Kindness to Strangers

Last year, the writer George Saunders delivered the convocation at Syracuse University where he talked about the importance of kindness. Yet he believes kindness doesn’t come naturally:

“Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: 1 – we’re central to the universe, 2 – we’re separate from the universe, and 3 – we’re permanent (we believe we won’t die). We can see these beliefs as we prioritize our own needs over the needs of others.

While pointing out that we know better than this intellectually, Saunders noted we still tend to live by these perceptions viscerally. I agree. You can watch these beliefs play out in our behavior. How we act is the “tell” that reveals our true level of understanding. Gandhi put it well:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

In Saunders believes kindness is hard. As we struggle to put our spiritual beliefs into action, this becomes very clear. Kindness asks that we override the belief that we’re central, that the self is real, and that it must be protected. Getting out from under the domination of the self requires that we surrender to the good of the universe even as the universe offers no visceral evidence of good.

Most of us live in the delusion that the self is real and its interests must be paramount. This belief affects our behavior profoundly. It prevents us from taking care of each other except inasmuch as the care for another extends our own self forward – as in parenting or mentoring. We are not naturally inclined to show kindness to someone who isn’t an extension of our self.  For that kindness, we must overcome the delusion of self.

 

Scared of the Dark?

Fear is the last of our negative emotions to go as we deepen our spiritual connection. That’s because fear is at the heart of all negative emotions. Its roots are deep.

Marianne Williamson wrote that “Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts.” That’s pretty close to correct. Actually we’re born with one fear – loud noises. That fear, though, may be more of a startle reflex.

Over time, we develop other startle-like reflexes: fear of heights, fear of objects hurling toward us, fear of the dark. These are handy to keep the body intact, and they’re not usually the fears that darken our paths. The insidious and dark fears we learn are shame and the belief that we are not good enough. Those are the fears that need to be relieved so we can grow.

There are thousands of tiny fears that grow from these – fear of speaking in public and fear of standing up against the crowd for what’s right. Gandhi said “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”

The fear of death is nearly a universal fear, but it can be overcome as we deepen spiritually. Anais Nin said, “People living deeply have no fear of death.”

The concern about the corrosive nature of fear goes back a few centuries. Lao Tzu said, “Be careful what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear and you will produce weeds that choke the life from your dream. Water them with optimism and solutions and you will cultivate success.”

My favorite comment on fear comes from the Hindu Scripture Isa Upanishad:  “Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.”

We All Shine On

“Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.” These are lyrics from John Lennon’s song, “Instant Karma.”

Lennon used intuitive powers to reach this metaphysical point. He knew about pain and fear and knew those emotions couldn’t possibly be the point of life. In the chorus of the song he repeats, “We all shine on.”

When you strip away the pain and the fear, we do all shine on.

In Ana Karenina, Leo Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He was right. Our pain and fear differentiates us. We’ve all heard someone say, “You don’t understand what I’ve been through.” They’re talking about their pain and fear. We never hear anyone say, “You just don’t understand how happy I am.”

We identify with our pain and our fear. We are not as quick to identify with our happiness or peace. We tend to see those as temporal.

When you strip away all our ego identification, our roles, our childhood pain, our adult trails, the addictions and compulsions, the obsessions and betrayals, when you take all of that away, there is something that remains that’s powerful, something that remains that we share alike. We all shine on.

It’s the presence. In the presence we are one. Our truest self lies beyond the particulars of our lives, beyond our likes and dislikes, beyond our promises and failures, beyond the short-lived triumphs, beyond illness, beyond our pain and fear. While our truest self may sometimes seem far beyond our reach, it’s actually right here. It’s here in the now.

When we strip away those things that are not our truest self, the pain and fear, we release our suffering.

What’s left when we let go of our pain and fear? The here and now, the happiness and peace, the love and acceptance.

To be here now is to demonstrate the awareness that is the same in all of us. All that’s left when we take away the pain and the fear is love and acceptance. In that we’re all the same, in that we all shine on.

Spirit Looking Through My Eyes

As time passes it becomes clear that I am seeing the world as spirit. The “me” looking out through my eyes has changed.

For many years, I invested myself in a world that didn’t seem like spirit at all. I tried to fit into the world, to make my way, to find love and love others, to be a good partner, a caring dad, to learn the workings of the world and help where I could. Those intentions were fine. I cherished them.

But the insecurity of falling short over and over was unbearable. And we cannot help but fall short.

The insecurity brought dread and self-loathing. I tried to sooth those painful feelings with alcohol. It worked for a while, but alcohol only works for a while. Then it quits working. After that, it produces its own dread and self-loathing.

I tried to wrestle peace out of the darkness of a world without spirit. A fool’s errand. There is no peace in darkness. I fell further and further behind in my goal of being a decent person.

Thank heavens a crash came. The crash was inevitable. It was my health. And surprisingly, it came with an overwhelming feeling of relief and a final, “OK, I give up.”

Surrender was all I had left, but I had no idea that surrender was a door, the only door. My surrender was followed quickly by healing. It was surrender and healing, over and over, day after day.

Once I was back on my feet – a bit wobbly – it was clear I had become a different creature. Something else was looking out through my eyes. And the world I saw had become a spiritual place. Now I know that it had been spiritual all along. My eyes were finally seeing the truth.

A friend observed that my spiritual awakening was not intentional. Indeed it was not. It came through a life-threatening health crisis. Nor can I credit myself for my recovery. Recovery came through medical science and sustained sobriety. I can’t even credit myself for the sobriety. When I awoke into this new world, all desire for mind-altering substances was gone.

So I can’t say follow my path. Please don’t. But I can say, the world is a spiritual place to the eyes that look out through me to the world. It’s a spiritual place for you as well.

Why Do We Seek a Spiritual Awakening?

Sometimes we actively pursue a spiritual awakening, sometimes we find ourselves drawn to spirituality without a clear idea of seeking something specific. Any number of things in our lives can prompt us toward spirituality.

Difficulties most often bring us to the spiritual. Dealing with addiction, abuse, family estrangement, financial stress. We begin to see that something in our lives has to change. In some cases, spirituality seems to hover in our lives, and we reach a point where it is finally time to reach out and connect to it.

In the song, “Suzanne,” Leonard Cohen sings, “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water, and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower, and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said all me shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them.”

The most common answer given from those who seek spirituality is the desire for peace. People want an end to discomfort, pain, distress, anxiety, or depression.

Fear in its many forms may be the critical prompt to spirituality. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote that “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness.”

Elizabeth Kubler Ross said, “There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt.

So we seek love. And we find that the love we crave cannot be found in a relationship. We can bring love to a relationship, but we can’t get the real love we need from a relationship. We get the love we really need from a deep place within, and that’s where our spirituality resides.