Entering the Dialogue, Part 1

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Course Ideas

The desire to write manifests as follows: a warmth in my chest accompanied by the sense of possibility, and the awareness something wants to be said, though I don’t know what it is. Last night I discovered and read an e-mail exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky that was published a few years ago. I’d been listening to some of Sam’s podcasts lately, and discovered the two men’s correspondence. I’m not expert on either man’s ideas, but reading and listening led me down to the water’s edge so to speak, to the cool, moonlit stream of my own curiosity, and now I want to drink. I want to explore this feeling I don’t yet understand.

I want to say that this piece is my response to my own impressions, and has nothing to do with the positions either writer has taken. This is like walking into a forest and sensing something in the position of trees and the weight of the light, and stopping to jot a few notes about what it is. While sketching out this moment, the mind supplies a memory to accompany this spacious awareness, the way wine is paired to fish or grouse or tenderloin. So this piece is a reminiscing with my own heart. The e-mails I read have merely nudged me along.

* * * * *

Many of us would like to see the world become a better place. We may be angry about how some things are going, or frightened of the changes we see and the unknown into which those changes might usher us. There is foreboding in the air, a sense that we’re addicted to choices we know don’t ultimately serve us. And whether your life is one of relative comfort or one of considerable earthly difficulty, the fact remains in either case that when circumstance is stripped away, knowing what to do—being confident in one’s own response to a world which is at times so overwhelming—is a luxury few have ever known.

Not knowing what to do can be crippling because ultimately it is a symptom of not knowing or trusting one’s own heart. This occurs when mind and heart have not joined, when the mind’s logic and the heart’s knowing shear painfully against one another. In essence, when we are conflicted within. A Course in Miracles describes this condition in Workbook Lesson 257 (W-257.1.), saying, “If I forget my goal I can be but confused, unsure of what I am, and thus conflicted in my actions.” (The goal of course is a peaceful heart, unity with all creation, and the gifts of a forgiven world.) It is common when we feel this way to look to others for support and guidance—for safety in another’s knowing. There are many options in the marketplace of ideas today, more than ever perhaps, and what I find is that I can be swept along by the attraction of thinkers who exude confidence and an apparently consistent structure of thought. In particular I’m drawn to work that expands my awareness of a topic, that offers a fresh perspective (at least to me), and that suggests novel solutions to our problems.

There is nothing inherently wrong with bringing new ideas to the mind, and I’d say it is ultimately both healthy and necessary, but at the same time I’ll observe that if we enter the flow of ideas in a conflicted, and thus weakened condition, it is all too easy to let another’s recommendation supersede the knowing of our own heart. I’m going to suggest that this type of outward reliance merely sustains our ineffectual condition, and by extension a certain type of powerlessness. For that is what the conflicted state truly is: a powerless one.

A Course of Love (T2:7.10-11) speaks to this directly: “…[O]nce you have become happier with who you are, you will, if left un-schooled, turn your attention to others and to situations you would have be different than they are. You will want to be a change-agent. You will want to move into the world and be an active force within it. These are aims consistent with the teachings of this Course, but what will prevent you from following the patterns of old as you go out into the world with your desire to effect change? The only thing that will prevent this is your ability to go out into the world and remain who you are.”

There is something that happens, as it did when I read the exchange between Sam and Noam, that looks like this: when we see a disagreement—whether between two news channels, two friends, two pundits we admire, two dissenting movie critics or two spiritual teachers who’ve helped us, etc.—we feel a pressure to determine who we think is right. And not only do we feel this considerable pressure which the world brings to bear with great and immediate intensity, we feel a related pressure to explain our decision. There is something quite close to a social contract which says that for anything we might choose to advocate for, or actually do, we must have our reasons. They should be logical and defensible, and these choices and their reasons should be ones most any decent person could adopt. Otherwise we’re crazy.

And here is where it comes apart I think, because if our reasons are those of another–if they are not the reasons of our own heart–then when the spotlight finally shines upon us we falter. We find the reasons we’ve taken on are but flimsy shields that burn up in our reentry to the conflict. We cannot effectively make another’s response our own and place it at our center, because ultimately we cannot supersede our own hearts, so we find we are still empty there, alone and uncertain. There is nothing within us to give while we depend on another for our response to this world—no wellspring of life at the center of us that could not only sustain us individually, but which has as its only true desire the sustenance of all creation. We may embody great emotional intensity and seem quite profoundly alive, when in fact we are merely burning with conflict—consuming ideas like fuel to stoke our fire, to distract from or perhaps even to reenact the real conflict within, and to forge a moment of personal meaning.

There is, in wholeheartedness, by contrast, the gift of knowing who we are and what we would offer now. There is a perfect accord between what we know, what we would give, and the actions or non-actions into which this abundance would flow, and there is in the experience of this unification a reinforcement not only of our own inner validity as a being, but of the innermost validity of all other beings as well. In addition we are able to engage the world not only while remaining who we are, but by becoming even more of who we are. There is a holy source within us that receives even as we give, and the resulting dynamic, or exchange, is called “creation.” It is not the process of making right, or being right, or even knowing right in the eyes of others necessarily. It is the culmination and liberation of all that is—arising uniquely in you, in me, and in all who choose to participate.

(To be continued…)


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Remembering perfectly,
so that you produce the type of knowing
that actually yields light,
does not take practice.
But you do need to clear a space.
Give it time, and allow it to happen.

I left home once, you see—
pulled the door softly-to behind me
so the others wouldn’t be woken.
Clapped my hands in the cold
and breathed into their midst.
The night was so thick
you could smell the absence of light.

Soon I was lost.
Solitude ramified from an interesting idea—
the thought of an innocent adventure,
the word swashbuckling comes to mind—
into a hoary, compounding decrepitude.
You’d think a reversal
would return you to the beginning,
a careful retracing of footfalls.
Just rewind the film.
But it doesn’t work like that.
There’s a step in there you don’t
even realize when it happens
and that’s because it’s a portal.
It must be.
The channel on some universal television gets changed.
A snoozing god rolled over onto the remote control
and hit the wrong button and you were in there
when it happened.
Now you don’t want to panic,
but these things do happen.
The obvious answer is to gather facts.
Construct a system of knowledge generation.
Identify that button.

A mysterious force was holding me to the land,
which I found was emitting fibers.
By plucking fistfuls of the grass
and shoving them in my pockets,
I hoped later to produce a rope.
My initial attempts were like wads of wet clay.
But I learned.
There was also a wind.
The direction into the wind, I called up.
The other direction down.

I bumped into a woman once
who was standing in a spot she’d chosen
for reasons that of course do not exist
and she was readying herself to sing—
what is singing?—
and we were both surprised by one another,
and famished for a feeling we’d forgotten,
and we touched each other’s faces
in the darkness that held no light,
and like two pieces of flint we rubbed together
and produced a spark—
at least in our minds.
We thought we remembered something
and our tears were quite gladdening.

But it happened really fast.
And then it was gone.
And then she sang.

Afterwards I showed her I was trying to make rope
and she showed me a sail she’d made
from leaves—what are leaves!?
so we’d always know the direction
of the wind and we could navigate
and eventually we found others
who were digging ditches because
ditches don’t fill in for some reason
in this place
and with rope and ditches you could
expand from a common center and find
your way back which is what we all agreed
was what we’d always wanted
and like a society of civilized folk
we shared our measurements
and plied them together into a network
and like pieces of flint we rubbed together
sometimes in different ways, what with our talking and touching
and occasionally sparking ideas,
and once in a while blazed with rememories.

Once I was out way at the end of a ditch
and my heart shuddered with feeling
and the smell went away— which, as you know,
smells always go away, especially if they’re prevalent,
like the manure of animals,
or the off-gassing of wood and paint and carpet,
or the absence of light itself,
so it was hard to explain what I meant
by “the smell went away”—
but the absence of that smell
nearly wilted me, and my heart shuddered,
and pure knowing carved out a space in this land
in which the face of Hafiz appeared,
smiling of course, with flash cards.

The first one was a house. It looked very familiar.
I began to weep of course,
for reasons that simply don’t exist.
While afterward I shook like a fire hose
pressed suddenly into service,
in that moment I was a little awestruck by the light
of his twinkling eyes
and so I whispered to Hafiz, where is that house?
which Mitch, who was working beside me,
swears to this day was said to the darkness and nothing else,
which happens sometimes because as you can imagine
going so long in the smell of light’s absence
can cause your mind to improperly signify
sensory inputs—
to which Hafiz replied, “You’ve never left.”

And I felt an electric jab in my cortex
and up and down my spine and I tried—
Oh, believe me, I tried—
to remember which door I’d shut
when I went out for my little adventure,
because maybe it was an inside door
and not an outside door,
but I couldn’t remember.
I just, I just…
I can only remember that click.
The smell of light’s absence.
The pressing of a strange button.

The second flash card read as follows:
“There are no outside doors.”

Then the fire hose thing.

Mitch dragged me back to the clinic.
He was very heroic and he probably
saved my life, since I was thinking—
not really, actually,
I wasn’t thinking anything,
but basically the way the story is told
is that Mitch, by dragging me back to the clinic,
produced a chain of events for which
I should be very grateful.
They’re running lots of tests on me,
and they’re going to help me.
But once in a while, I catch the absence of the scent of the absence of light.
And I wonder, how do you retrace
that step that wasn’t a step?

How do you see through the darkness again,
if it doesn’t really exist? And why am I trying to see
with my nose?

A Tap on the Glass

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For meditation this morning (for how else would you describe it) I read the last fifty pages of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Then I walked the mile to the town library and collected some new pages to consider.

On the way back I passed a yellow farmhouse—the tractor and the corn wagon were parked across the street in a field of pending silage—where I heard a knocking hand against glass. I looked up to see a child, little more than a baby, pressed against the window. Bleached blonde hair and fair skin, a square head, and curious eyes were set in the lower corner of the white trim frame on the second story of this butter-colored house.

I smiled. I had two hardbacks in my hand, wrapped in their glossy covers. Two authors I’ve not read before. A brimming excitement.

I kept walking, and the child tapped again. And again I looked up and smiled, turning back over my shoulder this time before I disappeared into the eaves of a tree.

The child tapped again.

Has there been a more exquisite moment? Ever?

I was thinking, after just completing To the Lighthouse, that atheism and a certain breed of mysticism—an ecstatic consciousness as one writer described it—do not appear to be mutually exclusive, at least in the hands of Virginia Woolf. One does not need to invoke any particular religious trappings to savor the ecstatic whorl of an oar dipped in the current, to extend a feeling of warmth across the waters to a drifting man, to contact the rush of loneliness that sneaks in and leaves us winded, that lingers in the corners of a room, of a mind, of a place—in the stitching of cloth, the hues and contours of flowers, the positions of empty chairs.

I loved the way thought dips and soars in this book. It settles on a branch, quivers along its body then plunges into the sky, in every direction at once—a shimmering, croaking cloud of wings—swoops, then alights again, coalescing upon a wire. Now a line. Now a thicket of longing and wonder. Now the two persons along the path, their futures uncertain, the sky tenuous and sparkling. The rush of water against the rocks down below.

What I love is that this imminence is the thing itself, in Woolf’s writing. At least for me it is. It is not reducible to explanation. The characters are all adrift in this brilliant tumble. As we are. And I think if we could just have this, if we could just let it be and not pick at it, and not insist that it is equivalent to this or that underlying progression of digital commutations of which the world is composed, we would be alright.

If the play of the sun on leaves and the warble of a bird’s knowing could just be what they are, we could discover the extravagant, all-encompassing solitude that occupies the middle—the space between a world reducible to atoms, or reducible to God, and illumination could find us. We could transcend the franchises that occupy and cordon our thought. Our knowing. For there is a sort of knowing that is all at once, isn’t there?

I think there must be something real in the tenor and tremble of our experience. An irreducible might—a silent, shining vision. Something that can reach through a child leaning against a knee-high pane of glass, and tap on the window as we stroll along, to say hello.

Forgetting So Fast

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Hafiz and I were up
on the widow’s walk
beneath a flaming sky
prancing to and fro,
lunging, parrying,
regaling the light with
our imagined swordplay
when his foot slipped
unexpectedly on a pebble
some bird had set there as a gift
and my blade plunged
into his belly and he gasped,
and tumbled off the edge of the roof.

I found him draped
over the hedge with his leg
cocked behind his back
and I nudged him
but his body was cold
so I went into the house
and prepared him a cup of tea
but his leg was cocked
behind his back and his eyes
were fixed on nowhere
and he obviously didn’t drink it
and the next morning
he was still there
with butterflies sleeping
on his dew-soaked pant leg.

The sun moved across the sky that day
like a tanker crawling up the river
and a blackbird landed on Hafiz’ head
and sang a dirge
and I began to weep and to wonder
what we were really doing up there
and if I’d actually killed the man.

By nightfall I felt a mighty blackness
and a blanched wondering about all
the days we’d spent together and
what this world really was and
my coffee tasted like dirt and
my breathing became labored
and I felt the pain of having fouled-up
so many things and there I was,
caught holding the bag of it all
wondering how sore I would be
after I dug the grave
and if I could really do it.
Do any of this.

In the middle of the night I went out
to check on him but he was gone,
and then I saw him crouched in the field
near a cluster of deer
who were feeding on the leaves of small trees
where the meadow met the forest
as if all of time was in each sprig
and in their skin and their bodies
and the gentle knowing
that ripples their skin when the wind shifts
and then he stood, and the moon shone
on his back, and he walked into the trees.

And I wept, of course,
and I thought if you want to love
really love
then sometimes you have to let your games
open you up and stand you alone
in the space of your own life
and see what you feel when no one is looking
and I went inside and made a cup of tea
and that’s when I found the note.

I haven’t seen you in days
and I’ve been looking all over
in the laundry room and under the couch
and in that dark space
under the basement stairs,
so I’ve gone to get some friends
to try and wake you from this dream.

Smile, you nut, so we can find you.

PS – I left an air horn on the roof
that could wake a saint from the dead
but I guessed you missed it.

What I Believe and Why, Part 6

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Christ / Course Ideas

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

I want to close this series by stating that I believe Love, and expressions of Love, are all that truly exist. When I say that expressions of Love truly exist, I mean that they endure, they are timeless in a sense, they add unto the eternal fabric of being, they open pathways to new modes of being, and they enrich all aspects of being simultaneously.

What might be said is that this doesn’t square with our experience.

Most ideas we’ve had of God and man have been incorrect, often disastrously so, but they’ve simply been concepts. They’re easily shown to be inconsistent and conflicted, and more importantly, I think these represent a superficial dilemma as compared to the one with which we all must grapple: the fact that how we perceive of ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves directly influences the nature of our experience. Not only that, it influences the type of world we create. The real challenge I see is that it is impossible for a mind with a perceptual orientation to find logical fault with the integrity of the subsequent experience. This is the nature of a mind. It constructs its reality.

We don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit for our ability to shape experience into a consistent structure. This has nothing to do with ideas of God and man, or any philosophy whatsoever; nor does it have anything to do with being disingenuous, or with intelligence, or with any vice or characteristic we know we possess. This simply has to do with the way we assign meaning to experience, and the way those assignments create closed systems of evidence-based perception. Those who would manipulate facts and those who would uphold an integrity of scholarship are equally subject to the conditions of the mind and its inherent ability to form self-referencing structures of experience and perception. Our minds, in essence, are projection engines.

I watched the movie My Cousin Rachel this weekend and it’s an interesting study in this regard. It’s one of those movies in which the evidence seems to be stacking up in one direction, but then a single insight changes everything, and then all the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. Back and forth it goes without any final resolution, and this, at a much more powerful scale, is what I mean. It is impossible to make a final determination about which perception is correct—even when the two perceptions could not be more diametrically opposed—without more information, but the core perception (or worldview) at work engenders evidence only of itself.

I could suggest that only Love and its expressions are truly real, but then we would look together upon an instance of suffering and say that it cannot be so. If Love is real and it leads to this, then we must have been wrong about Love entirely. And if Love isn’t what we thought, of what value is it then? The other alternative is that our perception of suffering was incorrect. But if this isn’t suffering that I look upon, then I don’t know what is… Call it what you will, it’s a terrible thing.

When we look upon suffering it is not so easy as it is in fiction to introduce a new insight, a flash of evidence, that changes everything. We can’t imagine a reinterpretation of the Holocaust that leaves us all relieved. I will not try. But I will say this: there is a condition of perception that must exist for minds to enact such an event, and in such a condition it is not possible to experience the reality of Love’s presence. And that same condition of perception applies to children fighting over a toy, or adults fighting over the price of a car, foreign trade deals, or the primacy of ideas that populate our scientific publications. If these examples are different, it is only by degree, and we are mistaken when we think that difference by degree is real difference. Difference by degree has a stranglehold on our world.

There are really only two forms of perception—one that is based on the idea we are each fundamentally separate beings, that each us can truly gain even as another loses, and one that is based on the idea that we are fundamentally joined, or unified. Only one of them can be true, and I’ll suggest it is the sort of distinction we cannot make on the basis of external evidence alone:  principally because the world we occupy—the closed loop of mental interpretation—can return the experience of either one; and second, because one cannot choose both at once.

So what I believe is that the suffering we experience in our world is the product of our perception of, (and belief in), our separateness. This perception is very real (in the sense that it is available to be experienced). Its logic is crystal clear and self-reinforcing with the world as evidence, and it informs choices and conditions whose ramifications are far more reaching in their extents than we would guess. That this mode of perception lies at the root of suffering is not, in my opinion, because of the whim or failure of some God, but because it is the closest thing to a natural law that I can imagine. Let me be clear: this law is not the idea that a belief in separation is met with suffering for any whimsical or moral or consciously elected reason, but simply because separateness is the condition of suffering. The perception of separateness produces all of the conditions and inner orientations that are necessary for suffering to occur.

What is amazing to me—miraculous really—is that the world can also return the experience of unity. And what I have faith in, because I have experienced it in various microcosmic ways in my own life, is that as we make this choice together, new conditions arise that will allow us to experience the world in a new way. Most importantly, suffering will be relieved, if not eradicated completely.

I want to work towards an ending here by saying this is the wisdom I perceive in the myth of Jesus’ life. For me the stories of Jesus are probably as much or more mythical than factual, but in a world whose fundamental nature lies in the eye of the beholder, myth and fact are interwoven. It’s a distinction that doesn’t ultimately matter. The world is our story as we’ve chosen to perceive it. And what I see in Jesus is a person making the ultimate point about unity to those he loves: take my body if you wish, take what you perceive my life to be, and observe that there is nothing I will lose. I will still be with you. I will still love you. I stand here, though you know not what you do, to keep the way open, so that no being will forever be caught in the web of their misperception. It is a beautiful and complete giving, or relinquishing, of what is perceived as most valuable in the perception of separateness.

The bottom line is this: if separateness and the conditions it engenders are an accurate reflection of reality, and not merely a perceptual choice, then suffering cannot be overcome. It is built-in. In this case forgiveness is a futile, ineffectual practice and the world forever belongs to the strong. Kindness is perhaps a collective management strategy, a productive meme. We may manage this world by degrees, by patrolling carefully its position on the slope, by herding ourselves towards niceties and conventions that establish a “civilized” cultural position, but its fundamental nature is and will be one of strife, of difference, of scarcity and of fear. There will always be those at the margins, those we leave behind that our civilized ship might proceed. Those we would keep out of sight, out of mind, over there somewhere. In the world that separateness engenders, this isn’t a moral choice, it’s in many ways a necessary one. It arises from the limits of what is known. I believe unity offers a completely different proposition. But if unity, on the other hand, is a valid alternative, what prevents us from choosing it? What must be given up?

I’ve found the gap between these two perceptions is both razor thin and almost inconceivably difficult to cross, for what a person must give up to cross the gap is everything of value in the prevailing worldview. To leave the shores of separateness a person must consider an orientation in which the suffering that was previously perceived is reframed as a temporary sand-shifting backstopped by a higher condition of timeless unity. A person must consider an orientation in which suffering may be truly forgiven, and is logically and rightfully forgiven, because nothing is lost at the physical level—only enacted. I believe this is the illusion spoken of throughout ancient times and in various spiritual traditions today: the illusion is that the world we perceive in separateness is the root of our identity, and of value. We are finite, temporal phenomena in the illusion. We must grab hold of this world while we can. But unity transcends the temporal and material order, and anchors all that exists in Love itself. This perceptual shift therefore requires a complete reorientation of identity and of value.

The good news I think is that we each have a heart, a heart that has never forgotten unity, a heart that knows the way. And as our hearts and minds wrestle within us, and as events wash over us and we respond to them, as circumstance churns us up anew, as we cling to the known and subsist on what we find there, and as we gain or lose little by little over the course of our lives and watch those around us gain and lose, still the heart does not forget. I’ve heard people say that if God and the Judgment Day and all of that aren’t real, then nobody really loses by having gotten on board with the idea. But if it’s all real, then look how much is gained: an eternal life on the good side of the line. But this is separateness talking. It’s hogwash, bunk, and bluster. I don’t believe there is a God who requests or demands our allegiance, or that the lives we seek are anywhere but here. We seek to heal the world that is here now, the one we live in today, and that our children live in, and the reason to step across the gap is not that it will be good for you, but that it’s conceivable you do it for everyone. You are everyone, in a sense. You are more powerful than you thought. You carry the hopes of everyone within you. You do it not for your personal self, but for your unified self—for the identity in which we all share, for every mind that still suffers.

So what I believe is quite simple. I believe that Love and unity are real, that the choice for Love is possible, that the world need not be as it is, and that you and I will do this–that we have done this, and that we are here now, to remember what we’ve done.

(And lastly, many thanks to all who’ve stuck around to read these absurdly long posts!)

What I Believe and Why, Part 5

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Course Ideas / Reflections

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

When I was a boy who needed to be in nearly continuous motion on long summer days, lest I become bored and try to rappel off the porch using a clothesline, or hitch the family dog to my bicycle so we could pretend we lived in a Jack London novel, I went (briefly) to a summer camp about thirty miles east of Birmingham. I was dropped off at the YMCA and a beat-up yellow bus scooped us up and took us out to the country. I always thought there was nothing at that exit except for this camp and its bad pimento cheese sandwiches, but it turned out there was a church on a hill, and down the street and around the corner, a ranch style house where a decade and change later I’d sit around a fire and listen to a Native American elder give teachings.

I don’t remember too many of the stories now, but I do remember some of this elder’s hanbleceya (vision quest) stories, one when a rattlesnake came shortly after he was put up and laid just at the edge of his prayer ties (the boundary of his site) until just before his mentor came to pick him up (several days later), when it slithered away. Another when, after nearly five days without food or water, when he was weakened and slipping away, prayers were made in camp that lifted him back to his feet. There were stories of being taken places and shown things, of receiving gifts and visions that mattered not only to the individual, but to the community. The most important aspect of the event was the feeling it engendered within me: the sensation that this person was in some sort of relationship with the world, with what he described as “the spirits”, with the Creator, and the Earth. I knew nothing about these things but felt a hunger for this call and response with the unknown. Jesus clearly had this, in the stories that were told of his life, and I was excited to find a living example of this type of connection, in the present, and not just in historical accounts.

A few years later I ended up in this elder’s camp up in Maine, where several people were doing hanbleceya, and a year or two later, after being in camp and tending fire and participating in a support role, my heart got the better of me, and I jumped in the frying pan, too. My first experiences in ceremony in general, and with hanbleceya in particular, were intensely difficult. It is impossible, I think, to explain the way that ceremony works, but it is a little like putting your life beneath a magnifying glass. You hardly realize it is happening. What you experience is a heightening of all your inner conditions, a graceful unfolding of your being. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and this process of being peeled open remains in many ways the most “real” thing I ever experienced. It was completely invisible, and yet, it was a subtle accentuation of my desires, withholdings, doubts and dreams that lifted them to the fore where they could be seen consciously and examined.

Instead of being greeted by affirming mystical experiences of the type I’d heard others having, or that I’d read about, my initial encounters were marked by tremendous uncertainty and doubt. By silence. I felt my own cowardice. At times I felt shattered—confused and incapable. While my heart was profoundly committed, my mind couldn’t make sense of it. I had these ideas of Jesus, of Buddhism, of ceremony, of things that felt good and true, and of myself all swirling around. But they didn’t quite align in my head, and I didn’t know, intellectually, if I could give complete trust to the process.

There were a lot of traditions in the hanbleceya ceremony that I initially resisted, and there were some experiences people shared I really couldn’t square with. They felt a little too self-aggrandizing, or fantastic. But there were also people who were close to me that shared beautiful experiences that nearly overwhelmed me with their grace. One person, who was not raised Christian, had a couple of encounters with Jesus while doing vision quest that echoed profoundly in his life. Jesus didn’t want this person to become a Christian; he wanted to help him care for his son while he navigated a difficult divorce. He wanted him to live a little easier, a little fuller, a little less afraid.

Each year that I participated in ceremony the distinctions between the sorts of experiences and encounters that sacred space could hold and those of the world to which I returned afterwards, became increasingly stark. Returning home was literally like moving from a world of color to black-and-white, and the feeling lasted sometimes for several weeks. It was marked by grief, by a strange idleness, by intense dreams, until the doorway closed and the day-to-day returned to prominence. All the most intense dreams of my life that I remember came while this doorway was open.

While I participated in ceremony there was this tension between giving myself as fully as possible, and trying to remain in control of things. What happened is the tension would build to almost a fever pitch prior to the time of ceremony, and then once you were in it you had no choice but to surrender. It was only then that the beauty and love imbued in the entire process would step forward to carry you. Eventually I realized it was there the entire time, every moment of every day, but prior to the moment of complete surrender my mind had this tremendous power to paint over the top of it. That is our daily life for the most part—a mental encrustation, a self-spun narrative overlaid upon what is really active within us. It is really difficult to assess this on our own. I’m not sure we can assess this on our own, really. Not that we need another person necessarily, or a guru or anything, but we need the relationship of heart and mind together. We need what comes through the doorway of commitment and surrender, through a genuine desire to know, and a willingness to be taught. It emerges in its own way, but we must be listening.

The power of the hanbleceya experience for me was the cure it provided to this inner conflict. You can’t really bring yourself to spend two, three, four days at a time, alone in a fixed location in the woods without food or water, if you’re heart isn’t in it. What I discovered was that I instinctively found myself making the time a devotion to everything, to everyone. It was the only approach that felt pure and unselfish in any way, and I needed that purity to summon complete commitment. I think at some level the prayer that is for everything and everyone at once is the only true prayer there is. There are certainly personal prayers, but I found the most fluid encounters with Love, with giving and receiving, came from letting go of everything. In a way I set my life aside for that time; in other ways I never felt more alive than when I did so. When you give of yourself completely, the suffering just fades. You are met with your response. You are carried.

The first year I was put up, it was for one day and one night. It should have been easy, but it was the most difficult of the years that I participated in this ceremony. I had a lot of big ideas for myself. When I came back into camp, utterly defeated and a little shell-shocked, I knew there was no way I would be able to keep my commitment and come back the next three years, building up to four days and four nights of fasting. I knew there were conflicts within myself I didn’t know how to resolve. There were fears and doubts and difficulties I couldn’t see through on my own, and that I wouldn’t be able to endure for such durations. I could hardly stand being alone with myself for more than a few seconds at a time as it was. It was a little like being haunted by my own ghost, by this daunting corona of falsehood that encumbered my persona. In some ways it would be fair to say I hated myself, for getting myself into this pickle in the first place, for not living up to some ideal, for not having taken my foot off the damn gas and just surfed along the top of life with a little lighter touch.

A month later I was in a bookstore and I picked up A Course in Miracles. I recognized immediately the sort of wisdom that would allow my mind to embrace this new experience, and to align with my heart, though I wouldn’t have used such words at the time. Our minds are not wrong in their quest for order and for logic, but without the heart they cannot discern the true from the false. Every perception seems equivalent when weighed by the intellect alone, including those that lead to darkness and isolation. A Course in Miracles was about observing the attachments, meanings and perceptions that we overlay on things, and how they block our ability to connect with the presence of Love.

So for the next three or four years I practiced the teachings of the Course almost daily, and somehow they merged effortlessly with my experiences in the sacred space of ceremony. I discovered a holiness vast enough to hold all of the ideas I’d encountered along the way. It was as if all the technicalities of the various paths or teachings simply lost their attraction, and the purity of each one emerged together. I’m not sure this can be accomplished intellectually; it was more of a melting down in the root of experience that occurred. Much of the mind’s difficulty is with definition, with taxonomy and concepts. These entangle us.

Intellectually I found the principles of the Course held up effortlessly with what I had briefly experienced of Buddhism, and with my ideas of Jesus as a loving being with a non-judgmental and all-embracing view of humanity, and with the Native American teachings into which I’d immersed myself. I felt I had something real in my hands, in my heart, in my mind. Something that could answer any question. But at the same time it was something nearly incommunicable. It’s like you discover a great treasure, but it has no liquidity.

In the closing piece of this series I want to talk about the one core idea that I think puts each of our journeys into perspective, and also gives a rational doorway, or point of entry, into the possibility that Love is real. (I may even say what I believe! Ha!)

A Writing Update: The Wheel Turns

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I’m taking a brief break from the What I Believe series to announce that my short story entitled On a Night in Shelby County was named as an Editor’s Pick in this year’s Literary Contest at Solstice Literary Magazine, and was posted this weekend. I also learned a couple of weeks ago that a story I wrote this spring was a named finalist in this year’s Fiction Contest at Salamander Magazine. So little by little, the wheel turns.

The editors at Solstice were a joy to work with, and really helped bring the most out of this piece. I’ve read all the stories from the last two issues of Solstice over the past month and enjoyed them very much. The stories really are diverse, imaginative and insightful. I feel very fortunate my story found a home there.

Because it is not possible to submit work for review after publishing it on a blog (or any platform really), I’ve been unable to share publicly the writing I’ve been working on this past year and a half or so. So I’m really excited to have the chance to do so now, at least with this one piece. I hope if you have the time you’ll check it out, (and some others, too!), and if you do, I hope you enjoy.

What I Believe and Why, Part 4

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Course Ideas / Reflections

[Part 1]

[Part 2]

[Part 3]

I realize I’ve been slow in getting to the point. About what I believe. You’ll want a point to all this, I know. Three, four, five parts. At least. You’d be crazy to read it all. It’s clearly a little self-indulgent, but on the other hand I don’t think the what matters so much as the how or why, maybe. The process. The route.

I probably can’t actually tell you what I believe, which is pretty much the same thing as saying, this… this is who I am. I can only try and bring you up to speed with the passing train, so we can have a moment gliding along together that isn’t too herky-jerky. Then you can at least say you have an idea what it’s like on that train. Inside that one car. At least you can say you’ve seen what’s hidden in the corners—the empty wrappers, the broken bottles, the notebooks and scraps of paper piled in heaps, bathed in slatted light. The stranger standing in the doorway, his pitch black profile against the passing world.

Then you’ll get off, the train’ll chug along. I might die believing something a little different than I do today. I might be someone different entirely by then. Belief is dynamic, like gusts of wind swirling around a canyon. But what I’m interested in is the canyon, I think.

I’m listening to my first RL Burnside album while I write this; it’s good train music. The chords are clapping their hands and stomping their feet; the faces inside them are turned up to the sun; the odd cloud is moving perpendicular to the train. Crosswise. The train moves crosswise to the ties, parallel to the rails. Crosswise music drives it along.

I just realized the Black Keys song “Gone So Long” that I love, from their first album, was a recreation of the RL Burnside song “Skinny Woman.” I never knew that, but it’s indisputable. I thought I heard something similar here. Does that mean the Black Keys believe in RL Burnside? I don’t know.

I believe in them both. Check them out. Give them each about 70 seconds and it pretty much comes into focus…

When you hear a thing from several different sources, it tends to lend a little validity to the idea put forth. It’s hard to know sometimes, though, if people are just copying one another and getting nowhere fast. Another thing that happens is a whole system of perception gets built around a core idea or two, and that system becomes as big as the world, and then when something comes along that doesn’t fit you have to try and make sense of the whole thing all over again. Sometimes the system comes down. Rarely. Sometimes you develop a way of explaining a thing that’s different than you originally thought. It’s because you need consistency. You need a view that isn’t fractured and discontinuous.

The idea that Jesus was a good person who meant something good for everyone never left me. But there’s a whole lotta’ crap that got piled on later that doesn’t compute. And then there was this Buddhist idea of illusions. I got myself wrapped around the axle pretty good some days.

I went to the Auburn University swimming pool one afternoon because I thought swimming would be an interesting way to remind my vascular system I was depending on it. My parents had just gotten divorced, within the last year or so, and my father had hit a brick wall when it came to the Church’s compassion. You give your life to an institution and then you wind up an outsider. I remember this moment because I was riding back from the pool thinking swimming wasn’t really going to be my thing, and I was going through some inner philosophical turmoil of sorts, and I was driving past the building where I attend physics class every morning, next to the wooden building that burned down once while we were across the street in the football stadium, and I thought of the line “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” The next thing I thought was that maybe this meant we were truly inseparable, regardless of the shenanigans we pull on Earth. Maybe we were joined from the beginning and any notion of joining or separating here on Earth was a little hokey on our part. I thought maybe we viewed things at the wrong level, somehow.

It was kind of an aha moment for me. A taste of seeing deeply. But it was foggy, too. The thing was, it felt right. Profoundly right. And I decided then and there that my heart was a compass somehow. There were areas its direction broke down, like trying to figure out which interpretation of quantum mechanics made the most sense, but in other areas it gave repeatable results. You can dress a thing up with words any number of ways, but if deep down it rests on an idea that’s in conflict with your heart, you know it. So I decided the truth was true, that it could be dressed up any number of ways on the outside without changing what it really was, that the level at which we viewed things was most often too shallow to be the real thing, and that the heart had some kind of magnetic attraction for the center.

When I was at the water heater plant riding the electric-powered cart through the factory to pick up parts from one of the assembly lines and take them back to the lab, I tried to figure out what else Jesus may have said or done that had been misinterpreted. Somewhere around this time I picked up a book called Return of the Bird Tribes, and it made a big impression on me. I typed up the opening passage once before here , and it’s worth a quick read I think. It might help in terms of synchronizing speeds.

I’m leaving out major tracts here, of course. But I know your good graces are not infinite.

Around this time, either before or after, my mother invited me to a talk that was going to be given back in Birmingham by a Native American teacher. My mother had met a few women at her place of work who traveled each summer to South Dakota to participate in something called a Sun Dance. I had no idea what that was. I decided to attend the talk, and met someone there who quickly became one of those people I deeply admired. And in keeping with my spirit of discovery through immersion, I decided I wanted to know more about what lay inside this person’s stories.

The thing about riding box cars is things fly in through the opening. Sometimes it’s nothing. A dead insect, a blown leaf, or a brochure for a classical music recital where students you didn’t know existed are playing Steve Reich on the marimbas, and you’re there, alone, a little mesmerized. Looking for a date. Steve Reich’s music is like whipping through an alien village. And other times it’s an arrow that flies in. It whistles past and buries itself in the wood behind you. The arrow is followed by a hawk. The bird swoops in so fast you don’t have time to react, perches on the arrow and looks over to the corner of the car at that pile of tattered thoughts. Then looks right at you. It can be hard to meet its eye. Hard to give the accounting of yourself it wants. It has this raw, visceral style of intelligence that’s impossible to ignore, that is disinterested in all your reasons.

That’s kind of what I want to talk about next.

What I Believe and Why, Part 3

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[Part 1]

[Part 2]

When I went to college I entered a time of considerable personal flux. Psychological pressures I’d held at bay by focusing on specific goals came to the fore as the goals themselves began to dissolve. There was a gnawing uneasiness in me that I felt had to be settled before I could state what kind of person I wanted to be, or determine what I wanted to do with my life. But I was also at the time of life in which we were to be enamored of our own potential, aware of all the possibilities. It was a strange and compelling time.

Things happened quickly in my sophomore year. My first truly serious girlfriend and I broke up, I quit the club soccer team, I shifted from physics to engineering, enrolled in the coop program and got a job at a water heater factory where I would work full time every other academic quarter for the next two years to help pay for my education. I spent considerable time in the water heater test lab, tuning natural gas burners for commercial water heaters while trying to convince my new buddy, the Southern Baptist lab technician—a concerned father, husband and provider who skipped the annual strip club outings his other technicians made once in a while—that God would permit homosexuals into heaven. And do so gladly. We had some great discussions. And while all of that was going on, what I was really trying to do was make sense of things. I wanted to know what was truly true.

I met another man at the water heater plant who was kind, a little timid, always willing to help. He steered clear of our philosophical discussions, and once when we talked he warned me you just can’t really know what’s true. He killed himself a year or two later. He was a father. Divorced. He was a good man, obviously dealing with a clinical depression, and it was a sad day for me.

Meanwhile the receptionist to the Engineering group was suspected of having an affair with the VP. There were two other women in the Engineering group, both assistants of some sort. They each listened to their respective boss bemoan certain aspects of his domestic life, and then they compared notes. Several engineers and designers played role playing games on the server during lunch–it was the advent of 3D-like games that offered perspective and firsthand obliteration of zombies with pump action shotguns. Another person I met thought engineers in general were a paragon of entitlement and virtue, particularly the white male ones; he was very obviously bigoted. He was my boss.

My starting point was the awareness that my life had been fairly insular, and that if I was going to learn what was truly true, I had to take into account the ideas people in other cultures, religions and philosophies held dear. I was certainly no better than they were; my past offered no particular or special insights or vantage points. In fact, perhaps the opposite was true. In addition I felt it was necessary to continue expanding my knowledge of what we’d discovered scientifically as well. Science remained thrilling to me, and weighed strongly in my thinking. It was beautiful and profound.

I needed some way to navigate this stage, to process information and understand what was true for me, and I settled on a few core notions. If what was true was true, and no culture or society had a privileged perspective, then clearly the truth was not on the surface. My hypothesis, if you will, was that something was true–(interestingly I once heard a physicist years later state this as Einstein’s premise, that truth must be true, and therefore there must be a consistent way of reframing observations from one vantage point to another). If something was true, it stood to reason that through the filter of human experience differing aspects of that truth must have risen to the fore in various philosophies and cultures. So to put together a picture of what was truly true, I’d have to consider a variety of words and sources, often in a fresh light. I needed to free myself from dogmatic viewpoints so that interpretations were fluid enough to see how things aligned. I reasoned that what science had discovered was universal, but that there were boundaries on the sorts of questions science could test. Science as I understood it had little to say about the validity of an inner life.

A corollary to my thinking was that people were basically good, and intelligent. People in modern times were not more intelligent than people in past times. People had a bad habit of taking things literally when such conclusions weren’t warranted, of becoming close-minded, of needing others to think and believe the way they did. People had a bad habit of fearing differences, of believing they were right and others wrong. The people I most admired were those who were capable of spontaneous kindness and warmth, who were able to explore ideas without becoming defensive and close-minded, without feeling threatened, and who showed genuine concern for others and the world around them. People with confidence and humility at the same time.

The ones I met were lifelines. They came from all sorts of backgrounds and orientations.

I felt that I needed to call my dearest ideas into question. It was easy and enthralling to accept that life on Earth had evolved; easy and good to discount any notion of a God that would condemn homosexuals, or the entire Eastern world, or a divorced person, or the member of any other tribe or persuasion. Easy to discount any notion of a God that would reward violence with treasures in the afterlife. But it was more difficult for me to understand what was left. I knew that millions of people found meaning in systems of thought that didn’t have any God at all, and I decided I wanted to explore that. How did such people orient themselves?

I went to the Auburn University Library and checked out some introductory books on Buddhism. I read them and began to meditate every day. It was difficult at first, particularly as my closet metamorphosis was occurring in full view of a roommate with whom I shared a one bedroom apartment. I sat on the cheap, scratchy carpeting of our living room early in the morning and breathed. My roommate awoke and sidestepped me to chomp on a bowl of cereal at our kitchen table, five feet away. Police sirens went past and the neighbor’s stereo played through the walls. I wanted to understand what was being discussed—this idea of emptiness, of not wanting, of mindfulness. I was struck in particular by a book that described the world as illusory.

What did that really mean?

I rose from the floor and hurried off to my Thermodynamics II lectures. We learned the universe has a direction to it. It wound down, but it never wound up. I read about those guys who measured the blueshift of gamma rays shot down a stairwell at Harvard University, proving Einstein was right, about the cosmic background radiation and the microwave telescopes and the Big Bang and Weinberg’s First Three Minutes, about the way straight lines always followed curves except in our minds, about particles interfering with themselves in quantum physics experiments. The next morning I sat down quietly again and tried to think of nothing at all.

Was there any way to tie these tendrils together? Any way to make sense of my own being? What was a person? A scattershot of DNA? Did a person have a meaningful relationship to the whole, as I’d been taught? What sort of meaning was it? How could our broken world be repaired, so that people didn’t feel obligated to manipulate or deceive one another? To exert power over others? To feel the need to injure or kill those who were different, or threatened an idea?

What I Believe and Why, Part 2

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Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

[Part 1]

The biggest challenge of my young life was finding my way to a meaningful existence. Like all children I wanted to enjoy myself and have fun, but something about this desire required companions, and from an early age I discovered true companions were hard to come by. My settings as a being have always been oriented towards introspection, and because I was gifted intellectually and also fairly athletic, and perhaps because of other factors, it was not easy to find friends whose own proclivities and sensibilities dovetailed with my own. At any time in my life, my close friends could typically be counted on one hand. And it’s true, of course: at times I was lonely.

In the third grade, after my family moved from Anniston, Alabama to Birmingham, at one point my mother put me on a train to travel back to Anniston to spend three or four days with a good friend I’d made there. My friend David and I did this all through elementary school and into high school—we got together for large chunks of time at one or the other’s house and did everything together, nonstop, for days on end. We invented our own D&D style dice games. We snuck onto the golf course across the street from his house and played frisbee in the morning dew. Sprinting full speed down an open fairway with your head focused on the sky, knowing you could run until your lungs burst without hitting a single obstacle, was an ecstatic experience. We’d go from playing frisbee to playing video games on floppy discs to writing computer programs to conducting mad experiments with those childhood chemistry sets you could get through the mail to playing basketball to whatever.

Those times were precious, but overall a life of meaning was difficult to sustain, and I insulated myself from a strange and uncertain world by focusing most of my attention on playing soccer. That became my identity. I trained nearly every day in my driveway, learned to pass and shoot accurately with either foot, traveled to tournaments, read snippets of all the leagues around the world, went to camps in the summer, watched older kids play, splattered the walls of my room with posters of European stars. I immersed myself in it and soon my handful of friends were those with whom I played soccer. My teachers saw potential in me, and used to encourage me to do different projects at school—they thought I was languishing or something by doing well but not applying myself—but I wasn’t interested at all. I could have given two hoots about DNA. Chemistry and biology were painful, but necessary parts of the curriculum.

And then I took physics in high school, and I loved it.

It was probably the first science class I took that wasn’t about memorization, first of all. It was about problem-solving. Physics was about the regularity of the universe. You typically start out with the study of dynamics: cannon ball flight, bouncing balls, balls traveling around curved tracks and spinning wheels. What you discover is that by following the energy content of a given projectile, you can predict with sublime accuracy what it will do next. You discover the universe behaves as if it is able to maintain an astoundingly complex energy accounting system, active simultaneously and instantaneously at all points and upon every physical interaction at every scale. Energy can transform from one type into another–a thrown ball can scuff the ground and slow down, but some of the energy associated with that lost velocity will become a spinning motion, and some will become heat–but the energy itself cannot be created or destroyed. This was incredible to me. I loved it.

I tried to think in writing this piece what the big deal about that was, and I think at its most essential and most visceral, it was the realization that the universe exhibits a particular type of causeless order. The rules that allow us to perform the energy accounting of moving objects are not reducible to other physical necessities, meaning, the universe is clearly the way that it is but there is no obvious reason it should be that way and not some other way. That is what I mean by suggesting its nature is causeless. It’s most essential qualities cannot be explained. So while our universe exhibits a particular type of order, I could certainly imagine others.

Consider a universe consisting of twenty bouncy balls in a box. Because the balls have consistent properties, they bounce reliably and consistently. That is the universe in which we live. We do not think it strange, for instance, that a bouncy ball doesn’t suddenly change its mass or its elasticity. All the bouncy balls in the universe you and I live in have the mass that they have, except for what off-gases into the atmosphere when the sun shines on them, or what smears onto the concrete when we throw them as hard as we can against the pavement. They don’t spontaneously get more or less dense while they’re sitting on the shelf. And the conservation of energy applies in our universe applies to each bouncy ball, individually and collectively, and instantaneously, all the time. Because bouncy balls don’t change their intrinsic properties, and because the energy accounting of the universe applies to all bouncy balls, wherever they go, we can predict exactly how they will behave. When two balls collide, there is one and only one outcome possible, and we can predict exactly what it will be if we know enough about the velocity, elasticity, spin, texture and weight of the balls before they collide.

Appropriate responses are awe, fascination, getting up from your chair and shouting “Eureka!”—“Hot Damn!” being a reasonable alternative—or shrugging your shoulders. Some people don’t find this all that remarkable really. I thought it was astounding. What if, in another world, the conservation of energy only applied to the set of bouncy balls, and not to each one individually? What if, for instance, bouncy balls randomly became heavier or lighter without changing their velocity when this change happened. That would mean they suddenly had more or less energy essentially. So, all of a sudden a bouncy ball traveling at 60 miles per hour (roughly 30 meters per second) goes from an inertial weight of 1 ounce to 1 pound. What if it did this randomly? That would be a little beguiling. What if at the instant this occurred all the other nineteen balls in the box went from weighing an ounce to weighing a fraction of an ounce, so that the energy accounting was always and instantaneously preserved for the set?

Such a universe would also exhibit a conservation of energy, only it would do so a little differently than ours. That’s just not how our universe works, but there’s no reason it couldn’t. So physics for me was a revelation: we could see the character of our universe. And our universe was remarkably, astoundingly consistent and reliable. That tickled my fancy pretty good.

Hot damn!

You either grasp this moment of awe, or you don’t. Either existence itself is mind-blowing when you stop to think about it, or it is not. The notion that things all around us—obvious things, things we take for granted because they are the given properties of this world—are utterly incredible and incomprehensible even as they are perfectly ordered and consistent, is not a notion that fries everyone’s circuits. As I progressed through adolescence, it fried mine.

But physics had little to offer when it came to living a meaningful life. Physics, in fact, could not be used to derive meaning at all. At least for me. If I said, maybe this unique type of order is evidence of a loving God, and I tried to stitch together the givens of my childhood with the givens of my adolescence, I found I was trespassing in both directions. I was reading into things suppositions that simply weren’t there, that weren’t supported. And I could understand why.

Science, as much as I loved it, and dragged myself out of bed for a 7:30 AM Physics lecture for five days a week for each week of my freshman year of college–talk about a ridiculous freshman year–had nothing to offer when it came to feeling split down the middle, or overcoming my depression, or understanding how people of various beliefs could ever achieve a peaceful world. It had nothing to say about the psychology of empire-building, or racism, or the sexual objectifying of persons, or having an internship at a water heater factory that left me with the distinct feeling of being a rat in a cage, turning that little wheel. The things the world valued were hollow. The world felt magnificent at its core, but sick at every point. An indulgent wasteland. A trap that you couldn’t escape. A vortex of shortsightedness and selfishness in which a single person was futile.

I didn’t really belong to any of the worlds I was in. I was out of place, uncertain, and confused. I had little choice but to formulate and seek to answer a deeper set of questions.