Final Vacation Lesson: Thoughts about God

Last night I was dancing. I love dancing. I love dropping into the truth of the body in movement. It is a celebration of the physical-ness of being: moving limbs, heart beating, internal rhythms and the simple joy of having a body. In its grossest sense, the joy of living in a body is the best face of God that I know.

Then the DJ spun a slow song. The song was an appeal to God to end war, violence and torture. I found my body slowing down and deepening into a dance of despair. The lyrics were a desperate appeal for sanity in an insane world. The artist begs God to change things. I have made the same plea, many times in my life. Beginning when I was very young. God has never answered this plea. I have come to believe that there is no one there to answer the plea.

My personal story: I grew up in an alcoholic home with a father whose behavior was a form of ‘gentle sadism.’ Yes, its and oxymoron, but it’s best descriptor I can manage. He liked to pinch, poke, tickle, and tease to the point that he injured us both mentally and physically. He never tied me up, but he did pin me down and he did drop me from a balcony. It was all done in the name of ‘fun.’ Not our fun but his. Thus I call it sadism.

My family was Catholic and so I was sent to Saturday Catechism classes. We only lived a block from the San Gabriel Mission. Each Saturday morning I’d walk there for a lesson on the Bible, Catholicism and general religious indoctrination. The first few years of Catechism were a preparation for First Communion (at age 7 or 8) and that was followed by preparation for Confirmation in middle school. The teachers were most often Nuns, occasionally a Priest would come to give a guest lecture and occasionally a lay volunteer would teach.

They taught us to pray. Much of praying consisted of repeating memorized prayers, most commonly ‘Our Father’ and “Hail Mary.’ We were also taught to pray to be relieved of our sins. We were taught to ask God to solve our problems. I prayed for my Dad to stop drinking and stop hurting us. I prayed for a long time, long in the mind of a 7 year old, and nothing changed. I prayed over and over again asking God to stop my father from hurting my Mother and me.

Needless to say, Dad didn’t stop. His abuse continued for the rest of his life. Even when he sobered up and stopped drinking, he was abusive in that ‘gentle sadist’ fashion of his. And then he died, at age 54, and left this odd shaped hole in all of our lives.

So at the tender young age of 6 or 7 I stopped believing in God, or at least the God they were teaching us about in Catechism. I considered the evidence and determined that there either wasn’t a God or that if there was a God he had little to do with me. I was also taught that one had to go through the steps, regardless of what one believed. You had to pretend to believe whether you actually believed or not. So, I continued with Catechism.

In preparation for First Communion we were instructed in how to take our first Confession. Along the north wall of the Mission there were small rooms with two doors. The Priest would enter through one door and sit behind a screen. We would wait our turn in line and then enter through the other door and take a sit. Then you would repeat the following a script: “Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been x weeks since I have been to confession….” you listed your sins in a particular order. We were taught just what behaviors were sins and we were told what to confess. I remember that in my first confession I couldn’t think of any sins, so I made them up. I suppose that was a sin itself: sin forgery to please the powers that be. But remember, we were taught to pretend to believe. The entire affair was an act that had to be played out to keep the adults happy.

The Priest would assign us prayers as penance, for example: “say 10 Hail Mary’s and 4 Our Fathers.” We’d go back to the pew and ti kneel to say the prayers. If you were really contrite you might kneel right in front of the altar and weep as you prayed. They said that the Priest talked directly to God. We’d confess, the Priest would relay the message to God, God would tell the Priest what we needed to do to make God happy again, then the Priest would tell us, if we said our prayers with the appropriate attitude and we’d be ‘Good to Go” straight to Heaven. Just in case we got run over by a car on the way home from communion, we knew we were all set.

We must have been taught not to sin, but I don’t remember that part. Sin happened. The church helped you out by making everything all right with God again, through confession and communion. If you hadn’t confessed and went to church with ‘sins on your soul’ then you had to sit in the pew through communion. Everyone would know you had sinned. Priests were the necessary middle man between us and God. As mere lay people we didn’t have direct access to God. And like any good middle man, the church collected tolls along the way.

The results of all this effort, prayer, confession, communion, made no change in the reality of my life. My parents didn’t change. My Dad continued to drink and hurt us. My Mom didn’t protect us. The pain didn’t stop. I stopped believing in the church. Occasionally a friend and I would go to Sunday Mass, but it was an action fueled by a desire for entertainment rather than an action of faith or belief. In fact, the more time I spent around the church the more cynical I became and the less I believed. For whenever I put the teachings to the test, they failed the test. After I was confirmed I stopped to going to church all together. I classified myself as agnostic. I didn’t believe, but I wasn’t strong enough to call myself an atheist either.

Now I’m in mid-life. I’ve continued to try and test a variety of churches and spiritual teachings. But I have yet to find a God in a church that I can believe in. I do not believe there is an omnipotent being who is causal in the world. I don’t believe in an outside actor who has a stake in the outcome of the human experiment. I don’t believe any religion has the answer to the question of ‘why are we here.’ I don’t believe in being saved. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell or a divine reward or punishment for our actions during this life. If I’m wrong, I don’t want to spend an eternity in Heaven with a God who would be as unjust and sadistic as he must be to allow the pain and suffering we observe on earth. Any omnipotent and all-powerful being who would allow war, torture, and starvation is more sadistic than my father was and is not worthy of my worship.

I do believe that we as humans, simple humans, are capable of better than this.

Coming into my 30s I had to look at my own behaviors, my own drinking and craziness. I saw too much of my father when I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like what I saw. I went to a plethora of other 12 step meetings looking for a solution to my craziness. I went to therapy. I learned to meditate and pray and say affirmations.

My prayers looked different than those of my childhood. I began to pray for changes in myself. I used prayer to change my thinking. I literally began to choose different thoughts. I learned to say a gratitude list first thing every morning. Before I got out of bed I was to list 20 things that I was grateful for, the simpler the better: I’m grateful for a warm bed, a dry home, an loving husband, food in my refrigerator, a job, a car, a bicycle, the sun, the mountains… This prayer worked. This prayer works because the mind is plastic and malleable. The mind is transformed by the work that it does. If we give the mind positive work, if we reinforce the positive neural pathways, the mind physically changes. I could reprogram myself out of my alcoholic home thinking and into a healthier way of being.

Twelve step programs teach that it doesn’t matter who or what you pray too, it matters that you pray. You can pray to a door knob if you like. Prayers to a door know will affect change.. They teach that you can design any God you like. And this is brilliant. The face of God does not matter I would say because God with a face does not exist. It is the action of praying that matters, not the being that you pray too. Prayer is a physical process that shapes the brain, just like exercise shapes the body.

Meditation, affirmation and prayer are three forms of brain exercise. They each work in slightly different ways to remold the pathways of the brain. We literally change our thinking and the physical network of our minds. We become better happier people because we choose to do the brain work that makes us better happier people.

We could redefine God so that God becomes the action of change, as the process theologians have done. We can redefine God so that God is the feeling and sensation, the ecstasy, that results from this action of change, as the Tantrists have done. But I personally don’t find that necessary. For me, the word God implies an externality rather than an internality. And I believe the source of change comes from within individual humans. It is the actions of humans that will change the world for good. Each of us makes a difference in the worlds by our actions. In my worldview the best definition would be for each of us to become God: each of us then taking responsibility for the good of the world through our actions. We can repeat the mantra “Hamsah” “I am that” to affirm out own divinity, our own responsibility.

We are divine and what we do matters. How we act and what we think matters. In my early Catechism, they taught that bad thoughts were as bad as bad deeds. We can choose our thoughts, we can shape our world, both the personal and the global world, through our thoughts and our actions. So choose wisely. You have the power to change the world. So I pray to you as I once prayed to God: Stop the violence, stop the torture, stop the pain.

Change your mind and make a difference with your actions.


Vacation Lesson Number 4: You are the teacher.

The Buddha sat underneath the Boddhi Tree to reach enlightenment. Mohammed sat in a cave in the desert. Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, and often left his followers to pray. Moses climbed a mountain listened to a burning bush.

All of these teachers spent time alone in nature. Enlightenment came when they left society. They sought silence. They sought solitude. They fasted. They listened. They listened to the voices that came to them in silence.

We are bombarded with noise and distraction. Our lives are filled with voices and images from every direction, all at once. Time and space are distorted and transcended as we juggle our pasts and future on the internet. When we are exhausted we turn on the tv and listen to a packaged refrain. When was your last silent moment? When did you last listen to the quiet of your mind.

If we listen to the media and advertising chorus around us, we are told to expect fulfillment through the next purchase. Enlightenment is belittled and obsolete. Enlightenment has been replaced with gratuitous satisfaction. The lives of the rich and famous are the lives to strive for. The American dream is no longer a home and a chicken in every pot, but rather a McMansion with a Hummer in every garage. Look where that dream has brought us. We are sitting on the edge of calamity. The financial system has fallen off its precarious wall. All the king’s horses and all the kings men can’t put it back together again. We need something new in its place.

Don’t sign up for a church or for the next guru to cross your path. Too many churches are supporters of the status quo, apologists for ‘King.’ Even if the ‘King’ today is capitalism and corporate America. No guru has your answers. You won’t find the answers in any book, neither the good book, the old book or the big book. The answer isn’t written on any wall.

Turn off the TV. Head outside for a few hours. Go someplace where you can feel fresh air on your skin and hear the sound of wind and birds. Go outside and observe the world. Find a place to sit still and listen. Feel the rocks beneath your feet or beneath your butt. Sit on the earth. Get dirty. Sweat.

Repeat often, until your mind starts to clear of the cultural fog. When everything else gets out of the way, when the cultural milieu is silent, what is left? What do you love? What is important to you? What do you want when you stop wanting what they tell you to want? If you wipe away the cultural fog, your thoughts will be as profound as those of the Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. Listen to what arises from deep inside you. You are the teacher. You are the prophet. You are the healer.


Vacation Lesson Number 3: Stop going somewhere

This morning Allee (the dog) and I set out to hike Dimple Hill. It is a good strenuous hike. Starting at the top of 29th Street, it is about 7 ½ miles round trip with a 1400 feet elevation gain. It took me just over 2 hours. I stopped to have a snack and try to do some video taping at the top of the hill. It started to snow while I was up there and I wasn’t dressed warmly enough. My fingers soon got too cold to operate the camera so I packed up and jogged lightly downhill until I warmed up again. My muscles are pleasantly sore now. My fingers are still a little uncoordinated. It feels good to be able to push my body. I am grateful for this ability to move. I am grateful for my health.

I watched my mind while I hiked. Hiking alone is one of the best times for observing my mind at work. My mind rarely slows down. I am blessed/cursed with an active verbal center and a quick processing left-brain. My mind quickly wraps itself around problems to seek solutions. When idlem, my mind begins to dither about planning the future, coming up with new ideas, and writing text for later (like this). Because of the arrival of Facebook in my life, my mind has been invited back to ponder friends from years and years ago. I find myself wondering if I should apologize for my adolescent behaviors or just let those sleeping dogs lie (like Allee is doing right now.)

Meditation is largely a process of watching the mind. Becoming still enough, undistracted enough, that you observe your own tendencies. Where does your mind go when you are still and quiet? What do you spontaneously think about? Rarely does our mind stay in the present moment. That is the next invitation of meditation: stay in the present moment: stop going somewhere else. You don’t need to sit cross legged on a pillow to meditate. You can meditate anywhere. Silence is helpful. Finding the place or activity that lets you watch your mind is very powerful.

I love being in the present moment in the woods. I love feeling the earth on the soles of my feet. Noticing the chill of the air on my skin. Listening to the sound of the wind moving through the trees, the crick and gaw as the trees sway, the babbling and cawing of birds, and the sound of water flowing downhill. I love feeling the depth of my breath, the beating of my heart, and the pump of my muscles. I love looking at the forest itself, the trees are still bare so that slits of blue grey sky show through; the ferns, moss and lichen lush and rich. And if I slow down and watch closely I see birds and small animals moving through the brush. I begin to notice the details of the forest landscape. It is awe-some.

And all of that observation might last for a minute or two before my mind starts planning again: What will be my next hike? How great a shape I would be in if I did this everyday? How can I arrange my life to hike more? I want to start that wilderness dance group… how will I make that happen? I brought the camera… what will I say for it? Do I want to tape a yoga practice or a teaching monologue.

Oh yeah, I’m on a hike: I bring my mind back to the moment. I take a deep breath and I return to the sensations of being a body in the woods. I enjoy a few minutes being right here, right now before my mind races off again. But in those few minutes there is such bliss, such joy, such awe and such ease. Those are the moments when I know true wealth: the wealth of simply being. I don’t need much in my life. A warm dry place to sleep, a decent pair of shoes, a good meal and good relationships are enough to make me feel wealthy. I am blessed to have those needs fully met. Everything else is a distraction.

Lesson of the day: Stop Going Somewhere. The joy is right here, right now. You have all the wealth you need.