Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Too Much Information

This is the era of TMI - “too much information”. I am new to blogging and already I am worried about speaking too much too often about things I know too little of.

Blogs are supposed to be for philosopher wannabe’s like me. And yet it isn’t writer’s block that is giving me pause about joining the latest fray over the latest controversy. I ask myself: What do I have to say that can add to the conversation and not just to the din and clatter of the disgruntled? What can I say that hasn’t already been said?

The issues of the day are those that keep coming back into our collective consciousness because of current events. Gun violence and how to address it, poverty, unemployment, government intrusion into our lives… These are just a few. There are all kinds of information available about these topics. You can find a study or a statistic to back up any point of view. So when does common sense finally take precedence over the reactionary mob mentality which seems to prevail in these conversations?

For example, a few days ago cable news pundits were debating about whether legally blind people should ever be denied the right to own, carry, and presumably use a hand gun. Trying to defend a blind person’s right to carry a gun is ridiculous. Sure, a legally blind person might still have some vision, but if they can’t see who or what they are shooting at, they have no business using a gun. If you can’t be cleared to drive a car why would anyone clear you to carry a gun?

Listening to people bend over backwards to give this concern a full hearing was really sad. As some of these folks were talking you could see by the look on their faces that they were not buying their own arguments. You could see them experience cognitive dissonance in real time. Their brain was disagreeing with their mouth. Some of them looked like their eyes were about to cross permanently. They had to be wondering the same thing I was: How many blind people are actually so paranoid and selfish that they think carrying a gun is so important that there should be legislation to guarantee it?

In the following days we experienced yet another mass shooting by a mentally impaired and distressed individual. With a dozen people dead and more injured I could not help but think back to that ridiculous conversation about the rights of the legally blind to own and carry a gun. The real blindness is our society’s inability to see what drives these senseless acts and what needs to be done to minimize the carnage wrought with guns. I can’t site a study or a statistic to back up my premise but here goes anyway.

Common sense dictates that guns are dangerous tools which people should be licensed to carry after a background check and a 2-3 day waiting period. That is not a lot to ask. Common sense also dictates that we spend too much time talking about gun control and not enough time about mental illness. When will we learn to recognize and help people who are on the verge of causing so much destruction?

For the next few weeks there will be TMI - too much information about the shooter, too much intrusive rehashing of the terrible experience of the victims, too many inept excuses about helping the mentally ill. There will be too much inaction to address the problems that lead to mass shootings.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Into The Hollow

The word “hollow” conjures up an image of a mystical valley with moss covered rocks under the cool shade of a forest canopy. Entering into the hollow there is a sense of peace yet at the same time of being exposed and at risk. What lurks behind the boulders and trees? Such a place of beauty can feel like a place of danger. Such a place of mystery can be irresistible.

Even when our lives are full of family, friends, work, and more; we often have a yearning for something that seems beyond our reach. That something is not always clear. We don’t always know what it is we are looking for. We just know that there is a gap within that somehow needs closing. The size of that space grows with no direct relationship to how happy we are in the rest our life. It can make us deeply disoriented even discontented. The world around us may seem full of potential but at the same time full of uncertainty. When we become aware of it we have entered into the hollow.

The founder of Quakerism, George Fox, described his own sense of emptiness as an “ocean of darkness” followed by an “ocean of light”. He was speaking of his own transformational experience when he personally came to know that “there was one Christ Jesus” who could speak to his condition. Many Christians describe this as being “saved” or “born again”. This transcendence is not limited to a Christian experience. It could be described as a personal awakening, or to being washed clean of worldly concerns revealing a higher purpose for one’s life.

Realizing they had a common experience of yearning, Fox and his friends began gathering together to seek God through worship and quiet reflection. Over the years since then, a common explanation by Quakers for the arrangement of meetinghouse benches has been the “hollow square”. The benches line the room in rows leaving an opening in the center. It is not just that we want a practical layout of the furniture where everyone can be both seen and heard. When we gather in silence to wait on Divine inspiration during our meetings for worship, we begin by entering a quiet vacant space. We are about to open ourselves up to the possibility of growing spiritually.

How we individually experience this is as wide and varied as the designs of snowflakes. Not knowing how it might turn out can be frightening. Yet, we merely need to invite Light in and we can be healed. Our lives can be forever changed. The result is to be challenged to actively commit ourselves to lives of integrity and Love. Quaker worship is one way among many to fill our vessels with the transforming power of God’s love. It is a place where we are invited to enter the hollow as a community. We do not face the hollow alone. We go there intentionally.

Experienced Friends advise newcomers that when we enter worship it is helpful to empty our minds of day to day thoughts. We do this “centering” to prepare ourselves to wait in silence to receive that of God through the ministry of other worshippers. We are invited to enter a hollow space both physically and spiritually. The silence itself is an emptiness uncluttered by distractions. This simple ritual is a faithful practice where we risk exposure to the unknown in the safe company of fellow travelers.

This form of worship teaches us how to seek all that life offers; to face our lives with calm confidence. The Quaker process of corporate discernment - the way we make decisions together - also helps us to understand how to enter the hollow as a friendly society, to face the troubles of our time together. Each time we gather to make decisions together we are testing our common ideals. Our meetings with attention to business are experiments in faith and openness. We are asked to empty ourselves of our expectations, our fears, our personal desires, and our temptations. We are challenged to actively serve that of God in our community.

Once emptied we carefully put into our corporate vessel our knowledge, our mutual respect, our trust, and our forbearance. This process can be a complicated spiritual discipline for a religious tradition which has a strong affinity for simplicity. But through a mysterious spiritual experience we attempt to create something practical and tangible. As we consider those matters before us we are charged with filling the hollow with acts of Love.

In our daily lives we are being called to do the same. The hollow fades from our awareness as we learn to embrace a life that is engaged, productive, and filled with acts of Love.

  • Are we willing to enter the hollow setting aside things like preconceived notions. pride, personal agendas, or suspicion?
  • Are we prepared to open our selves up to the power of the Light, to be transformed, and give ourselves over to a higher purpose?
  • How might we walk in that Light which transforms all our endeavors into acts of Love?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Three Spiritual Imperatives

We often hear about strict religions whose traditions forbid exploring other faiths and philosophies. But most of the world’s largest religions have a moderate branch which welcomes the study of other faith traditions. This includes all the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. They recognize certain universal tenets which do not threaten their dogma. Instead they echo and reinforce their most important teachings.

These maxims help us to live better and coexist more peacefully with each other. They are of equal importance and they are interrelated. But they are not laws. They are spiritual imperatives. What is the difference? A law is a rule which holds us accountable for our actions. A spiritual imperative is a calling to do better.

Be true.

Being true means being honest in word and deed. Speak what you believe to be the truth. When you give your word, do your best to live up to your promise.  Be clear about your intentions. Honor your commitments in all your relationships.

Part of being true is understanding what is false. We often accept as true things we cannot possibly confirm simply because we do not want our comfortable sense of things to be challenged. Trust and trustworthiness are two sides of being true. A reasonable skepticism can be healthy and protect us from deceit. But if we trust no one then skepticism turns into cynicism or worse paranoia. Then we cannot see truth when it is in right front of us. This causes a destructive loop in our consciousness. If we cannot recognize what is true, how can we be true ourselves?

Being accurate is not always the same as being truthful. Making an accurate statement can be misleading or cruel which is not being true. Neither is withholding the truth. To be true, we need to also understand how our worldview colors the truth we experience, and recognize that there may be truths beyond our understanding. Truth is at the heart of all spiritual imperatives. Without an awareness of truth we cannot act on any of the others.

Be kind.

It is sad that the number of ways one person can be cruel to another is probably as great as the number of grains of sand on a beach. Yet one of the beautiful balancing elements found in our universe is that for every way a person can be cruel there is an equal and opposite way we can be kind.

It is not enough to reject cruelty and violence. We must intentionally choose to be kind. We need to be aware of those around us in need. And we need to have an awareness of the impact that our words and actions have on others. Kindness is thoughtfulness.

To be thoughtful, first you have to care. Seeing someone in need must trigger a response. We are conditioned to protect ourselves from pain. Seeing someone else suffer can cause us to be afraid for our own physical and emotional safety. When we care, we overcome those fears. Life experience teaches us to recognize when it is worth it to risk being kind without expecting something in return. Each caring word or act teaches us that kindness is its own reward.

Be open.

Being true and being kind requires us to be open, to be willing to learn something. By being open to life’s experiences we welcome the chance to grow and change. When we close ourselves up, we set boundaries on the ways we interact with the world around us.

To be closed is to be afraid. And, fear is at the heart of every cruel response. Fear is an emotional defense against pain, risk, and uncertainty. To be open is to be brave. When we are open, we defy those forces beyond control and assert our own free will.

Being open means being teachable. The more we learn about the people and the world around us, the more we understand how to be true, how to be kind, how to choose joy. Suffering is a universal experience. My mother used to say that into every life a little rain must fall. But if we are open to it we can make a choice between drowning in our sorrows and being bathed by what we learn from them.

Be true. Be kind. Be open. These three spiritual imperatives are not new ideas. They have been a part of human understanding since time began. When we put all three together we are given an instruction manual for not just dealing with life as we find it, but for moving our lives in a positive direction.

Though each person finds their own way of living into them, we are all called to meet the challenges they suggest. And just when we think we have completely understood them we will find them teaching us something completely new and unexpected.