Who Am I; Who Are You?

After resting for 45 minutes motionless, with acupuncture needles in my face, arms, abdomen, and legs, my doctor come into my room.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Peaceful,” I replied.

“Good,” my doctor said.

I thought to myself, “How many people that I know could I tell I’m peaceful?  How many situations that I find myself in would the subject of peacefulness be an appropriate conversation topic?”  And, “How many people would think I’m weird to tell them I feel peaceful?  Or not understand?”  Certainly, not at the Blues Club I frequent.  Or in my casual social occasions at the coffee shop or diner.

But my point is not how out-of-place talk of peace is.  My point is how often our conversation is constrained by our environment.  How often who we are is determined by whom we are talking to.

There are people with whom sports seems to be all I can talk about.  And I’m not that into sports.  There are people I talk about work issues with.  There are people with whom I act as a professional counselor.  There are some I seem to be talking about politics with.  Some are academic colleagues and we talk about philosophy.  Not too many people I can talk about poetry with.  There are some situations in which we complain and gripe.  There are a few people with whom I can bare my soul.  Who am I in each of these different scenarios?

There are degrees of authentic presence with other people.  There are situations in which we are polite and mannerly, which is essentially following a rule book.  There are situations in which we are diplomatic which requires sensitivity, fast and careful thinking and word choice.  There are times when we say what we think other people want to hear.  Then there are the feelings with which we encounter others.  Sometimes we speak in mutual love.  Sometimes we speak in mutual anger.  Sometimes we speak in mutual sincerity.  Sometimes in company with others we feel lonely because there is much of who we are that we cannot express in the environments we find ourselves in.  Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of situations in which one cannot talk because the listening audience is to heterodox to the one talking.    Who are we in these differing ways of dialogue?

I think that there are different degrees of depth in our personality makeup.  When we are alone, some of us are in touch with a depth that we can’t express in public, for various reasons.  We think, do, and feel as we wish when we are alone.  This may be who we really are.  There is also meditation and prayer, which takes us to an altered, deep level of personality above ordinary experience.

So who we are alone is one measure of the self.  Then, on the other hand, there are times when a person gets lost in sociality.  These are times when our environment dictates who we are, how we act.  When I was a Harvard student in Boston, I felt so connected to my social environment that there was no real divide between me and the culture of Harvard.  On the positive side, I was learning social graces and expanding my intellect.  On a negative side, I was all surface, appearance, propriety.  I lost my feeling of peace when alone in Nature.

But we can’t love when we are alone.  Love isn’t a feeling we shine out from our heart.  Love is an action word.  We love when we are involved with others.  We can love, also, when we do something of service to others, even when we are alone.  When I write, or play music, which will eventually get to other people, I love what I am doing.  My love for others comes out in words or melodies.  Sometimes peacefulness comes out.  When I am in company with others, I aim to bring love and the Good to our encounter, my love for humanity, and what I have learned to date that is good.  I may listen empathetically; I may joke around; I may share my personal life, I may inquire about others’ loves, lives, interests.  In all this I strive to be authentic.  I want people to meet who I am, not who I want people to think I am.

Once, a long time ago, I was talking to a stranger in a bar.  She said, “I’ve never met a real person before.”  I hope that wasn’t the whole truth.  But I think that we encounter degrees of reality in the people we meet.  I knew a man who accidentally told me that he is skilled in becoming the kind of person he thinks his social companion wants him to be.  That would be the opposite extreme of who I was back in the bar.  Being an authentic self is knowing self, and bringing self to social interactions.  And self in relationship with others is self expanded, growing through the interaction, acting on and in love and the good.  Being authentic in relationships expands who we are as we come away with an encounter of the other, another reality than our own.  While we may be one kind of real self when we are alone, we are also a real self when we are authentic in our relationships.

 

 

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Why Sacred Texts?

I was recently on holidays in the Caribbean.  I was immersed in nature, with the lush foliage, palms, the ocean and snorkeling, sunsets.  It is not easy to explain, but being in nature served to shuck off all the city anxiety, worry, and stress.  I fell into a natural way of being.  Taoists would call it being in harmony with Tao.

My fellow companions on this vacation and I talked about our upbringings and how our past determined the present issues we confront in our life growth.  We talked of spiritual ideas like reincarnation, Scientology, Buddhism, and Swedenborg.  My worldly concerns were gone, and I found myself falling naturally into spiritual interests.  This and the healing power of the love my partner, her sister, and her sister’s partner all felt together.

Then I returned home, and got caught up in the wheels of the world again.  There was one striking impression that I experienced as I returned to work.  I am a pastor.  And in the middle of my first church service back from holidays, I saw the open Bible on the altar.  I thought about how little I was involved with the Bible while on holidays.  And yet there was a deep spirituality about my holidays.  I felt like so many people in the world today.  I wondered why the words of a bronze-age storyteller matter today.  Matter to me, to my spiritual life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had similar doubts about the relevance of Israelite history and the landscape of Palestine.  His language is somewhat hard to read, but the examples he cites from the Bible are so strange and opaque you get the idea—Emerson doesn’t understand why he needs to read the Hebrew Scriptures.

“What have I to do,” asks the impatient reader, “with jasper and sardonyx, beryl and chalcedony; what with arks and passovers, ephahs and ephods; what with lepers and emerods; what with heave-offerings and unleavened bread, chariots of fire, dragons crowned and horned, behemoth and unicorn? Good for Orientals, these are nothing to me. The more learning you bring to explain them, the more glaring the impertinence. The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it. I say, with the Spartan, ‘Why do you speak so much to the purpose, of that which is nothing to the purpose?  My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s. Of all absurdities, this of some foreigner proposing to take away my rhetoric and substitute his own, and amuse me with pelican and stork, instead of thrush and robin; palm-trees and shittim-wood, instead of sassafras and hickory,- seems the most needless” (Representative Men: “Swedenborg; or The Mystic).

Emerson wants to rely on his own lights, his own mind, draw metaphors from his own natural world—“thrush and robin . . . sassafras and hickory.”  Emerson thinks that he doesn’t need sacred scriptures.  Instead, Emerson thinks that his own mind, birth, and habits are sufficient modes of spiritual inspiration, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  This is the basis of Emerson’s criticism of Jacob Behmen and Emanuel Swedenborg.  They bound their imagination to Christian symbolism and the Bible, “Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”  Instead of relying on the Bible and Christian symbolism, Behmen and Swedenborg should rely on their own minds, their own moral imagination, says Emerson, “the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”

However, I think that there is value in mining sacred texts for spiritual direction.  I think that there are things in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures that are of value today—taken with advisement.  I admit the antiquity of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Christian Scriptures.  But everything we think, every judgement we make, everything we know, we learned—either from our family, our city, our country, our schools.  We are born ignorant of everything.  We need to learn everything—to walk, to talk, to think, to make judgements, to hold spiritual ideas.

This is where Emerson mistakes.  He writes, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  First, there is no delight and study of Emerson’s eyes.  Every delight and study came to Emerson from another person.  Someone taught him manners; someone taught him civility; someone taught him language; someone taught him the habits he practices.  I think that his New England culture taught him much of who Emerson was.  He himself says so, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit.”  His birth and habit came from the New England Culture he grew up in.

We are fated to our local customs, our family’s habits, if we do not look outward.  There may be much good in our local habits.  But to remain only in one’s local habits can be limiting.  There can also be falsities and misguided values in our localities.  This is why we need input from other world-views.

The Bible is a 1,500-year-old record of humanity’s encounter with God.  Even if some of it comes from a bronze-age culture, it is still a sincere record of humanity’s encounter with the Other.  Buddhist Scriptures, too, are the product of intense thought, meditation, and spiritual inspiration.  Where do we get our own ideas of spirituality?  I will admit that we can receive spiritual influx directly from God, or the angels.  But a little reflection will show just how much of our spiritual thought and beliefs came from parents, teachers, school, church, local culture.

I suggest that more than we might realize, our spiritual beliefs are, in fact, “another man’s” and not “the delight and study of my eyes.”

 

Trends, Styles, and the Self

It seems that every time period is plagued by trends and styles.  I am old enough to have seen many come and go.  In my teens, it was “Do your own thing; be an individual; peace, love.”  I watched some of the music, now rock classics, yield to the sensitive, bland, forgotten music of the late ’70’s.  I remember fading out of pop culture in the late ’70’s and listening to classical music (symphony, not rock).  Then came the ’80’s with money, power, cocaine, preps and Yuppies.  I rebelled against these values angrily, though I was, myself, a prep at Harvard.  I can’t find a trend that dominated the ’90’s.  But today, it seems that LGBT is the centre of gravity, along with eco-justice, women’s issues, and pop culture.

I’d like to think that in universities there is free intellectual inquiry.  But this is not the case.  There are styles and trends there too.  Back in the late ’50’s, symbolic logic was the rage.  Philosophers and even anthropologists wrote their ideas in those strange (laughable) symbols trying to look all mathematical and scientific.  That eventually got debunked.  Then I remember existentialism coming around.  When I was in grad school and when I graduated from grad school, it was all gender issues, power dynamics, wealth and poverty issues, and Nietzsche was the prevailing world-view, along with Richard Rorty.  I watched Derrida and deconstruction come and go in about a decade.

The thing about trends is that there is power behind them.  If a person wants to talk to others in society, he or she needs to buy into the current trends.  The alternative appears to be isolation.  And if a person wants to publish, one needs to write and think in the terms that are current.  But I believe that everyone has an intuitive sense of the true.  I believe that Emerson called it the Oversoul.  We know when a given trend is ridiculous, or doesn’t fit with human experience we know.  We sense the vacuity of certain ideologies.  I believe that’s why I turned to classical music in the late ’70’s, for instance.

Some people dedicate their lives to following trends.  It is their quest to recognize the prevailing trends immediately so that they can be in the vanguard.  In the ’90’s it was goatees, in the mid-2000’s it was mountain-man beards.  Maybe in Hollywood or fashion this is a necessity to survive or to make a fortune.  But I suppose there is enough of the old hippie in me not to worry too much about trends and to follow my Oversoul.

How Much Is Enough?

This Christmas, we had a very good turnout at church.  By our standards.  Which is to say that it looked like a full church.  I was happy with the turnout.  But all this is relative.  It is a small church.  Even if it were packed, attendance would have been few by standards of mainline churches. But compared to other Christmases, and compared to regular Sunday attendance, it was a good turnout.

This kind of thinking can be translated to other areas.  I think of the music business.  I know of a band in Canada which I like very much.  They fill smaller concert halls, and play festivals, but not stadiums.  They even have a Juno award, which is Canada’s equivalent to the US Grammy. They could play to packed bars every night if they wanted to, an opportunity which many good bands would envy.  I don’t think they have a gold record.  Most likely not a platinum record.  If you are a musician, how would you measure success. How much is enough?  Stadiums?  Platinum records?  Airplay?  Filling concert halls?  Playing to packed bars.  Playing enough venues to pay the bills?  Then there is the issue of how long your popularity would last.  Some immensely popular rappers, with platinum records, are gone in a year or two.  There is a new guitar player in town who is having a hard time breaking into the music scene.  But he plays better than anyone else in town.  It’s just that he’s new.

Then there are likes, follows, visits, and views for bloggers.  How many are enough?  25?  50?  150?  1,000?  4,500?  Do you write with an eye to posts that will attract views, visits, likes, and follows?

These issues arise in still more areas–money, possessions, status, friends, prestige, education, popularity.  How much is enough?

I think that the only way to maintain sanity, is to do what Emerson, Thoreau, and Frost, among others, have advocated for.  Follow your own music, march to the beat of your own drummer.  The new guitar player in town plays incredibly well to nearly empty bars.  I know of a preacher who conducted a service for one person, and of some synagogues that can’t open the Torah, because they don’t have a quorum present.  This does not indicate the quality of the performance, message, or belief system.  We write, preach, or play best when we do our best, and not worry too much about how much or many fans, congregants, or follows we have.

Well-Rounded and Alienation

In the renaissance period, the character ideal was to be well-rounded.  The various character virtues a courtier was supposed to acquire were listed in Castigione’s “Book of the Courtier.”  Among them were knowledge of the classical languages, aesthetic appreciation, musical proficiency, literary knowledge and practice, poetic ability, historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge and reasoning ability, wit and good manners, wrestling.  In general, the liberal arts.  Plato had another similar list of virtues in his “The Republic,” and Aristotle, also, in “The Nicomachean Ethics.”

Today, it is hard to figure out what character virtues western society values.  Society has become so fragmented that it is impossible to discern what the twenty-first century person is to aspire to.  Consequently, people tend to stay within the prescriptions of their career and family.  Emerson decried this form of society.  He said, “The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship” (The American Scholar).

I have tried to widen my horizons by becoming more of a renaissance man, a more well-rounded individual than someone defined by his profession, geographical region, and family relations.  But I have found that by being well-rounded, I am rather alienated and that I don’t really fit in anywhere.  In a bar, I sound too intellectual and like I’m putting on airs; in a university, I sound too raw and unrefined; in a church, too worldly and in my denomination, too interfaith oriented; in secular society, too spiritual; among intellectuals, too uninhibited; among scientists, too literary, etc . . . I like the character I have developed in my pilgrimage on this planet.  My soul is rich from having lived a variety of lives–academic, spiritual, philosophical, construction worker, poet, minister, lover and friend, scientist.  But for all this, I am not a dilettante.  I have a strong enough background in a discipline which I practice.  But I am not only my discipline.  I am not a form, a statute book, a machine, a rope, a test-tube, a hammer, a library.  I am a man.  A happy man.  A man with wide horizons.  I do not mind that I don’t really fit into a narrow social box.  When I was growing up I was taught to do your own thing.  I have done that, continue to do that, and my world is many worlds.

The Decay of a Dream

It wasn’t just sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  It was more importantly do your own thing, peace, and love.  We read Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau who taught us to be our own person regardless of status, style, or what other people said we should be or do.  We weren’t concerned much with making money.  Jethro Tull, “I didn’t care if they groomed me for success, or if they said that I was just a fool.”  So with a love for music, with an ethic of doing your own thing, and little concern for money, the late ’60’s and early ’70’s generated a bewildering diversity of music.  Who ever heard the kind of music that Led Zeppelin came up with.  Their music is now engraved on our brains by repetition, but when it came out it was original.  “Stairway to Heaven” struck a nerve with everyone which is why we make jokes about it now–everyone was enthralled with it when it first came out.  Who would have thought that a man standing on one foot playing rock and roll flute would fill stadiums, as did Jethro Tull?

I still do my own thing.  For my birthday I had an artist make me an earring with a lapis Lazuli stone and a feather dangling on short chains.  People always comment on it–for good or ill.  I have Tibetan pants that I wear with a Nepalese shirt on the streets of the city.  At home I have statuettes of the Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, a Mayan god, Saint Francis, and Egyptian falcon deity, and Eastern Orthodox icons.  I self-identify as Christian.  I majored in Religion and Literature because I like poetry and religion.  It wasn’t a wise career choice if I was after money.

In the late ’60’s, early ’70’s, we bought good stereo systems because we wanted to hear our music clearly.  Then people started bragging about their systems.  What started out as technology for good quality music reproduction became a status symbol.  Then people started bragging about which concerts they had been to.  What started out as a live version of music we loved to listen to became status symbols.  We used drugs to give us alternative states of mind and raise consciousness.  Drugs degenerated into amusement alone, and bragging about using drugs became a status symbol.  Witness Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.”

The final blow came in the ’80’s.  Then, earning a 6-digit income became people’s ideal.  The Yuppies were born.  People made excuses for Nixon, saying that he only did what everyone else was doing–he just got caught.  Cocaine became the drug of choice, and something to brag about.  David Byrne said that being a musician was, “A good job.”   The dream of the late ’60’s early ’70’s was successfully, and I think deliberately, ruined.