Grace, Wellspring and Compass

‘Tis grace shall bring me home.         –Amazing Grace, Spiritual 

My Lutheran heritage brought me in contact with a theological tradition that talks about grace. We defined it as undeserved love. It was one of the things that demarcated Protestant faith—no penance, praying rosaries, no elaborate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Just grace, plain and simple, accessible to all, given to all, accepted by faith.

But it went deeper than that. It was a whole outlook on life, a way of being that gave forgiveness and compassion because you yourself were forgiven and deeply loved. I felt this from my parents. I was taught to look for it in scripture. I sang about it in church, and later, taught it from the pulpit.

Grace is a powerful thing. As a concept, its theological roots run deep, and it can be found across religions. As a practice, it is a both a spiritual wellspring from which to draw and a moral compass for how to treat others.

Christians anchor God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus. The importance of the crucifixion story, as I now understand it, is as an expression of a universal consciousness of grace as lived out in a singular life, in a particular place and time, and how that life and that time can be in a way redemptive for us all.

There is much to be gleaned from the Bible when it is read from the lens of grace. If by meditating on the Word we find grace, we are the better for it. When the Bible is not read from a place of grace, and for a message of grace, it is easily subsumed by fundamentalism and fearful, protectionist dogma.

But more than that: it needs to be said that the Bible and the story of Jesus are not the only narratives of grace. In a time that seems to be ruled by the grace-less (in every possible sense of the word), we need as many narratives of grace as we can find. I’m looking for them, from all sources of religious thought, as well as from atheist and non-believers.

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What are your stories of grace? Take a moment and share one here. Especially if it involves a character from a non-Christian background or source, I’m deeply interested in hearing that story now.

 

Your Values Are Not YOU

Your values are not YOU.

It is a very hard truth to absorb.

When an ideal, a belief, a value, something we hold very dear is rejected by someone, it can feel as though we ourselves are being rejected.

I’ve been on both sides of this phenomenon, giving and receiving such rejection. It can hurt! Most of us have felt that sort of rejection. We can take it very personally, for example, when a family member chooses another road than we had in mind, when a child rejects the religion of her parents, or when half the country rejects the candidate you voted for.

In recent years in our political life I have observed people feeling personally rejected on a level they never have before. Those who were opposed to Obama felt so personally bad about him that for years they wanted nothing but to see him discredited, blamed, and obstructed. Now, those who voted for Obama and Clinton feel their values have been roundly rejected and are protesting even before the Trump presidency starts.

Your values are not YOU. The things you hold most important are concepts in your mind, they are not YOU.

This can sound very abstract, I know. But pull it down to earth – what it means is that you, as a living, breathing, human being, with a mind, have the ability to transcend even those values that you most hold dear, even the beliefs you think are the most bedrock, even the ideals you most treasure.

You also have the ability to stand apart from even the most important, meaningful, and life-defining goals, plans, and actions that are based on your set of values.

In practice, this means we can separate our being, our SELVES, from the beliefs we hold, and connect to other people who hold differing beliefs. It means we can see others who reject some of our values in a different light, because fundamentally we don’t base our selves or their selves on the values they hold. We hold them sacred apart from their values.

I may believe in heaven, you may not. I may believe in the fundamental value of diversity. You may not. I may reject the argument for the existence of god, you may support it wholeheartedly. I may be Democrat, you may be Republican. I may not care at all about Black Lives Matter, you may look at it as the most important movement around. The point is: none of these things really define us, internally, as human beings.

Values may govern our behavior. They may define how we choose to organize ourselves together as a governed society, and in turn those choices may determine results (sometimes life or death) for other people in practical ways that we do not always grasp, meaning we must still talk and learn about each other’s values, and write thoughtful policy based on our learning and our dialogue about our values. Values are very important.

But what I am trying to get across right now is, the values we hold are not essential to who we are.

What is left when we stand apart from our values? If we think the answer is “Nothing At All” we will fight tooth and claw for our values, and become really inept and insensitive to other viewpoints, because it seems like life or death. We will cut off opportunity to do the learning and dialogue that are necessary to govern together.

When our values are identical with ourselves, then when the value goes away, so do we. Our brains, with this slight-of-hand, go into fight or flight very easily. We are wired to self-protect, and those mechanisms go haywire when something as deep seated as our values seems threatened.

But if, on the other hand, our answer to the question, What are we without our most treasured values? is Something, a very robust Something, even if don’t know what that Something is and can’t wholly define it yet, we have reason to work together with those other humans whose values we do not share. We have reason to listen to their beliefs and to their arguments about what is good, right, and true. We have reason to respect what makes them happy, what they wish for in life, what drives them, and what they are trying to move away from, or fix, or solve.

Human beings are complicated, our bodies and minds interact in ways we have never previously understood. We form beliefs, we hold values. We begin to mistake those for our essential nature, our essential selves. We jumped to conclusions about our fundamental selves, and forgot that our value-forming process is just an aspect of ourselves.

This is how philosophical reflection can open practical ways forward. How do we live and move and have our being in the same spaces as others? How do we learn to exist peaceably (a value), in a kaleidoscopic world of competition (another value) and violence (another value). How do we arrive at somewhat of a consensus (another value) about the values we share, about which values we are choosing as the most important ones, which ones most serve humanity, both individually and collectively (more values)?

We cannot do so without first separating ourselves from those very values, so that we can stand back and evaluate them.

Can we engage this rational process, in the service of our ability to live and be together?

Can we access the parts of ourselves that simply exist, without and prior to values? I believe we can, but we aren’t very good at it. We need guideposts.

Future posts promised on this topic, and I would love to hear your thoughts as well.

 

Creating a Self

The act of persisting as a self is the same act as creating a self.  -Peter Ralston, The Book of Not Knowing

When you think of your “self” what is it that you are thinking of? Something essential, substantial, a soul? Is there a You that survives beyond death?

Some have maintained that Self is absolute, part of a chain of being going up to God, or emanating from God. Others maintain there is no Self, only a conglomerate of perceptions we have that we gather into an abstract concept of Self. Plato was in the former category, Hume the latter.

mark_rothko3Others say that Self is really an aspect of a larger whole. Hegel’s picture was of an Absolute, a reality only present in its unity. Specific, particular individuals are an illusion, and these individuals fight each other until a synthesis is achieved.

I take a very dynamic view of Self, that it is something that must be created each day. Many aspects of self are inherited, our traits, DNA, and so on. Other aspects are governed by environment. I associate my own identity with my family name, for instance.

But if one gets behind and underneath these associations, beliefs, and material causes, one can see a space for creative action. It is a space that is not a space, that is, it has no extension or measurement like an object does. It is, like the pinpoint of the Big Bang, an energy source that wants to funnel out and expand, making worlds.

This creative action is not pure Will, nor is it about despotic power. But it is dynamic and seeks to make. Its first action of making is that of the Self.

Take a GoodMinute:

  1. How do we create the concepts, associations and beliefs that make up “self”?

  2. Why is this important?

  3. How has your life been affected by your sense of self?

A Dream of Autumn

A dream:

I am lying in a bed of golden leaves.

It is afternoon in Autumn. Gold light shines through a canopy above me. The bed is thick and soft, it seems made for me. I am resting after a long journey. Light, warmth and softness are all around me.

There is a child here, playing nearby. I am looking after him. An older woman walks up and says hello to the child. She quietly entertains him for awhile.

Eventually I feel the sun getting lower in the sky. I sadly tell the child it is almost time to go. But I want to linger there and feel the light, the carefree rest, and the sense of the child’s joy. I feel a sense of belonging.

The elements to this dream are listed in 10,000 Dreams Interpreted by Pamela Ball:

  • GOLD – wealth, probably not of money, but spirituality.
  • LIGHT – divine revelation, expressed in the dream as energy
  • LEAVES – assessing how growth has occurred or may occur now
  • AUTUMN – letting go, preserving good in a time that is ending, old age and the mellow restful feelings it brings
  • CHILD – inner child, playful innocence
  • OLD WOMAN – feminine, the anima, spontaneous and nurturing

Interpreting this dream, I would say I have arrived at a time when I will come into the fruits of a long period of spiritual work. I am 42 years old, and entering the second half of life, the time of autumn.

Being in the presence of the child and the woman is an interesting and, I feel, quite profound aspect of the dream. These are archetypal images. It is as though I am discovering anew the aspects of myself that are pure, childlike, and feminine. It could also be that placing myself within an environment of spiritual insight and discovery puts me in touch with the feeling of wealth, which in turn relaxes me and allows me to be more spontaneous and nurturing of others, especially children.

The bed of leaves made of gold, made for me, providing luxurious rest underscores the need for retreat, for rest so that I can access these animating forces in my life, this light and energy.

Caring for a child is significant in that my profession as a violin teacher is now about children. Specifically helping them through music to find joy and belonging, self-expression and confidence.

What does the sadness mean, at realizing the sun is setting? Is it that the end eventually must come, or is it that there are other aspects of my life that are ending? Perhaps the sense of childlike wonder and playfulness is transient, and a sense of responsibility calls me away from the scene of rest. Perhaps it is simply that most of my childhood is gone now, and while getting in touch with it is restorative, it is a temporary reprieve meant to allow me to return to the world.

The joy and belonging I felt in the dream are truly encouraging to me. They are something I have been searching for.

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Bed of Autumn

Experiencing the Shift

I’ve been privileged to have had many years of experience as both an oil painter and a violinist. I’ve gotten to see up close how those creative disciplines help people attain peace of mind, and in turn, make progress with themselves. As I’ve gotten to do more teaching of kids and adults, both teaching drawing and violin, I have seen some truly amazing things when it comes to personal transformation and growth.

I don’t want to just promote a sort of vague “artsy” creativity. What I want to do instead is to help people experience the shift into the Right Brain, and then connect that to how to find more grounded, aware, peace-filled state. I believe this is the first step toward making real change in the world.

What kind of change? The right-brain codes for living things rather than non-living. It sees things as subjects, not subjects as things. In other words, the left brain tends to treat everything and everyone as a “thing,” a  tool to be used. The right brain tends to treat everything and everyone as a living being, with a sort of personhood or self. The right brain acknowledges that others exist apart from the “I.”

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Compass of the Whole

The right brain situates within the whole, its compass points outward to what is good for the whole, rather than how it can use an object for its own good.

Take a GoodMinute

How can we turn on our right brain more?

How important it is to teach the shift to the right brain?

How crucial it is to see others as “ends in themselves” as the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, and not just as means to an end?

 

Don’t Push the River

Midweek Devotion

December 9, 2015

Don’t push the river. -Richard Rohr 

Imagine standing on the bank of a river trying to figure out how to shove it forward.

A river doesn’t really need our help. It doesn’t worry about the rocks and trees in its path. It will find a way around them.

White Water

I like that analogy because it reminds me how often we push too hard. Life will flow on without all of our trying. 

I teach violin, and the more I work with children, the more I am reminded of this principle. Even when there seems to be no focus, no direction, and no progress in the practicing, we have to trust that our child’s natural growth process is occurring.

Shin’ichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki method, calls it the “mother tongue” approach. Children learn how to speak their native language by exposure, indeed they cannot not learn it. They will learn to play music as part of their natural development if they have an environment of music, an environment of daily repetition, an environment of support.

The same is true of life. The things we yearn for, the progress we would like to see, the accomplishments we strive after, will come as part of the natural course of things, if we allow ourselves to be open and influenced by an environment where they will flourish.

So don’t push the river. Don’t worry about the rate at which you or your child is progressing. I tell parents: “Just get them playing and listening, support them in that effort, and we’ll take care of the rest in lessons.” In life the same is true: just get playing, get out and into the environments that feel right to you, and the resources you need to support you will come in time.

Take a GoodMinute

In what ways am I trying to push the river?

What environments do I respond to energetically and positively? What can I do to put myself into those environments even more?

How can I help the children in my life to flourish in their natural development and growth, without pushing the river?