Friday, February 29, 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Programming My Unprogrammed Worship

The Quaker Meeting I attend is unprogrammed, and I greatly value unprogrammed worship. But gradually over the past couple of years I have been struggling a bit, not with spiritual dryness, exactly, but something I would better describe as spiritual frozenness. Unprogrammed worship has generally been very powerful for me, as in the worship I have often felt "melted down by God's love" (I think this is a paraphrase of a quotation from Thomas Kelly).

Two weeks ago I again experienced that melting, for the first time in quite a while. Last week I felt locked up in frozenness again.

But back in January, I attended an evening retreat entitled "A Year of Living Intentionally." We worked on formulating our intentions for the year, and at the end of the retreat were given a jar filled with questions on little slips of paper. We wrote out our intentions and taped them to our jars and were encouraged to use the questions in the jar for journaling. I came home and experimentally pulled out one question, which evoked dismay and guilt for how deeply "off" I was feeling at that time, and so I put it back in the jar and stashed the jar out of sight and almost forgot about it.

Meanwhile, other exercises from that retreat have been very helpful to me, even playing a significant role in my recent breakthroughs.

Suddenly today I remembered the jar. I pulled it out, and opened it, and dumped out all of the slips of paper, and read through them all. They are great questions. As I read through them, I thought that they would function very well as Quakerly Queries. About a dozen of them immediately and powerfully shook the rigid framework of my freezing-up-again soul.

And so I thought to myself: "Maybe I should use these as Queries to 'program' my own unprogrammed worship experience in Meeting."

One should, of course, program one's unprogrammed worship very carefully and tentatively! But what I really mean is "preparing heart and mind." I am not really going to force myself through a pre-planned structure no matter what else happens in worship. I need to be open to and sensitive to how the spirit moves among us.

But if I feel frozen, I will hold these Queries like a blow-torch (or at least a candle) against strategic points in the icy walls freezing up around my soul.

Here are some of the ones that speak to me this week. I may share more in the weeks to come. I will not share my own responses, but just the Queries themselves, in case these should speak to others as well:

  • What inspires me these days? How can I follow this and be shaped by this energy?
  • How can I support myself in becoming the person I want to be?
  • Who or what gives me energy?
  • What or who do I need to say yes to this week?
  • What or who do I need to say no to this week?
  • In what ways am I holding back in my life?
  • How do I want to feel today?

Admittedly, this set is "I" focused. But sometimes a person's major spiritual challenge is to reconnect in a living and vibrant way with God's love. It is hard to bring God's love forth into the world through your life (to "let your life speak") when struggling with the frozen-soul syndrome that depression sometimes is. It is these kinds of Queries that, right now in my life, powerfully speak to me and help me get back in touch with a version of myself whom I like: a version of myself who does feel in touch with God's love. And so I offer these in case others find this approach helpful too.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

New Snow Tally

In case you are interested: 84.5 inches.

The latest batch: beautifully light and fluffy and sparkly. This is my favorite kind. When it lands on your sleeve, you can see the beauty of each snowflake.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Shifts of Consciousness

Breakthrough #1

I have had kind of a spiritual breakthrough. With the help of counseling, I have come to realize that my primary psychological orientation to the world is in fact spiritually flawed. Psychologically, I have adopted a primary stance of "being nice." Implicitly, I was acting as if niceness is the most important virtue. There is too much pain and unkindness out there -- we need to be nice to each other, because life is hard enough as it is!

But the spiritual problem with this orientation is that it is as if I am saying that God created the world all wrong. God created a world with too much suffering, and it is up to me to try to get rid of as much of that suffering as I can. My technique for doing so was to take it on myself, as much as I could. In this, I was implicitly thinking too highly of myself ("I am better than most at handling suffering well") and not being respectful, in a certain way, towards others (by assuming that most people cannot handle their suffering very well themselves).

Furthermore, psychologically (as well as spiritually) persisting in this orientation was not very good for me. First of all, it meant I was almost constantly suffering. Secondly, people who saw that I was good at taking on the suffering of others had a tendency to try to get me more and more to take on their suffering. Thirdly, I realized that my motivations for doing this were not as noble as I would have liked to think. While it is true that I don't like to see others suffer, it is also true that early childhood experiences built this tendency into my psyche in large part as a self-protective measure.

It protected me in two ways. If people perceived me as sensitive and nice, they were less likely to intentionally try to hurt me. And also, by developing the capacity to help others with their suffering, I learned how to endure my own suffering too. But the profound psychological flaw in this strategy is the way it actually compounds my own suffering. While it is true that people seldom want to hurt me intentionally and may even want to protect me, if what they value about me is the way I help them with their suffering, and if they protect me so that I can keep taking on their own suffering, the net effect on me is that I end up taking on a lot more suffering than is really mine to take on. Just because I learn to deal with suffering and handle it pretty well does not mean that it isn't causing me unnecessary damage. Just because it has become familiar, and therefore in an odd way comfortable, doesn't mean it is good for me--or anyone else.

This brings me to the fourth fatal flaw of this psychological orientation: my taking on others' pain (as much as a person really can, which turns out not to be as much as I had originally thought) is actually not good for them. It encourages them to shirk their own moral responsibility, and it encourages them in behaviors that could eventually turn somewhat abusive.

Coming to these realizations was initially hard, because I sensed that my concept of "compassion" was being threatened, and I did not want to let go of holding it a primary virtue! And it turns out that I was right -- I needed to let go of the concept of compassion I had. But I don't have to let go of compassion itself. I just needed to redefine it.

What new notion of compassion replaces my previous one of "eliminating suffering as much as possible"?

The new notion is something like this: "help empower people to deal with their own suffering well (if in fact they need my help, which maybe they don't)."

Breakthrough #2

I've had another breakthrough, this one in my work life. I have been somewhat successful in spending more time on a regular basis on my research and writing. And over the past week I've suddenly realized, to my surprise, that my research and writing is actually front and center in my life. There's a way that I'm thinking about it all the time -- through my teaching, and any time I have mental space to think. My attitude towards my administrative work is that I fit it in when I must.

It is only in noticing this as a shift that I realize that my previous state of consciousness was very different. It was administrative work that was front and center in my consciousness for a while. Maybe this was to be expected for a time. For me, the leadership roles I suddenly found myself in were new. I think I needed to focus a lot of attention on all of that in order to learn it. It also dominated a lot of my work time. So, I was giving that dimension of my work priority, and it was taking a lot of time -- it is no wonder that I felt that research had to be fit in around the edges. Research and writing did not seem to have quite the same immediacy and urgency that administrative tasks with their firm deadlines do.

But now this has reversed. The administrative deadlines are still immediate and urgent, but the experience I have accumulated means I can deal with these much more efficiently than I once could. So I can let research and writing push all of this to the edges, and it will still get done. Also, since I have let the research and writing gain momentum, and since this dimension of my work life is most expressive of who I see myself to be, it has acquired its own sense of importance and even urgency in my consciousness. I have invited it convincingly into the center of my soul, and after initial wary hesitation, it finally has moved (back) in and taken up residence. And I keep feeding it, and it is growing strong again, and I am letting it run the household of my soul now, so to speak. (I don't mean to suggest, by these metaphors, that this has displaced God from the center of my attention in life. How and why I engage in the research that I do is all grounded in constant discernment of spiritual call.)

So my academic trajectory has been: (1) teaching being front and center (because it was new and very challenging!) until I became chair, then (2) administration/leadership being front and center (because now this was new and very challenging), and now (3) research and writing moving to front and center at last!*

I am very happy to be here! It's not a brand new state of being. I was in this mode when I was writing my dissertation. And I was one of very few graduate students who loved working on my dissertation! So I feel like I am at last coming back to what is a very happy state of being, for me.

*This is not the usual academic path. Most academics focus on research and teaching for a number of years before assuming administrative positions. My situation was unusual in my having to become department chair so early in my career (prior to tenure). Avid readers of this blog already knew this, of course.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hidden Knowledge

My semester is continuing to go well. The discussions are going very well in both of my classes. I am learning a lot by observing how my students are reacting to the material. Here is some of what I have observed so far:

  • A question came up in class one day why some thinkers call God the origin of morality. While my students realized that religion tends to be moralistic, they were bewildered at the thought that all of morality is somehow grounded in God. I was bewildered at their bewilderment. So I asked them what I thought was a simple question: what are the concepts that get associated with the concept of God. I thought they would quickly offer "goodness" as one of those concepts, but they didn't. They came up with omniscience and omnipotence and creator and judge; they puzzled over the supposed immateriality of God; they discussed theism vs. deism. I waited and pushed and finally challenged them: "there's at least one more really big concept--in fact, maybe the most central one--that you haven't come up with." Blank confusion. Rising impatience. And when I told them: "goodness," there wasn't even an "oh, yes, of course!" reaction, but, instead, more blank confusion. One student objected by detailing the image of God the Harsh Judge.

I have to pause a moment to just emphasize how tragic this is. Many thoughtful, well-educated people are surprised to think of God as the source of all Goodness!

I pushed the point. I talked a little about what it's like to believe that Goodness is really real.

Then I took an even more radical step. I quoted the Bible passage, "God is love," and asked them to explore what that might mean. They were totally surprised that that was in the Bible, and wanted to know where! I worked with this in the same way. "Do you believe that love is really real? What is love? What if we regard this 'is' as an equation. If you really believe in love, then does that mean you believe in God?"

Cleverly, they tried to evade the full impact of this question by arguing about whether 'is' functions as a linguistic "equation." (And they had a point: in English sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.)

Finally, they concluded that the concept of God is so confusing that we should dispense with the word altogether -- or perhaps make up a new one.

This was a very promising moment, because they were finally really getting it! I don't think we should get rid of the word, and any new one we might invent will develop the very same problems, probably in a very short period of time. Even though it is impossible ever to fully stabilize the meaning of a really important and powerful concept like that, what we can do is learn as individuals to hold proposed definitions of such words lightly. This is what my students were finally starting to learn to do -- but I was struck at just how hard this was for them.

  • Related: A lot of thoughtful people have really deeply entrenched negative views of religion, and negative concepts of God. Their objection to belief in God is tied to a really problematic notion of God. They think that, if God exists, God made a world structured by a hidden set of rules that are very exacting and demanding, but we are not given any clear or helpful instruction book. Somehow, we have to figure it out, but the world is so confusing and the advice we get in this life is so inconsistent that no matter what we do, there is someone telling us that it's not really the right way to do it. And this God is going to judge us in the end, and cast us into hell if we didn't get it right. My students are outraged at the unfairness of all of this. So they turn away from religion altogether.

When people turn away from religion for this reason, they lose a whole rich set of concepts and practices that can be really helpful in dealing with life's problems and challenges. That just is not how they see religion. They think that religion is a clever way that the powerful manipulate and control the weak and vulnerable. The weak find false comfort in the "dogmatism" of religion, in letting others tell them what to do. The powerful then use this to exploit and control those weak people.

Those who regard religion this way do not want to think that they themselves are weak. And so arises a culture in which we hide our weaknesses, and have few models for how to deal well with life's difficulties.

I am saddened by the latest campus tragedy: the young man who opened fire in a classroom and killed several students and then himself. I am struck that the news media's explanation is, "he was off his medication." Admittedly, no one seems to know too much more than this so far, and may never really know.

But what I find myself wondering is why we are not really teaching each other how to handle life's difficulties and challenges well.

Medications can and do help in some cases. Counseling is also really helpful. But I find it hard to convince my troubled students to go to counseling or to continue with it if their first attempts do not feel immediately helpful to them. Even though it is great that so many people try to push against the social stigma against "mental illness," that stigma is still there.

Meanwhile, it does not occur to so many people that spiritual and religious traditions are full of wisdom, compassion, help, and inspiration. Whole communities of supportive people, and whole sets of concepts, language, and practices that are tried and true, are rendered invisible by tragic misunderstanding. Those who may most benefit from access to these traditions have no access to them because they cannot get past their own misconceptions about them.

In class last week, I talked next with my students about the notion of "gnosticsm," or "hidden knowledge." We don't think about knowledge in these terms today. The scientific revolution was supposed to be all about exposing that we all have access to knowledge. Any claims to having secret, powerful knowledge are regarded with suspicion. Anything that really is true is supposed to be accessible to anyone motivated enough to look for it.

"But what if there is secret wisdom?" I asked my class. "If there is, I think it is probably hiding in plain view. I think it might be right in front of us, but we get duped into seeing it in the wrong way."

Then I added, "do you realize that you are an elite few, right now engaged in an elaborate initiation into powerful knowledge that is hidden from most other people on this planet? By virtue of your being students in an institution of higher education, this is, in a way, true."

Maybe they thought I was out of my mind (I'll see how they follow up on this discussion on Monday!), but I left class feeling both excited and sad. I was excited that they seemed so surprised, and surprise is all about opening to something really new. If they come through this to new awareness and new understanding, I will be really glad.

But I felt sad too, because I really do feel that I have tapped into worlds of valuable, helpful, powerful knowledge and wisdom that have been immensely meaningful in my own life, but that remain hidden behind thick curtains of misconceptions to most other people I encounter. I cannot speak my native language without fear of being tragically misunderstood. I live this astonishing secret life of engagement with great spiritual forces, and most people have no idea. I don't want this life to be secret. In a way, I am talking about it all the time, but most people miss it. They miss it because the elaborate translations I must perform strip away most of the magnificence of it all; they miss it because they aren't paying much attention anyway; they miss it because they only accept thinned-out narrow meanings of the huge enormous concepts I use.

And how much do I miss of the secret dramatic lives of others, because they too are caught in the same dilemmas of believing that the language they are most inclined to use is also most likely to be misunderstood?

I am so glad for the opportunity to teach this class in Science and Religion, because we are all struggling to find or build a language for talking about these great mysteries. Any language will always have its limits. But communication is possible despite the limits of language, when people really want to communicate.