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Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 4: “Things of Earth”   Leave a comment

Historical novelist Mary Stewart writes vividly of 500 C.E. Britain in her “Merlin Trilogy,” which begins with The Crystal Cave and the childhood and youth of Merlin the enchanter, who will become Arthur’s chief adviser.  Here (1970 edition, pp. 174-5)  are Merlin and his father Ambrosius discussing the Druids.  At this time, in Stewart’s conception, laws are already in place banning Druid gatherings and practices.  Merlin has recently discovered that the tutor his father has arranged for him is a Druid.

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I looked up, then nodded.  “You know about him.”  It was a conclusion, not a question.

“I know he is a priest of the old religion. Yes.”

“You don’t mind this?”

“I cannot yet afford to throw aside valuable tools because I don’t like their design,” he said.  “He is useful, so I use him.  You will do the same, if you are wise.”

“He wants to take me to the next meeting.”

He raised his brows but said nothing.

“Will you forbid this?” I asked.

“No.  Will you go?”

“Yes.”  I said slowly, and very seriously, searching for the words:  “My lord, when you are looking for … what I am looking for, you have to look in strange places.  Men can never look at the sun, except downwards, at his reflection in things of earth.  If he is reflected in a dirty puddle, he is still the sun.  There is nowhere I will not look, to find him.”

Of course, anyone who followed this noble-sounding principle to even reasonable lengths would have a very interesting and possibly very exhausting time of it.  As I mentioned in my post about Open Source religion, when virtually every human practice with any numinous quality about it can be  and has been pressed into service as a vehicle for religious encounter and a means to experience a god or God, then sacred sex won’t even top the list of things a person might do “to find him.”

Yet Merlin (and Stewart) have a point.  Spiritual inquiry and practice require a kind of courage, if they are to remain fresh and not decline into dead forms and mere gestures of religion. It is these things that the media quite rightly criticize.  When I’m in the grip of a quest, I only hope I can continue to be brave enough to follow out conclusions and — if need be — “look in strange places.”  It looks like courage to an observer, but I find that ultimately it’s a kind of honesty with oneself.  I want to keep looking.  Anything less feels suffocating and aggressively pointless, like painting garbage or eating styrofoam.  Any self-disgust we feel almost always arises from living a lie, which poisons our hours and toils and pleasures.

“Things of earth” cannot ultimately satisfy the inner hunger we feel, but they are valuable pointers, sacraments in the full sense, vehicles of the sacred.  To return to everyone’s favorite numinous topic, pursue sex of any variety, sacred or otherwise, and you’ll prove again for yourself one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell:  “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Of course, along the way, as a witty recent post on Yahoo Answers has it, it may often happen that “The road of excess leads to the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of Gluttony, which leads to the Bordello of Lust, which then leads to the Courthouse of Divorce, the Turnpike of Bankruptcy, the Freeway of Despair, and finally, the Road to Perdition.”  Blake did after all call these the Proverbs of Hell.

We just don’t discuss what comes after Hell.  Blake says it’s wisdom.  Hard-earned, yes.  And there are easier ways, which is one good thing that the Wise are here for.  Rather than following any prescription (or Prescriber) blindly, I hope to ask why, and when, and under what conditions the strictures or recommendations apply.

So we return and begin (again) with the things of earth, these sacred objects and substances.  As sacraments, earth, air, fire and water can show us the holy, the numinous.  Their daily embodiments in food and drink and alcohol, precious metals and gems and sex, pleasure and learning and science, music and literature and theater, sports and war and craft, are our earliest teachers.  They are part of the democracy of incarnate living, the access points to the divine that all of us meet and know in our own ways.

Drink deep, fellow traveler, and let us trade tales over the fire.  And when you depart, here’s an elemental chant by Libana, well-known in Pagan circles, to accompany you on your going.

 


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Images:  The Crystal Cave; The Proverbs of Hell.

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 3: Questions and Authorities   Leave a comment

So if you found my previous post about fear and death (and nerds — yay!) a bit too off-putting, here’s a reprieve.  What else might a new “religious operating system” have on offer? In a Huffington Post article from some time ago (Sept. 2010) titled “The God Project:  Hinduism as Open Source Faith,” author Josh Schrei asserts that the principal distinction between Hinduism and other more familiar Western faiths is not that the former is polytheistic and the latter are monotheistic, but that “Hinduism is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source.”  (We’re already increasingly familiar with the open-source approach from computer systems like Linux and community-edited resources like wikis.) In this series on what a more responsive and contemporary religious design might look like (here are previous parts one and two), this perspective can offer useful insight.

If we consider god, the concept of god, the practices that lead one to god, and the ideas, thoughts and philosophies around the nature of the human mind the source code, then India has been the place where the doors have been thrown wide open and the coders have been given free rein to craft, invent, reinvent, refine, imagine, and re-imagine to the point that literally every variety of the spiritual and cognitive experience has been explored, celebrated, and documented. Atheists and goddess worshipers, heretics who’ve sought god through booze, sex, and meat, ash-covered hermits, dualists and non-dualists, nihilists and hedonists, poets and singers, students and saints, children and outcasts … all have contributed their lines of code to the Hindu string. The results of India’s God Project — as I like to refer to Hinduism — have been absolutely staggering. The body of knowledge — scientific, faith-based, and experience-based — that has been accrued on the nature of mind, consciousness, and human behavior, and the number of practical methods that have been specifically identified to work with one’s own mind are without compare. The Sanskrit language itself contains a massive lexicon of words — far more than any other historic or modern language — that deal specifically with states of mental cognition, perception, awareness, and behavioral psychology.

It’s important to note that despite Schrei’s admiration for Hinduism (and its sacred language Sanskrit — more in a coming post), the West has all of these same resources — we just have developed them outside explicitly religious spheres.  Instead, psychology, so-called “secular” hard sciences, social experimentation, counter-cultural trends and other sources have contributed to an equally wide spread of understandings.  The difference is that far fewer of them would be something we would tag with the label “religion,” especially since the pursuit of things like ecstatic experience — apart from some Charismatic and Pentecostal varieties — generally lies outside what we in the West call or perceive as “religion.”

The underlying principle that drives such a range of activity perceived as “religious” also stands in sharp contrast with religion in the West.  (Of course there are exceptions. To name just one from “inside religion,” think of Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God.) As Schrei remarks, “At the heart of the Indic source code are the Vedas, which immediately establish the primacy of inquiry in Indic thought.” To put it another way, India and Hinduism didn’t need their own version of the American 60s and its byword “question authority,” because implicit in open-source religion is “authorize questions.” Nor did they need debates over Creation or Evolution, because scientific inquiry could be seen as a religious undertaking. Schrei continues:

In the Rig Veda, the oldest of all Hindu texts (and possibly the oldest of all spiritual texts on the planet), God, or Prajapati, is summarized as one big mysterious question and we the people are basically invited to answer it. “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?” While the god of the Old Testament was shouting command(ment)s, Prajapati was asking: “Who am I?”

This tendency to inquire restores authority to its rightful place.  In an era in the West when so many faux authorities have been revealed as spiritually hollow or actively deceitful, we’ve arrived at a widespread cynical distrust of any claims to authority.  But true authorities do still exist.  Their hallmark is an invitation to question and find out for ourselves.  Jesus says, “Ask and you will know, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.”  These aren’t the words of one who fears inquiry.  To paraphrase another of his sayings, when we can learn and know the truth about something, we will meet an increase of freedom regarding it.  It will not intimidate us, or lead us to false worship, or mislead us.  One identifier of truth is the freedom it conveys to us.

Authorities also benefit us because out of their experience they can guide us toward the most fruitful avenues of inquiry, and spare us much spinning in circles, pursuing wild geese, and squandering the resources of a particular lifetime.  Whether we choose to follow good advice is a wholly separate matter.  Authorities can point out pitfalls, and save us from reinventing the wheel.  At a time when so many look East for wisdom, only recently have we been rediscovering the wisdom of the West hidden on our doorsteps.

Examples abound. The Eastern Orthodox church has preserved a wealth of spiritual practices and living exemplars in places like Mount Athos in Greece.  The Pagan resurgence over the last decades has done much useful weeding and culling of overlooked and nearly forgotten traditions rich in valuable methods for addressing deeply the alienation, disruption, dis-ease, physical illness and spiritual starvation so many experience.  Individuals within Western monotheisms like Rob Bell and his book Love Wins have served as useful agents for reform and introspection.  While it may not be always true, as Dr. Wayne Dyer claims, that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” we’ve only just begun to regain perspectives we discounted and abandoned through the past several centuries, mostly through the seductions of our increasing mastery of a few select processes of the physical plane and their capacity to provide us with comforts, sensations, entertainments and objects unknown until about 75 years ago.  We’ve self-identified as “consumers” rather than spiritual beings.  Hamlet identified the problem centuries ago: “What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?”  Or as another of the Wise asked, “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  Let us be soul-finders and soul-nourishers.  Otherwise, why bother?

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Images:  open-source cartoon; veda; Mount Athos

Religious Operating System: ROS beta (Part 2) — gratitude   2 comments

The start of the year is a good time to look back and forward too, in as many ways as it fits to do so.  If you’ve got a moment, think about what stands out for you among your hopes for this new year, and you strongest memories of the year past.  What’s the link between them?  Is there one?  Here we are in the middle, between wish and memory.  In his great and intellectually self-indulgent poem “The Waste Land,” Eliot said “April is the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire.”  But April need not be cruel — we can make any month crueler, or kinder — and neither should January.  Let’s take a sip of the mental smoothie of memory and desire that often passes for consciousness during most of our waking hours, and consider.

To recap from previous posts, if we’re looking for a workable and bug-free Religious Operating System, we can start with persistence, initiation and magic (working in intentional harmony with natural patterns).  You’ll note that all of these are things we do — not things a deity, master or Other provides for us. While these latter sources of life energy, insight and spiritual momentum can matter a great deal to our growth and understanding, nothing replaces our own efforts.  Contrary to popular understanding, no one else can provide salvation without effort on our part.  We can “benefit” from a spiritual welfare program only if we use the shelter of the divine to build something of our own.  Yes, a mother eats so she can feed the fetus growing within her, but only in preparation for it to become an independent being that can eat on its own.  We may take refuge with another, but for the purpose of gaining or recovering our own spiritual stamina.  If we’re merely looking for a handout and unwilling to do anything ourselves, we end up “running in our own debt,” Emerson termed it. We weaken, rather than grow stronger.

The recent SAT cheating scandal involving the Long Island students paying a particularly bright peer to take the tests for them is a case in point.  We condemn such acts as dishonest on the societal and human level.  Why do we imagine they’re any more ethical or viable on the spiritual level?  Just as no other person can fall in love for us, undergo surgery in our place, eat for us, learn on our behalf, or do anything else for us that so intimately changes and affects us, so nobody else can do the necessary work we all end up doing whenever we’ve grown and changed.  It takes effort, and it’s up to us.  This usually comes both as a sobering realization and as a wonderfully liberating discovery.  Our spirituality and growth are up to us, but that also means they’re in our hands, under our control, responsive to our initiative and effort and attention.

For a ROS to actually work, then, it needs to fit our own individual lives and circumstances.  Jesus confronted this squarely when he observed, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”  While we can overdo the jettisoning of old religious forms and habits, convinced they have nothing more to offer us, it can be a very good thing to haul out and burn the old stuff to make way for the new.  What have we elevated to “god status” in our lives that, in spite of worship, offerings and adoration, is actually giving us little or nothing and holding us back from growing?  For too long we have clutched old forms and outmoded beliefs and held them tightly to our hearts, convinced that forms can liberate us.  But they have no more power than we give them.  Belief is a ladder we construct.  Reach the goal, and the ladder is merely extra weight to carry around.  We don’t need it.

So you say I’m just supposed to up and cull out-of-date beliefs and dump them?  Easy to say (or write), harder to do.  One of the most useful items in our spiritual tool-kits is gratitude, the WD-40 of spiritual life.  As a solvent, it can loosen hard attitudes, stubborn beliefs, closed hearts and dead growth.  We may think of gratitude as an often wimpy sentiment — something softhearted — but I like to call it the grr-attitude. It’s an attitude with teeth, and helps us build a “spiritual firewall” against destructive energies.*  Every life without exception, no matter how hard, has something in it to praise and be thankful for.  Gratitude, along with persistence, can show us how to make do when every other avenue seems closed.  It’s the great “life-unsticker.”  It moves us out of spiritual ruts and ravines like nothing else.  In fact, an entire life spent in gratitude and persistence, without any other “spiritual garnish,” could carry us remarkably far.  It would be a very full life.

I can be grateful for habits and attitudes that have brought me to where I am, and I can often let them go more easily by thinking kindly of them, rather than hating them and beating myself up for being unable to move on from them.  But the value of gratitude isn’t just anecdotal.  The field of positive psychology is producing significant research findings.  Here’s just one example, from Prof. Robert Emmons’ book Thanks! on Amazon:  “[R]egular grateful thinking can increase happiness by as much as 25 percent, while keeping a gratitude journal for as little as three weeks results in better sleep and more energy.”*

Every aspect of our lives has spiritual lessons to teach.  I even feel gratitude for my cancer, because it has brought me back into balance with myself, revealed friends to me, brought me more love than I could handle, and reminded me again to make the best use of my time here that I can.  And that’s just a start.  Gratitude is a choice of consciousness.  It definitely belongs in any religious operating system.

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Cartoon source.

*Emmons’ book Thanks! deserves reading — it’s in paperback, and you can get cheap used copies online (and no, I have no connection with the author!  The title was on the list of books for the course I took this fall — one of my subsequent favorites).

The term “spiritual firewall” I’ve derived from the excerpt below.  The book helped strengthen my growing understanding of gratitude as a stance or posture toward life that has palpable strength in it, a kind of spiritual toughness and healthy resiliency — with powerful consequences, too — rather than an exercise of mere empty sentiment.

Grateful people are mindful materialists.  Deliberate appreciation can reduce the tendency to depreciate what one has, making it less likely that the person will go out and replace what they have with newer, shinier, faster, better alternatives.  The ability that grateful people have to extract maximum satisfaction out of life extends to material possessions.  In contrast, there is always some real or imagined pleasure that stands in the way of the happiness of the ungrateful person.  Consumerism fuels ingratitude.  Advertisers purposely invoke feelings of comparison and ingratitude by leading us to perceive that our lives are incomplete unless we buy what they are selling.  Here’s a frightening statistic:  by the age of twenty one, the average adult will have seen one million TV commercials.  By playing on our desires and fears, these ads fabricate needs and cultivate ingratitude for what we have and who we are.  Human relationships are hijacked.  Consumer psychologists argue that advertising separates children from their parents and spouses from each other.  Parents are portrayed as uncool and out of touch with their teenage children, who are encouraged to reject the older generation’s preferences and carve out their own identity around materialistic values.  Gratitude for our spouses can have a difficult time surviving the constant parade of perfectly sculpted bodies exuding perpetual sexual desire.  In a classic study conducted in the 1980s, researchers found that men who viewed photographs of physically attractive women or Playboy centerfolds subsequently found their current mates less physically attractive, became less satisfied with their current relationships, and expressed less commitment to their partners.  Gratitude can serve as a firewall of protection against some of the effects of these insidious advertizing messages.  When a person wants what they have, they are less susceptible to messages that encourage them to want what they don’t have or what others have (Emmons, 42-43).

A Religious Operating System: ROS beta (Part 1)   Leave a comment

“Whenever I get bored or depressed, I do laundry,” said an acquaintance.  “Afterwards I may still be bored or depressed, but at least I’ve done something that needed doing.  And often enough I feel better.”  As a treatment, the success rate of this strategy may or may not equal that of therapy or medication, but as far as clean clothes production goes, it’s got the other two beat hands down.  At least I can be depressed and dressed.

How different the quiet of depression and the quiet of peace! (I’m writing about peace and using exclamation points.  Hm.)  One deadens and stifles, the other ripples outward and invites attention, a kind of relaxed wakefulness.  We say we want peace, and the holiday season bombards us with prayers and songs and sermons and wishes for it.  There are prayers for peace in the ceremonies of many religious teachings and spiritual practices, Druidry included.  But rather than asking somebody else for it, I can begin differently.  Peace starts in the center, and that’s where I am — or where I can put myself, with the help of recollection and intent.  “Come back to yourself,” my life keeps saying, “and remember who you are and what it is you want.”  If I start peace (or anything else) within myself, however small, however tentative, it spreads from there outward.  After all, it works for every other state I create, whether positive or negative — and I know this from sometimes painful experience!  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is still some of the best advice ever given.  If I want change, who else do I expect to bring it about?  And if someone else did, how in the world would such changes be right for me?  Gandhi knew the secret lies in the approach.

In my early twenties, Lou Gramm and Foreigner were singing “I want to know what love is.  I want you to show me.”  It’s a lovely ballad — I’ve got it playing on Youtube the second time through as I write this paragraph, nostalgia back in full force — but it’s precisely backward in the end.  As loveless as I can sometimes feel, if I start the flow, jumpstart it if necessary, I prime the pump, and it will launch within me from that point.  Do that, and I become more loveable in a human sense, because in the divine sense I’ve made myself another center for love to happen in, and from which it can spread.

But neither love nor peace are things I can hold on to as things.  “We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most intimate,” says the German poet Rilke in his poem “To Holderin” (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)  “From images that are full, the spirit plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled; there are no lakes till eternity.  Here, falling is best.  To fall from the mastered emotion into the guessed-at, and onward.”  Whatever I long for in a world of time and space needs to be re-won every day, though in that process of re-winning, not always successful, it begins to gather around me like a fragrance, a habit.  Both the customary behavior, and the clothing a monk or nun wears, have the same name.  The connection’s not accidental.

The American “farmer-poet” Wendell Berry captures it in these lines:

Geese appear high over us
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith:  what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for a new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear.  What we need is here.

So if we’re looking for a “religious operating system,” a ROS, we’ve got some design parameters that poets and others tell us are already in place.  “What we need is here.”  But try telling that to an unemployed person, or someone dying of a particularly nasty disease.  And of course, if I tell someone else these things, I’ve missed the point.  What they need is indeed here, but my  work is to find out this truth for myself.  I can’t do others’ work for them, and it wouldn’t be a good world if I could (though that doesn’t stop me sometimes from trying).  I don’t know how their discoveries will change their lives.  I only know, after I do the work, how my discoveries will change mine.

A recent article in the New York Times about the rise of the Nones, people who aren’t affiliated with any religion, but who aren’t necessarily atheists, offers this observation, from which I drew the title for this blog entry:

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system…

I’ll be examining this further in upcoming posts.

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Laundry, Foreigner album cover, and Rilke.

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