Monday, December 8, 2014

Storm Approaching California

Storm Approaching Coastal California
I have waxed often about the sea: its peacefulness (hence named Pacific), its nurturing qualities, and that incredibly arousing aroma of wind and water. But yesterday, I witnessed a growling storm as she rippled onto the coast. I am reminded of Eastern Mediterranean storm gods: Ba'al/Hadad who rolls in rain into Ugarit and Teshup, the Hurrian storm-bringer. Even the Hebrew Bible ascribes storminess to the "Holy One" as in that sublime eco-spiritual Psalm 104:

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your[a] chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your[b] chariot,
    you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your[c] messengers,
    fire and flame your[d] ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
    at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
    to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
    so that they might not again cover the earth.
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
    they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
    the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams[e] the birds of the air have their habitation;
    they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
    the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. (NRSV)

In my haste to depict Nature as healing and nurturing, I have overlooked the necessity for change, fluctuation and even occasional destructiveness. Nature is as complex as our human psyches and even more pervasive. I am eager for rain--all of California thirsts for water after three years of devastating drought.
All glory to Pacific storms; all glory to renewing abundant life!

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.

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.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Are You a Redwood or a Rhododendron?

 I frankly recoil whenever I see one of those online personality tests purporting  to tell me what food I am or what what color--it is as though we could be confined to a single term to describe ourselves fully to others. Well, on a recent walk in Sequoia Park in Eureka, I decided to cave. Transfixed by the afternoon shadow play of light, glinting trees and  splashy rhododendrons, I figured out that people were either redwood or rhododendron types--massive, steady and self-contained or variegated pink and rosy flourishes of inspiration. 
The 18th century philosopher, Edmund Burke, contrasted the aesthetic idea of the sublime to the beautiful. He wrote:

"For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the passions." 

So, if you're sublime, then you are awe-striking, a bit melancholic and domineering in your emotional influence on others while, if beautiful, like our rhododendrons, your emotional style is quainter and quieter, perhaps kind and sanguine in relationship and mood.  Later philosophers and poets opposed the sublime nations of Northern Europe to the beautiful Mediterranean in a way to bolster Romanticism over Classicism in artistic and literary style. Could our Unitarian Universalism, like the bifurcated Yang and Yin of Chinese cosmology, also echo the contrast between the sublime and the beautiful, the unity of God to the varied manifestations of Universal Love?
Maybe, just maybe, I can retract my initial hesitation to categorize. More like emotionally tinged ideas and root guiding metaphors, we are sublime or beautiful, not in character, but in experience--each moment diving us into majesty or love whenever we enter a state of deep contemplation. We are both redwoods and rhododendrons.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

O What Can Ail Thee?

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

John Keats, La Belle Dame sans Merci

Spring has returned! Ducks sing and the sedge is green. I have always cherished Keat's poem. It has sustained me through wintry blues and shivering thoughts. But like our cyclic seasons, I always open my heart to nature's annual restoration. The femme fatale of Keat's epigrammatic lyric is a fairy of sorts, one who stole his heart. The frank allure of a personal pantheism, particularly for me who usually personifies Nature as Goddess-like, is its capacity for supporting a rich emotional fabric of ideas and its poignant stories of Goddess as lover. 

John Ruskin, the 18th century critic, coined the term, "pathetic fallacy", to deride the tendency of Romantic poets to ascribe human feelings to nature--the weeping willow cried. But, as I have often proposed, an emotional-intuitive personifying of nature and her herd of beings not only draws us closer to an ultimate unifying experience, but also helps us pastorally to fathom the ups and downs of relationships and fortune without devising an all-powerful and all-good deity. Life just sucks at times and life invites rejoicing at other moments. Spring follows winter and winter follows spring.

By striking down hierarchical notions of God, we enter a more level playing field, where all beings can aspire to tranquility, not by salvation through grace, but by salvation through effort, love and stillness. Perhaps, as the Jains believe, gods and goddesses are beings who through personal effort have achieved an enduring tranquility and so we emulate them. Maybe even Nature, herself, is temperamentally both balanced and active, having found that perfect, optimal and seasonal regulation of mood in a changing and chaotic realm of experience. Maybe, that is Divine Love.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Nature Gets Personal

Pantheism visits us with many different faces. Awareness of the great cosmic expanse, the mysteries of quantum fields, an appreciation of our utter dependence on this sustaining Earth. What all forms have in common is a very present, immanent relationship to the world and universe in which we are embedded. No transcendental person God, remote from our very core, our sinews and bones and minds, informs the pantheistic life.

Being an emotional and intuitive and relational person, I find that my deepest source of the Divine is like me--emotional and relational. Not some abstract force or energy field--although I am agnostic about whether physics will someday discover consciousness or affective charge as part and parcel of all constituents of our perplexing universe--but a person characterizes my concept of Spirit. A kind of all-pervasive soul with whom I can cry or rejoice or seek solace in or, in those exceedingly rare and special moments, become unified with. To be an authentic personal pantheist, I hold that each being in nature shares personhood, even apparently inanimate objects like the mossy stone, tripartite trunk, and the bursting rivulet caught in the image above.

To the many pantheists among us who decry personal ideas of God, yes, I do understand--but my peculiar sensibility to emotion and the poetic compels me to construct a personal pantheism. Or as the Presocratic philosopher, Xenophanes, states:

“The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,
While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpture like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”

Let each of us create the Divine in our own image and realize that we are created in the image of our own Divine.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Is God a Goddess?: Unitarian Roots of the Divine Feminine

Late Cypriot Ceramics from V. Karageorghis, "Ancient Art from Cyprus", The Cesnola Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC

As Unitarian Universalists, we view our theologies as a garden of diverse possibilities, from Orthodox Christianity to Neo-Paganism to Atheism. I recently preached on the origins of the Divine Feminine in the Unitarian branch of our denomination. Viewing the Divine as more nurturing than judgmental, I naturally sought for the moment when Unitarian Universalists adopted a maternal image of divine action. 
The Unitarian and Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker, out of mid 19th century Boston, wrote  a prayer:
"Eternal One, I bathe my soul in Your infinity.
Transcendent God! Yet, ever immanent in all that is, I flee to You, and seek repose and soothing in my Mother’s breast. From all this dusty world, You will not lose a molecule of earth or spark of light. Father and Mother of all things that are, I flee to You, and in Your arms find rest; My God! I thank You for Your love."

Aside from The Shakti devotees of India, this prayer may be one of the earliest expression of God as characteristically feminine and nurturing rather than masculine and authoritarian image that we mostly subscribe to. It is no wonder that Parker lost his mom at age 12 and was in the throes of a radical shift in parenting style in Victorian New England where children learned through varied experience and reflection(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women) rather than through authoritative transmission of culture and ideas. That idea of the Mother Goddess, or the androgynous concept of God's action in the world, may have taken root in Victorian/Transcendentalist child-rearing practices of the era. We, Unitarian Universalists need to remember our history. Instead of flailing about in a web of uncertainty, we should covet the rich, prophetic and foreshadowing qualities of our theological traditions.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Pantheism Redux

Lake Chabot Regional Park Castro Valley CA

After a very dry early winter in California, the rain returns. The air is redolent of an emerging Mediterranean spring; moisture clings to the nose, a votive offering of aromatic herbs and shrubs. It is easy to be a pantheist in a Mediterranean climate. Nature is both gentle and fierce.
The three major monotheistic religions of the Near and Middle East, Judaism, Christianity and Islam little prepare us for a pantheist experience. The nature of God, transcendental and remote, pulls our meditations and prayers away from the manifest beauty of nature, unless we celebrate nature as the offspring of God's creation. But the Neoplatonic philosophers from Plotinus of Egypt to Iamblichus of Syria who flourished in the first centuries CE created a philosophy consonant with pantheism and informed the mystical strands of the three monotheistic religions: Christian mysticism, Sufism and Kabbalah.

For Neoplatonists, the universe is a progressive emanation from the One, to hen, that descends through layers and layers of being to our material world. Hardly a lonely universe! Salvation is a return to the One through contemplation. Contemplating the beauty of the universe or the harmonic composition in a work of art are paths to union with the One. Iamblichus describes the activities of theurgy, or divine-work, as multiple ways of returning to the One. 
I would say that nature walking is high up there as a mode for salvation. Think about it--when we walk through a forest or by a lake, we progressively remove the complexities of of daily thoughts and gradually focus on the unifying experience of the gnarly tree, the aromatic shrubs and the multifarious colors that surround us. A simultaneous integration of diversity into unity. A return to the One.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Asian Art Museum San Fancisco

               Yoga Class at the Asian Art Museum led by Erica Jago

Nauli Kriya from the Bahr al-hayat (Ocean of Life) From the Exhibition Catalogue

We are blessed in California to have a first of its kind exhibition of yoga art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This exhibition, organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, visually traces the variegated paths of yoga practice from the late 1st millennium BCE to the present. Yoginis and yogis in sculpture and painting present us with  their abundant exuberance and compel us to rethink the globalized yoga movement in which we are so immersed. The exhibition opened with a remarkable yoga posture/asana and meditation class conducted by Erica Jago, a rising yogini from Oahu, who riveted us with a 90' sequence of yoga movements, mantra meditation, and breathing.

I have written of my partiality toward and affection for hybridity as a way out of the morass of nationalism, religious fundamentalism and ethnocentricity. No better exemplar of the cosmopolitan arc of yoga is that depicted in the painting from the early 17th century treatise, Bahr al-hayat, Ocean of Life, which was the first text to illustrate Hatha Yoga postures or asanas. It is ironic that the manuscript was written in Persian by a Sufi Shaykh Muhammad Ghawth and commissioned by the future Mughal Emperor Jahanghir. The text itself refers to the oneness of God  and to our being emanational microcosms of the macrocosmic Divine. So yoga was adapted to Sufi Muslim theology in the Mughal courts.

Thus, even in the 1600s, yoga practice had become an international and trans-religious mode for self-cultivation. May we continue to adapt yoga meditation, breathing and movement to our Universalist ideals and values!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Environmental Art as a Path to Eco-Spirituality

Andy Goldsworthy Stone River 2001 Cantor Arts Center Stanford University
There is a marvelous stone sculpture outside of Stanford's Cantor Art Center. A sinuous river of stone flows effortlessly through a field, reminding us of swirling vortices and  liquid life frozen in space. The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is "The inherent worth and dignity of every person". Somehow the personhood of rocks or water, let alone that of animals, escaped the crafters of this principle. I was talking to a friend who argues that dogs or cats or dolphins naturally show empathy in a way that we cannot fathom with psychological/verbal description. Yes! And I would add that so-called inanimate objects also partake of empathy when we allow our imaginations to feel our connection with them. In this way art raises us to such a level of reflection that we spontaneously sense our connection to natural objects. The river winds back and forth like our moods; the wind inspires; the rock remains steady and patient. 
Unitarian Universalists do lift up a principle, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part", that partially commits us to harmony with nature; but, I would say that the degree to which we find nature spirited and animated, compels us to tread more lightly and more empathically on this source of our nurturance and being.

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Her Story": Elizabeth Murray and Artistic Subversion

Elizabeth Murray "My Manhattan, January" Oil on Canvas 1987
I love the artwork of the painter, Elizabeth Murray. In fact her paintings and prints are my favorite of all artists. So you can imagine how delighted I was to view the exhibition of her artwork at Stanford University's Cantor Art Center. Murray has won numerous accolades for her art, including a MacArthur genius award. Although Murray has been proclaimed as a "female" artist based on her gender and the domestic nature of the themes in her art, I would venture to say that Murray's work goes way beyond the essentialization of gender roles: she subverts conventional female gender roles in a deeper analysis of her art. The above photo from her exhibition at the Cantor Art Center is a surreal integration of a fish form with interior biomorphic images, suggesting a womb, growth, and the rosiness of gestation. A stunning juxtaposition of scarlet and teal. The exhibit also features the poetry of the experimental-Beat-Buddhist poet, Anne Waldemann, who collaborated with Murray in a chapbook/art creation, entitled, "Her Story". One of the poems by Waldemann is as follows:
I saw the
rhythms inside
They were stark
& joyous
& I painted them 
All to see
I think that Murray and Waldemann express interior moods, rhythms that transcend the external boundaries of form, such as that of Murray's Manhattan fish. My dear friend who herself transcends the arbitrary culture-bound gender division of labor forms--she's an engineer/scientist in Silicon Valley-- reminds me that gender and ethnic classifications are merely convenient simplifications that, if subscribed to, conveniently oppress. Reality is a continuum of interesting internal rhythms, rhythms that frustrate generalities, rhythms that add a zest to experience and a resonant path to mutual understanding.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Mercurial Mediterranean Climate

 View of Wildcat Canyon  Berkeley, CA

In the San Francisco Bay area, we are longing for rain. We have had a scant 60 mm of rainfall this season and are on target for a record dessication. But we share with the Mediterranean a moody record of annual rainfall. Hills are dusty and gray; stream beds are dry. Perhaps the climate fluctuations from wet to dry are an organizing root metaphor for Mediterranean life--a stable instability, an unpredictable quality to survival. Water wars may have begun in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some have proposed that the repeated collapse of Mediterranean cosmopolitan cultures both at the beginning Middle Bronze Age around 2200 BCE and at the end of the Late Bronze Age at 1100 BCE may have resulted from random droughts and the consequent disruption of food and water supplies leading people to move into more fertile areas.
But drought alternating with drenching fosters in us an appreciation of change and flux and unpredictability. In the words of Archilochus, the archaic Greek poet from the island of Paros:

"But delight in things that are delightful and, in hard times, grieve
Not too much—appreciate the rhythm that controls men's lives."

(fragment 128, Douglas E. Gerber, Greek Iambic Poetry, Loeb (1999) pg 167)

In our culture, we have little appreciation of rhythm. We often try to contain it--witness the explosive increase in the diagnosis of mood disorders in American psychiatry and the market plethora of mood stabilizers aimed at constraining moodiness. Purportedly, unlike human emotions, we cannot constrain the vagaries of shifting weather; we can only influence the long term biases of climate. With global warming, we have destabilized the earth's climate. Most immediately, global warming leads to extreme and chaotic fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. A heightened appreciation of climatic rhythms would lead all of us to recognize how emotional and interpersonal rhythms also pervade our daily lives.