Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘self’

It’s a Human Evolution Part II

Mark 9:30; 33-37

Image result for evolving mind
To recap:

Human evolution is a growth process that children, youth, and adults experience.

Though there are plenty of narratives out there that try to convince us adults that we hit an evolutionary wall at some point and therefore do not change or have the ability for a paradigm shift—I argue that we are always evolving, always changing, always becoming. We don’t have to be stuck or stagnate. For sure, there are obstacles in front of us if we engage in the continuing process of personal growth and change. One of the main obstacles is baggage, something I’m sure all of you are well aware of. Baggage is that part of our identity that is informed by what people have told us about ourselves, who they have said we are from the beginning and who they say we are today. Now some of that can be positive, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still an obstacle to growth, because the old paradigms that people give us are just that—old. They are past.

When we engage in human evolution the old paradigms don’t work anymore.

And that’s a conflict.

Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gospel stories, is a great example of growth, becoming, and the encountering of the various voices in our lives that try to name us or tell us who we are or where we belong. People were constantly defining Jesus’ identity and today, it is still going on. Which is why Jesus’ poignant questions of “Who do people say I am” and “Who do you say I am” are completely relevant—not just for the Gospel stories, but for our stories.

Human evolution, simply put, is about asking these two questions:
What is self?
What is other?

Image result for what is self, what is other
Jesus was defined by others but rejected those definitions. Jesus was becoming, and this becoming led Jesus to eat, sleep, and drink with those on the margins—the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the shunned, the so-called unclean. This is how Jesus of Nazareth defined self—that Jesus was with those who suffered, those that society and even religion had rejected. And in doing so, Jesus saw himself as “with” them and they were no longer “other” to Jesus. This is precisely why when Jesus was asked about the living out of the greatest commandment [love God, love yourself, love neighbor], Jesus responded with stories about a good Samaritan and children. They were the neighbors, they were the wisdom-bearers. Yes, children.

Image result for children diverseSee, in Mark’s Gospel story, Jesus was passing through Galilee but stealth-like. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know. Why? Back to what I said earlier. People were defining Jesus in a certain way and this led to trouble. So Jesus and the band of followers made it to Capernaum; and got to a house. And once again, Jesus had questions for the followers. “What were you arguing about on the way?” See, apparently those who walked with Jesus had been arguing with each another about who was the greatest disciple. This, after Jesus had just tried to tell them not to call him Messiah or to promote him as some kind of political or religious leader. And yet, they were still at it; the ego trip continued.

So Jesus sat down. Was he tired? I don’t think so. Jesus sat down to make a point. You want to be first in line, the greatest? So then be last in line, give up your place, serve others. This probably made no sense to those who were listening. Which is why Jesus needed to illustrate the point by holding up a little child. You welcome this kid, you welcome me. And welcoming this kid/welcoming me means you welcome Yahweh.

This is a paradigm shift—an evolution to a new way of seeing ourselves and the world. Jesus wasn’t an evangelist or someone seeking to build a religion.

Jesus was leading a movement, mostly of people on the margins of society—a human towards community and reciprocal love and away from hierarchies and power.

In the community Jesus was trying to build, children and anyone else who was considered “least” were just as important as he was. Yes, kids were [and are] not valued enough. Their opinions and wisdom have much to teach us.

And even more significant, I think, is how children remind us that we are constantly evolving, continually moving and changing. Daily we can discover ourselves and learn to see the world and those around us in a different way. When we welcome the child among us, when we welcome the child within us—we welcome the possibility of growth.

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It’s a Human Evolution

Mark 8:27-32; 34-35   

From time to time people may say things like:

“Once you pass a certain age, you are who you are.”

“People don’t change much after age ___….”

“You can’t teach and old dog new tricks….”

While most of the time we don’t mean any harm when we say such things, it does highlight a tendency in our society and in the way we think—that at some point in adulthood we just stop changing, stop growing, stop evolving. In essence, we buy into the idea that as we get older, we slow down our human development and become less capable of change. Perhaps that’s why many adults of varied ages encounter strong opposition from family, friends, and co-workers when they do decide to make a major change or if they exhibit steady growth in another direction that does not resemble their past or even their present. Have you ever had that experience from either side? Have you seen someone you know change unexpectedly? How did you react? Or, have you gone through a major shift in you life and noticed strong reactions of others?

Just to be clear, when I talk about human evolution and change I’m not talking about human growth the way that the self-help industry does. Surely you’ve seen the overstocked shelves at your favorite bookstore. You have a million choices—books that tell you in their title that you should be able to tweak this or that or try this method, and change will be easy.

Image result for self help books
Some real titles:

Improve Your Life the Quick Way [part one]
Anybody Can Be Cool…but Awesome Takes Practice
Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life
What to Say When You Talk to Yourself
Awaken the Giant Within
Just Stop Having Problems, Stupid!

And I didn’t even delve into the myriad of fad diet and exercise books. The basic premise of these books is to convince you that change is easy and fast. Just give your money, read the book, and you’re set. Go to the lectures or workshops. You’ll change quickly. Of course, none of it is true. Fad diets don’t work. Exercise methods and techniques are just made up and don’t work for most people. Mental exercises that are quick and easy don’t have a lasting effect. And anything you have to keep paying for in order to develop as a person is already set up to fail.

Because human evolution happens on the inside.

And it’s based on who you are, what you’ve experienced, and how you see the world. And human evolution is not easy or quick or simple. There are certainly obstacles in front of us if we engage in the continuing process of personal growth and change. One of the main obstacles is baggage, something I’m sure all of you are well aware of. Baggage is that part of our identity that is informed by what people have told us about ourselves, who they have said we are from the beginning and who they say we are today. Now some of that can be positive, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still an obstacle to growth, because the old paradigms that people give us are just that—old. They are past. When we engage in human evolution the old paradigms don’t work anymore. And that’s a conflict.

Image result for paradigm shiftFor example, psychologists like Robert Kegan refer to the idea of the terrible twos. You know, any parents out there, of what I speak. The toddler turns green and becomes a tiny ball of rage and fury. And their vocabulary seems to only include one word: NO!!!!!!

Image result for terrible twos
Now there are two ways to view this. One: the kid is out to get us, terrible, and mad at the parents–just intolerable. The kid has only one goal in mind and that is to say and do the opposite of what we tell them to do and therefore to ruin our lives until they get a little older. And then it will happen again when they are a teenager.

Or, the second way of seeing this: the twos aren’t terrible at all.

The toddlers are becoming.

The constant No! is simply a denial of the old self [the baby]. It’s a repudiation of the old way of being.  The toddlers’ declaration is to their old self, which was embedded in the world they knew as a baby. Now, as two-year-olds, they are evolving. They are becoming.

Human evolution, simply put, is about asking these two questions:

What is self?
What is other?

Who am I? And what is the world around me? A example across cultures is related to how we talk about the weather. Say it’s a beautiful, sunny day—not too hot, not too cold. In the West, people would say: Wow, it is a nice day. But in other cultures, like the Amerindians of the Americas, they would say: I am in a nice day. See, in Western cultures the weather [the day] is separate from our being and is it whereas in other cultures, the weather is not separate from their being, and so they are in and the day is not an it. This matters, how we see ourselves and how we see the world.

This is reflected in a Gospel scene in which Jesus of Nazareth might as well have taught a Greek philosophy and psychology class 101. He asks his followers: “Who do people say that I am?” And of course, the disciples answer with all the identities that other people gave to Jesus–John the Baptist; Elijah; one of the prophets. And then Jesus asks his followers: But who do you say that I am? Peter, not known for tact or using his brain  much, blurts out: You are the Messiah. This made Jesus mad and so he told Peter and company to stop talking about him with other people.

Jesus could very well have been that infuriating toddler.

Who do people say I am? No! Who do you say I am? No!

Eventually, Jesus made it clear how he saw himself and how he saw the world and no one liked it. Jesus saw himself suffering alongside those who suffered, those who were pushed to the margins; Jesus saw himself far from the religious elites and the temple; Jesus saw himself as constantly evolving, towards a place and a goal that would never be realized. Jesus knew his evolution would take him to dangerous places and that he probably wouldn’t survive it physically. But Jesus also saw the world and the human beings in it as something worth fighting for, worth loving, worth showing compassion to. In essence, it was Jesus’ desire to pour his whole self out in the world, regardless of what others called him or tried to make him.

And I think this should be a really encouraging thing for us. We don’t have to be two years old to undergo an evolution. We don’t have to stop changing and growing after adolescence. We can keep going all through our lives. We can keep becoming. After all, we are human beings, are we not? We are humans who are being….we are people who are becoming.

Changing to Return to Ourselves

Luke 13:1-9

Selections from Self, Gautama Buddha

If a person holds oneself dear, let one watch oneself carefully.
The wise should be watchful during at least one of the three watches.
Self is the master of self; who else could be the master?
With self a well-controlled a person finds a master such as few can find.
Bad actions and actions harmful to ourselves are easy to do;
what is beneficial and good, that is very difficult to do.
By oneself is wrong done; by oneself one suffers;
By oneself is wrong left undone; by oneself is one purified.
Purity and impurity come from oneself; no one can purify another.

Change.jpeg

Daniel Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology. Dan’s 2007 book, Stumbling on Happiness, spent 6 months on the New York Times bestseller list, has being translated into more than 30 languages, and was awarded the Royal Society’s General Book Prize for best science book of the year. In 2010, Dan hosted and co-wrote the award-winning PBS television series This Emotional Life, whose premiere was watched by more than 10 million viewers.

He gave a recent Ted Talk entitled: The Psychology of Your Future Self.

He claims that all of us are walking around with an illusion:

“an illusion that history, our personal history, has just come to an end, that we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.”

To prove that claim, Mr. Gilbert provides some data from studies with thousands of people. Gilbert and his researchers asked half of them to predict how much their values would change in the next ten years; the other half they asked how much their values had changed in the last ten years. So in essence, they were comparing the predictions of people who were about 18 years old with the reports of people who were 28. Here’s what they found:

The common view that we often hold is that change slows down as get older. Gilbert’s study found that change does not slow down nearly as much as we think. People from age 18-68 in the study vastly underestimated how much change they would experience over the next 10 years. For example, 18-year-olds anticipated changing only half as much as 50-year-olds actually do. And it’s more than just change in values. It’s personality change and it’s likes and dislikes, too. What music do you like? Who is your best friend? What is your favorite hobby? People in the study thought that these things would not change in 10 years, but they were almost always wrong.

They did change.

This season of Lent [40 days] is about self-reflection and about change.
I’ve been asking you to hold this question closely:

What does it mean for me to be truly myself?

So as we continue to ask that question, let’s look at a story in Luke’s Gospel that challenges us to consider that change is really a part of who we are.

The story begins with a reference to Galileans. These “Galileans” were most likely pilgrims in Jerusalem. Apparently, Pilate, a Roman leader, had mistreated these Galileans, and violence filled Jerusalem. Jesus then asks a question of the crowd gathered there:

“Do you think that these Galileans were bigger sinners than all the Galileans because they had suffered this?”

Meaning: something really bad happened to these Galileans, so did they deserve it?

This of course is the old-school, sad but commonly-held view that if someone does things right, things will go well for her; if bad things happen to her, it’s because she is bad. Obviously, Jesus doesn’t believe this for one second.

So he refers to another old story about the tower of Siloam falling down and killing 18 people. And once again he asks: did these people do something bad to deserve that fate?

Both stories are attempts to change people’s perspectives about sin and debt. The commonly-held belief was that good things happened to good people and bad things happened to bad people. This cause and effect, reward and punishment mentality was and is severely limited. Instead, Jesus calls the people in the crowd to repent, a word that does not mean feeling sorry for a sin or something bad you did. Repent means turn around and move in a new direction.

Change in perspective that leads to change in your life.

Finally, Jesus of Nazareth tells the parable of the fig tree.

fig_tree2

A vineyard owner comes to a fig tree looking for fruit, but finds none. The owner is ticked off about that and lets the gardener have it. For three years I’ve been looking for figs, and nothing! Get rid of it—it’s taking up too much space! But the gardener says leave it alone. Coincidentally, the Greek word there [aphes] means forgive. The gardener is not ready to dig up the fig tree. In spite of its history of not bearing fruit, there is still the possibility that the tree can change and eventually be productive, finding its place in the vineyard.

Have you ever considered that change is part of your natural makeup–that you are not meant to stay the same? That goes for your perspectives and your life practices.

As Dan Gilbert’s studies found, we over-invest time and energy in our current preferences and perspectives because we think we won’t change and so we overestimate their stability. Why does this happen? Gilbert and co. are not sure. But one hypothesis is that it has to do with the ease of remembering versus the difficulty of imagining.

The owner of the vineyard couldn’t imagine the fig tree having any use, because the owner only saw a tree without fruit. But the gardener had an imagination.

Friends, I’m sure that most of you can remember who you were 10 years ago, right? But how hard is it sometimes for you to imagine who you are going to be?

Don’t assume that due to your lack of imagination, who you are going to be, i.e. a change, is not likely to happen. When we say: “I can’t imagine that,” we are simply expressing our lack of imaginative perspective, but not the unlikelihood change.

Yes, changing your perspective right now will help. The present moment can be, as Gilbert points out, a magical time.

It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves.

So no matter what age you are, or where you are on life’s journey, remember this:
We are all works in progress. We are not finished.

The one constant in our life is change.

And when we change, we are truly ourselves.

 

Love that Gets its Hands Dirty

Luke 13:31-35

rumiSelections from Jalal al-Din Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every mornin
g a new arrival.

A joy, A depression, A meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.
First to let go of life.
Finally, to take a step without feet.

We continue to focus on being and self-discovery these 40 days of Lent, focusing on Jesus of Nazareth’s own journey to self-realization—his path to Jerusalem and the end of his life. Each week, please consider this question:

How do you know when you are truly yourself?

The Gospel of Luke is keen on the theme of the journey. In fact, journeying occurs 88 times in Luke and in Acts, the NT book that the same author of Luke wrote. In this particular part of Luke’s story, the Pharisees [a sect of Judaism] try to convince Jesus to journey elsewhere; Jesus then tells them to journey back to Herod; and then finally, it becomes necessary for Jesus to journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and Herod Antipas.

Jesus calls Herod a fox. Thus, Herod was clever, but small. This is the same Herod, remember, who killed John the Baptist; but he was not even close to as powerful as the leaders in Jerusalem.So in spite of the danger, Jesus does not alter his journey or timetable nor give in to Herod’s supposed threats.

During this journey, Jesus expresses his sadness for the situation in Jerusalem. It resembles the laments of the Hebrew prophets. In this short rant, Jesus expresses his frustration and sadness over the Jerusalem people’s stubbornness and close-mindedness.

And yet, Jesus at the same time expresses his great love and compassion for them.

He wished to gather the people of Jerusalem just like a hen would gather her chicks under her wing. There is a play on words here. Thelo, a Greek word, appears three times. It means will, desire, want, or wish. First, Herod wishes to kill Jesus; then Jesus wished to gather the children of Jerusalem under his wing; finally the children did not desire it. These three wishes are in conflict with one another. And there’s no genie involved.

Genie

Returning again to the theme of journey, notice again that Jesus did not deviate from his course or the timing of it, even if there were obstacles or people trying to convince him to go another way. This is important.

How many times do we change directions, even when we know we are on the right path, because of external circumstances or because people convince us to? Often, we are tossed and turned by the latest trends, what our peers do, or what we see on TV or in other media. Essentially, we just start copying each other. A friend gets married, has kids, and buys a house? Well, we better do the same, even that is not our path. Someone gets a certain job, buys a big car, dresses a certain way? Well, we ought to follow suit. Why is that?

I think it’s because we start to believe that we don’t actually have our own journey, or that we are not worthy to have one. This is an unhealthy mistake and can rob us of opportunities, moments of grace, wholeness, and healing.

We all have our own path.

Internally, we need to journey on it. Even when things get tough or when others try to misdirect us, we need to stay the course.

Furthermore, I notice in this story the great vulnerability that Jesus showed to people, out of compassion. I’ve mentioned before the researcher Brené Brown and her work on shame and vulnerability. She gave a recent Ted Talk that I think speaks to the heart of the matter and relates to what Jesus expressed on the way to Jerusalem. Watch the whole talk here, or if you wish, watch from 17:30 to the end, for the purposes of this discussion.

 

Ms. Brown, after six years and thousands of interviews and case studies with a variety of people, has come to the conclusion that the people who are the most whole, the happiest, the most themselves—are the ones who practice vulnerability.

Look at Jesus of Nazareth’s treatment of other people. He wasn’t afraid to hang out with those who were considered dirty, unclean, outsiders. He didn’t take the easy road when others told him to, because he walked a path that led him to people in need of acceptance and healing. In spite of what some think, Jesus of Nazareth was not a meek, nice guy who glowed with some holy halo when we walked the earth. He was a troublemaker; he was an instigator and an annoying presence; he told the truth when it hurt; he chose to be with people who were difficult and who lacked power and authority; he did not hesitate to touch or to say a kind word to those who were pushed the margins of society. He put himself out there; he was authentic and vulnerable.

And his journey to Jerusalem was vulnerable—the whole way. Eventually, when he got there, he was as vulnerable as one could be. He didn’t do it to be a martyr or a ruler or to leave a legacy. He did it out of compassion for others. And he was only able to do that because he was true to himself.

So as your journey continues, remember that you’re imperfect but worthy of love and belonging.

And it is our job to say that and to show that to others and to ourselves. Vulnerability. It’s the other way, the journey, the path. To let yourself be seen as you are. To love with all your whole hearts without any guarantee. To practice gratitude and joy, even in difficult moments. To believe that you are enough.

May you continue to get to know yourself, to keep on journeying on your unique path, and may you be real, authentic, and vulnerable along the way.

Self-Giving, Love-Bearing

Mark 10:17-31

When I was a kid [well, I still am a kid, but just an older one], like most kids, I understood reward and punishment pretty well. Do well in school–get rewarded with good grades and a pat on the back from teachers and parents. Goof off and cause trouble—end up in detention and get grounded for what seemed like life. Be nice to your sister—perhaps ice cream may follow. Annoy and terrorize her on purpose—get privileges taken away. It all seemed so simple.

rewardKid

Until it wasn’t.

As I grew older and passed through that wonderfully chaotic and confusing time of adolescence, I started to realize that the rhythm of reward and punishment didn’t always hold true. Sometimes, for example, I did something really nice for another student, like inviting him to sit with me at lunch when no one else would. I thought that I would be rewarded. I wasn’t, in fact. Instead, it backfired. Some of my friends weren’t happy about it. And the student I sat with soon proved to be annoying and also a bit of a troublemaker. Sure, perhaps my intention was good, but I certainly did not get rewarded for my “good” deed.

This shook me up, because at that point in my life my faith was often based on doing good deeds or believing something “right” to gain a reward. This philosophy worked when I was younger and actually felt quite good.

Until it stopped being true.
Until I started to feel empty inside.

Until I started questioning whether believing and doing all these things would really bring me any kind of reward.

I started questioning whether that was really the point at all.

There are many stories I could tell you—about times when I woke up to this reality. The more I lived, the more I realized that following rules or doing good deeds for the sake of some reward wasn’t really the healthiest and most honest way to live.

Really, I was learning about the difference between self-sacrifice and. self-giving.

Now, I don’t know how you were raised in your particular faith tradition [or lack thereof], but as for me, I was taught that helping others was a good thing by my parents. The reasoning was pretty straightforward:

Because that’s the right thing to do.

Of course, for any inquisitive kid or teen that answer isn’t enough.

kidquestion

So I found my own path, and that path led me to evangelical Christianity for a spell. And yes, I won’t deny that I had some pretty fantastic experiences, made great friends, and learned a lot. But one thing that always confused me was this whole self-sacrifice thing.

It usually goes like this:
Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice for our sins by suffering and then dying on the cross.

So…it shouldn’t be too much to ask for you to give up 2 hours of your week to go to church, should it?! That’s your self-sacrifice. Now sit and think about Jesus.

This line of thinking went further as I got more and more involved in the church.
Pretty soon, self-sacrifice meant giving up a lot of things, and not just time. I needed to sacrifice some friendships; some activities I liked to do; I was held to a different, albeit confusing moral standard as it pertained to sexuality; most importantly, I had to even sacrifice parts of myself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but for a few years of my life, I lost part of my own identity. I did things that I didn’t really feel comfortable or good. I gave up things that I was passionate about. I hung out with people who were like-minded and Christian like me in favor of hanging out with the kids I preferred to be with, who were different and even sometimes criticized by the Christians.

Does this story ring true for some of you?
Have religions or a church or certain people convinced you to sacrifice a part of yourself?

Allow me to quickly lay out a definition of self-sacrifice and compare it to self-giving.

Say you give and give and give some more [time, resources, energy] to someone. You think that you are doing a great act of service. You are relentless in your giving. Why? Because you think that eventually you receive something for your tireless acts of service. But eventually, you burn out. You’re human. You get tired, frustrated, and perhaps a little angry. You’ve sacrificed so much of your time and resources, and you just don’t see any return. And in that process, you’ve not only sacrificed yourself, you’ve sacrificed the very person you thought you were helping.

Why? Because now you’re bitter.
You throw up your hands in disgust and proclaim: Here I am, killing myself, giving so much, and what do I get in return? Nothing!

Resentment for that person follows.
You start to blame him/her.

I’ve seen this way too much in life!

So that’s self-sacrifice—a path to unhealthiness, burnout, and resentment.

Self-sacrifice comes from a place of fear and loss. We give and give [even more than we should or can] because we feel that we lack something. We are not whole inside and so we overcompensate by sacrificing too much until we burn out.

Now, how about self-giving?

giving-heartSelf-giving is not about your ego or fear or loss. Giving of self, I would argue, is a spiritual act, and comes from a place of wholeness and true humanity. If you feel whole inside, you are inspired to give. You give profoundly, creatively, and freely. Giving feels great while you’re doing it, because you’re not thinking about getting any reward! Self-giving emerges from you.

Think about that for a moment while we transition to a story in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus of Nazareth is again on a journey with his disciples and on the way, he meets a man who falls to his knees before Jesus and says:
Good teacher, what do I have to do get eternal life?

A very legitimate question for someone who understood reward and self-sacrifice.
But Jesus, like usual, was snarky, and didn’t answer his question. He instead asked his own questions.

Why do you call me good?

In other words, don’t butter me up so I give you the answer you want to hear just so you’ll feel better about yourself.

And then this: You know the commandments.
Ah, yes! The man must have been thrilled. The list of sacrifices! Excellent, let’s see…adultery? Nope, didn’t do that, check. Stealing? Nope, I’m rich, so check. Bear false witness? Now way, check. Murder? Oh goodness, no, check. No defrauding? Got it, check. And Honor mom and dad? But of course, check.

At this point, the man probably was smiling ear to ear, ready to go home with heaven guaranteed.

wohoo

But Jesus didn’t let him off the hook.
Mark’s writer says that Jesus loved him when he said:

You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

homer-doh-moment

Maybe Jesus loved this guy, but it was tough love.
For the man was rich, and he wasn’t ready to part with anything he had. So he grieved.
He grieved that this was the requirement.

Notice that Jesus didn’t tell him to give away all his possessions. The Greek wording for possessions doesn’t refer to an Xbox and a Iphone 6. It refers to land and property. Most likely this guy owned a lot of land and real estate. The last thing he wanted to do was to sell any of that in order to help the poor! What about all those other sacrifices he had already made!

It was a teaching moment for the disciples, and they were most certainly shocked. How could it be so hard for a wealthy, respected member of an elite social class to enter the reign of God? Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? That’s really hard to do! Unless it’s a really, really small camel…like a mini camel or something.

brick-bible-500wi

The disciples’ world was upset, because they saw hierarchies and social levels and God favoring the rich. Jesus saw a world in which women, children, lepers, and poor people were the first.
So Peter jumped up to try to reassure his ego, to remind Jesus that he and other disciples are still good, because:

Look, Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed you. Right?

Jesus seems to ignore Peter’s attempt to get the gold star.
Instead, he closes with a profound statement.

Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Land and property and family were the important attachments in the world. Probably this is still true in many ways.
The rich always have plenty of possessions—passing them on to future generations.
The poor always have little to none—losing land, property, and even family.
But in God’s reign, there is and will be balance.
Land and property, family and community, will be returned to the least of these.

And according to Jesus, this “reign” or “kingdom” of God is not something to aspire to, or to perform deeds to possess, but it is a reign that is present now.
All the rules and commandments that pious people spend their lives trying to follow do not get them any reward, as they think.

Self-sacrifice only leads to more people being sacrificed.

It’s actually about giving of self—what we have within ourselves. It’s returning balance to the world so that everyone has food and shelter and community and abundant life.

You see, the man who fell to his knees and then grieved; the disciples; all of us—we get distracted by the whole self-sacrifice thing and following commands to get a reward.

All religions struggle with self-sacrifice and it can go bad in many ways. Sometimes, it leads to people hating themselves. I’ve seen that. People are so hard on themselves and they sometimes even wish misery on themselves in a masochistic way. Other times, sacrifice can lead to people letting others walk all over them, even abuse them.

And as I mentioned before, sacrifice only leads to more sacrifice. These days many claim that those involved in “acts of terrorism,” whether religiously-motivated or not—do so out of mental illness. But so often, these acts of violence—whether in a school, temple, place of worship, or in public places—are committed by individuals who think they are self-sacrificing.

So all people of faith and those who do not claim any faith, let’s move away from self-sacrifice towards self-giving.

Let’s cultivate compassion within ourselves, because that will enable us to show true compassion to others. Caring for others requires caring for oneself.

Let’s give of ourselves, because giving is not sacrifice.
Giving is sharing.

And yes, giving is absolutely receiving at the same time!
Both parties benefit when someone gives.
And the reason for this is that when we truly give of ourselves to another, we stop separating our feelings from that person’s feelings. We experience real empathy, for both of us have a shared experience.

Friends, give of yourselves.

Self Knowledge, a Dharma Talk

On Tuesday, May 12th, 2015, I was honored to be the guest speaker at Won Buddhist Temple.

You can learn more about their community and Won Buddhism by clicking here and here.

WonFullMeditationCircleHow does one know him/herself?

A good and complicated question, am I right?

How do we know ourselves?

A simple answer would be:

Simply introduce yourself.

nametagBut it’s not easy to do that, is it?

Take me, for example. I was raised in the Midwest—Indiana and Iowa. I have many memories from those places. Religiously, my parents raised me as a Christian. Vocationally, while in college in Iowa, I decided to pursue theater. After that, I ended up on the East Coast for the first time—Princeton, NJ, in order to study theology, philosophy, and religion. Eventually, I became an ordained minister, started working in churches and other organizations, and found myself in a variety of places like Mexico City, Detroit, Honolulu, Honduras, Cuba, and Philadelphia. I got married to Maria Elena. I started working in interfaith organizations like the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.

All these places, people, and experiences are part of my story. Seemingly, they define me. If someone doesn’t know me, and then asks me the question: who are you?

How do I answer?

Do I say that I’m a minister, a husband or partner, a son, a brother, a consultant, a Midwesterner, a Christian, an actor, a crazy person—how do I answer?

You see, in my experience, we most often define ourselves by all those external things: places, situations, jobs, nationalities, religions, etc.

Introduce1

But is that who we really are? Do we really know ourselves?

A few years ago, I started working on a grant project. I was funded to work with high school and college students from Greater Philadelphia and other places, including other U.S. states and other countries in South Asia and the Middle East. The concept of the project was: know your neighbor, know yourself. In essence, what I did was to help organize different experiences for these students in which they would meet and get to know students from other religious backgrounds. The point was to break down the walls of misunderstanding and prejudice and to promote peacemaking and cooperation. Sounds great, right?

But something else actually happened in the process.

Though our funders and the religious institutions that supported the project loved the idea of peacemaking and breaking down barriers, that is not really the most significant thing that happened in the end.

A Muslim student from Saudi Arabia met a Christian student from Wisconsin. They talked, they got to know each other; they participated in the silly but fun theater games I asked them to do, they did service projects together, and they shared about their own religious practices. But they also became friends. Before they knew it, they weren’t talking to each other as before. She was no longer a Muslim and he was no longer a Christian. They started to see each other so very differently than before and they were challenged to see themselves in a different way. No longer could they hide behind their religions or nationalities; they were challenged to know themselves as they were and to know others as they were.

Having done many of these projects, I can tell you that each time I am transformed by these students and the friendships they develop. And each time I am more and more convinced that we must know ourselves in a deeper way; this self-knowledge will enable us to know others as they truly are.

And yes, there is peacemaking and cooperation and justice that can result from this knowing.

But we as humans struggle with this kind of knowing.
We are so very conditioned to see ourselves through the eyes of others and through the eyes of our external experiences.

I am a case in point.

My entire life, I have searched for knowledge. I’ve read books, scriptures of many religions; I have studied philosophy, theology, and psychology. All of the knowledge I gained from such study has been beneficial, but to a point. It is accumulated knowledge and clearly reflects particular worldviews and biases of society. It is limited knowledge, to be sure.

But there is a book that I should definitely read without hesitation.

It is the book of knowledge of the self.

Perhaps I can even say that we are all books ourselves. For some who believe in one Creator-god, we are then books written by this Creator. In Buddhism, we are books containing Buddha.

I have discovered [and still am discovering] that this book of self is the one I must read. I must continually look within myself to notice the creator in me; I must continue to know myself so as to recognize the Buddha in me and in others.

It is true that people will continue to write books about us. These books will tell us who we are and define our identity. But these books, written by others, are second and third-hand knowledge. If we read about ourselves in these books, then we are not real.

We are just someone else’s story.

And these other books written about us can prevent us from looking within, from reading our own book—to know our true selves.

There is a Hindu story from India that goes something like this. A very learned prince received scriptures from Krishna. Every time the prince read a new scripture, he would get confused and frustrated, saying: No, no, this scripture says something else than the other books I’ve read. And so it was again and again. Finally, Krishna laughed and said: When the light has risen within a human being, all your scriptures are like a tank full of water when the flood has come.

At times, when I was in a desert place in my life, certain books [written by others] provided some comfort and knowledge for me—a tank full of water. But the flood came when I started to read my own book, to know myself fully, and I was no longer in a desert place, but in a vast ocean.

This is recognizing that all the external identities I have been given are lesser than the true nature of myself.

It is like the venerable Sot’aesan, Founding Master of Won Buddhism once wrote:

As I do not hold the mind which wanders out,
Nor receive the mind which comes inside,
So now I obtain the One Mind which neither comes nor goes.

Lots of identities wander in during our lifetimes. But the true knowledge of self is in knowing the self that stays—the self that doesn’t come and go.

This is who we are.

When our minds are free of distractions and conditioning, desires, and attachments, we are as clean and as vast as space. This is often called beginner’s mind—who we really are at our core. To this space, we can always return. Within this space, our religious affiliation or lack thereof; our nationality; our cultural background; all the external identities given to us by the world–are of lesser importance. In this beginner’s mind, the sacred space, we are free to see ourselves just as we are and others just as they are.

A motto of Won Buddhism is “Everywhere a Buddha Image and Every Act a Buddha Offering.” My understanding of this is that it means we should recognize each person we meet as a Buddha, and treat others as you would treat a Buddha.
It is related to Grace, which expresses our interdependency and interconnectedness to all living things. Master Sot’aesan awakened to that truth and realized that nothing can exist without being interrelated with others.

And so I close with this story: Master Sot’aesan once met an old couple on their way to temple. They were going to pray for Buddha to help their troubled daughter-in-law.

But why go to a Buddha statue, Sot’aesan asked them, when you’re surrounded by living Buddhas? Why pray for someone else’s enlightenment when you can achieve it together? Your daughter-in-law is a living Buddha, so make your offerings directly to her, the same as you would to a Buddha statue. See as she sees, not as a piece of stone sees. We forget that the only way to understand another person’s problems is to look through their eyes.

Yes, I think this is true.

We must know our true selves first. And to do that, we must continually re-evaluate our own perspectives, our own opinions, and our own solutions. We must recognize the limitations of the identity that the world has given us.

And in this space we can join together with others in spite of our perceived differences. We can recognize our interconnectedness. We can cooperate across religious and social lines and bring about justice, peacefulness, and even joy.

May it be so.

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