Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Wall: An Aging Yogini Reflects on Music, Meditation, Money and Mortality

I painted this picture in 1977, when I was 14 years old.  It was based on one of my favorite songs, "The Wall" by Kansas.  The painting had been packed away in a cardboard tube for years, all but forgotten, until "coincidentally" it was rediscovered last September just 2 weeks before Kansas came to play here at the Marina Civic Center.  We had finished renovations on the trailer and were in the process of moving when I found the box containing the tube.  Somebody, either my husband or his teenage son, had removed the contents of the tube to look at them and left them lying out in the open box, resulting in damage to the brittle old painting which was falling apart.  When I saw my damaged painting I burst into tears.  Other keepsakes from the tube included a couple of psychedelic concert posters from Haight Ashbury and the Hildebrandt painting "At the Grey Havens" from a 1978 Tolkien calendar.  All of these art pieces brought back poignant memories very relevant to the emotionally volatile perimenopausal state in which I find myself as I reflect back on my life.  Where did the years go?!

Born at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, I was too young to attend the concerts featured on those posters, which I collected later because I identified with the values and art of my older brother and sister flower children.  Gazing at the posters, I was suddenly struck by the passage of time and a deep sadness. What happened to our dreams?  It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, we were going to change the world, end the wars, bring about a new era of peace, love and harmony.  But the world did not want to change.  Instead, 40 years later, the world is now going to hell in a handbasket thanks to fundie religion and despotism at home and abroad, endless wars and the erosion of civil rights.  Here I am approaching menopause, while young women like my goddaughter and stepdaughter are in the midst of a battle that I thought we'd already won back when I was their age.

Life in the "real world" did not at all turn out the way I'd imagined in my youth.  I was spoiled by the charmed existence that was my childhood, had a life of luxury and lacked for nothing.  I was really into music and thought I might become a rock star, or else possibly marry one.  My parents were totally supportive of my dreams and creativity.  They never discouraged my ambitions even though I was not in fact very talented.  Believing that the arts were an important part of a person's education, they provided me with abundant art supplies and bought me guitars and lessons.  At one time I could actually play a few of my favorite Kansas songs on the guitar, albeit poorly and mostly for accompaniment.  I was better at singing than playing an instrument and later sang in choir after I joined the Episcopal Church and did play guitar at the folk mass.  While I never became a rock star, in more recent years I've been a star at karaoke.  I did sort of marry the ultimate Rock Star when I became a Third Order Sister and lived as a solitary for 14 years until unexpectedly meeting my partner in 2005.

We bought the tickets to the Kansas concert even though we really couldn't afford it, because we were thrilled that they were actually coming right here to our little town.  The guys were getting older and we didn't know whether or when that opportunity might happen again.  The VIP seats up front, available through the fan club, included various merchandise which I didn't care about, but also backstage passes and would have cost us $200 each.  I dearly wanted to see the guys again but it was absolutely out of our price range.  The last time I'd seen them in concert in South Florida, the after-show backstage meet and greet was free.  That seemed like just the other day but I realized it was actually 20 years ago!  As it turned out, the lineup had changed and Steve Walsh was now retired.  We couldn't help missing Steve even though the young man, Ronnie Platt, who took over for him did an excellent job and sounded exactly like him.  Our cheaper seats, along with generous "adult sippy cups" of wine and bottles of water, ended up costing a total of $100, a lot of money for somebody facing bankrupcty.

Ironically, my inability to afford the concert was at least in part due to the fact that in my youth I had bought into the antimaterialist philosophy expressed by the song:  "Gold and diamonds cast a spell/ It's not for me, I know it well/ The riches that I seek/ Are waiting on the other side/ There's more that I can measure/ In the treasure of the love that I can find" and others, like this one by Styx, which I also used to be able to play on guitar:  "Pieces of eight/ The search for the money tree/ Don't cash your freedoms in for gold/ Pieces of eight/ Can't buy you everything/ Don't let it turn your heart to stone."  When I was young, I thought money was not important, and believed that by being a spiritual person, the universe would ensure that my material needs would be met, which turned out not to be true.  While it is true that my poverty had other contributing factors including professional licensing changes, jobs being sent offshore, a faltering economy, and illness, as I have discussed elsewhere, it cannot be denied that I focused more on music and meditation than on career and money, and it is possible that my material situation would be better, had my priorities been different.

From age 13 on, I spent lots and lots of time doing yoga and meditation and sought the company of kindred souls.  One of my dreams was to establish a Music and Meditation Center, which I discussed with a famous musician friend who encouraged me, saying "I believe it will happen!"  Although my friend was in a position to do so, he was not serious about helping to make it happen, so that dream was put on hold for years.  My husband and I were on the verge of opening Lothlorien House as a yoga studio and retreat center a week or two before the Kansas concert.  Renovations were complete and I was in the process of investigating obtaining a license from ASCAP which (to my surprise!) was necessary in order to legally use music in our classes.  I had attempted to get permission from each of the artists to use the particular songs that I wanted.  My teacher Mark Whitwell granted permission to use all of his music, but I was turned down by everybody else except for George Harrison and Alanis Morissette's representatives, who kindly gave me their blessing.  Even the Jimi Hendrix folks refused, so I would need to pay for the license.  It turned out to be a moot point, however, because on the day of the Kansas concert, we discovered Black Mold in the trailer which necessitated moving back into Lothlorien House, and I burst into tears.

The Mold itself may have been partially responsible for my mood, along with hormones and existential malaise.  I choked back tears while trying to find something to wear and make myself halfway presentable for the concert.  I'd always been slim and fit and had put on a few pounds in the last year, all of which settled in my abs.  I would normally have worn my Rocker Chick outfit to a concert, skinny low-cut jeans with little spaghetti strap belly shirt with ZOSO or some other cool design on it, but my now enormous belly ruled that out.  I didn't have any nice, appropriate clothes that fit, and finally settled on a long tie-dyed t-shirt over top of Jeggings (jean leggings), with my Reef flip-flops.  I had a couple of pairs of nice heels but could not walk in them for any distance, certainly not across the parking lot to the Civic Center and up and down stairs.  My skin was awful due to immune deficiency aggravated by the Black Mold and required careful application of Bare Minerals just to hide the flaws.  I did not even bother with eye liner, mascara, etc.

When we arrived at the Civic Center I felt envy and despair as I saw what the other women were wearing.  Some of the younger women looked great in their skinny jeans and rockin' halter tops like I always wore up until recently, while others sported elegant little black dresses that revealed their shapely and smoothly shaven legs.  They sauntered along gracefully in high heels in which I would have walked like a cow.  The women my own age were dressed more conservatively, in normal adult clothing that resembled nothing in my closet, their hair and makeup done appropriately.  Thanks to a lifetime yoga practice I looked younger and more fit than my peers, but nonetheless felt like a frumpy aging hippy in teenager's clothing.  The concert, which would probably be our last in the foreseeable future, was excellent.  I sobbed all the way home.

The melancholy improved after moving out of the moldy trailer and back into Lothlorien House, but some degree of existential malaise has persisted, in part due to the death of the dream.  The Retreat Center had been so close to being realized, and now I don't even have a place to teach yoga.  I did finally get a great job/contract in which I am being paid reasonably well for my services as a Spiritual Advisor, but it's too late to avert bankruptcy or fund my eventual retirement, because as an independent contractor, every penny I manage to put aside goes to taxes.  I'm not getting any younger and have become weary of this world.  The time is approaching when, like Galadriel, I must board the ship at the Grey Havens and sail beyond the western sea to Valinor, the Undying Land - if indeed it exists.  And that is something of a crucial issue.

For while my worldly dreams failed to materialize, yoga did.  In 2011, after 35 years of spiritual practice, the Wall came down!  At the time when I did the painting, the wall was still completely solid.  The painting depicted me sitting in meditation when rays of sunshine would eventually knock loose a few of the bricks and let in some light.  The picture was prophetic.  As I continued my yoga practice over the years, I experienced more and more love, light, bliss and silent ecstasy, until finally the meditative state burst forth into my ordinary waking consciousness and since then I have experienced the presence of God on a continual basis.  "And though it's always been with me/ I must tear down the wall and let it be/ All I am/ And all that I was ever meant to be/ In harmony/ Shining true and smiling back/ At all who wait to cross/ There is no loss."

Is there no loss?  Time is passing more and more quickly, and as I reach this point in my life where mortality is right around the corner, was it worth it?  The Westminster Catechism states, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever," and Yogananda affirms, "Man has come on earth solely to learn to know God... He will acknowledge your love by fulfilling His promise to you throughout eternity," and likewise Sivananda, "The goal of life is God-realisation."  The most famous Kansas song, "Carry on Wayward Son" says, "Now your life's no longer empty/ surely heaven waits for you."  

Except there is no "wait," because heaven is not just a literal place we go when we die, although it may be that as well.  Heaven and hell can be right here, now.  Many people are in hell on earth, the hell of loneliness, despair, poverty, starvation, illness, abuse.  For me "heaven" is being in the presence of God, at Home in the Love and Bliss in the center of our being, the deep stillness impervious to the inevitable storms on the surface of life.  No longer drowning, I can ride the waves fearlessly.  Life's drama goes on but I'm just an actor playing my role, enjoying the laughter and tears with enthusiastic non-attachment.  I expect that Love will only continue in greater fullness after the movie is over.  I have no fear of "hell," which for me would be separation from God, because He promised "I will never leave nor forsake you."

It could be argued that if the yogic/christian model is accurate, then maybe I should have spent more time and energy on practical matters like career, being socially respectable, and/or trying to make the world a better place (whether it wants to or not), because I will have eternity to enjoy the presence of God.  Perhaps it would have been enough to simply be on good terms with God, try to live a productive life and let heaven wait for later.  I could have accomplished more from a worldly standpoint had I spent less time singing, playing guitar, dancing, writing songs and poetry, painting, praying, yoga and meditation, and God knows I could have made a hell of a lot more money to invest in research projects and/or given to charity.

If, on the other hand, the materialists are correct and consciousness in all its aspects, including the subjective experience of God, is a product of the brain that will cease when we die, then what is the value of spirituality?  Ironically, a finite existence makes our spiritual practice all the more urgent!  Martin Heidegger said that our awareness of mortality enables authentic existence.  If indeed this short life is our only opportunity to experience God/ Being/ Consciousness/ Bliss/ Love by means of our amazing monkey-brain, then I have lost nothing by so doing and teaching others, and expressing That through music, dance and art.  If indeed all we are is ashes to ashes, "dust in the wind," I do not fear oblivion.  When it's over, it's over.  But while I am still here, I will be an embodiment of Love in this world.  

As a character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia says:  "I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia."  Then when it is time for me to board the ship at the Grey Havens, to cross the western sea or the river Styx, I will depart knowing that I have made the most of my limited time here on earth and be prepared to meet whatever awaits, whether that be Infinite Love or simply Nothingness.  Meanwhile, before the final curtain falls, I intend to clean the dust off my Ibanez and resume working on that metalized version of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" that I began many, many years ago.  I want to get back on stage at karaoke and sing "Dream On" and dance ballet during the long intro.  And teach yoga.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Our Doctrine

The Community of Francis and Clare, Lothlorien House is a place where people come together to transcend dogma and experience the heart of religious life through sacrament and spiritual practices.

The creation-centered tradition passed down to us from Saints Francis and Clare, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and in modern times by Matthew Fox, emphasizing original blessing and the goodness of God's creation, is inherently sacramental in nature.

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer defines sacrament as:  "The outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace."

The sacraments, such as the bread and wine of Communion and the water of baptism, are more than mere symbols.  Rather, these Divine gifts allow us to tangibly receive spiritual grace in and through the physical creation.  When we participate in the sacraments, and lift our voices in thanks and praise, we become bodily vessels of grace in the world.  Likewise, practices such as  yoga, meditation, dance, chanting and contemplative prayer can be thought of as "sacramental" in that we use our body and breath as a vehicle for spiritual realization and expression.

Most churches talk about God.  At CFC Lothlorien we practice the Presence of "God-at-home-with-us," Immanuel.

Our non-denominational Liturgy encourages a shared experience of the Divine free from concerns about doctrinal divisions. We teach spiritual practices to enable everyone to connect with the sacred in their own heart and home as a part of daily life, in the context of their own personal religious tradition.

Read more about The Community of Francis and Clare from our founder, Father Scott Baldwin of All Saints Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California.

Our particular mission here at Lothlorien House is to provide instruction in classical hatha yoga as whole-body prayer:

"Hatha yoga is intimacy with all ordinary conditions, which spontaneously reveals and enables us to feel the source of all conditions.  No matter what language of faith and devotion is used to express the beautiful ideals of “source" or “God” or “absolute reality” hatha yoga is the universal means of them all."  Mark Whitwell, Heart of Yoga

You may ask, what is our doctrine?  The simplest answer would be, "We don't have one."  Because our members come from many different religious traditions, doctrinal opinions will vary widely depending upon whom you ask.  We do not require belief in certain doctrines as a prerequisite for participation in our Liturgy, sacraments and practices.  Now, obviously a church would seem to presuppose, at the very least, a belief in God.  But Who or What is God?  And who is Jesus Christ?

If you ask Sister Jamie, as an Episcopalian and a yogini, she will tell you, "God is Love, the Love that holds the universe together.  Jesus is the embodiment of that Love - and so are we."  

That is the informal answer.  If you want a more "technical" answer she will direct you to the catechisms of the Church, or the writings of the theologians, or the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  It is useful to study the classical writings of people who have addressed this question at great length and in considerable detail throughout history.  But, ultimately it is a deeply personal question that everyone must answer for him or her self.

You have probably heard the popular statement, "It's not about religion, it's about relationship."  We would agree with that.  Religion is a man-made construct.  God is not limited by our human understanding, but can be known through Love.

Moreover, we would suggest that direct experience trumps dogma.  If you know God, as opposed to merely knowing about God, there is no need to cling to limiting doctrines.  Although it can be intellectually entertaining to argue about abstract theological concepts which by their very nature can neither be proven nor disproven, such argumentation is not essential or even desirable in our spiritual life.  Rather, we are simply called to love God and to love our neighbor as ourself.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said: 

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness...  Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion." 

It is easier to describe what is not our doctrine:  

We do not believe that the Bible is a science text, or that it was literally dictated word for word by God, or that scripture can be properly understood outside of the historical and sociocultural context in which it was written.  

We do not believe that God created people for eternal torment, or sends people to hell for believing the wrong doctrines, or belonging to the wrong religion, or having the misfortune to be born in a time or place where they did not hear about Jesus.  

We do not believe that any particular religion, or nation, or political party owns God.

We uphold the First Amendment: freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and the separation of church and state.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Letting God Out of the Box: Reflections on Frank Schaeffer's New Book, "Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God"

I wanted to write a formal “review” of this book, but initially couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “Fabulous book!  Everybody should read it.”  On second thought, while I absolutely love the book, I predict that most atheists and Christians will probably hate it, and I’m not here to try to convince anybody.  The book is not a theological treatise and presents neither an argument nor an apology.  Rather, it is a personal, candid and heartfelt discussion of the author’s journey of faith, seeking to “give love, create beauty and find peace” in the face of limiting and dehumanizing dogmas.  The intimate writing style, as if we were sitting and having a conversation with the author, invites honest reflection on our own journey, and in response to that invitation, the words came pouring out!  So, I hope you will indulge me, before I return to reviewing the book.  While I am no longer an atheist and God is not per se a “belief” for me, I can very much relate to what Mr. Schaeffer has written.

I became an atheist around age 11 or 12 as a result of having attended evangelical private schools which completely turned me off to Christ.  From my perspective today, being totally in Love, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could manage to make Jesus unappealing, but they did.  In addition, I was a big fan of science from a very early age, thanks in large part to the t.v. show “Star Trek,” which I began watching with my father when I was just a toddler.  I had already concluded that the religious world-view was at odds with a factual explanation of how the universe works.  Now, I could have lived with that, if religion as it was presented had been attractive for any other reason, which it was not. 

My childhood understanding of “Christianity” could essentially be summarized as: “Everything that is fun is bad,” and God was a mean old man on His throne up in the sky, ready to send us to hell for the slightest infraction, even though He had already allowed His own son to be tortured to death on our behalf to somehow appease His righteous wrath over the predictable sins of creatures whom He had endowed with free will.  It seemed to me that, being omniscient, He should have known what would happen. Moreover, He would send starving people in Africa to hell merely for not believing in Jesus, Whom they had never heard of, and it was our parents’ fault for not giving more money to the church’s missionary projects, and by implication, our fault for not nagging them sufficiently to do so.  I had other theological doubts, but the last straw was when they told us that rock music was from the devil, which I knew in my heart of hearts could not possibly be true.  So, I threw out the Babe with the bathwater, but I felt like Something was missing.  I began to study Zen and yoga.

My atheism continued until my first year of college in Florida, when I ate magic mushrooms which grew at cow farms near my school in the springtime.  That experience of infinite Love, Being, Consciousness and Bliss demonstrated Something beyond a shadow of a doubt.  As an atheist I was inclined to believe that It was a phenomenon created by my own brain, but it must have been a part of the brain that was previously inaccessible to me.  It was Beauty and Perfection completely beyond anything that I could ever dream or imagine despite my best efforts.  People commonly called this “seeing God,” but I was reluctant to call It “God” because It bore no resemblance to the angry old man in the sky.  One of my companions, when asked if he had seen God, replied, “No, but I saw where He lives!”  Thereafter, I was motivated to study yoga/ meditation more seriously and in greater depth, and my practice really began to bear fruit.

While pursuing my degree in Philosophy, I studied theology and comparative religions and hung out with people of different faiths, including Buddhists, Sufis and Hindus.  I began to realize that my childhood fundamentalist education had been quite limiting, and maybe God really wasn’t so bad after all.  My Hare Krishna friends presented God as friendly, fun, beautiful and cool.  Like Christianity, the Hindu religion also imposed a fairly strict moral code which, if violated, could send you to a bad reincarnation for many offenses including illicit sex (anything outside of marriage, and contraception within marriage!), drinking alcohol, or eating meat.  Nevertheless, their positive input inspired me to again consider the possibility of a Personal God.

Years later in southern California I rediscovered Jesus thanks to Jon, (ironically!) a rock musician, one of the coolest people I’d ever met.  I was surprised to learn he was quietly a mystical Christian, and he also practiced meditation.  Through Jon I met some loudly Christian metal musicians and began attending Calvary Chapel, mostly because a lot of my friends went there.  The music was great and it seemed pretty hip, although I soon learned that in reality their doctrine was rather fundie.   Among other things, apparently gay people were going to hell and while rock music was not, after all, satanic, yoga was and I needed to immediately stop doing it lest demons take over my body.

Shortly after my conversion, I ran into an old childhood friend Pete who, it turns out, had been a Christian all along but I never suspected it, because he smoked pot and listened to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.  We were discussing my newfound faith and he asked, “So – do you believe the Bible is the literal Word of God?”  “Yes!” I said, as per my indoctrination.  Pete smiled, raised one eyebrow, and asked, “And you’ve actually read it?”  “Yes.”  I had, indeed, been forced to read it quite thoroughly and to memorize parts of it, as a child.  “Ok,” he said, “then what do you do when scripture says something that you just know in your heart, cannot possibly be right?  Do you blindly believe it, or do you use the mind that God gave you?”  “Is this a trick question?!” I wondered, because as far as I knew, we really didn't have a choice.

Encouraged again to trust my heart over propaganda, I kept doing kriya yoga and meditation, where with increasing consistency I encountered that Love, Bliss, Beauty and awesome unity that the humble fungi had revealed to me many years before.  Having given it much prayer and after visiting a variety of churches, eventually I found myself quite at home in the Episcopal Church due to its Liturgy and sacraments, “all the pageantry, none of the guilt,” a strong tradition of spiritual practices, ecumenism and support of vocations, and so comfortable with paradox, ambiguity and diversity even to have a couple of atheist priests among its clergy.  I enjoyed a beautiful, wonderful, ecstatic relationship with God for many years thereafter.

I tried being an atheist again in 2010 when I was mad at God.  He had allowed my mother, a saintly woman with pure childlike faith who never doubted, “Whatsoever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive,” to die a horribly painful, slow, agonizing death involving loss of limbs, sanity and dignity, which dragged out for years despite her own prayers and those of myself, my sisters in the convent, and all our faithful friends and family.   When He didn’t heal Mom and her condition worsened, we prayed for a quick, merciful death, and that didn’t happen, either.  So I decided, clearly this God thing was all a lie, a fantasy. 

I told myself that we were, after all, just clothed monkeys with guns, who threw verbal feces at each other; monkeys who made art and music for no purpose whatsoever, and bombs to blow each other to smithereens, breeding mindlessly and without restraint, to the point that we were depleting our finite resources, destroying our habitat and drowning in our own waste.  We were really just walking, breathing bags of skin containing chemicals, like biological batteries which can recharge to a limited extent by taking in nutrients until entropy finally catches up, the bag starts to leak, the chemical reactions cease and we’re gone.  Unlike batteries, these bags of chemicals were seemingly conscious and capable of reproduction, but to what end – to bring more bags of conscious chemicals into a universe with no God, no Love, no Beauty, no meaning, only eternal darkness and despair?

I tried, but it didn’t work.  It was just too awkward, like when you’re mad at somebody and trying to ignore them, but you keep running into them at the grocery store.  It was no longer a matter of “belief” for me, because I didn’t so much “believe” in God, as I experienced God.  No matter what else might be happening in the external world, when I did my yoga, I experienced that incredible Love, Being, Consciousness, Bliss that had become more Real to me than anything.  Now, when I was mad at Him about Mom, I just avoided doing my spiritual practice for a while, but that couldn’t last.  It was like cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Anyway, God would sneak in when I looked at the moon and stars, or listened to Om roaring in my ear as I surfed in the tube of a wave, or felt the kiss of the sun on my cheek.  I don’t know why He let Mom suffer so, but in our Episcopal mythology of the Incarnation, He suffers with us.

In my darker moods, especially now that I am perimenopausal, I do sometimes flirt with nihilism, but it’s become more difficult.  The yoga I started in 1976 made big promises, and in 2011 it finally delivered.   A few minutes after I began doing Heart of Yoga, a seemingly minor refinement of the breathing technique that I had just learned from Mark Whitwell, my entire reality changed.  The Love, unity and clarity that I had first glimpsed with the help of the fungi, and subsequently experienced with increasing consistency during my daily meditations over the years, suddenly burst forth and took over my everyday consciousness.  This is what yoga is supposed to do, but I was nonetheless surprised when it happened.  Since then I have experienced the Presence of God essentially all the time, closer than my own heartbeat, and Love pouring through me.

Maybe it is just “all in my head,” a new trick my brain learned from an improbable symbiosis between fungi, cows and humans, reinforced by years of practice.  It makes no difference.  Whether God is “real,” or whether we are just pitiful monkeys who, in between flinging feces at each other, make up stories to console ourselves in the face of a dark, empty and meaningless universe, either way, what else is left, but to be that Love in the world?!  I teach people yoga to allow them to experience for themselves the gospel that God is Love, and I join my voice with others in the hope of making the world a better, more humane place before the darkness swallows us all up.  And this brings us back to Frank Schaeffer’s delightful book.   

This book resonated with me on many levels, although I am no longer an atheist and I find the word “believe” problematic.  It is probably a “niche” book, but perhaps a niche whose population is growing as more and more people begin to question their childhood faith and search for deeper meaning.  If you love Jesus but hate religion; if you believe in a God Who is bigger than the Bible; if you are confused about the difference between science and religion and/or you’ve been told you must choose between them, this book is for you! 

Be honest, my Christian friends:  Do you ever feel embarrassed for the God of the Old Testament?  What do you do with the “unpleasant” bits of scripture, like (just to mention a few), the several occasions where God tells his people to kill their neighbors, including pregnant women and little babies, but keep the virgin girls as booty?  Or the incident when God sent bears to maul 42 children for making fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head?  Likewise, perhaps you find dubious the doctrine of hell, whereby God would condemn mortal beings to eternal torment even for merely having incorrect beliefs.  On a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” Bart and Lisa use an iRunes app to open a portal into a school in hell, where they see a young man writing something over and over on the blackboard; Bart asks, “Hey, pal, what are you in here for?”  “The heresy of Docetism, the belief that Jesus' body was just an illusion.” 

Frank poses the question, “Can you imagine me consigning Lucy [his granddaughter] to oblivion because she had wrong ideas about me?  Can you imagine me burning her forever because she didn’t believe in me, forgot my name, called me the wrong name, thought I had six arms… or brought me fruit when I asked for a lamb?... I am not a good man and yet can you imagine anything that would cut [his grandchildren] off from my love?” 

Faced with such issues, we have a choice.  We can do mental contortions in attempt to invent clever explanations and apologies for God, as Frank’s evangelist mother did in the previous book (Sex, Mom and God), but the results are unlikely to be satisfactory.  Alternatively, we can let go of dogma and trust God to be God.  Let God out of the box!  As we are told in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion."

Some of my other progressive Christian friends try to modify the religion to be more in line with scientific and historical “reality,” which involves eliminating doctrines about miracles, the virgin birth, the Trinity, even throwing out the entire book of John (my favorite gospel!), and/or re-defining the “historical Jesus” as a mere man, which IMO is kind of like neutering the lion.   Mr. Schaeffer takes a different approach.  He is not very concerned about doctrines per se.  Rather, he comes from the Orthodox apophatic tradition, which says that God is beyond doctrine and cannot be defined by the intellect, but only experienced.

The title of the book, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God” is, as my husband and many other people have pointed out, contradictory per the definition of “atheist.”  From the apophatic standpoint, “believes” could perhaps better be replaced by “experiences,” but I am sure the author was very aware of the contradiction and purposely chose the ironic and thought-provoking title.  Frank is an “atheist” in the sense that he believes in the scientific explanation of the material universe which, I think it is safe to say, most educated people do.  As I have explained previously in my blog, there is no contradiction once we understand that science and religion are two separate spheres or dimensions of human existence which serve completely different functions.  This brings us to the central premise of the book, which is that we humans are multidimensional creatures who experience reality on different levels. 

One of my very educated and intelligent friends told me, “Religion is silly!  I choose science.”  But, the question is, “Choose it for what?”  The purpose of science is to objectively explain the nature and workings of the physical universe, which it does quite well, as far as it goes.  Now, my friend would say, “Science fully describes reality, because the physical universe is all there is!”  The problem with this assertion, of course, is that any such statements about Ultimate Reality are necessarily metaphysical in nature and therefore can neither be confirmed nor denied by physical science.  It would be a circular argument akin to the fundie dogma, “The Bible is the only and complete word of God.  How do we know?  Because the Bible says so!”   

In any case, the purely physical approach is inadequate to express the entirety of our human experience.  For example, according to science, “love” is simply evolution using your hormones to trick you into breeding, passing on your DNA and caring for your offspring so that they, too, can pass on their DNA.  The magical feeling you share with your spouse that makes you believe he or she is the most beautiful, wonderful person on earth can be objectively explained by chemicals in your brain; however, it can only be enjoyed subjectively.  Love, like Beauty, belongs to another dimension of human existence:  the subjective realm of art, music, poetry, mythology and religion, the purpose of which is not explanation, but inspiration.  There are different kinds of “truth.”  It’s not either-or.  To choose science “instead of” religion is like choosing dinner instead of dessert when you could have both; you will certainly survive although you may become bored.  Choosing religion instead of science may seem delicious, but it’s not a balanced diet in terms of your physical health.

When challenged by his atheist friends, “Frank, God’s only in your head!”, he answers, “Yeah, whatever.  What isn’t?”  This is very true because, as Frank points out, ultimately the “physical world” as such is a perceptual construct of the human mind and senses, whereas we know from physics that what we perceive as solid objects actually consist of mostly empty space.  He says towards the end of the book, “My hope is that a trillionth of a second before the Big Bang the energy animating the mystery of matter being created out of nothing was love.”  I believe that, and it’s the same Love that holds the universe together, which I experience in the center of my being.

So, we are multidimensional creatures and in at least one of those dimensions, we can experience God.  Religion is merely the sociocultural context which frames that personal experience.   Being freed from dogma, what happens to our faith?   It is a huge relief to realize that God does not need to be defined, defended or explained.  We can enjoy religious mythology when we stop trying to pretend it is something that it isn’t.  If there is a God, He cannot be confined to the man-made box that is religion.     

Frank makes the case that following Jesus is not about believing certain doctrines, but rather, how does our experience of the sacred affect our life?   It should move us to express divine Love through our actions.  He discusses at some length the humanism of Jesus, and even suggests that the Enlightenment was a Christian heresy, the results of which can be seen in “godless” countries like Denmark today where most of the population is atheist, and yet their social policies are more consistent with Jesus’ teachings than our own “Christian” nation.   They take care of their widows and orphans, provide universal healthcare and education, and enforce laws preventing the powerful from preying on the weak.  On a personal level, letting God out of the box has made our faith stronger, our joy deeper, enabling us to give love and create beauty, and in so doing, to find peace.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reviews from Yoga Students

My yoga students have requested a venue where they can give reviews.  So, here you go!  Feel free to use the Comments section, below.  Your feedback is appreciated.  Namaste.

Reviews from Spiritual Direction, Counseling and Psychic Clients

Several clients have offered to give reviews on my services in Spiritual Direction, Ministerial Counseling and Psychic Readings.  So, here is a venue where you can do that!  Feel free to use the Comments section, below.  Your feedback is appreciated.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Another Look at Religion

Note:  I shared this post on a popular blog site recently and to my surprise, was immediately accused of "attacking atheists."  That certainly was not my intent.  If anything, I thought I was "attacking fundies" and reassuring the atheists that despite what they may have heard, liberal/progressive Christians are on their side!  I apologize that the point did not get across.


Once again I have found myself involved in discussion around an issue that keeps coming up, the same thing back and forth endlessly, so that I think it is worth addressing in my blog for future reference when and as needed.  The issue this time is religion.  My atheist friends and acquaintances often try to engage me in arguments about my alleged “Christian beliefs” which they aggressively repudiate – not realizing that, in fact, I’m on their side. 

For example, they will point out that fossil evidence proves living creatures have been around a lot longer than 6000 years, and radiometric dating shows the earth is 4.5 billion years old; that it would have been physically impossible to fit 2 of every species of animal and all the supplies needed for them on Noah’s ark; and that Jonah could not have survived in the belly of a whale.  They scoff at the story of the first woman, whom God had created from a rib of the man He made out of dirt, being deceived by a talking snake, resulting in the damnation of the entire human race, not to mention, as they were the only people, whom did their kids marry?  Therefore, science proves that the Bible is not true!  Umkay…  but I never said it was.  Having attended college, I do know the difference between science and mythology.  Doesn’t everybody?  Apparently not, based on the furious and ongoing debate.

It’s almost a “straw man” argument, except as I understand it, that would imply conscious and purposeful misrepresentation of your opponent’s position, whereas it appears the atheists sincerely believe that this is what we (religious people) think.  And we can blame the fundies for that!  Because, as incredible as it may seem to any modern educated person, there really are people who believe that the Bible is a magic book literally dictated word for word by God, every word inerrant (never mind internal contradictions), a complete and perfect guide to life, a moral handbook, and a science textbook.  Even more disturbing is the fact that some of the people who hold this belief are elected officials whose job is to govern our nation!  But, while the fundies claim to represent all Christians, they most certainly do not; they just happen to be the loudest and most obnoxious among us.  Unfortunately, they have managed to convince nearly everyone that their particular brand of “Christianity” is believed by all of us.

Which, of course, it is not.  So when my atheist friends rant on and on about the profound stupidity of fundamentalist dogma, all I can say is, you’re preaching to the choir.  And if anything, it probably pisses off us liberal and/or progressive Christians even more than it bothers you!  They make the rest of us look bad, as evidenced by the fact that you have bought into the fundie dogma and believe that we are the same as them.  So as a yogini and an Episcopalian, I would like to share a fresh perspective, another way of looking at religion.

Note, I consider myself a yogini first and a Christian second.  This may shock a lot of Christians and qualify me for burning at the stake.  Be that as it may, my rationale is that yoga is one’s personal relationship with the Divine, whereas Christianity is a religion.  The former is direct subjective experience of That, whatever you want to call it, while the latter is merely the sociocultural context which frames our experience, the religious mythology which provides a colorful backdrop for the rituals we share as a community.

One might argue that “relationship with the Divine” presupposes a belief in the existence of God, presumably the God described in the Bible, but this presumption is incorrect.  For me personally, and I think I can speak for other yogis as well, it’s really not about “belief” at all.  “Belief” is an intellectual construct.  I don't so much "believe" in God, as I experience God.  “God” for me is not a doctrine, but rather a label I put on my inner mystical experience which, while completely subjective, is at the same time shared by others in my community. 

Now, some atheists have stated that mystical experience and/or any kind of religious feeling constitutes mental illness, and that religion is a form of mass psychosis which ought to be “cured” by forcible medication.  We will put aside for the moment that this view is reminiscent of the treatment of religion in a totalitarian regime such as the Soviet Union, with dubious political implications for its enforcement in a free society.  From a purely psychobiological standpoint, though, it could equally be argued that people who are incapable of religious feeling have a deficiency in the part of the brain where such experiences originate and which probably serves some evolutionary purpose.  What I call “God” you might call “the part of the brain that lights up on MRI during meditation.”  The latter description, while scientifically accurate, is less poetic.

And that is what we are talking about here:  Poetry, mythology, ritual, drama!  The point that both atheists and fundies seem to have missed is that religion is not supposed to be literally true in the scientific sense.  The atheist argument against the factual veracity of the Bible strikes me as rather silly and pointless, akin to stating that Harry Potter violates the laws of physics, or that the history and geography of the earth depicted in the Lord of The Rings is inaccurate.  However, atheists understandably feel compelled to make the argument because the fundies insist on imposing their religious mythology as literal fact on everybody else via the political process.  It has also been argued that we don’t need religion anymore because science can explain everything, but the purpose of religion is not to “explain” the natural world.  The argument would go away if only both sides could simply understand that religion is not science, period.

So what is the purpose of religion, then?  It is like art, literature, music, dance or theater, intended to enrich the imagination and nourish the soul.  It is supposed to provide a deeply personal, yet at the same time, shared communal experience of the Sacred by means of music, chanting, incense, candles and ritual – “bells and smells” as we Episcopalians say.  The sensory input and mythological imagery stimulates the part of the brain which allows for what Jungian psychology calls a “transpersonal” experience of the archetypes in the collective unconscious.  These figures populate all religions and include such themes as The Mother of all life, and the Dying and Reborn God who feeds us with His own flesh.  Whether or not these “archetypes” exist in a literal sense outside of human consciousness is irrelevant to our enjoyment of the ritual.

I like to use the example of the Nutcracker ballet.  Watching this ballet – in person, if possible! – is a time-honored ritual of the winter holiday season.  We become absorbed in the music, the magic, the drama, the incredible athletic and artistic talent of the dancers.  Especially those of us who have danced feel as if we, too, could put on pointe shoes, to join the dancers leaping and spinning across the stage, or even take flight!  We delight in the costumes and characters as we watch the familiar plot unfold, although we already know quite well what is going to happen.  I have never heard anybody complain of the ballet, “This is completely unrealistic!  Toy soldiers do not come to life to battle rats in your kitchen in the middle of the night!”  Everybody understands, except perhaps very small children, that it is not supposed to be real.  

The other issue which provokes non-argument on my part is “biblical morality.”  Critics correctly point out that the Bible contains some really horrible morality, especially regarding the treatment of women and children, e.g., God advised the Israelites on several occasions to slay every last one of their enemies including little babies, except to keep the virgin girls as booty; you can sell your daughter as a slave; and a girl who is raped in the city should be put to death for adultery, as she didn’t scream loudly enough, whereas one who is raped in the country should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to remain alive – and married to the rapist.  The New Testament is also full of misogyny on the part of Jesus’ disciples, although he himself was shockingly feminist in that he publicly spoke to women and treated them like human beings where women had the same social status as cattle or broodmares.  On more than one occasion I’ve been challenged, “How can you support a doctrine which oppresses women?!”  I don't.

We can enjoy the Nutcracker without basing the laws of our society on the ballet, legislating that women ought to starve themselves and dress in tutus, or that men should don soldier uniforms and devote their lives to battling rats.  Likewise, it is neither necessary nor desirable to adopt a 2000+ year-old Middle Eastern “moral code” in order to celebrate our Christian ritual, and it is not appropriate to impose the barbaric customs of that time and place on our modern society.  When I mentioned in a Facebook discussion the other day that contrary to popular belief, not all Christians are misogynistic, somebody looking for an argument challenged me, “What about, ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.’  Don’t Episcopalians follow the Bible?!”  Thank God, we do not.  That is why we have female priests, and why our church has been on the forefront of promoting women’s reproductive rights and voting rights. 

Like liberal and/or progressive Christians of various denominations including Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist, we’ve read the book thoroughly, critically, and gleaned the wheat from the chaff.  The message that we choose to take away is:  God is Love, and we are to love our neighbor, which entails promoting human rights, social justice and taking care of the poor among us, not using the ancient book to deny science, bludgeon women into submission or prevent gays from marrying.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The View from Here

In the course of my work as a spiritual adviser and yoga teacher, I get asked a lot of questions.  One is, "What is the benefit of doing yoga?"  Naturally I am excited to start talking about Divine union, and realizing your spiritual ideals in a tangible way, but given the popular notion of what constitutes "yoga," most often the response is, "umkay... but will it help me lose weight??"  There are, however, rare individuals, especially on the Advanced Yoga forum, who want to know, "If I practice yoga, will it lead to enlightenment?"

Occasionally people ask the amusing question, "Are you enlightened?" or, conversely, they will assert, "You are not enlightened!" [never said I was].  LOL!  It is "amusing" because obviously the question cannot be answered by "me," since one of the features of "enlightenment" is the understanding that this little self, the ego, is a mere mental construct, a sort of lens or filter through which Consciousness at large experiences life.  The statement "I am enlightened" makes no sense, because who is speaking?!  Sometimes, though, they will persist and demand to know, according to certain precise technical definitions, which state/s of samadhi, if any, I enjoy.

I don't particularly care about these nit-picky definitions, but some people are really into them.  I was having a discussion with one such friend about whether or not thought still happens after nirvikalpa samadhi.  My friend said no, of course not!  but I had to wonder, how would the person then function in the world?  Surely the brain must still operate in some manner, with or without ego awareness.

I did some research online and encountered the writings of an advaitan enlightened master who, when interviewed, declared, "there is no sensory input whatsoever, no thinking of any kind, the mind and senses are completely dead!"  Um, if so, then how are you hearing what the interviewer is saying and how are you responding to the question?  One of his students, likewise said to be a totally enlightened master having attained nirvikalpa samadhi, wrote a very beautiful and quite lengthy poem which discussed and analyzed in some detail how "my master destroyed my ego with a glance of his loving wisdom," "I was previously in darkness but now in the light," "my master did this, I responded thusly, this happened, that happened, and now I don't exist at all and my mind is completely dead!"  - went on for pages about how his mind was completely dead and nonexistent.  Apparently the poem basically wrote itself?!

The best one, though, was another enlightened master who, when someone asked about his cigarette smoking habit, replied, "I am not smoking. You only think I am smoking because of your belief in the illusion of separate persons inhabiting these bodies. I do not exist, therefore how can I be smoking? It is illusion on your part." So, I'm not going to discuss or dispute the various definitions of samadhi, other than to say that the idea can be taken to silly extremes and, as with "enlightenment," there may be an inherent linguistic problem in discussing it.

With regard to "enlightenment," my teacher Mark Whitwell, echoing U.G. Krishnamurti, says that the search itself is the problem.  We are fine just as we are.  There is nothing to be achieved.  Mark has said, "It is intimacy we need, not enlightenment."  Yoga is not a means for reaching some far-off goal, to become something that we are not.  Rather, yoga is simply relaxing into what he calls our "Natural State."  And what would that be like?

I don't know exactly what it will be like for you.  Everybody is unique.  There are several different schools of yoga which appeal to various personality types.  E.g., there are those who favor jnana yoga, which I explored for a while in my youth, until I became bored with the mind chasing itself like a dog chasing his own tail; you know he's never going to catch it.  Knowledge can be very freeing, but there's a big difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it experientially.  But if it works for you, great!  Or maybe you are a karma yogi working tirelessly to make the world a better place, offering up all the fruits of your labors, knowing that God is the only Doer; you find your nirvana in digging wells and building houses for the poor.  Good for you.

All I can really tell you is, how things look from here, from my perspective as a bhakti-tantrika practicing Heart of Yoga technique.  It has given me (among other things) exactly what I had wanted all those years:  Divine intimacy!  The God Whom I had previously experienced only during meditation burst forth into my waking existence as an immediate, palpable and continual Presence.  Oh, there were other perks, too, like the deep, vast inner silence; the quieting of the monkey-mind; the blessed relief of no longer carrying the heavy burden of the self, having been lifted from my shoulders; the end of fear and worry; feeling for the first time in my life, truly comfortable in my own skin.  But most of all, the incredible, infinite Bliss and Love of God, right here, closer than my own heartbeat.

Now I'm not going to get into an argument about the Personal versus the Impersonal Divine which, depending on whom you ask, one is superior to the other.  God delights in manifesting to His or Her devotees in Personal form, as we are persons.  At the same time, God is beyond personal and impersonal.  And while we're at it, God is the only Reality, but everything is a manifestation of the Divine!  God wanted to manifest as us, these personalities, in these bodies, in this natural world, and as tantrikas we celebrate it.  The creation was not a mistake.  The body is not a prison from which we need to escape in order to "get closer to God" if that were even possible which, as Mark points out, it is not, because God is not absent.  Rather, as long as we remain in this body, it is a vehicle for Sacrament.  And our spouse, if we are fortunate enough to be blessed with one, is literally God's Love for us in the flesh.

This is a perfect arrangement for a bhakti-tantrika because all aspects of life become an offering: the kiss of the sun, the caress of the breeze, the smell of the warm earth, flowers and grass, the taste of food and wine, physical and mental labor, surfing, dance, asana and sex.  All love songs on the radio are for Him.  Every experience, each breath an offering to the Beloved!  There is an increasing translucency to the self, which only exists to experience God and to please Him.  As much or as little of the self may be preserved so that it can be given to God in the oneness of lovers, or a drop dissolving into the ocean.

It is a state of being more utterly, completely in Love than one would think possible.  As Mark says in his book The Promise, "Your relationship with Source Reality is extremely private, deeply personal, and utterly passionate. I want you to be besotted with Source Reality, to love your life as passionately as you would a secret lover. And I’m promising you that you can."

With a consistent daily yoga practice, burdens are released, the heart is opened and Love begins to flow as we relax into our Natural State.  Eventually that Love pours through every cell in the body.  And there are absolutely no restrictions on how far you can take this relationship, no limitations on how deep you can go with Divine intimacy.  If anybody tells you otherwise, they are either lying or misinformed.  It just keeps getting better.  Yogani at AYP has said of this state, "like falling into an endless abyss of ecstasy."  At least, that has been my experience.