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.

 

Is Spirituality Experienced or Learned?

Where do our spiritual beliefs come from – experience or study? The answer will likely evolve over time. As we have more spiritual experiences, our beliefs will naturally lean to the philosophy or religion that best reflects those experiences.

When we’re children, that doesn’t quite work. Children don’t often recognize spiritual experiences because they are so foreign to the beliefs they learn at home or at their family’s place of community worship. When I was a kid, I had a number of spiritual experiences that I didn’t recognize as spiritual. The experiences were alien to the Presbyterian church we attended. They were beyond everything I was taught.

Those childhood experiences seemed like a form of madness rather than spirituality. Many involved the natural world, though at the time, I didn’t realize the natural world was spiritual. I also had childhood experiences of being someone other than myself. That certainly didn’t seem spiritual. Looking back, it very much was.

As an adult, I’ve followed spiritual paths that felt warm and encouraging – Unity, Science of Mind, Self-Realization Fellowship. Those were positive learning centers that helped deepen my spiritual understanding.

In recent years, I have been drawn to Hinduism and Taoism, especially the teachings from The Upanishads and Lao Tzu. I am not attracted to these teachings just because they are beautiful – they are – but because they explain what I’ve been experiencing.

Spiritual experiences can be simple – life just showing us who we are. Or they can be a matter of noticing that the world appears quite different than it used to. The world I see now is more like the world I saw as young child – before I was taught that what I thought I was seeing was not there.

Everything Is Not Enough

Lately I’ve been listening to the late Texas folksinger/songwriter, Townes Van Zant – always worthy time spent. One verse in particular stood out. On first blush, the words are rather plain. But the power of Van Zant’s words floored me on this recent go through. The lyrics come from the song “To Live Is to Fly”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JGc2CvM0EQ

Everything is not enough;
nothing is too much to bear.
Where you been is good and gone;
all you keep is the getting there.

While Van Zant is not ordinarily considered a spiritual songwriter, great songwriting always has spiritual aspects. You can’t say anything truly meaningful without saying something spiritual.

The first line, “Everything is not enough,” captures the crux of life. In this illusory world, true satisfaction is not possible. Since the world is an illusion, it cannot nourish. We must take nourishment from the vision of oneness within. So “everything” is the world could never be “enough.”

As for the second line, “nothing is too much to bear,” we get another look at the same thing – the world can’t give us what we need. Indeed, if we look to the world for satisfaction, we will receive “nothing,” and that’s a heartbreaker – it’s “too much to bear.”

The next line, “Where you’ve been is good and gone,” shows that the past also cannot nourish. Where we have been is “gone.” Then, he shows what we can “keep” from our experience in this world, it’s “the getting there.” The “getting there” is the now. We get to keep the now. It’s all we receive in this world because it’s the only thing that’s real.

These simple words sung in the folksinger’s vernacular – no fancy or poetic language here – says something quite powerful about what it’s like to be alive. In just 24 words, he has said enough to fill a book.

 

It Guides Me Now

For most of my life, I’ve been aware of a “still small voice within” that seemed more important than the rest of the thoughts banging around in my head. While many associate this phrase with the Old Testament, Mahatma Gandhi also used it when he said, “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still small voice within.”

For much of my childhood and adult life I was aware of something inside me that was more essential than all the noise of the world. During much of that time, I could only barely hear the voice, and I could only barely feel the presence that seemed to go with the voice.

I often thought, there is something inside me that knows.

I had an odd confidence in that voice. Yet the nose of the world nearly obscured it for years. There were times I tried deliberately to increase the volume of that still small voice. But it stayed remote and scratchy, like a radio station in the middle of the night you can barely hear – a station that happens to be playing the music you most want to hear. It slips away again and again.

Then, I experienced a physical trauma that suddenly changed how it felt to be in the world and changed what it meant to be in the world. All for the better, surprisingly.

As part of that change, the still small voice became clear. The shift in clarity seemed almost physiological. The voice was suddenly at hand, and the sense of presence I always associated with the still small voice seemed to permeate the very cells of my body. Instead of far away and indistinct, the voice and the presence became accessible.

I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know what it is. But I trust it and it guides me now.

Spirit Is Singing Everywhere

As I began to awaken to the spirit within me, I also began to awaken to the world. During most of my life, I had difficulties with the world and in the world. I believed that only after this life would things begin to make sense. I saw this world filled with massive contradictions, barely inhabitable – in many areas and for many people, uninhabitable.

That has changed remarkably.

I look out my back window as I write this and I can see elm branches rustling in the wind, heavy with April seed pods. I hear a basketball thumping on cement next door. I hear the cooing of a mourning dove. I hear the chirping of our pet parakeets in the room behind me. I see a stone rabbit in the backyard garden that has yet to bloom – and all of it is beautiful.

I didn’t realize spirit was on the outside too.

I am still aware of the pain and fear that dampened my world for so many years – the constant gnawing inside – sometimes a low hiss other times a bone-crunching intensity. This is the pain and fear we all experience.

That pain and fear forces our growth. It insists we find a way to solve it, to move beyond. Leaving it behind takes work, daily effort. That effort takes practice, experiments in grace, and the risk of entertaining the stupid belief that life can be welcoming, healthy, and beautiful.

Once the spirit begins to grow inside, the outside reflects the glow.

I see that beauty on the outside now, in the dazzling world of wood and leaves, on the streets that used to seem so vicious, in everyone’s eyes. And the rushing vitality outside reflects again back through me.

I am not Pollyanna. I know there is much work to do in this world. But there is so much more that I can do now that I see the world as worthy and pain and fear no longer cloud my vision.

The Lunatic Is in My Head

“There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

This line is from the song “Brain Damage,” by Roger Waters. The song appears on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, released in 1973. In the song, a lunatic is approaching. First it’s on the grass, then in the hall, and finally, “The lunatic is in my head.”

Waters tells the story of seeing a “keep of the grass” sign on a beautiful patch of lawn, a place that was welcoming. He thought that was crazy.

The powerful song sends a simple message. Given time, and given the lack of a creative or spiritual force in your life, the messages and pressures of the world will grow near and ultimately become who you are. What seems crazy in this world is at first on the outside. We see it as teenagers and swear we will not become part of the craziness. Yet, unless we know how to outmaneuver it, the insanity moves to the inside. Few of us are given any instruction in how to outmaneuver the madness.

When I first heard the song as a young man, I felt it as a potent warning . I was at the stage where the lunatic had moved from the grass and into my hall. I felt very much in danger of losing the battle of the self to world. There is a passage in the children’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time, where a character faces a similar battle. Charles must maintain his identity in the face of life-threatening darkness.

In spite of my noble attempt to stay sane in this world, the lunatic did eventually enter my head and I succumbed to the darkness. For many years, there was someone in my head and it certainly wasn’t me. The world, of course, saw it as sanity. I tried to see it as sanity. I thought I had finally come around. But it was not sanity, and I suffered for succumbing to the world’s madness.

During the time when I was young and I felt so threatened by the world, there was something very important I didn’t understand. The light may go out in your head, but it hasn’t gone out in reality. The light surrounds us, and our failure to perceive it does not diminish its power.

Willingness was all I needed to step back into the light. The lunatic is still in my head. It comes with our DNA, it’s in the drinking water of our culture, and it gets passed from generation to generation like a virus. But now I’m aware that the lunatic is the lunatic and it’s not me. Likewise, it doesn’t have to make my decisions.

Yes, there’s someone in my head and it’s not me. That “someone” does a lot of thinking. It’s a whole committee. But I don’t have to believe the thoughts that rattle in my brain. There is also light in my head, and I can trust that light. The light doesn’t make me suffer, and it can actually untangle the darkness of the thinking brain.

The Connected Walrus

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

In the lyrics from “I am the Walrus,” John Lennon reveals an intuitive vision of connectedness. He may have discovered many of his spiritual ideas through traditional Eastern books, but his approach to this wisdom was intuitive. He had a knack for picking the right ancient spiritual words and placing them in the perfect context for his culture.

The fact that he placed these messages in popular music is particularly amazing – and he did it within the most popular band of his generation.

It’s no accident these words – and so many others by Lennon – happened during his particular time in history. Western civilization needed a jolt of raw spirituality. The spiritual teachings Lennon used may have come from the East, but he presented them without the traditional context of Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism. The spiritual wisdom he shared was unencumbered by religion.

As Beatles fans listened to Lennon’s quotes from Eastern religion, the ideas sounded brand new. This would be like a Buddhist hearing the words of Jesus without knowing anything about Christian tradition. The message would be raw and radical. The interpretation would be intuitive rather than structured.

Lennon put snippets of wisdom into a number of his songs. He used passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the lyrics for “Tomorrow Never Knows.” He acknowledged that “Imagine” was “virtually the Communist manifesto,” although he added,  “I’m not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.” This is another example of Lennon taking ideas out of the context of their traditional application and giving them fresh life.

Lennon’s approach to his sources was fresh and free from the baggage the tomes had gathered over decades or centuries. He snatched pieces of wisdom from a wide range of traditions and presented them as new to an eager young audience. He discarded the traditions themselves and showed the wisdom in its rawest form.

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” It’s very clear. There is no me. There is no you. We are connected. Any separation is an illusion. Coo coo ka choo.

I Am What I Think

 

We are what we think. This idea goes back centuries. It has been used to encourage people to put spirit first; it has been used as a way to get ahead in business. Here are some quotes about how our thinking affects our reality:

  • Proverbs 23:7: For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.
  • Henry Ford: If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.
  • Buddha: We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.
  • Albert Einstein: The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.
  • Earl Nightingale: You become what you think about all day long.

Some have been skeptical about the power of thought. Lao Tzu held an interesting view: “Stop thinking, and end your problems.”

Some spiritual teachers warn about the tricks and trapdoors that come with too much intellectualization. A friend recently said, “Don’t trust the intellect except as it comes from the heart.

My favorite quote about the power of thought comes from “The Course in Miracles” on the subject of vision and wholeness. You’ll find it in Lesson 56, paragraph 27.

“Recognizing that what I see reflects what I think I am, I realize that vision is my greatest need. The world I see attests to the fearful nature of the self image I have made.  If I would remember who I am, it is essential that I let this image of myself go. As it is replaced by truth, vision will surely be given me. And with this vision, I will look upon the world and on myself with charity and love.”

That’s clear. Let go of the fearful ego and its troubled thoughts. Let your true nature and true vision look out on the world with love and compassion. The Christ/Krishna/Buddha within you looks out on the world with love. If you allow that vision to be yours, you will live in peace. Spirit is present within us all. It is infinite and eternal. Its influence on our lives depends on how much of our self we’re willing to surrender to its light.

Let the light inside cleanse your thoughts of fear. You’ll then see the world as it truly is – a reflection of the spirit light within.