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Category Archives: Spirituality

On Being Good

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I worry a lot about being good. I know we don’t have to be perfect because God loves us as we are, but that message is hard to reconcile with the idea of earning our way into heaven.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I’m not trying to criticize God or anything, but it sort of seems like it was a set up. I mean, any parent who put some forbidden object in a room and said, you can play with any toy you want to except for that one, they would probably not be terribly surprised if their child disobeyed them.

I remember reading a book by Harold Kushner called How Good Do We Have to Be? a while back in which he gave a different interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve, but I can’t remember what it was. So then I almost bought the book again, but I think it’s at work. I’m off for the summer, and my office is 45 minutes away, so I don’t want to drive all the way to work to get it. But I don’t want to spend money on a book I already have, either. So I decided to buy his latest book, Nine Essential Things I Learned About Life. Hopefully the answer is in there.

And since I’m apparently on some spiritual quest, I also started reading Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh, which a friend recommended, and Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. I figured between a Jewish rabbi, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and a Franciscan priest, someone would have the answer on how to be good.

Surprisingly, they do all have a common denominator. And the answer is, our task in life is not to be good: it is to know ourselves. And it is only through self-knowledge that we can know God. And it is only when we know that God is within us and within everyone that we can love everyone and everything.

That’s deep. Too deep for me to fully comprehend at the moment. But then again, I’ve just started reading all 3 books. But I have to say, in a time where some kind of act of mass violence seems to happen every day, it’s comforting that there is something specific we can do to bring about peace.

But self-knowledge? How does that work? How can self-awareness lead to some kind of radical change in how we treat one another? Today I read from Richard Rohr, and here are some quotes that I found particularly thought-provoking:

You cannot prove yourself worthy of this God. Feeling God’s presence is simply a matter of awareness. Of enjoying the now. Deepening one’s presence.

Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters?….Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies….If we try to exclude some (sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays, or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there. We don’t yet understand. If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred, too.

So today I have been reflecting on these words. I’ve been trying to get to know myself, accept all of the things that make me who I am–especially the parts I don’t like, as these wise men suggest. Which is the purpose of my blog, anyway.

It’s funny, when I started this blog, it wasn’t meant to be some kind of spiritual quest, but it seems like it’s turning out to be one.

Reincarnation and Karma

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Personally, I really like the idea of reincarnation. Having one lifetime to get our act together seems like the equivalent of a timed test. Since God is so forgiving, it makes more sense to me that He would give us as much time as we need to get it right.

In a previous post I wrote about reading Edgar Cayce’s biography. He is one of the few known documented psychics, and his readings are Christian-based. One of the things that I found most interesting is that Cayce said that reincarnation is consistent with Christianity. That in the period during which they were trying to promote Christianity over paganism, the powers that be left out the part about reincarnation because they thought it would be too discouraging: it’s hard enough to try to be good in one lifetime, let alone multiple lifetimes.

Also, Cayce found that when he would do readings where he told people about their past lives, people would become complacent if they found out they had been something loftier in a previous life. While it might be cool to find out that you were once a King or Queen, in reality this means that you have fallen from grace and need to work harder in this life to move back up the Karmic ladder.

I also like the idea of Karma because, while it gives us feedback on how to live our lives, it does so without judgment. In “Lovingkindness,” Sharon Salzberg says that there is no reason to condemn others because in our past lives we have done everything:

We have loved, hated, feared, killed, raped, stolen, given, served….Through beginingless and ongoing rounds of rebirth, we are all one another’s parents, children, friends, lovers, and enemies, over and over again….How then can we feel self-righteous or removed from anyone or any action?

And just as Karma is not about judging others, it is also not about judging ourselves and beating ourselves up for our mistakes. Rather, people who commit loving acts live in good health, strength, and abundance, while people who commit harmful acts experience pain, disease, and weakness. This was really helpful to read, because I judge myself based on what I think I deserve and don’t deserve all the time. And it does kind of hurt my feelings when I say stuff like that.

Salzberg says that we create a field of influences which is made up of skillful and unskillful (not good and bad) actions. If we have many more unskillful than skillful acts, this creates a field that makes it more likely that we will experience negative consequences. If, on the other hand, we commit to restraint, mindfulness, and lovingkindness with an occasional unskillful act–because nobody’s perfect and we all do harmful things, as she said in the quote above–the flow of our lives becomes like a vast and open space in which the impact of the unskillful acts is diluted.

I have to admit, because of my obsessive nature, I would like a more precise recommendation on the ratio of skillful to unskillful acts to get a better sense of whether I’m on the right track. But I’m hoping that if you spend time reading books on lovingkindness, that adds to the spaciousness of your field of influences.

Suffering and Compassion, Part 2

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It’s been a while since I’ve felt the need to make a confession on my blog because practicing self-acceptance makes me obsess a lot less about what a terrible sinner I am. But I feel the need to make a confession today because, despite my best efforts, I was not able to make myself go to church yesterday, even though Palm Sunday is my favorite mass–even more so than Christmas and Easter.

In my defense, I suck at waking up early unless it is absolutely necessary. And even though it was the first day of spring, it was cold and gloomy. And my brother was supposed to go with me but then he decided not to. However, I imagine that when you go to confession, which I rarely did, you’re not supposed to list all of your excuses for why you have sinned. In a way I guess that’s a good thing, because it’s just assumed that you will sin, so you’re merely updating God on your latest ones. Even though he already knows what they are. But I can appreciate why you need to acknowledge them before you are forgiven for them.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my favorite part of the mass on Palm Sunday is the reading of the Passion. In particular, I like the part where Jesus prays to God, asking him if there’s any way he can not have to go through all of the pain and suffering that await him, but he’ll do it if he has to. Because I say this prayer all the time, and it’s comforting to know that Jesus felt the same way I do about pain and suffering: he didn’t want to have to experience it unless it was absolutely necessary. In fact, he was in such torment about it that his tears turned into blood. That’s how sucky pain and suffering are.

I like Buddhism because it gives me specific things to do while I’m in pain. I find practicing mindfulness and compassion extremely helpful in this regard. But reading about its philosophy on pain and suffering doesn’t quite capture the anguish that I experience in the midst of it. That’s what I like about Christianity: everything about Holy Week is meant to remind you how much Jesus suffered so that we can be forgiven. He experienced fear, betrayal, humiliation, and physical pain, just to name a few.

It makes me feel better to know that Jesus really knew what it was like to be in agony. Kind of like when I took swimming lessons as a kid early in the morning and the water was really cold and we’d be complaining about it and the instructor would be like, oh it’s not that bad. Except he wasn’t in the pool. He was just standing there on the side of the pool, telling us what to do without actually having to be wet and cold.

Ok, maybe that’s not a great example, but hopefully you know what I mean. For me, when I ask myself what Jesus would do as an example of how to live my life, it helps to know that  he really understands the pain of being human.

My niece drew this picture when she was about 4 years old. It was a Christmas card to her dad, even though it’s more appropriate for Easter. Because back then she was fascinated by the pain and suffering that Jesus went through. So it seems fitting to include it now.

 

 

Learning to Trust my Intuition: The Story of Edgar Cayce

Edgar Cayce

I often feel like I’m lead to read a particular book. Like God’s saying, check this one out–I have something I want to tell you.

When I was at Virginia Beach over Thanksgiving with my family, my brother took us to the boardwalk and asked in passing if I’d heard of Edgar Cayce, one of the few documented psychics. Even though he only had a high school education, he could diagnose people’s medical conditions in his sleep and prescribe treatment. There’s his institute over there (a block from the boardwalk).

I thought that was kind of interesting. Especially when he said Cayce lost this ability when other people encouraged him to try to use it for money. Which is exactly why I don’t think psychics can use their powers to tell you what numbers to pick for the lottery. Otherwise, why would they need to be charging you for their services?

That night, my other brother also took us to the boardwalk to see the Christmas lights, and he also mentioned Edgar Cayce when we drove past his institute. Later I found out that, even though they live together at the beach, they had never talked about Cayce with one another. They both learned about him from TV: one of them saw his story on the Discovery Channel, and the other one saw it on the History Channel.

When I got home, rather than trying to go to bed at a reasonable hour, I spontaneously decided to look up this guy and find out more about him. He has a biography called There is a River, so I thought I’d buy it and get the in-depth story.

The book doesn’t get interesting until Cayce does his first reading. What happened was, he developed severe laryngitis that lasted for several months, and no doctor could find a cure for it. At the time, hypnotism was becoming popular, so some famous guy (I’m not good with names) tried to hypnotize him to see if that helped. Cayce was able to talk while he was in a trance, but the suggestion that he would be able to talk when he woke up never worked.

Then this other dude who was doing some self-study on hypnosis but had no formal training got the idea that if Cayce gives himself the suggestion to talk, it might work. And sure enough, when he was given the suggestion while in a trance to say why he had laryngitis, Cayce gave a detailed account of what the problem was, how it developed, and what the cure was. And then the hypnotized Cayce told the guy to give him a suggestion to increase the blood flow to the neck. So the guy did, and he could actually see Cayce’s neck area get red. And after Cayce was instructed to wake up, he was able to speak again, but he had no memory of what had happened.

So then this guy decided to use Cayce to open his own hypnosis practice. Cayce agreed to it but was conflicted because he didn’t know what to make of the readings. He was really religious, and he was worried that maybe they came from the devil. Or maybe he would give bad medical advice and he would end up killing someone. Or maybe going into a trance would make him go crazy–because that’s what they thought at the time, since they didn’t know that much about hypnosis.

One of the things I found interesting about reading Cayce’s story is the realization that when people have a gift, they’re usually not like, oh cool! I have a gift! They’re afraid of it. They don’t know what it means. And it often feels like it’s more of a curse than a gift. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do with it, and often other people use their gift for selfish purposes.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff about the book but I thought I’d see what the response is to this blog post before I talk about it more.

 

Heaven and Hell

One of the problems I’ve always had with the concept of hell is that I can’t imagine who would be in it. On the one hand, I obsess about going to hell over things like calling a ball out. If that really is the kind of thing that would get you into hell, I can’t imagine who would be in heaven.

Still, just to be on the safe side, I always pray to be forgiven for all my sins, intentional and unintentional, just to cover all bases. Just in case I’m sinning but I’m in denial or rationalizing my actions. It’s kind of obsessive, I know, but in case you haven’t noticed, I am obsessive.

At the same time, I have a hard time imagining who would be bad enough to go to hell. I’m sure serial killers are in there, but beyond that I can’t think of anyone who is more bad than good. Perhaps I am too forgiving. Although I’m sure some of my exes would disagree.

I struggle with having other people say with authority what constitutes hell-worthy acts. Because if there’s a judgment day, then it shouldn’t already be predetermined who goes to hell, right? Just like when you commit a crime on earth. You don’t know what the outcome is going to be until the judge or jury makes a decision, even if you think the outcome should be obvious. Like the OJ Simpson case, for example.

Since the terrorist attacks on Paris, I think about all of those suicide bombers who have been told since they were kids that their sacrifice will be rewarded by virgins in the afterlife. On the one hand, all wars involve killing innocent people, so it seems too extreme to say that killing people in the name of war is a sin.

However, it’s difficult for me to imagine that someone’s reward in the afterlife would be an orgy with a bunch of virgins. I’m not trying to criticize their religious beliefs, but I’ve just never heard of a heaven that is described in sexual terms.

In the near death experience book that I always talk about, My Descent Into Death, Howard Storm went to hell–or to the doorstep of hell, at least–before he went to heaven. I actually read the book because I wanted to see what kind of person was bad enough to go to hell.

And I have to say, I would not have pegged him as someone who would be damned for all eternity. He just seemed like an average guy. Just some art history professor with a wife and kids. Granted, he wasn’t religious and was a bit prideful. I think if demons were attacking me and a voice told me to call out God’s name, I would do it, rather than argue about how that was a ridiculous idea like Storm did.

You know what comforted me the most about that book? Even when Storm was on the doorstep of hell, God was still trying to save him. God was still saying, say my name! Ask for help! And as soon as Storm did, he went to heaven. That is more consistent with what I believe to be true about God. That he is someone who is trying to get us to choose heaven, right up until the very end.

That’s how I have reconciled the idea of hell. We can choose it if we want to, because we have free will. We can choose not to ask for help. Not to love or forgive. We can judge ourselves or other people as being lost causes. But God always wants us to say yes to him. So I do.

 

Angels and Demons, Part 2

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I remember once when my parents invited this visiting priest to our house for lunch, my mom was relating this incident in which she didn’t have an alarm clock and prayed to God to wake her up at 6 am. And he did.

At the time I thought that was ridiculous. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God. I just figured he was too busy to care about things as mundane as whether or not my mom woke up at 6 am.

But then, as I mentioned in a previous post, I read this near-death experience book called My Descent Into Death. He spent an entire chapter talking about angels. I had never really given much thought about the role of angels. I wasn’t even sure I had a guardian angel. But after reading his book, I thought about angels a lot more.

Now I can feel their presence. Every day.

One day last week I spilled my coffee just as I was about to head out the door to leave for work, as I sometimes do. And I was pissed off about it, as I usually am. But as I was cleaning up, I said a prayer. God, if somehow spilling my coffee is supposed to protect me from something, then thank you.

Which was bizarre. I had never thanked God for spilling my coffee in my life and had no idea how that could be helpful in any way.

A few minutes later, as I was driving to work, a car pulled out in front of me and was driving on the wrong side of the road, heading straight towards me. I was aware that there was a car to the right of me so it was a little tricky to get out of the way.

Had I not spilled my coffee, I probably would have been drinking it at that moment. Or I would have at least been holding the mug. And even if I had successfully been able to swerve out of the way with one hand on the steering wheel, I probably would have spilled coffee all over myself.

And it was only as an afterthought that I remembered the prayer I had said earlier.

On the flip side, I am also more aware of demons. I used to be the kind of person who never wanted to see the bad in people. I thought I was being judgmental if someone made me anxious and would ignore the warning signs that I should stay away. But after reading The Gift of Fear, I trust my gut feeling that someone isn’t safe.

I am also more aware of my inner demons and how insidious they are, because they sound like me. They have my voice. They are not ostensibly telling me to do anything wrong. They are just saying things like, nobody cares about you. You’re not important. Which seems plausible.

Even when I’m feeling good about myself, it only takes the smallest opening for these thoughts to creep in. A poor night’s sleep. The slightest rejection. Extended periods of isolation.

It seems like it should be obvious which voice is the angel and which is the devil, but sometimes it isn’t. Because most of the time, it’s not a debate between big moral issues of right or wrong. They are small choices that potentially lead you to harm or turn you against yourself.

Things like, you’ve proven you can stay sober. Go ahead and have a drink. One drink won’t kill you.

Or, nobody wants to hear about your problems. Don’t bother calling anyone. You’re just setting yourself up for rejection.

For some reason, my demons are easier to believe. But lately I’ve been trying this experiment where I try to believe the loving voice. The one that tells me that people care about me and that I can have faith in myself. It’s hard to have faith in that voice, because what if it’s wrong? What if I am just setting myself up for disappointment?

So far that hasn’t happened. And it’s a much more peaceful way to live, listening to my angel.

On the Road to Enlightenment

I didn’t realize how many posts I’ve written about Pope Francis until I looked them up just now, in preparation for this one. In one of those posts, I said that I thought Pope Francis was an enlightened human being. And that it was only fitting that as one enlightened being, Nelson Mandela, leaves this world, God would send us another one to restore balance in the universe.

Last week I was astounded by the reception that Pope Francis got in the United States. Apparently, he was, too. He even coined a term to describe his reception in New York: stralimitata–beyond all limits. He was like a rock star, attracting people of all religious and political affiliations. People cried when they saw him–even if it was just on TV.

He was the most popular topic on Facebook and a refreshing change from all the negative posts that I usually try to ignore. Anyone who can make people post about predominantly positive things on Facebook for an entire week has to be enlightened.

I think the most moving thing to me–and Boehner, apparently–is when Pope Francis asked people to pray for him. And, being ever respectful of their religious beliefs, if they couldn’t pray for him, he asked them to send him good wishes. I mean, how awesome is that? The Pope needs us as much as we need him. What a novel idea in a world where leaders seem more interested in proving how powerful they are than in showing their vulnerabilities.

The closest I have come to being in the presence of that kind of compassion was when I went to this conference and listened to the psychologist Peter Levine talk about healing trauma. He didn’t say he practiced compassion, although the techniques he describes for learning to identify the physiological signs of trauma are clearly mindfulness-based.

But when you watched him work, you could hear the compassion in his voice and see it in how closely he paid attention to his clients. It was a palpable, tangible thing that you could feel in the room. I was so struck by his presence that I went to his second talk just so I could sit in the audience and listen to him. The world felt like a safer place when he was around.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is something that anyone can achieve, hypothetically speaking. That seems difficult to imagine in practice, though. Plus it seems like a lot of work. And a lot of pressure. I’m sure my Inner Critic would try its hardest to sabotage my efforts every step of the way. But then again, I guess that’s why you practice self-compassion.

I like the idea that we all have the power to create a palpable, tangible force in the universe. I know how I have felt when I have been in the presence of compassion. And I know that practicing compassion has changed me for the better–both in terms of how I feel about myself and in how I interact with others. So I will keep up my practice and see where it takes me.