Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Unmasking Fear

Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. James Arthur Baldwin

Have you heard the vampire pick-up line: “What’s your type?” Hopefully now you are sucked in to the theme. So what’s your type? I don’t mean blood type, but personality type? What masks do you store in your personality kit bag? Halloween is a great time to reflect on the masks that hide your fears, and decide which ones, if any, are serving you.

Ancient cultures lived in dread of winter because of their superstitious beliefs that winter would only end if the gods returned from the underworld. Many believed that during this in-between time of year, the veil was lifted between the world of the living and the world of the dead and spirits moved freely back and forth. Their rituals were an attempt to appease the spirits and maybe purge their fear.

Our Halloween celebrations grew out of these ancient ideas. Kids dress up as people and figures that seem far away and sometimes scary, and dance on the line between reality and make-believe. They wear masks as if to poke a little fun at fear and claim some autonomy. We let kids walk the streets at night in supervised ways so that they get a safe taste of night life.
As mystery author Nevada Barr writes, “Halloween traditionally was the night we were given the freedom to explore the dark — not to find and be the evil but to see that the night was as beautiful as the day, that we were powerful, others were kind, that there was candy behind those closed doors and strangers who gave us treats….. On Halloween, we learn we can meet with our demons; that monsters are really and truly just us in other guises; that we can survive this interface. We learn that we are trustworthy; that our parents can dress us as demons, send us out into the night of demons to move among the demons and yet trust us to do nothing worse than to beg candy off the neighbors.” Seeking Enlightenment…Hat by Hat.

The Hopi people have a fascinating rite of passage for their children. When they are young, the children experience a ritual during the corn harvest. Kachinas, masked holy men, parade into the tribe’s circle, bless the corn and bring gifts to the children. At the age of initiation, teenagers are taken to an alternate harvest festival. During this occasion, something surprising happens. Instead of dancing, the Kachinas stand directly in front of the children and remove their masks. These men, whom the children had always thought were gods, are revealed in fact to be their uncles and neighbors. It’s a coming of age ritual, where otherworldly magic gives way to ordinary miracle. It’s a way of showing the kids that all of life, even the most ordinary people and situations, are full of divine wonder. They don’t need to live in fear.

Masks are important. They protect us, and its right to protect yourself. I think back to 9/11, and people running helter skelter through the streets of lower Manhattan with their masks protecting them from the dust and ash. I think of people at airports, protecting themselves from the swine and bird flues. Masks are useful for so many purposes. Humor can be like a mask, calming a tense situation. Masks protect your fragile sense of self worth. They give you a way to decide how much of yourself, and which parts of yourself, you reveal to the world.

Masks are healthy as long as you remember that it’s a mask and not the real you in any permanent sense. Beyond the masks lies your true self. Beyond the masks lies a life with less fear and defensiveness. Beyond the masks lies your divine essence. Theologian Marcus Borg describes the Christian idea of the trinity like this, “To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different ‘masks’… in three different roles”. The Greek word for “persons” as in “God in three persons” is better translated as “masks.” Like many ancient cultures, the Greeks and Romans of Jesus day used masks and drama to celebrate the ever changing mystery of life in their theatres and celebrations. The masks were a way of connecting with the gods, by reflecting the image of the gods in a safe and respectful way.

Maybe that’s why many traditions speak of one God. It’s not because there is a single being out there in the way we think of beings. It’s because there are moments beyond masks when you feel completely at ease, one with yourself and others. In those moments, God is inner peace and outer unity. It’s a beautiful experience to finally realize that you no longer need to be afraid of the God of your understanding. God, by any name, is an experience of life as it is – transparent and pure, without pretense and defensive boundaries.

The Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran, tells a beautiful parable about life without masks-

You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen,—the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives,—I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”

Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”

At moments when you lose your fear and know that no circumstance, evil or dark night of the soul can crush you, your bare face and naked soul are touched by the sun and you dance in the oneness of life.

Wear your masks mindfully and know that they’re important, but they don’t define you. You can wear the mask of the strong one for now, knowing that it won’t always be this way. You can be the extrovert who opens doors to new friendships or the calm introvert who grounds the tense situation, but neither introvert nor extrovert fully defines who you are. They are just masks you wear for a time and purpose.

You dance in relationship most gracefully when you know how to move between the various aspects of who you are. The more familiar you are with your own masks and personas, the more you realize how temporary and changeable they are. Every now and again, you remove the masks covering your essence and allow yourself just to be. The peace is transcendent. You let the masks slip and let someone see the real you behind all the personas. Whether in love making, or friendship, these are the precious moments of life, when you are stripped naked before another person and feel completely safe. In those moments you become one.

Happy Halloween! Fear is unmasked. Love lies beneath.

Ps. Please visit Soulseeds for affirmation resources. Fear and negativity don't need to control your life and rule your mind.

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Spiritual Community

We lost our friend Red Bird last Friday. Red was an exceptional human being. He exuded the peace of a man who knew he had lived a full life and left this world a more decent place. Red approached death the same way he approached life; with great integrity, with a sense of curiosity and an ability to connect with people around him.

He lived with his impending death for some time, but in his last months was able to complete his anti war novel The Scorned Ally set in Cuba in 1898. He met intentionally over the last weeks to say goodbye to family and friends, and even started a blog to write about the dying experience to encourage and inform others. He used every ounce of waking energy he had to live well right up to the point of death. Among his many life achievements, the image that will linger in my mind is Red’s smile- radiant, full of joy.

It makes you think doesn’t it? If you knew you had only a small amount of time left to live, would you waste a minute of it? Here is the reality- you do only have a small amount of time left to live. You have a terminal condition called mortality, and you have only a matter of years left to live. So live now while you have time. Make the most of every waking moment. I’m like the doctor calling you to his office to deliver news of your certain death. The diagnosis? Mortality! An unexpected illness might take you sooner than later, but one way or another death will visit. Be prepared for death, not by fretting over the afterlife but by shining all the light you have to shine while you are alive.

It’s amazing what the news of death can do to a person. There’s an episode of the TV show House where Wilson wrongly diagnoses a man with terminal cancer. He later realizes his mistake and calls the man in to explain. He expects the man to be elated, but finds instead that he is devastated. When he found out he was going to die the man discovered an incredible zest for life. He now wants to sue the hospital for ruining the urgent enjoyment of life that can only come from knowing that your death is imminent.

One of the features of a new spiritual community is that there is no fear of hell and judgment, but there is the reality of preparing for death by living fully now, accepting change and the encouragement to manifest your genius while you have time.

Together/ Alone

We come into the world alone and we will leave the world alone. But the most fortunate among us will be surrounded by good company like bookends on our life. Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells the story of an old man who is dying in Women Who Run With the Wolves. The old man calls his people to his side. He gives a short, sturdy stick to each of his family members and friends. "Break the stick," he instructs them. With some effort, they all snap their sticks in half.

"This is how it is when a soul is alone without anyone. They can be easily broken."

The old man next gives each of his kin another stick, and says, "This is how I would like you to live after I pass. Put your sticks together in bundles of twos and threes. Now, break these bundles in half."

No one can break the sticks when there are two or more in a bundle. The old man smiles. "We are strong when we stand with another soul. When we are with another, we cannot be broken."

Alone you are strong. In community you are even stronger. You have incredible inner resources. In community, you become a force to be reckoned with. In community you ask questions and consider the big issues of life in good company. In community you celebrate and commiserate the significant moments in life together. Lily Tomlin said, “We’re all in this together, by ourselves.” What a brilliant saying. Both things are true. You have absolutely everything you need to take charge of your life, and you are also surrounded by loving, supportive community. That is called a win/win- personal autonomy and community support.

In 2004 a significant study was undertaken in the US. Two questions were asked of the sample group.

1. Looking back over the last six months - who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?

2. How many friends outside of your household do you have that you see or speak to at least once a week?

25% of the people surveyed said that they had not discussed important matters with a single person in six months. This percentage has gone up rapidly in the last decades. The average number of friends outside of the home that people spoke to at least once a week was 2. This number has gone down in the last decades. With the advent of social media networks like Facebook, we are connected to more people, and know more about them, but have less face to face contact.

This is a major social problem, but it’s also a personal tragedy. Community is the antidote to the despair of isolation. This is where you practice being human together, where you learn forgiveness and collaboration. This is where you draw the best out of others and others draw the best out of you.

Cycling offers an awesome analogy for this win/win- drafting. Each rider takes their turn to ride out in front creating a wind shield for the riders coming up behind. Each rider is till peddling and working hard, but the effect of the whole group adds impact and strength. We need community- as an encouragement, as a source of wisdom and advice, as a check and balance to sharpen us and challenge us.


Community is important, but how involved do you have to be? Can you maybe just loiter at the edge of the community? What about membership? Do you have to go that far? Groucho Marx once sent a telegram to the exclusive Friar’s Club in Hollywood: “Please accept my resignation” he said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Woody Allen then took up the same joke in the opening scene of Annie Hall. He relates the joke to relationships. I wouldn’t want to be in relationship with anyone who would be willing to be in relationship with me.

Maybe you don’t feel worthy of being a member, or don’t feel ready to make a commitment. Maybe you feel like you are not the member type. Consider changing your preconceptions about what a member is. Being a member is not a trap of any sort. It’s a way of publicly affirming that you belong, that you care, and that you value the community.

There are no heavy requirements on membership. It’s not like the church I heard about where people had to meet with the minister for an inquisition before being admitted as members. Three couples were at this particular meeting with the pastor. The pastor explained his rule that all new members must go three weeks without being intimate. Three weeks went by and the first couple came back. The pastor said, “So how did it go?” “It was pretty hard, but we made it,” said the first couple.
“Welcome to our church,” said the pastor.

The second couple came back and the pastor asked them the same question. Their reply was the same as the first couple’s and the pastor welcomed them into the church.

The third couple came back and the pastor asked them the same question, and the man replied, “We were doing pretty well until last night when my wife dropped her fork during dinner. When she bent over to pick up it up my passions ran riot and, well, I just couldn’t contain myself.”
The pastor interrupted him, “I’m sorry, but you’re not welcome in our church.”
“That’s okay,” said the couple, “We’re definitely moving. We’re not welcome at the local restaurant either.”

That’s one reputation that would be hard to live down.

You don’t lose any autonomy or freedom by becoming a member. You strengthen the community which in turn strengthens you- it’s a beautiful cycle. The more you give, the more commitment, the more of yourself, the more you gain. There are no theological hoops to jump through, no statements to sign, no magical claims on salvation. There is just the excitement of a shared vision for a healed world.

Maybe you resist membership because you have been hurt by organized religion before, and you don’t fully trust any spiritual community no matter how progressive. C3 is not perfect, but it is forgiving. The actor Victor Mature was once denied membership in an exclusive country club because he was an actor. He said, “I’m no actor, and I’ve got thirty movies to prove it.” We don’t claim to be anything special here other than human. We’re not following a script for how life unfolds. We experiment, learn from our mistakes, listen to each other and keep moving forward.

Something incredible happens when people come together with realistic expectations of human failings and a massive vision.

Shared Vision

Something incredible happened to a group of first century Jews at the time that is known as Pentecost. It was first written about 50 years after the event so the details likely evolved creatively over time. But something happened that changed their whole perspective. The miracle was not a miracle of speaking in tongues. The miracle was that everyone present heard in a way that made sense to them. They “got it” simultaneously. They caught the vision that earlier Hebrew Prophets had spoken about. It was a vision of unity. The incredible thing is that men and women of many cultures heard and understood the vision in their own way, children caught the vision, slaves heard the vision. They were all one. They were all together, by themselves.

How do we test the reliability of an unlikely story like this? We look at the results or the fruits of their lives. Don’t get distracted by skepticism about the details. Just accept that the story of Pentecost was like the fish that grew with each telling. Its not history to go by. It’s a story to grow by. We are told that they responded to this vision by living in communities of respect and justice. They shared what they had with the poor and created mindful rituals that included Jew and non Jew. They created inclusive spiritual communities.

Today we gather in spiritual community. We are from a number of different backgrounds. We use different language to describe the mystery that sources our joy. Some of us take more of a left brain approach- linear and logical. Some of us take a more right brain approach, creative and open ended. The miracle won’t be conformity. The miracle will be a shared vision that finds strength in diversity.

Let me end with a poem written by Red Bird that captures the essence of human potential.


As one translucent slice of time

That plays across the shining sun

But once. Every breath

Depletes the finite gift.

Even at birth, as we swim

Towards first breath, we catapult

Into space as glorious rainbows,

And fade just short

Of bridging the abyss.

So plunge into the dance, and shine.

- Leonard Bird