Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Inclusive Christmas- The Recognition of Light in All

Merry Christmas… or Happy Holidays? Which do you say? Do you think it matters? How do you celebrate Christmas in an inclusive way? You may have seen the Ben Stein piece on Christmas that aired on the CBS Sunday Morning show, and has since been passed on by email multiple times. In it he said that as a Jew he wishes people would leave Christmas alone. Say “Merry Christmas”, and call them “Christmas trees” without apology. That’s what they are, so stop being so politically correct. He suggested that we have grown to worship Hollywood personalities more than traditions and because of that we have lost our values. What do you think? It’s an interesting commentary coming from a high profile Jewish man.

What does it mean to be inclusive at Christmas? Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to be inclusive. You can be inclusive in a way that removes points of substance so as not to offend anyone. Or you can be inclusive by creating such a broad perspective on Christmas that many people and possibilities are included. The latter might be better known as Universal Christmas. The former is what we often call political correctness.

Take for example the story of one company’s attempt to create an inclusive Christmas party. A Human Resources Manager sent a memo to all staff about the Christmas party, scheduled to take place on December 23 at the Grill House; with a cash bar and small band playing. Gifts, not exceeding $10, were to be exchanged on the night.

Staff received another memo the next day- “In no way was yesterday’s memo intended to exclude our Jewish employees. From now on we’re calling it our ‘Holiday Party’. There will be no Christmas tree or Christmas carols sung. Happy now? Happy Holidays to you and your family, Pauline.”

The next day another memo was sent- “Regarding the note I received from a member of Alcoholics
Anonymous requesting a non-drinking table, I’m happy to accommodate this request, but if I put a
sign on a table that reads, “AA Only”, you wouldn’t be anonymous anymore!!!! How am I supposed to handle this? Somebody? Oh, and forget about the gift exchange. No gift exchange allowed now since the Union officials feel that $10.00 is too much money and Management believe $10.00 is a little cheap. NO GIFT EXCHANGE WILL BE Allowed.”

And the next day- “What a diverse group we are! I had no idea that December 20th begins the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which forbids eating and drinking during daylight hours. There goes the party! Perhaps the Grill House can hold off on serving your meal until the end of the party – or else package everything up for you to take home in a little foil doggy bag. Will that work? Meanwhile, I’ve arranged for members of Weight Watchers to sit farthest from the dessert buffet; pregnant women will get the table closest to the toilets; Gays are allowed to sit with each other; Lesbians do not have to sit with gay men; each will have their own table. Yes, there will be flower arrangements for the gay men’s table, too. We will have booster seats for short people. Low fat food will be available for those on a diet. No, we cannot control the salt used in the food. We suggest those people with high blood pressure taste the food first. There will be fresh fruits as dessert for Diabetics; the restaurant cannot supply “No Sugar” desserts. Sorry! Did I miss anything?!?!?!?!?! Pauline.

The next day a memo arrived with the subject line, “Vegetarians”- “Vegetarians, I’ve had it with you people!!! We’re going to keep this party at the Grill House whether you like it or not, so you can sit quietly at the table furthest from the “grill of death”, as you so quaintly put it. You’ll get your salad bar, including organic tomatoes, but you know tomatoes have feeling, too. They scream when you slice them. I’ve heard them scream. I’m hearing them scream right NOW!! Hope you all have a rotten holiday !

The next day there was a memo from the acting Human Resources Manager- “I’m sure I speak for all of us in wishing Pauline Lewis a speedy recovery, and I’ll continue to forward your cards to her. In the meantime, Management has decided to cancel our Holiday Party and instead, give everyone the afternoon of the 23rd December off with full pay.

Maybe you’ve had your own experience with inclusive Christmas that lapses into political correctness. The traditions get lost in what you can’t say for fear of offending someone. You end up saying nothing, standing for nothing and meeting no one’s needs.

Universal Christmas

I heard a story that captures a healthier approach to being inclusive. I’m calling it Universal Christmas.

Under a cultural exchange program a Texan family hosted a rabbi from Russia. It was Christmas time. The family took him to a local Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal, the waiter brought the check and presented each of them with a small brass Christmas tree ornament. They all laughed when someone pointed out that the ornaments were stamped “Made in India”, but the Rabbi began quietly crying. The family assumed that he was offended by the focus on Christmas but he smiled and said to them, “No. I was shedding tears of joy to be in a wonderful country in which a Buddhist gives a Jew a Christmas gift made by a Hindu.”

This gets closer in my mind to a truly inclusive Christmas. It’s a celebration that brings together people from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and we are reminded that we are all related. Christmas has always been a blend of many cultures, traditions and myths. 4000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia the legend of Marduk emerged- Marduk conquered the monster Tiamat and set the scene for creation. Each year however the monster fought back. As a result, the days got shorter, the crops lay barren and life itself hung in the balance. Each year in late December they celebrated rituals that they believed would help Marduk win his battle with Tiamat. The ultimate sign of victory was the return of light, the lengthening of days.

Christmas was never a purely Christian celebration. It was always a mixture of various cultural practices. Well before the time of Jesus, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, and gave gifts to loved ones at this time of year. The Anglo Saxons and the Teutonic tribes of Germany had winter holidays with things like the Druids sacred symbol of mistletoe and the German symbol of the evergreen, and even the Norse had ancient symbols of gods in sleighs. While we now understand that the Winter Solstice is punctual and reliable, most of the early Christmas/ Solstice myths emerged at a time when the return of the sun was an uncertainty each year. They created ceremonies both as reassurance and as an encouragement to the gods to return. They created huge bonfires on hills to imitate the sun, and to lure it back. They decorated their houses with greenery to imitate the greening earth and to lure the green earth to return. When the days lengthened and the sun shone brighter, the earth began to green again, they believed their rituals had something to do with it. When the light returned, they stopped all their regular activities and had a massive party.

Jesus wasn’t the only significant birth celebrated at this time of year. Apollo, Dionysius, Odin, Opalia, wife of Saturn, and the Phrygian god, Attis, were all said to be born around this time of year. It’s possible that first and second generation Christians were so inspired by their experience of Jesus, that they created a birth story fitting of one of the great gods of their time and located it in December to connect the birth of hope in their lives with the return of light.

Initially, in the years leading up to the birth of Jesus, and in the first years following his death, followers continued many of the earth based seasonal practices. It was only later under the influence of the Roman Empire that the Christian Christmas was set in competition with these pagan festivities.

One of the universal symbols is light. At this time of year we long for a little sunlight, or maybe just the hint of sunlight. It is the season of Winter Solstice when hints of light break into the heaviness of dark days. The Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Devali, Kwanzaa, even Ramadan lanterns if the lunar calendar aligns, are all festivals of light. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, nothing is more associated with Christmas than lights. Even in the Southern Hemisphere with their long, sunny days at this time of year, people typically decorate their houses with lights and attend candle light services on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Light in All

You don’t have to lapse into political correctness, because the essential history and meaning of Christmas is inclusive. As Bart Simpson said, “Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? The birth of Santa!”

We know a few things about light that the ancients didn’t know. We now know that the sun and the stars are always there whether we see them or not. It’s like walking into the dark night and shining a flash light. You see what is already there, awaiting your attention. One of the universal truths we celebrate at Christmas time is the recognition of light in surprising places. When it seems like you haven’t seen your inner light in months, it’s still there. Light a bonfire on the hillside of your consciousness and put yourself in the path of your own light. If seasonal depression is taking hold, and you haven’t seen the sun for what feels like months on end, and you begin to doubt even the changing of the seasons, let Christmas be a reminder of the light within. Put yourself in the path of its beam.

Author Annie Dillard said, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

One winter day, a man discovered a thick layer of frost on his window. He started painstakingly scraping it off. “What are you doing?” inquired a curious neighbor.

“Removing the frost from my window,” answered the man, “so I can see outside.”

His friend saw that the labor was tedious and advised him, “Light a fire in your home – the frost will disappear by itself!”

The recognition of inner light is the universal Christmas message. Johns Gospel, the latest and most philosophical of all the gospels, doesn’t even tell a birth story. Instead the author speaks about the arrival of light into EVERY person. The author of John, writing around 100 years after the life of Jesus, had caught the universal Christmas message.

How will you celebrate an inclusive Christmas this year? See the light within. If only you could see yourself the way the rest of us see you, the beauty and hidden depths of your heart, you would fall over in astonishment. Thomas Merton put it like this-

“At the center of our being is the pure glory of God in us. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”

If we truly saw ourselves this way, all fear and judgment would vanish. If we truly saw each other this way, kindness would overcome all darkness.

If I could give you one Christmas gift, it would be an awareness of your own light. Maybe a star would suffice. Maybe a house covered in Christmas lights. Maybe something you could put in the pocket of your mind and pull out every time you need a reminder. YOU ARE CHRISTMAS LIGHT! When the darkness feels heavy and burdensome, you are Christmas light.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Love, Light and Namaste.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Angels in Disguise

Have you ever wondered why angels are placed on top of Christmas trees? Apparently, Santa was having a bad Christmas one year. He asked Mrs. Claus to wake him at 5 a.m. and have his breakfast ready with a packed lunch. He then went to his workshop and told the elves to have all the gifts packed in the sleigh and the reindeer harnessed at 5:30 a.m.

At 5:30 the following morning he awoke and jumped out of bed, furious with Mrs. Claus for not waking him on time. His mood got worse when he realized she had no breakfast ready. Then he ran out to his sleigh only to find the elves all dishelveled, no gifts packed and the reindeer running loose in the field.

About this time a little angel walked by, dragging a large Christmas tree and said, “Santa what should I do with this Christmas tree?” Santa looked daggers at her and said “I’ll tell you what you can do with that Christmas tree……”

Now angels are placed on the top of the Christmas tree each year as a reminder that even the angelic Santa loses his cool from time to time.
Aside from this tall tale, there are many different ideas about angels. Some people think of them as literal beings. Some think of them as metaphors for surprising messengers. Angels are still widely regarded. A recent study conducted by Baylor University showed that half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels. One-fifth of Americans say they’ve heard angels speak to them in a very specific way.

Maybe you feel skeptical like George Carlin, who said this about people who believe in angels-

“Has everybody lost their mind? You know what I think it is? I think it’s a massive, collective, psychotic chemical flashback for all the drugs smoked, swallowed, shot, and absorbed by Americans from 1960 to 1990. Thirty years of street drugs will get you some angels, my friend!”

Carlin is part of a long line of skeptics who have questioned the existence of angels. Johannes Kepler, the 16th century astronomer, was the first to document the Copernican revolution. When he began to question how the planets move, he challenged the common understanding of his day that angels pulled the planets by the corners of a giant canopy that sheltered the flat earth. By exploring the natural phenomenon of the movement of planets, Kepler finally concluded that angels were not needed as part of the explanation.

The original Christmas stories were crafted in a pre-Copernican context. Angels and spirits were used to explain extraordinary circumstances. Angels fluttered at the intersection between heaven and earth, bringing divine messages to people on earth and singing songs of peace. It’s a story that’s difficult to read literally with our modern understanding of the world.

And yet many of us long for a sense of something larger than ourselves and we seek explanations for experiences that we can’t fully explain. We long to believe in ideals such as peace and justice, even though we have no evidence that they are ever attainable. We want to believe in miracles without compromising our rational minds. Maybe the idea of angels can be reinterpreted in a way that satisfies our curiosity with the unknown without offending our contemporary common sense.

You could think of angels as nature’s voice, surrounding you on every side with the sounds of mysterious order and beauty. You could think of angels as inner voices guiding you to new truth or voices encouraging you to hold your ideals despite the evidence. Angels could be meaningful coincidences and moments of synchronicity. They could be other people who show up at just the right time with just the right words or actions of care. They could be these things and so much more.

A nine year old girl described angels like this- “My angel is my grandma who died last year. She got a big head start on helping me while she was still down here on earth.”

This Christmas, consider what angels mean to you and consider the possibility that you are an angel for others. You are the presence of what is divine and sacred and beautiful in the world. Your every thought, word and action is an opportunity to inspire another person with your presence and encouragement.

We are each other’s angels
And we meet when it is time
We give each other messages
And show each other signs. David Lamotte.

Whether you believe in the literal events of the first Christmas or whether you believe that the world is full of love and beauty, either way you get a Christmas miracle. You get your Christmas miracle if you choose to see the world that way. Something angelic is waiting to be born in your life and in the world this Christmas. It may require some labor pains as the waters of new consciousness break, but do not shrink back. It is urging you forward. Do you hear the divine messages? Love filling the earth. Justice rising. Hope and history rhyming. Memory and imagination harmonizing. Do you hear it? Faint whispers speak to you, the voice of God heard through nature and through the fragile and angelic tones of human life.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Putting a Little Reason into the Season

Picture the scene. Mary and Joseph are huddled together in a manger surrounded by farm animals. Joseph is drifting in and out of various dreams. Angels fly in and out of the manger singing songs and bringing earth shattering messages. Three eastern kings gather around Mary and Joseph with gifts. Out of the window a large star can be seen in the day sky. Two sheep sit beneath the window having a conversation. One says to the other, “I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn. Let me go through this one more time. The virgin is having a baby. They’re naming him Jesus because of a dream. Angels told them that their baby would become the savior of all humanity. Kings travelled hundreds of miles to find the place of birth like a needle in a haystack because they were led by a giant star moving through the day sky. Now which part of this are you having trouble believing?”

The Christmas story is fantastic in the literal sense of the word. It is mostly fantasy. Which parts of it do you have trouble believing? You’re in good company. This story is as unlikely as talking sheep. The laws of nature tell us that sheep don’t talk, virgins don’t have babies, stars don’t travel across the day sky and then hang like a blip over one home and angels don’t sing choruses. Even if a reliable source suggested that something happened that broke the laws of nature, you would demand evidence and there is little evidence for the details of the Christmas story outside of the Bible which has contradictory details. All in all, the Christmas story is highly unlikely.

But don’t let details get in the way of a good holiday story, right? If you’re like me, you’re torn between the desire to be true to your common sense that is skeptical and your heart that just wants to let the story be a good yarn. The good news is that you can have both. You can question the literal account of the story AND you can enjoy the timeless message of the story. You can put a little reason into the season, and still take a yuletide joyride of inspired meaning. The Christmas story is mostly myth, but the message is real and powerful.

The Power of Myth

The word myth has two related but different meanings. No, myth is not a female moth. The first way that we use the word myth is to say that something is untrue. Do you remember when your parents used to tell you not to swim for 30 minutes after eating? It’s been shown to be untrue. It’s a myth. Along with a flat earth, a 6000 year young earth, and the earth at the center of the universe, these are examples of things people used to believe and we now call myths. A few weeks ago I spoke about the myth of closure and there are many cultural myths like the beauty myth and other media creations. It’s a sign of maturity to discern myth from essential truth. Believing in myths that your mind has decided are untrue is a form of delusion. If there is no evidence for something, or if something is dehumanizing, then it is right to question it. We no longer believe that the earth is flat because of evidence. We don’t believe the beauty myth because it is dehumanizing. I would put the myth of the virgin birth in the same category. It dehumanizes the bodies, sexuality and childbirth experience of women.

The other use of the word myth is to describe timeless metaphors and stories. For example we speak of creation myths and Greek mythology. The point of this sort of myth is to make sense of the world, to dig into the deepest human longings and fears and stretch the boundaries of our limited perspective. These myths could be completely fictional like the creation myths or else some blend of fact and fiction like the Christmas story. Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist found that myths are an innate part of the structure of the brain. 99.99% of what we know comes from what we believe, and what we believe comes from the stories we tell. He compared myth to grammar. The basic structure is the same around the world even if some of the details, like language and style, differ.

There are two opposite dangers in relation to myth. Some people will fight to the death to protect the facts of their stories. As someone said to me over the phone this week, “If the details of the story are fictional, then how do you know the message isn’t also fictional?” Exactly right, I said. Myth is not absolute. The point of myth is NOT to give the answers but to invite self reflection. The point is not certainty but a quest for new perspectives.

The danger at the other extreme comes from a completely rational approach that sees all myth as pointless superstition. Both extremes miss the power of myth. Consider this story about the artist Picasso. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t paint pictures of people “the way they really are.” Picasso asked the man what he meant by “the way they really are,” and the man pulled out of his wallet a snapshot of his wife as an example. Picasso responded: “Isn’t she rather small and flat?”

We see the world through our own eyes. Experience is subjective. Art, music, emotion, mystery- the point is that our perspective on these things and more includes both a rational response and also a visceral or gut level response. Can you imagine looking at a painting in a gallery and asking, “Did that really happen?” or listening to a song and asking, “Was that true or false?” Art, music and emotions elicit something that is true for you or moves you in some way. The experience is true and real. Just don’t cling to the experience because it is sure to change.

Birth Myths

Let me bring this back to birth myths. Do you know the story of your birth? Maybe your family has its own birth myths. Here is some of mine. My parents were missionaries in a remote part of Western Australia when I was born. They moved back to the city when I was 6 months old so I have no memory of the place, but many stories have been told. The stories have grown in my mind over time. This is how I recall the stories. The place was so remote that my Dad had to travel for days at a time to visit members of his congregation. If the car broke down on the way, all he could do was lie underneath the car where it was coolest and hope that someone drove past. This was a time and place so deeply racist that my parents were refused service in some stores because their accent gave them away as being from the East Coast.

I was born in a tiny, two bed hospital in this small town in 1968. My mother had one bed, while the other bed remained empty. Another baby was born at the same time as me, but because this was an Aboriginal baby he had to be born in the shed out the back of the hospital. Legend had it that this Aboriginal baby was named Ernie Dingo who went on to become a famous Australian television personality. I told that story to anyone who would listen when Ernie Dingo started appearing on television.

Only later did I discover that Ernie Dingo was born in July of 1956. He was the second oldest of nine children so it’s possible that another one of the Dingo clan was born at the same time as me. The Dingo family was certainly a famous family in this small town.

While the details are muddled, the message has always been clear to me. I was born in a situation of obscene injustice. In 1968 in Australia, Aboriginal children were still being stolen and put into white institutions in an attempt to destroy aboriginal culture. It was official government policy until 1969. I was the beneficiary of good fortune because of the color of my skin in a world that put other people in the outhouse because of the color of their skin. The memory of my birth story lies deep within me, factual or not. It has shaped my worldview and my core values. Racism offends me at a soul level because this is where my mythic memory lies. The difference between the privilege I have enjoyed and the struggle of the other boy born at the same time as me is staggering. One of the Dingo brothers, possibly the one born the same day as me, was killed in a car accident a few years back. Two lives began at the same time and followed such a different path of fortune and opportunity.

The story of Jesus’ birth has a similar effect on me. The version of the story that inspires me, with its muddled mixture of fact and fiction, is the version where Jesus is the underdog and survives against the odds. I resonate with the myth that Jesus opposed the dominant and oppressive culture of his day from the beginning. He challenged it, fought it and ultimately lost his life because he challenged it. The Christmas myth resonates with my own birth myth and fills me with passion to do whatever I can to break down hatred and fight injustice.

Evolving Myth

The myth around the birth of Jesus has evolved. You can see this even in the different biblical texts. There is no ONE consistent story of the life of Jesus. Each author muddled various details with fiction to make the point they wanted to make. Notice how each author progressively expands the myth.

Paul was the earliest writer and he made no mention of the birth of Jesus. He was mainly interested in the end of Jesus’ life. Mark came next and he also made no mention of the birth story. Not only that, but Mark made no reference to Joseph and only brief and unflattering mention of Mary. Mark emphasized the adult baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels with Mark’s information in front of them and for some reason added in a birth story but with quite different details and facts to each other. John, the latest of the gospels said nothing about a birth story. He wrote at length about the myth of Jesus, the indwelling spirit, stretching all the way back to the beginning of time.

John introduced the idea that Jesus is born mythically in every person across all times and cultures. Jesus modeled what it means to be at peace within yourself and live in tune with your highest calling. The emphasis should be on the potential for every one of us to attain the same peace and harmony in our lives. This is where the myth of Jesus resonates with the myth of awakening that every one of us senses deep within. The myth now evolves beyond one man who lived two thousand years ago to include all people. The myth is universal like any good myth should be.

The ultimate question to ask yourself is whether you are attached to the details of the Jesus story or are you allowing the myth to evolve through you? Consider this story about clinging.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept over them all. Each creature clung tightly to the twigs and rocks at the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, ‘I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.’

The other creatures laughed and said, ‘You fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you shall die quicker than boredom!’

But he refused to listen to them, took a deep breath and let go. He was immediately tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks. Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he moved with the current.

Downstream the creatures who didn’t know him were amazed. They cried, ‘This is a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! This is the Messiah, come to save us all!’

And the one carried in the current said, ‘I am no more Messiah than you. The river wants you to be free, and all you need to do is let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.’

But they cried even more, ‘Saviour!’ all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.

Let this Christmas be a time of liberation for you. Let go a little. You don’t need to cling to Jesus as your savior. Instead, look where he was pointing you- to your own innate ability to let go and swim with the current. The myth surrounding his life resonates with parts of you that you might have forgotten but they are very much alive and awaiting your attention. Inner peace is born in you when you let go and allow your mythic memory to guide you to the life you are destined to live. It’s the Yuletide joyride. Namaste.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Whats In Your Stars These Holidays?

Sue Monk Kidd writes in her book Where the Heart Waits, ”When my daughter was small she got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. ‘What exactly will you be doing in the play?’ I asked her. ’I just stand there and shine,’ she told me.”

What a beautiful image! She just stands there and shines. Life gets so confusing at times, and the Holidays can be a dark time for many people. Bring yourself back to the simplicity of a young child in a Christmas pageant radiating light from a sandwich board.

You don’t have to uncover the meaning of life. You don’t have to solve world hunger. You don’t have to be perfectly together and on top of things. You just have to shine your own unique light in the world and trust its glow. When life is overwhelming and you can’t see your way forward, remember that you don’t need to map out all the steps or plan your whole future. Just follow the star of your inner light to reveal the next step and know that you are part of a universe that will carry you with its momentum if you stop resisting.

Biologist Ursula Goodenough said,

“The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me.”

The star is a universal symbol of guidance, and a popular symbol at Christmas. No matter what your perspective on religion, Christmas is an awesome time to reflect on stars, light and new birth. They are all related. The painter Van Gogh once said, “When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

Every new birth is a miracle forged in balls of gas burning billions of miles away. Every person, every thing in the world, shines with the glow of a supernova. For each person born there are 1.5 trillion stars. The mind boggles. Which is more miraculous; a star or a birth? Are they even separate? As above, so below. Life goes on. The Christmas miracle.

This Christmas, when you have the need for fresh perspective or encouragement, look to one of your 1.5 trillion stars and let its immensity wash over you.

Abraham Heschel, 20th century Jewish theologian said, “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe. Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight.”

What are the stars saying to you? Your intuition can be trusted. It often points you beyond the life you have planned and on to the life that is waiting for you; a life of extraordinary goodness and beauty. If the wonder and clarity of your intuition eludes you, then gaze at the stars and know that you are as much star as you are flesh and blood.

Above you are the stars. Beneath you is the earth. Within you is the light of life. Like the stars may your vision be clear. Like the earth, may your life be grounded. Like the light within, may your spirit shine.

I am star struck by the wonder of it all. Namaste.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Running Away from Christmas

A young kid was in big trouble with his Dad. He was sent to his room, where he stayed for an hour. His Dad came in and found him packing some of his clothes, his teddy bear and his piggy bank. The kid said indignantly, “I’m running away from home!”

“What if you get hungry?” the father asked.

“Then I’ll come home and eat and then leave again!” said the child.

“And what if you run out of money?”

“I will come home, get some money and then leave again!” replied the child.

“What if your clothes get dirty?”

“Then I’ll come home and let mommy wash them and then leave again,” he said.

The Dad shook his head and exclaimed, “This kid is not running away from home; he’s going to college.”

Sound familiar?

Did you ever run away from home as a kid? I remember packing a bag and heading out the back gate. I did a couple of laps of the block, passing a neighbor each time I went by. She eventually asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m running away from home but Mom says I’m not allowed to cross the road so I’m trying to find a way around it. I wasn’t the smartest kid.

It turns out that running away is a lifelong habit for most of us and it can get a lot more serious than childhood tantrums. I met many runaways when I worked in the inner city of Sydney. They were running away for a variety of reasons- abuse, mental illnesses, debt, crime, confusion. Many of them used different names and kept their cards close to their chest.

I became friends with one particular homeless guy who was running away from some big problems. He was the kindest person I’ve ever known. They called him “the bear” in the neighborhood because he was fiercely protective and he gave big hugs. We spent hours chatting about life and pain and meaning. He didn’t tell me much about his past and I didn’t ask. But he hinted that there had been abuse at the hands of a Catholic Priest. He became my guardian angel in the neighborhood, telling people I was “okay” and introducing me to some of the most desperate people I have ever met.

When he got bronchitis, I let bear sleep in the church. That was when it happened. As soon as I opened the door of the church I could tell that something was wrong. I was devastated to find him dead with a stick of heroine in one arm and another stick lying next to him. We posted notice of his death hoping that family would come forward but there was no response. So a few of us put some money together to make sure Bear got a proper send off. At the funeral I had a church full of free spirited streeties. They were impossible to control, so I just let them do their thing. People wondered in and out of the building, went outside to shoot up before coming back in to weep and pay their respects. It was what it needed to be.

About 6 months later I received a phone call. A woman on the other end of the phone said she was Bear’s mother, although she called him “Brad”. She had just heard the news about her son. She was inconsolable. Meg and I hosted bear’s parents and sister in our home. I took them to the places where Bear used to hang, introduced them to his friends and we did another ceremony at the gravesite. They told me some of his story and their shock that he ended up on the streets. They told me about the abuse. They described how he got on the wrong side of some bikers in another state. He needed to protect his daughter, so he left behind his family, moved to Sydney, grew a long beard, changed his name and lived anonymously on the streets. They hadn’t heard from him in two years. If only you could have heard bear’s mother describe her boy, bear’s close relationship with his daughter, how he cleaned the house with her draped over his shoulder like a tea towel. This was like any young guy you have ever met. He just had some awful secrets and made some tragic mistakes. So he did the only thing he could think to do. He ran away.

As much as I admired Bear, running away didn’t work for him. His past was right with him everywhere he went. We’re all running away from something, aren’t we? Whether it’s an extreme situation like abuse or debt, or more everyday situations like haunting memories or poor choices, we are all running away from something. What are you running from? Why are you running? Sometimes you’re right to move or change locations, but don’t run away. You run because you’re afraid. You run because you’re in denial. You run because you think there’s some safer, better place. Stop. You can’t run away from a problem because you will still be there and you and your voice of judgment are at least 50% of the problem. Wherever you go, there you will be with the same unresolved issue and the same self loathing. Maybe it’s time to stop running and start accepting the fragile beauty of your humanity. See yourself the way the rest of us see you.

What Are You Looking For At Christmas?

Christmas is often a time that brings our deepest insecurities to the surface. I don’t know what it is- maybe it’s the traditions, maybe it’s time with family or in-your-face consumerism that makes global suffering more stark. Something about Christmas brings the realities of life into new focus. Some of us would like to run away from Christmas some years. So let me ask you a question- what are you looking to get from the Christmas story? Are you looking for a Disney style story that helps you run away from the realities of life or are you looking for an affirmation that life is tough and some real world inspiration to stick with it? Are you looking for the romantic myth of a virgin birth or the stark reality of a young couple trying to make the best of a confusing situation?

Are you looking for the sugar-coated story of angels with golden wings floating in from outer space with divine messages, or the reality of a frightened couple trying to follow their instincts and discern some meaning in their struggle?

Most of us don’t live sugar-coated lives. The sickly sweet fairytale Christmas story that is often presented offers little to the harsh reality of our lives; teenage pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, ethnic genocide, global poverty, religious rivalry, family betrayals, personal demons and relationship anguish.

On the other hand, the historical context which paints a more accurate backdrop to the beginnings of Jesus’ life says something profound to the realities of life. From the time Mary became pregnant, to the decisions of a family struggling to make ends meet, to the life of a struggling revolutionary, this was a story of survival against the odds.

The real world Christmas story names the struggles of your life and our world. May you hear in the raw, the real, the radical, the earthy struggles of the family of Jesus, echoes of life as you know it to be. You don’t need to run away. You have all you need right here and now to live fully and survive against any odds, and to be an angel of compassion in the world. Stand in the fire of life without flinching. Your strength will carry you through.

Running Away From Secrets

One part of the Christmas story that has very little historical basis is Herod and the slaughter of the children. Herod was a corrupt tyrant, but there is no evidence that he chased Jesus and his family nor ordered any babies to be killed. It’s more likely that Matthew fabricates this part of the story to connect Jesus’ birth with the Moses story to connect with his Jewish audience.

The birth story was written by people who had second hand experience of the adult Jesus. The impact of Jesus seems to have been so great that they created a birth story that would be remembered, maybe even retold each year for thousands of years. The star, the angels, the dreams- these are all details that fit the birth of a God/king. But the escape from Herod patterned after Moses’ escape from Pharoah. Why include this seamy detail? Maybe to show that life is tough and complicated even for great leaders like Jesus. He too was running in fear. Maybe to show that life is rarely black and white, and decisions are made in the heat of battle.

Stories like this take place in all times and all places. In 2006, in the town of Samarra, 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, Khalib was in a rush to get to the hospital. His pregnant sister was his passenger. She was in labor and Khalib had to get her to the hospital. They made their way down the usual streets. But down one street the U.S. military set up a checkpoint. The soldiers perceived the approaching vehicle as a threat, so they opened fire and ended up killing Nabiha and the child in her womb.

This is one among many such horror stories. I don’t tell the story to criticize the soldiers. I’m not interested in second guessing what other people do in situations in which I have no knowledge or experience. The significant thing about this story is that no one knew about it until Wikileaks published documents this year outlining specific accounts of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are some uncanny similarities between Wikileaks and the story of Herod – the mysterious sources of information, the backroom deals and corruption. Wikileaks is on a mission to expose the secrets of modern day Herods. I’m fascinated by the conversations around Wikileaks, It seems at root to be an issue of trust. The people who have little trust in world governments are supportive of Wikileaks, and want to be given more information. The more trust governments have in the people, the more information they will disclose. Trust is a two way street and the existence of Wikileaks is a symptom of lack of trust.

Time will tell if Wikileaks serves the greater good by raising the level of integrity among leaders, or whether it will get in the way of essential leadership functions and puts lives in danger. It’s certainly not a black and white issue. We are living in gray days of information, secrecy and a new world order. At least Wikileaks serves as a balancing force between leadership and the people. Greater transparency and higher integrity are clearly demanded.

If the Christmas story and the Wikileaks revelations achieve anything, it will be that they call every one of us to be the Christmas miracle that we hope for. If you aren’t proud to have anything you say or do be reported on a website, then don’t say or do it. Live with such integrity that you would be pleased to see your words and actions live on in public record for generations. And don’t give up, even on the grayest day and in the deepest despair. For every Herod, there is public official leading with integrity and a family doing the best they can. For every Wikileaks report of corruption there is another story of people living with extraordinary integrity. Keep at it. Don’t run away. You have all you need right here and now. Shine your own Christmas light in the world. Namaste.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Breathing New Life into the Holidays

Now is the time to make sure that you are prepared for the Holidays in EVERY way. Breathe new life into traditions, into relationships, into consumerism. Maybe even just breathe a little.

There is an inspiring story told in the Bible (Ezekiel) about a valley of old bones that had new life breathed into them. Ezekiel used the image of dry bones to describe the feeling that the Israelites had lost all their familiar traditions while in exile. Then he gives them the good news. He says that even the driest old bones can have new life breathed into them. How? With grounding, healing breath. In Hebrew language they used the same word for breath as they did for spirit. No accident, I suspect. For the Hebrews, spirit was the whole person in harmony. The ancient Rabbis had a beautiful image for spirit. They saw spirit as being a house guest in the body. Therefore, you should care for all aspects of your life as if God is present. In your very breath, the divine dwells.

Introduce a breathing practice into your day and watch your energy increase, your mood improve, your body strengthen, your mind sharpen and your spirit revive. Start now and be ready for the Holidays.

Combine a breathing practice with don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements to prepare for an awesome Holiday season.

1. Don’t make assumptions
Before you see family, take some cleansing breaths. Breathe out assumptions, and breathe in acceptance.

Albert Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” The story that you carry with you about family is persistent and makes all the sense in the world to you. But what if most of it is fictional?

An old Buddhist tale tells of two monks traveling through woods. They come upon a woman standing at the bank of a river. She needs to get across, but is unable to make it alone. The elder of the two monks picks her up and carries her through the rushing water. Once they’re all on the other side, the woman leaves the monks. The younger monk is stunned at these events. They’re not allowed to touch women so intimately, and he doesn’t know what to make of his older friend’s behavior.

Finally, after stewing over the incident for several miles, he says to his traveling companion, “How could you touch that woman back at the river the way you did? Have you no respect for our vows?” The elder monk turns to his young friend and says, “Are you still carrying that woman? I put her down at the river bank over an hour ago.”

What stories about family are you carrying into this holiday season? Someone is quiet, therefore they must be angry with you. Someone is late, therefore they don’t care about you. There may even be some truth to the story, but it’s still a story. You choose whether you carry assumptions into the holidays or start afresh. Breathe new life into family by letting go of the stories and assumptions that drag you down.

2. Don’t take things personally
How much of the tension you feel around family are you making about yourself? It might not be about you at all. Take some cleansing breaths before seeing family. Breathe out drama. Breathe in acceptance.

An Irishman once came upon two people brawling in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get involved?”

Don’t you often do the same thing with family? When someone is pushing your buttons, most of the time they are involved in their own drama. Is there anything gained by getting involved? Just smile and breathe and move away.

You don’t need drama to feel alive and important. You are alive and important because you house divine love in your mind and body. Drama doesn’t help you to thrive. It distracts you from your essence as a vessel of peace in the world.

Try this holiday visualization-

Picture yourself as a harp with all kinds of large and small debris swirling around you – words, feelings, innuendos, assumptions, drama. Some float toward you, passing right through the spaces between the strings, and glide on by. But others hit the strings, striking a chord that reverberates way back to your past, bringing up old hurts. It strikes a long, discordant note that jangles your nerves and throws you off balance. Notice what passes you by but don’t chase it. If something sticks, say to yourself, “Okay, what can I learn here to make beautiful music in the world?”

3. Speak the truth
Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Before you see family, breathe out pretense and breathe in authenticity. More good can come from working through even the harshest truth than concealing it behind a veil made up of spared feelings or saved face. Speak your mind, and share your truth clearly.

Know your own boundaries with family, be clear about them, and stick with them.

There is a powerful scene in the movie The Family Stone. With all the Stone family home for the holidays, including a narrow minded and uptight new girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker), the dinner scene is explosive when the girl friend suggests that a gay couple should think twice about adopting a child in case the child becomes gay. She suggests that being gay is abnormal and is a challenge that people don’t need in life. Her opinion is like a red rag to a bull at this table. Various people around the table try to save the situation with humor, until Mr. Stone slams his fist on the table and says “Enough!” He won’t have this talk in his home.

Maybe there will come a time for you to say “enough!” this holiday season. Thrive in your own truth this season.

Vietnamese Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hahn offers this reminder:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech . . . I vow to cultivate loving speech. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering . . . I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain, and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break.”

4. Do your best

We’re all human and we all make mistakes. The question is how forgiving you will be – with yourself and with others. Your life experience to date brings you to this point. Your accumulated wisdom and strength enable you to bring your best to this moment. Do your best, stop expecting perfection and your best will be enough.

In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “’Do your best then step back. This is the only path to peace.”

Choose to thrive this Holiday season. Choose to breathe new life and spirit into the traditions and relationships that are important to you. Even if they appear dead and lifeless, there is always hope. Breathe in peace and breathe out drama. You don’t need drama. It doesn’t help you to thrive. It’s a distraction from your essential purpose on earth, which is to live and love fully and liberate others to do the same.

Please visit Soulseeds for inner peace, breathing, and other Holiday resources, as well as some awesome Christmas gifts for all ages.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Pope and Condoms- Morality that Fits

Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan once said, “The church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late.” It’s unfortunately true that religious institutions generally get dragged into the modern world kicking and screaming. Their beliefs and practices often lag the reality of contemporary life as well as the lifestyles of members.

The Catholic Church is a reluctantly modern institution clinging to some pre-modern ideals. The Popemobile is a souped-up car with bulletproof glass, a safety measure not afforded earlier Popes. Some of the Catholic Church's buildings are exquisite examples of enlightenment architecture. What takes place inside is often archaic and superstitious. Her members are people of conscience and knowledge having been liberated by many of the tools of modern science –multiple translations of Bibles and commentaries in native languages, and the internet to name a few. However they are expected to follow official teachings, some of which are pre-scientific and outmoded. The most significant mentors (past and present) in the lives of most Catholics are nuns and parish priests, scholars and activists like Bernard Lonergan, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day and Jim Wallis, even mystics like Matthew Fox and Joan Chittister. These mentors are, or were, well and truly ensconced in a modern or post modern worldview.

The Catholic Church has been an active evangelist for modernism. It has nurtured a freedom it may not be ready to accept. Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty transcends the teachings of pre-council Popes regarding religious tolerance. The Catholic Church no longer claims to be the only true church. One of the consequences of Vatican II is that none of the Catholic doctrines most hotly disputed today –contraception, homosexuality, celibacy, euthanasia, and women's ordination to name a few— is secure for all time. All of them are now open to reversal by a future Pope or Council. In the meantime, Catholics will continue to live according to their own common sense and conscience.

The recent statement of Pope Benedict about condom use is a case in point. While the necessities and expenses of modern life require Catholics to practice appropriate birth control, the official stance of the church has remained unchanged. Until last week, that is, when the Pope opened the door to certain circumstances when condom use might be appropriate. The circumstances he presented were narrow for sure, male prostitutes were mentioned, but the door is open nonetheless. The big news is that he has acknowledged that circumstance plays a role in ethics as opposed to an unbending divine decree from God via the Vatican, a distinctly modern development. I for one applaud this development. To my mind it is the institution taking a small step, breathless but not too late, to catch up to the people and the times. May there be many more steps forward.

A counter argument could be that Pope Benedict is being pragmatic, as Popes have been before him. The Catholic Church allowed its priests to marry for the first 1000 years of its life, and only stopped the practice when it became too costly to support families, not to mention the legal landmine of property ownership. The ban on marriage may have morphed into an ideological (or spiritual) objection, but it was originally a practical consideration. While marriage for priests will be a harder won liberty, it seems that if priests had families, the ban on contraception would be gone quicker than you could open a packet of ribbed Trojans.

Whatever the motivations, this papal development is good news for anyone who embraces the personal responsibility of modernism. Whether you think that modernism is good news or not, it’s futile to resist it. It is here to stay. The freedom to choose from a large number of viable religious options is a given in today’s world. People now speak about a religious “preference” in the same way that you might prefer Pepsi over Coke. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say they are “into” Buddhism much like you might be into Jazz or Country music. The Catholic Church, like all churches, is now a voluntary association in a marketplace of religious choices. This freedom also stretches to include personal morality. As an example. it is estimated that the use of contraceptives among American Catholic women is slightly higher than in the US population as a whole. People are already picking and choosing their religions, their beliefs and their morality. Religious institutions are catching up to the people.

It’s tempting as an inclusive spiritual leader to say “live and let live” in this marketplace of religious and moral preferences. If people choose beliefs different to mine, that’s fine. But does this stretch to include all beliefs? The problem is that not all beliefs are equal and not all beliefs are harmless. Some beliefs lead to violence and innocent suffering. If children die from diseases that could be cured but their parents believe in faith healing, then this is an irresponsible belief. If people die from AIDS because religions preach against condom use, then this is a dangerous belief. If people die in terrorist attacks because of a belief in martyrdom, then this is a hateful belief. If doctors are killed because people have religious objections to abortion, then the belief has crossed a line. If overpopulation wreaks havoc on the planet because of a ban on contraception, then this is a shortsighted belief. I could go on. You get the point. Now I am left with a dilemma. How do I live and let live in these cases? Is my higher loyalty to those holding the beliefs or those suffering because of the beliefs? My heart is with the latter. I choose to challenge any beliefs that lead to harm and the degradation of human dignity. People and institutions should be challenged to be all that they can be and that includes me and any of my beliefs. We owe it to each other and the future of the planet.

Modernism is a gift in many ways. It liberates people to think freely and critically. Choices are made and ethics are decided in a cultural context that can’t be second guessed from the Pope’s throne. However this doesn’t nullify the role of spiritual communities, including Catholic communities. Science and technology offer many tools for self reflection but don’t minimize the role of the individual within a tradition. We are drawn to community which offers a check and balance on our individual, situation driven, morality. We do well to listen to our spiritual brothers and sisters and the stories of our tradition.

I welcome modernism’s gift of free thought, and I welcome the movement from black and white to a hint of gray in the Catholic Church. For the millions of Catholics who are already comfortable in this gray zone, it is affirmation of your inner wisdom. For those who are afraid that some assurance or guidance will be lost, trust your sense of decency that resonates with your tradition without needing any absolute, literal and external authority. You know what is good, true and beautiful. You conscience senses it intuitively. Your tradition teaches it with story, legend and poetry. I end with a brief quote from Vatican II-

Human dignity requires one to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind impulse or merely external pressure. (Gaudium et Spes 17; Veritatis Splendor 21)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gratitude, Family and Holidays

This is the time of year when Americans prepare to give thanks and people everywhere plan for various holiday festivities. It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. High hopes and sometimes deep letdown. Well planned meals, and poorly planned intentions. Fond memories, and deep grief. The holiday season is a great time to recommit to your highest aspirations and celebrate in grand style. Don’t just survive the holidays. Dive in with an open heart and thrive. This can be a time of enormous gratitude, even through the ups and downs of family and holidays.

In a thanksgiving episode of The Simpsons, Homer says grace before their meal, “I give thanks for the occasional moments of peace and love our family has experienced . . . well, not today. You saw what happened. O, Lord, be honest! Are we the most pathetic family in the universe or what?”

At least he’s honest. Most families have days like that or even years like that. When holidays such as Thanksgiving put families together for a couple of hours or a couple of days, it can be explosive. These are some of the people you know most intimately, and yet feelings are often raw. Ancient family rivalries and unresolved tensions are often triggered by flippant comments.

You walk in to your parent’s home and your Mom says, “You’re wearing that!?!” Even though you’re 45, you instantly feel 15.

Conversation moves to the weather, which you think is safe enough until your conservative uncle starts in about “global warming conspiracy theories.” and “gullible liberals”. You roll your eyes and change the subject.

Your brother announces that he and his wife are “doing things differently this year” for Thanksgiving dinner: all vegan. Your old school grandfather mutters under his breath, “Commies!” You smile and pretend your phone’s ringing.

Maybe you had high hopes for previous holiday occasions that fell short of your expectations. Previous disappointment leaves you feeling wary of what might happen this year. Allow gratitude to surprise you. Let new depths of appreciation fill your days and open your heart to loving connections. Gratitude is the host to so much possibility. Gratitude’s guests include optimism, generosity and kindness. Her relatives include abundance, joy and contentment. Gratitude prepares a gourmet feast of joy and goodwill.

Start by expressing gratitude with the trimming of life (the obvious blessings) and let gratitude build momentum and become a habit that stretches to include less obvious blessings. Thoughts are like families that gather together and birds that flock together- gratitude infiltrates other thoughts and spreads its cheer. Give thanks for the day off work, the good food and the afternoon nap. Give thanks for TV sports, smooth travelling and fond memories. Give thanks for fresh starts, yet more fresh starts, constant fresh starts, no matter how scarred the relationship. Give thanks for the ability to choose your response to people who push your buttons and give thanks for the satisfying silence of letting things go.

Some of the biggest barriers to gratitude include assumptions and unrealistic expectations. This holiday season doesn’t have to be like previous holiday seasons. People change. You have changed. You have new inner strength that greets each moment with optimism.

Gratitude isn’t forced or contrived. You don’t need to pretend there is a silver lining in difficult situations. Think of gratitude as the silver lining itself. Gratitude shines a light on your awareness in the same way that the sun creates a silver line at the edge of a cloud. It is your ability to choose to shift your perspective. Be grateful for awareness and your ability to choose your thoughts and words. Be grateful for variety and the surprising teachers in your life. Be grateful for the humility of being brought back to earth, even with a thud and knowing that it has made you stronger. You can get up, dust yourself off and try again and this is the greatest blessing of all. Be grateful even for the ability to be grateful.

Here are three “P”s for a grateful holiday season- Prepare, Pause and Perspective.
Prepare- Spend as much energy being mentally and emotionally prepared for the holidays as you do on logistics and shopping. Make sure it’s your highest self that turns up on Turkey Day.

Pause- When you feel a situation triggering judgment or hurt in you, buy yourself some time. Pause and check in with your highest self before responding, if you need to respond at all.

Perspective- When a situation is beyond your control, choose your response and give thanks for the ability to shift your perspective.

Think of gratitude as a sunlit opening in a winter’s sky. You are seeing the holidays and your family in a bright light. The more focus you place on the new possibility that surrounds you, the brighter your mood will be. As winter sun parts a grey November sky like morning curtains, so your positive attitude will reveal the increasing wonder and goodness that fills your life. Stretch your gratitude before the open curtains of your mind. The view is awesome. Life is good. Happy Holidays.

Below is a gratitude affirmation from Soulseeds. Visit the site to see more.

Seed of Gratitude Be grateful for whoever and whatever comes into your life. They may be surprising messengers or unexpected gifts arriving to probe your character or nudge you into some new adventure of growth. Welcome them all with open arms and a huge heart.

Say to yourself: I embrace all people and all situations and learn what I am ready to learn

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Changing Values, Changing Consciousness

Did you play “catch” or “tag” as a child? Those were the days my friends. In Australia there was a safe space called “BAR”. If you were touching BAR, you couldn’t be caught. It got shortened to B.A.R. It seemed to have more punch that way. B.A.R was a moving target. If you started to get tired and knew you were about to get caught, you just called out B.A.R wherever you were standing and all your problems went away. You were literally untouchable. Imagine if you could suspend the toughest moments of your life now, relationship stalemates or seemingly unsolvable work situations, chronic physical pain or the largest global problems with a simple cry, B.A.R! All the problems would vanish just like that.

They were simple days weren’t they? The worst thing that happened was getting chosen last for the football team. Even the most significant life choices were made with a quick game of eanie meanie minie moe. Do you remember eanie meanie? In Australia we used slightly different words. We ended it with “ink pink you stink” and then whatever extra words you needed to add to make sure you chose the person you wanted in the first place.

The closest you came to war was the fort you built in the woods. You decided who came into your fort and who was forbidden. Do you ever wish you could build a fort now and only let people in that you like? Wouldn’t it be simple? Only nice people, people who do what you say. Imagine solving global problems like war and terrorism with a chant that ends in “ink pink you stink.” Imagine if we could solve the Israeli/ Palestine dispute with a simple game of eanie meanie.

Do you privately yearn for the good old days? Do you wish life was simpler and ethical choices more clear cut?

I heard a clip from Comedian David Alan Grier. He talked about growing up in Detroit, Michigan, in the 60s and 70s. He said, “It was a kinder, gentler time. Sure, we had a race riot or two, but deep down, we loved each other.” I enjoyed his comment because the truth is that it didn’t feel simple at the time did it? You agonized over the fort, wept over being chosen last for the football team and extracted every syllable out of eanie meanie to ensure your preferred outcome. Vietnam, race riots and free love were every bit as divisive and confusing as Afghanistan, terrorism and DADT (don’t ask don’t tell).

Life only ever seems simple in hindsight. It was never truly simple. It was just different and it kept changing. You resist change because the new threatens something about the old, forgetting that the old was once something new and frightening itself. You overcame change then and you can do it again. Do you trust yourself to live in a world that doesn’t stay the same for long? My number one objective is to show you the incredible strength of character you have to deal with change, both change within yourself and change in society. You can do it. You will do it. You ARE doing it. I want to show you your power and I want to offer you tools to “do” change skillfully. Ultimately I want to show you that you are at the cutting edge of change, and if you do it mindfully and effectively you can be part of the evolution of humanity, the transformation of society.

First we need to accept that change is inevitable, except of course from vending machines which have very short memories and usually follow Murphys Law. That is, when you drop change at a vending machine, the pennies will fall within reach while all other coins will roll out of sight.

Remember the words in the Taoist text- “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.” (Tao Te Ching)

Change Is Inevitable

While things were never simple, they are certainly different now. We now live with greater plurality than we did 30 year ago. Note the difference between pluralism and plurality. Plurality is the reality of change and diversity. Pluralism is an ideology that generally welcomes change and diversity. Whether you welcome change or not, things are changing. Whether you like the new plurality or not, it is a reality. No matter how you wish it was yesterday, it never is.

Things we took for granted in the past can no longer be assumed. Imagine the scene- a woman is with a group of international business acquaintances. They are discussing an upcoming social function. The woman says, “I will be glad to introduce my partner to you.” One replies, “Your business partner.” She replies, “No, my marriage partner.” A man from Singapore chimes in and says, “Is it your only marriage partner?” She replies, “Of course” not realizing that polygamy is accepted in this man’s country. A third person says, “I will be pleased to meet your husband. Is he in the same business?” The woman replies, “Well my spouse is a woman, and no she is not in the same business.”

It’s a classic situation and the sort of situation we all encounter. There are many things which are taken for granted in one culture and not in another. There are also things that used to be taken for granted and we no longer assume them. We no longer assume that a woman is a stay at home Mom, that a couple is married, that a marriage involves a man and a woman or that a child will follow the same religion as their parents.

I vividly remember being at the hospital when my wife’s grandfather was dying. The chaplain came to his bedside and asked if he was Christian. He was surprised, even a little offended. He said, “Of course. I’m Australian aren’t I?” Twenty years later this is not an assumption many of us would make. In fact by 2020 less than 50% of the Australian population will be Christian. You can’t assume that all white Americans are Christians, that all Asians are Buddhist or that all people of Middle Easter descent are Muslims. You can’t assume that all Christians are anti abortion, and you can’t assume that all Muslims take the Koran literally. And get this- now the Pope supports birth control in certain circumstances to stop the spread of HIV, in particular in the case of prostitution. Yes you heard right. That alone is proof enough that all things eventually change. To paraphrase Rocky shouting out to the all Russian audience in Rocky IV, “If the Pope can change, you can change. We all can change.”

We live in a world of many gods, many beliefs, many divisions, many new assumptions. Many of the things we once said “of course” to are no longer assumptions. The biggest change, the Copernican Revolution of all changes, is that Christianity is no longer the center of the world with all other worldviews circling around it. Plurality brings a Copernican revolution to your beliefs. Your worldview is valid, but it is not at the center of the universe with all other worldview circling around you. You have at least a half truth with your worldview. As I heard said recently, just make sure that you have the right half.

So whether you think the massive diversity and plurality in our world is a good thing or a bad thing is not the primary issue. Change is a given to be responded to.

A guy calls his wife from his cell phone while driving on a freeway. His wife says, “Be careful. I just heard on the radio that some nut is driving the wrong way on the freeway.” The husband says, “One nut! There are hundreds of them!”

There are at least two ways to take this little story. Resisting change in a pluralistic world is like driving the wrong way down a freeway. That’s the obvious moral of the story. Another way to think of it is that some of the most important changes have taken place because people like you were prepared to be at the cutting edge, to be a minority of one and drive, white knuckled, against the flow of traffic at great personal peril down the freeway called life. Are you prepared to be one of history’s great doubters, an inquisitor of the status quo? Will you follow in the footsteps of yesterday’s trailblazers who created social change that we now take for granted? Think Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, Rosa Parks, Ghandi, Martin Luther King.

Beyond Yesterday’s Choices

One of those great change agents told a story. The Bible records Jesus telling the fascinating story of two people going to the temple to pray- a Pharisee and a tax collector. Pharisees were popular and well regarded in their day. Tax collectors? Not so much. The Pharisees tended towards being self righteous and legalistic and the tax collectors were often corrupt. In the story the Pharisee is proud and the tax collector is repentant. It would be a mistake to move too quickly to the moral of the story, that the Pharisee was bad and the tax collector good. This seems more like a parable describing change and complexity. Taxes had to be collected. The industry just needed some regulation. Religious tradition was important. It just needed a little flexibility.

If there is a lesson in the story it is to live with integrity, whether you are a government official or part of the dominant religious culture. It’s a parable about change and redefining values in a changing world. You don’t need to choose between church and state, tradition and change. Our world is asking us new questions. It’s no longer enough to choose between Republican and Democrat. They are labels with diminishing meaning in today’s world. The current political system is hamstrung because it is debating too many old issues. Both parties need to redefine their values and emphasis according to the real questions of the day.

There has been a lot of conversation this week about airport security and the rights of travelers. Apply this issue about privacy and security to the parable. It’s another false choice, and I don’t mean the choice between being groped or nuked. I mean the black and white choice between security and privacy. On the one hand if you want to be safe, be prepared to give up some liberty. On the other hand as Ben Franklin said many years ago, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Maybe Homeland Security’s Michael Chertoff is THE tax collector in this story and we’re waiting to see if he can live with humility and integrity.

We’re struggling with this issue because it’s not a black and white issue. It’s an issue that transcends either political party and reflects the changing global system and its new challenges. We’re fighting an enemy we can’t see, an enemy that is unpredictable and unconventional. It’s a terrorist ideology that wins by spreading fear and terror. We let them win by living in fear and terror. But on the other hand, there is genuine risk in flying and we need to be as safe as possible on planes.

A lot more could be said about this issue, but that will have to wait for another time. Let me offer a short answer to an issue that demands a long answer by shifting back to the theme of the day- change.

Change by Overcoming Anxiety

I want to offer a tool for dealing with change, whether its family dynamics or the security procedures related to aerodynamics. Lets call it B.A.R. It’s a way of suspending judgment long enough to check in with your own anxiety and assumptions. There are two steps. Locate your real anxiety and turn it around.

1. Locate the REAL anxiety. The real issue with change is personal anxiety. We struggle with change not because of a lack of self will but because we are protecting something that feels vulnerable. Its not about terrorists and it’s not about TSA. It’s not the fear of radiation nor is it the fear of loss of privacy. Ultimately your discomfort is with your own mortality and inability to control life. Locate your fears and put them at ease with a little TLC. Remind them that you are whole and lovable, abundant and brilliant to begin with and this essence doesn’t need to be protected. Shine a light on your fear and it will be revealed for what it is.

2. Turn your anxiety into an “it”. Robert Kegan is a pioneer in the field of moral psychology. He describes the movement from “the past as subject” to “the past as object”. We resist change because we are so identified with the way things were that we can’t separate from it. We think our whole world will end without our story about the way things were. We become ready to change when we see that the past was an “it”, an object. It was what it was, it was part of the story of your life but it didn’t know what you now know. It was important but not permanent. It didn’t live in today’s world and couldn’t answer today’s questions. But you can.

So when you feel yourself resisting change, call B.A.R. Buy some time to check in with your inner fears, and love them to rest. Locate them, love them and leave them. You have a new reality to integrate. Your new reality contains your old reality but it is now more complex, it is stronger and wiser. You are always becoming what the future demands of you. Trust yourself.

Revolution Beyond Right and Wrong

Our new world calls us to move beyond over simplified, black and white, right and wrong perspectives. An ancient Jewish story describes the time that a young man came to his Rabbi to learn the tradition. The Rabbi told him that if he could answer just one question he would be admitted to the class. He asked the following question- “If two men come down a chimney and one ends up dirty and the other one ends up clean, which one has a wash.” The young man confidently answers, “The dirty one.” The Rabbi replies, “No! The dirty one looks at the clean one, sees he is clean and thinks, ‘I must be clean’. The clean one looks at the dirty one, sees he is dirty and thinks ‘I must be dirty’. The clean one has a wash.” The young man hits his forehead, and walks away shaking his head.

He comes back the next day to try again. He begs the Rabbi to give him another chance. The Rabbi again says he will have to answer one question to be admitted to the class. He agrees. The Rabbi says, ““If two men come down a chimney and one ends up dirty and the other one ends up clean, which one has a wash.” The young guy is smarter this time. He says, “The clean one.” The Rabbi replies, “No! The clean one looks at his hands, sees they are clean and knows he is clean. The dirty one looks at his hands, sees they are dirty and goes to take a wash.” The young guy rolls his eyes, curses and leaves in shock.

A third day he comes back. He explains to the Rabbi that he has given it a lot of thought and he is sure he is ready if the Rabbi will just give him one last chance. The Rabbi again says that there will be just one question. The Rabbi asks him, “If two men come down a chimney and one ends up dirty and the other one ends up clean, which one has a wash.” The young guy is determined to get it right. He thinks for a long time, goes back and forth in his mind, ‘the clean one, the dirty one, the clean one”, then finally gives up. The Rabbi says to him, “How can two men come down a chimney and one come out dirty and one come out clean? The question itself is foolish.

The beautiful thing about the Jewish tradition is that it doesn’t generally deal in conclusions. It is open ended and dynamic. Like the stories in so many spiritual traditions, and like the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the purpose is not to draw one moral for all time but to locate yourself in the story and allow yourself to be moved to new depths of self knowledge.

You are both the dirty man and the clean man, looking at each other and at their hands, at the bottom of the chimney. You are both Pharisee and tax collector. You are sometimes the guy driving full speed down the freeway, white knuckled, against the flow of traffic. You are part of the redefining of tradition and commerce. You are part of the transformation of culture and humanity.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Every generation needs a revolution.” What is our generation’s revolution? How are you participating? Begin by accepting change. You know you can do it. You are sourced by a spirit that doesn’t need things to stay the same to feel alive. You are at peace with change and flowing with the tide of life. So go with it, alone or in groups of change agents. You have learnt about inner change. You have accepted outer change. Now be a part of revolutionary change. Namaste.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a lifelong challenge with few easy answers. We all have our enemies and unresolved tensions. A church pastor once asked his congregation if anyone had forgiven all their enemies. One lone hand shot up, an elderly lady.

“Mrs. Neely, that is very unusual. How old are you?”
“Ninety-eight,” she replied.
The congregation stood up and clapped their hands.

“Mrs. Neely? Share your secret with the rest of us. How have you forgiven all your enemies?”
“I don’t have any,” She replied, smiling sweetly.

“Oh, Mrs. Neely, would you please come down in front and tell us all how a person can live ninety-eight years and not have an enemy in the world?”
The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said, “I outlived the lot of them.”

I guess time does heal wounds. The beautiful thing is that forgiveness equates to a longer and happier life. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. However research has found that forgiveness is good for the person doing the forgiving as well as the person being forgiven. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system. This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, healthier relationships and stronger social networks. With forgiveness, what goes around most definitely comes around.

One way or another most of us aspire to a deeper level of forgiveness, whether its family members or politicians or colleagues. In a recent Gallup Poll, 94% of people surveyed said it was important to forgive. At the same time, only 48% of people said they usually try to forgive. Forgiveness is easier said than done. In the same poll, 85% said they could not forgive on their own and needed some outside help. Prayer did not rate highly in the study as being helpful for forgiveness. In fact only one thing correlated with effective forgiveness, and that was meditation.

What is the connection between forgiveness and meditation?

Seeing Surface Things for What They Are
Neil Douglas Klotz is a Sufi author who has written several books that seek to uncover the original, Aramaic, sense of the words of Jesus. This is how Douglas Klotz translates the famous forgiveness words of Jesus’ Lord’s Prayer-

“Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of other’s guilt.
Don’t let surface things delude us,
But free us from what holds us back.”

The Lord’s Prayer comes alive when you allow the Aramaic of the original language to come through the words. Without forgiveness, you are held captive by surface things, like the immediate impression of things and events as being unfair or unjust. When you stop expecting the world to be perfect at the surface, forgiveness becomes a whole lot easier. When you stop expecting yourself not to make mistakes, you lighten up. When you stop expecting others to be perfect, you are freed from what holds you and others back. When you stop expecting life to be perfect, it becomes a much more peaceful experience. (Neil Douglas-Klotz The Hidden Gospel-Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus.)

Forgiveness and Consciousness
Forgiveness takes place in the human brain, the Cingulate Gyrus to be precise. Cingulate means belt in Latin. So you could think of Gyrus as the belt buckle, as it partially wraps around the Corpus Callosum. The Cingulate is an evolved feature of the mammalian brain. It functions as a clearing house for the subconscious mind, deciding which primal instincts are appropriate after assessing all the social evidence. The Cingulate also adjudicates when there is conflict between rational thinking and emotional responses. Think of the Cingulate as the belt around your consciousness. It functions in the brain a little like a mediator, as well as collector of sensory information about what is going on in other people and in events.

What’s this got to do with forgiveness? Research has shown that activity increases in the Cingulate (amongst other parts of the brain) during moments of forgiveness. The brain is hardwired for forgiveness, able to consider the other person’s intentions, their emotional state and the forgivability of their actions.

If the brain wasn’t so busy with competing demands and stories from the past, there would be more forgiveness because our brains would be free to do what they can do so well and so impersonally. That’s why meditation is such an effective tool for forgiveness. In meditation, you can train your mind to allow your highest consciousness to rule your life, rather than allowing your base survival instincts to rule your life.

Mark Nepo tells this story about forgiveness in “The Book of Awakening”:

A spiritual teacher grew tired of his student complaining, and so, one morning, sent him for some salt. When the student returned, the teacher instructed the unhappy young man to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it.
“How does it taste?” the teacher asked.

“Bitter,” said the student.

The teacher chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake, and once the student swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”

As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the teacher asked, “How does it taste?”

“Fresh,” remarked the student.

“Do you taste the salt?” asked the teacher.

“No,” said the young man.

At this, the teacher said, “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. . . . Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”

Bottom line? Loosen the belt of your consciousness. Stop expecting the world to match your expectations and become a lake of forgiveness. Absorb pain and injustice without becoming a bitter person. Come face to face with pain, your own and others, without becoming hostile.

Try this forgiveness exercise.

Say to yourself-

May I be at peace. May I be a lake of forgiveness. May I be truly happy.

Think of someone who has harmed you, or needs your forgiveness-

May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May you be free from pain. May you be happy.

Bring all the peoples of the world into your focus-

May the world be at peace. May it be free from suffering. May it be free from pain. May it be happy.

Finally, bring the Earth into your focus-

May she be at peace. May she be free from suffering. May she be free from pain. May she be happy.

As Marianne Williamson said, “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.”

Please visit Soulseeds for resources that inspire optimism, new perspective and forgiveness.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Myth of Closure

Do you think the problems of the world will ever be fully solved? How would you even know if this was the case? Won’t there always be more to do? How do you know when you have perfected the art of being human? Isn’t there always more to experience and learn? Religious traditions have framed these questions in terms of Promised Land. They asked the question, Will we ever reach the Promised Land? How will we know when we have arrived? An ancient Jewish story suggests an answer. Two students were debating when you know you have reached the Promised Land. They came to their Rabbi. One said, “Is it when you see an animal in the distance and know whether it’s a sheep or dog?”

“No,” the Rabbi replied.

“Is it when you can look at a tree and tell whether it’s a fig tree or an oak?”

“No,” the rabbi answered again.

After a few more attempts, the students said, “Then tell us, what is it?”

He said, “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and know that this is your sister or brother. Until then, you are still in exile.”

When another person’s cry for help is so real that you can taste the salt in your mouth, then you have reached the Promised Land. When you feel your neighbor’s pain as a physical pain in your own body, then you have reached the Promised Land. When you recognize that injustice for one is injustice for all, and that your prosperity is intimately related to the prosperity of people on the other side of the globe, then you have reached the Promised Land. Until then, you are in exile.

Are you there yet? No. None of us have arrived at this perfection. We just have glimpses. Have you conquered all fear? No. We all have unfinished business when it comes to erasing fear and prejudice from our lives. Is there still injustice in the world? Yes. As long as there is injustice and suffering in the world, there is more work to be done. Keep striving. Keep working at living with greater compassion. Keep taking action where you can. If you don’t imagine that you will ever see the outcomes of your labors, do what you can anyway. Defy the limits of your few years on earth by creating a legacy of love that will outlast you.

If you expect that your good efforts will be undone by the shortsightedness of others, or an ineffective political system, do good anyway. You have no idea how, when and where the seeds of your best efforts will harvest in amazing ways. Don’t be put off for a second by the fact that you won’t reach the Promised Land in your life. Just do what you can, love the world in your own unique way and feel the satisfaction of knowing that you have left the world a more decent place just by your presence and authentic efforts.

The Path is Unpredictable

The path is different for every one of us. It’s not predictable and there are many setbacks and reasons for discouragement. There is no end point or closure on most issues and efforts. Every assumed ending opens up a new beginning. Every celebrated answer raises a new question. No emotion is final. There is always more. Every justice uncovers yet another layer of injustice. The two major stories in the Bible, the Exodus and the story of Jesus, are both reminders that the path to new life takes some surprising turns. The story of Exodus is a game of cat and mouse between the Israelites and the Pharaoh. After years of near misses, the Israelites finally escape. Expecting to find closure in a land flowing with milk and honey, they instead find themselves in the wilderness. Instead of taking the direct route to freedom, the road known in ancient times as “the highway to the promised land”, they find themselves at the edge of a raging sea.

Standing at the edge of the Red Sea, they wonder if it is all worth it. They might as well have stayed in captivity. What will come of them if they jump in the water? What is on the other side in any case? Standing there, they make a choice- the choice to dive in and literally go with the flow. They were so resolved in their choice that it was as if the sea parted before them. It was like the Subway commercial last year when Michael Phelps swam right through the wall of the pool, through the aquatic center walls, through corn fields, and carving up the highway. When you move with commitment, incredible things happen. As the Shakespeare of Germany Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

Then there is the story of Jesus with the reminder that so often the path to new life involves heartache and loss. The disciples never understood that point. They seemed to be hoping for their own form of closure, maybe a triumphant social realm or a kingdom. They gathered at the home of a notorious outcast, Simon the Leper. The only person present who really understood the myth of closure was the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus feet. While the others were distracted by what seemed to be waste and getting ahead of themselves in terms of massive social problems, Jesus said, “This woman has done a beautiful thing.” He said, “You will always have the poor with you, but not me.” He wasn’t saying to them to not care or to give up. He is suggesting that they deal with the present moment choice. Don’t expect closure. Just make once choice right now that is authentic and keeps you moving forward.

Poverty and suffering will always be with us. So prepare yourself for the long and sometimes painful path of authenticity. It doesn’t mean you resign yourself to a life of misery and failed efforts. You do what you can, you liberate yourself from expecting perfection and you keep moving towards the light.

The Myth of Closure

This is a new way of thinking about closure. As we say to our kids at the dinner table, “Close your mouth when you’re chewing.” Closure is a dangerous myth because perfection is nowhere. That bad relationship you left? Move on and let it go as much as you can. But there are aspects of it that will stay with you. To borrow the words of Jesus, “You will always have your ex spouse with you.” But now you can make a choice to integrate your pain and do something bold. The you that you have become is stronger and wiser. You don’t need to hide or blame your past. That failed business venture? Move on by all means and let go of your disappointment. But there is no absolute closure. You will always have your past decisions with you. Now make a choice to live with boldness. That guilt laden belief system that you have worked so hard to remove from your mind? No absolute closure. You will always have your tradition with you. That effort to feed the world? Guess what- there will always be more people to feed, more suffering to end, more wrongs to right.

To expect absolute closure is to chase your tail, and lock yourself in an endless desire for certainty. It is to look in the wrong places for signs of progress. You don’t measure progress by the end point but by the choice you make in each moment. Like the woman with the perfume, choose to make each moment beautiful, let go of the outcomes, and you will achieve more than you could even imagine. Let go of the unrealistic expectations of closure and enjoy the mini victories along the way. You don’t have to solve all the problems of the world. Just choose to love in your own unique way in each moment. The rest is detail.

You have known incredible hurts and disappointments in your life. You have every reason to want closure from your painful past. But your experience is part of what makes you whole and human. Your experience of pain gives you insight into compassion. Your experience of loss gives you strength to survive and overcome challenge. When you stop looking for closure, you liberate yourself to dwell in each moment, fragile and human as you are, and live with boldness.

Closure and the Death Penalty

Now relate this way of thinking about closure to the criminal justice system. Dr William Pettit from Cheshire Connecticut is the only member of his family to survive a tragic and senseless home invasion. His wife and two daughters were tortured and killed so mercilessly that the prosecutor said, “If there was ever a case deserving the death penalty, this was it.” It’s hard to disagree. One of the convicted murderers was indeed sentenced to death recently.

One of the arguments for the death penalty is to give the victim’s loved ones relief and closure. Dr Pettit who has every reason to remain bitter and cynical, said this about closure, “”I was offended when someone asked me if the death sentence had given me ‘closure.’ There is no ‘closure’…[he then evoked the living images of his two daughters, burned to death in their beds, ages 11 and 15]….there will never be ‘closure.’ It’s a hole in your heart, a hole surrounded by jagged edges. Maybe over time the jagged edges will smooth over a little bit, but the hole is still there and will always be there. There is no closure.”

Studies confirm the experience of Dr Pettit. Taking another life to avenge the loss of life is a hollow peace. It doesn’t bring closure even to many of those who vehemently call for the death of the perpetrator. On the contrary they now have another gruesome death seared on their brains. The human brain is built to retain memories and information from life changing situations. If closure means removing memories, then I would be worried that the memories become suppressed and resurface in dangerous ways.

This question about the death penalty transcends party politics. An increasing number of American people are against the death penalty. I’m proud to say that Michigan was the first English speaking state in the world to abolish the death penalty and it was instituted and supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. There is strong evidence that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to violent crime. There is mixed evidence about the level of pain involved in the different methods of killing criminals. The addition of DNA evidence has proven the innocence of some who are on death row. We can only imagine that innocent people have been killed. We can only imagine that people who had the potential to change and make meaningful contributions to society have been killed. But even if there was a fool proof way to show a person’s guilt and irredeemable nature, there remain many moral and practical doubts about the death penalty.

It might take a while, but momentum seems to be moving in the direction of ending capital punishment in all states. I don’t need to argue that case. I raise the issue here as it questions what it is we are looking for out of justice. Is it vengeance? Is it personal closure? Do we send convicted criminals to prison AS punishment, or FOR punishment? Are we protecting society, or locking the problem away so that we don’t have to deal with it?

The ultimate question is whether the death penalty serves the greater good, and creates a more peaceful society.

There is a beautiful story told in the movie “The Interpreter.” In Manitoba Africa, the mythical Ku tribe have an interesting practice. They believe that the only way to resolve the loss of life is to save a life. After a year of mourning, they hold a ritual called the drowning man trial. The killer is dropped in the middle of a river with weights attached. He is also bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the victim then have a choice. They can either let him drown or they can save him. The Ku believe that if the family let the killer drown they will have justice but they will spend their lives in mourning. If they save him, and accept that life is not always fair, this very acceptance and act of mercy can take away their sorrow. As Nicole Kidman says in the movie, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.”

Fertile Void

Vengeance can be a lazy for of grief. Closure can be a lazy form of grief. Where does the desire for closure originate? We get locked in a task oriented, linear view of time. We expect life to be predictable and controllable. We look at one thing independent of all other things- one experience, one outcome, one issue- rather than seeing the totality, the Gestalt, that is open ended, dynamic and interrelated.

We fill in any missing pieces of our story based on our current understanding forgetting that the next day, the next month of the next year we will have greater understanding. We continually mix a different cocktail of meaning in our minds to make sense of life. We constantly deconstruct meaning and then rebuild it in new ways. The story keeps changing. What Gestalt Therapy calls closure is really the mini sartoris, or mini awakenings along the way rather than a once and for all time enlightenment. These mini awakenings come to us in lieu of out and out closure. They point us to the field of possibilities that we play in. We are new in every moment- new stories, new meaning, new possibility.

Even your losses, hurts and confusions are fertile voids where surprise and new hope is possible once again. There is ALWAYS more- more to come, more to learn, more to realize, more to experience. Are you open to change and new perspectives in your life?

Closure can be a lazy form of grief, whether it’s personal grief or communal justice. Consider your own expectations of life and justice. Can you persist without seeing the outcome of your efforts? Can you live with boldness even when the past rears its ugly head and haunts you? Can you strive for justice, even when another injustice lurks around the corner?

For those who are looking for relief from an aching heart, here is the good news. Like Dr Pettit, over time the jagged edges of the hole in your heart smooth out a little. The hole is still there and it makes you the incredibly compassionate and strong person you are. You are alive and growing. No emotion is final. There is no closure, just the divine reassurance that there is always more to come.

I end with this verse from The Dance by Oriah Mountain Dreamer which seems to capture everything I want to say on this issue.

I have sent you my invitation,
the note inscribed on the palm of my hand by the fire of living.
Don’t jump up and shout, “Yes, this is what I want! Let’s do it!”
Just stand up quietly and dance with me.

Show me how you follow your deepest desires,
spiralling down into the ache within the ache.
And I will show you how I reach inward and open outward
to feel the kiss of the Mystery, sweet lips on my own, everyday.

Don’t tell me you want to hold the whole world in your heart.
Show me how you turn away from making another wrong without abandoning yourself when you are hurt and afraid of being unloved.

Tell me a story of who you are,
And see who I am in the stories I am living.
And together we will remember that each of us always has a choice.

Don’t tell me how wonderful things will be . . . some day.
Show me you can risk being completely at peace,
truly OK with the way things are right now in this moment,
and again in the next and the next and the next. . .

I have heard enough warrior stories of heroic daring.
Tell me how you crumble when you hit the wall,
the place you cannot go beyond by the strength of your own will.
What carries you to the other side of that wall,
to the fragile beauty of your own humanness?

And after we have shown each other how we have set and kept the clear, healthy boundaries that help us live side by side with each other, let us risk remembering that we never stop silently loving those we once loved out loud.

Take me to the places on the earth that teach you how to dance, the places where you can risk letting the world break your heart.
And I will take you to the places where the earth beneath my feet and the stars overhead make my heart whole again and again.

Show me how you offer to your people and the world the stories and the songs you want our children’s children to remember, and I will show you how I struggle not to change the world, but to love it.

Sit beside me in long moments of shared solitude, knowing both our absolute aloneness and our undeniable belonging. Dance with me in the silence and in the sound of small daily words, holding neither against me at the end of the day.

And when the sound of all the declarations of our sincerest intentions has died away on the wind, dance with me in the infinite pause before the next great inhale of the breath that is breathing us all into being, not filling the emptiness from the outside or from within.

Don’t say, “Yes!” Just take my hand and dance with me.