra meditation are then quick avenues to cosmic harmony.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Night of Crimson: Blood Moon and Mars

Lunar Eclipse 4-15-14
It is hard to convey the peaceful energy of a midnight lunar eclipse. The reddening of the moon's globe, Mars is just nearby--at once both spurring and becalming the soul. The ancient Stoics developed a cosmology in which everything in the universe is interconnected and unified through pneuma, "breath of life", if you will. So, Hellenistic astrology sought for correspondences between planetary and lunar attributes and the vicissitudes of the human soul. The moon was a ruler of a maternal embodiment and Mars, a master of impulsive drive. 
To me, gazing at the sky and resonating with heavenly characteristics is not an attempt to overcome fate through astrological micro-management, but a means for experiencing the interconnection of all things, my particular brand of pantheism. One prominent Neoplatonist, Plotinus, rejected Hellenistic astrology, believing that the human soul could rise to God or the One without intermediaries. But most Neoplatonists after him rejected the hubris of doing it alone and incorporated some form of ritual or slow cultivation of virtue to attain a relationship to the Divine. 
The Transcendentalist, Emerson, and some Unitarians of the 19th century tended to line up with Plotinus asserted the inherent goodness and reflective capabilities of human beings while the Universalists seem more akin to the Stoics believing that humans are nursed and nurtured by a good universe. Well tonight, around midnight, I feel nurtured by the crimson sky.