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Archive for January, 2011

 

Abandoned by Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, the Bohemians of Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century Paris had to struggle to find the “centimes” to pay for their next espresso, but at least they could console themselves with the purity of their creative souls. Uncorrupted by “le sale capitalisme” (dirty capitalism,) they were immortalized in Edgar Degas’ painting, “The Absinthe Drinker,” which depicts a dejected but well-dressed Parisian lady deep in an absinthe-infused reverie as hazy as any opium dream, seated in a cafe next to a man who appears to be either a street drunk or a brilliant Bohemian masquerading as same.  The Bohemians gave Western society the odd notion that artistic expression is somehow best nourished by completely withholding monetary nourishment.  The vivid image of the starving artist in a sordid garret was born, no matter that it might be as beautiful a garret as Van Gogh’s room in his yellow house in Arles, in the South of France.

Speaking of yellow, several years ago my brother Bliss Kolb wrote, directed and produced a brilliant play on the theme of creativity and prosperity.  Titled “The Yellow Kid,” it was based on the lead character in an early newspaper comic strip called “Hogan’s Alley,” which was first published in 1895 in Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World.”  A polemic advocating for social justice and the betterment of New York City’s down-and-out tenement dwellers, “the Yellow Kid” became so popular that William Randolph Hearst woke up and took note.  With visions of cash from future newspaper sales, he lured the comic artist, Richard Outcault, away to his own paper, “The New York Journal American.”  Thus it was that Hearst’s papers came to be associated with a new phrase, “yellow journalism.” 

Suddenly Outcault had a chance to earn a decent income, so after a bit of agonizing, at least according to the play’s version of events, he defected to Hearst’s paper.  Lakshmi appeared to be smiling, but there was a catch:   the “Journal American” was a  bourgeois enterprise driven by Victorian notions of family and propriety.  There was no place in it for a liberal polemic like “Hogan’s Alley,” so the yellow kid metamorphosed into a character upholding the commercial values of New York’s rising middle class, while turning his back on the scrappy, impoverished lads who had made his strip so popular.  Outcault had sold out for cash, and the play imagines that he made a bargain with the Devil, trading away his creativity for a regular high income.

Is this inevitable?  Does an artist need to turn away from Lakshmi’s coins in order to preserve his creativity intact?  I think not.  Monet lived a happy, bourgeois existence at Giverny, where late in life he produced his lily pond masterpieces.  Picasso also became well-heeled, without any observable dent in his fierce creativity.  These examples demonstrate that the enemy of creativity is not regular income or even wealth.  It is instead a three-pronged affair of laziness, complacency and insecurity or depression.  Any or all of those demons can strike any artist, just as they can strike any spiritual seeker, regardless of whether he or she is rich or poor.

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Almost certainly the hardest spiritual lesson of all is the injunction that we need to overcome all our desires. The teaching is that we should really desire nothing at all, whereas in our daily lives we constantly want one thing or another, moment to moment, every moment, all of the time. This seems like a sort of Godly austerity policy – that we should immediately stop desiring sex, chocolate and our next trip to the mall or the multiplex. What a bummer is that; is God really such a party-pooper?

In a sense, there is nothing wrong with the austerity policy as a spiritual doctrine except that it misses the main point of the teaching. That point is a paradox: if we learn to want nothing, then we will want for nothing. Buddhist and Christian monks alike cast away their possessions because they are trading their desire to possess for the desire to be possessed by God. It is like giving up a heavy material burden and trading it for the gift of light energy.

We have all seen how trapped hoarders are by their possessions. Squeezed into their little caves, surrounded by piles of material debris, they don’t know what to do next or which way to turn. Then, when well-groomed young professionals come to haul away the piles, and the cartloads upon cartloads of stuff come trundling out of the house and into the driveway, air, light and peace finally enter their homes. Their burdens are cast away, replaced by sunny windows and shiny, waxed floors.

Nevertheless, we are a wordly lot and few of us are prepared to take the big step of becoming a monk or a nun. Already I’m thinking about the next movie I want to see, leading up to the 2011 Academy Awards. I want to know what the gods in tuxes and the goddesses in Dior and Versace have come to congratulate themselves about. Does this make me a bad person? And what about all the people, battered by the Great Recession, who can’t even afford bare necessities, let alone indulge their desires to hoard?

Enter Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance and prosperity, gold coins spilling from her fingertips. (For those of you who are disturbed by her goddess status as an affront to monotheism, please remember that she is merely one manifestation or avatar of the one and only God, along with of course Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Kali and a whole host of others. For a complete iconography, please refer to Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.”) Anyway, the most important thing about Lakshmi is that the coins are falling from her fingers; she is not holding on to them. She is giving, not receiving. What Lakshmi seems to be telling us is that she will grant us prosperity provided that we pass it on to others. After all, we talk about money as “cash flows” and “circulation.” Money is a river that either flows through you when things are ‘going right,’ or merely flows around you as if you are a rock in the stream when things are ‘going wrong.’ When the money flow stops due to hoarding by individuals like Scrooge and institutions like “banks that are too big to fail,” everybody suffers. But it is perfectly all right to let Lakshmi’s coins flow through you: you are asking her for prosperity, not for hoarded treasure.

By contrast, what happens when we hoard is given vivid imagery in C.S. Lewis’ “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” from his Narnia series of children’s books. In the movie version, which I recently saw, the voyagers disembark on an island filled with treasure. There in a cave they encounter a limpid pool in which any object you dip turns to gold. No wonder that they discover the solid gold body of one of the lost lords of Narnia lurking just below the surface. Meanwhile, the bratty boy Eustace runs off to find a narrow canyon filled with gold treasure. When he tries to pick up as much of it as he can hold in his hands and cart it away, he is immediately turned into a dragon with coarse golden scales.

As heavy-handed as these mythical warnings are, they teach a valuable lesson about the spiritual uses of money and capital. In order to benefit as many of us as possible and corrupt as few as possible, money is meant to flow freely like the coins in Lakshmi’s fingers. It seems reasonable to conclude, as dear old Benjamin Franklin must have done, that God is not especially interested in any of us becoming Midas, but neither does He prohibit us from sustaining ourselves by wisely saving and spending the money that flows to us. As Hindu philosophers might say, ‘to have what we need to sustain us is enough.’ Just as it is “enough” to be healthy and strong without being a champion bodybuilder, it is enough to prosper without being rich. Spiritual growth is not possible without bodily sustenance and personal well-being. Both rely on Lakshmi’s coins.

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Until reading ROLL AROUND HEAVEN, Jessica Maxwell’s vivid memoir, I had no idea that a straight-up book on spirituality could be a page-turner with as much forward momentum as a psychological thriller. Nor did I know that it could be a comic romp, or as Jessica herself puts it in the subtitle, “An All-True Accidental Spiritual Adventure.” As a former adventure travel and food writer, the first thing Maxwell does in the book is to admit that she bumbled on spirituality, which almost literally came flying at her like a curve ball. Previously she had suffered from an allergy to all things spiritual, due primarily to the cruel treatment one of her aunts had received in a strict church in Texas. Maxwell was keenly aware that talking about spirituality leads inexorably to discussing religion, and discussing religion leads inevitably to arguments about politics. Then her recently dead father’s face suddenly appeared as an enormous, full-color hologram in the sky above her steering wheel, and the look of ecstasy in his eyes was remarkable, given his personality. This event, perhaps a distant echo of Christ’s resurrection, would have been earth-shattering enough, except that Maxwell’s sister was simultaneously treated to the same vision, eleven hundred miles away in Southern California. Jessica’s spiritual career was launched.

ROLL AROUND HEAVEN offers the reader a kaleidoscopic world-wide tour to visit spiritual leaders and highly spiritual places such as Bhutan and the Isle of Iona in the Hebrides, not to mention accidental visitations from the Hindu god Ghanesh. Rarely are Maxwell’s encounters with estimable figures as diverse as Deepak Chopra and Stephen Hawking planned deliberately; in fact Jessica lunched with Chopra in Portland, Oregon but bumped into Hawking in Mumbai! Yet it is perhaps her early encounter with “The Holy Pig Farmer,” one Lory Misel who lives on the foothills of Mount Rainier, that most clearly defines and grounds the book. After reading it, I have had the honor and the privilege of meeting both Jessica Maxwell and Lory Misel, and I can affirm that she is truly a spiritual adventurer and he is indeed one holy pig farmer!

Maxwell’s literary style is a mirror of her personality: it is an open book ready for a myriad of readers to vibrate with and enjoy. Her urgent message is what the world needs most: the declaration that all religions, philosophies and spiritual traditions contain a unifying core of Truth that cannot be tarnished by all the dogma and manipulations that human beings constantly try to wrap around it like a mummy’s sheets. We human beings have already globalized our economies, cultures, and cuisines. Now it is time to take spirituality global. This is the manifesto of ROLL AROUND HEAVEN and also of my own spirituality web-log at http://www.birdofspirit.com. As Maxwell puts it on the book jacket, it is time to “learn an abiding respect for all paths to God.”

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There are three parts to human identity. We have a divine nature, an animal nature, and of course, a human nature. In our daily lives we are constantly navigating like a boat on a river between the animal and divine shores of our nature. The rudder we use to steer the boat is our ego, or the part of our nature that is the most particularly human. Sexual attraction is a universal human trait and so is divine inspiration, although not every person recognizes the spark of divine energy that animates and inspires his soul. What is not universal is the particularity of an individual’s sexual attractions and the particular form in which his or her divine inspiration is expressed, such as through painting, writing, playing a musical instrument, solving equations or counseling and healing others. These particularities, along with the ego that guides them, are our essentially human attributes.

But as we steer our boats down a powerful current between the bank of an animal kingdom to one side and the shoreline of the Kingdom of God on the other, what is our real purpose? Is it to disembark on one bank or the other? Is it to reconcile our animal nature with our divine spark; to join the two banks of the river in a delta of union? Or is it deliberately to navigate an essentially “human” course down the center of the river, avoiding both banks but recognizing their existence? Many people become so entangled in the thicket of their desires that it could be said they have snagged themselves on the shore, where they will henceforth live in ignorance among the animals. Others, when they conceive a child with a beloved partner, temporarily achieve a union between the animal and the divine as they experience the ecstasy of God’s spark passing through their bodies into the waiting egg of a new fetus. Meanwhile, the most holy of us, the saints and the true swamis and yogis, consciously forsake the world to cast their lots entirely with the divine pole of our nature.

Most of us, though, are aware of and equally attracted to both banks of the river without being willing or able to choose one over the other. We are either floating, steering randomly and adrift, or charging deliberately full-speed ahead into white-water rapids with no clear destination in view. In some vague way, this majority of us is affirming our belief that a life predicated on forsaking the world is a life that is not fully lived, because our physical nature is as much a divine gift as our more ethereal divine nature. I do not believe that God intended us to live lives that do not acknowledge, accept and embrace the needs and desires of our bodies and minds. What He does want us to remember, though, is that our bodies are every bit as much a divine gift as our souls. It is just that they are a gift with a limited shelf life, whereas our souls bestow upon us the ultimate gift of immortality. Arriving at the Kingdom of Heaven may be the goal of every virtuously led life, but navigating the river of life is the greatest challenge for our human nature. Only a very few of us know when and where it is right to put in to shore for the last time.

In one of his readings, the famous psychic Edgar Cayce said that we are ancient immortal spirits who were so intrigued by the sights, sounds and smells of God’s Creation that we begged God to let us be born in physical form. When God granted us this wish, we embodied direct consciousness of the divine power that animates the world, but over time we abandoned and forgot the divine source of our creation. That is why now we struggle always to steer our boats away from the wildlife preserve on one side of the river, back toward the divine shore from which we first embarked.

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Christianity teaches us that the Son is co-eternal with the Father and that He is of the same essence as the Father. In this sense, Christ is the only “begotten” Son of God, as C. S. Lewis explains in “Mere Christianity.” The rest of us are created, not begotten, because again according to Christian thought, we are not of the same “essence” as the Father and the Son. In this formulation, a being of one essence can “beget” another being of the same essence, but can only “create” a being of another essence. That is, a man can beget a human baby, as we know from all the “begets” in the Book of Genesis, but he can only create a painting, while God begets Christ but only creates man. It is intriguing to think that atheist existentialists such as Albert Camus came to more or less the same conclusion with their philosophical premise that in all things, essence precedes existence except in man, where existence precedes essence. For example, the idea “chair” preceded the fabrication of the world’s first chair, but man had no idea who he was when he was first born.

In the Christian doctrine, the concept that we are created of a separate essence, not begotten of God’s essence, explains how we could fall way from God after Adam and Eve took a bite from the apple. The purpose of our fallen life thus becomes to find a way back to God. When Christians are “born again,” their souls take on a little part of God’s essence and I believe it is theologically correct to say that they then become for the first time true sons of God, in the example of Christ, if not in His full essence.

This formulation explains the hostility of traditional Christian thinkers to pantheism. In their view, if the universe was a pantheist one, then we all of us would already be the “begotten” sons and daughters of God, rather than merely His creations. Nonetheless, if I examine my own heart, it seems closer to the Truth to stipulate that we are all in fact part of God’s essence; we have simply forgotten it. In other words, our sense of separation from God is more a form of amnesia than the built-in separation that results from distinguishing us as ‘created’ rather than ‘begotten’ beings. In one of his readings, the famous psychic Edgar Cayce speaks of the condition of human life as being analogous to a deep-sea diver in an old-fashioned metal bell helmet who is thrown over the side of a ship to perform a specific mission deep in the ocean. On deck, the sun is out and the waves are calm but down below on the ocean floor, light is all but blocked and the waters are murky with flying silt and dust. After a time, the diver has to struggle to remember why he is down in the ocean and what first he set about to do there.

In this parable, the ship’s deck and sunny ocean surface represent heaven or God’s Light—our true home—while the diving suit represents the human body and the ocean floor is symbolic of the physical plane we only inhabit for a short time. Hence, in Cayce’s reading, it is the diver’s amnesia, caused by the murky illusions in the watery depths, that chases him away from his sense of belonging to God, not the fact that he is a diver instead of, say, an angel.

In the traditional monotheist Christian view, our purpose in life is to transcend our mortal identities as beings of clay created by God. On the other hand, in the mystical vision of Cayce as well as in the pantheist Hindu tradition, our purpose is more directly to remember who we really are: that we are already divine beings, but we suffer from forgetting our divinity. The parallel conclusions of both religions are striking, as evidenced by these two quotations, one from C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity,” and one from Paramahansa Yogananda in “Autobiography of a Yogi:”

“Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfil the only purpose for which they were created? Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God?” -C.S. Lewis (Book 4, Chapter 10)

“Man’s forgetfulness of his divine resources (the result of his mis-use of free will) is the root cause of all other forms of suffering.” -Paramahansa Yogananda (Chapter 49).

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Truth is like a mountain. There is only one mountain, but there are many paths up its slopes. All of our human religions and philosophies, even sciences and even atheism, are paths up the mountain. They are all equal because although they appear so different at each trailhead, whichever one you choose, they all converge at the summit. MANY PATHS, ONE MOUNTAIN: Awakening to Your Personal Spiritual Journey explores my own personal truths from an interfaith perspective, and hopefully offers a deeper reflection on universal Truth. The first two chapters and synopsis are available as PDF’s on the home page of www.birdofspirit.com.

Thought for the day: Life is but a dream. But it is not a pipe-dream – it is a dream with meaning.

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There is only one Truth, but there are many religions.  Ultimate truth may be beyond human comprehension, but most of us would agree that Truth is an absolute:  we balk at the notion that it is relative or that it varies from place to place, time to time or person to person.  Another way to put it is that there is only one God.  All the major religions agree on this point, even as their conceptions of God may vary.  All of the social and political conflicts between human religions can be ascribed to the notion of religious exclusivity:  most religions claim to know the Truth exclusively, that is to the exclusion of all other religions. 

But since we tend to agree that Truth is an absolute, isn’t it more accurate merely to say that each religion recognizes or expresses different aspects of the one Truth?  Truth is like a perfect diamond that casts brilliant reflections in different directions.  Since one might say that God is Truth, the same thing may also be said about God.  For example, Christianity sees or visualizes three facets of the diamond in the form of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Rather than referring to these “Persons” as the Trinity, C.S. Lewis preferst to call them “the three-personal God.”   But ancient Jewish midrash discovered and described many additional facets or aspects of God and Hinduism is replete with vivid and seemingly infinite mythical manifestations of His presence, gods and goddesses that are actually facets of the One God. 

Since these Hindu figures can be bewildering to a Westerner, the three-personal God of Christianity is a valuable representation to many of us.  It is easy and even at times transformational for us to understand the concept of the Father and the Son, but I for one always got bogged down when the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit was mentioned.  However, when Lewis says in Mere Christianity that the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son and that this love, co-eternal with Christ, is therefore an equal Third Person with them, the perfection of the Trinity as a powerful symbol and representation of God becomes much more evident to me.

Because all of us perceive different aspects of the Truth, each one of us tends to be drawn toward one particular religion if we are drawn to religion at all.  Of course, many of us are brought up in the culture of one of the religions and this group of people sees no reason to question their religion as a birth-right.  Personally, I am in the company of others who see merit in many religions and therefore find it difficult or unnecessary to choose one.  Those who do make a conscious choice, say to be baptized or to adopt a Buddhist practice of meditation, would argue that the rest of us are merely permanent seekers.  If we never find, adopt and embrace our preferred refraction of Truth by clothing ourselves in the mantle of one religion, they would say that we never achieve the deeper spiritual growth that wearing such a mantle can offer.  What is quite clear, though, is that there are many religions and philosophical paths one may choose to follow, but there is only one Mountain of Truth.

While each religion can be said to observe only one of the reflections of the Diamond, there is one point upon which all religions appear to agree, beyond a basic consensus around the Oneness of God.  This point of agreement is that we must kill our ego or our “little self” in order to find God.  The Muslims say that we must surrender to God.  Gautama the monk struggled hard to triumph over his ego – he had to kill it or find a way for it to die in order to become Buddha.  Christians who are truly Born Again, as opposed to those charlatans who are egotistical enough simply to claim that status, are born again because their lower self – the pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding self that is not part of Christ’s essence–has been destroyed.  When you accept that Christ is your Savior or that God is the pilot of your life, you are relinquishing the control that your ego has fought tooth and nail to keep for itself.  Eckhart Tolle speaks of the intense fear his ego had around losing control before he achieved his Awakening.  C.S. Lewis speaks of men as tin toy soldiers whom only Christ can awaken to real Life, soldiers that would really prefer to remain made of tin. 

It appears that whatever path you decide to follow up the Mountain, in order to reach the summit you will have to relinquish your reigns or your walking stick to the Mountain itself.  In other words, you have to understand you are mortal in order to realize that You are immortal.  The little self must die so that the Higher Self (Hinduism) or Christ-self (Christianity) can live eternally.  Only the soul is immortal; not the body, including its seat of government, the brain and its ego.

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