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Archive for November, 2018

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Dying Before We Die, Part 2

 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… Ecclesiastes 3:1-2a

Nature has no edges. Sharp, straight edges and clear lines of demarcation are human, not divine inventions. In my former work as a landscape designer, much of my work was to soften the edges created by the human need for distinct lines of separation. As such, it should come as no surprise that dying is not a precise occurrence. The medical definition of physical death is the cessation of all vital bodily functions. Sometimes, however, people come back to life after having been pronounced dead. Some have quite interesting stories to tell of the experience. I was told after my father’s death that some bodily functions would continue for some time, like hair growth. I had the opportunity to spend considerable time with my mother and grandmother as they passed from this life. Both transitioned over a period of weeks as they gradually withdrew from their material interests. Awakening and finding themselves still in this reality was not always a pleasant experience for either of them. They were becoming familiar with their new destination and were ready to move on.

We all are dying all of the time, even though our final, physical death may be many years away. Death is an on-going process. An estimated 50-70 million cells in our bodies die each day through a natural process called apoptosis. The inescapable cycle for all earthly life is birth, growth, decline, and death. Each stage is its own wonderful process and occurs in its own time. And the stages overlap. We see and accept the pattern all around us, but we have difficulty seeing or accepting it within ourselves. Each new day births with a sunrise, matures its way to sunset, and dies into night. The passing of a single day does not diminish the number of days. Seasons move deliberately from spring to summer to fall to winter – birth, growth, decline, death – only to repeat the cycle over and over again. What we know from nature but deny in ourselves is that death is not the end of life. Rather, death moves life to its next phase. Death is transformational, not terminal. The cellular and structural combinations forming everything around us must decline and die in order for its elements to be reborn as something new.

Our souls draw physical elements from the earth in order to embody themselves for a time. When that time is complete, the soul releases the physical elements back to the earth and both soul and elements move on to a new adventure. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. We cannot stop the sun from rising any more than we can prevent our own maturation. All things happen in their own sovereign time. When we let an unhealthy addiction die, when we move beyond an emotional wound, when we cease clinging to the tyranny of a painful injustice, we die before we die. We take control of something that has been controlling us. We recycle the energy that was required for the maintenance of the old and free it for something new. The season for that is over; now is the season for this. It is all part of the beautifully relentless cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. Our life is an endless series of second chances. All are glorious gifts from our Creator.

A contemplative life tunes itself to the natural rhythms of our physical and spiritual being through contemplative practices. We assess the parts of our lives that are no longer useful, and in the spirit of dying before we die, we allow those parts to be recycled as their season passes. In this progressive and eternal context, there is no good or evil because, together, all things move us toward the perfection of God’s creation. In the Revelation to John (21:5), Christ says, “See, I am making all things new.” Our pain, our suffering, the injustices of the world all work to set the course upon which our collective life is relentlessly heading. Those combinations that move us toward a more inclusive and just existence are strengthened, and those working in the other direction are recycled. Nothing is wasted or lost. It seems a slow process, but in the context of eternity, there is no rush. Rather, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

This is the 8th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Dying Before We Die, Part 1

 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  Romans 8:13-14

Many people fear death more than anything else, including spiders and snakes. This is understandable since the life we perceive through our senses is the only life we know with any certainty. Whenever a loved one dies, our senses no longer receive evidence of their presence, so we assume they either no longer exist or they have traveled somewhere far away from us. We do not know, and not knowing makes us uneasy. When someone dies, he or she is just gone, leaving us with grief and questions. We feel sorrow for those who die young and celebrate those who live into their 90’s and beyond, as if our physical existence were more about the quantity of days than the quality. We cannot get a logical handle on death because it defies logic, and that makes us squirm.

Christian mystics talk about death regularly. So did Jesus. Scientific, irreversible, physical death occurs once for us, and most of us go to great lengths to deny its nearness and delay its arrival. We are not anxious to come to the end of the only life we know. And that is exactly the problem with the education most of us receive – the life we know is but a small part of the life we are. The apostle Paul names two aspects of existence. In his letter to the Romans, as well as in other writings in the New Testament, Paul distinguishes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” making clear that both were present there and then, just as they continue to be present here and now. The word flesh is Paul’s code word for our ego’s interpretation of the concrete world of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. It is easy to read Paul in a way that assumes he condemns the world of flesh, but that understanding is incomplete. Paul wants us to know that our ego’s view of the world of the flesh is only one part of our life. It is the impermanent, temporary part. It is also a beautiful, seductive part that can tempt us into actions that are inconsistent with and antagonistic to the larger, immortal, and invisible part of life, which is the realm of Spirit. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” This is the death we know is coming, the death of the flesh. If we identify solely with our ego’s experience of the flesh, our physical death will be the end of the little we know ourselves to be

On the other hand, according to Paul, if we live by the Spirit, we will live. This poses a difficult dilemma to reconcile – the tangible pull of the flesh vs the ethereal speculation about the Spirit. In fact, the dilemma cannot be reconciled; it can only be accepted, embraced, and lived. Fortunately for us, dying to “the flesh” does not have to mean physical death. Paul encourages us to live in the flesh, tempered with the knowledge and perspective of the Spirit. Our physical existence is a tangible manifestation of the Spirit, so the two are not separate. The flesh is not evil, nor is our ego, but they can be misleading and the cause of much unnecessary pain and suffering, both to ourselves and to others. Paul says, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (emphasis added).

Dying before we die does not mean ending our life in the flesh before its time. Rather, it means letting go of our attachment to and identification with that which has no permanence. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Dying before we die is resetting our priorities, being intentional about what we choose to treasure, and saying “Goodbye” to that which serves no eternal purpose. In this way, our lives are made whole – body and spirit as one – and we become children of God. Both body and Spirit are beautiful and together create the fullness we long to experience in this phase of life.

A contemplative life seeks an inclusive balance between the flesh and the Spirit, experiencing and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh within the context and under the guidance of the Spirit.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 2

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Last week I began contrasting two aspects of every self: the ego and the essence. Our ego is also referred to as our false self or small self, indicating something less than whole. Our essence is also called our true self or nondual self, indicating something in its wholeness. In contrasting our ego and our essence I describe two extremes of a vertical continuum that extends infinitely in either direction, although the essence is inclusive of the entire spectrum. As human beings we are incapable of manifesting either pure ego or pure essence; rather, we manifest varying degrees of each. In addition, we may act more from our ego in certain circumstances and more from our essence in others. I only characterize the two as separate in order to describe the ends. In reality they only vary by degrees. Our ego manifests a part of our essence; our essence includes but transcends the ego. Our true self is the developmental direction toward which the Spirit invites and encourages us. Our false self resists the urgings of the Spirit, mostly for fear of losing or tarnishing what it mistakenly perceives to be its unique nature.

At the heart of our dilemma is that the world seems to confirm and support the partial truths our ego tells – that the life our senses detect is all there is, that we must live for ourselves and accumulate as much material wealth as we can with the limited time we have on earth. The common wisdom of our world tells us to deny the weaker parts of ourselves, hide our vulnerabilities, and put on a good face for those around us. Ultimately, our ego leads us into a lifestyle that is not true to who we are.  The person we pretend to be cannot exist in any sustainable way.

This dilemma is a problem that is exclusive to humans. Plants and trees make no discernible effort to be something they are not. The same is true for rocks, streams, and clouds. Animals do not make false pretenses about who they are. In his book, Falling Upward1, Richard Rohr identifies two halves of our lives. Our egoic or false self dominates the first half as we strive to build a name for ourselves, establish a profession, start a family, or otherwise enter adulthood. As we age we realize there is something missing in the self-image that has carried us to that point in life. This is when our true self may begin to assert itself, and the ego’s influence over us begins to lessen. As we did in infancy, we identify with our support system, although now we recognize God, working through those around us, as our ultimate support system. We celebrate our interconnectedness and recognize that we build ourselves up by building others up, not by tearing them down. We understand in our deepest being that salvation is communal, not individual – that we are all in this together. We strive to be increasingly genuine and true to who God created us to become.

When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to releasing our ego’s hold over the direction of our life. It can feel like dying; indeed, it is a death. We need to allow that small, selfish, and insecure part of ourselves to diminish in order to make room for our true self to grow. Our essence was never born, nor will it ever die. It is our eternal self. It is where our perfectly unique expression of God resides. Getting in touch with this aspect of our being is especially important as we approach physical death, as our true self is what will survive our passage out of material existence. Contemplative practices help us awaken to our essence. Such practices also assist in seeing the essence in others, even when it is invisible to them. God in us sees and affirms God in others. Namaste. This is true love and is a prerequisite to achieving equanimity within, not to mention peace on earth.

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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1          Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, Hoboken, NJ, 2011.

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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 1

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Who am I? And who is God? Francis of Assisi, a 12th Century Catholic Saint, pondered these questions regularly. Indeed, such questions plague us throughout our lives and are seemingly unanswerable. When we are infants, we almost completely identify with our support system – those who feed and care for us. Our world is small, and we are vulnerable. As we grow and become increasingly independent, we realize we have a measure of free will – we can manipulate our environment to better meet our needs. We increasingly find ways to gain control over our lives and cease to accept without question that which our support system offers. Thus begins our identity as a separate and independent being. As we reach adolescence, we become increasingly dissatisfied with those who provide for us. We want our freedom, we want to live life on our terms, and we no longer want to be held back by the seemingly uniformed wishes of parents, teachers, and others who retain annoying levels of control over us. By the time we are in our late teens, most of us have developed a strong and entrenched ego. We find this growth process recorded allegorically in Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. They rebelled against God and left paradise to live as beings separate and apart from God.

Developing an ego is a necessary and natural part of human development. It helps us identify a place and purpose in the world around us. Our ego dreams of great things and envisions a perfect life, if only we could escape the tyranny of the oppressive others who stand in our way. The ego, however, unchecked by reason and experience, is a deceptive informant. Egos are inherently insecure and narcissistic, protecting themselves at all costs. They portray our problems as the fault of others, so we look external to ourselves for solutions when we should be looking within. Our ego categorizes everything and everyone as useful or useless to itself – she is popular, so I will befriend her; he does not dress nicely, so I will shun him. The ego is a harsh judge and a ruthless critic. In order for one thing to be good, something else must be bad. Our egos strive to carve an important and unique niche in the world. Unfortunately, our egoic special place always comes at the expense of something or someone else.

When we follow the dictates of our ego, we find ourselves saying things, taking actions, and treating others in ways that are inconsistent with how we were created to be. When we reflect on our words and actions, we know we can and should do better. There is a God-given essence within us that the ego finds threatening and tries desperately to suppress. Many authors, Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton among them, refer to the ego as the false self and our essence as our true self. The false self is so called because it only allows a small, self-centered portion of who we are to manifest. Our true self is the part of us that was created in the image and likeness of God. It is who we are at our core. Our true self is directly connected to God by an unbreakable bond. As we learn more about our essence, we simultaneously learn more about God. When our true self attempts to act or speak in ways that go against what is popular or culturally acceptable, however, the false self will seek to shut it down. Our egos cannot bear social criticism.

A contemplative life seeks to allow the true self, the essential self, to blossom – not to destroy the ego, but to put it in its rightful place. We enhance this process of growth through contemplative practices. When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to losing our ego as the primary source for interpreting the world around us. Our egos can be good servants, but they are tyrants as masters. I will focus on our essence next week.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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