Sacred and Profane

Sacred and profane are simply two ways of interacting with the same phenomena.  We grew up thinking that these were inherent characteristics of things.  Certain words, like “amen” for instance, were sacred.  Certain words, I dare not write them here, were profane.

The sacred and profane cluster and clarify, especially, under things we label as taboo.  Sex and money are the two most obvious taboo clusters in our society.  Typically these clusters exhibit a bipolar frenzy.  We parade them, we avoid them.  We exploit them, especially sex and money, in our marketing fantasies.  We avoid open talk about them at an interpersonal level, throwing a moral wet blanket over our silence.

This bipolar activity simply illustrates our frenetic discomfort, the tug of war of chase and avoidance, grasp and repulsion, fear and desire, loathing and lusting.  We cycle around, we yo-yo back and forth between the poles, always missing the powerful untouchable center of the taboo.

We abandon or abuse power in this bipolarity.  At one pole we are a victim, at another we are the conqueror.  We hoard wealth, we gloat in the spoils of the sexual conquest.  It’s a zero sum game with a loser for every winner.  There is a lot of money to be made, a lot of power and position to be garnered for anyone who can master the art of keeping the yo-yo of the masses going around these things.  The oil barons, the pimps, the hedge fund managers, the priests and imams of false religion sit atop these untouchable centers, taking their fees and building their empires on the wasted energy of the masses flying back and forth between the poles of desire and despair, having and not having, satiation and repulsion.

At the center of all this bipolar cycling stands the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Al the center of all this bipolar cycling stands the metaphorical Tree of Life.  It is the same tree.  All that matters is the lens we look through.  Do we view it through the clouded and profane lens of scarcity and hoarding, of good and bad, of fear and violence?  Or do we view it through the clear lens of sanctity, the lens of non-judgment, satisfaction and enough?

All that we desire, everything we want and need hangs freely as fruit on the tree.  It tastes good.  It feels good.  It shelters and sustains us.  We can approach in fear of scarcity.  If we get there first, we can take more than our share and use the excess to harness the fears and desires of others.  We can use that yo-yo to fuel the frenzy that feeds our stash of wealth and power.

Or we can choose, when we reach the tree, simply to take and enjoy together what we need, leaving enough for others, experiencing peace and satisfaction, giving and receiving with grace.

Our choice, friends.  The tree is rooted firmly before us.  As individuals, as societies, do we choose the lens of the sacred or the lens of the profane?  Do we rest in the true power of enough, or do we exhaust ourselves in the bipolar frenzy of fear and grasping?  Food, sex, clothing; shelter, health, the environment; borders, commerce and security – sacred or profane?  Which tree will it be?

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

*From World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, © 1991 by International Religious Foundation.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Suchness and Form

Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, the infinite mystery of the universe, is described in many ways:  word, breath, spirit, formless, suchness, energy, nameless with a thousand names.  We turn to look and do not see.  We listen, but the sound escapes us.  But somewhere in our being, everywhere in and beyond our being we know, we revel, we delight.

This Teacher of mine, this Teacher of mine – he passes judgment on the ten thousand things but he doesn’t think himself severe; his bounty extends to ten thousand generations but he doesn’t think himself benevolent.  He is older than the highest antiquity but he doesn’t think himself long-lived; he covers heaven, bears up the earth, carves and fashions countless forms, but he doesn’t think himself skilled.  It is with him alone I wander.  Taosim.  Chuang Tzu 6*

The sages have sifted and filtered the light for us and with us, spoken pieces of the word, cast metaphor on the formless, seen spirit in the manifest:

Just as light is diffused from a fire which is confined to one spot, so is this whole universe the diffused energy of the supreme Brahman.  And as light shows a difference, greater or less, according to its nearness or distance from the fire, so is there variation in the energy of the impersonal Brahman.

Vishnu is the highest and most immediate of all the energies of Brahman, the embodied Brahman, formed of the whole of Brahman.  On him is the entire universe woven and interwoven: from him is the world, and the world is in him; and he is the whole universe.  Vishnu, the Lord, consisting of what is perishable as well as what is imperishable, sustains everything, both Spirit and Matter, in the form of his ornaments and weapons.  Hinduism.  Vishnu Prana 1.22*

C/S/M/S is the essential energy and spirit.  We are not separate.  We and everything are embodied temporal expression of that spiritual reality.  We fool ourselves into fear when we hide alone in seeming separate ego.  But we hide only from the falsehood of fear.  There is no true hiding from our essential being, the Self that breathed us and is us – the Self that is every rock and tree and is at the same time the no-thing, the mystery we can only sense, only trust, but not fully grasp.

 When appearances and names are put away and all discrimination ceases, that which remains is the true and essential nature of things and, as nothing can be predicated as to the nature of essence, it is called the “Suchness” of Reality.  This universal, undifferentiated, inscrutable Suchness is the only Reality, but it is variously characterized as Truth, Mind-essence, Transcendental Intelligence, Perfection of Wisdom, etc.  This Dharma of the imagelessness of the Essence-nature of Ultimate Reality is the Dharma which has been proclaimed by all the Buddhas, and when all things are understood in full agreement with it, one is in possession of Perfect Knowledge.  Buddhism.  Lankavatara Sutra 83*

We move, we feel, we see, hear, judge and act.  We must never forget who We are as we do these things.  The talent is not to be buried, but to be used to its fullest in the creation of beauty, wonder, compassion, the newness and suchness of each breath.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  Christianity.  John 1:1-4 NRSV

We are the Word, spoke into being by I AM.  Thinking ourselves alone we hide in fear under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Awake, we breathe, we create.  Growing, becoming, we heal.  We are, suchness and form, in the image, under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

*From World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, © 1991 by International Religious Foundation.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Science, Religion and the Engagement of Mystery

Let’s be clear.  Humans made religion and not the other way around.  We created our myths.  We were not created by them.  And religion has been, is and will always be no more nor less than our myth making, our dialog with, our effort and yearning to address and connect in a meaningful way with mystical matters of spirit.

Science, on the other hand, and also a discipline of our making, casts ever new light on the physical horizon of mystery.  We learn, with the tool of science, about the material manifestation of something we can never fully name.  And we use what we learn, for better or worse, to fuel our own evolution.

We want to think that our religions have stood forever.  They have not.  They have grown from the seed of our awakening.  They have adjusted and adapted continually, if often reluctantly, to changes in knowledge and culture.  Heresies of only a few centuries ago, like the notion that the earth is a body moving around the sun, are now accepted as simply good science.  And archeological finds, like the complete Gospel of Thomas in the scrolls at Nag Hammadi, give us pause and reason to reflect anew on things we once thought certain, like what Jesus did or did not say.

But our view is too often reactionary, when it should be engaging and embracing, welcoming change while being ever in amazement and awe at the new mystery that unfolds continually before us.

Good science and true religion are never at odds.  They are simply independent disciplines serving completely different purposes.  Science observes and tells us – always provisionally – what and how.  I say provisionally because deeper and more complex discoveries constantly change our view and understanding of things.

Religion explores meaning and gives us – always provisionally – a sense of purpose in the void beyond our physical circumstances.  Again I say provisionally, because the edge of the void, the event horizon between the measured and mystery, is constantly moving.

This change need not be the threat it is so often perceived to be for religion.  We want the event horizon to stay fixed.  And so we focus on battles over the fault line.  We hold tight to ridiculous claims about the number of years since creation or our vision of a Creator that we, more likely than the other way around, made in our own image.

Religion locked in this backward view sets itself up for little more than an equally immature “told ya’ so” from those that claim the latest finding of science as total and ultimate truth, the undoing of dogmatic religion.  But true science is never ultimate and always only provisional.  It is just the next tiny discovery in the puzzle in the face of mystery beyond measure, words or imagination.

When we become stuck in scientism or religionism, we waste time heaving rotten eggs and tomatoes at each other across a false divide of our own imagining.  Respect and wonder are the appropriate positions as we journey relentlessly and together into our home in mystery.  Science pulls back the curtain on amazement at manifestation, things that can be seen and measured.  Let us continually appreciate each new discovery, each speck and marvel revealed on the emerging horizon.

Spiritual experience and exploration grant joy, gratitude, a sense of meaning and blind direction in the engagement of the unmanifest, the mystery within and beyond.

May all who go forward into exploration of the void bring back forever the gifts of knowledge and of the spirit, to be enjoyed in fullness, celebration, appreciation and humility, together, under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

The Authoritative Word

Authoritative is a word often used in reference to scripture.  It implies a superior truth.  Paul claimed that his vision of Jesus, his gospel, was superior to and superseded the Torah of Moses, which he viewed as a temporary or even flawed fix of the human condition and our relationship to the divine.  Muslims claim that the book – the Koran – received by the prophet Mohammed is a more perfect revelation of the word of Allah.  Latter Day Saints claim that the books revealed to Joseph Smith are a more current gospel.

The natural result of any claim to exclusive authority is division and strife.  All are required to make clear cut, dualistic, judging statements of acceptance or rejection.  The response and action of those who decide in favor of a given authoritative word ranges from benign tolerance, to active proselytization, to violent vengeance and retribution.

Christians in the United States busy themselves with bloodying each other and the society around them with special authoritative words for or against select issues of morality.  Islamic fundamentalists feel righteous zeal and justification, based on their authoritative word, in delivering death to the infidel.  The West responds with “justified” violence.  Latter Day Saints take their authoritative word, two-by-two, from door to door.  Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to get by with just one carrier.

I believe – I know in my heart of hearts – that the Authoritative Word is, indeed, one.  It’s just not this one or that one.  The Authoritative Word is beyond the limitations of language.  It is bigger than any single revelation.  It is greater than any set of rules or code of ethics.  It includes all scriptures.  It is none of them.  It is read on all pages, but seen only in blindness.  It is heard by the ear, but known truly in silence.

In essence, the Authoritative Word is.  It manifests in creation and evolution.  It is glimpsed in beauty, felt in kindness, spoken in healing and known intimately in the depths of the heart.  It does not judge and is not judged.  It is not born and never dies.  Found in book, in song, in story, it is none of and beyond all of those things.

All our scriptures exist within the limits of our bodily manifestation.  They are temporary touches and glimpses of the eternal reality, as are the bodily manifestations inhabited by you and me.

When we claim any manifestation as completely and exclusively authoritative, we stay stuck under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We judge and are judged.  We participate in aggression and defense.  We find ourselves threatened by the enemy or deluded by a false sense of security.

Be still.  Be still and know.  See all, hear all, experience all.  Judge none.  Encounter the Authoritative Word.  Be the timeless, Authoritative Word that you are, through and beyond manifestation, under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Second Birth: The Upanishads, Jesus and the Journey to Self

Recall that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a metaphor for the first awakening of human awareness: the ability to perceive a discreet self; the ability and propensity to judge phenomena as good or bad, depending on how we think we are affected; the ability to contemplate life, death and the nature of the universe.  It is, in short, the realization of ego.  In its immature form, the ego only perceives separation and vulnerability, and the response is fear along with a desperate grasping for protection at any cost.

The metaphorical Tree of Life represents a maturation of awareness.  It is achievement of a stage of realization that recognizes the interconnectedness and spiritual nature of life and all that is.  We are no longer just isolated selves, dependent solely on our ability to protect our body and our fragile ego.  We achieve a realization that we are part of something larger, something that transcends time, space and physical manifestation.  We are, in fact, living sparks of the very mind of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, breathed full of the breath of life, the creative thrill of the universe.

The garden trees themselves are, in reality, only one.  They simply represent the manifestation of all that is, the complete creative activity of C/S/M/S.  They are the source and stuff of life, the universe and everything (appreciation and apologies to Douglas Adams).  The two trees are not distinguished by their unique and independent natures.  Rather, they are distinguished only by how we view them.  Their names – Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or Tree of Life – are just indicators of the level of our own spiritual maturity.  Have we grown to a level of trust and comfort with our place in the universe, a place of willingness to give and to receive without fear or grasping?  Do we trust that there is “that” of us that transcends birth and death, space and time?  Or do we see only as much as we can through the blinders of separation and scarcity, good and bad, physical life and death?

The journey from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life is, in reality, the journey from small “s” self to capital “S” Self.  Nowhere is that journey presented with more clarity than in the Upanishads, wisdom teachings attached to the Hindu Vedas that grew out of the merger of the Indo-European speaking Aryan culture and the resident culture of the Indus Valley.  This merger of cultures is believed to have happened about 4,000 years ago, placing the Vedas among, if not distinguishing them definitively as the earliest of what we would call scriptures.

The relevance for those of us in the West, particularly as we move away from a spirituality based on original sin and redemption through blood sacrifice, is tremendous.  Here are writings, among the earliest on spiritual reflection and experience, that discover and declare the difference between these two different levels of spiritual maturity.  There is no presentation or burden of guilt, just recognition that we are born into small “s” self and that our task in life is to grow, to mature to capital “S” Self, our connection with and existence in timeless being.

We are, in truest essence, born again when we make this move between the two trees, the journey from disconnected ego to connected essential being.  We achieve this step, our second birth, through renunciation of attachment to the senses – the mindless drive to chase what we think is pleasure and safety and to run from what we perceive as danger and pain.  Renunciation is not separation or disengagement from these life experiences.  Rather, it is to live them fully without attachment, without being driven and governed by them, recognizing their passing existence as opposed to our eternal being.

From the Isha Upanishad*:

6 Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
7Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

8The Self is everywhere.  Bright is the Self,
Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise,
Immanent and transcendent.  He it is
Who beholds the cosmos together.

From the Katha Upanishad*:

Part I [3] 15The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end, beyond
Time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable.  Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.

Part II [1] 2The immature run after sense pleasures
And fall into the widespread net of death.
But the wise, knowing the Self as deathless,
Seek not the changeless in the world of change.
3That through which one enjoys form, taste, smell, sound,
Touch, and sexual union is the Self.
Can there be anything not known to That
Who is the One in all?  Know One, know all.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3: 3, NRSV).  This is indeed second birth, to renounce the fear and slavery of small “s” self, and to engage our true Self, at peace, at one with all there is.  Experience without fearing.  Enjoy without grasping.  Share without owning.  Choose, practice, to be born to Self under the Tree of Life.

*From The Upanishads, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, © 1987, 2007 by The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

American Christianity’s Elephant in the Room

Since the very beginning of the nation, Christianity has been the dominant cultural narrative of the United States.  Or, more accurately, the narrative of American Christianity has been the dominant narrative, and it reads something like this:

  1. Jesus, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, was different from you and me. He was truly God’s child, the first and last God incarnate.  We are not.
  2. Jesus loves you and wants to live in your heart.
  3. Jesus looked pretty much like a white middle-American, except he wore a robe.
  4. Jesus plays good cop to God’s bad cop. We sit in the chair of interrogation.  In the end, if we don’t answer right, we’re going to get it.
  5. Jesus said a lot of wonderful things and performed a bunch of miracles, but what really matters is that he died on the cross to save you from your sins. Jesus saves.
  6. Everyone is welcome in heaven, so long as they believe Jesus died for their sins and they praise his name on a regular basis.
  7. Jesus is coming again to get those who qualify under number 6 and to leave the rest behind, gnashing their teeth as the world goes down to hell. One of my favorite bumper stickers, in fact, reads, “Jesus is coming soon, and is he pissed!”

I would argue that this is not at all what Jesus was about.  But that is for another day.  Today, the message is that Christianity, at least in this cultural narrative, is dying in America.  And for the most part, the Christian church does not begin to comprehend the reason why.  Look around carefully, there is an elephant in the room.

Church attendance has indeed declined steadily for at least the past two generations.  Catholics have been hit hardest, followed by mainline Protestant congregations.  Large evangelical churches have been more likely to hold on, but even these are now seeing some decline.  In every research result, the “nones” and their “spiritual but not religious” cohort (all unaffiliated with any church) are steadily rising, especially in the emerging dominant millennial generation, but even among boomers and the silent generation that preceded them.

The evangelical mega-churches which had their hay day in the last twenty-five years are not immune.  Their marketing strategies and strategic plans implicitly acknowledge the consumer mentality of their, should we even use the label, parishioners.  Entertainment is not true religion.  Run the country out of fossil fuels or put on a better show down the street and watch what becomes of the theater seats, big screens and easy faith.

Some pollsters say the numbers lie, that what is happening is that people just go to church less often.  Others say that people are expressing their faith in house churches and other nontraditional gatherings.  There is no doubt a level of truth in both of these observations.

But no one is identifying or addressing the elephant in the room.  The American Christian church is dying.  It is dying not because of Jesus, but because American Christianity’s dominant story line, its basic value proposition, is bankrupt, with fewer and fewer willing to consider it credible enough to buy.  Fewer and fewer give any credence to the narrative that we are at core defective, not made just the way Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) intended, and that America’s Christian God requires blood sacrifice – specialized human/deity blood, at that – to keep from damning us to hell.

And nowhere in the church is that being acknowledged or addressed straight out.  In my review of religious demographic surveys I could not find even one that asked Christians or anyone else whether they truly believed that God required the blood sacrifice of a human incarnation to redeem them from their fallen nature.  Why is that?

I suspect at least three problems.  First, American Christian leaders are scared to hell of the likely results, which is why they persist in speculations and surveys about every other possible reason for their steady and imminent demise.  Further, it is possibly beyond the realm of imagination for these bearers of Christian angst to conceive of this issue at all.  It is literally unthinkable.  Finally, the elephant is both so large and so preposterous that people in general find it simply easier to dismiss it quietly and not to talk about it.  Who wants to disturb a holy elephant, dead or alive?  The result is that hot air is steadily cooling in this once dominant balloon.  And the poor wizard, while nervous, convinces himself that the curtain still hides him and the illusion holds sway.

Spirituality in America needs a new value proposition.  There were two special metaphorical trees in the Garden of Eden, both intended for us in the mind of C/S/M/S.  We ate from the first, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  We did not fall, we just thought we did.  We simply woke to all the splendor and terror of human awareness.  C/S/M/S never wanted us to kill anyone or anything to get free of that tree.  That was our idea.  The call in all times and places has been to grow up, to make good choices in the context of who we are and to move on to the tree of life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

The World We Dream

In his book, Mending the Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval, medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo describes the shamanic/spiritual practices of the Laika, an indigenous community of the Peruvian Amazon:

The Laika believe that everything is imaginal.  Whatever we perceive is a projection of our inner world, and the world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.

“The world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.”  I believe that to be true, individually and collectively.

So what does that mean?  Does that mean I can imagine great wealth and it will happen to me?  Maybe.  The prophets of positive thinking would say so, and Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates certainly imagined something.  I have actually heard people say that the entire universe is constructed, at root, to conspire for our greater good.

But there is something about this glib thinking that is potentially shallow and backwards.  This thinking tempts us to focus on changing the reflected image – the world we create or manifest – rather than the underlying reality, the condition of our soul.  We act out, we manifest, what we have allowed ourselves to become.  And the work for a better world is done not by sitting around and imagining a better world, but by working on the condition of our souls.

If I focus chiefly on the universe conspiring for my greater good, I will get a world that looks like my soul – a manipulative and selfish world with relationships and outcomes to match.  When I move my focus to outcomes, I lose track of who I am and I become, perhaps unintentionally, but truly, the picture of my neglected soul.

This is true collectively as well as individually.  The United States has begun air strikes in Iraq to counter forcefully the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  Our focus is on outcomes.  But the real world, the world that is, reflects the condition of a collective soul that wanted wealth and oil at any cost.  The condition of our soul manifested a world that supported oppressors like Saddam Hussein – or the Shah, or Somoza or any number of puppet regimes – in the oppression and pillage of people to yield the comfort we thought was our greater good.  And the perpetual wars that result, whether the violence in the Middle East or the violence in Central America beneath the current child refugee crisis, truly mirror and are an accurate manifestation of the condition of our soul.  When our soul, anyone’s soul, is sick with greed, we manifest a world of oppression and violence.

I remember bumper stickers that said “Visualize World Peace,” as though sitting still and picturing a peaceful world in our mind would make it happen.  But that is magical thinking, no better or more effective than the satirical bumper sticker retort, “Visualize Whirled Peas.”

“The world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.”  Mirrors can be useful.  Any one of us can look in the mirror and learn something about reality.  I might learn I am aging and wrinkling.  I might learn that I am contorted with anxiety, or that I am satisfied and radiant.  Certainly I can paste on a different face if I want to imagine something different than what I see.  I have manipulated the outcome of an image.  I have not changed the underlying reality.

There were two metaphorical trees planted at the center of the Garden of Eden:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, beside it, the Tree of Life.  We ate from the first and were given the gift of conscious awareness.  We could see the mirror image of all that we had manifested.  It was frightening and disconcerting.

Our reaction was to try to manipulate outcomes, to make the picture we saw safe and comforting.  Seeing only ourselves, we resorted to fear and greed.  We created religions in an attempt to get the gods to conspire for us, to cooperate with us, or at least not to work against us.

But there were – and are – those who grew up, who awoke to a different truth.  These prophets, saints and mystics realized that the world was just a reflection of something deeper, of the condition of our true spiritual selves.

Their call in all times has been to turn from the mirror, to embrace and nurture the reality.  The reality is the quality of our soul.  If we cultivate peace and harmony in our spirit, the mirror reflects it.  It’s not that we changed the picture.  It is that we changed our being.  We made the choice to grow up.  We nurtured the condition of our soul.  And the picture around us – the manifested world of relationships – reflects our nurture.

The two metaphorical trees in the garden, as I have noted before, are really only one.  When we focus on the mirror, we see only the image of the tree.  That image is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we bang into the mirror, over and over, trying to get what we want, what we think we need from that picture.  And the picture only gets worse, because it reflects our frustration and unhappiness.

When we turn away from the mirror of our manifested world, and cultivate the quality of our soul, we find that we are living in true reality, under the Tree of Life.  We manifest peace.  We manifest kindness and compassion.  We manifest abundance – the power of enough for all – because we have cultivated those things at the root of our being.

Turn inward.  Cultivate your soul.  Live in reality under the Tree of Life.  You won’t need the mirror to know the outcome.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Let it Flow

We all experience pain in our lives.   And it never really quite goes away.  Damage we received from our collisions with others.  Losses.  Memories of actions we unleashed and wish we could retrieve.  The memories can crush us as much or more than the true moment of the event.

We wonder why we harbor these things.  Didn’t we work at forgiveness, truly forgive the other, truly forgive ourselves?  Must we do this work again?  How long, and how many times must we suffer this brokenness?  Why can’t we heal the one we know is hurt?  Will we ever move on?

Sometimes it’s a dream where we rework the encounters, striving again with the feelings and remembered truth.  We fail still once more to change the situation, to win or to make it right.

The landscape of creation aches along the broken faults of our lives.  Sometimes a rift is torn.  Sometimes a range heaves up.  We moan audibly in an exhalation of the memory, a sound and a breath completely irrelevant to the air and the time and place that receive it.  But we know what it is.

We cannot uncreate.  We cannot undo the past, make it disappear, remove its effect from our lives.  But we can, today and always, let it flow, let it move and twist and turn.  Let it become the new thing that it will.

Breathe, moan, let it flow.  Sometimes the hot lava of the volcano, sometimes the blue water of the fountain.  It’s the flow that creates, whether it’s a glaring red-yellow stream that cools to the dark rock of a new mountain, or the water that carves a canyon in its flank on the return ride to the ocean.

Let it flow.  A good river never quits.  Water pushes up from the source.  It picks up streams and sediments on its way.  It spreads out and drops its dirt in the rich delta, only to rest in the sea, where the vast surface yields to the sun and air that return it once again to its beginning.

It’s the flow of life, the non-judging and continual cycle of movement and rest.  When we try to step out of it, to stop it or avoid it instead of riding it, we are out of touch, we lose our connection, we become the dam that only temporarily, despite our struggle, stands in the way.

There is a river that flows beside the Tree of Life.  It cleanses.  It heals.  It keeps moving, never fighting what it is.  Drink the water.  Ride the stream.  Let it flow.

Scripture today from my friend, singer/songrwriter JD Martin:

Hear me, rock of ages
Let me hide myself in thee
Touch me, living waters
Let me drink from your flowing stream

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Stand Clear of the Closing Dogma

For five years in the 1980’s, I had the wonderful privilege of working for New York University, in the heart of Greenwich Village.  I commuted by train, the first two years by subway and the last three by a combination of commuter railroad and the PATH tubes under the Hudson River.

Unlike the automated trains I took for years at Denver International Airport, these trains had human operators, accelerating, braking and using their own voices to announce station stops and safety messages.  The standard warning on the NY Subway system before departure was, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”  One memorable operator had a deep, slow, ominous and very serious voice, a real attention getter.  “Stand  Clear  of  the  Closing  Doors.”  Never lost a passenger, that one.

And so, in my deepest, most serious and reverential voice, I implore you, “Stand clear of the closing dogma.”  If you must believe any hard and fast set of words, believe the words silent, open and empty.  I mean it.  Take it all and take it all in.  And then throw on that grain of salt.

Every message out there since the beginning of time has contained the whole truth.  It’s just been wrapped up in limited human words and experience.  The stories unfold and circle around, carrying the cloak of their own times and the long since desiccated husks of the messengers who told the tales.

We turn these words and tales into idols when we insist that they are carved in stone, unchanging, hard and fast rules for life and salvation.  “Dogmattit!  Do it this way or go to hell.  Go directly to hell.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200!”

My poor Mennonite Church USA is going through the throws of dogmattit right now, with a herd of selective literalist thumpers holding up their marble idols, their rock hard billy-clubs insisting that, “Dogmattit, the divine billy-club says you can only have sex this way, under these circumstances, with one individual from the opposite sex and only for procreation, to boot.  Dogmattit!”

“Dogmat mutual respect or right relationship.  Dogmat the way you were created and the one you love.  Dogmat you both.  Dogmat all’a’y’all.  Dogmat you straight to hell!  And we love you.  We just can’t abide that you don’t kiss our holy billy-club.”

“We stand firm at the holy doors, dogmat billy-club in hand.  Stay out, you that were made to tickle in the wrong place.  Stay out, the one who would give their life and lifetime to you.  Stay out ‘r I’ll club you and all the other vermin that snuck in here when I wasn’t lookin’!  And don’t forget I love ya.’  And God does, too, dogmattit!  Just can’t abide your low down ways.  And by the way, I’m a pacifist, just like Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong.”

Ah, the painters, poets, songwriters and novelists get it right.  We accept and appreciate the changing styles and times when it comes to art.  If only all the religions of the world could do the same with their scriptures.  Take a step back.  See the line, the beauty, the color.  Soak up the kindness and truth in the whole picture, the whole story.  Let it fill your heart and feed your soul.

Make no mistake.  We need to learn the rules and ropes.  We need grammar and syntax.  We need technique, tools and methods.  It is good to teach our children.  But as we master our trade, our art form, we grow when we see and paint something entirely new – something entirely new that will become old and tested in tireless time.  And we need to give it to the world, the gift of picture and story that will be viewed and heard and felt, so long as its communally acclaimed quality speaks a growing, evolving, universal truth.

Scriptures are stories and pictures, dear friends, stories and pictures to show and tell under the Tree of Life.  The ones who see and hear have hearts of flesh and not of stone, hearts that beat in relationship and compassion.  Hearts that grow and evolve and create, radiating kindness and beauty and welcome.  Dogmattit!  Tell me a story.  Sing me a song. Show me a picture.  And please, put down that billy-club.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Creation and the Law of Three

Where did we come from?  Where are we going?  We stand, collectively, in the present.  We piece together, as best we can, stories of the past – myths, legends, archeological and historical evidence.  We reshape and retell the stories to give them meaning and relevance in our contemporary existence.  We create models of the future and test them under controlled conditions.  We make projections based on the extension of measured trends, with the speculative incorporation of newly emerging factors.  Scenarios are published in journals and debated by legislators, corporate leaders and environmentalists.

But change and impermanence seem the only certainties.  How and where do we fit in?  What role do we play?  What, if anything, can we possibly control?

Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, speculates on an interesting model for change, or named differently, the ongoing act of creation.  Much of eastern thought postulates stasis, the balancing of tensions as in yin and yang.  Drawing from the work of various western mystics, and her own knowledge of Christian theology, Bourgeault postulates a dynamic, evolving law of three, where these opposing forces, cyclically, encounter a third catalyzing pole and, together, yield a fourth and previously unmanifested reality.  This, she suggests, is the ongoing trinitarian rather than dualistic nature of things, the essence of ongoing creation.

Bourgeault speaks of this dynamic – the law of three – as being the very nature of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S).  And this trinity has more to do with tensions, process and evolution than it has to do with three distinct persons. 

The basic model works like this:

  • In one corner of the trinity, there is an urge, a pressure – initially the urge to physical manifestation.
  • In another corner of the trinity, we find a countervailing or opposing force – a resistance that creates a discomfort, an itch.
  • In the third corner there is a catalyst that sparks a reaction, something that intervenes or ignites the building tension to yield a newly created fourth, something entirely different than anything in the original trinity.
  • This fourth eventually becomes the new urge, the positive force in a new trinitarian cycle, something that will encounter opposition or resistance, building a tension that becomes available to a new round of catalytic intervention and resultant creation.

This, of course, is an analogy, our chief tool for the understanding of almost anything.  Let’s use an analogy to illustrate it.

I love the Rocky Mountains.  They began as the measureless ache, pressure and breaking caused by the persistent and powerful movement of oceans and continental plates, force and resistance with an urge to become.  The spirit and power of creation resulted in an upward thrust.  The new (fourth) and previously nonexistent reality is seen in the flowers, streams, trees, wildlife, weather systems and human interaction that now distinguish this vast emergence.  And this current reality is now a force in the corner of a new triangle that will struggle with intricate and phenomenal resistance, encountering a creative catalyst that will yield some as yet unimagined and untold beauty of the future.

Bourgeault references a law of seven, as well, postulating that in this full cycle of manifestation – from big bang until the end of the universe and time as we know it – there are seven cycles of major trinitarian creation.  In essence, she describes a cycle of the breath of C/S/M/S from unmanifest, through aeonic stages of maturing creative manifestation, to full return to the unmanifest.  She suggests that the cycle with which we are most familiar, and are about to exit, is the sixth.  It is distinguished by Creator (traditionally Father), Word (traditionally Son) and Spirit (indwelling presence).   The new fourth, the resulting emergence, is a more fully awakened humanity – the Kingdom of Heaven – one prepared to take its place in the corner of a seventh cycle, urging at ever increasing pace toward its own epic climax.

We do indeed live in a time when former structures are crumbling.  Even the individual seems to be disappearing into some mass electronic collective network.  The social changes that have rumbled since the 1960’s, the vision of the Age of Aquarius, the recent end of the age in the Mayan calendar, the relentless breakdown of old religious and social institutions, the exponentially increasing rate of technological and environmental change – all these support that we are leaving an old dynamic and entering something entirely new.

Bourgeault seems confident that this new manifestation is truly the Kingdom of Heaven, and that it will take its place in the corner of a new trinity – Kingdom of Heaven, Creator, Spirit – that will yield Oikonomia, the ultimate divine plan or economy of C/S/M/S.  Andrew Harvey and others enthusiastically name and champion this as a collective “Christ Consciousness.”  I am, admittedly, less sanguine, less optimistic.  I can also envision the clutch of crazies that rushed to the top of a skyscraper in Los Angeles to greet the aliens, only to be fried, in the film Independence Day.

Of course it’s an analogy, and we see only the glimpse that we can see, guessing at what we are making and where we are going.  But that is how it has always been, force and resistance interacting with creative spirit to yield a new reality.

We walk in faith.  I believe we are, collectively, one corner of some new trinity.  I believe that corner has the potential to be the Kingdom of Heaven.  Even more, I believe that whatever it is eventually named, it will be the sum of our collective human choices, and it will be the irrepressible urge toward a new round of trinitarian creation.  Who knows what mountains may rise, or what flowers and streams may appear.  May kindness and compassion – Tree of Life choices — be the character and essence of our collective expression, with trust in the catalyst of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source as together we urge forward in the friction and itch of creation, to be resolved in some new beauty beyond our sight and imagination.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Who We Are

Tradition has it that Jesus was born to a virgin, conceived in an immaculate flash of union with the Holy Spirit.  Tell me, how is that different from the way you or I were born?  Creation is creation.  Or perhaps becoming is becoming, if we think of things in an evolutionary frame.

We can explain the mechanics of conception and birth in great depth and detail.  But it seems we will not touch the complete mystery of life and spirit anytime soon.  Even Jesus looked around at the rocks in the field and said that Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source could make children of them.

We are who we are, no more nor less.  We are a particular mix and match of Higg’s Bosons – the very same quarks and electrons that make rocks, stars and all that is – coming together under the right conditions.  Where did the self-awareness step in, and how?  Does it matter?  Despite the insistence of some religions on our fallen nature, we are children of the universe, beings with the gift of self-awareness, being and becoming what we will become.  Let’s relax with that.

Is there a creator God behind all of this, pushing around the Higg’s Bosons, mixing and matching the quarks?  Perhaps.  That is a question of faith, not science.  I believe (the faith piece, the confidence in things not seen, but perceived) that there is, indeed, a vast and beautiful creative source and energy.  I believe that we are somehow emanations and expressions, actual part and parcel of that immaculate energy.  And the essence of that energy is creative expression, not manipulation.  There is no offended judge ready to burn our bodies and spirits for eternity in hell because we didn’t say this, we didn’t do that or we broke somebody’s holy rule.

What are the grounds of my belief?  Simple.  The cells of my body literally rejoice when I contemplate and trust connection with the energetic whole.   They are flowering and at peace in the sunshine and rain of all that is.  And I know, as well, when they despair, hate, fear and retreat.  This happens whenever I drift into belief that I am disconnected and alone, an isolated and completely vulnerable ego-self.

We cannot really separate ourselves from what we are.  We can only imagine that separation in the awakening process of our self-awareness.  And when we imagine that separation, we create our own little imaginary hell in which to live.  It is a hell of worry and fear, expressed in grasping this and fending off that.  It is a hell that is, most of all, scared to death of death, of perceived annihilation.

But my spirit soars, it thrills, at rest in a stream beyond the speed of light, basking in the unseen power and evanescence of being, of becoming.  It is this perceived knowing that is the experience, essence and expression of faith.  It is knowing beyond comprehension, seeing beyond observation, joining in union beyond touch.  It is being and becoming.

We waken to life, conceived in that immaculate flash under what appears at first to be the tree of duality, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We grasp at good, we ward off evil, we run, scared as hell, from death.

But when we stop, when we set down our grasping and defending, we find ourselves at peace, being and becoming under the Tree of Life.  Come rest with me in that streaming stillness beyond the speed of light.  Drink the refreshing tea of the leaves that heal the nations.

There were two special trees, planted as crown jewels in the metaphorical Garden of Eden.  Yet they are one.  It is our faith that makes us whole.

Scripture today from Cat Stevens, “Sitting:”

Oh I’m on my way, I know I am,

Somewhere not so far from here.

All I know is all I feel right now.

There’s a power growing in my hair.

© Jerry Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden.  Quote as useful.  Please reference the source.

Sex and the City of God

My Mennonite denomination (Mennonite Church USA) finally seems near the point of over-determination on issues of human sexuality.  That is to say, the tipping point, however long and tortuous the path, seems imminent on elevating the gospel message of loving relationship over the ancient purity codes around human sexual preference and practices.  Recalling the early church’s angst over circumcision, I find it interesting that two millennia down the road, the hottest topic in the church still revolves around what happens with men’s penises.  At least today vaginas are on the table, as well.  We can be grateful for small steps.

Sexuality is powerful.  Where there is power, there is danger of abuse.  Perhaps a good measure of the power of sexuality is the immense catalog of abuses it has accumulated over the millennia.  The major sections of the book would include slavery, domination, profiteering and the threats of damnation used to perpetuate religious institutions.

Power, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil.  It just is.  And the biblical lens on sexuality reflects this.  We each have power – whether sexual, monetary or otherwise – in various measures.  The primary tasks – and the biblical admonition – in our connection to power are to submit it in relationship and to use it in the service of justice.

For Christians, perhaps the most instructive biblical lessons on sexuality and power are in Matthew’s less than subtle but almost completely ignored inclusion of four women, all notably not Israelite, in his genealogy of Jesus.

The first among them is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah.  Tamar seduced Judah and bore his son in order to shame him into honoring his obligations to care for family, whether Hebrew or other.  When all else failed, she effectively used sexual power in the service of justice.

The second is Rahab, the Canaanite woman who ran a house of prostitution on the walls of Jericho.  It is interesting that Joshua and his band of spies stayed with her and was protected by her on that holiest of land grabs, the retaking of the Promised Land following the Exodus from Egypt.  Rahab apparently married one of the troops and was elevated to the status of a progenitor of the Christ, despite the fact that the ancient world thought women played only the role of incubator in the process of procreation.  Sexual power, here, was turned to relationship.

The third is Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of the Hebrew Naomi.  Ruth, with the direction and support of her mother-in-law, seduced Boaz, effectively claiming a rightful inheritance and protection for these socially vulnerable women.  Ruth was the grandmother of King David.  Sexual power, here, was used to secure protection.

And finally, there is Bathsheba, the Hittite who withstood the murder of her husband and the uncontrolled sexual urges of King David, becoming the mother of Solomon in the royal line of the (biblically) chosen people.  In an act of redemption and justice, Bathsheba is elevated, at least in Matthew’s genealogy, to the position of matriarch in the messianic line.

People point to the story of Sodom to illustrate divine hatred of homosexuality, if not just sexuality in general.  What was hateful in Sodom was the wanton pursuit of sexual satisfaction without regard to the safety and welfare of the other, yet alone any thought of relationship.  The men at Lot’s door would not be satisfied without violent and abusive sex.  And the worst among them was Lot, who was ready to submit his own daughter to rape and murder in order to save his own sorry self.  That city burned itself down with self-centered violence.

The point of these tales is not that God (as the Bible names and perceives Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source) somehow had a negative view of homosexuality (in the case of Sodom) or on sexuality as a force in human relationships.  Rather, it is that sexuality was recognized as powerful.  Like all biblical stories of power, the consistent message is that it is used appropriately for relationship and for justice, and never for violence, greed or anything at the expense of others.

Under the Tree of Life, sexuality is a thing of astounding beauty, magnified in relationship.  It is, in the words of Jackson Browne (“Looking East”), “the power of a sunrise, the power of a prayer released.”

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil we become lost in rules, social norms and false morality that have everything to do with the abuse of power and nothing to do with beauty, relationship or justice.  Our sexuality, when we own and celebrate it in relationship, travels with us as a lovely companion – strong, true, beautiful and useful – on our journey to the Tree of Life, at the center of the metaphorical city of God.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Quote as useful.  Please mention the source.

The Village Green

In his book Grassroots Spirituality (2004, Imprint Academic), Robert Forman documents a huge sociological shift in the last generation away from strict barriers between religions and toward a shared spirituality.  His metaphor (pp. 89, 98-100) is a village green:

It is as if the residents of the various religious houses have wandered into some huge village green to chat with each other.  Then they’ve taken what they’ve learned from each other back to their respective houses, and have taught their followers (in their own respective languages) what they’ve learned.  (Parenthetical insertion mine)

That’s a beautiful image, and I hope it is so.

Religions, like any institution, are nothing more than the collective expression of the individuals who comprise them.  We project the level of our maturity and development onto these institutions and they become magnified by the power of the collective consciousness they embody.  Governments, for instance, can be like the government of Costa Rica, which reflects the collective expression of a people who have decided that an investment in a standing army would compromise investment in things like education and health care.  Whereas the people of North Korea have invested to the extreme, it seems, in paranoia and its protection.  In the United States, we worship wealth so much that we are willing to give it to a very few, just to dream that someday it might be possible for the rest of us.  In each case, collectively, we believe that this is the way things should be.

The unique thing about religions is that they reflect our collective approaches to mystery, to the unknown and to our longing for meaning.  In the presence of mystery, many things are contrasted:

  • Trust and fear
  • Meaning and nihilism
  • Pattern and accident
  • Time and eternity
  • Obligation and freedom

These are scary issues.  Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we address them with the gods we make and the religions we construct as their playpens.  In essence, we create metaphors for an unnamable mystery.  Trouble comes when we begin to believe our metaphors, to make them real and concrete rather than beautiful poetic expressions of our experience with mystery.  And when enough of us agree strongly enough that our metaphor is the real deal, we cannot possibly admit that another may have relevance.  That is, in fact, the true meaning of idolatry.  Our levels of judgment, when we have solidified and latched onto our religious creation – our idol – will vary on a scale from a knowing toleration of the misguided to violent annihilation of the infidel.

Who knows, someday someone may even take this two trees metaphor and build a new religion with which to judge, measure and exclude others.  There will be shrines to the trees and people will bring offerings to avoid damnation, the certain consequence of irreverence.  And non-believers will be hung daily from the branches.

But true reverence in the face of mystery requires nothing more than silent awareness.  There are those in every faith that have gone deep into that silence, who through practice have stripped themselves bare of all the trappings in order to experience whatever touches them.  The deeper they go, the closer they approach oneness with the mystery.

Whatever tent they hale from, these beings move freely about the village green.  They know that the ground that supports us and the air that enlivens us are the same for all, in all places and all times.

We stake out the shelter of our little communities of faith, fine and good for protection and a sense of family.  But the ground and the air are never ours alone and our tent shelters no one if it is less than welcoming to all.  Our true home is the earth and the air, the ground of all being and the breath of life.  We need not fear it.  Nor should we fear the tents that are not ours or their inhabitants.

Let’s enter and engage freely on the village green.  Let’s share together the sustenance of the Tree of Life and the river that waters it.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

The Diamond of Our Hearts

I turned 20 in 1972.  Somehow, in that year of moving out of my teens, I must have felt some necessary transition.  Whatever the cause, I got the urge to read all the way through the Bible, cover to cover:  the creation myths; the twists and turns of Old Testament characters; the tortuous law; the romances; Psalms and the wisdom literature; the histories; the prophets, great and small; the gospels, letters and finally that wild apocalypse at the end.  What a slug it seemed at the time!

There were ups and downs of interest.  I know I spent a lot of time in Proverbs, punctuated with prayers for wisdom.  I have always been blown away by the crystal calls to social justice of the minor prophets, especially Amos.  And Paul’s ego was very annoying (Was I struggling with my own?).  But I will never forget that one particular passage captured me and brought me home.

Somewhere in the middle of Jeremiah, there are several chapters sometimes referred to as The Little Book of Comfort.  In chapter 31: 33-34 it says:

33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . . No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord (read Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source),’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  Something in those words gripped my soul.

Hebrew scripture was written, of course, for the Hebrew people from a particular cultural and historical perspective.  It has the trappings of time and place and the personal limitations of any individual author.  But like all good scripture, the universal Truth of it breaks out of those limitations and speaks where and when it will.

We live in a time that demands that breaking out.  Few in the postmodern world can accept or live entirely or exclusively within the narrow strictures of any particular religious tradition.  We are simply too aware of the variety of paths, the spiritual journey of all the great traditions.  We are cognizant of the human and institutional flaws that have inevitably tainted each – the flaws that reflect, simply, the struggle of our own hearts, the urge of ego toward power and domination through intimidation, force and fear.  We may choose to live in one house, but we will be engaging, dialoging and welcoming across the global community.

And on any given day, in any given body of scripture, when we mine with an open heart, the gems show themselves.  Somehow when I encountered this diamond, I knew I had found my home – or, of course, it had found me.  Somehow the vision and realization that words don’t matter; that names for Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source are inconsequential; that our hearts at their core are true beyond teaching and language; somehow that message took me completely apart and put me back together, all in an instant.

Humpty Dumpty, of course, has fallen off the wall many times – at least daily – since that encounter.  But hold back the king’s horses and all the king’s men.  Let me fall.  Let us all fall until the last speck of clay is shattered and polished off that diamond of our hearts, and all that is left are the words love, justice, peace and compassion, shining with gentle brilliant welcome, reaching beyond voice to all we encounter.

There is fruit on the Tree of Life.  Its bark is studded with diamonds, a gem in every leaf.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

Keeping the Appointment of Our Life

I’ve been reading a lot lately about second half of life tasks – Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and two books by James Hollis, Hauntings and Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life.  I guess people of a certain age (right now, perhaps especially children of the ‘60’s) become concerned about these things.  In Hauntings, Hollis speaks often of “showing up” in our lives.  He says that “what Jung called the Self, the natural wisdom, the organic drive, and the will to meaning, lives in all of us and waits for us to show up, keep the appointment.  How many of us really keep the appointment in our lives?”

Good question.  The “second half” of life is more about a place than a time, a point of response to a confrontation with Self.  The first half place is the place of constructing an ego, a place of defining our fit and space in the world, of making ends meet.  How will we make a living?  How high will we climb the ladder of organizational hierarchy?  How will we dress the kids and what activities will we steer them towards?

These are, for most of us, necessary tasks, if only for the sake of finding out who we are not.  I have known just a few souls who seemed to grasp their true task, following it with joy and deep satisfaction, almost from the start.  Sometimes I have wasted time envying them, time that might have been used figuring out what the real difference was between them and me, the difference of acquaintance with true Self.

If we are not one of those clear-sighted souls who, from childhood, know and follow their call, it generally takes a crisis of some kind to wake us to the emptiness of our first-half pursuit.  The Peter Principle comes to mind:  “An observation that in an organizational hierarchy, every employee will rise or get promoted to his or her level of incompetence.” (Investopedia)  The disparaging follow-on assumption in the Peter Principle is that people just stay stuck in place when they arrive at their incompetence, constructing a mask and pretending until retirement or an early death, contributing little of worth to the organization – most certainly, missing the appointment with their Self.

But if we are half awake, if we are listening or open to God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, we will know when we encounter that incompetence in any area of our lives.  Maybe it is in relationships, maybe it is in professional contribution, maybe it is in following a path other than the call of our hearts.  The Angel of Truth will stand in our way, will challenge us to a fight.

G/C/S/M/S stands always at the ready to break us open, to remove the mask of whomever we think we are, to offer us not a new name, but our real name.  The encounter inevitably involves suffering and pain.  It is never easy to admit or to accept that we have chased a lie in any area of our life.

But if we engage it, if we turn toward it and walk through it, the encounter is not forever.  It is just a marker, a place on the road, a directional sign.  It is not the road ahead.

The road ahead is our second half place.  It is the opportunity to let go of the struggle to construct something false and to embrace a free and useful truth.  It may mean something very different and new.  Just as likely, it may mean a new engagement with our present surroundings, an engagement that relinquishes the fight and becomes one with what we thought was our opponent.

Achievements are replaced with relationships.  Performance is replaced with people.  We begin truly to see, encounter and embrace others because we have seen, encountered and embraced our true Self.

We will know when we are there, when we are truly in this second half place.  We will know because we will have eaten the true fruits of the Spirit.  We will encounter and become “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5: 22-23a, NRSV)

We will have shown up for our appointment under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

The Birth of Willingness

When I was in high school, back in the late 1960’s, I was a bright young man, full of hope and promise – class president, student council president, president of my church youth group, co-salutatorian of my graduating class, a good singer.  OK, I was depressed.  I know that now looking back, but I was working so hard on persona, trying to figure out and be who I thought “I” was or should be that I had no concept of the reality – which at that time was a pretty scared and depressed young man yearning to break out of and let go of so many things.

I was busy busy willing my way forward.  And, while I didn’t know it, I was struggling and fighting my way toward a spirituality of willingness.  It was a long fight, something like a 35-year engagement with an oxymoron, this battle of willing (an action verb) my way to willingness (a state of being).

It’s a necessary struggle, this discovery of individuation.  And it involves picking up and wearing so many masks – a little like Adam and Eve trying on clothes in the Garden of Eden, eyes opening to the discovery and awareness of themselves.  It’s a path of necessary loneliness, a path that, without fail, for every human, leads us out of the garden.

We learn something of our gifts, certainly.  But we struggle and fumble with how to use them.  The fight continues just as long as we wield those gifts for the purpose of creating our particular place in the world, as long as we struggle with willing our way toward being something or other.  Eventually the path leads to destinations of numbness, delusion or brokenness.  We settle into a numb acceptance of a rather meaningless life and go through the motions for the duration.  Or we achieve something of material grandeur and success and delude ourselves with the image of power and status that we have created in our comparison to the others around us.  If we are lucky, we, like Jacob, see the angel in our path and engage a fight that we (our self-created image) will ultimately lose, a shattering of the mask, a wounding sufficient to make us want to give up the fight, a wounding that heals us all the way to willingness.

But when we are broken, oh, when we are broken, it hurts like hell, it hurts like birth.  We may be angry about the pain.  We may be bitter about the loss.  We grieve the fight, we bemoan the years of struggle and, if we are fortunate, we exhaust ourselves to a place of rest.  We resign ourselves to the passage, to second birth.

Birth, the actual process, is something that happens to us.  Even if, as some believe, we choose a particular birth – whether by will or by karma – the actual passage, once it is engaged, is a movement of power and transformation that is beyond our particular control.

The image that comes to me is the bud of a flower.  We are clamped tight in protection, thinking that is all we are and all we have.  We resist change.  We resist birth.  But one day we are torn, the husk is ripped and pushed aside.  We lose our grip, we give up and the beauty begins to emerge.

When we give up the hold of individuation, when we give up our will to dominate others and to protect our separation, the surprise is that we gain Ourselves.  The only thing we lose is the fight of isolation, our fear of personal annihilation.  We learn that we are indeed something, that we are a necessary, useful and beautiful part of an unfolding grandeur beyond our imagination.  We are all that we are created to be.  Instead of the struggle to will, we flow in the beauty of being willing, to be the flower that we are, to offer that beauty in the urging forward of creation.

It’s like that, this path from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, all the way to the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

Born in You this Day

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”   Luke 2:11, NRSV.

There are so many ways to wreck a good story.  In fact, we might as well call it Christmas Cancer for all that it has become in the last two millennia:  grafted onto holiday trees from other traditions; the insanity of soldiers stopping to sing carols to the enemy across the front lines of WWI, resuming the fight in the morning; Santa Claus and Rudolph; enough lights to outshine a supernova; a worldwide binge and burp of the economy big enough to make us confident that Jesus has finally entered the temple and whipped, once and for all, the rogue dogs of evil empire.

What was born?  Who was born?  Lamb of God?  For all our focus on blood sacrifice to grab salvation, Jesus might as well have been a 4-H calf, corn-fed and off to the fair, sold at auction to the highest bidder, the owner of the fanciest restaurant in the state.

What was born?  Who was born?  The birth narratives of Matthew and especially the iconic scene of the stable, manger, angels and star in Luke, are memorialized annually from the tiniest of crèche scenes reconstructed in the shell of a bird’s egg, to the bigger than life plywood or even living crèches that, despite our silly doublespeak laws about what religious freedom is or isn’t, stand in front of churches or town squares worldwide.  God almighty, the things we fight about to avoid our own truth.

What was born? Who was born? Without doubt, a true Rose of Sharon, a balm in Gilead, a little Prince of Peace.  And stories like these pasted onto the front of Matthew’s and Luke’s life narratives are effective “sit up and take notice” calls that here was a birth and a life of great importance.

Alas, we are so prone to losing ourselves in icons, drama and worship – anything to avoid personal responsibility.

The real birth of Jesus, good friends, took place in the silent stretch of nearly twenty years between Luke 2 and Luke 3, a gestation of learning and practice, of formation in the womb of wisdom and spirit.  The real birth of Jesus was the birth of authentic Self, the hero’s/heroine’s journey to which we are all invited when we are silent in the presence and willing in spirit.

Luke tries to hammer this home with his genealogy, the long list of names at the end of the third chapter, almost entirely ignored by 2,000 years of Christianity, that ends, for both Adam (read “you and me”) and Jesus, with “Son (child) of God.”  This genealogy marks the line of transition, the end of gestation.  It is followed immediately by a baptism of grown-up spirit and the launch of Jesus into his brief public life of healing, bathed and swaddled in an honest and consistent call to peace, compassion, fairness and, most of all, the pleading invitation to each of us to join him in our own true birth.

What was born?  Who was born?  A human was born, like every human, who gained his life with the whisper of prana, the tickle and nudge of the breath of God, the life force of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Self.  Born a human, you and me, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This one grew up.  This one accepted that suffering (true love, while it may cast out fear, just as often draws fire) was the price of second birth, the true and human birth to capital “S” Self, the birth canal of silence, prayer and practice that bore him all the way to the Tree of Life.

How utterly astounding that for all the effort to tell us in symbol and story, for the repeated invitation of Jesus to each of us to grow up, to enter and to walk through the inevitable suffering of birth to true and mature life, we choose instead to worship the stories.  We shield our eyes in the waving of palms and drown the voice in our din of praise.  Truly, for the most part, we would rather kill the guide than hear the call, hear the invitation and embrace the path.

Born in you this day.  Born in you this day, kind friend.  The invitation to embrace the path, the invitation to second birth.  Born in you this day.  The call to accept, without judgment, the pain and suffering of growing up.  The call to embrace and transform it with the practice of peace, of compassion for self and others.  The call to be authentic sons and daughters of C/S/M/S, true birth under the Tree of Life.

Born in you this day.  Let it be.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

Adoration

So much of our connection and relationship with others is shaped by our emotions.  We don’t like this person, because they do things that annoy us.  Someone else made us angry.  Another just sweeps us off our feet because they are so incredibly attractive.

These feelings are powerful.  If we try to ignore them, they find ways to keep popping up.  Or sometimes we just give into them and let them shape our responses.  We may vent our anger. We may carry a grudge.  We may pine away with hopeless longing for connection.

Long term intimate relationships can be especially confusing.  We are never another and they are never us.  We never fully understand another, and so we often interpret their actions as somehow directed at us.  That leads us to an emotional response.

And feelings, of course, wax and wane for a huge variety of reasons.  Our partner can become the unwitting object of all these changes.  While they are always the same person, there are days when our feelings for them may be wonderful and other days when we really don’t want to be with them.

We can chase our tail for life, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, responding to one feeling and another, giving those feelings power over how we act and how we use our energy.  The end of that chase is generally exhaustion, and never satisfaction.

We have an alternative – a Tree of Life alternative.  Somehow I suspect that the Spirit that created us absolutely adores us.  We do not always act adorably.  Yet the choice of our Creator was and is an ongoing act of adoration.  We block it and don’t respond to it for much of our life.  But that is our choice, not the action of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.

While we may say we adore something or someone – you know, the warm fuzzy feeling – adoration, as I am using it, is not a feeling.  It is a practice.  It is an ongoing active choice.

Really.  Sooo – how does that work?  Well, let’s say we start by choosing to adore our long-term committed partner in life.  We acknowledge that our feelings in that relationship will ride the usual roller coaster.  We accept and don’t fight those feelings.  Rather, we choose to own them as our own, not something created by our partner, or for which our partner carries any responsibility.  And we choose not to let those feelings, positive or negative, carry the day with us.  We observe them and we learn what we can from them about ourselves.  And we own that our actions and reactions are ours, by personal choice.

That realization is called being free from attachment.  We are ourselves.  We are not the feelings to which we thought we were attached.

OK, step two.  Once we are free from attachment, we can choose not the feeling, but the practice of adoration.  Suddenly we are free from the blame game and the tail chasing, because we have stepped out of that vicious cycle.  We can stand still and truly see.  We can observe, we can soak in our partner as they truly are – an adored creation of C/S/M/S, just like we are.  And we can choose to adore them.

We can choose not to judge or to criticize.  We can choose to appreciate and to love what we see – all of their unique expressions, all of their hopes and fears, all of their work along their own path, as a creature learning and growing in all that C/S/M/S has for them.  And we can give thanks, and appreciation and adoration.  We can choose, in reality, to see them exactly as we can choose to see ourselves and all of creation around us.

We can accept and be grateful for the gifts they offer, rather than grasping or demanding what we think we need or deserve, or being disappointed that somehow they haven’t figured out what we really want from them.  We can give up “want” altogether, because we know we have what we need, and we are satisfied.

Adoration is not blind.  Rather, it is compassionate, knowing that we have far more to work on for ourselves along the path than we can possibly expect of or get from another.  Adoration reflects back, helping another shine her or his own light, rather than hitting back.

There may be times when safety or wisdom require separation – even permanent breaking off of an intimate relationship.  There is still no need to engage in the blame game.  Self-adoration, self-care, is our first responsibility – and then to love our neighbor.  Becoming stuck in hatred or bitterness is really just another way of giving up adoration of our self – another form of unhealthy attachment to feelings and to what we project about the other.

Practice is the key to success.  We practice the adoration we have received from our Creator.  And we practice letting go of our attachment to emotions and to our dependency on blaming someone else for the way we feel.

There were two special trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life.  Practicing a different way locates us under the one that yields true satisfaction.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

Willingness vs. Willfulness

Two hearts diverge in the center of my chest.  One is right, absolutely certain of what it deserves, red, furious, sulking, adrenalized, ready to explode.  This one does not like change, at least not change that does not go in the direction it wants – the right and fair direction, the direction that I can see so clearly.

The other is quiet and at peace, in relationship, observing, taking in the whole, engaging without attaching, nimble as a stream flowing over rocks, flexing with what truly is.

What a grip the first heart has, and how complete the blindness and stranglehold.  And how utter and painful the defeat if it carries the battle to the end and loses.  Or how empty the victory if it wins and beats its perceived opponent into the ground.

It is all the same heart, of course.  It is mine and I make the choice, just like choosing whether or not the giving tree under which I live is going to be the Tree of Life or the other one.

But how can I make that choice when I am so thoroughly blinded?  The truth is, sometimes I can’t, or don’t, and I drift further and further into the hell I create with my own sightless determination.  How difficult, but how important it is to change course and to bring it all back home.  Sometimes the path is long and painful because of the bitterness built up inside and the damage inflicted on others around me.

What are the turning points, the places of repenting?  Sometimes it is awareness of the misery, sometimes it is the voice of another who can see me more clearly than I can see myself.  Sometimes it is the practice of quiet prayer, the prayer that seeks, in a mantra of willingness or a broken open silence, to let in a small sparkle of light, a trickle of healing water, finding the pinhole through which a larger landscape can be seen.

Always the turn involves practice.  It involves breathing and conscious letting go.  It involves releasing my death grip attachment to a self-determined and willful outcome.

We do not diminish ourselves when we choose willingness, the open connection to the whole.  Rather, we become our true selves, the Self of paradoxical oneness with all that is.

The picture is always larger, and I am only a part of the whole, not the entire thing, as I want to believe.

When we practice willingness, when we practice being open and available, expanding our vision and releasing our determination to have the speck of sand we thought was everything, we experience healing.  We find that the ache and inflammation begin to subside.  The poison is leached little by little from our system and the blinders fall away.  We are able to see both the detail and the landscape.  The stream flows in its ripples and pools, turning with ease to follow its natural course.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalms 51:10, NRSV)  It’s not so much a new one, but rather a connected one. And it is already there.  We don’t have to beg or grovel for it, nor do we have to tear out anything as though it is wrong or defective.

Rather, we choose.  Will we be willing or willful, separate or connected?  Our spirit and our heart are not other than that with which we are gifted in our creation.  There are no defects.  There is only choice, the choice of isolation or the choice of connection.  When we are real and whole, we are both individuated and connected.  We are the gift of our own place and being.  And we are the gift of the entire universe.  It is the paradox and beauty of being a thread in the fabric.

In any case, our heart is truly only one, our very own, offered willingly in connection to the whole.  Ah, the wonder and taste of the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Rights reserved and offered.  Make use.  Share the source.

Suffering

My wife is a special educator.  She tells me stories about kids who are and will be, no matter how hard they work, miles and miles short of successful functioning in our society.  I hear about the amazing ways that she confronts them and engages them to draw out even the most basic responses to external stimuli – things like pointing to or grabbing a particular picture that indicates something they want or need, communication in its most elemental forms.  My mind spins off into the future for these little lives and I ache.  Something in me inclines toward discouragement.

According to Wikipedia, 230,000 people died, in 2004, in the Indian Ocean Tsunami (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake_and_tsunami), triggered by an undersea megathrust off the west coast of Sumatra.  The millions that survived carry the soul etching memory of terror, and the loss of loved ones, places and ways of life that were wrenched irrevocably out of their being.  Even from a distance, the collective soul of the earth feels and bears the rip, the wound and the scar.

The Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University (see http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-civilians) estimated, in February 2013, that between 16,700 and 19,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan as direct or indirect casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom.  iCasualties counts 3383 deaths of coalition troops since the war started in 2001 (http://icasualties.org/oef/), not to mention the traumatic head injuries, loss of limbs and suffering of families of the injured.

Life as we observe it and experience it is full of suffering, whether natural, psychological or of our own making.  And it is so for the observer and survivor just as it is for the victim. 

The Sanskrit term dukkha captures this completely.  The Wikipedia article on dukkha (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha) explains it in three categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birthgrowing oldillness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

When we choose to stay stuck under the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, life is indeed dukkha.  We see everything through a lens of a battle to eliminate the pain of our current existence, even to the point of killing others and increasing pain because we think somehow our own security will be enhanced and our dukkha decreased.  In reality, we just pile it higher and deeper.

I have a friend, Vern Rempel, who postscripts his emails with these words of his:  “The code of the universe is written in beauty.” The Buddha said:  “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.”  Somehow I think these two assertions are headed in the same direction.

We cannot judge the pain of temporal existence any more than we can judge – as good, bad or indifferent – the unfolding of our universe and the emergence of life itself.  It is.  It is, it is, it is.  To say “it is” is not indifference, but rather acceptance of and wonder at the mysterious whole and trajectory of creation.

The cessation of dukkha is no more nor less than the choice to live under the Tree of Life.  It is, I believe, a more complete nirvana, and the essence of the Greek term metanoia, translated in the Christian Bible as repentance.  That word has become heavy laden with the trappings of a religion of judgment.  More accurately, it simply means to change, or to turn away from.

When we turn away from our judging and fearful view of life under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we find ourselves, simply, under the Tree of Life.  We repent of dukkha.  We let go of, we turn way from our limited and temporal view of suffering and we engage fully in the ongoing act, the revelation/evolution of creation.

We, in our evolutionary state, have been given at least the level of awareness that comes with observation.  And we have been gifted as well with the ability to judge what we observe.  We also have the ability to choose our response.

We can willfully try to manipulate life and the world around us, desperately seeking to avoid what we perceive as dukkha.  When we do this, we only create more.

Or we can willingly accept and participate in the beautiful and staggeringly powerful onslaught of creation, sharing compassion, soaking in the beauty and mystery, acting in the creative initiative of God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.

There is a tremendous ache, the ache of birth, in the act of creation.  We are part of it.  The birth, the code of that ache, is the handwriting of the universe.  The child of it all, the child of us all when we participate in and do not fight the unfolding, is beauty beyond words and saying.

Come, turn, breathe, care, steward and create.  Live under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share as you please.  Mention the source.