The Mutuality of Prayer

When I was growing up it sometimes seemed as if prayers were offered up to just about anybody, so long as they had some connection to the Christian monotheistic tradition. God, the saints, Mary, dead relatives, Jesus, Jesus’s dog. If you had ears – or had once had ears – then you were a fit object for prayer. I wondered sometimes if it mattered how we directed our prayer. Were prayer requests to Jesus more likely to yield fruit than those offered to our grandparents? Or Saint Jude? I used to pray to trees and flowers. Was that okay, too?

When it comes to prayer – especially prayer that is linked to getting some thing or some result (what is traditionally called petitionary prayer) – we all want the secret sauce. How do you pray to God for help? How do you ensure a response? Are there any guarantees when we pray?

One way to approach prayer is to focus less on results and more on process. We should not come to God and Jesus the way we approach real estate agents or car salesmen. It is not a question of bringing our A game, the better to maximize returns. It is closer to marriage, closer to parenting. It’s closer to a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Sometimes, it is important to ask what we can offer. Sometimes it’s better not to think about our needs and wants but to focus on those of others. It’s not that God is going to turn away from us in anger or disgust. It’s just that we love God, too. Why not act that way?

If we are honest, this makes intuitive sense. God is not in the dark about our lives. It is not like we are filling in the blanks for a boss who only thinks of us when we come in for a raise or to complain about office politics. As Jesus said so long ago, “your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.”

There is real comfort in that line. If we really give attention to it – if we are open to it – then we see that it calls on us to be faithful. It asks that we take a deep breath and be a little slower to judge what’s going on in what we are calling our lives in what we are calling the world. Behind every plea to God that our lives be changed – whether we’re pulling for more sun during the family vacation or the removal of fatal cancer cells – is the notion that we know better than God what’s right and good and necessary. And we really have to question the wisdom of that conclusion. We have to consider the possibility that we don’t have a clue – or at least that somebody else might have more clues than we do. As Bill Thetford said to Helen Schucman, there must be a better way, right.

Does this mean that prayer is fruitless? Beside the point? Or maybe just a matter of listening rather than talking? Or something else altogether?

Not necessarily. Nor, by the way, are we supposed to play it tough. If we’re scared or in pain, then we should bring it to God. By all means we should talk to God, if talking to God is what works, what resonates, what comforts, what helps. Reach for the hand of Jesus. If your best friend or your child needed you to listen to them, would you turn away? Would you tell them to suck it up?

It’s always okay – it’s more than okay – to turn to God or Jesus (or Buddha or a grandmother or Saint Terese) when we’re in need. Those are important prayers. What I am suggesting – gently, gently – is that we reconsider the nature of our investment in prayer. Are we asking for comfort or are we asking for a specific result that we’ve decided is right? It is another of asking: are we trusting a ay other than our own?

To trust God is to be faithful. To trust God is to see your own self differently. It is to recognize the futility of self-directed and self-obsessed effort. It is to seek a better way. When we are really in that space of trust it helpfully shifts the focus from our own efforts to an effort – a source – that transcends us. It’s a letting go of what is small in favor of what is grand and inclusive and joyful. It’s not academic or intellectual. It can be done in our lives – an embodied experience – and we can feel its effects.

Prayer has its own energy. That’s one of the reasons it can be fruitfully compared to significant relationships. There’s nothing static about it. What works today might not work tomorrow. What worked ten years ago and hasn’t been tried since might make a sudden reappearance. It’s a two way street. It has to be.

That, in the end, is what we can rely on: the mutuality of prayer. Whether we come to the zafu or the prie dieu or the bedroom rocker or a favorite tree in the forest . . . we go there to meet the One who is there because that is where we go to meet them.

Transformational Fires

We burned deadfall yesterday. It is the tail end of burning season and as usual winter left us with a lot of excess wood. Some we cut into firewood. The rest – along with whatever lumber is no longer useful around the place – we burn.

Chrisoula and the girls were with the horses, so Jeremiah and I spend the morning talking and working. Lugging branches, stacking logs. Mostly we talked about gaming – Dungeons and Dragons, Elder Scrolls V. Who would win in a fight – Gandalf or Voldemort? That sort of thing. But during one of our breaks – he with his apple juice, me with my tea – he commented on how so much wood could become so little ash so quickly. It was a good point. I hadn’t noticed.

Lately I have been aware of how much I don’t understand. And, along with that, how hard I work to understand. It is as if I face an abyss, frantically trying to define and redefine it. Is it possible that we don’t have to solve every mystery? That awakening might have more to do with acceptance and letting go than with understanding?

The wood we burn is dense and heavy. Some of it needs to be chainsawed. Some we snap over our knees. But we are always aware of it – heavy, rough, long, crooked. It has its own shape, its own texture. It has form. It has a name: red maple, white pine, dogwood, beech and birch.

When we toss it into the flames, that form is utterly consumed. It is no longer what it was just a few minutes earlier. Is that the same as saying it is gone?

Leaning on a shovel and watching the fire, I felt acutely aware not of the wood’s disappearance but of its transformation. It’s important to be careful in saying this. The wood becomes flame and then it becomes ash. It is still there but its form has changed. The wind comes and stirs the fire and lifts little whirlwinds of ash, scattering them over the lawn, all the way to the neighbor’s. What remains we’ll scatter in the gardens, mixed with the soil where – in time – it will be converted to pumpkins and tomatoes and lettuce that we’ll eat.

So you realize then that you are not looking at things so much as at a process – a sort of ongoing transformation of matter into energy, matter into other matter. And you realize that you, too, are part of that process. You are witnessing it not from the outside but from the inside. When your body goes – taking with it your name, your history, your story as you now identify with it – the process in which it has always flowed will not cease flowing. It goes on.

Can we identify with that process? Not as a separated part of it, not as a superior observer, not as poets or aspiring mystics but simply as the process itself? Beyond the many forms that the world assumes is a content that is eternal and unchanging. Is this it? One way to find out – one way to make the necessary contact, have the direct experience – is to pay attention and be present without trying to figure it all out. We didn’t invent the process. It doesn’t need our permission to continue.

Most of the women and men who have shepherded A Course in Miracles through the last five decades have been academic intellectuals. It’s natural in that light to approach the course intellectually, with our brains in the lead. But I am suggesting that our practice can be informed by some other sense, some other guide. Can we set our intellects aside for even a few minutes? Can we feel our way to Heaven?

Yesterday, sitting with the fire, talking with my son, I felt the Holy Presence. I can’t explain it very well. It has do with loving my life as it happens rather than how I wish it had happened or hope it will happen. It has to do with being attentive. You watch the fire. You consider seriously – and debate fiercely – the merits of fiction’s famous wizards. And somewhere in the midst of all that – no warning – you slip into the Heaven that always exists beyond ideas and forms, beyond the reach of the brain and its exaggerated capacity for reason. You are transformed. You go on.

Seeing with the Holy Spirit

The other day I was thinking about how we see with the Holy Spirit. I use that phrase – or one like it – a lot. It’s a key premise of awakening through A Course in Miracles. We have to choose the Holy Spirit as our teacher. We have to let go of the ego and see with the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean practically?

To use the lens of the Holy Spirit is simply to see wholly and without judgment. It’s a way of seeing another person or situation or memory without judging it. We don’t compare and contrast with previous experiences We just let it be in our awareness. By holding it there and not tainting it with it egoic ideas, we heal it. It is healed simply by our willingness to let it be itself.

For example, the other day I was on a long drive, and I was passing many beautiful homes. They were large and attractive. Many of them had a farm component – horses or cows. It was a New England postcard, right out of Robert Frost. Those scenes have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. And for reasons that I don’t know but can only make educated guesses about, they represent an ideal of success. I always thought I would live in one of those homes, on one of those large picturesque farms. But I don’t. And sometimes I am unhappy about that.

As I drove, feelings of envy arose. Feelings of scarcity. I was angry about what I have and what I don’t have. I would plot an ambitious course of writing and networking that would net me millions! Then I would tell myself anybody who lives in a big house must be spiritually deprived.

Those are familiar feelings! But as they came up, I didn’t do anything along the lines of management or control. I just let them be. I looked at them with the Holy Spirit. “Oh, look. Here comes the idea about being more spiritual than other people because my house is so small.”

Because I wasn’t judging the thoughts and feelings, it was easier to let them go. They weren’t as scary or intimidating. They were just thoughts. And I saw that each of them revolved around this idea of me in this body. I wanted security and safety for my life and the big New England farmhouse represented that. It was a symbol, nothing more. As soon as I was clear on that, a real peace flowed through me. There aren’t any houses that can provide us security or safety. That comes from our relationship with God. I trusted that completely. The rest of the drive felt very gentle and beautiful. It just flowed.

That is what I mean when I say that we have to “see” with Jesus or with the Holy Spirit. Just observe what is happening – how you are feeling, what you are thinking. It doesn’t matter if the thoughts are good or bad, whether they scare you or make you happy. Just let them be. If you can give them all your attention – if you can let them be in the field of your awareness – they will clarify and then fade. You will be free of them. It is nothing mystical, nothing mysterious. Just being aware of what is happening and giving it our attention in a spirit of trust and faith.

Right Mind vs. Intellect

Thomas a Kempis once wrote that he would rather feel compunction than know its definition. Sage advice for those of us studying awakening while also pursuing it. I am often aware of the degree to which my intellect seems to ally with the ego at the expense of my right mind.

At first blush, it’s simply a question of balance, right? After all, a Buddhist monk can sit five or six hours a day and still have a few hours left over to study ancient texts. Thomas Merton certainly found a way to blend his extraordinary intelligence and scholarship with contemplative prayer. Right mind and intellect aren’t inherently adversarial.

The trouble with examples – whether abstract like the former or specific like the latter – is that they aren’t personal. It’s well and good to speculate what the Buddhist monks are doing on Mount Baldy, but that’s at best tangentially related to what I am doing right here and now with my own spiritual practice and prayer life. If it’s a direct experience of God and Heaven that I’m after – if I’m bent on salvation – then I don’t want what works for you. I need to figure out what works for me.

All my life, I’ve been the smart kid in class. Not always the smartest, but one of them for sure. And I’ve done different things with that. Sometimes I deliberately wrecked expectations. Sometimes I was arrogance and mean-spirited. Sometimes – the older I got anyway – I worked hard. Regardless of what I was doing in classrooms, I always knew that my brain – that dubious organ that makes it home between the ears – was my strongest asset.

Forty years or so later, I’m not so sure. Take A Course in Miracles. I’ve spent years studying the main text, the workbook and the teacher’s manual. I’ve read most of Ken Wapnick’s work, Marianne Williamson’s, Tara Singh‘s. I’ve read Gary Renard’s books, Liz Cronkhite’s, David Hoffmeister’s, Jon Mundy’s. I’ve read all the questions and answers at the Foundation for A Course in Miracles website. I’ve read all the major ACIM bloggers.

I feel pretty confident in my intellectual understanding of the Course. I can hold my ground with the best of them.

So what?

Over the past few months I have slowly come to realize that while I do understand A Course in Miracles, I have been far less able to bring it into application, as Tara Singh wonderfully put it. A starving man doesn’t want to discuss the chemical composition of an apple. He wants to eat.

Or as the Course puts it in Lesson 185 (I want the peace of God):

To say these words is nothing. But to mean these words is everything (W-pI.185.1:1-2).

I feel it as I work on this website. I am committed to writing about each lesson and each section of the text this calendar year. So far, so good. But I can feel – especially when doubt settles in, especially when guilt or fear raise their heads – my intellect spring to the fore. It’s as if smarts are the ego’s vanguard, there to drive all uncertainty away.

And yet, there are times when simply sitting with doubt and uncertainty are important. I believe this. We are not meant to spring from our separated selves directly into Heaven. It’s a process that unfolds in time – that’s what time is for. I don’t think intellectualism – for me anyway – is always concerned with truth, so much as it is with being – or at least appearing – right.

Again, the course is instructive: “Do you prefer that you be right or happy?” (T-29.VII.1:9)

Who in their right mind would defend against peace and happiness? Yet that is what happens, at least sometimes. Thus, some caution is appropriate. Some willingness to sit with doubt, to let fear sift through the defenses and denial. If I am learning anything as I work through the text closely it is this: the course is nowhere near as dense or complicated as I want to imagine it is. In fact, it is remarkably consistent and clear.

It’s doing what it asks of me that’s hard – and that’s mostly a matter of quietening the mind long enough to see through the fear and guilt and anger and hate to the light that shines beyond. Learning is doing. It is an another activity. Thus undoing must be something else. Intellectual activity is no more helpful than physical activity in terms of offering up our tiny selves to God. There must be another way.

It is only because we are so willing to resist peace – so intent on fighting Jesus – that the intellect is even a factor in our awakening. Right-mindedness is not reasoning things out – it is seeing Truth and not seeing anything else but Truth. It is as if the brain – and its misbegotten knack for judgment – simply disappears, its functioning no more noticeable than that of our kidneys. Just another organ doing its thing. Nothing to get worked up about.

This year I have scaled back significantly on my reading. At the moment, outside of materials for classes (all books I’ve taught before), I am not reading anything but A Course in Miracles. It’s an incredible experience. One thing I’ve noticed is how hungry my brain gets – more words please! It churns through books like an addict, like the last thing it really wants is quiet or stillness. For that reason alone, I’m willing to stay on this self-imposed reading fast.

What happens when the mind can’t take refuge in a book about experience?

One thing that happens is that its ability to talk – or write – its way out of salvation is grievously undermined. Natural questions arise – who am I that I should hide in a thousand times a thousand books? You begin to sense your real thoughts pulsing below the chatter of your brain. It’s kind of awesome and scary at the same time, like watching whales sound nearby while you’re in a dinghy rowing for the far shore.

Perhaps I’ll always be a scholar, always committed to understanding in a critical way what I read. It’s certainly part of the identity I’ve concocted for myself. But part of me also insists that it knows God and would like to return, the sooner the better. Lately I have become aware of time as a sort of pressure – not like I have to be at the station by six or the train’s going to leave without me – but sort of pushing me from the inside, like something wants to come out.

I thought to myself: Jesus came two thousand years ago. And Buddha. And all these amazing teachers since. And we still haven’t woken up. We still haven’t healed the world. We’re still separated and living the horrific nightmare that attends separation. I think that we have to end the dream of separation now. Right now. I think we are supposed to listen very carefully to the inner teacher and be guided as to the unique path of our own awakening. It’s not in a book. It’s not an idea. It’s a fact between you and Jesus, between me and Jesus.

This is what I want to grasp now. This is what I want to do: give it all over to Jesus, every thing, and be led by him to Heaven. I believe in this. I want this for all of us.

Some Keep the Sabbath . . .

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is #236Some Keep the Sabbath. It captures for me several of the qualities that I admire most in her work: playfulness, irreverence and – deeply related to the first two qualities – a profound awareness and commitment to waking up to one’s identity in God.

As anyone who has read her work – poems and letters both – knows, Dickinson was a brave and eloquent woman. Her intelligence had a ferocity to it that most of us can only dream of. I’ve always disliked Julie Harris’ portrayal of Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst because it indulges in a timidity that was simply not a salient characteristic of this extraordinary poetic and religious mind.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –

Even though in that part of New England in the middle of the nineteenth century it was not unheard of to prefer to the woods to church (as even a cursory review of Thoreau and Emerson makes clear), Dickinson’s opening lines are still a radical rejection of tradition – both spiritual and cultural. She is not denying the inclination to worship, to know God through the Sabbath, but she is announcing her intention to do so without bowing to conventional means. She eschews both hierarchy and patriarchy in one fell couplet.

More than that, she is denying the human inclination to organization altogether. As the poem unfolds, roles typically assigned to people or buildings – directing a choir, the dome overhead – are assigned to nature. Dickinson is not just saying that we can perceive God in the natural world around us – she is positing that all our efforts to the contrary are precisely what shut God out, what render God in accessible.

People, in the ordinary course of being people – who set about building churches and filling them on Sundays – are not following God so much as walling any experience of God out.

That is still not a very popular position to take in Christian circles.

In a sense then, what Dickinson is asking is this: you want to worship? Do nothing. The Kingdom is already here – the bobolink sings, the apple tree limbs shift in the breeze. It is already done. The altar is not encased in four walls. It is bestowed in equal measure on the world and all its contents. The sermon is not spoken through a chosen minister (in Dickinson’s day, almost always a man) – rather, it is spoken all the time, by all things.

Reading Dickinson, one is hard-pressed to escape the sense that we are being subtly called to pay attention. She is not the first person to hear a bobolink sing. But the implication in her poems – and poem 236 stands as a strong witness – is that our attention can go deeper. Can take us deeper. Indeed, salvation – in the truest, most natural sense of the word – may require that we go deeper.

Emily Dickinson taught me to return to the woods, to turn my face to the sky, to gaze long and fiercely at the birds within range of my vision. She is my patron saint of intense devotion to awakening. She is a witness to the way that our physical sight is but a shallow substitute for the broader, the more divine vision with which we are all blessed but so few are able to employ.

Accept no substitute for spirituality! Accept no other experience of God – of spirit – whatever word you use to signify that Divine Source that forever pours forth its grace in all moments, in one continuous line. Dickinson’s gift was not merely literary – it was also a profound spiritual wisdom. There are few people who have gone so far – and left such a helpful and powerful record – in pursuing their vision of God.

Consider those last lines of the poem.

So instead of of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

Heaven is not a goal – an objective to be achieved at the end of some superior effort. Rather, it is a condition of the present moment, one into which we can slip with joyful ease. Emily Dickinson shows us how – all we have to do is choose to follow.

100 Things To Do (While You’re Waiting To Be Enlightened)

1. Bake bread.
2. Wash the windows with your favorite clothes.
3. Walk dogs.
4. Study ants.
5. Learn how to make brooms.
6. Draw.
7. Bake cookies you hate so you have to give them away.
8. Polish silver.
9. Find somebody who needs their silver polished and polish it for them.
10. Memorize Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy.
11. Read Robert Frost.
12. Listen to Edith Piaf.
13. Shoot your television.
14. Learn how to whittle.
15. Learn how to whistle.
16. Learn how to make your own pasta.
17. Grow herbs.
18. Make a macaroni statue of yourself.
19. Memorize Emily Dickinson’s “My Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun.”
20. Practice Vedantic meditation.
21. Write a religious manifesto.
22. Deep fry a Snickers bar.
23. Liberate an entire petting zoo.
24. Shave your head.
25. Dye your hair.
26. Sweep floors that are spotless.
27. Wax on, wax off.
28. Learn how to dance.
29. Just dance.
30. Dance in the driveway alone at 4 a.m.
31. Study Lady Macbeth.
32. Write an essay about Lady Macbeth and guilt.
33. Learn how to make jewelry from sea glass.
34. Write a love letter.
35. Keep a scrap book.
36. Collect stamps.
37. Add one new word to your vocabulary every day.
38. Read Ecclesiastes.
39. Learn how to draw your favorite plants.
40. Eat an apple, core and all.
41. Travel to India.
42. Trek the Inca trail.
43. Learn how to brew your own coffee.
44. Pretend you’re a cowboy.
45. Adopt a cat.
46. Walk backwards for a whole day.
47. Imitate a cricket.
48. Reread your favorite books from childhood.
49. Make vows.
50. Break vows.
51. Celebrate Christmas in October.
52. Resolve to understand your own face.
53. Learn how to make homemade ice cream.
54. Burn one of your journals.
55. Put out a hummingbird feeder.
56. Peel an apple so that the skin comes off in one unbroken spiral.
57. Hug a stranger.
58. Visit a museum.
59. Patronize local arists.
60. Howl.
61. Paint your cupboards.
62. Sell all your jewelry.
63. Read Moby Dick.
64. Write poetry that rhymes.
65. Visit a monastery.
66. Knit.
67. Study numerology.
68. Learn how to read tarot cards.
69. Write letters to old friends.
70. Cheat death.
71. See #46.
72. Outgrow your favorite shirt.
73. Invent a holiday.
74. Learn how to design websites.
75. Read Saint John of the Cross.
76. Sing more.
77. Sing less.
78. Learn how to identify at least seven constellations.
79. Put a soapbox in the forest and mount it daily and just listen.
80. Study the behavior of dogs.
81. Eschew models.
82. Become articulate on how and why the Titanic sank.
83. Read old gardening texts.
84. Bake pies.
85. Imagine a hobo.
86. Learn how to fold napkins like swans.
87. Hunt without a gun.
88. Take pictures without a camera.
89. Take a defensible position on a historic conspiracy.
90. Hide a statue of the Buddha where nobody will find it for a hundred years.
91. Avoid Thoreau.
92. Burn lottery tickets outside your local library.
93. Invite somebody famous to dinner.
94. Plant trees.
95. Hand craft a fly swatter.
96. Learn how to tie knots.
97. Start an annual garlic festival in your hometown.
98. Try to forget your phone number.
99. Make and sell vinegar.
100. Make a long list of things to do while you’re waiting to be enlightened and give it away.

Undoing the Narrative I

Certain movies and other texts can help one relate to and better understand the metaphysics and even the process of awakening described in A Course in Miracles. They can bring us into contact with the narrative I – the central direct of our story – and see how that self can be undone, simply by seeing there is nothing to undo.

I had an example of this a couple of weeks ago with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Specifically, I found myself utterly entranced with both the film-making and the story-telling. The movie felt exquisite to me. Where a lot of movies bludgeon us with CGI effects, violence, graphic sex and language, Tarantino (at least in Basterds – not so much in earlier films) employs a scalpel. He’s inside you before you know he’s inside you.

And it hit me – a little more than half way through the movie – that this obsession with telling an artful story, a transformative story, a gripping story, a forget-everything-and-keep-your-eyes-on-the-screen story had a spiritual correlative.

It is how the ego crafts the story of its life. It is how and why it feels nigh on impossible to let go of my own narrative, my own personality in favor of waking up to something that is simpler, clearer and more natural.

We fall easily into the lure of our stories. I’m Irish-Catholic, a poet, a recovering drunk, a student of A Course in Miracles. I’m from the Northeastern United States, not the South and not the West. Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson are instructive. I struggle with caring about making money. On and on it goes. You’ve got one, too. Several, in fact.

Who is the “you” that Jesus addresses in A Course in Miracles? Is it Helen Schucman? Ken Wapnick? Gary Renard? You? Me?

We can bypass those individuals and say instead that the text addresses the observing mind which has chosen – regrettably and unnecessarily – to attach itself to the ego and its wily story. It is like an enormous gorgeous quilt confusing itself for a single thread.

So while I go crashing and stumbling through the world – healing myself, getting better, making mistakes, coming to terms, discovering new obligations, making new friends, pining for old ones – the observing mind, the Christ mind, the source mind – all of which are thoughts thought by God – simply is. No sweat, no worries.

So much of what I believe I have to do – from writing this blog post to loving Jesus to helping feed my family – is contingent in some way on the magnetic personal story, the narrative composed by the ego. So many colors and tastes – so much exquisite detail – a cast to die for – such a dense and multi-layered narrative fabric. Stories within stories within stories.

And yet.

What we are after – inner peace, authentic love – is absent from the story. Oh, it’s definitely a theme. There are characters who symbolize it. It pops up as an idea. But it never delivers. It can’t. Love and peace are the one thing the ego can’t – won’t ever – give us. By definition it can’t let us see it’s just a movie, just an illusion, just a dream story. If it did, we’d walk away in a second. We’d leave the theater without a second thought and go straight home.

I didn’t finish watching Inglourious Basterds. It was as if a bell had rung, and once ringing, could not be unrung. I didn’t want the inspired trance of story anymore – not Tarantino’s and certainly not the ego’s. I wanted awareness – right thinking, right mind, right now.

Whatever we call waking up, it begins with awareness. It begins with the end of casualness. We begin to sense that our lives are playing out on a screen and that they are not real, at least not as we presently perceive and understand them. That invokes some responsibility. We need to discern the true from the false. Thus, something new – not of us but in us – is triggered.

As you watch your life unfold – you who long for the promise of Heaven as I do – ask what it is that the ego drama seeks to hide from you? Could it be that there is no drama? That there is no viewer, no screen, no projector? That you are It and you always have been and right now – right now! – you can settle and enjoy unalterable peace?

We are telling ourselves a story – a good one in its way – but its sole purpose is keep us asleep, hidden, outside, estranged, lonely and unproductive.

There is another way. We can give attention to the narrative – in particular the one telling it – and allow our attentiveness to dissolve them. There is no I. When the center is everywhere, there is no center.  We who never left our home are home.

A Walk to Stillness

We have to come stillness, to awareness. But how?

Perhaps first we have to learn that is gift. Stillness is a gift. Or perhaps better to say, it is there already, waiting. The gift is the way in which we are temporarily absolved of all the brain chatter and clutter that obfuscates stillness.

I have friends who have dedicated their lives to rigorous meditation practices, lives of service, intense prayer. I see nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, I see a lot that is right with it.

But I wonder – increasingly I wonder – is it really necessary?

To have what is given, to experience the stillness that is already there – the stillness that is rich and creative and inspiring, like a bolt of lightening – what do we have to do?

We have to be open to some slipping. Some neural pathway, long unused, suddenly lighting up. There’s an ancient action that takes place. We recognize it but we aren’t sure how to call it forth. Then it’s there, just like that. Like it was there all along, which it was. Which it is.

Last night I walked the dogs and after I walked myself. I do that sometimes. The older dog requires such care and attention that I don’t always see the stars. I don’t hear the wind. I do, of course, but not the same way. I don’t mind that. It’s a lovingkindness to a friend, a faithful companion.

But I like my walks of foolishness too. My walks into stillness. So I drop the dogs off at the house, and then go on my own way a little while. Just a little.

And I thought last night as I walked alone about those moments of crystalline clarity where briefly, God slips in and there is nothing else. How hard to put it into words – maybe you’re not even supposed to try – but how lovely it is, how free, to be beyond personality, beyond language, out of time.

Such a lovely and empowering space . . . and if it is simply there, if it is what is real, what is true, then why do we refuse it? Why do we make it so difficult?

So I stopped walking. Where the road dips a little at the old bridge, right over Watts brook, I stopped. I come into stillness when I pay attention. Not to the chatter of the brain – which is like this writing here, but maybe thicker, and without beginning or end – but to what appears to be external. God is cause, I am effect. Yet all that I perceive is also effect, what I create.

So watch it. Listen to it.

I leaned on the old bridge and looked down. The light was gone and so all I could see was the blurred banks of snow like giant gray thumbs extending along the banks. Here and there the bracken reaching over it, spidery limbs swaying in the breeze. On the North side of the bridge the water sounds were light, separate notes harmonically converged, like a glockenspiel. But on the South side it was a low, dull roar. There are fewer rocks there and the landscape drops, the water building momentum with nothing to impede it. It was cold and I could see a few stars twinkling here and there like the beginning of paralysis and I was balanced between these two musics, this one music they were together, balanced on the old bridge looking at the water and the sky.

And it came to me. It did. Just a flash, like a card falling out of a gambler’s sleeve. A glimpse of the face of Christ, behind the veils, behind the world of form. I would live forever for a taste of it!

Yet that is why I lose it. Why we lose it. I want to make it mine – this body’s experience, this self’s improvement. The same greed that makes me sneak the last cookie, the last wedge of cheese.

Who is it that interferes? Who wants to possess what cannot be possessed because it simply is?


I walked all morning today, up and down the back roads, through snowy fields, past barns, dripping eaves. I knelt to study stones, read tracks, glory in sunlight . . . In my mind you were there and we were talking. I was talking about the stillness – what it feels like, how to find it. I wanted to know if you knew why we lose it, why we clutch at it. It was a beautiful morning, a beautiful walk – how sweet to share the time with you – but we did not walk in stillness.

Three Reasons To Quit Religion

I grew up in a Catholic home – both of my parents were born and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. We went to church every Sunday and on every holy day of obligation. We said grace before meals. My sisters and I went to catechism classes.

In some ways, I am deeply grateful for this upbringing. Before I could analyze it or adopt skepticism as an outlook, I believed in God. And because we lived in the country and my father and I spent a lot of time outdoors – hiking, fishing, working with animals – I associated God with nature.

John Denver helped, too. My mother listened to him all the time (I just barely resisted writing that “his albums were on the hi fi all the time); his songs – especially the old ones from his first Greatest Hits album – are like the soundtrack to my childhood.

And that’s cool! Because John Denver got it. He loved God and he believed that everybody could be joyful and peaceful. I know that he lacks the irony and the poetry of Dylan, who I also love, but there’s real grace in simplicity. There is a spiritual authenticity in John Denver songs that really resonated with me as a child.

It was a great antidote to church, in other words. Mass was stiff and confining. It was uninspiring. But a walk in the woods could bring you face to face with angels every few steps. You could lay on your back and look at the clouds and see the face of Christ smiling back at you.

So I’m really grateful for my childhood – my parents impressed upon me the importance of a relationship with God, and they gave me tools – sometimes unwittingly – to help me maintain a conscious contact with the creative powers of the universe.

Notice the transition in that preceding paragraph. We went from “God” to “Creative Powers of the Universe.”

There aren’t many Catholics who are going to be cool with that.

As an adult – after years of prayer and meditation and study – I have more or less come around to John Lennon’s point of view. I like to imagine there’s no religion. Organized religion, that is. It seems to me that as soon as you identify as a member of a church, then you have automatically created “us” and “them.” Doesn’t matter how loving you feel or how super-positive your intentions are. There’s you and there’s the other.

And more than that, you now have a position to defend. You chose this religion – its history, its community, its practices, its mythology. Why? Why does it work for you?

That’s a terrible place to be if your goal is to be fully conscious as a loving and creative human being. While I know that religion does some good – I only have to look so far as my mother and father for proof – the reality is that it stifles us as human beings. It boxes us up and promotes a mindset that is alternately passive and destructive.

We can do better than that.

I can think of at least three good reasons to avoid joining (or walking away from) an organized religion:

Religion is the Graveyard of Spirituality

As I alluded to above, when you join or embrace a religion, you are effectively subscribing to a whole range of rules and laws and obligations. You are told what to believe. I don’t care if your minister or priest or rabbi encourages free thought or tells you that it’s normal to doubt. The truth is, there are certain ideological stances that separate “this” church from “that” one.

It’s hard to think for yourself when a big part of your so-called spiritual community is thinking for you. I stopped regularly attending Catholic mass around the time the Massachusetts bishops went whole-hog trying to kill gay marriage. I volunteered at a local food shelter and I knew that people were hungry and needed help and this was where my church wanted to focus its energies?

I don’t believe that Jesus would have stepped over a starving baby to tell a couple of men to stop holding hands.

Spiritual growth is dependent on our ability to think for ourselves. We have to be able to ask hard questions. We have to allow for the possibility of surprising and difficult answers. The evolution of consciousness takes us away from systems (religious, political, economic) and into the sphere of the personal. It is a deeply personal journey and you can’t make much progress when you’re wearing the ball and chain of an organized church.

Religion wants to control you, cut you down to size, make you manageable. The creative powers of the universe want you to wake up, get large and radiate the joy and love that is your natural inheritance.

You can’t have it both ways. Which way do you really want it?

Resist Your Cultural Defaults

Earlier I pointed out that I was raised Catholic. That’s very consistent with my Massachusetts Irish roots. In fact, virtually every stereotype you can associate with that cultural staple pertains to me or members of my family.

But what if I’d been born in Mississippi? Or Tel Aviv?

There’d be a whole other sack of cultural baggage. Maybe I’d be a devout Lutheran. Or an Orthodox Jew.

The possibilities are – literally – endless.

We are human beings. We aren’t the labels that we accept as a result of where we land at birth. Those are negotiable. They just are. I don’t care what your therapist tells you or your doctor or your teacher. You can recreate yourself in any way, shape or form that you want. That’s your divine right. It’s your sacred potential.

But try telling that to the priest who baptized you.

Does it make much sense to stick with the religious and cultural labels that we defaulted into? Aren’t there better alternatives?

What would happen if we rejected all our labels?

John Denver once wrote a song called “Rhymes and Reasons” which I consider a sort of adjunct to “Imagine.” At the end he sings, “the song that I am singing is a prayer to nonbelievers – come and stand beside us. We can find a better way.”

Beyond “us and them” is an identity that is unfractured and wholly loving. Religion knows it’s there, but they don’t want you to find it. Or they do, but they’ve created a system that ensures you won’t.

Turn the Other Cheek – I Want To Be Sure I Hit Them Both

Where there’s war, there’s religion. So much of the violence that is perpetrated in the world is the result of rigid (religious) belief structures. People are shot and tortured and raped and systematically wiped out because they don’t believe what their killers believe.

The holocaust. The crusades. Witch burnings. September 11th. Israel and Palestine.

Yes, it’s complicated. Yes you can end up in moral and ethical mazes that would confound even the most lucid of minotaurs. If you could go back in time and strangle Hitler in his crib, would you? If you’re attacked by terrorists, don’t you have a right of self-defense?

Meanwhile, Jesus weeps. Buddha rubs his forehead sadly. Shiva turns up the volume on the kirtan.

When you’re in organized religion, you’re in it. I supported gay marriage – I wrote about it, argued about it, carried signs for it. And every Sunday I took my kids to an institution that preached it was wrong.

The disconnect was ridiculous. And that’s just a small example.

Conflict is an inevitable – in fact, it’s a necessary  – result of “us and them” mentality, which is the default state of any organized religion. If you’re in a church, then you’re promoting conflict. And somewhere, someone is in anguish because of it. Someone is dying. Someone is hefting a sword and saying “this is for your own good.”

Don’t let them lift that sword in your name.

Spirituality sees the world as a dream, an illusion through which only brothers and sisters pass. It’s one big mind having one big dream. When you get that, everything falls into place. It simplifies. What you do to another, you do to yourself.

Religion wants to parcel off the dream, declare it real, exclude the unfaithful. That’s malicious and hurtful and – quite frankly – murderous.


I have received some emails in regards to this post: people want to know about my personal beliefs. They point out that for a guy who knocks religion, I seem awfully high on Jesus.

It’s a fair question that deserves to be answered.

Jesus is a powerful symbol of love and peace and joy to me. He is a powerful symbol of right thinking. I consider him an ascended master (though I acknowledge that can be a troubling phrase), a spiritual presence that I use to facilitate my own spiritual growth. The mode in which this is most effective for me is A Course in Miracles. But I can’t emphasize enough that these, to me, are simply symbols. They’re like the knife and fork that I use to eat dinner – they aren’t the only tools available and they certainly aren’t the meal itself. The closest thing to church for me is my morning walk with my dogs – it’s quiet, it’s clear, it’s beautiful. My brain stops chattering and labeling, stops segmenting time and dividing space.

If I could convert people to anything it would be that – a few moments of quiet in a peaceful world. If you can get there regularly, a light will begin to shine. And you will never be alone again.