It’s my birthday today. I took the day off of work, and I also took a day off from closely monitoring the news, setting out for a hike. It was a wonderful and refreshing hike, up Fireweed Mountain just down the road from my cabin. The weather is beautiful, the sun is shining on us in this magnificent valley, making it feel like a cathedral, surrounded as it is by grand mountains, roaring rivers, and a massive glacial field. But the news cycle caught up with me, and I write this with tears running down my face. It may feel like a cathedral here but there is no sanctuary, no place of escape from the violent karma that is currently raging in our streets. But for many Americans there has never been an escape from police violence.
COVID-19 may very well be a catalyst for a spiritual revolution. It definitely has potential. One of America’s greatest and most destructive illusions is that we are all mere individuals and that if we all just do our own thing, seeking to satisfy our individual desires, achieve wealth and success, fulfill our dreams and/or follow our own individual hearts, that things will all work out and our nation will be strong. Way back in the day, Margaret Thatcher infamously declared that “there is no such thing as society.” We’re all just individuals, doing our own thing. Hence the role of government, as most Americans have been trained to see it, is to ensure that all individuals are free.
It was August of 2010. I saw the lights of Anchorage from the seat of my plane as we prepared for landing at Ted Stevens International Airport. My family had lived in Anchorage for a few years when I was very young but at age 32, this was my first time back in Alaska, as an adult. This trip had begun in my imagination, about a year before, as I walked around the Indianapolis Zoo. I was fascinated by a placard about grizzly bears, located nearby to a rather sad looking, caged Griz. The placard told of how a woman was attacked by a grizzly bear, in the city of Anchorage no less, while out for a jog in the park. For some reason that resonated with me. It wasn’t a sadistic thing, I don’t take pleasure in the suffering of joggers. I was just completely enchanted by the idea of a state like Alaska, where bears and moose made their presence felt, even in the biggest of cities. It was strange, that moment, but …
I recently came across this little homily from one of my favorite spiritual teachers, James Finley. He’s been called the spiritual teacher that spiritual teachers listen to when they listen to spiritual teachers…or something like that… In any event, what makes him compelling has nothing to do with needing some kind of esoteric or highly specialized knowledge. It’s that he’s just had a mature presence, the picture of someone experienced, i.e. he has suffered, but he is also relaxed and calm, which always gives me a sense of reassurance, because when someone who is serene and light can talk about the deepest most difficult shit that we have to endure, then it means something. [Footnote: my auto-correct keeps changing “spiritual” to “Doritos.” I change it back, but I’m quite certain that there are Doritos teachers who are also fans of James Finley. There is no doubt in my mind.] In any event, if you have ten minutes to watch the homily, let me know what you think. [Note on photo: that’s early 2012, when I …
After a morning meadering through Arches, I drove an hour or so, to Canyonlands National Park. Whereas Zion had been overrun with buses and cameras and all their many peoples, and while Bryce and Arches were pleasant but still felt a bit crowded from time to time, Canyonlands was like hitting the paydirt of personal solitude. Of the four Parks I had inadvertently save the best for last. Canyonlands was my fave.
After viewing the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, I drove for a while and spent that night at a rest stop on the Interstate, which probably doesn’t sound particularly appealing, especially since I was sleeping in my tiny Fiat 500 (converted into a little camper-car), but the views from the rest stop were quite phenomenol. At this point, I was in the heart of some of the grand scenery of southern Utah — and most significantly, I was well off the beaten path, so I could take in the views the way the writer Edward Abbey and other writers and desert monastics have always talked about: as a reflective, solitary endeavor.
To take the sting out of winter, I turn to Sting. It’s kind of homeopathic, an approach to healing that prescribes a remedy to mirror the malady. If you’ve got a sour stomach, then eat something sour, that sort of thing. During the winter season, listening to Sting seems to be some sort of musical homeopathic treatement for the weirdness and wonder of the wide range of the winter mood. Winter is a season of contrasts, when things get dark and contemplative yet at the same time it’s paradoxically festive. One might as easily brood in a corner chair, nursing another glass of cognac, or one might just as easily find that a random group of smiling strangers is standing on the stoop, in the icy cold solely for the purpose of belting out, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
This summer I’ve turned more attention to blogging, and I’ve started phazing out Facebook. In the process I’ve been pleasantly surprised to cross paths with several new blogger friends, bloggers who are Christians, and they are Christians with whom I share key commonalities, a form of fellowship, so-to-speak. It’s been interesting to flip my mind back into theological mode, here and there. One perspective that I still share, that I still have in common with Christians is the sense that in some way there was a communion that was broken, that in some sense our original state of being is communion and harmony. So given that we are living in the days of rage, in a period of increasing cultural coflict, this idea of communion has come to take on greater meaning for me.
I’m 48 hours into my fast. It’s been 2 days since I last ate. That leaves another 24-30 hours remaining. I haven’t done much by way of fasting in my life, but the little that I have done has been pretty beneficial. Mostly I fast for physical reasons, to cleanse and to give the digestive system a chance for some repairs and maintenance. I’ve been having digestive issues over the past several months, so this fast was prompted by a desire to let the digestive system rest and perhaps balance out the acid levels. After my fast, I’ll reevaluate my diet.
I came across this intriguing Sufi story while reading Jenny Diski’s memoir, In Gratitude. Here it is: A Mulla was searching for a lost key under a street light, slowly crawling around. A friend happened by and immediately dropped down on his hands and knees to join the search. “Do you remember where you last saw your key,” the friend asked, after a few minutes. “Of course I do,” replied the Mulla. “Over there,” he said, pointing to a distant, dark side street. “Why are you looking here?” asked the friend, perplexed. “Because there’s so much more light here by the lamp.”
I’ve had some epic spiritual experiences in my life, big Grand Canyon moments that changed the course of my life, but when I look back on my spiritual journey, I’d say that it’s the small things that have really made the deepest, most lasting change. Epic experiences are deeply powerful, and they’ve change the direction of my life, putting into focus what’s important and what’s not, but addressing more and more I think that it’s the little things that have helped me deal with my deep-rooted ego-issues. I’ve shed tears at the rim of the Grand Canyon, on the cusps of a major life change, but I think that there’s been more power in understanding an itch.
I’m finally watching Game of Thrones. Better late than never. It’s an epic series, as most will tell you, seemingly on pace to hit the level of a true “classic,” like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or who knows, maybe it will gain the moment and cult following that will give it the kind of scope that the Star Wars franchise has. We’ll see. Game of Thrones also represents the latest in the explosion of a relatively new film genre: TV episodes that form a series. HBO pioneered the genre with The Sopranos, using the medium of television to tell a story, something that feels almost readable, something that goes deep and wide, just like a good novel. And the time commitment required to watching a season of Game of Thrones or The Sopranos is about the same as reading a novel.
As it so happens, I was sent two “Ugh” links on the same day. It isn’t unusual for me to be sent two Ugh links in one day, after all this is the era of Trump, a time period in which there is a great push to entrench our nation in our old and enduring prejudices. Still, these two Ugh links seemed to sort of ding, for me, the kind of ding that makes me want to write.
As many of you know, I am a former Evangelical, the fascinating American religion of the frontier based on the dramatic born again experience and a life dedicated to the Bible and to the fighting off of the evils of liberalism. And for the first nearly thirty years of my life, that’s how I rolled. There’s a weird obsession with virginity, within evangelicalism, at least there was when I was growing up and when I was in my twenties. There were stern warnings for the youth against all of the evils of premarital sex, along with subtle (and not so subtle) forms of slut shaming for those who indulged the desires of the flesh.
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. ~ Pascal In last week’s Hump Day Homily I talked about the hack that is my own spiritual journey, the convergence of Christianity and Buddhism. My formative years were exclusively Christian, and I continue to benefit exponentially from the teachings and stories and mythology within the Christian Bible, particularly the life and teachings of Jesus. (Perhaps more than any other biblical figure, Jesus has needed to be extremely sanitized for use in churches and public sermons.) When I hit my mid-twenties, though, I realized that my ego had been running me up into some walls, and I’d been crashing pretty hard. It seems like this is kind of a thing that happens to many homo sapiens when we are at a certain age, in our mid-twenties to early-thirties. (I’ve heard it referred to, astrologically, as “the return of Saturn.”) We realize that the way we perceive the world is narrow and limited, and we begin to suspect that it’s our …