Transformation: No Pain No Gain

This past 12 months I have been blessed…yes blessed..with a whole series of challenging situations. First, in January 2008, my wife of 15 years and I decided to live in separate houses, without any sense that we might ever get back together.  My next great challenge was a diagnosis in December of prostate cancer–slow-growing and small in size, but cancer nonetheless.  Then as January, 2009 came around–after a very good 2008–revenues for the organization I direct fell precipitously, causing us to reduce all staff salaries and consider laying people off.

As I contemplate all this, I say “thank you” to all the wisdom teaching, inner work, meditation and practices like yoga and qigong that have kept my heart in peace and helped my overall sense of well-being to not be diminished. Each challenge brought its own test to deal with a range of emotions and thoughts (anxiety, anger, resentment, apathy, escapism). But simply being mindful in the moment, and knowing that all these negative states are like clouds passing in the sky, there came a deeper sense of inner ease that grew throughout the year.

It is said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Another way to think of this is like an athlete–to reach peak performance, you have to stretch and go beyond what you think you are capable of.  I also like the term St John of the Cross gave us: the dark night of the soul.  If we do not have those dark nights that challenge us to the very core, I am convinced that our growth will be limited.

Life is wonderful like this. It seems we get just the right challenges to make us bigger, more courageous, compassionate and wise people. And my life over the last year is no exception. My wife and I are re-uniting and now have a wonderful, deeply loving relationship. I’m right in the process of reviewing my lifestyle choices in food, work hours, stress levels that play a role in cancer, and am pursuing a natural/organic mostly fruit & vegetable diet, and planning cutting out work & volunteer situations that cause me to over-commit. We are also right on top of our financial situation in my organization and have all the resources we need to weather well this current economic downturn.

I likewise view the global economic crisis  not really as a crisis, but as an opportunity to re-evaluate, reduce, become simpler and appreciate again the basic things that life are all about.

It’s all in our attitude. We say “no pain no gain,” and this comes from a view that something unwanted from one perspective, is painful, or a hassel. On the other hand,  what is thought of as painful or undesirable is just that–a thought. Adverse thoughts when clung too and strung out into a whole story determine much of the reality–the drama–we experience.  Saying to ourselves “Oh my God, how terrible it is that I no longer have a wife,” or ” I might die of the big C,” or “I’m going to go broke” powerfully affects our state of mind and quality of life.

Why not instead ask “What good can come from this?” or “How is what is happening now just perfect for me?”  I believe this is not mental manipulation, but a truer assessment of what we would call unfavorable situations.

The fact is that real faith is about seeing everything in life as a sacred blessing. There is no “good and bad.” Those are just colors we add to experience.  Can we go beyond duality, and just say “thanks” for what is?

What if God Walked in the Door?

What if God walked in the door? Would you recognize Him? Fanciful question? Perhaps.  But let’s consider what I really mean.

Miracles are happening all the time. They’re so ordinary we don’t even recognize their miraculous nature–that’s just the way things are. But every now and then, we see their true colors.

Like, for example, the very fact that I’ve been running an organization which, for 18+ years still exists and supports me and many others, against all odds. The Heritage Institute, a program of continuing education for teachers, functions in a market dominated by goliath institutions, where Heritage is a small David–and yet we continue to survive. Why?  I can only think of one word. Grace. And, of course, smarts are involved–but the inspirations we’ve had for new programs and administrative innovations, well where do they come from but “someplace else.” Such is the nature of revelation. Good ideas don’t come from the small self, but from a bigger mind.

More mundane examples abound–like the time my wife and I bought our house on Whidbey Island in July 1999. We got in the car on a Sunday morning, and drove from Seattle to the Mukilteo ferry without stopping at one light, arriving just in time to get on the ferry before it left. That began a day of similar graces–all signals that the move to Whidbey was in the flow of what was right for us. 

All of you reading these words know what I mean. We all have had flow moments, or times that just when we thought our luck was about to run out, something or someone intervened and we were saved. Or Perhaps we lost or failed at something, only to discover later, it was no failure or loss at all, only the wonderful discarding or dissolution of something that needed to go from our lives. 

If you can truly say that everything in your life is just perfect–even the divorces, the death of a child, an auto accident that left you paralyzed–then you not only know there are no accidents, but that all things can be seen as contributing to our higher unfoldment. 

I don’t mean that bad things were meant or destined to happen to us. We simply go beyond good and bad when we make meaning and grow from everything, without attachment or reaction to life events.

But do we have the eyes to see, the heart to accept this tremendous reality? That’s the question.

Imagination & the Sacred

I just returned from two weeks away at some marvelous events.  Some of you may have heard of The Great Mother conference which has been put on my American poet and catalyst for the conscious men’s movement Robert Bly.  Bly is quite a man and a terrific poet with great depth and heart. This conference which has been going for 34 years is a real treasure for anyone who loves poetry, as I do.

I went to put some new fire under my poetry writing, which has proceeded sporadically over the last 15 years.  I love to write and have come to appreciate with even greater clarity the absolute importance of enlivening the imaginative soul; for it is in honing our sensitivities for beauty in all its forms that we gain a consciousness supple enough to feel deeply into the nature of things. 

I have a vivid image of Thursday night at the conference with the meeting hall full and on stage was Robert Bly, Rumi translator and poet Coleman Barks, sitar player David Whetstone, table player Marcus Wise and cellist David Darling. The musicians were playing incredibly inspired refrains as Robert and Coleman read or recited from memory one poem after another for almost two hours. 

I dare say I was drunk with spirit–certainly reflecting the tenor of the ecstatic poets being read–like Hafez and Rumi.  During the week I felt myself becoming so saturated with heart that I had to take off and visit nearby Damriscotta for a respite. Such is the way it is for those of us living on planet Earth in the time/space Ken Wilber defines as flatland–a land devoid of the sacred and sense of soulful present. In other words, few of us are accustomed to the Presence of the divine, of deep soulfulness, since we live so much of the time on the surface.

There is no doubt in my mind that we cannot have the world we want without a culture of inwardness that honors the human imagination and its capacity to access the divine in all its forms. God and the sacred world are not reached through rational, linear thought. Faith is not an act of will or determination-those are moral attributes–but comes from the courage to imagine the unseen. Knowing without knowing, our heart becomes the fertile soil for for the upwelling of deep spiritual feeling in which lies a “sense” that “something out there” exists beyond my complete understanding.

As we enter stillness, and feel into the nothingness of pure consciousness itself, we sense sense some part of ourselves so vast and beyond self and, curiously, at the same time so intimately ourselves. “Tell them that “I am” sent you” was God’s revelation to Moses when Moses asked at the burning bush how he should describe to the Israelites the God of heaven and earth. God was revealing the God in Moses to himself, and that revelation requires an exquisite sensitivity to the soil of the soul.

That’s why Moses was asked to remove his sandals for the “ground on which you stand is holy ground.” We remove the deadness from our souls when we unburden our feeling nature with the everyday cares of this life, and let our hearts soar into the beauty and truth of the moment, however that arises.

Where is the burning bush in our lives? It rests in the capacity of the heart to perceive imaginatively, like what happened to me one night at 3am when I was living in Bellingham Washington. The year was, I think, 1979 and I had just had the year before a spiritual awakening. I was looking out our window at Bellingham Bay and noticed how bright the moon shimmered on the water. Genesis came to mind: “And the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the deep.”  Why I held that phrase that moment as a possible literal truth, I don’t know, but it occurred to me briefly that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, out there on the water, reflected in the moonlight that evening.

Then, all of a sudden the Spirit hovering over the water came right into the living room, and I felt a most tangible and powerful, numinous presence about two feet to my left and in front of me–so powerful, in fact, that I literally fell to my knees sobbing like a baby. When I regained a measure of composure, I found myself wondering “What is this,” shortly after which I heard an inner voice–not my voice say: “I’m here,” and then ” I love you.”

This was none other than the presence of Christ Himself, and that presence has stayed with me until today. 

Did I make this up?  Is this just a case of overactive imagination? Am I, and people like me, crazy for thinking we can communicate with a divine presence? To all these typically skeptical questions I would say “Yes and No.” Yes, I did use my imagination but not in a way we think of as “making up.” It’s more like I was willing to entertain a notion, to make my intuitive capacity available to experience something beyond what we can touch and see. And in that receptive mood, my senses were able to take my mind by the hand, so to speak, and say “Come with us to this place and see for yourself,” not with an actual seeing or hearing, but with an even more powerful perception of our inner being–so that we “know that we know” beyond rational causes. 

To me, this is the heart of the creative process and explains the redemptive power of the arts, to lift us off the material plane and help us enter into the presence of the sacred in which we are able to enter eternal truths and sense the connectedness of all things.  It is from this place that the world becomes whole in our being, and we start to walk with greater dignity and reverence for life.