Spiritual Principles of The Samurai

May 22, 2016 - 12:32 pm Comments Off on Spiritual Principles of The Samurai

Spiritual Principles of the Samurai

By Jonathan Davis on Friday May 6th, 2016

Cultivating the ethics of honour, discipline and mastery

For nearly 700 years in feudal Japan approximately ten percent of the population lived as samurai ‘retainers’, a warrior class that lived in service to their respective provincial lords. The Samurai lived their lives by a code known as Bushido, which was based on a combination of Zen and Confucian principles and emphasised loyalty to one’s master, respectful ethical behaviour and self-discipline. Elements of Bushido emphasise compassion, benevolence and other higher qualities held by the Samurai that are worth emulating. So what can we learn from these ancient warriors that might help us with our personal evolution in the modern world?

Finding a role model
Whether you are a warrior, an artist or a business person, the first samurai skill worth adopting is the ability to ‘construct’ a true master to learn from, even if a living example of a true master doesn’t exist or isn’t accessible in the culture of our modern day.
According to Master lttei… one should look at many people and choose from each person his best point only. For example, one person for politeness, one for bravery, one for the proper way of speaking, one for correct conduct and one for steadiness of mind… If one perceives a person’s good points, he will have a model teacher for anything.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

Finding a true master to study with The Masterless Master
Miyamoto Musashi is without a doubt the most respected samurai warrior to have ever lived. Widely known as the masterless master, Musashi is likely to have achieved this level of high esteem through this very principal of assembling the best elements from less-than-perfect role models. Musashi was undefeated after sixty duels from the age of 16 to around age 60, when he retired to a cave and wrote what is widely considered the most important text of the samurai era:
The Book of Five Rings.

From one thing, know ten thousand things
One of Miyamoto Musashi’s most well-known concepts is: ‘from one thing, know ten thousand things’. In essence, this implies that by learning to become a master at one skill, we learn the very process of mastery itself; knowledge which can then be transferred to other skills.
From one thing, know ten thousand things… Neuroscience is starting to verify this concept when delving into the role of motor neurons and the transferability of learned skills. Learn to do something with one part of the body, like the right hand, and you will learn the same skill more quickly on the left hand, because the skill can be transferred to other control centres in the brain. More broadly, we also see this evidence of this when people find it much easier attaining their second, third or fourth university degree, or learning third and fourth languages more easily after having gone through the challenge of learning a second.

What we call mastery was merely discipline
In the present day we have the idea, according to Josh Kaufman, that we can become functionally ‘good enough’ at any given skill after about 20 hours of practice. To go from being pretty good at something to achieving mastery, the learning curve gets a lot steeper. According to Malcolm Gladwell, we can become a master at anything if we put in 10,000 hours of practice. This equates to 1000 days of practicing 10 hours per day. Musashi, however, said otherwise:
Practicing a thousand days is said to be discipline, practicing ten thousand days is said to be refining. What Musashi refers to as ‘refining’ equates to roughly 100,000 hours in comparison (if a person were to train for 10 hours per day). A samurai would actually hone their skills continuously for all of his waking hours and sleep in readiness to defend an attack at any moment.

The pressure of life-and-death stakes
Why do we remember so clearly not to put our hand on a hot stovetop? It’s because we’ve evolved to remember when something is painful. Our brain creates more myelin coating around those neural pathways that we consider important, and pain is our body’s way of saying it’s really important not to do that painful thing again. A thicker myelin coating causes that neural pathway to become more permanent. It’s important on a survival level to avoid pain so our brain and nervous system prioritises this and we build strong, well-insulated neural pathways so that we remember how to avoid more pain in the future. There is perhaps nothing more important than avoiding our own death. Perhaps this a key to getting our brain to create the strongest neural pathways of all.
The pressure of life and death stakes
It’s hard to find a better example of self-discipline throughout human history than that of the samurai or ‘bushi warrior’. They used the threat of imminent death to sharpen their senses and their resolve; paradoxically, they were also constantly readying themselves to give their life for their lord at any moment.
There is a saying of the elders that goes, ‘Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

For the samurai, this wasn’t a conceptual exercise. Buddhist monks may meditate on facing a horrific death for the purpose of learning to remain at peace in the face of such a challenge, but the samurai were facing actual death on a regular basis.
This kind of confrontation, which rewarded a moment’s relaxation with instant death, required awesome patience and concentration, a kind of discipline that can only be acquired after years of training under the guidance of a master. In time, this code of ethics with its stress on patience, frugality, and constant self-improvement, permeated all levels of Japanese society. It became part of the social ethos of Japan.
Commentary in The Book Of Five Rings (1982, Bantam)

Discipline that can only be acquired after years of training
The importance of the present moment

Attaining undistracted awareness of the present moment, and remaining in that state somewhat indefinitely, was a common goal of the bushi warrior. The possibility of death at any moment was used as a fuel for cultivating this single-pointed awareness.
There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing left to pursue.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

Through a process of trial and error (with error, in this case, equating to death), the samurai came to understand that there is a time-delay between the senses experiencing something and the mind registering the experience. They discovered that the masters of their art were the ones who put their thinking mind aside.
There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment
If you want to see, see right at once. When you begin to think, you miss the point.
– Zen Master Dogo
The process of training involves the mind training the body with so much repetition that the body learns the skill. Then when the skill is needed, the body will respond without needing the mind to engage. This means there is no time delay.
A retainer [samurai] is a man who remains consistently undistracted, twenty-four hours a day, whether he is in the presence of his master or in public. If one is careless during his rest period the public will see him as being only careless.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

While we in our modern lives may not face the possibility of death at any moment, we can recognise that the act of learning to be the most centred and aware version of ourselves during daily practice is only the beginning. Learning to extend this ability to bring forth the best, most awake version of ourselves into the periods of time between doing our daily practice may be a better long-term goal to strive for, so that we eventually remain at this level of presence at all times.

On a number of occasions in The Book of Five Rings, Musashi mentions taking the martial lifestyle to advanced levels of spirituality. In fact, his path of ‘Heiho’ means ‘path to enlightenment’. For instance, one of the nine concepts to live by in Musashi’s version of the bushido code is: perceive that which cannot be seen.

Perceive that which cannot be seen
This relates to the fact that in Japanese culture in general (and particularly for a warrior in a life-or-death situation) one must be able to show their tatemae, or surface level intention, and hide their honne or true inner intention.
Perceiving that which cannot be seen, at least in-part, is about cultivating intuition in order to ascertain an adversary’s true intention; despite it being hidden. This is the difference between ken, ‘observation of the movements of surface phenomena’ and kan, ‘profound examination of the essence of things’.
…if you are deeply committed to the eventual mastery of this path, if you practice day and night polishing your skills through and through, then you… can attain such freedom and such power to perform miracles. You will attain supernatural powers. This is the secret of Heiho.
– Miyamoto Musashi The Book of Emptiness

The Book of Five Rings actually consists of five books: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire and the Book of Emptiness, which unlike the other four, distils its wisdom into only two pages. The meaning of kú is emptiness; that which cannot be known is kú.

Earth, Fire, Water and Wind
This is similar to the concept at the beginning of the Tao Te Ching: as soon as one tries to talk about the tao it is no longer tao. Likewise, in Judaism all texts refer to ‘god’ as ‘g–d’ in an attempt to make sure that no one ever mistakes the signpost for that which the sign is pointing at. So it is a paradox that Musashi recognises in suggesting that emptiness cannot be known, but then following on from the last quote with a seemingly contradictory line:
By knowing form one knows emptiness. This in short is kú.
A word describing the emptiness or the oneness can never encapsulate the vastness of what it describes. To me personally, kú is describing what Taoists refer to as the ‘wu chi’; the underlying oneness that our physical reality of separation and duality exists within. The Book Of Emptiness points to us coming to experience the ‘oneness’ or ’emptiness’ through our experience of physical reality.
The commentary in the Book Of Five Rings (1982, Bantam) shares:

The underlying oneness of our physical reality of separation and duality exists within [Musashi] is suggesting there is a higher order of experience than the one you are on now. The emptiness is really a fullness, the realm of all possibilities.
In my opinion, this speaks to the common ground between ancient concepts such as the wu chi of the Taoists; the atman–brahman state of the Hindu tradition; and the quantum possibilities that have not yet collapsed into one solidified reality in the quantum realm.

Honour and Bushido
Above all else, the bushi warriors of Ancient Japan held themselves to a standard of being unquestionably honourable.
In the Hagakure, there is a tale of a samurai who is asked to testify in court. When asked for proof that what he was saying was true, he firmly stated if his word was not believed then he would immediately commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in front of the court. He was willing to give his life in a moment’s notice as security against the validity of his word; he was samurai. His word was not questioned further. For me this story exemplifies that the core of samurai culture was about being honourable.
There is a duty to be in service not only to their Lord, but to the wellbeing of the people and the good of all.

The Spiritual Bypass Phenomenon

May 22, 2016 - 12:29 pm Comments Off on The Spiritual Bypass Phenomenon

How to Know if You’re Spiritually Bypassing

By Jonathan Toniolo on Wednesday May 18th, 2016

Can Spirituality Damage your Growth?

I first heard about spiritual bypassing on one of my favorite podcasts, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. For those of you that haven’t had the privilege of hearing Duncan orate, it’s kind of like listening to a raspy hybrid of Alan Watts and Jim Breuer — wise enough to capture your attention, with a certain stoned goofiness that keeps it all playful.
Duncan talks about spirituality in nearly all of his interviews — most guests will happily indulge him in doing so. Naturally, spirituality is a big reason why people tune in to the podcast. So it took me by surprise when he mentioned that spirituality, as a set of ideas and practices, could actually be self–sabotaging.

Spiritual bypassing, a term coined in the early 1980s by psychologist John Welwood, refers to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and fundamental emotional and psychological needs. The concept was developed in the spirit of Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which was one of the first attempts to name this spiritual distortion.
According to teacher and author Robert Augustus Masters, spiritual bypassing causes us to withdraw from ourselves and others, hiding behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices. He says it “not only distances us from our pain and difficult personal issues, but also from our own authentic spirituality, stranding us in a metaphysical limbo… a zone of exaggerated gentleness, niceness, and superficiality.”
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We hide behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices.
We hide behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices.

My Own Bypassing
In Masters’ groundbreaking book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters, he writes:

“Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow side, devaluation of the personal relative to the? spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.”
Before listening to Duncan wax lyrical about this, I never imagined there could be such subtle and complex consequences of pursuing spiritual matters. And thinking that I, a cautious and sincere spiritual seeker, could be suffering such consequences seemed equally absurd. But after reading the detailed description of symptoms, I knew it applied to my situation. I realised that at a certain point in early adulthood, I had perverted spirituality into a defense mechanism — a mechanism that enabled me to disavow any negative quality or behavior in myself.
I recall a few specific patterns taking place:
Whenever I became anxious, I would immediately reach for the nearest Eckhart Tolle or Alan Watts text on my bookshelf. Instead of sitting with the anxiety and checking in to see if it was coming from an innocuous source, I would quickly find refuge in spiritual philosophy.
I would strive to maintain the appearance of someone who is constantly at peace with oneself, even though inside I may have felt like the weight of the world was crushing down on my soul. This kind of faux spirituality had a complete stranglehold on my speech and behavior and caused intense cognitive dissonance.
Whenever I had done something hurtful or wrong to another person, I would rarely take responsibility for it. I deflected that responsibility by saying things like “that person just needs to grow spiritually” or “it’s just an illusion anyways” — all in a naïve tone reminiscent of the time I thought I was a bonafide professor of quantum physics.
The process of realising when you’re to blame in any given situation is no easy task. But spiritual bypassing enables one to ignore that difficult process altogether. It led me to believe I was always right because I was more “enlightened” than all the ignorant sheeples who just couldn’t see the damn light. But the harsh truth of this spiritual arrogance is that I was ignoring the pain I caused in others because I was ignoring a similar pain in myself.
I strived to maintain the appearance of someone who is constantly at peace with oneself.I strived to maintain the appearance of someone who is constantly at peace with oneself.

Reinforcements From Our Culture
Masters writes:
“Part of the reason for [spiritual bypassing] is that we tend not to have very much tolerance, either personally or collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain-numbing “solutions,” regardless of how much suffering such “remedies” may catalyze. Because this preference has so deeply and thoroughly infiltrated our culture that it has become all but normalized, spiritual bypassing fits almost seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects. It is a spiritualized strategy not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing such avoidance, in ways ranging from the blatantly obvious to the extremely ?subtle.
The subtlety of recognition seems to be the root of why this affliction is so widespread and under-diagnosed. Psychologist Ingrid Mathieu also notes this subtlety in her article Beware of Spiritual Bypass:
“Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in — and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.”
Part of the reason for spiritual bypassing is that we tend not to have very much tolerance for pain.We tend not to have very much tolerance for pain.
Considering our culture generally shuns negative emotions, it’s no surprise many of us respond to those emotions with repression. Prominent manifestations of repression, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, are forms of relief whose conspicuous quality makes them easier to identify and intervene.

Spiritual bypassing, while seemingly more benign, is much more difficult to notice because it’s guised in the appearance of wholeness and wisdom. It’s much harder to recognise our repression when we’re chanting “Om Shanti” on a regular basis or repeating positive affirmations that “everything is okay” or “all is love.”

Yoga, meditation, psychedelics, prayer, affirmations, deeply engaging with the present moment, etc. are all incredibly powerful spiritual tools if used appropriately. But sometimes, and if we’re not careful, those things can end up masking deeper issues lingering both inside and outside of us.

Spiritual Bypassing is a manifestation of repression, as is alcoholism and drug addiction.Spiritual Bypassing is a manifestation of repression, as is alcoholism and drug addiction.
To me, spiritual bypassing is fundamentally about taking a so-called absolute truth — such as “everything is okay” — and using it to ignore or deny relative truths — such as the grief we feel when we lose a loved one, or the shame that arises when we fail at something important. On the personal and interpersonal level, sometimes everything isn’t okay. And that’s okay.

That may seem trite, but in the context of spiritual bypassing, it’s a platitude that I feel requires frequent repetition. Before we can heal our pain, we have to be honest about it and accept it — which is ideally what spirituality should help realize. As Masters suggests, this is certainly easier said than done and requires a level of vulnerability which most of us are uncomfortable with.

Nonetheless, if we grant validity to the many claims that spirituality is shaping the evolution of humanity, it seems wise to confront the intricacies of our own bypassing sooner rather than later. Doing so could not only prevent years of developmental stagnation, but also help implement new angles of self-awareness that our world so desperately needs. Acknowledgment and acceptance were the first major steps for me, and I sense a deeper spirituality is following in their wake.

April Fool’s Day: In Praise of Holy Fools!

April 1, 2016 - 12:07 pm Comments Off on April Fool’s Day: In Praise of Holy Fools!

April Fools Day: In Praise of Holy Fools
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

Good Morning! And if you have not already gotten the subtle message, it is April Fool’s Day! So I could not think about giving any sermon that did not include some humor, and to focus on how the Fool has an important role in religion and life.
As I quickly have discovered and long suspected, there is an important link between religion and humor, and that it is an ancient and a universal one. While being almost ubiquitous, few, if any, religions have allowed humor to gain wide acceptance, with the least amount of acceptability in American Protestantism, which is probably the reason why there are so many religious jokes in our culture. There is no topic more receptive to humor, it seems, more enticing to laughter than piety, Puritanism, and an outlook that is joyless, strict, and self righteous.
Most clergy it appears, believe that religion is no laughing matter- that ultimate truths can only be known seriously or scientifically. They seem to disregard the fact that humor is a wonderful teaching tool, and that truth can be both funny and inspiring.
So today, of all days, we can ask: What’s so funny about religion? What are the elements in humor that teach us how to face life courageously? Why is it good to laugh, and what in our laughter, reveals reverently the mysteries and blessings of life and how we can care for enjoy one another?
Lets begin our look into “the whys and wherefore” of humor as it relates to religion, by first looking at how humor affects us as human beings. Physiologically, the ability to laugh involves responses of 15 separate pairs of facial muscles that create a visible change in complexion, posture, expression, and breathing.

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Next, Anthropologists confirm that humor and laughter are found universally- and like music, it functions best as a bridge of connection and empathy from one human to another, overcoming differences in language, time, distance, or behavioral customs, religious beliefs. A third consideration comes from research in holistic medicine. Physicians now conclude what the ancients have always known: “Laughter is good medicine; and that a merry heart does a soul much good.]”
Studies have shown laughter as being able to act as a curative agent- lowering cholesterol, increasing both red and white blood cell levels, strengthening immunity, producing pain killing endorphins, and last but not least, humor retards aging! You see, it reduces the creation of facial wrinkles, and who knows, maybe laughter makes a person more sexy and attractive, as having a good sense of humor always appears at the top of most desirable qualities one looks for in a potential mate.
Now what about the connection between humor and faith, or humor and spirituality? And what are some examples of how humor is used religiously to make a point? One hint: It isn’t the kind of humor that starts out: there once was a Nun from Nantucket, or Once a priest, a minister and a rabbi walked into a bar… Instead, my focus will be on how various forms of humor such as satire, wit, and hyperbole are used to teach self knowledge, self acceptance, humility, compassion and truth. Humor is best used religiously to point out the ironies of life; to address human foibles, and to teach us how to accept our human inconsistencies. Most often, with an attitude of love behind the remarks, laughter can be used to confound the ego, and to open a person to new insights about themselves. It results in moving the hearer from despair to hope, and can help to replace our tears of frustration with tears of joy.
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Humor can be found in almost every circumstance of life: Dr. Viktor Frankel, Holocaust survivor taught that “Humor is one of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self preservation. It helps us to rise above our feelings of helplessness and deprivation. We laugh religiously, to preserve our dignity, we laugh to stay sane and to remain humane.”] In his lectures, he would echo the author of Proverbs when he said, “a merry heart is like medicine, but a broken spirit drieth up the bones.” Proverbs, by the way, is worth reading- a very funny book!
As a quick summary, religious humor can be defined as the form of humor that is a benevolent, empathetic response to life’s inconsistencies, incongruities, mishaps and reversals. Humor that lets us laugh at ourselves and that gives us the gift of laughing with others is a gracious, healing, and redeeming gift.
Next, when looking at the various characters in Western literature and mythology that teach us about the value of humor we encounter three important figures: The Clown, The Jester, and the Fool … Each has an important place in the world’s mythological stories, and in teaching us how best to understand ourselves with humility. They teach us, through their stories, about life’s paradoxes and how to keep a healthy perspective about what our egos want, desire, or need. Their universal presence in Western literature, Scripture, and folk stories, attest that a person cannot possibly arrive at being a balanced and healthy adult without being able to laugh at yourself- and that you can be assured that life will always give us ample opportunities for appearing to be foolish, and for pointing where and how we need to become more aware, more wise!
These characters in literature, these psychological archetypes of the human condition, teach us that if we take our faith too seriously as to drain the joy and laughter from it, it becomes a perversion and you risk missing the full and complete message any spiritual path or any ethical teacher has for you.
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While similar in their message to humanity and society, we have been given three characters, and each one in this comic trio has their own distinct characteristics. The most familiar to us all is the Clown. Maybe earliest in our cultural development, the clown creates chaos and nonsense, and is seen as a figure who has descend from the ribald revels of earlier centuries into the slapstick and ridiculous antics of today. The next time you see a circus clown, remember that he or she is a vestige of ancient shamans, and medicine workers who, would juggle their way into prominence as mummers- or simply all those who wear a disguise to hid their true intent- using exaggeration to make a point!

While it was true that sometimes a clown or a jester was kept around as a scapegoat, more often they were recognized as having a special relationship to the spirit, and they could function as a guide or as a counselor… in disguise. The Jester, usually attending to a king or queen was there to provide comic relief… And to advise the members of the court as to what the people are thinking about them… Sort of a comic spy… And informational network that would reveal the truth in public and by using amusing ways … Only the astute knew how to read between the lines of gesture, pantomime, and grin…. Jesters often were also considered to be “touched by God” or possessing special insights. Most notably in the Shakespearean plays such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear, the jester offers wise counsel to overcome problems and distress. From the clown, the jester, and the fool we are given many beloved characters from literature; Buffoon, Harlequin, Joker, Punch, Pucinello; even Palliacci… Each instructing us on how appearances work to charm and to deceive. Each conveys messages that delve beyond the obvious, and that can be seen to instruct, inform, warn, or alarm….

Since it is April Fool’s, I will spend most of the time with the concept of the Fool. From the ancient Tarot to common psychological perceptions, the idea of a fool or being a fool has many varied meanings… What the Fool teaches us the about the balance point for serious thought, and analytical knowledge. The Fool acts in ways that would seem be superficially irrational, illogical… And yet, it proves to be heartfelt and is often comically true!
The origin of the Fool might even predate the clown and the jester, as it relates directly to displaying the human condition of folly, amusement, and the universal awareness of our human shortcomings. Folly as a word, comes to us from the French, and refers to someone as an inflated windbag- someone full of bluster, but empty of substance. (Hmm-Folly Road or Beach?
The Fool evolved, however, into a different direction from the clown or the jester as someone who shows us the place of the shadow side of life; someone who seems outwardly foolish and irresponsible, yet practices and possess a kind of sensual and crazy wisdom that proves to be more in line with a sustaining compassionate truth; showing us a different reality than what all the rigid codes of morality provides and more truth than the false security of adhering to polite manners fails to supply. Through seemingly foolish risks of openness and wonder, you can turn a problem upside down, and find answers that all your careful analysis might not ever find!

Being so open, appears to our common sense to be, a fool’s errand, and we can ask without a willingness to extend ourselves into the very heart of life, do we ever arrive at our full and true selves? Remember on this day, and on every day that you can share a laugh with someone, you can be come silly- which originally meant to be blessed with laughter, and by being silly you gain the perspective that welcomes learning, and how best to accept and embrace all that our lives could contain. So you see, in a reverse analogy or its opposite actuality, the Fool is to being foolish as being child like is to be being childish. Wisdom, then, comes with an open heart and a willingness to suspend judgments and criticism which rarely contains joy or benevolence. By being open and empathetic, ones learns to honor the other person, to find those places in the heart where we truly touch, where we are beheld just as we are, and where we are found, even with our broken pieces, to be accepted, truly whole.

Before I delve in a little deeper, and given that this has to be a short presentation, I will leave the rival archetype of The Trickster for another time… For you see, while the Trickster character in myth, story, and legend will employ humor, it can have a malicious or even a macabre twist to it. When one feel that life has played a mean trick on them, generally it doesn’t feel funny… Yet there may be irony, insight, and instigation that can awaken us to seeing the error in your ways…. The trickster is the metaphysical practical joker, and someone who intentionally upsets others in order to teach them valuable lessons…. So at another time and place, I will venture into stories about Native American Coyote, The Norse god Loki, The holy fools of India, The vast array of Sufi stories, the path of Crazy Wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism, or the Zen koan and its humorous way. Each of these tricky ways has much to teach and tell us about life, the uses of mischief, the truths found in paradox, and the nature of enlightenment.
Focussing, however, back on our Western religious heritage, from the Hebrew Testament, I recommend the stories of Isaac & Rebecca; Noah (without Bill Cosby) Moses & Zipporah; Esther, Bell, and the great book of Proverbs. But be careful about reading these stories out loud! Some of them would receive an R rating!

As for Jewish humor as a whole, our world is far richer because of its contributions. … Wikipedia references….
“The influence of the US Jewish community on American English, include teaching us Yiddish words that just are funny just to say: schmaltz, schlemiel, klutz, schmuck… Many non-Jewish Americans (though certainly not all) will recognize some of these words. Popular books (such as Joy of Yiddish and Born to Kvetch) explain these words to the general public. However, bear in mind that while many Americans from other regions and ethnic backgrounds may recognize Yiddish words such as those above, it is more likely that only those who are more educated, or widely read, or who have Jewish friends and acquaintances via their place of residence or profession, etc., would fall into this group.
There are a number of standard American phrases which originated from Yiddish, including: Get lost, What’s up, I should worry, I should live so long, I need it like a hole in the head, You don’t know from nothin’, Certain types of rhyming slang, especially those where deprecation is shown via partial reduplications, also originated in Yiddish — for example “Joe-schmo” or “Oedipus-schmedipus, so long as he loves his mother.”

In the Christian Scriptures, while Paul recommends that we become “fools for Christ”, it is Jesus, when stripped of his sanctimony and assumed propriety, who was a master of teaching through humor. Yes, Jesus was a funny man! Who knew? When I was young, the way his teachings were related to me, it seemed to only foster greater guilt and deeper shame. All of a sudden, there was this comic and cosmic twist! His message became one of joy over sorrow, freedom from guilt, and he used humor to challenge his opponents starchy and rigid rule making, and to overcome the moralistic, and often hypocritical teachings.
Honestly, now, how many of you ever thought of Jesus as being filled with joy and laughter? My conversion… So to speak… Happened one day when I was in my late teens, when my image of him moved from being my painful suffering savior, to being my happy, playful teacher… And guess what! I have Hugh Heffner to thank!
You see, I was avidly reading Playboy at the time… Just for the interesting articles, of course, … when I turned the page to see a picture of Jesus, and I was startled! There, in living color was this picture, in a Renaissance style, of a Jesus, who was laughing gleefully! I quickly began to read this article by the noted Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, which was entitled, ” For Christ’s sake!” Well, up to that time in my life, whenever I would whenever I heard those words, it usually did not refer to reverent outcry, but was spoken in great exasperation! Intriguing!
Cox’s premise was that we need to see Jesus as a man who enjoyed life; as someone who taught us about the meaning and purpose of life using stories, parables and humor to get his point across to us. Wow! To think that he was this robust, enthusiastic man who was in love with life, yet he was not simply a comedian, for he lived with moral courage, and he was foolish enough to believe everyone of us could really live by our values and ideals! Just ponder for a moment, some of his best ironic humor, and how he used hyperbole to make ethical points and give us behavioral guidelines:
” It is easier for a Camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into heaven.” A comic statement about the value of trying to amass wealth and what ultimate good it would do for you… And this one, “Don’t put your light under a bushel basket, but put it up on a candlestick”
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That is, do not hide your beauty, your purpose, your mission under some tight wraps of insecurity, but proclaim the miracle you are!… And he goes one giving us stories about how the self righteous seek to “strain out gnats but swallow camels” and when he warns the judgmental to “take the beam out of your own eye, before trying to take the speck from your neighbors”… and on throughout the various Gospel accounts…

In closing, I recommend reading the Bible for its humor, and wholeheartedly endorse becoming more like a wise fool in your approach to life. Wherever true humor is found, a spiritual quality exists, and laughter as medicine and as friendship are indispensable parts of being alive and free. Without humor, life and religion would be a dry bone of contention, arid intellectual wrangling, irritating moral pronouncements.

The real truth, as I see it, is that religion needs to be fun, and that it is fundamental to gaining a healthy perspective on our lives. Try never to lose your sense of humor- and to appreciate how it leads us to a full heart, and how humor can lead us to a greater enjoyment of one another as an inclusive, hilariously diverse community!
So Be It!

Tribalism And Religious Intolerance- An Interfaith Presentation

January 19, 2016 - 12:51 pm Comments Off on Tribalism And Religious Intolerance- An Interfaith Presentation

Q: For Rev. Peter Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

In light of current incidences ignited by religious fanaticism:

What actually makes the extremist and the terrorist, who in name of God, do horrible things to people who do not belong to their ideology? If it is ignorance, what kind of personal growth may help the social tolerance? Is social tolerance is a necessity for survival of human race in general?

Peter’s Remarks:

Good Evening! I will use two reference points for my brief discussion with you tonight… The first comes from the socially conscious entrepreneur Paul Hawkins speaking about the power of community, and the second, from Martin Luther King Jr’s writings on social evils…

“[There is a growing and hopefully sustaining sense of a “blessed unrest” in our society today… That phrase coined by Paul Hawkins speaks to the subrosa or under the cultural radar movements, that are coming together to work constructively, spiritually and compassionately on our current social ills…

His outlook emphasizes the intention of group energy to provide solutions to our challenges in ways that an individual or any isolated actions cannot achieve or accomplish. He speaks passionately when he declares,” how 200,000 people in these diverse groups worldwide are working together to overcome political disease, economic infection, and ecological corruption.]”

Second, we have this statement from MLK Jr… Towards the end of his life, King spoke and wrote more and more about what he described as the “dangerous giant triplets: Racism, Extreme Materialism, and Militarism.”

He goes on to say:

“If I may borrow again from Christian Scriptures, this fight is not against individual people, but rather “powers and principalities.” ( Ephesians 6) It is best to see our fight against racism rather than against unique racists. The dismissal or conviction of a racist police officer, careless prosecuting attorney, or corrupt judge is certainly important, but it does not solve the root and source of the problem”…

“Racism draws power from materialism (financial interests) Those financial interests or powers secure themselves by way of militarism (at times military and police forces) and that force is too often employed in a way that it benefits small certain groups and serves to suppress others…”

Given the complexity of these intersecting powers that threaten human dignity, freedom and cooperation what outlooks, ideas, and values, if they were allowed greater and broader social expression, would work effectively together to lesson or resolve our stubborn cultural inequalities and injustices?

We have to ask: What is a spiritual minded person or small group to do? How does the variety of religious expression and the wide diversity we find in our American society work to encounter and face down these issues?

When we begin to look at the religious dimension of our lives and look toward the possible solutions of our social problems, it is first critical to our understanding that we admit that here is wide variance in the levels of religious understanding and ethical comprehension that exists within every religious community. In the same pew, you can find someone with a grade school knowledge of religious teachings and ethical applications sitting next to someone with a graduate school level of comprehension and application.

As an acknowledgment of this wide range of understanding, as I see it, there are at least three factors each person can learn about that will increase their greater appreciation for the scope of the problems we face, and these three factors when better or more deeply understood, can be seen as “the principalities and powers” we have to contend with IF we wish to resolve any of the social and spiritual evils that are present in our society today.

These three factors are:

1) Tribalism- resistant, narrowly focused and reinforced approach to safety, security and identity

2) Patriarchy- oppressive insistence on exclusive male authority and the established/historical patterns of preferential power structures

3) Sectarian Violence- entrenched prejudices and rivalry that inhibits cooperation and fans the flames of division, chaos, etc.

These three factors – widely dependent on the cultural or interpersonal realities such as the level of education available in that society, the degree of political oppression, media manipulation or lack of a public voice, and the reinforcement of these teachings found in each of the great religious traditions that emphasize freedom, dignity, self worth, etc. .

To this mostly socio-cultural underpinnings, I would add this theological and spiritual corollary: Maybe most important of all, is the teaching that surround the premise that we can find a transformative grace that exists within our human participation in the allness and the wholeness of God as our common source for justice and compassion. That this sustaining identity and participation are among the most dynamic spiritual principles that would encourage and enable change in any opposing or repressive attitudes, opinions, and values.

Given the time limits this presentation… the rest of my remarks will now focus on the issue of tribalism…

Tribalism presents itself as the obstacle that supports the other factors, and can be seen as the most obstinate and stubborn. Tribalism is the primitive way of understanding one’s religious identity and identify one’s place in the larger world that is then repeatedly reinforced by commonly held irrational fears. Chief among them is xenophobia or the fear of the stranger, and deep suspicions about any person who is different from the members of one’s own tribe or clan. The emphasis in this outlook is for the sake of safety and security in what can be easily perceived as a dangerous outside world. The need, therefore, is to stay with people who are just like us- people or members of our own tribe who repeatedly share the same ideas and ideals that reinforce one’s sense of identity and security through a well defined, rule bound, small circle of association and lifestyle.

While some version of this tendency towards tribalism might have been a developmental necessity for cultural cohesion and economic survival in ancient days, such as among the children of Israel, or at the founding of Islam, or for that matter, at the beginnings of any nation or ethnic identity, such an emphasis on conformity for identity or for survival no longer works well in current society.

Modernity can be defined by its multicultural realities which consist of an amalgam of traditions, religious expressions, and cultural patchworks which exists in our current culture. Most cogently, we can readily see this dynamic diversity in our daily lives, in the everyday workings of our immigrant society in the USA…

(Yes… We ARE an immigrant nation… get over it! Just ask a Native American!)

Tribalism acts as a divisive agent; whether its around the world or around the corner… and threatens to hold us back from the greater appreciation of enriching tapestry of ideas and practices that affirm value of our national diversity.

Tribalism insists on its own narrow interpretations of behavior and beliefs, and it can act, in both its arrogance and ignorance, to suppress any dissent or the altering of any of its iron clad rules that would welcome any contrasting ideas or any competitive opinion and practices…

Living in Charleston, the evidence of continuing sense of tribalism is hard to escape or ignore. We who live here cannot afford to be unaware or resistant and blind to the fact that embedded within any shiny claims of its illustrious history, there is also an insistent glare of institutional racism and the curse of slavery that tarnishes any attempt to whitewash its historical acclaim. These tendencies, and worse, these harsh realities are still active in the civic descision-making, and that the deep impact of those exclusionary attitudes still affect the city on a daily basis, and can be seen as remaining a powerful divisive factor in our city today.

The South as a whole, with its tendency towards recalling a more sentimental history could be considered to be tribal. Similarly, The WASP socioeconomic preferences around our country (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) has had a nationwide and long standing, profound negative impact on the Native Americans and as a deterrent imposition to Asians, all the way down to today’s battles over inclusion where the well established white Protestant culture would willing erect a wall- a literal physical barrier to full acceptance and assimilation for Latinos who wish to live among us…

So one of the most powerful answers that will defeat the obstacles and oppressions of tribalism, maybe its most effective remedy, would be to create and implement a nationwide, multicultural educational reform. This empathetic and honest curricula would seek to dispel attitudes of ignorance, lessen any fears of the stranger, and expose and diminish any sense of exclusionary cultural practices or economic preferences. As it has been said during our current political debates, the symbol of our country and its people cannot be a defiant wall of separation and exclusion, but rightly understood and in accord with our nation’s highest ideals, the symbol of our country would be the Statue of Liberty that would light our way, and the inclusive noble promises of the Declaration of Independence that would guide us…

Lastly, moving from a more sociological outlook into a more theological one, when looking at the need to move towards diversity, people of faith are encouraged to widen their heartfelt concern, and to move beyond tolerance for differences in faith, belief, customs and practices. While being tolerant and being nonjudgmental might well be all we can ask of secular society, and it remains a worthwhile goal, there is a further step people of faith need to be willing to take. Regardless of which pew or practice defines your spiritual life, the need for compassion is universal, and the next step- of full acceptance becomes our cherished goal…

While secular society will often operate on a “Quid pro Quo” basis- this for that as a basis for cultural trade off and compromises, the spiritual life requires us to go a step further… in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, towards a “Quid pro Bono” or doing this… because it is good… Because it is good, right, and just- not only for us, but for all humankind!

Every human being is a gift, a blessing, and needs to be recognized for the miracle that she/he is… That each person has inherent worth, dignity, and value. Every one of the great religious traditions, has within its mystical and ethical writings, teachings that speak to us of the intimacy and honesty of this ideal, and that we can express a sustaining belief in a compassionate and loving Source many of us call God.

As Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic and as Matthew Fox the best modern advocate for the uplifting approach called Creation Spirituality reminds us: “God is always giving birth to compassion” always providing us with creative and redemptive ways of being in our world, always offering us gracious potentials for service and understanding that would create a more sacred society. In short, nothing, in truth, prevents us from offering one another empathy and affirmation and that can be shown to all of our brothers and sisters, to the animals, to all life on earth!

I will end my thoughts and remarks with this quote from Dr. James Doty, MD, from his book, The Science of Compassion. He writes:

“As human beings, we will inevitably encounter suffering at some point in our lives. However, we have evolved very specific social mechanisms to relieve that pain: altruism and compassion. …

“While survival of the fittest may lead to some short term gain, research clearly shows it is survival of the kindest that leads to long term survival of a species. It is our ability to stand together as a group, to support each other, to help each other, to communicate for mutual understanding, and to cooperate that has taken our species this far.”

May a lasting sense of our personal dignity and worth recognize the value of our human diversity, and promote a wholehearted acceptance of that truth as our spiritual and ethical goal- our working outlook, and our exalting ideal…

Thank you…

 

 

Reflection: Practicing and Growth Towards God

August 26, 2015 - 12:13 pm Comments Off on Reflection: Practicing and Growth Towards God

Practicing The Presence of God
Invocation:
Practicing the presence of God is the application of our spirit to God; It is the vivid recollection that God is present with us. It first can be experienced through imagination, then it becomes a felt experience, and finally the presence is embodied, or fully realized or understood.

Selected Reading: From the writings and correspondence of Brother Lawrence to a nearby Abbey, where a dear friend, the Abbess, lived:

Dear Reverend Mother;
We should remind ourselves, dear Mother, that our only business in this life is to please God. What can be said of all the rest, except folly and vanity? You and I have spend nearly forty years in a religious order, trying as we might, to please God, and serve our brothers and sisters in this world. I am full of shame and embarrassment when I reflect on the bountiful grace God has given me, and continues to give me, and how I have made such poor use of it as my progress down the path of perfection leads only a short way.
Since by God’s mercy, we have been given a little more time to live, let us make amends for any time lost. Let us return with complete confidence to the contemplation of God’s goodness and dwell on how God is pleased to receive e us into his mercy and love.. Let us renounce anything that keeps us from the love of God, or from the acts that do not honor him, or honor what is holy in us. Let us think on Him without ceasing, putting our whole trust in God.
Soon, we will experience the blessings of that trust, the abundance of that grace, and we will be capable of greater service and limitless love through him. We cannot avoid the dangers and the reefs that life holds without first having God as our very present help. Let us ask for it continually.
Through holy practice, we can practice our conversations with him, and learn of him in and through our lives. I know of no more proper prayer or no more easier method than this one. And as I practice, so do I advise. One must be acquainted with a person before loving them. To be acquainted with God, we must think often about him, and when we do love, we will often feel God’s presence with us.
For our hearts are where our treasure is! So let us think constantly about Him.
I remain, in our Lord, you most humble servant,
Brother Lawrence 1689
Reflection: Staying With God

In the ongoing discipline of “practicing the Presence” of God we can go through three developmental stages in our understanding and practice.

The first stage is called RECOLLECTION:

Here our principal task is one of remembering God, which is a practice shared by many spiritual traditions and made most vivid in the practice of Sufi Zhikr; the dance like movements that accompany chanting the names and qualities of the Divine…
To remember God is also to re-member ourselves… that s to assemble or put together or even restore our sense of wholeness and then affirm our sense of connected holiness with God as our divine eternal and constant companion.

The second stage is called CONVERSATION:

Here we engage in a devotional attitude while praying, singing, or if you prefer, when you talk to your inner or Higher self. The central theme her is the dialogue, the conversation between you and your understanding of God and what is holy or what occupies the holy dimension of our thoughts and of our lives. While God would not be defined as some cosmic auditory nerve or eternal ear, God would be that part of us that listens intently to our intuitions; the part of us that can hear new sources of inspiration.
It does, however, require us to stop in order to listen; to end our distractions, if only for a few precious moments, so we can set aside our random and mundane thoughts and empty our minds so that God can speak to our hearts.

The third stage is Sustained Awareness:

This third or culminating stage occurs when we can hold on to an awareness or a consciousness of the divine despite whatever external, special, or personal events and experiences are happening to us… Despite what befalls us, we can pick ourselves up because we are sustained by our faith, our hope, and our love that serves to encourage or enlarge our hearts and strengthen our spirits, and continue to be a positive influence on the rest of humankind.
Risking stating the obvious, each of us will go through challenging cycles and phases in our lives when this awareness seems elusive and sustaining our consciousness of God becomes difficult. It is important that we do not let ourselves spiral down or become overly discouraged, overly disappointed with the conditions and situations of our lives.

This is the time when we can confidently rely on our spiritual tools and practices to bring us back into a harmonious alignment or a reverent attunement with God, with love and with hope… And frankly, it really does not matter what tools or techniques you employ…. there is a wide array of possibilities and activities that will work for you IF your intention is sincere and open, and honest… Whatever actions assist us in restoring our connection and reestablishing our conversation, and that will eventually deepen our intimacy are all good!

From Brother Lawrence:
“[It is said that the interior life is precisely an elevation of our inner conversation. It is the transformation of the dialogue we already have with ourselves into the conversation we desire to have with God.]”

“[For all things are possible for those who believe; and all things are less difficult for those who have hope; and all things are made easier for those who love.]”