Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Something Worth Pondering

If someone were to have recorded all my comments made to a variety of patients over the years, and if they were somehow compiled into a digest, you'd find a lot of contradiction in that pile of words.  And if a rule-ridden person, for whatever reason, tried to implement everything I'd said, or to hold it as equally valid for all people and all time, they'd be spreading a porridge of nonsense.

If we read stories of the desert fathers and mothers, we need to read each story as a saying given to a specific person with a very specific need at a very specific time.  And we have to be careful and not apply this or any story across the board.  For all people or all time.  Stories fit some circumstances or stages on the journey, but not others.  For another time or set of circumstances, the wise elder might have discerned and formulated a totally different response, a different aspect of wisdom.

The Bible is like that.  The Psalms are like that.  The New Testament is like that.  The Gospels, for example, can't be harmonized.  Contradictions abound.  Paul wrote different things to different communities. At different times.

Some people are very uncomfortable with ambiguity, with uncertainty.  They seek certainty.  And are willing to contort their minds into pretzels in an effort to make the Bible or the Gospel into an infallible guide.

I'm not saying there's no Truth in things I've said or Jesus said or people thought we said.  But true wisdom, I think, is humble and not arrogant.  It doesn't try to force people into contortions or into boxes.  It respects individuality, including individual freedom.  It challenges us.  Piques our curiosity.  Invites us to go deeper.

I personally love the variety we find in Scripture.  It's like a symphony.  It's full of poetry.  Tells stories.  Paints portraits, imparting truths via fictitious means.  It is an endless well, from which we draw.  John's Gospel makes that clear.

Here is Psalm 14, as translated in The Jewish Study Bible.
The benighted man thinks,
   "God does not care."
Man's deeds are corrupt and loathsome;
   no one does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on mankind
   to find a man of understanding
   a man mindful of God.
All have turned bad
   altogether foul;
   there is none who does good,
   not even one.
Are they so witless all these evil doers,
   who devour my people as they devour food,
   and do not invoke the LORD?
There they will be seized with fright,
   for God is present in the circle of the righteous.
You may set at naught the counsel of the lowly,
   but the LORD is his refuge.

O that the deliverance of Israel might come from Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of His people,
   Jacob will exult, Israel will rejoice.
There's a lot of beauty and wisdom in that psalm, even if it contradicts itself in places.

10 comments:

Dave said...

I find though that the books and passages of the Bible often seem try to provoke or invoke certainty. And violence as justice. And an innocent us versus a hateful them. It just never stops. Unless it's to give an archaic and at times irrelevant view of God.

I say so after a few years of trying to give the Judeo-Christian depiction of God a serious chance, appreciating context, nuance, the poetic nature of imagery, the facts that didactic literalism is nearly always inappropriate, different levels of appreciating a living story as tradition, and on and on. Even the bit about the "hateful" Psalms helping traumatized people accept, express, and process their emotions.

But, you know, it just still seems so limiting and petty when I actually read it or the related church teachings rather than someone saying how open or freeing it is. Lots of books by seemingly gentle and holy people with academic and practical insight following in the footsteps of the great contemplatives, but the disconnect still remains. With no real sense of room for actual growth or ambiguity. Earth-based and Eastern religions seem a lot better at giving that space. I don't claim my perspective must be true for everyone, but I really cannot see any such spaciousness in Westernized religions, and we seem to try to do the same thing (box it in) even to the newer ones we are importing.

So maybe it isn't so much the particular religion as some kind of Western perspective that gets inflicted on the tradition. I don't know. Or maybe some people just cannot it in some modes of belief, faith, or exploration/expression of existential concerns. Now, I don't write any of this as an original observation as I've no doubt it's been said before. Nor do I write it to complain, or to demand answers, or to cause discomfort. I am just sincerely and honestly puzzled and fascinated when people can look at the same text or practice or whatever and see such totally different things. I am glad, however, that you do find the needed spaciousness and support in places where I cannot. Be well.

TheraP said...

Thank you for your comment, Dave. Sounds like a serious struggle you've got going! And an authentic one.

I wonder, however, if your search has been more of an "objective" perusal of texts, rather than an encounter with Holy Mystery.

Do you meditate? Or do you find a sense of Mystery in nature? Have you ever met a holy person? Sometimes one needs a "personal encounter" within the heart or in response to the Holy in nature or a person of great (and quiet) spiritual depth.

I agree that western perspectives can get in the way. Too abstract. Doctrines... fuhgeddiboudit! Too intellectualized.

Seek the heart. Try to put your mind into your heart - as the Eastern Orthodox writers would say it. That's a long process. It's like meditation.

You've tried books and passages. Perhaps try real live relationships. It's not for nothing that every path suggests one pursue it alongside a group. Buddhism, for example has the 3 pillars: Buddha, Teaching, and the Sangha (which is the practicing assembly of Buddhists). Very similar, actually, to what other traditions encourage.

So I'd try to get away from being an "objective observer" and seek Holy Mystery, a relationship which begins in the Heart. Ally yourself with others following the same path.

Finally, one can't really follow multiple paths simultaneously. One needs a "discipline" - based on a secure path, accompanied by experienced seekers along that path, people who can provide you with what "you" need at any point along the way - which is what my post is getting at actually (and you've helped me see that). Reading simply can't provide the kind of assistance, whether in psychotherapy or spirituality - which is attuned to one specific person at a specific time and place.

As for certainty, you'll find it in any number of traditions. But that's only one rung on a ladder. One needs such ladders initially, but ultimately you grow beyond the rungs... but still you must keep climbing! (That's where the spaciousness comes in!!!)

I hope my words are of some help to you. Whatever you're looking for or need, it's within, Dave. Waiting to be discovered or to reveal itself - like that Pearl of Great Price.

Namaste. I bow to the sacred within you.

Dave said...

Hello. I've read your blog before and I keep it on the list where I get updated on new blog posts. Just FYI, Blogger added something last year that allows the option for threaded comments, so that you can reply, for example, directly to a comment and it is clear who/what the reply is intended for, just in case that might make interaction a little easier.

I could, technically, argue with my own comment, at least intellectually. But I decided, in the spirit of this blog, to just go with my first impression, or that is to say, the impression that I keep coming back to eventually. Again, not to complain or rant, but because it is interesting to me how different people can take such different impressions from the same source. I decided that leaving this particular impression as is would be more useful than tempering it with the usual arguments and apologetics.

I think, in line with one of the themes of the original post, if there is ambiguity in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition, it comes from competing and at times incompatible claims of certainty, so that interpretation requires a choice. But this choice cannot be said to be obvious, derived from the text and tradition itself, or even possible without rejecting or re-purposing the choices that went before. The text and tradition may inform, but honestly, people from 500, 1000, or 2000 years ago would doubtless wonder at how modern Christians had abandoned so many obvious scriptural truths.

On a personal level, for what it's worth, that leaves me wondering: if we can choose our own adventure, as it were, within a religious tradition, then what is the point and what is the actual compass? And why stick with a tradition whose texts, focal points, and teachings have become fossilized and idols unto themselves? I guess that's a constant danger with revealed religions. It makes me kind of think that the gentle and holy people in these traditions would have been so anyway in another religion, but I could be wrong.

With regard to your questions, they are insightful and I've gone over those issues myself. Basically, I think for me intellectual curiosity about human nature is a primary motivator of my interest in religion and spirituality. Not encounters of any kind or any spiritual experience. In the off chance my answers might be helpful in some way for dealing with or understanding others, here are the answers to your questions/observations.

No meditation. When I lived in an area with a Chan/Pure land group affiliated with a zendo, I was a weekly regular and even did some all say retreats. Of course, there was supposed to be no good or bad meditation, no yardstick, but basically, it didn't show me anything or influence me. It didn't allow for some greater awareness of deeper perception. Not living now near such groups and on my own I am at greater risk of perpetually being bored, sleepy, or just zoning out, so no meditation.

Yes, when I visit Orthodox churches or see Roman Catholic Marian devotional items, etc, there seems to be some poignancy or sense of a communal ancient mystery, but kind of at a tourist level. So I agree that over intellectualizing is a danger and have seen more writings lately about the intuitive, emotional, artistic aspect of faith that tends to be overshadowed. I agree with that - intellectually speaking! How ironic is that? That intellectually I see the value of going beyond rationalism.

Dave said...

As for me, no, no sense of Mystery anywhere. My Buddhist teacher had a presence but it could have been a reaction to the robes, incense, personality, etc. But no sense of the holy in anyone. Of course, most traditions say a worldling/sinner could meet such a one and not recognize them. And talk about "being in the heart", "opening the heart", etc doesn't make sense to me (I recently read Prayer in the Cave of the Heart which also suggested putting your mind in your heart, but it's not practical advice for someone like me). I get the rough impression of what it means, but that's it. I sometimes say when it comes to things like spirituality, I am like a deaf person who has never heard a sound and yet is nonetheless fascinated by the concept of music.

As for others, I find Christianity and Buddhism interesting in part because they directly deal with the ugly, unpleasant, unwanted, etc, with suffering and the aspects of reality we wish to ignore. There are no sanghas where I live, but I had become fascinated with contemplative/mystical Christianity and spent time with a local parish that is socially progressive but fairly "high liturgy". Even briefly volunteered with them as an altar server and was a novice oblate with a non-local(ized) religious community. I resigned from the latter because of lack of faith/fit, with the option to rejoin later.

I've also read for years that you need to pick something and stick with it. One book said it was like trying to dig a well but starting over again repeatedly in a different spot. You'll never get deep enough that way. But there is always an obstacle. No one to practice with or learn from in person. Issues with teachings and the assumptions of a tradition where there are people nearby with whom to practice. No spiritual sense or aspect. The realization that human traditions are at best culturally and historically shaped constructs for some greater reality that may or may not exist. And so on and so on.

So, I suppose, I respect the possibility that spirituality and the like may be more than a localized experience explainable in material terms, but it is just too remote. I have talked to folks I've debated or discussed such issues with for years, and who claim that we all somehow "know" or have "access" to some deeper awareness, but they can't explain why some folks honestly don't get it. I mean, I understand the principle of using myth and symbols to create a sense of the sacred in which one participates in a timeless encounter, but, that's about the only way I "get it".

This is a bit long, and I'm sure that pyschotherapy would suggest I am seeking acknowledgement or validation or something. But I suspect I just like to discuss such topics and happen to be a little verbose. I figured it might help to point out that even when you have lots of seemingly good advice, it isn't always possible to act upon it in a fruitful way. Chan Buddhists are the first to say you can't "get it" from books, so point taken, but at least it gives some idea of what people are talking about.

It's hard to self-assess objectively, but if there is a struggle for me, it may be in trying to be something I am not. As in, someone who is spiritual or has any business trying to appreciate the sacred in anything other than an intellectual way. Whatever spirituality is or is not, I am not nearly convinced it is a human universal. I think it is possible that some folks either can't buy it (if it's just another layer of the story world humans create to match their needs and observations), aren't configured for it (even if it does point to something substantial and worthwhile), or have no access to it.

TheraP said...

Dave @ 6:56 am: Remember, Dave, the bible is like a library. It's a compendium. If you were to study Torah, you'd read the Rabbis - who wrestled with the texts, searching for ways to understand them. In Judaism such interpretations are revered (and collected) almost as much as the scriptures themselves. But these Rabbis are also people of deep prayer, daily prayer.

Right now, you're skimming the surface, standing back and observing, offer critiques. You'd have to get into the water, immerse yourself, steep yourself.

You may not want to do that - you may hesitate to expose yourself, to let go of control, to be upended, turned inside out.

Dave @ 7:26 am: I can see how this is nagging at you. It's got a ahold of you! But you're like the person who comes to therapy and wants to talk "about" therapy, rather than open up and allow a process. There's some conflict going on - inside yourself. Or so it seems to me. Part of you seems to long for something... to seek it. And another part of you is on the fence, holding you back. Meanwhile you're biting the hand that could feed you... Sad.

I wish you well.

Dave said...

Yes, as mentioned I am aware of many views of the Bible and levels of interpretation, insight, and interaction. But as you seem to acknowledge, that doesn't necessarily help. You mention immersion and steeping myself, yet as a lay person as well as briefly a novice I performed two to four offices per day for the equivalent of between one and two years; the way I was doing it, I went through the Psalter a good number of times. I suppose one could suggest lectio divina, which I also tried, but like meditation, it went nowhere. You also mention deep daily prayer, but that requires some spiritual sense or awareness. I can attest that just reciting the prayers daily was unhelpful at best. As for being actively involved, I participated regularly, at least in the formal sense ("going through the motions"), in various sacraments and liturgies with a congregation. But there is no depth to any of it for me.

To be clear, I didn't suggest at all that your prior recommendations were unsound. I have either thought of them myself or have run across them before. My reply wasn't a rejection of said advice, but rather to point out that I've done what I could. That isn't hesitation or unwillingness. To re-use my earlier analogy, one wouldn't suggest a deaf person just isn't ready or is hesitating for some reason to "hear" or "listen to" a piece of music, especially if she bought the album and has been playing it on her stereo. The deaf person fails to personally appreciate said piece because, well, she cannot hear it. She can only see other people reacting to what they say they can hear as they tap their feet, sway, or dance.

I don't feel any conflict about this topic beyond what I alluded to previously. That is, I am curious about human nature, I find people's reactions and choices based on a sense of spirituality to be fascinating, but I am limited to second hand observation in exploring the phenomenon. I think I would call it frustrating, if anything, and again, it is only so when I forget that not everyone is going to see and experience the world in the same way and start wondering why I don't experience the same things some do. Curiosity and frustration often go hand in hand in the process of exploration.

Yes, I am "discussing" rather than "doing", because I seem to be able to engage in the former activity as opposed to the latter. And at least on a social and intellectual level, I find the discussion to be fruitful and illuminating, even if it doesn't help with the doing part. But if you feel that I am being hostile or ungrateful, as suggested by the imagery of the dog biting a helping hand, I do sincerely apologize. I have noticed that spiritual and non-spiritual people often talk past one another, since each tend to assume that the other knows deep down that they are somehow wrong.

In other others, the spiritual person will assume the non-spiritual individual is just resisting, denying, or holding out against some latent awareness of a greater transcendent dimension; meanwhile, the non-spiritual person assumes that her spiritual counterpart knows that really it's just wishful thinking or desperation that is holding his delusion together. Less charitable versions involve accusations of possession or mental illness. The basic pattern is to blame the other for not seeing the world the "right" way. The idea of such vast differences in perception and knowing can seem threatening.

Dave said...


I personally don't hold to such a view, or at least I try to guard against such lack of charity. I get the feeling you feel the same way, which perhaps is part of the reason I read your blog from time to time and even feel willing to post a different perspective in the comments. Thank you for your time and thoughtfulness in your replies. I wish you well also, and I would be happy to entertain any other suggestions that take into account that those involving phrases such as acting "with the heart" are too vague to be of use. In any case, I thank you again for your thoughts.

TheraP said...

Dave, my reference to biting the hand that feeds you relates to your avatar - a self-portrait one has to assume. A message to other people, to the world, even to spirituality as a Relationship with Holy Mystery. One half of your conflict. The other being your search. So I don't feel you've bitten me. But that you're busy devouring the very sustenance you seek - but in a way that destroys the hand, the sustenance.

I've been thinking about you. I can see from your comments, especially the last two, how you've tried and tried. And practiced. But something's missing. You're aware of that. You put it down to a deficiency in yourself - in comparison to others. I say your self-descriptor (drawing) stands as a revelation of this inner conflict, whatever it is. I'm not sure what it speaks of from inside yourself, but it certainly shouts: Keep away! Though what you've written above shows me that beneath the protective exterior there's a lot of inner suffering. A longing to be healed. But healing cannot reach you unless you're in a very broken state. What Andre Louf speaks of in the "Way of Humility" - a crushed and broken heart.

Had you written again, and touched on what you touched on last (as you did), I knew what I needed to say to you. Read these quotes as if they are written to you, to your deepest self, from Jesus - who stands at the door and knocks:

As he neared "the city" [Dave], "he" [Jesus] cried tears at sight of "it" [Dave], saying: If only you could know the things that would give you peace on this day. But it is sealed off now from your sight. The days will come when your foes direct siege works at you, encircling you and hemming you in from all sides, leveling you along with your children inside the walls, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you, since you knew not the critical moment of your visitation." (Luke 19: 41-44 as translated by Gary Wills)

Read all the above metaphorically in terms of your inner defenses and whatever comes crushing you - perhaps even now. God's "moment" is often the moment of our deepest need, when our defenses are down. (You may need to wait for it... to come again.)

Said another way - to YOU - in Matthew (Chapter 23, verse 37, again in Gary Will's translation):

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [Dave! Dave!] you who kill the prophets and stone the emissaries sent you, often I wished to shelter your children [YOU and your conflicts] to me, as a hen shelters her chicks under her wings, but you would not consent.

Holy Mystery never stops knocking. Peace be with you. May you ponder deeply all I've said. Go in peace. (Your suffering God - is with you.)

Opus118 said...

I appreciated your post TheraP. I do think that the civil discussion with Dave is also enlightening. I am just as curious about the wall that he presents as a barrier as he is curious about people where that wall does not exist.

TheraP said...

Bless you, Opus 118! Good to "see" you! Your observation re Dave is also helpful - hopefully for him. Possibly for others who may happen along.