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Last Saturday, I viewed the classic, 1959 film “Black Orpheus” on Netflix. I was only seven years old when the Oscar-winning film first premiered, but I clearly remember going to see it with my parents. The hypnotic drum-beats and the vivid images of colorful Carnaval costumes and vertiginous, breath-taking vistas from favelas high atop the mountains of Rio de Janeiro stayed with me across the decades, so that the film looked familiar on re-viewing. What I had forgotten were the specifics of how the movie brilliantly re-tells the bare-bones Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in that riotous samba setting.

First, it has to be acknowledged that the simplicity of the black characters, and the simple delight they take in Carnaval, have been identified as racist portrayals by no less an authority than President Obama, who mentions in “Dream of my Fathers” that “Black Orpheus” was his mother’s favorite movie. That said, though, in my view the characters’ simple outlines well serve the mythological context of the story. It is a stripped-down fairytale of love and death that is both a universal human myth, and a story that could be re-told in the context of almost any century or set of people. Director Marcel Camus’ decision to cast it as a tale of Rio’s Carnaval was a stroke of genius, and the imagery he generates to tell it is some of the most evocative that I have seen in any film.

Orpheus is portrayed as a tram conductor and Eurydice as a villager who has come to Rio by ferry to escape a vengeful lover who she fears will kill her. Where better to lose a pursuer than in the masked madness of Carnaval? Where this highly period and place-specific retelling really soars, though, is in the director’s decision to have Orpheus unintentionally kill Eurydice, just as he’s trying desperately to save her. This is an insightful variation of the original story, in which Eurydice is killed by snakes:   insightful specifically in that it highlights the power of anxiety and fear to cause people so often to harm or even accidentally kill the ones they love the most.

But it is the way the film contrasts the bright revelry and hypnotic beats of Carnaval, symbolizing the life force, with Eurydice’s journey into the underworld and Orpheus’ deep grief, that impressed me the most. After Eurydice is killed, her body is transported by ambulance through a deep, dark highway tunnel that I recognized from my 2009 visit to Rio de Janeiro as a tunnel I had ridden through in a taxi, deep under the Corcovado mountain. Orpheus follows her body to the “Office of Missing Persons” and the morgue, where a janitor tells him that he will find nothing in the building but dusty old files.

After he finds her body and her death is confirmed, he and the janitor descend a magnificent oval staircase that appears to burrow deep down into the earth (although the viewer recollects that Orpheus had previously taken an elevator up to the morgue.) Once they arrive at the lowest level, Orpheus is brought into a secret ritual of the Macumba Afro-Cuban religion, where men and women dance, whirl and speak in tongues. The janitor tells Orpheus to sing to Eurydice; when he finally does, he hears her voice answer him in response. Then, fatefully, Orpheus turns to see that the voice is emanating from an old lady who, in a trance, appears to be serving as a medium. As we all know, that backward glance separates Orpheus from Eurydice forever, within this life.

Leaving the church, Orpheus carries the inert body of Eurydice back up the steep hill to his favela. There in a jealous rage, Orpheus’ fiancé, Mira, flings a stone at Orpheus, sending him crashing over the cliff to his death, still bearing the body of Eurydice. It is abundantly clear that only in death could he and Eurydice be re-united.

What remains for all of us is the lament of the timeless and haunting Antonio Carlos Jobim song, “O Felicidade,” (“Happiness”) which Orpheus has sung to Eurydice on his guitar repeatedly throughout the film. His guitar is supposed to have the power to bring the sun up in the morning, on Ash Wednesday.

 

Recently, having attended a concert devoted to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim at Seattle’s Columbia City Theater, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, I posted about the transformative quality of his lovely bossa novas. Each simple and haunting tune nails itself into one’s head, where it cannot escape until you play another of his songs. These subtle melodies, married to the timeless lyrics of Vinicius de Moraes and others, have a wistful quality that evokes the inseparable intertwining of happiness and sadness in our lives. While the melodies seem quietly joyous, the lyrics speak longingly of the transient quality of happiness. The girl from Ipanema never sees you, and in the song “Corcovado,” “quiet chords from my guitar (are) floating on the silence that surrounds us.”

 

Nowhere is this more true than in the lyrics to “A Felicidade,” (“Happiness”):

 

Sadness never ends

Happiness does

 

Happiness is like a drop

of dew on a flower petal

It shines quietly

And then swings lightly

and falls like a love tear drop

 

This lyric, with its accompanying guitar melody, was enlisted as the theme song for the classic film, “Black Orpheus,” from 1959. Orpheus sings it almost as a lullaby to his beloved Eurydice, who is running away from death, in this brilliant re-telling of the Greek myth, set to the samba beats of Carnaval:

 

Happiness of the poor seems

The great illusion of Carnival

We work all year

For a dream moment

To make the fantasy

Of king or pirate or gardener

For everything is finished in (Ash) Wednesday

 

Here, in the metaphor of the lively night of Carnaval giving way to the cold dawn of Lent, we have the promise and fragility of romantic love contrasted with the stark certainty of death. Eurydice will die before the coming of dawn, unless Orpheus can save her. Ironically, in the movie he kills her by trying to save her from Death. She is hanging from an electric wire in a tram station, to which she has leapt after being cornered in the station by the Carnaval figure of death, in a skull mask. In an attempt to find her and save her, Orpheus turns the power on, instantly electrocuting her. Orpheus’ immediate and stabbing grief speaks to the universality of human suffering and the transient, elusive quality of happiness, themes which Buddhism addresses directly in its call for compassion for all sentient beings.

 

The lyrics to “A Felicidade” remind me so much of another poetic song with a Buddhist theme: “Everything Must Change; Nothing Stays the Same,” recorded by both George Benson and Randy Crawford. In both songs, the listener is brought back to the present moment by reflecting on the impermanence of all phenomena and beings. As the latter song reminds us, “There are not many things in Life you can be sure of/ Except rain comes from the clouds; sun lights up the sky; and hummingbirds do fly.”

 

 

 

 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been confronting intense heartbreak over my aged father’s alarming behavior in the last nine months.  He has given away nearly $100,000 to criminal con artists in the hopes of winning a huge sweepstakes prize of $2.5 million.  Each time he sends the criminals a check, it turns out there is another bogus tax or insurance payment he has to pay to release the treasure.  If he was intentionally giving the money to a bona fide charity, how different it would be!  My feelings of heartbreak are not just about the loss of dad’s assets.  They center on my loss of the father I always had until now: a prudent, wise and even frugal man, and a dependable rock of stability in my life.

Pema Chodron teaches that when we confront a challenge that shakes us to our roots, we should be grateful for the opportunity it presents to soften from our hardness; to release our death grip on whatever we perceive as solid reality; and to awaken to the present moment, where actual Reality or Buddha Nature resides.  In “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times,” she tells the story of how her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, and his attendants were once confronted by a ferocious dog near the gates to a monastery.  She writes,

“Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them.  The attendants screamed and froze in terror.  Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could – straight at the dog.  The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.”

Running toward the danger – this is the behavior that all of us instinctively avoid, yet Pema Chodron teaches that it is not only the true antidote to our fears but also the genuine path to spiritual growth.  In the current movie, “The Life of Pi,” a small boy confronts a terrifying tiger on a small boat pitched in ocean waves until each learns to accommodate the other.  It is exactly the same teaching, and it corresponds to Gautauma’s mythical confrontations with “Mara,” the devil figure whom he ultimately conquered.

So how can I run toward my heartbreak over my father, rather than running away from it to seek hollow comfort in distraction?  In a word, I can use it as a lesson to help me come closer to attaining two fundamental spiritual treasures:  patience and unconditional love.  I have always been an extremely impatient person, and while I have loved, I would be lying if I said I have always loved unconditionally.  Dad is giving me the opportunity to learn how to be patient with him and to use my new-found patience to learn how to love him even at a time when I don’t like him very much.

Every day I pray for divine guidance; I pray for God to show me the next step on the path.  But there is a pre-condition for letting the Divine in:  we have to let ourselves get out of the way.   As my spiritual coach Jessica Maxwell puts it, when she describes the healing sessions she conducts, “I didn’t do anything, I just got out of the way.”   Learning to be patient and learning to love unconditionally mean learning to get out of  the way so God can guide us.  The goal is not just to uncover my own capacity for unconditional love; it is to accept God’s unconditional love.  This is a love that extends not only to me, but also to my father; a love that extends not only to my father, but also to me. We can only let it in if we stop using ourselves as a shield to block it.

Walking Mindfully

 

 

Walking mindfully one Sunday afternoon last fall led me to compose this poem:

 

A November Walk

 

When crows vocalize

In the late afternoon,

Golden poplar leaves

Dance against bare branches

And lawns turn bright emerald

Above the deep blue lake.

Only then, Autumn settles in

And makes way for Winter.

In my last post, “Recalibrating to the Right Brain,” I mentioned that for several months last year I felt an acute sense of heartbreak observing the deterioration of one small but critical part of my father’s mind.  At age 90, dad has lost the faculty to recognize the falsehood of claims by scammers that he had won 2.5 million dollars, if only he would pay them $75,000 in “taxes and insurance fees.”

Actually, I experienced all five stages of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief.  First there was denial:  ‘we can talk dad out of this absurd delusional thinking.’  Then came anger:  ‘what’s wrong with the bastard; he has the nerve to throw all his money away?!’  Then came bargaining:  ‘Dad, yes, I’ll sign to transfer money into your checking account, provided you use it to pay your actual bills.’  This was quickly followed by the heartache I mentioned.  I was rocked by strong feelings of depression over losing the dad I always knew I had, my father with sound judgment.  Finally and unexpectedly, I arrived at the fifth stage, acceptance:  ‘my dad has a brain problem brought on by ageing and it’s normal for elderly people to have some sort of compromised mental or physical abilities.’

Faced with a problem that causes you heartache, what does it take to reach the stage of acceptance?  In a word, it takes the ability to acquire a sense of detachment from the problem.  I experienced detachment briefly in early September, while I was still in the throes of the depression stage. It happened when my partner and I got away for four sun-soaked days with two dear friends on the Oregon coast.  God blessed us with perfect balmy weather every day, the sunsets were magnificent, and the evening revelry was delightful.  Driving down from Seattle for this mini-vacation, I kept thinking, “Oh my God, my father is giving all his money away to criminal con artists for bogus sweepstakes prizes!!!”  By the time we drove back, I had acquired a new perspective on the matter.  I thought to myself, “I know an elderly person whose mind has become vulnerable to financial fraud, and he just happens to be my father.  We’d better protect him from this misfortune.”  My pre-acceptance stage proved only to last a few days, but it laid much needed ground work, and I managed to circle back to it about three months later.

How do you achieve the detachment you need to reach Kubler-Ross’ acceptance stage?  The answer is both very simple and very difficult:  you have to let your ego get out of the way.  My ego was dramatizing the situation to the max.  Every time I thought about the situation, I imagined my father in the gutter and I pictured myself losing my inheritance.  “Woe is me, all is lost,” I kept repeating to myself.  Somehow I completely forgot that this had nothing to do with me and everything to do with my father.

Detachment is one of the most significant concepts in Eastern religion and philosophy.  At the same time, it is one of the most difficult for Westerners to understand and accept.  It seems to us that detachment goes against the principle of compassion to the point of being anti-life.  It seems to be a doctrine dictating that we must not allow ourselves to love our family members and friends; that we must distance ourselves from them as much as possible.  In a way, this understanding is exactly correct:  after all, Siddhartha did walk away from his beloved wife and children and renounce them in order to become Buddha.  Similarly, in India, many vagabond beggars stray away from social entanglements to avoid becoming attached to anyone.

But in a more modern sense, detachment can mean learning to conduct one’s life effectively by not allowing one’s ego to sabotage right action.  Buddhist monks, nuns and great Buddhist leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron show us a way to be compassionate to others without obsessing over the bonds that attach us to them, whether they are bonds of family, business or friendship.  Which of my own perceptions about my dad was the most compassionate:  the anxiety-ridden emotion, “Oh my God, he’s giving all his money away!” or the more detached awareness, “I know an elderly person who has been scammed.  He is my father and I need to help him.”  An attitude of detachment can actually promote compassion, whereas an over-wrought emotional entanglement can lead to attacking the other person, which is the opposite of compassion.

In Chapter 6 of Joseph Campbell’s book, “Myths to Live By,” there is a wonderful passage that describes how acquiring a sense of detachment can be analogous to conscious role-playing, where one learns to play the role of father or son or any other human part, without forgetting that the role is simply a necessary tool of action and not a fundamental or permanent attribute of your soul:

“There is a curious, extremely interesting term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as ‘play language,’ asobase kotoba, whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, ‘I see that you have come to Tokyo,’ one would express the observation by saying, ‘I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo’ – the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is a play, a game.  He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease.  And this idea is carried even so far that instead of saying to a person, ‘I hear that your father has died,’ you would say, rather, ‘I hear that your father has played at dying.’  And now, I submit that this is truly a noble, really glorious way to approach life.  What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally ‘in play.’”

This is how acquiring a sense of detachment can help us in modern life:  if we can let our ego get out of the way, we can more clearly see the role we need to play to effect compassionate action. In a game of tennis, the ego or the brain never hits the ball over the net; the racquet in the hand on the arm in the shoulder socket always does.

IMAG0113

Walking the beach at Oceanside, Oregon helped me find a sense of detachment.

It’s been a long time since my last post on “Bird of Spirit,” my on-line spiritual journal.  In the past year I’ve experienced something more than writer’s block:  something more like heartache, having lost my 88 year-old mother on July 9 and my partner’s mother on October 19, 2012.  Both of them suffered a lot in their last months and years, their bodies and minds rebelling against them in steady, undignified and irrevocable deterioration.   Hardest of all, I witnessed my father falling into a highly focussed form of delusional thinking, which has led him to give away most of his assets to an elder fraud sweepstakes scam.  In short, 2012 was a very difficult year for me, and the wings of my spirit were severely clipped.  It was definitely time to recalibrate, so I arranged for an energy healing session earlier this month with a real spiritual warrior, Jessica Maxwell, author of “Roll Around Heaven,” who has generously become my de facto guru.

But what actually needed recalibration?  Jessica saw clearly that my left brain was over-activated and my right brain suppressed.  We now know from many sources, including Jill Bolte Taylor’s astonishing work, “My Stroke of Insight,” that when neural activity in the left hemisphere of the brain is suppressed, as it was with Taylor’s stroke, one’s consciousness is suddenly free to experience God’s eternal and infinite bliss and peace.  This is what the Hindus call “samadhi,” or God-union, and the Buddhists call “bliss consciousness.”   Christians simply call it “grace.”

Guiding me by drawing the infinity symbol in the air with her finger, Jessica encouraged me to allow my consciousness to flow into my right hemisphere.  I could actually feel a pulling sensation on the right side of my head, like the force of a magnet.  In a spiritually democratic, equal-opportunity, East-meets-West form of worship, we lit candles and invoked the spirits of Yogananda, Lama Karma (Oregon’s own Tibetan Buddhist monk), Amma, and Mary Magdalene.  Three hours or so later, I could feel my heartache slipping away, and my meditation practice has improved ever since.

Why does recalibration work?  It works because we are creatures in this world but not of it.  The neurons of the left brain are like the strings the Lilliputians used to tie poor Gulliver’s body to the earth.  An even better analogy is to a balloon tied down awaiting its next flight:  we are the passengers caught in the basket between the soaring dome of our right brain above and the anchoring cords of our left below.  One half of our mind is in heaven; the other half refuses to see it or admit it.

When I went to see Jessica, the first thing I told her was that I felt like I was a lotus plant that had not bloomed in a very long time.  The lotus is honored in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology not only for its beautiful, floating flower but for the mucky roots anchoring it to the lake bed.  My roots were definitely anchored in the muck, but my head was not above water.  Now I feel like I’m ready to bloom again.

But why do we so often or always forget to stop and recalibrate?  We are like walking lotus plants, always trekking through the muck of life, with our heads only barely above the water line.  We forget to recalibrate because most of the time we’re unaware that our right brain is even there.  If we were not tied to the earth, we could not survive; we would forget to feed ourselves.  More significantly, all the earthly rewards we could possibly want to reap are linked to the care and feeding of our left brains, those problem-solving machines.  Reasoning is rewarded by society; blissful feelings are not.  Who are highly paid lawyers, doctors and scientists if not persons whose left brains have been carefully nurtured, fed and trained?

The more time you spend reasoning to solve problems, seeking that higher earthly paycheck of money, fame or recognition, the more you forget to recognize and honor the part of your brain that connects you to heaven.  Let’s just say I spent all of 2012 trying as hard as I could to solve problems.  We always forget that after one or two hours spent in the light of our right-brains, away from thoughts, the solution will simply present itself.  Visiting the right brain is like oiling the machine: the Light becomes a light-bulb.  A machine that is not oiled regularly always cracks and breaks.

 

 

In our globalized world, uniting the essences of Eastern and Western philosophy is probably the most crucial step in attaining a modern and well-harmonized spiritual outlook on life.  In “Myths to Live By,” a book of essays delivered between 1958 and 1971,  the eminent scholar of mythology,  Joseph Campbell, makes two broad and crucial points about the dramatic differences between East and West in culture, society, religion and even art. 

 

His first point is that beginning with Greek civilization, Western society has been built on recognizing and honoring the human individual, involving the core belief that individual differences in personality are to be valued for the unique contributions they bring to human culture and learning. This validation of the individual has in turn led to the foundation of the sciences and to all of the breakthroughs we associate with real progress, which Campbell argues are to be attributed solely and exclusively to Western civilization.  By contrast, Eastern society, both in India and the Far East, finds no role for the individual except to perform the pre-defined social functions into which he has been born by caste or tradition.  Perfection of a pre-determined, more-or-less eternal social role is the goal of the individual in Eastern societies, not innovation.  Confucianism more or less provides a rule-book for the social roles of the individual within the family and society.  The more mystically oriented Yoga and the more naturally oriented disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism emphasize transcendence of the individual self within God, Buddha-nature and the Way of nature respectively.

 

Campbell’s second point is about the different Eastern and Western conceptualizations of God.  Since Westerners validate the individual, it is only to be expected that we view God as another individual; that is to say as the Other, as an outer Power with which we strive to form a personal relationship.  In the United States, many newer evangelical congregations have taken this idea of a relationship with God to its logical extreme, encouraging people to sit down, have coffee with God and have a chat with Him, as if God were the ultimate psychiatrist, best-friend and parent all wrapped into one big  package of unconditional love.  By contrast, Easterners believe that to find God we must look inside; that God is an inner Divine principle, and not a separate Other.  This much I knew before reading Campbell’s essays, but it was only after I read what he has to say about the lack of value of the individual self in Eastern culture, that I understood fully the Eastern conviction that our perception of ourselves as selves blocks our spiritual evolution by concealing the inner Divine.  Only by dissolving the self, that is to say the ego, can we find the God who is already within. 

 

Campbell then goes on to make a subtle third point about the different definitions of ego in Eastern and Western culture, a point which further elucidates why the West values the individual and the East does not.  Following Freud, Western culture defines the ego as a sort of traffic cop ruling over the desire-seeking id and the conscience-driven superego.  Like a judge in court, as events unfold and decisions are to be made, the ego constantly evaluates the evidence and rules in favor either of the id or the superego in an ever-unfolding sequence. Western culture thus encourages the development of the ego as the foundation of the mature, fully developed individual, who is then completely prepared to make his key and unique contribution to society.  Eastern society, on the other hand, draws no distinction between id, ego and superego.  All three wrapped together are merely ego, and it is the ego that is to be dissolved or destroyed, not its warring factions.  If the purpose of the individual is to perform his social role as perfectly as possible, not to evaluate stimuli and arrive at a new or innovative pattern of response, then the ego is of no more use to him than its two component factions.

 

What can we learn from these two extremely different world views as we strive to unite the concepts of East and West to form a new, more globally based form of spirituality?  We can learn to synthesize.  We can conclude that freedom is important because the individual is of key value to society, but also that the mature ego is not the entire being or worth of the individual.  The ego’s choices between the superego’s agenda and the id’s demands are not infallible and the ego itself, that is the traffic cop, can get wildly out of control, resulting in the individual becoming hugely destructive to society, rather than contributive.  We can conclude that our ego needs to be calmed by calling upon the Divine who resides within.  We can further conclude that we are not separate from God, but that at the same time it is legitimate to perceive ourselves as individuals with something  new and different  to contribute to society.  As such individuals, we can have a relationship with God even as we know and feel that He resides within.  Our deeply practical national forefather, Benjamin Franklin, knew as much.

 In a “Radio Lab” episode on National Public Radio called “Words” (originally broadcast on August 9, 2010), listeners were introduced to a Susan Schaller, a woman who taught sign language to deaf people at a community college.  She described meeting a 27-year-old, Peruvian-born illiterate man who seemed to have trouble getting started with the lessons.  When she signed, “My name is Mary,” he responded by signing “My name is Mary” back to her. He didn’t seem to be getting the point that this was an invitation to sign, “My name is Jose.”  No matter what phrase she presented to him, he simply parroted it back to her, seemingly in a spirit of good-humored enthusiasm.  Finally, in a flash of insight, she concluded that the only way she was going to be able to get through to him was by ignoring him.  By turning her back on him and breaking all communication, she hoped that he would have an “aha” moment and start signing to her.  After several days of giving him the cold shoulder, her experiment finally paid off, and he did exactly what she hoped, but with an unexpected side effect.  When he signed his first original phrase to her, he exclaimed, “Everything has a name!” and promptly burst into tears, revealing that he had never before understood the concept of language.

 

Why did the young man burst into tears?  For an answer, “Radio Lab” provided an analogy, moving quickly on to an interview with the brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, whose book, “My Stroke of Insight,” has received much attention in the media.  At the age of 37,Taylorsuffered a major stroke, which had the ultimate effect of severing the connections between the left and right hemispheres of her brain, leaving her to live for a time in the exclusive domain of her right brain.  Of course at the moment of the stroke,Taylor didn’t perceive the sensations she was experiencing as one, but being a brain scientist she actually reports concluding it was a stroke before the rupture between her two hemispheres became complete.  At first, she simply looked down at her hands, perceived them as “primitive claws,” and remembered having the thought as I paraphrase it, “I am a biological organism.”  Later, when the stroke had run its course, she experienced a continuing, enduring peace and felt  “at one with the universe.”  Essentially, she felt, saw and heard the sunlight in the room without suffering any disruptions from anxiety, perceptions of problems needing to be solved, or any other of the continual and on-going burrs-in-the-flesh that keep us rooted in the “real” world.

 

The experience of the Peruvian man and of Jill Taylor, who eventually recovered completely from her stroke and was able to write a book about it, are opposite sides of a coin, two halves of the same whole.  The Peruvian had grown up in a world of right-brain peace and wholeness that was suddenly shattered by the categorizations and compartmentalizations of language, whereas Jill moved from the daily grind of the fracturing compartmentalization we all face, to a peaceful state of wholeness.  WhenTaylorwas asked which she would most be willing to sacrifice, her ego which acts as the air-traffic controller of her thoughts, or that special sense of thoughtless peace, she said it would be a very tough choice.

 

These two interwoven “Radio Lab” stories have much to teach us about spirituality and what it means to be human.  On the program, the host-scientists moved on to present listeners with a startling hypothesis:  without the intervention of language, thought is not possible.  Presenting us with a sound body of evidence in support of this hypothesis, they explained that as a human child begins to learn words and the meaning of words, he begins to have conscious thoughts:  thoughts that are conveyed in words rather than in visual images.  It can be argued that the visual images that the child had experienced and encoded as memories before answering to his name, may not actually be thoughts at all, but simply a recording of emotions and sense impressions.  As we grow older and our command of language becomes more subtle and complex, our thoughts mushroom and grow and we become completely dependent on them, sacrificing the satisfying synesthesia of our early childhood.  In fact, we cannot function without them.

 

Or can we?  Isn’t a large part or even the sole purpose of a spiritual practice to transcend our thoughts, to move beyond them?  To reconstruct the world that Jill Taylor fell into with her brain injury and that the Peruvian man emerged from, but only with tears of regret?  To function in the world, we depend on the left hemisphere of our brain and nearly all of the curriculum of virtually any country’s formal education system is designed to support its growth and development.  The right-brain is left neglected and under-appreciated except by those enigmatic and mysterious spiritual leaders whose role seems to be to trick, kick and cajole us into recapturing our intimacy with it.  Apparently, we need gurus to connect us with the half of our brain that we’ve all allowed to atrophy, because we think our survival depends on a complete reliance on our left-brain. 

 

Eckhart Tolle likes to remind us that humanity is crazy.  Where does the craziness come from?  We all have a tendency to weave increasingly complicated webs of thought, which mixed with strong emotions of fear and anger, can lead to clever but irrational conclusions.  Every assassin and every suicide bomber acts violently due to a decision which he believes to be the inevitable conclusion of what he thinks is a logical thought process based on sound facts and notions.  Only meditation can teach us to set aside the web of deceptive thought and choose peace over aggression.

I have always felt that I had a spiritual mission to accomplish; that somehow I was brought to Earth to accomplish this mission, whatever it was.  Maybe it’s not true that I always believed this, but I know that I recognized it as a personal truth after learning about Edgar Cayce’s trance-induced psychic “readings” of the people who were brought before him.  The problem was, I never knew what my mission was, I just knew I had a purpose and I needed to find it.  Even after consulting with two psychotherapists and a psychic in San Francisco in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I still didn’t uncover my mission.  Then gradually, over time, I began to write a journal of spiritual insights which has evolved into “Bird of Spirit.”  Now at last I feel I have discovered my personal  mission in life.

 

This autobiographical background now brings me to an insight I’ve finally begun to feel in my core, although it is a truth so obvious that it’s a wonder it’s taken me more than 58 years to unearth it.  My insight is that whatever individual spiritual gift each one of us can and does contribute, we all share one general mission that is universal to all mankind, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not.  That mission is to bring divinity to Earth.

 

Divinity is already here on Earth.  It infuses everything and it is present everywhere.  The problem is that most of the time we don’t bother to sit up and take notice.  We dwell on the physical plane, in what has sometimes been referred to as “a lower realm.”  Is our physical realm ruled by bears and wolves baying at the moon, or does it hum with the divine nature of its Creator?  It is up to each one of us to help the creatures of planet Earth, most notably man, to evolve upwards toward the divine; to reach toward God’s embrace.  How do we do that?  By bringing the divine principle down to our lower realm with every small act of kindness and compassion we commit.  As the bumper sticker says, “practice random acts of kindness.” 

 

At every moment in life, we are presented with a choice between a kind and loving response and an angry, embittered one.  With every choice we make goes a small victory for God or for our wolf-nature.  This does not mean that we should go through life with tight, sanctimonious smiles pressed on our lips, or that we should ask, “what would Jesus do?” at every moment.  True kindness and compassion come from a well-spring of natural, un-self-conscious behavior.  They are no more forced than you can force water out of a dry well.  The dualism of our world, which the Hindus call “maya” and the Christians call the battle between good and evil, God and Satan, is not really best seen as a permanent war of opposites.  Instead, it is more useful to regard our dualistic world as presenting an infinite web of choice between a transcendent response and an animal reaction.  Every moment represents an opportunity either to elevate our world toward the Divine or to keep it mired in animalistic self-interest.  Earth can be as godly or satanic a place as we wish it to be,  through the aggregate of all our daily choices.

This I Believe

As someone who has shopped a long time for a religion without ever buying, perhaps it is time to check in with my own beliefs.  First, though, it makes sense to ask, why I am concerned with my beliefs in the first place?   In his book “Man Seeks God,” Eric Weiner makes observes that of all the religions, Christianity is the one most fundamentally concerned with belief.  Christians of all stripes are in the habit of reciting their beliefs and asking people of other religions what they believe in.  This is probably because from Early Christian times until today, each congregation has always recited a specific creed, in the same way that American school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  In the Middle Ages, the various creeds were unified by mass church councils, only to split apart again during the Protestant Reformation.  By contrast, Muslims submit to Allah by praising Him in prayer; Jews observe the Sabbath; and Hindus meditate in devotion to their various deities.  For Buddhists, belief is a mental construct that needs to be dissolved along with all the other constructs.  Faith is a common thread in all of these religions – for Buddhists, it would be faith in their daily practice – but only Christianity makes faith explicit by reciting a statement of commonly held beliefs.

 

Since I was raised in a secular, Christian-flavored family, in the secular, Christian-flavored culture that surrounded  the University of  Washington where my father was a professor, it always seemed normal to formulate and discuss my beliefs.  Like many other secular kids raised in a nominally Christian environment, I had my doubts about the virgin birth and I had trouble believing that Jesus was resurrected in physical form, although I had no trouble picturing Him resurrected as a spiritual being; in other words as the Holy Spirit. 

 

Then three years ago, when I read and fell in love with Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi,” I was fascinated by his overwhelming and unquestioning belief in divinity in all forms, whether Christian or Hindu.  Yogananda describes the existence of an astral realm where highly evolved, recently dead people such as his own guru, Sri Yukteswar, have the power to materialize at will in the physical world.  This assertion casts the concept of resurrection in a completely different light.  If Yogananda is telling the truth, then not only was Jesus resurrected as Christ, but many other holy men and women, presumably mostly from India, were arguably resurrected as well.  Far from asking us to believe in the resurrection of one man, the Son of God, Yogananda asks us to believe in resurrection more generally.  Moreover, Yogananda is an admirer of Western science and he seems to believe that resurrection is not so much a miracle as a phenomenon that may one day be proven scientifically, along with the existence of the astral realm from which Yukteswar materialized.  Everything is miraculous, he asserts, but as soon as we can describe a phenomenon mathematically, we cease to view it as a miracle.

 

I don’t know if I believe that everything Yogananda asserts is true.  For example, it’s hard to believe that an 800 year-old holy man named Babaji still walks among us, or did until the time of Yogananda’s death, revealing himself only to holy men like Yogananda.  What I do know is that I admire Yogananda’s attitude of belief.  With Yogananda, belief is a default mode.  Most of us don’t believe in something until it is proven to be true; Yogananda seems to believe in virtually everything spiritual until or unless it is demonstrated not to be true.  Another way to put it is that for most of us, left-brain, linear thinking is the default mode, while for holy men (and women) like Yogananda, right-brain, spontaneous and intuitive thinking is the default mode.  Right-brain thinking is not really thinking at all – it is more a steady conviction of implicit belief and explicit faith.

 

With that background in mind, I’m ready to relate my own creed, my own statement of belief.  My beliefs are what I hold spontaneously and intuitively, without asking God or the universe for the evidence to prove them.  I believe in God; I believe in one God; I believe that God is in all matter and non-matter; I believe that God is the Father, yes, but that He is also the Mother and the Child and that paradoxically He is also absolutely nothing that is anthropomorphic.  I believe that the physical world is simultaneously real and illusory; that it is dualistic and imbued with strands of good and evil. I believe that karma is a more accurate concept to explain why men perform evil acts than the notion of sin.

 

I believe that we human beings, along with all the other living and non-living physical forms in the universe, are at all times surrounded by the infinite and eternal Light; that the Light has no evilness, only goodness, and that the Light is both wisdom and love simultaneously.  I believe that when we die, all of us or at least most of us, are given at  a an opportunity, however brief, to behold the Light and to return to the Light; that is to merge with it.  I believe that most of us do not find it possible to throw our egos into the fire that is the Light, so we dwell for a time on an astral plane or “bardo,” as the Tibetan Buddhists call it, and then we eventually return to earth or another physical planet in a reincarnated form.  I believe in the Hindu/Buddhist wheel of life, but I don’t believe that we need to be ashamed about being reborn, as opposed to being absorbed forever into the Light.  I believe in learning.  I believe that we can never know everything that is to be known about life or the universe, or the universes, or God, but that it is our birthright to try to learn everything we possibly can about all of them.