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A Beautiful Soul, Part 3

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. John 15:15

The last two weeks I have shared my thoughts about our individual souls. On the one hand, our soul needs to express in physical ways. On the other hand, our soul is not of this world, but is an extension of God’s eternal realm. As such, we can feel wounded when a sincere expression of our deepest essence is not received with the same level of respect and care from which it came.

One of the hardest things to grasp is that we are quite literally one at the soul level – one with God and one with each other. An indication of how much we identify with our physical nature is in how much we feel separate from others. The truth is that we sink or swim together. When others suffer, we suffer, regardless of whether we feel the direct impact that tragedies across the globe have on us. This is why Jesus of Nazareth and other great spiritual leaders manifested as suffering servants. They knew who they were at their core, and so they recognized the suffering of the world as their own suffering. Author and teacher, Richard Rohr, writes, “Becoming who we really are is a matter of learning how to become more and more deeply connected.”

Because the soul is not bound by time and space our connections with others are not limited by time and space, either. That is how we can maintain a close friendship with someone whom we seldom see and pick up conversations from where we left off years before. It is why we can be moved to tears by a symphony written centuries ago by a composer we never knew personally. It explains why certain paintings of long-dead artists can connect so intimately and emotionally with something deep inside of us. These connections are soul-to-soul and they spring from a realm beyond the physical. The concept of soul mates has been hijacked by romantic notions, but it really refers to deep connections with others that transcend space and time. Truly, our soul knows no boundaries.

I attended a presentation by a poet in college. He drew a distinct line between those who opened a channel to their soul for others to experience and those who did not. In his opinion, there were two choices – live life as an emotionally unstable but serious artist or live life as a stable but mediocre (at best) artist. In my opinion, he probably succeeded on the emotionally unstable front, but I found his poetry to be more an expression of his egoic insecurities than reflections of something terribly profound or deep. I do not believe our choices for manifesting the spiritual, soulful part of ourselves to be nearly so stark. In fact, I believe we are meant to allow our souls to embody in all the ways we are gifted to manifest. With an awareness that not everyone will receive our soulful expressions with the appreciation and respect we believe they deserve, we can learn to express from the deepest parts of our being simply for the joy of such expression.

Our ego becomes overly identified with our mortal bodies and with the opinions of others. It is our ego that is fragile and easily wounded, not our soul. When we overly identify with our ego and with our physical being, we will almost certainly turn into an emotional basket case, like the poet mentioned above, anytime anything that springs from our essence is rejected. As we learn to identify more with the eternal, spiritual part of us we are less likely to be wounded by the words and actions of others.

When the veil between the physical and spiritual begins to thin, we can allow our beautiful soul to shine through and touch others. This is evangelism beyond words. We allow others to be touched by the Spirit through us. Whether we manifest great works of art, poetry, music, or just comforting presence is beside the point. Our beautiful soul will draw out the beauty in others, and there is no art form more beautiful or impactful than that. This is how we manifest the healing presence of God; it brings the peace that passes understanding. It is how we live our lives to the fullest, beautiful body and beautiful soul.

This is the 31st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Bits and Bytes

 Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way. Proverbs 19:2

I took a computer programming class in college in the 1970’s,. The lone computer at the university was the size of a small house with a fraction of the computing power of our mobile phones today. The computer read our instructions with punch cards, which required entering one precise instruction, i.e., “Start with 10,” on a single card before going to the next precise order on a different card. Our final class project was to write a program so the computer would count down from 10 to 0 by ones. It required 80+ punch cards. The slightest mistake in punching or ordering the cards resulted in a failed project. It was tedious, mind-numbing, and unforgiving work.

Bits and bytes are the building blocks of computer language, then as now. A bit (binary digit) is a single data point, either 0 or 1. There are only two options for a bit – on or off. A byte is a grouping of 8 bits. In a computer’s binary byte code, writing 0, 1, 2 looks like this: 00000000, 00000001, 00000010.

Prior to computers, we had pen and paper, typewriters, and slide rules with which to write and compute. Clearly, computers have provided giant leaps forward in making nearly every aspect of our lives easier and more efficient. In order for a computer to work, however, our information must be converted to a digital format – bits and bytes. Computers operate on a completely dualistic system – something must either be right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, on or off. There is no gray area in a digital language. A bit either has an electrical charge or it doesn’t, and therein lies the problem. No matter how small the space between on and off, there is an in between with an infinite range of intermediate possibilities – possibilities where the spirit inhabits.

While I am far from suggesting a return to our pre-computer days, much has been lost in return for convenience and efficiency. I would term was has been lost as depth of experience. It wasn’t that long ago that even an untrained eye could distinguish between a digitized picture, i.e., a pictures taken on a cellphone (which converts the image into bits and bytes), and a picture taken with a good, film camera. The difference was in the depth of field,  color, and contrast. Digital pictures were convenient, but not very representative. Now, with enough pixels (bits and bytes), the untrained human eye cannot tell the difference between a digital and a film picture in most cases. Yet, the difference is there in the spaces the bits and bytes cannot capture.

The situation is similar with sound recordings. The music we hear on the most prevalent sound sources today, reproduce only a small sample of the original sound. The result is usually difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish. The convenience makes it worthwhile for most of us, however, myself included.

Here is my concern in this discussion: Are we becoming blind to the depth of experience we lose for the convenience we gain? Far from suggesting a return to slide rules and typewriters, are there areas where we can distinguish the difference in depth such that the losses do not outweigh the gains?  For example, having a digitized church service available on line is a convenience for shut-ins, but the experience is far less than being present in the sanctuary. Listening to a recording of a live musical performance makes the performance more accessible but is usually a poor substitute for actually being present for the performance. Reading a book about love is not the same as actually experiencing a loving relationship. Bits and bytes, like words and phrases, substitute for the depth of the actual experience. The field of Artificial Intelligence, exciting as it is, is still incapable of reading between the on or off options available to each bit upon which it depends.

When we text or email instead of speaking in person, we are essentially converting the spoken word into bits and bytes by losing all of the non-verbal context. In the same way, we sacrifice the depth of a hand-written note for the convenience of a text.

Again, my point is not that our new technologies should be dropped for the old. Rather, it is that we need to be discerning about when and in what situations we use which method. Will we lose something of value by taking the easier, more convenient path? Our important relationships, like our spiritual development, cannot be captured in nor reduced to bits and bytes.

This is the 28th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Dealing With Dharma

 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them. Ecclesiastes 7:14

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word, dharma (dar’-mah), is “the law.” It does not mean the law in a dogmatic sense, however. We can break human laws. We can run from the upholders of the law. Through legislation, we can change the law. Dharma refers to a law that we cannot break, run from, or change. Dharma is the law of the moment. It refers to what is, right now. I can choose to be happy, sad, angry, or any of the infinite range of human emotions over the way things are in this moment, but it will not change the dharma – it will not change the situation of the moment. The only control I have over dharma is my response to it.

When we talk about living in the moment, we refer to a state of mind where we are not reliving past experiences, nor are we looking ahead with worry or anticipation over something that may or may not occur in the future. Living in the moment is about being fully present to whatever is occurring in my life right now. Indeed, the current moment is the only one we can actually experience,  even though our attention is usually elsewhere. Remaining in the moment is a perpetual challenge, particularly in the West where our distractions are many.

Dharma is a familiar term in Buddhism and Hinduism. The concept of dharma is not foreign to Christianity, either, but over the past few centuries we have tended to look past it. We (mistakenly) believe ourselves less “victimized” by dharma since we have developed ways to better shelter ourselves from the extremes of the climate and make our lives more comfortable. As more of us have made ourselves safer and more secure from certain of life’s disasters, we have convinced ourselves that there is little that we cannot avoid experiencing, even and especially the present moment. Floods, tornados, hurricanes, forest fires, theft, tsunamis and the like prove differently. We cannot shield ourselves from broken hearts, the loss of loved ones, or the steady decay of our bodies. Our ability to shelter ourselves from some things leads us to believe we can avoid all unpleasantness. Dharma says differently.

In order to deal successfully with dharma we must focus ourselves on the current moment, without dragging any baggage from the past or future. The way things are in this moment is the way things are in this moment, and nothing we do will change that. Changing the moment is beyond our control. Changing our response to the moment, however, is completely under our control, as is making changes in our lives that may help align future moments better with our desires. We are, at best, co-creators of our future moments. That is how we deal with dharma. It is expressed well in the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

            To change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The author of the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes also speaks of the dharma by  encouraging us to consider that God makes both good days and challenging days, the purpose of which is to keep us from knowing what comes next. As we learn to accept each day and each moment as it presents itself to us and still be thankful, it matters little what comes next. We know there are always blessings and challenges in every moment and getting upset about what is only makes the difficult times that much more difficult. Challenges, like blessings, pass.

Dealing with the dharma is about harmonizing ourselves with reality. It does not mean we accept sub-standard or undesirable conditions, however. It does not mean we cease seeking to better the lives of ourselves and others. It only means we strive to enter each moment deeply and fully, without adding to or subtracting from it. Each moment is sufficient in and of itself. It is about maintaining a sense of equanimity through life’s ups and downs. Every moment passes, for better or for worse. It requires trust that what is is from God, and the knowledge that if it is from God, it will all work together for good. In order to deal with dharma, we must accept – perhaps even enjoy – what we experience moment to moment.

This is the 26th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Living Beyond Words

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

It is common to have a narrative running nonstop in our heads. Most of us are more present to the descriptions of our experiences than we are to the actual experiences, and we do not even notice ourselves doing it. The problem is obvious – our descriptions are one step removed from reality. Language is one of the first things we are taught as we grow, and by the time we reach adulthood we have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the detached reality our words describe. We forget that words are metaphors. They point to or describe something, but they are not the thing itself. For example, the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm speak of lying down in green pastures and resting beside still waters. Comforting words, yes, but they are only mental representations of the experiences they describe. God meets us in our experiences, not in our descriptions.

In the book of Exodus, as Moses and God conversed on Mount Sinai, Moses told God the Israelites would want to know God’s name. God answered, “I am who I am.”[1] The people wanted a description of God, a box within which they could place God, some way of limiting God’s nature to something tangible and controllable. Many sacred writings throughout the ages have affirmed that God cannot be known; only experienced. The same is true of our lives on earth – they cannot be lived by description. A contemplative life, in particular, seeks the experience that inspires the description – the life beyond words.

God experiences life in and through us. In other words, God experiences you through me and me through you, which is not to say any of us are God. The true self within –the best, purest, and most holy self we know we can be – is where God resides. It is the part of us that was never born and will never die. It is the part that will live on when our earthly body gives out. This true self is not, however, cause for feelings of superiority because what is true of you and me is true of everyone else, too.

Our words, however, tell us we are not equal and that we are separate beings. Our life descriptions, supported by our egos, tell us we are better than this person, although maybe not as good as another. Descriptions necessarily compare, divide, and define this and that. We assess things not by their similarities but by their differences. By the time we become adults we are so convinced we are independent beings, separate from everyone else that ignoring our neighbors, leaving family members to work out their own problems, and not flinching at the genocide occurring across the globe become the accepted norm. Because we do not see our interconnectedness, and because the words that describe our lives are inadequate to capture any semblance that we are truly one body, we lose the lived experience and responsibility of oneness – one with God and one with each other.

Our words separate all kinds of things that are actually of the same essence, and we are deceived when we believe them. For example, we define light and dark, day and night, north and south in relation to each other, by what we consider their opposite. In fact, they are different states of the same reality. The same is true for Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, we are all one in Christ. Our oneness is NOT metaphorical, even if the words we use are. Even good and evil, in the larger picture, are parts of the same process of growth and evolution. No process of growth occurs without suffering, which often feels like evil when taken out of its larger context.

We are not our descriptions of ourselves; our true essence resides where our experiences meet the part of us that is one with God. Of these experiences, Jim Finley writes, “What is so extraordinary about such moments is that nothing beyond the ordinary is present. It is just the primal stuff of life that has unexpectedly broken through the mesh of opinions and concerns that all too often hold us in their spell. It is just life in the immediacy of the present moment before thought begins.”[2] Once we find that place, even for a moment, we know our true life, indescribably rich, resides beyond words.

This is the 14th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

[1] Exodus 3:14.

[2] James Finley, The Contemplative Heart. Sorin Books, 2000, pp.  24-25

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