Friday, December 23, 2011

LEAVING YOUR COMFORT ZONE


Path to Adventure, Flint Hills, Central KS

Joseph Campbell’s classic study of the heroic journey in world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, outlines the three stages of departure, initiation and return. The heroic journey has all of us as its symbolic subject and traces the hero-paths of our own journey, from potential to full actuality of our true self. The film Star Wars is a great contemporary example. Campbell writes, “This first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated as the ‘call to adventure’—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent, as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon…And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

The odyssey begins with the potential hero leaving home, the ubiquitous comfort zone. Genesis 12 relates the beginning journey of Abraham and Sarah to found the world’s three monotheistic religions. God instructs them to “leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the new land that I will show you.” Jesus also called His disciples to leave their families and homes to follow Him. Bob Buford’s book Halftime is essentially about transitioning the second period of your life from one of success to one of significance. Success is good in our first period of life as it lays the groundwork to freely achieve goals of significance. Life at this stage is no longer about money or the approval of others—it’s about finding your sacred dance as your character has matured and grown. It’s about deferring your visions and dreams to God’s vision for you to use your acquired skills and talent to serve the common good. It’s no longer so much about gathering but spreading the seeds of goodness in the world around us. It’s about leaving your homey comfort zone and setting out once again to fulfill your ultimate destiny. It’s about changing the formula from pursuing external happiness to achieving internal joy in your life. George Bernard Shaw famously noted, “There are two sources of unhappiness in life. One is not getting what you want; the other is getting it.” The second period of life is getting what our creator wants for us.

Monday, December 19, 2011

MEETING LIFE HEAD ON


Emerging on the Other Side, Lake Michigan, IL
Courtesy of B. Weidner

When one of life’s storms is upon us, seek a path not over or around it but head on and through it. Then we can emerge on the other side sooner and more hardened by the experience. We may not always get the life that we have planned, but we can still live in God's presence with hope and joy while adjusting our sails onto another course.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

BEYOND LIZARD BRAIN


Hawaiian Lizard, Courtesy of R. Weidner

I actually developed a theory about our lizard brain long before I just recently happened upon the term. I’ve traveled rather consistently all of my life during my career and personal time off. And I slowly began to observe that I never got a good night’s sleep on that first night in a strange environment away from home. Subsequent nights were no problem and I began to analyze just why that was happening to me. I finally realized that it was simply a matter of becoming familiar and secure with my new surroundings, like the compressor kicking in on a small refrigerator or window unit in my foreign room. It occurred to me that this particular trait was probably all about the fact that this DNA had survived over eons of human development to be part of my being. My lineage continued to propagate because they were alert to the rustling of a saber tooth tiger at the mouth of the new cave where they had decided to spend a few nights during the hunt for food. Once they were assured that an area was safe and secure, they got a good night’s sleep. The saber tooth tiger took care of those that didn’t respond by removing them from the gene pool! It just so happens that those instincts are still alive and well in my being and my modern saber tooth tigers have morphed into such things as circulating fan motors and life’s challenges. Once I finally realized what was happening to me, I was able to easily return to REM sleep even though the lizard brain at the base of my evolutionary brain’s structure was still functioning.

I learned that this lizard brain was at work during other aspects of my life to discharge its ancient duties of fight, flight or freeze, challenge the use of edible food and stimulate the drive to propagate the species. I finally learned to understand that this fear mechanism was trying to help me if necessary, and I could silence it by acknowledging it, focusing on my goal and then focusing on its execution. I even trained myself to redirect all that nervous energy to stimulate my brain’s energy and attention to the task at hand. And I can now recall a few occasions where lizard brain’s auto pilot actually saved my life or quickly alerted me to difficult challenges when contemporary saber tooth tigers threatened me. It turns out that our lizard brain is also functioning behind the scenes using chemical and electrical signals to regulate involuntary breathing, heart beats, growth, etc. while our higher brain functioning concentrates on those thinking and spiritual assignments that separate us human beings from the lizards and dogs walking among us.

Some neuroscientists have proposed that our human brains are the evolutionary result of successive higher levels of order for lizards (reptilian complex), dogs (limbic system) and humans (neocortex) within our skulls that grew on top of one another. The lizard brain handles basic instincts and bodily functions. Then the mammals emerged with the addition of a more complex layer of brain with emotions and emotion-based memory. Finally, the human being layer completed the masterpiece with its ability for poetry, art, language, projecting the future and reason. Consequently, human behavior can be at odds at times when our emotions conflict with our reason--like when we’re tempted to go for some dubious pleasurable activity when our reason tells us that it is ultimately not good for us. We may still be evolving to fully achieve a harmonious integration. Meditation and prayer can assist. And frankly, I have no problem believing that all of this occurred in one or two days or 150,000,000 years, as the human brain is one of the most complex objects in the universe and we are only beginning to understand it. As the psalmist praises, we are fearfully and wonderfully made!

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his now famous triangular Hierarchy of Needs in 1943 describing the stages of growth and motivation in humans. The base of the needs triangle is composed of the lizard brain physiological needs and then our needs move up the ladder for safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Some have even proposed adding spiritual needs at the very pinnacle of the pyramid, but I believe spiritual needs can be attained at every level and may be even more important if a person is rooted in poverty at the lowest level. As you can see, they mirror the human brain’s development and it’s been proposed that if we do not consciously move beyond the early stages of security and survival, we will not effectively continue our journey of discovering our true potential self and spiritual growth. I’m not so sure a triangle is the ultimate shape to illustrate this point however. Years ago I discovered that sometimes a concept such as this can best be illustrated by concentric circles moving out like the ripples generated when a stone is tossed into water. And at the very center of this word picture is our spiritual growth which expands as we move out into the concentric circles. And it goes hand in hand with my observation of the circles of life that are integral to our existence. In the twelfth chapter of Luke, Jesus tells us “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes…But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The bottom line is to be aware that we human beings have been endowed with an evolved brain that is now capable of contemplating our future, where we have the capacity to move beyond basic needs and fear and to understand the temporal nature of this life so that we can evolve into the next.

Monday, December 12, 2011

YES, VIRGINIA, THERE CAN BE JOY

Christmas Snow, Jamestown, NC

The time was 1897, not all that long removed from the horrendous War Between the States. It was a time when hope and faith were waning in the country as men like Francis Church, the son of a Baptist minister who had covered the war as a correspondent, were still reassembling their lives and outlook. Church now worked the editorial desk at The New York Sun and found himself to be the dubious recipient of a short but direct letter from a young eight year old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. When other children had challenged her belief in Santa Claus, her father had delicately sidestepped the subject by encouraging her to write to the last word in their household—The Sun. Church’s now famous editorial reply was titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” after Virginia’s closing question to the newspaper. But it was his opening sentence of the second paragraph of the now most memorable editorial in newspaper history that everyone remembers; “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy…Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding”.

The now famous phrase from Church’s editorial is part of our modern culture and many folks take editorial license to rephrase it in order to make their point, such as the title above. Our culture considers the path to happiness strewn with all imaginable sorts of worldly stuff, but we’re not all that happy. Perhaps it’s because happiness is very temporary since it’s based on external circumstances, like buying stuff. But a recent study found that if two groups of people were given a fixed amount of money and asked to either spend it on themselves or someone else, the ones who gave their money to others reported a significant uptick in mood compared to the other group. It came as no great surprise to find that there is a lasting joy to be had in giving to help others and that it’s a relative bargain compared to the money people spend on pursuing happiness. That spirit of giving, personified in a rotund bearded man in a red suit, is still alive and well and was the message that has resounded in the hearts of folks ever since the first edition of Church’s reply to Virginia was published over one hundred years ago around Christmas time. The act of giving exemplifies Jesus’ teaching to love God and love others. The Old Testament book of Malachi 3:10 says “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…and see if I will not throw open the flood gates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it”. And that’s the true power of giving--when the gift is given with love, generosity and devotion it is returned tenfold in the form of blessings of lasting joy and an enriched life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

OVER THE RAINBOW


Over the Rainbow, Chicago, IL

I grew up in the land of Kansas where tornados occasionally run free and Dorothy and Toto grace tourist’s T-shirts. When I was still very young, our combined schools performed at the local civic auditorium. The closing song was a nostalgic rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” with the lights turned down low. The combination of the haunting lyrics and the atmosphere made a lasting impression on me. The young Kansas farm girl Dorothy is longing for a place “over the rainbow” where skies are blue, the clouds are far behind her, and troubles melt like lemon drops. Then a whirling tornado carries her and her dog Toto into a fantasy Land of Oz where she begins to appreciate home and begins a quest to return there. The title song from the classic movie The Wizard of Oz later became the signature of Judy Garland’s singing career. She wrote that “Over the Rainbow has become part of my life. It's so symbolic of everybody's dreams and wishes that I'm sure that's why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I've sung it thousands of times and it's still the song that's closest to my heart."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_DKWlrA24k&ob=av2n

During a general audience in 1999, Pope John Paul II observed that heaven and hell were primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment. The universe we occupy along with our creator God would seem to exist in one endless sea of consciousness. It’s been said that heaven is a conscious spiritual existence in God’s presence, while those who exercise their freedom to chose and turn their back on God will spend their eternal spiritual existence apart from His divine love. That they point out is hell.

I was recently intrigued by Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God can be found within each one of us. It comes with God’s Spirit beginning to work in our lives and relationships. Jesus taught that this kingdom is born within and we then live it out in our daily activities---as He modeled life. As we die to ourselves, the good news is that the Spirit begins to grow within us—we’re born a second time. Paul writes that we then receive the spiritual gifts of faith and hope and love to strengthen our lives on earth. And love is the cornerstone the kingdom is built upon within our hearts. Our body can be in the world, but our soul and our spirit can be in the kingdom of God. That’s important to know! While God is being made manifest within us, the Prince of Darkness in this world can inflict problems on us. But he has no power over our soul and our spirit.

Sometimes, when Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God, he's speaking about a present reality that is somewhere else—a place where God's reign is completely experienced without any rebellion toward God. Scripture tells us that the day will come when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, where the kingdom of our God will supplant the kingdoms of this earth. Revelation says that in that day there will be no more sorrow, no more grief, no more death, and no more pain; that God himself will be the light in the midst of that kingdom.

When Jesus used parables in His teachings, they had deeper levels of meaning, like peeling back the layers of an onion. And the basic literal meaning was the least revealing. When Jesus talked of His father’s house with many rooms, it quite probably is not a gigantic Motel 6 in the skies. But perhaps He was referring to that vast infinite space of spiritual consciousness somewhere over the rainbow. And yes, Toto, we can go home to a place we’ve never been before.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

MIRRORS OF EMOTION


Mirrored Sunrise, Kiawah Island, SC

There are a total of 150 Psalms in the Bible that are said to mirror our hearts and speak our deepest thoughts. Their emotional range moves from great joy to deep distress. They teach our hearts who God is and what He has done. They model divine conversations with boldness and beauty. Jesus seems to be praying the 22nd Psalm on the cross in His final hour. Athanasius made the sage observation in the fourth century that the scriptures speak to us but the Psalms speak for us. Ironically, they are central to the human experience and Psalm 118:8 is located at the center of the Bible. It contains this verse; “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man”--a reminder to work towards being God-centered VS self-centered. And the shortest and longest chapters actually book end Psalm 118.

Many folks who have been indirectly exposed to the Psalms quite possibly consider them extreme wailing in the night (lament—Psalm 90) or gratuitous shouting in the daylight (praise—Psalm 100). But of course they are so much more once we spend a few hours reading and pondering these voices from a distant three thousand years ago. Thanksgiving is the focus of Psalm 65 and Psalm 73 is a meditative wisdom poem. C. S. Lewis rightfully characterizes them as poems intended to be sung or at least read aloud “with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry if they are to be understood…Their chief formal characteristic is ‘parallelism’ or the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.”

A few years ago I stumbled onto a book whose subtitle promised “Renewal, Hope and Acceptance from the World’s Most Beloved Ancient Verses”. The book titled The Healing Power of Psalms was created by Rabbis, Samuel Chiel and Henry Dreher. Working with numerous people over the years, they have come to understand that “turning to the Psalms as a form of prayer when we are sick, scared, or grieving will almost surely give comfort. They quote Psalm 121 as one example that can provide us a revitalized faith in an eternally protective God:

The Lord is your guardian,
the Lord is your protection
at your right hand.
By day the sun will not strike you,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will guard you from all harm;
He will guard your life.
The Lord will guard your going and coming
now and forever.

They note that “prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. But how can we take prayer to heart without risking disillusionment and despair? It is best to remember that the body is a holy though impermanent vessel, the substance but not the essence of who we are”. They wisely observe that “curing and healing are not one and the same. Cure refers to the complete physical resolution of a disease. Healing may involve physical cure, but it is vastly more encompassing. Regardless of the medical outcome, this broader healing is a goal worth all of our energies—and our prayers.” And ultimate healing may not occur in this life, but in the next, as a traditional reading of this text says that “He will guard your soul”.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

FINISHING WELL


Contemplation Sundown, Wrightsville Beach, NC

There’s actually been quite a lot written about the transition we humans are capable of making during the last period in our game of life. The first period is generally conceded as a time of establishing our identity and achieving some success in life. Then most of us that have navigated those stormy and adventurous waters begin to embark on a period of transition to set a new course and recharge our batteries for a more satisfying journey towards a new fulfilling life of significance. It’s been said that 90% of people live on cruise control or unconsciously 90% of the time. We need to pause more often to ponder our destiny. Bob Buford characterizes this period in his book titled Halftime to amplify the need to call a time out and catch a new vision for living that final act and the best years of our life. Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest with a Catholic priestly resume whose book on Falling Upward teaches that loss of control and necessary suffering as we move into the second period can actually shock us out of our comfort zone and enable us to better understand our destiny and rise up to the challenge. Rohr and Buford have characterized these major periods as the first and second halves of life separated by an introspective halftime, but the transition can occur at any point in our lives, not at the exact halfway point.

We slowly remove our first period stage masks to reveal our true persona. Ultimately the Zen masters call it the face you had before you were born—your true self or your soul. We begin confronting and dealing with the undesirable attributes that have developed and been carried along for years. Rohr makes the point that “The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push—usually a big one—or we will not go! Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in—but only to be moved out from.” The final period of life can oust us out of our homey comfort zone simply through the aging process if nothing else.

We start to incorporate humility and love in all things. We move from an ego centric to a soul centric worldview and from human doing to human being. This phase of life can be a very rewarding aspect of spiritual maturity as we now have more time and resources to give back a portion of the blessings that we have received during our success period. The eight Beatitudes become more front and center to us then the Ten Commandments. We no longer have anything to prove, so we try to live more simply so that we can help others to simply live. Life is now not as much about having what we love as it is about loving what we have. We give away things that have actually become an anchor on our life and are no longer considered needed to interest, sustain or validate our lives. The inner light that radiates outward in the process also becomes a gift to the world around us.

It’s a productive time for advancing the soul work that makes our lives meaningful and continues the soul’s maturation into eternity. Our unique soul was installed by our creator along with the gift of life itself and the primary job description for us mortals is to continue to grow our character as we move along life’s passages. We’re a collaborative partner in the eternal flow of this great creation mystery and this is the vessel we need to transition into the next period of spiritual life as we finish well.