“Quieter Now” (Earth Day 2020)

It’s quieter now.

The chainsaws have ceased their ripping, chewing, slashing.
Our forests have at last been left in peace.
The exploitation of living creatures to feed our countless mouths has ended.
Grazing herds now rest easy in fields and meadows unmolested.
Factories no longer belch their noxious gases into the atmosphere.
The poisons have begun to thin and one day the air may be clean again.
Aircraft no longer soar the skies, polluting even the clouds with their foul discharge.
Birds have taken wing unchallenged, ruling their domain once more.
Gone are the millions of fossil-fueled machines that once choked our planet.

They rust in silence.

The world has moved on.

The ever-present cacophony of sound that once plagued our world,
Mechanical, electrical, digital mayhem.  All of it is gone.
Schoolhouses lie in ruins; our sacred temples have turned to dust.
Pillars of steel and glass, once tall and proud, peek timidly above the waves.
Only the soft whispering of the wind among the leaves can be heard
In trees where children once laughed and played.
Gone are the halls of government, vanished are the edifices of art and culture.
And of all mankind’s achievements,

Only ashes remain.

Earth has bled herself dry for us.
She has transfused her lifeblood into us, giving freely of her bounty.
And all she asked for in return was respect.  Compassion.  Care.
For far too long, she writhed and choked and wept, yet we heeded her not.
And as our final chances were squandered by our pride and greed and vanity,
Our children looked on in horror.
But now, in this space of silence, our Mother begins to heal.
The sun soothes her wounds by day, the moon watches over her by night.
And seasons pass as they have always done.

But it’s quieter now.

Unity in Daily Life

True unity lies at the crossroads of wisdom and pragmatism. The underlying web of life to which we all belong is undeniable. Yet, this is an intellectual concept. Language can only produce concepts; that is its fundamental limitation. It cannot describe Truth. It cannot describe Beauty. In cannot describe Love. Language is rather impotent when it comes to describing the ineffable nature of experience. So, in order to make this intellectual concept of unity mean something real in our daily lives, we must rely also on pragmatism.

One of the most direct manifestations of this is the invocation of the concept of unity to defuse or avoid conflict. Conflict is rife in society today at every level and shows no sign of going away. A true unity of mankind would preclude conflict. How does one have conflict with oneself? Conflicts which arise from different points of view or different ideologies must be seen as part of the larger unity of consciousness. There must be darkness for there to be light; there must be hatred for there to be kindness; there must be fear for there to be liberation. In this way we respect the darkness as a necessary part of the light.

This does not mean we get to ignore our responsibility to speak out against injustice or alleviate suffering. Not at all! It simply provides a larger context in which to continue our work. By recognizing the darkness as part of the light, we see that the very nature of the darkness itself is suffering. Those mired in hatred, bigotry, greed, and selfishness are suffering in that same darkness. Their apparent, individual consciousness may not realize or accept this, but it’s true. They are striving against their natural state, which is Love. Being separated from Love is the very definition of suffering.

So, we must first acknowledge that those who peddle hate and fear are a symptom of our diseased society, not the disease itself, and that they are not their words or their ideas. How do we approach this pragmatically? We don’t add suffering to suffering. We speak against ideas and ideologies, not against individuals. We don’t label. We offer love to the unloving as well as the unloved. Is this easy to do? Absolutely not! But it is necessary. The cycle of conflict cannot be broken through constant escalation. It can only end when light is shone into the darkness and Love is offered unconditionally to all.

For, truly, we are One.

The Veil

Reality hides behind a sensate veil,
Forever denying our groping, grasping, groaning hearts.
Immaterial as thought, yet solid as stone,
She offers clues to her form, but never direct experience.
Trapped in our prisons of flesh and bone,
We can never penetrate the fullness of her mystery.
So in our fevered desperation,
We cling to our own constructions:
Metaphor and myth, science and shadow.
And in our ignorance, we mourn.

A cruel enchantress is she who hides behind the veil.
She teases and taunts, tempts and toys with us,
Bemused as we strive in vain to comprehend her.
A Siren, she sings to us her haunting melody,
And we are struck dumb by its faintest echo.
She stands aloof as we beg to taste her nakedness,
Longing for her touch, insistent, painful as it is.
Her sweet perfume suffuses, infuses, refuses us,
And the spell she has woven is complete.

At last!
Her seductive whisper finds us in silence,
But now we dare not yield.
Her arms are open, but we hesitate.
The Unknown is wide and we are wary.
Reality has treated us harshly in the past
And we know not where she will lead.
We haven’t the trust, the faith, the will to follow her.
We gaze through a glass darkly and fear what we will find.
For to know Reality’s form is to know the shape of God.

She is a veiled mirror,
And we know her not.

Temple

Why do we enjoy being small? Are we so mesmerized by our insignificance that we must constantly prove it so? We seek out monuments of grandeur, lest we come to believe ourselves too important. Atop ancient spires of immutable stone, we relish the sweeping vistas that dwarf us. We find inspiration in a horizon we cannot see as the ocean lies endless at our feet. The star-drenched night sky reminds us that we are but a speck in the unfathomable void of the cosmos. …And we delight in the disproportion of our own existence.

When nature fails us, we construct temples of wood and brick and glass, insisting that there is Something or Someone larger than ourselves, to which we may be subject. We push the Infinite away, insisting It keep Its distance, rather than embracing It as part of Ourselves. So eager are we to reinforce our weakness, to prove our lack of worth. Rather than acknowledge our boundless potential, we willingly subjugate ourselves to ideas that hold no power, or to Nature, of which we are part. Why is this so?

Perhaps humanity has a collective inferiority complex. Conditioned as we are by a culture of individuality and lack. We compare ourselves to anything we see as separate, and our smallness justifies our ambition and reinforces our fear. We compete with those we see as “other”, not realizing we only hurt ourselves in the process. We must step away from our individual egos and realize that it is we who are the Temple.

Humanity itself is Holy.

Unity

The blood flowing through your veins was formed in the heart of a star. We are a microcosm of the Universe, possessing in part the substance of all.

Over eons, our minds have been trained to decipher patterns, yet so many elude us. The coarse texture of a feather, the delicate symmetry of a butterfly wing. Our veins a mountain stream, bringing life to the farthest reaches of our being. Nature’s divine patterns are etched into each of us, yet we are blind to them. We fail to realize our unity with the world even though we are drowning in it.

In nature, we unfold a part of ourselves too often bound up in society’s custom & convention. It is that hidden part which understands our unity with all things, that part which sees the common fabric from which all things are cut. Yet, we must also realize that it is only our minds which do the cutting. In truth the cloth is whole, as it has always been.

Our so-called intellect has a habit of lying to us. Separation is an illusion we impose upon the world because the pure synthesis of nature is beyond our capacity to rationalize. So it is beyond rationality where we can see past the lies. Here, we are truly free to see the beauty of our beating heart. Not the feeble muscle in our chest, but rather the throbbing, pulsing energy of reality itself. That is our true heart, and it is yours as it is mine. One heart, beating for all of us, driving the symbiotic synergy that we call life.

Holy Fire

A ball of flame arcs across the heavens, bringing light and life to a slumbering Earth.
It’s passage brief, it soon slips below the horizon, heralding the return of darkness.
Again, the flame rises. Light returns. A ceaseless rhythm.
Days, Seasons, Years – all marked by the orb’s ever-shifting path.
Patterns emerge, fitting the cadence we prescribe.
As we bend the light to serve our needs, our position becomes clear.
We have become Master, Diviner of Secrets, Center of All.

In time, we learn, it is rather we who circle the mighty star,
Which has survived billions of years without need of us to measure its passing.
Our Centrality is further challenged as our gaze stretches outward.
Our planet, our star, our galaxy – all dwarfed by the scale of our Universe.
Patterns emerge, independent of our feeble expectations.
As our science and technology reveal ever more Secrets, our position becomes clearer still.
We have become Small, Insignificant, Expendable.

Through ages endless and distances unfathomable,
The cosmos has silently unfolded without our intervention.
But not without purpose. For after eons, we are here.
And as we probe the deepest reaches of Mind and Universe,
As we explore the Questions with Answers beyond comprehension, our Position is finally revealed.
We are Vital. We are Precious. We are Life.
We are the Consciousness of the Universe, seeking to understand Itself,

A spark of holy fire in the endless night.
May we forever burn.

Cloud, Immortal

I sit by a window, 30,000 feet above my home, nose pressed to the double-pane glass like a first-time flyer. I have flown dozens of times, but I never tire of the view. The perspective afforded at this height is unmatched, even from the tallest mountains. Photographs and video can never reproduce the scale and depth of the actual view. Watching the world unfold in real-time far below, I feel a connection with all I see, a connection that can never be captured on film or flashdrive. Only the view of our world from space could top this. And yes, I intend to experience that someday, too.

I am always struck by how pitifully small we are. We break and bend the land to our purposes, but from above the clouds, all our efforts are dwarfed by the impossible scale of nature’s handiwork. Water dominates the landscape here. The tiny human structures appear to cling desperately to the shreds of dry land, like ants drowning in a puddle. How vulnerable. How fragile. How precious.

Water dominates the sky, as well. The cumulus clouds of the lower atmosphere boast such intricate structures, flaunting their complexity as if they are trying to outdo one another. Each a unique work of art, their pride is evident as they carry themselves regally across the sky. I can see thousands of these magnificent creations from my window, each discreet yet all connected.

“How do they retain their shape?” I wonder. While it’s true that the shape of each cloud is in constant flux, they each give an illusion of solidity, of cohesion. How do they retain their delicate edges, which, in reality, are in no way distinct from the surrounding atmosphere? From above, the clouds can be seen in their true, three-dimensional forms, shedding the limitations of a ground-based perspective. Casting shadows that extend for miles across the land below, how can one below the cloud conceive of that which is above? How can they discern the true and full nature of the majestic cloud as it floats languidly overhead?

We are flying between stratified layers, yet another aspect of the cloudscape which is entirely lost on the earthbound observer. We are told in grade school that some clouds form at higher altitudes than others, but the fact is abstract until witnessed firsthand. From the ground, all clouds are simply “up”, and the distance between layers is impossible to discern. From my window, however, the gulf separating the strata is like an ocean separating continents. Far below, the fluffy cumulus clouds march on in their endless parade, while above, the wispy cirrus clouds have no time to spend on making themselves beautiful. Cold and aloof, they scurry away with the wind, as if seeking some faraway spot for a secret rendezvous.

We are not so very different from these graceful constructs, our atoms held briefly coherent in the vast stream of time and space. The water molecules that form the clouds will eventually dissipate, evaporating back into the surrounding atmosphere, or falling to earth as precipitation, to nourish the inhabitants of the land, plant and animal alike. But not one of those molecules will ever truly be lost – they will continue their cycle between earth and sky. And perhaps one day, a new cloud will form which contains some of those same molecules.

Our own bodies are also predominantly water. And like the clouds, the molecules that compose us will one day dissipate. Our atoms will nourish the soil from which we came, will be absorbed into the biosphere, and may eventually emerge within the confines of another body. Why do we weep for death, then? While our form may change, the “stuff” of our life on this Earth is immortal.

Indeed, we are all immortal.

On Gun Violence in America

“Many of us have passed the threshold of what we can tolerate in human life so that gun advocates can feel comfortable. I don’t think a consensus can be built, so at this point I’m focused on getting out the vote and winning with numbers.”

– Mike McHargue, on Facebook

We’ve all heard the arguments:

“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”
If you make guns illegal, only the criminals will have guns.”
“It’s not a gun problem. It’s a mental health problem.”

Statements like this ring hollower and hollower every time there is a mass shooting or a school massacre where innocent children are left dead in the wake of gun violence.

While data clearly demonstrates that reduced per capita access to guns does indeed correlate to far fewer mass shootings (NY Times), gun advocates still cling to their skewed belief that more guns does not equal more gun deaths. I’m sorry, but this view is ignorant.

Guns are like mines on a battlefield. True, they won’t explode on their own, but surely we can agree that the more there are and the more densely concentrated, the more likely you are to step on one!

The argument isn’t about stopping all incidents of gun violence; we’re not stupid. Obviously, criminals who really, really want a gun will still manage to get one. The argument is about mitigating RISK. As long as guns are literally everywhere and there is little restriction on who can get one and what kind they can get, the ODDS are much HIGHER that this kind of tragedy will continue to occur. If you look at the data in the referenced article, it is quite obvious that other countries have a much clearer battlefield with far fewer “mines”, hence they can walk through relatively unscathed. The US however, has barely any open ground left for us to walk on, a fact which these senseless acts are an all-too-frequent reminder of.

I would even go one step further and say that mental health is a problem, perhaps even the root problem in many cases. Sadly, Congress isn’t willing (especially under this administration) to take significant steps to combat that issue, either. So, while we wait indefinitely for something to be done about mental health, should we just sit back and continue to enable the folks already out there by leaving gun laws untouched? Or should we perhaps go ahead and treat the symptoms as we seek a cure for the disease? And, in the meantime, wouldn’t it be nice if someone like the CDC could research the real causes of gun violence in this country so we could pin down a solution even faster? Oh, wait…

But I realize I’m not talking to the hardline 20% here who are convinced that there is no need for gun law reform. I can’t generalize gun owners, either, since there are many, many responsible gun owners out there who do support sensible gun laws and more restrictive access. The 20% are beyond convincing. The only way to make a change is for the 80% of us who do want gun law reform, including the families of victims of mass shootings, who see the pattern that the data clearly illustrates, to truly understand the severity of the situation and use their voices to VOTE the folks out of office who have already decided that there will be no debate and no solutions. These elected “leaders”, who value NRA contributions more than the positive reforms they could achieve, need to hear a clear and unified statement come November.

This Must Stop!


Fisher, Max & Keller, Josh. “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.” The New York Times [New York] November 7, 2017.
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html

Labels, Identity, and God

What comes to mind when you think of labels and how they define your identity?  Can your unique personality truly be captured by a series of simple labels?  Can anyone’s?

For better or worse, humans love to categorize things.  We can scarcely observe any phenomenon in the world without assigning some label or category to what we see.  But it is important to remember that labels are merely words.  They are tools which may be useful in certain situations, but which can also be extremely damaging in others.

Personal identity labels come in many forms.  Some of the most common types include*:

  • Race labels (e.g. “white”, “black”, etc.)
  • Gender labels (e.g. “man”, “woman”, etc.)
  • Age labels (e.g. “old”, “young”, etc.)
  • Sexual Orientation labels (e.g. “gay”, “straight”, etc.)
  • Ethnicity labels (e.g. “Jewish”, “European”, “Arab”, etc.)
  • Occupation labels (e.g. “doctor”, “mechanic”, etc.)
  • Religious labels (e.g. “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Evangelical”, etc.)

The way in which an individual responds to a given label is determined by numerous factors.  These may include: the type of label (e.g. Race, Gender, Age, etc.), who is giving them the label, and their personal experience.  Often, if a person is giving a label to themselves, they will react more positively than to a label that is thrust upon them by someone else.  If I proudly declare myself “gay”, I will likely not be offended if someone else labels me in the same way.  But, of course, context is also crucial.  In some cases, when an otherwise accepted label is used in a derisive or hurtful way, it will certainly not be well-received.  In contrast, if I do not label myself as “old”, but someone else uses it to label me, even though they may have the kindest of intentions, I may still become deeply offended.

The primary drawback of using labels to categorize people is that most labels come with a whole set of cultural and societal stereotypes, and these stereotypes may vary greatly between individuals using the label.  In one cultural context, for example, a person labeled as an “elderly” “female” “Christian” might be a target of harassment or even assault, while in another cultural context, the same labels may describe an individual to be respected and revered.

So why is this important?  How is this relevant to our discussions of spirituality and faith?

I believe that one of the most abused and misunderstood labels in use in society is the label “God”.  But why is “God” a label, you ask?  Because, on its own, “God” has no specific meaning.  Rather, the word assumes the meaning of the societal sub-group that uses it.  Worse, the meaning of the label assumed by people outside the societal sub-group almost never matches the meaning of those within it.  The problem, again, is the stereotypes at play.

There is an unfortunate tendency for humans to latch onto one specific narrative and doggedly assume that the narrative they have chosen (or in many cases, the one that has been chosen for them) is the one and only correct one.  This is especially evident in matters of faith, and can result in extremely volatile and harmful exchanges.  Many Evangelical Christians, for example, may assume that their own narrative describing the label “God” is the only correct interpretation, and that anyone else who uses the label “God” for something other than what the Evangelical believes it means, is using it incorrectly.  The Evangelical may hear a Muslim saying that they worship “God” (“Allah”, in Arabic), and assume, incorrectly, that they are blaspheming the Evangelical’s interpretation of that label.

Here is where we must remember what the label “God” actually is.  It is a word, a symbol; and as spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti would often say, “the word is not the thing”.  The word itself has no intrinsic meaning, only the meaning(s) society and culture have placed upon it.  In other words, the stereotypes that have been associated with it by different groups.  So, when a Christian hears a Muslim utter the word “Allah”, they should not immediately take offense and think they have to defend “their” God’s name from abuse.

After all, if there is truly only one God, does it really matter what labels are used to describe it?  Our words are wind, meaningless.  The essence of the divine cannot be named or confined by language.  The Jews may have had it right when they claimed that God’s true name is unutterable.  So why must we cling so adamently to these words and labels that attempt to constrain the Creator of all things to a single narrative?

Another example: when a Christian calls themselves a “Child of God”, or asserts the same of a non-Christian, what unintended consequences might this have?  As we have discovered, the label “God” means many different things to different people, and the stereotypes it carries may also depend on who is using the label, as well as who is being labelled.  Thus, the non-Christian may have an entirely different notion of “God” than the Christian attempting to apply the label to them.  They may consider it an affront to be associated with what they might view as a petty, vengeful, warmongering deity, or what they might believe does not exist at all.  Whereas, the Christian may have simply been trying to suggest that all of humanity shares a fundamental commonality that unites all of us.  They could be uttering an entirely true statement, but due to the stereotypes associated with certain labels, what they are trying to communicate gets “lost in translation”.

So, is there a practical solution?  Is there a way to use these labels in such a way that we do not risk offending others who disagree on the labels’ interpretation?  Sadly, there is no uniform mitigation for these potential misunderstandings.  We also cannot abandon labels entirely, due to their valuable utility in certain scenarios.  It would seem the only thing we can do is to be mindful of the various ways in which labels are interpreted, and be humble in our own interpretation, understanding that the narrative we choose to assign to words such as “black”, “old”, “elite”, “Christian”, or even “God”, is not the only narrative that exists.  We must learn to be accepting of other interpretations and be willing to learn more about the narratives of others if we are to live in a truly peaceful world.

 

* A more comprehensive table with additional examples is provided below.

Identity Label Type Examples
Race “white”, “black”, “east Asian”, “Middle-Eastern”, “Hispanic”
Gender “man”, “woman”, “transsexual”, “intersex”
Age “old”, “young”, “middle-aged”, “elderly”, “millennial”, “boomer”
Sexual Orientation “gay”, “straight”, “homosexual”, “bisexual”, “cis-gendered”
Ethnicity “Jewish”, “European”, “Arab”, “African-American”, “Indian”
Education “college-educated”, “smart”, “dumb”, “intellectual”, “uneducated”
Occupation “doctor”, “mechanic”, “professional”, “janitor”, “teacher”
Religion “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Jew”, “Hindu”, “Buddhist”, “Evangelical”, “Catholic”
Socioeconomic “rich”, “poor”, “well-to-do”, “elite”, “wealthy”, “rural”, “urban”

 

 

In Defense of the “Articulate F-Bomb”

Language is a funny thing – composed of these strange symbols, which allow us to transfer recognizable images from one mind to another.  Through our spoken and written words, we are able to communicate complex ideas, instruction and insight, and even pass along our accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next.

In short, words have power.  But not all words are created equal; the power spectrum of words runs the gamut, from feeble, mono-dimensional words to the most provocative and profound oratory.  The ability to use words to tap into the psyche of others can be a tremendous asset.  Choosing the words we speak is very much like a gifted artist selecting the shades and hues with which to create his masterpiece.

Since language provides such a powerful, engaging toolset, it is easy to see why the abuse of these tools can be damaging.  Irresponsible use of vocabulary has always been a problem, and will surely continue as long as humans continue speaking.  And while they may change over time and over generations, there are certain words that remain taboo.  American comedian George Carlin introduced us to seven of them in 1972.

One of these infamous words is “fuck”.  It is called “the F-bomb” for a reason; the power it contains, when used effectively, is unparalleled (at least in the English language).  Now, don’t misunderstand; I am in no way defending gratuitous swearing.  Ill-timed or unnecessary profanity is considered offensive to many, and is rarely useful in civil dialogue.  However… there are those rare occasions when dropping an F-bomb can completely reposition what is being said.  It can evoke a visceral response in the hearer that is more profound than anything a lesser word might be capable of.

A perfect example of this viscerally appropriate use of the F-bomb can be found in the Noah Gundersen song, “Jesus, Jesus” (2009, track 5).  After a verse lamenting the current state of world affairs and expressing his desire to experience life and love, the artist gives us these lines:

“Jesus, Jesus
It’s such a pretty place we live in,
and I know we fucked it up.
Please be kind.”

I can think of no more evocative way to convey the sentiment behind those words.  He’s expressing his deep affection for our world and how the beauty and purity of nature is being slowly strangled by our human selfishness.  We haven’t simply “messed up” this “pretty place we live in.”  We haven’t “damaged” it, “abused” it, “ruined” it, or even “raped” it.  Though that last one comes pretty close.

No.  We fucked it up.  Royally.

Even the pleading tone of the singer’s voice on the next line, “Please be kind”, seems to be an acknowledgement of our abject unworthiness of that kindness, in light of what we’ve done to the precious gift we call home.

Art has always been capable of manipulating human emotions, and songwriters are perhaps uniquely gifted in this ability.  Music can effortlessly bring us to tears, drive us to the brink of rage, or enfold us in meditative peace, depending on the notes that are played and the artist’s choice of words.

Words also have the potential to change minds and hearts on critical political and social issues. Who can overstate the impact of Alexander Hamilton’s essays on the formation of the United States, or the ability of religious leaders to incite positive change in their communities? Who questions the influence of a political candidate’s fiery rhetoric to galvanize their base (or their opposition)?  It is precisely because words have such power, that they must be used responsibly. Remember that it was the words of Adolf Hitler, which were used to provoke one of the greatest travesties in human history.

So when is it appropriate to drop an “articulate F-bomb” into a sentence or a song?  It really comes down to intentionality.  The speaker or vocalist must know the audience they are communicating with, and choose words deliberately to emphasize a specific point or concept.  Superfluous use of profanity does little to enhance art or conversation, but the occasional “articulate F-bomb” can evoke an emotional response that would be otherwise unattainable.

In order to be an effective communicator, all options must be left on the table. We should not expect people to tie one hand behind their backs by stigmatizing and excluding certain words from their vocabularies. It is important that we not lose sight of what words actually are. They’re just symbols, after all. Symbols, just as stop signs, corporate logos, and hand-drawn illustrations are symbols. The point is the meaning they convey and how well they convey it, not the particular form being used. Rejecting certain symbols out of hand can impede our ability to communicate.  The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, but only if we allow it to be wielded to its maximum potential.


Gundersen, Noah. (2009). Jesus, Jesus. On Saints & Liars [digital]. Seattle, WA: Independent.