Sunday, November 16, 2014

Love and Strife

Sunrise: Mountain View CA
Division has stricken the world. Wars, ethnic fighting, uncivil discourse and social fragmentation are rampant. Yet many spiritual practices and religious disciplines encourage the cultivation of the virtue of love among their adherents. How can we reconcile love with evident strife? Reflecting on my life as a therapist, I have realized that the psychological process of "triangulation" or "splitting" is a root cause of much individual misery; indeed, much ethnocentrism and religious exclusiveness demands that individuals be put into dualist categories: us vs them, the good child vs the bad child, believers vs unbelievers, the list goes on and on.

Aside from reading dualistic religious texts, can we discover some sort of understanding of this splitting and triangulating so pervasive across the earth? Well, an ancient pre-Socratic philosopher, Empedocles of Agrigento in Sicily, who is notable for his original cosmology of the four elements: air, fire, earth and water, formulated the notion that love and strife are two principles that undergird all of the cosmos:

"66. And these (elements) never cease changing place continually, now being all united by Love into one, now each borne apart by the hatred engendered of Strife, until they are brought together in the unity of the all, and become subject to it. Thus inasmuch as one has been wont to arise out of many and again with the separation of the one the many arise, so things are continually coming into being and there is no fixed age for them; and farther inasmuch as they [the elements] never cease changing place continually, so they always exist within an immovable circle."--Arthur Fairbanks, Fragments Empedokles (tr and ed, 1898)

So, if Empedocles is right, then both uniting love and  dividing strife are essential forces to lead creation from the one to the many and back to the one, in a kind of circular movement. Maybe, then, our calling as spiritual people is to cultivate love (after all we do need a countervailing weight to division and separation), but to recognize strife in its manifold forms: splitting, triangulation, ethnocentrism, religious exclusiveness. If we are seeking unity, internal or external, let us hold onto love, all the while, letting go of strife.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Indigenous Peoples' Celebration of the Great Mystery

Indigenous Peoples' Week at Humboldt State University

Mad River Mouth McKinleyville CA

Today in the United States is Columbus Day. It is an embarrassing holiday that completely ignores those who dwelt here, millennia before Columbus breathed his first breath. We are uninvited guests who have outlived our welcome. Fortunately, even in my lifetime, the celebration has shifted from an extolling of colonial conquest to a recognition of the cultural gifts already present in the "New World". Humboldt State University does indeed celebrate a week of "indigenous" culture. I witnessed an amazing, yet sorrowful, prayer and dance to the four directions, Father Sun, and Mother Earth, at the campus center. A prayerful remembrance of the local cultures; a grievous statement about the continued oppression of the very people upon whose land the university was constructed.

Not far away, the forerunner waves of a Kamchatka storm break wildly near the mouth of the Mad River. A avian duet dance in the bristly wind and a lone, weathered Sitka spruce gazes at their graceful flight. I ponder: How many before me sat on the bluff viewing this ballet in the sky and sea?

We had better learn from those who dwelt here before--we had better learn silence and grace and peaceful encounters. We had better dance the great mysteries before we extinguish all mystery.



Monday, October 6, 2014

Flickering Illusions or a Multitude of Souls?

College Cove Beach Trinidad CA

There is a tension between viewing the world as an illusory projection of an underlying oneness and seeing a vast embodied individuality in each fragment of existence. Both some forms of Mahayana Buddhism and classical Hindu Vedanta philosophy embrace an illusory perspective on concrete experience, while much of Tantric Hinduism, Hindu goddess (Shaktism) worship, animistic religion and Neoplatonism  all see manifold life as ensouled and grounded in an experience of unity. Is life, as we know it, an illusion or a community?

What if both viewpoints are true, in part? In Northern California we have witnessed a rare October heat wave dispelling the fog from the coast for a week. The sun, hovering over the sea, sprinkles luminous glitter on College Cove. The flickering of light on the surface of the ocean both partakes of individuality, like fireflies pulsating light ever so briefly, and then submerges into the boundless, unknowable ocean. Surface and depth; the glimmering and darkening sea.

A magic show or a profound suggestion of unity in variety?


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Autumnal Openings: The One and the Many

Adolph Gottlieb Transfigurations III 1958 Anderson Collection at Stanford University
Zhou's Taijitu Diagram from Wikipedia "Taiji" Entry
 Fall is my favorite season. Leaves reddening into scarlet splashes. A mistiness in the air. Quietness budding within. If creation is a progressive emerging of diversity from singleness, an emanation of the many from the one, then autumn suggests an internal opening, a return from the manifold to unity; a journey back to the source.

The Neoplatonists embraced this rhythmic progression and return and so did many other philosophers and religious speculators across the world. Laya yoga comes to mind with its technique of awakening kundalini and raising energy through various chakras of the body to resorb the soul into Brahman or to unite Shakti with Shiva. Also, Neo-Confucianism, like that espoused by Zhou in his diagram above, where yin and yang emerge from the supreme pole (taiji). Or even the artist Gottlieb, an abstract expressionist, who hints at the transfiguration scene of the New Testament. Here Jesus ascends a mountain and transforms into radiant light and Gottlieb alludes to such a metamorphosis through his vivid shapes and brushstrokes. A human Jesus and a divine Christ.

Aside from comparative curiosity, how can an oscillating model of emergence and return guide us in our spiritual practices? I would propose that the two poles of experience, unity and multiplicity, are both essential components of spiritual experience: unity veering toward abstraction and the return of autumn; multiplicity toward relationship, the personal and the emergence of spring. Inward and outward motion; breathing in and breathing out. The Divine as internal wisdom and external love.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Are We and Our Creations Natural, Spiritual or Beautiful?

1950 Mercury Sedan Main Street Reunion Napa CA
     College Cove near Trinidad CA
                

Being a lover of nature and the arts, I am accustomed to seeing beauty in natural scenes or in self-conscious art installed in art museums or art galleries. Like many, I dissociate the spiritual from secular human constructions. But, if we are embedded in nature, cannot prosaic everyday events like visiting the antique car show in Napa CA, bring us a lived communal religious experience. How does seeing a car show differ from attending a church, synagogue, or a masjid?

The Napa auto show, in many ways, brought so many people together in a way that churches do not. Religious assemblages are most often ethnically rather homogeneous: there are Black churches and White churches, Jewish temples and South Asian mosques. Yet, the car show was amazingly diverse: young and old, Black and White and Latino, the wealthy and the not so rich, all made the pilgrimage to Napa to see the vivid and glittery metal objects. The diversity of California burgeoned onto the streets of Napa. Few congregations can boast of such cosmopolitanism in their pews.

Do we do religion a disservice by calling festivals like these spiritual? Walking and viewing supplant the word; no sermon is spoken. Each participant interprets the show without a manual of theological tenets, without a sacred text, without a god as an organizer of experience.

Perhaps, going to an auto show is more akin to sitting on a misty bluff by the sea or ambulating through a museum. Perhaps the artistic--coming from the book of nature or from the wheels of technology--can offer us a more universal spiritual experience, one in which the viewer, solitary or in communion, responds to the beauty inherent in creation.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Sea and the Shore: Water and Earth Made One

Trinidad Beach, Trinidad CA

The ocean and its shore are rich, symbolic and deep images that help us to anchor our perceptions and to develop our rituals in spiritually satisfying ways. Unity is blissful, but all creation starts with difference and we often struggle to reattain the treasure of harmony that unification brings to our souls. Like female and male, yin and yang, yoni and lingam, difference kindles action, which, in turn, yields to peace.
 
The boundary between the sea and its shore is permeable--just dip your feet into the ocean with its coolness, stirring up our feet into action or notice the  long-term geological carving of seastacks (like the ones pictured above): pure earth yielding to water.
 
Just, maybe, Love is like the sea, molding our bodies to its caresses and our minds to its diligent and undulating rhythms. Perhaps we can learn a bit from the sea, attaining spiritual patience and persistence. Perhaps, like the sea, we can offer the world love over rage and peace over belligerence. Perhaps even earth and the sea can lie down together in peace, lifting up the blessing of difference that is made one along the shores of human experience.

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.