Moons of Spirit, Synonyms for God: Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

For a related reflection about selfishness, continue on to the next paragraph. To jump to the next four points in this three-part series, scroll down to the break and the three awens /|\.

Selfishness. The behavior often gets a bad name, but I sometimes forget that survival is always a blend of self and other. In my marriage, my wife and I pursue both couple and individual goals. They needn’t conflict, though sometimes they rub up against each other in challenging ways. We negotiate and compromise. The marriage fails, or endures, on the basis of affection and communication. Self and other is what drew us together in the first place. Blending and balancing them is what sustains the partnership.

Change the scene. In a harsh environment, as human or animal, if I don’t eat so that my offspring can, I may starve, but they may survive. Biologically, this makes good sense — my genetic material gets passed along through them. Personally, of course, it may be disastrous, if I die. But the species benefits. My lines continues, with whatever genetic variants and strengths it may contribute to the whole. But if I don’t act “selfishly” enough to survive in the first place, I will never reproduce. The genetic possibilities I offer never benefit the species.

And this is just a simplistic biological sketch. My wife and I have no children. Biologically, simplistically, we “contribute nothing” to the species. Our species’ old judgments of childless couples stem from biology, and to an extent, they make very good sense. But wait …

What about spirituality? Some have labeled it a maladaptive behavior. From some perspectives it does look useless. For that matter, how do art, music, religion, philosophy, or other kinds of inward searches with variable outward results benefit either the species or the individual?

Humans have developed so that cooperation has begun to balance instinct as a means of both individual and species survival. We definitely haven’t mastered it yet — we’ve managed to kill the equivalent of the population of a large country of our own species (some 200 million) in just the last hundred years. Anger and fear, very ancient companions, still live with us. Each also has a survival benefit, up to a point.

But we’ve also managed to enrich both our individual and species experience immeasurably through beauty, wonder, awe, delight, pleasure, curiosity — you can extend this list yourself. These skills of consciousness make our species marvelously adaptive in unique ways we’re still only beginning to understand. To take just one ready example, ask yourself how often music has seen you through a rough period, or served as the capstone to a time of joy.

As a biological experiment, like all other species, it remains to be seen if we continue to adapt, or die out. But one rich component of our adaptive skill is self-consciousness and an ability to weigh courses of action. How well can cooperation serve us? How well can we manage both to honor instinct and also not let it usurp our chances and choices?

If you’re reading this blog, you presumably feel that spiritual inquiry and awe serve our species better than many other things we also do.

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5. How am I looking for connection in ways that mesh with my practice?

If I use regular physical exercise, for example, as a time to renew, reconnect, and rebalance, I may gain in physical well-being, a priceless gift. But I may not pick up as readily on other spiritual cues and clues that come along and which I can access through other practices. Neither is “better” than the other, but they are choices and practices, each with distinct consequences and benefits.

To continue with the example, some forms of physical exercise allow for a meditative experience as a side benefit. Some don’t. The emptying and easing of worry, care, concern or obsessive thought that can result during vigorous exercise may be just the practice I need — a time away, a refuge on a par with prayer, meditation, silence, etc. On the other hand, if my body has sustained injury, or has survived for several decades, or for a host of other reasons, then other kinds of practice may be more suitable.

One point I’ve learned the hard way: I tend to overlook the gifts of one form of practice and lament that I miss out on other gifts that issue from practices I’m not trying. But I’ve learned that a spiritual practice almost never should be “either-or”. Most practices encourage tinkering and experimentation. If the path I’m on, the religion or spirituality or tradition that I follow, doesn’t urge me to play and explore and find delight, I need to seriously reconsider the path, or at least my approach and understanding of it. I may be serving it, probably mechanically or out of rote habit, but it’s not serving me.

6. How is my practice itself part of what’s inhibiting communication?

By definition, my practice is a choice I’ve made, a seed I’ve planted. All choices have consequences, and will germinate and grow and branch in unique ways. So it’s a given that my practice will inhibit some kinds of spiritual connection even as it sparks others. Rather than seeing this as a “bad” thing, though, I can see it as a measure of change and opportunity. Life is laboratory. Like a hermit crab, I may need to move on to a bigger shell. Tweak my practice, and new connections and communication become possible. I’ve dropped a few yoga asanas that now seem to strain more than they soothe, and I’ve added a daily 5-minute outdoor meditation leaning against the trunk of my favorite hemlock along our northern property line. New possibilities for connection open up I’m only beginning to discover.

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hickory to our north, with new growth at the tips

7. What assumptions am I making?

Mind is really really good at assumptions. If instinct doesn’t always kick in, assumptions will. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, in itself. How else do I find a baseline for thought? I have to start somewhere. The large animal running toward me has attacked before. It’s likely to attack again. That food doesn’t agree with my digestion, so if I indulge, I’ll regret it. From good assumptions come “thrival” and survival. Poor assumptions lead to “complications”: death, stress, conflict, indigestion, anger, despair. We learn from “experience”, which is just another name for our set of assumptions constantly being tested, weeded out, replaced, refreshed and broadened. Cling too tightly to assumptions and, sure, they’ll lead to suffering. But hold on too weakly to good assumptions, and I overlook the usefulness of past experience as a guide to present choices.

So I start with assumptions. We all do. A “blank slate” means no basis for choice, judgment, taste, preference. The more I know my existing assumptions, the more I can play with them, rather than letting them play me. I can try out a new assumption like I would test-drive a car or a pair of shoes or a new series on Netflix, and see if I like it, see if it takes me somewhere I never imagined, if it builds and grows, or heals, teaches or delights.

8. To what degree is my understanding or misunderstand a matter of semantics?

To some degree — that I already know. Two evenings ago, a monthly study group I belong to spent some time talking about “broken” words and phrases, ones that just don’t communicate what we sense they might, or what others intend by them when they use them.

So we worked with renaming some of them. Instead of surrender, allowing. Instead of God, Spirit or the Way. And there’s the Bardic quest, in a nutshell: to dust off and recall old names, but also to refresh the imagination, to restore and recover and transmute energy. To commemorate, celebrate, innovate. Lots of “-ations”! To find and manifest and honor the elemental sacraments of spirit in fire, earth, water and air. To keep naming, to go on singing, what we need to hear.

We all know the experience of being called or offering the wrong name, the pleasure of someone (ourselves included!) remembering and using the right name. Confucius talked about cheng ming, the “rectification of names” to promote and ensure harmony. This, too, is practice.

“Call on me by my name”, say the gods and teachers of so many traditions. Paradoxically, most gods and teachers also possess and answer to many names. Then we get to play another game: Is Pallas Athena “the same” as Athena Parthenos? Is Coyote or the Trickster the “equivalent” of Hermes or Mercury or Loki?

“The name (ming) that can be named isn’t the real/lasting/eternal name”, the Tao Te Ching slyly reminds us in its second line (“Ming ke ming fei chang ming”.) Wider understanding of that little detail might have saved a few million lives.

Of course my understanding is partly mediated by semantics. Get over yourself, I hear. You’re a lot more than your mind. Use other tools, and your understanding gets mediated in other ways. The trick, I’m still learning, is to choose the tool, and not let the tool choose the understanding. Add a tool, add an understanding. We might ask, wresting to our own purposes the Samuel Jackon-fueled Capital One ad(vert)s, “What’s in your spiritual wallet?”

Part 3 will close this series.

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