Category Archives: Living the Love of Wisdom

This category is the parent of a series of essays charting the evolution of moral consciousness following the paradigm in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: fear, ritual, rules, beneficence, virtue, and Tao (Love).

Unconditional Love

A good friend has been wondering about the possibility and even the advisability of unconditional love.  I think I understand her reservation, since it seems logical that to love unconditionally entails suspending moral judgment.  The idea of forgiveness is part of this package, and it seems unconscionable to bring forgiveness to the perpetrators of genocide, rape, and the obscenity of the holocaust.  Surely, we must temper our idealism with a realistic view of the evil in this world, and not reduce ourselves to being “bliss ninnies,” loving everybody no matter what.

Unraveling the gordian knot of issues implied by my friend’s reservations could fill many libraries.  For today, I’d like simply to reflect on some preliminary questions: 1. What is meant by unconditional love? 2. Is unconditional love possible? 3. Is unconditional love advisable? 4. Is unconditional love morally imperative? Are we all morally required to love unconditionally? 5. Does unconditional love necessarily entail forgiveness? and 6. Does forgiveness imply condoning an action?

On its face, unconditional love means loving without conditions.  We might call it a Billy Joel kind of love.  No matter what a person thinks, says, or does, it would not cause me to close my heart to that person.

I was going to write that unconditional love is easiest in the closest circle of family and friends, but a moment’s thought disabused me of that ideal.  Given the rates of divorce and teenage angst, it would seem that familial love is highly conditional.  One of the most common conditions in marriage is “You better make me happy, or else…!”  Parents, too have the tendency to set strict criteria for a child to be accepted.  I would simply say that my own experience tells me that unconditional love in a family is possible.  It takes work, wisdom, and dedication to grow toward having a fiercely open heart that would never close, and I have a sense that many of you who are reading this are achieving just that.

On the more general level, those capable of monstrous acts are harder to love. Usually they are not known to us, and easier to judge abstractly.  Sometimes, however, they have committed atrocities that have touched us personally.  Is love even possible in these circumstances?  Here is a story from an article entitled The Power of Love by Alastair McIntosh that suggests the possibility of unconditional love, while prompting many to question its advisability:


 

“What about rape?” asks a USAF pilot.

And so I tell a real-life story. It was 1985, and I was living in a beautiful but violent third world country. I was close to the family of an Australian history professor at the university – fellow Quakers. One night his seventeen year-old daughter found her car surrounded. Fourteen young men from the nearby squatter settlement abducted and gang-raped her.

Normally the police would have sorted it out in eye-for-eye fashion. They’d have trashed the squatter camp and beaten folks up. Not so on this occasion. The daughter trenchantly asked her father to find a way that might ‘touch their hearts”. Rape can only happen in the absence of empathy. The capacity to feel has to be restored if the cycle of abuse is to be broken.

The family asked the chief of police that there be no retaliation. The father and I then walked into the squatter settlement and requested a meeting with its leaders. They said they were really sorry about what had happened. It was hard to control their young men who had become embittered by poverty and hopelessness. They were relieved not to have been roughed up.

We said that the girl wanted softening and not a hardening of hearts. She wanted whatever, in their culture, would be an appropriate ceremony of confession and reconciliation.

So it was that we subsequently stood at the university gates as the entire squatter community turned out to apologise amidst much bearing of token gifts and beating of drums. Fourteen young men headed the procession. Many had tears in their eyes. They had not expected such humanity.

You just knew that, whilst the re-offending rate might not be zero, it would be very much less than had they been treated in kind. Hearts had indeed been touched.


 

I find this story incredibly inspiring, but many, if not most, of my students found it offensive. How can you treat men who have done such a horrific thing without punishment?  How will they ever learn?  So they beat a few drums and shed a few tears.  Is that justice?  It would seem that unconditional love upsets the entire balance of human society, where fairness (an eye for an eye?) and punishment set things right.

I believe the rightness of punishment is deeply rooted in the human psyche.  Spare the rod and spoil the child wasn’t thought up yesterday.  Yet those who are seen as great teachers, from Jesus (Do good to them that hurt you) to the Buddha (Hatred is never turned away by hatred.  Hatred is only turned away by Love) to Rabbi Hillel ( “‘Love your fellow like yourself’ is the essence of the Torah, and the rest is commentary!”) to myriad poems of Rumi, all advise the primacy of love in the face of hurt and hatred. This is underscored by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he shares the insight that those who managed to maintain equilibrium in the Death Camps of the Nazis all did so by loving and serving others, even their captors.  This, for now, is as far as I can take the discussion of the advisability of unconditional love.  I think it is for each of us to weigh these teachings with our wisest insights, our strongest hearts, and our unique experiences, in order to reflect and reflect again as we wend our way through life’s labyrinth.

The next question concerns unconditional love as a moral imperative.  Frankly, I have always found the commandments to Love difficult to understand.  I can see mandating loving behavior (beneficence), but how can the heart be commanded (benevolence)?  Can I really be commanded to love the jerk next store? Does it make sense to Love someone because you have been told it is the “right” thing to do?  I wonder if the rules of the mind can dictate to the heart, or whether they bypass the heart and go straight to behavior.  In my essays on Living the Love of Wisdom on this blog, I have wrestled with the evolution of moral consciousness, and it seems to me that true morality lies “in the field beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing” as Rumi says.  Ethics rests upon rules, but there are desirable attitudes and behaviors that lie beyond and above the requirements of the law, moving into Virtue and ultimately Unconditional Love.  These are called “supererogatory” or above the demand. Inasmuch as we are called to be fully human, each in our own way, I find these are ideals that lie at the heart of human flourishing.

Finally, does Unconditional Love require forgiveness?  I find forgiveness a slippery concept.  In many cases, it simply serves the superior ego, when I grant absolution to a “sinner” from the heights of moral superiority: “You are a sleaze, or a monster, or unfaithful, or a cheat, but in my goodness, I forgive you.”  To use John Steinbeck’s phrase, this turns forgiveness into a “shoddy virtue.”

I’m not sure about this, but now it seems to me that unconditional love does not require forgiveness  at all.  In fact, it obviates the need for forgiveness.  If I truly have no conditions on my love, then there is nothing to transgress, and therefore nothing to forgive.  I know this sounds like idealism in the extreme, but think about the people you deeply cherish.  What could they ever do to cause you to close your heart to them?   Maybe we sometimes go through the verbal dance of sorrow and forgiveness, but this is done to the melody of love which dissolves guilt and obliterates distance.

I find these ideas devilishly difficult.  Each of the elements we have so briefly discussed–the possibility and advisability of unconditional love, punishment, fairness, and forgiveness–is a worthy subject of many books.   All the while I was writing, however, my wife Carolyn was in my fingers; she “who brought April into the waiting meadow of my soul.”  I live with Unconditional Love, and after all the words have been said, that is how I know it is real.

 

It’s not hard to be dazzled

Rose window

“The multiplicity of forms!” writes Mary Oliver in her newest book of poetry.  “It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.”  That got me to thinking:

When I wake each morning to my wife’s radiant smile,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I am with my sons, who know my human failings more than anyone, and see the unconditional love in their eyes,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I hear my teenage Granddaughters ask me a question that stops my Professor’s mind in its tracks,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When the ancient Maple Tree down the road fills its yellow autumn leaves with light,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a hummingbird rests on my finger as it feeds,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a friend shares her vulnerable heart,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a classroom full of students ignites in flaming wonder at a new idea,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Reading Mary Oliver, or Rumi, or Walt Whitman, or Dylan Thomas, or Basho, or Issa,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Listening to Mozart, or Beethoven, or Mahler, or Clifford Brown, or Bill Evans,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I stand before Monet, or El Greco, or Kandinsky, or Sarolla, or Winslow,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Simply being, simply breathing, and really really really paying attention,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

 

What dazzles you?

 

 

Japanese Images of the Virtues

Tenryuji pondThis is the temple pond of Tenru-ji, Arashiyama, Kyoto.  The pond is in the shape of the Chinese Character “Kokoro,” which means heart, mind, or spirit.

The images below are in no way “official.”  They are simply paintings or statues that I came to love during the years I spent in Japan.  For me, they embody the Buddhist ideals called the four Bramaviharas.  This word refers to the “sublime attitudes”–loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity– that open the door to the “dwelling (vihara)” of the “Divine (Brama).”  They are sometimes referred to as “the four immeasurables ” since their attainment is without end.

These four are also called the “Buddhist virtues.”  As I have suggested in other posts, the idea of “virtue” has become etiolated in the modern world, perhaps as a result of a Puritanical focus on sexual propriety.  The notion of virtue, however, has a rich heritage that carries across many cultures:  Toku in Japanese (as In the great Shogun Tokugawa: the River of Virtue); Te in Chinese (this is the Te of the Tao Te Ching);  Arete in Greek, referring to the excellence of things from crafts to character; and Virtus in Latin, deriving from the word Vir (man, or more generally human).  In all of these traditions, I believe, Virtue points to a maturely developed human character–or more simply, a grownup.

The cardinal Western virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice are all complimentary facets of the jewel of character.  They exist together or not at all.  For example, one cannot be courageous, temperate, and just unless she does so wisely.  Thus all the virtues infuse and empower each other. They include perspective and focus of mind, a generous and open heart, integrity or centered and present wholeness, and a sense of fairness to all.  Aristotle said that Happiness (eudaimonia, or human flouishing) consists in activity in accord with virtue.  I believe this is a philosophical way of saying that a flourishing life is one lived from the very best in ourselves.  That, to me, is a noble aspiration.

The Eastern Virtues are likewise complementary.  It seems to me, however, that there is a shift of emphasis from the Western tradition of Wisdom as the lynchpin of the Virtues, to Loving Kindness as the leaven of the virtues.  Thus, the Western list of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice, becomes Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity in the Buddhist tradition.  Here are some of my favorite images:

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Making Friends with Life: The Coefficient of Adversity

Hokusai

Yikes! Look out for that wave!

Those folks in Hokusai’s boats are about to experience unavoidably the reality of the phrase that Jean-Paul Sartre borrowed from Gaston Bachelard: the Coefficient of Adversity.   That rather ponderous elocution (he says ponderously) carries within it a powerful clue to a recurring theme on this blog: making friends with life.  Things from lousy weather to an unkind word to a traffic accident can catapult us into victimhood, and enroll us in the “bitch and moan club.”  Eric Berne’s Games People Play featured the game “Ain’t it Awful,”  and it seems that often the conversations one hears are simply strings of complaints.   I sometimes imagine that if some people did not have their list of complaints, they would be absolutely mute.

So how does recognizing the inevitability of a coefficient of adversity temper one’s adversarial stance toward life?  I can think of three avenues of reflection.

First, it is a fundamental tenet in the philosophy of Plato that this material world is one of imperfection.  Whether one wants to follow him out of the cave into the light of perfection is a question for another essay. It does, however, seem clear, as he says in Book V of the Republic, that there is nothing in this world so perfectly beautiful that we can find no element of ugliness; nothing is so good that we can find no negative vantage point.  Combine this with John Stuart Mill’s insight that a part of happiness is “not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing,” and it yields a healing perspective.  “How good does life get?’ leads to “How good do I expect life to get?’ and then “How good do I expect myself to be?” Realizing that a coefficient of adversity is built into the very fabric of life trims the sails of my expectations, and lets me see more clearly the wondrous miracle of what is.  As Wittgenstein said, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” Seeing that it is, as it is, can help to liberate us from the illusion of perfection, and to embrace life with its many textures.

Sartre offers a second insight that brings the discussion to a deeper level.  He sees (in Being and Nothingness, Bk 4, Ch 2) that every adversarial element in my life is created by my own perspectives, values, and intentions (in his words, my “self-project”).    For example, I am stuck in a traffic jam.  He calls this a “brute fact,” neither good nor bad.  But if I am on my way to collect a lottery prize, and that is important to me, then the delay can be unbearable.  If, on the other hand, I am on my way to be executed, then the traffic jam becomes a god-send.  Clearly, my life so far has not been filled with lotteries or executions, but even on the mundane level, we can see that a shift of values or perspective can alter the coefficient of adversity in any given situation.  I might find myself seething in a traffic jam, and realize that the ten minutes I lose are not worth a roiling stomach.  My project then shifts from being on time to creating peace of mind, and the coefficient of adversity eases.

This leads to the third reflection: even if I cannot ease the present resistance, Sartre urges us to accept the fact that every coefficient of adversity in our lives is self-created, and thus freely chosen.  The living of life is a package deal, and the art of living consists in weighing the costs and benefits of any given situation.  If the costs are too heavy, we can do our best to change them, or failing that, to leave.  If we do not leave, then our attachment to the benefits is more valuable than the pains, and the only mature option is to buy the whole package with its mixture of sunshine and shadow, blessings and a coefficient of adversity.  This is why Sartre says,  “it is senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”   Complaining doesn’t change a thing, but claiming responsibility for one’s life opens a luminous path beyond victimhood to a powerful freedom that expresses itself in an unwavering gratitude for life as it is; for life as we are creating it.  As Rumi says, “Be grateful for your life, every detail of it, and your face will come to shine like a sun, and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful.”

Libra and the Equinox

libra 2

September 23, 2014.  What an auspicious day, when the Autumnal Equinox, with its perfect balance of night and day, opens to the balanced scales of Libra.   As we move into cooler weather, it seems a good time to practice cooling the mind a bit, and nurturing the evenness of soul that brings peace of mind. Balance, harmony, and inner peace are all summed up, I think, in the Buddhist virtue of equanimity (upeksha in Sanskrit).  I think of this as “making friends with life.”

Meditation and yoga are wonderful practices for stilling the turbulence of the mind, and evening out some of the more extreme reactive swings from high to low.  I also think that some wise perspective helps.  This morning,  I would like to reflect upon three interwoven facets of  living a balanced life.

The first is to remember that this dappled world of our’s is indeed a play of light and darkness.  The second verse of the Tao Te Ching states this clearly:

“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.  All can know good as good only because there is evil.  Therefore having and not having arise together. Difficult and easy compliment each other. Long and short contrast each other; high and low rest upon each other; voice and sound harmonize each other; front and back follow each other.”

The realization of our dappled world leads to a second aspect of equanimity: a reflection on the alternating rhythms of life itself, as outlined in the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

Recognizing this flow of life, then, leads to a third aspect of inner harmony: “taking it as it comes” as the TM folks used to say.  There is a story from Ancient China that illustrates this beautifully:

A poor farmer had all of his meager wealth in one magnificent stallion, but one stormy night the horse escaped from its corral.  The next day, all the neighbors came around to commiserate with the farmer’s terrible misfortune.   “Let’s wait and see,” is all he said.  Two days later, the stallion returned with four heathy mares in tow.  Now the neighbors were loud in their rejoicing.  “Let’s wait and see,” said the farmer.  The next day, the farmer’s adolescent son was trying to ride one of the new horses, and he fell and broke his leg.  The neighbors were desolate, but again the farmer said, “Let’s wait and see.”    And the following day, the army came through the village to draft all the young men to fight in a vicious war, but the farmer’s son was spared because of his leg.

This story, of course, could go on and on, but the point is clear.  Embracing the “time to mourn” not only balances, but engenders the “time to dance.”  As I look back on the passages of my life, I see them as just that: passages leading to more ample and brighter vistas.   As a young man, however, there was no way I could “just wait and see.”  A horrible loss or a shameful failing–the thin line between success and failure in life–seemed all consuming and all-encompassing.  Even now, on the far side of middle age, distrustful anxiety is sometimes a temptation.  It seems so easy to talk about love and trust, but then to live distrustfully, as though life were dangerous and vicious.  Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”  What is it we truly believe?

We are, however, not alone in this human schoolroom. We are continually given lessons.  We come to see the suffering that our fearful actions bring to ourselves and others, by experiencing the pain of our own mistakes,  And with time, we come to learn, not through pain and suffering, but through light and love and wisdom. We follow the tracks left by wise women and men over the centuries.  We are warmed and supported by the love of family and friends, and we are surrounded by the lessons of Nature’s recurrent equanimity–as long as we pay attention.  In this lovely poem dedicated to the sun, Mary Oliver celebrates the play of light and darkness, while warning of the danger of turning away from life’s graceful balance:

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed–
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

 

 

Rules

Rules are meant to be followed.

Rules are meant to be broken.

I think both of these folk sayings are true–but not always.  The trick is to know if and when, and perhaps why, one takes precedence over the other.  In fact, sometimes a rule should neither be wantonly broken nor rigidly followed, but applied with great care. Let us consider rules as they are found in games, courtesy, art, and morality.

Games                        Rules for games are usually arbitrary, although they often make sense within the context of the game.  Once set, however, they are as solid as granite.  Three strikes and you’re out!

Courtesy                   Rules for courtesy also seem arbitrary, and dependent upon the culture in which one finds oneself.  These rules seem to be more deeply rooted, however, in the soil of humanity’s social nature. Martin Buber is famous for his distinction between treating other people as objective things, or as conscious subjects.  When I treat a person as a thing, I objectify both her and myself.  Buber urges us to live in a world of I/Thou, where the gross use or manipulation of another human being becomes a travesty.  I also find this insight in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative of Immanuel Kant: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only…”

We might call this the principle of inter-subjectivity, and I think it provides a beautiful context within which to live with each other.  It would clearly preclude egregious betrayals, such as lying, stealing, or murder.  But, for me, it also carries great weight in three areas of courtesy.  In each of these three areas, I think that the rules of courtesy can be either empty formulas, or profound spiritual practices.

First, in everyday exchanges.  By simply saying “thank you” to a service person, one is  acknowledging her humanity, rather than seeing her as a “change-producing machine.”

Second, I think it is terribly important to learn the forms of courtesy in foreign cultures.  Saying “Gracias” when leaving Spanish shops, or “Itadakimasu” before a Japanese meal, is a way of recognizing both the human depth of the culture, as well as of the particular persons with whom we are interacting.  The weave of the social fabric in Japan is so tight, in fact, that my students would invariably tell me that their first moral rules were table manners.  We Westerners do not often see the moral implications of courtesy quite so clearly, but I think this Oriental attitude affords an important window into the gracious unfolding of daily life.

Third,  I would underscore the importance of courtesy with our family members and friends.  It is so easy to take our loved ones for granted, and remembering the simply courtesies helps to maintain mutual recognition and respect.  I am thinking of Archie Bunker yelling to his wife “Get me another beer, Dingbat!”   The creators of the show were obviously showing the importance of familial kindness by demonstrating the ugliness of its opposite.   It is a lesson I try to take to heart.

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Shoddy Virtues

 

patience

In his Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck writes these iconoclastic lines:
“Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing…It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding.  Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.”

The notion of “shoddy virtues” is at once unsettling and resonant. Steinbeck clearly has a point. Jesus taught that it is better to give than to receive, but Steinbeck is adding that giving is also easier. We have all experienced how difficult it is to allow someone else to pay the check at a restaurant, or even to open the presents given to us at Christmas. It does take great humility to receive with grace.

In modern times, the notion of virtue has become restrictive and dull. Virtuous people are kept from doing things they would like to do, mostly sexual. It has sometimes been used as a subtle denigration of women. Have you ever heard of a man of easy virtue, or of a man losing his virtue? For all the lip service we give to virtue, the truth is that many think of it as bland, boring, and unprofitable. Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”

For the record, this recognition of virtue’s dual nature has a long pedigree. In the Republic, Plato says “The most surprising fact of all is that each of the gifts of nature which we praise tends to corrupt the soul of its possessor and divert it from the love of wisdom. I am speaking of courage, sobriety, and the entire list [of virtues]” (Rep., Bk. VI, 491). Plato thought that materialistic cultures are incubators of a perverse caricature of true virtue. Professions that offer money, prestige, or power have the ability to seduce the truly talented away from careers that serve the spiritual growth of oneself and others. He is especially decrying the profession of Philosophy, or University Professors in general, who are often fifth-rate poseurs who have little true Love of Wisdom. Cleverness poses as Wisdom, authoritarianism poses as courage, and self-righteousness poses as integrity. If ego drives our natural and acquired gifts, they do indeed become shoddy.

In the East, Lao Tzu makes the same point with his characteristic simplicity as he distinguishes between higher and lower (shoddy) virtue in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “1. Superior virtue is unvirtue. Therefore it has virtue. Inferior virtue never loses sight of virtue. Therefore it has no virtue. 2. Superior virtue is non-assertion and without pretension. Inferior virtue asserts and makes pretensions.” I read this as saying that virtue, aware of itself, is self-inflating and therefore ultimately self-defeating. Jesus talked about the person who gives money at the temple only when he is sure of an audience. “Look at me. Aren’t I good?” Inferior virtue, to be sure.

It seems to me that Steinbeck, Plato, and Lao Tsu are all saying that our most beautiful gifts of mind and heart can be diverted to the service of the ego and thus become powerful tools of self-centered, self-congratulatory selfishness. It is quite easy to see how such attitudes as Giving, Forgiveness, Temperance, and even Sexual Restraint can feed a rigid superiority, full of pretension and assertiveness, if not aggression. The self-righteous often speak warm words that ride on cold breath.

William James noted that the human being is “a bundle of habits.” These habits are channels worn into our minds and hearts and bodies by our quotidian choices and actions. Habits of thinking, feeling, and moving become ingrained, and either imprison us in fear and ignorance, or open us to autonomy and growth. Sadly, the habits that most of us carry into adulthood are narrow and distorting, and inhibit the flow of life. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, they make the mind and heart two sizes too small. The ancient Greeks called these crippling habits “vices.” Because of them our minds and hearts are literally caught in a vise, and the smallness of our resulting worldview produces suffering for ourselves and others. The mark of the fool, Socrates taught, is that he is ignorant of his own ignorance. He is a “know-it-all” who stagnates in the backwater of his cognitive illusions. In perhaps his most powerful image, Plato depicts humankind as chained by fear inside the cave of its own disordered (or overly-ordered) and rigid mind.

For Plato, the purpose of human life is to undertake the dramatic journey out of the dark cave of the closed mind. It is a journey toward a mind open to wonder, aware of the provisional nature of what it thinks it knows; and it is a journey toward a courageously vulnerable heart. On this journey, new patterns of thinking and feeling are assimilated into our nature (Aristotle calls this ‘second nature’) by repeated choices and their attendant actions. These new channels that enable us to be the people we long to be–wise and brave, kind and compassionate–are what Plato calls the “Virtues” (arete in Greek). The English word comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘virile.” It means to be strong, powerful, independent. In sum, the virtues are qualities of mind and heart that empower us to live life with vigor and joy. The virtues, the qualities that allow us to function at our best, are in fact prisms through which one’s love flows into the world. Shoddy, ego-serving virtues go by the same names, but they dam the flow of love.

I want to take care, therefore, that the soaring ideals of religion and philosophy do not themselves become self-serving. The virtues of wisdom, compassion, courage, and equanimity are truly real only if they are conduits of love in the ordinary, daily unfolding of life. If I can be kind to my children, supportive of my friends, and truthful with my wife; if I can honor the Divine light in everyone I meet; if I can cherish the inexpressible beauty of the natural world, then perhaps I might be approaching true virtue. I aspire to live the Taoist ideal of gracious action without any sense of being “virtuous.” In the realm of higher virtue, as Hayden Carruth observed, “Now I am almost entirely love.”

Living the Love of Wisdom: Spirals of Transformation

In a recent post describing the daily reading that serves as an intimate and attentive ritual for Carolyn and me, lectio divina, I acknowledged the serendipitous turnings on the road to Living the Love of Wisdom.  These are moments of grace, inviting a turning of our whole being. The road to love and wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at helping us to become more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live.

Beliefs, however, while important, are not enough.  Aristotle emphasized that human flourishing (eudaimonia) is realized in action; it is a matter of living life from the very best in oneself.  Living the Love of Wisdom, then, involves a nexus of practices whose pursuit gives direction to an entire lifetime.  These practices deepen commitments to patterns of behavior that in turn enlarge the soul’s perspectives and reinforce our commitment to kind and thoughtful behavior.  Thus, the actions that constitute the pursuit of Wisdom as a Way of Life both flow toward the flourishing of Wisdom, and then flow from Wisdom into life’s daily actions, spiraling toward ever deeper wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world. Herein lies the spiral of transformation.

galaxy

Golden spirals and Fibonacci spirals are found everywhere in nature, from galaxies to flowers, from snails to the human body–and even to the human soul.  The path to a robust love of wisdom is not a straight line, but swirls and spirals as we succeed and fail in the daily rhythms of life. Sometimes the spiral path is intentional as we seek to incorporate our highest values into daily living.  A wonderful example of this can be read in the blog Soul Harmony on Demand, where Veronika applies some of the teachings of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra to our daily drive to work. In my opinion, she does an inspiring job. Thich Nhat Hahn advises us to bring mindfulness to washing the dishes, and Thomas Moore has written extensively on the holiness of everyday life.

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Sometimes, however, the spiral path toward love seems chaotic, and out of our control.  Our lives have the opportunity, however, to become more vibrant as we meet the obstacles and challenges placed (or we place) in our way.  Slowly it dawns on some of us that these obstacles are in fact invitations to change our thinking, our feelings, and our behavior.  So often in my life, my beliefs would slam me into a wall that seemed to mock my good intentions. But after many head and heart aches, I began to learn to go around the wall, or to find another way, and finally to adopt an attitude that dissolved the wall entirely.  As I noted in my essay On Sin, the recognition and acceptance of my fallible and vulnerable humanity has the power to deepen my reservoir of compassion, and every return becomes a renewal.  As T.S. Eliot famously observed in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes when I find myself revisiting issues with which I have been contending for many years, discouragement looms on the horizon.  Bernard Malamud once asked “If it’s a sentence Lord, how long?”  But Martin Buber advises us to get over our negative self-judgment, which actually is a form of narcissism. He relates this wonderful insight from the Rabbi of Ger:

“He who has done ill and talks about it and thinks about it all the time does not cast the base thing he did out of his thoughts, and whatever one thinks, therein one is, one’s soul is wholly and utterly in what one thinks, and so he dwells in baseness.  …What would you?  Rake the muck this way, rake the muck that way–it will always be muck.  Have I sinned or have I not sinned–what does Heaven get out of it? In the time I am brooding over it I could be stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven.”

And so we “human merely beings” follow the call of Love, sometimes joyfully in the light of conscious awareness, and sometimes stumbling through the dark night of confusion and what feels like self-betrayal.  It has been my experience, however, that at least once in a while I return to the darker places of my being with more understanding and love.   Slowly I am learning to trust the spirals of existence that swirl in the cosmos and in my own heart, to lead me home.

Personal Rituals: Lectio Divina

There are certainly serendipitous turnings on the road to Wisdom. The phone rings, a stranger is kind, you are really seen by someone at a party, or exactly the right book falls off a shelf into your hands. These are moments of grace, telling us we are not alone. The road to wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at becoming more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live. In subsequent essays, I will be writing about practices from various traditions, but for today I would like to share one of the rituals that enriches the lives of Carolyn and me. I realize that the rituals we weave into the fabric of our lives are ultimately highly personal, but it is also helpful, I think, to glean ideas from glimpses into each other’s lives.
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Sentō (銭湯): A Japanese Public Bath

The cicadas of July were singing wildly as I made my way through the streets of Kyoto. It was 1987, and this was my first trip to Japan. I had been lucky enough to receive a grant to study Japanese language and culture for a year in an American college, and then to spend a full month in any part of Japan I chose. Since my interests centered on Japanese religions, I of course headed straight for Kyoto. Reading Chinese characters, or kanji, was far beyond me, although I did have a tenuous grasp of the Japanese syllabary. Reading the street signs, however, was out of the question, and I had a feeling, both terrifying and liberating, of being an illiterate three year old.

I had arranged to stay at a temple lodging, a shukubo called Myoren-ji, in the Nishijin area on the northwestern side of town. After wandering the neighborhood for an hour or so, I luckily discovered a narrow wooden temple gate opening onto a long stone path that I followed to the door of the lodging. On my calling hello, the door was opened by a smiling woman of about 60. Her name was Iida-san, and during this and subsequent stays at her temple, we became good friends.

She poured me a cup of tea, and in very good English explained that I would be sleeping on a futon in a lovely tatami room opening onto an inner garden. She continued that I could assist the priests with chanting in the morning at 6:30, and she would serve breakfast at 8. So far so good, but then the idyll ended, and my neophyte’s heart skipped a beat. There were no bathing facilities at the temple, she said, but she would give me a bathing bucket, soap, a towel, and a ticket each day for the sento just around the corner. I was going to become much more intimate with the Japanese people than I had anticipated.

That evening at around 6 o’clock, I found the sento. I pushed through the noren curtain at the entrance, having no idea what I would find on the other side. I immediately found myself facing a high desk manned (and I use that word advisedly) by a Japanese woman in her 80’s. She immediately sensed my discomfort, imperiously snatched the ticket out of my hand, and disdainfully tossed her head in the direction of a door to her right. The pink door on her left was clearly not for me, so I figured I would at least be spared a bi-sexual bath.

I passed through the blue door, and found myself in a small locker room. This wasn’t too different from my high school, so I quickly and completely disrobed, locked my locker, and hanging the key on my wrist, opened the door at the other end of room.

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Now I was in another world. Along one wall there was a series of spigots perhaps a foot off the floor. Along the other side of the room were three steaming tubs that I will describe in a minute. Four naked men were each sitting in front of a spigot on a tiny plastic stool on which one was expected to sit while washing. My first fear was that I would never make it down to the stool, and look foolish suspended in mid-air. I did make it, however, and then tried surreptitiously to watch the other men in order to learn the protocol. You filled your bucket with water and poured it over yourself, and soaped vigorously from head to foot. It then required many buckets full of water to rinse. I can’t tell you how awkward I felt, sitting cheek to jowl with a bunch of strangers, trying to bathe in a tiny bucket.

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At least I had remembered that one washed thoroughly before getting into a tub. But now it was tub time. There were three tubs from which to choose. The first was filled with a bilious looking green concoction. The second was filled with clear water, but one finger told me it was beyond hot. As I stuck my hand into the third tub, I was literally shocked by a pulsing current of electricity coursing through the water. My only option was green, and it was actually quite relaxing. After a ten minute soak, I met the final challenge of the night: drying myself with a tiny wet towel. Believe it or not, it worked, and I headed out into the Kyoto night with a feeling of accomplishment.

The second night went off without a hitch, and on the third night I confidently strode into the sento like a seasoned Japan hand. The old woman even greeted me with what seemed like a friendly nod, and chatted away. Her lack of teeth, however, did not help my fledgling understanding of Japanese. At any rate, i was walking tall as I entered the locker room and began to undress. Suddenly my fingers froze on the third button of my shirt. The outer door of the room burst open, and the ancient ticket-taker walked in trailing three of her cronies. They were carrying folding chairs that they set up right behind me, and settled in for their evening’s entertainment. I didn’t have the nerve to bolt into the night, so the only thing for it was to continue disrobing with as much aplomb as I could muster. Every piece of clothing that disappeared into my locker was greeted by hoots, waves of laughter, and a running commentary in Japanese whose meaning was both unintelligible and unmistakable. I finally turned to them and offered the full monty with a deep formal bow. They applauded my performance like school girls, and their raucous laughter pursued me as I escaped into the tub room with a red face and a white bottom.

I soaked for as long as I could, and was relieved to find that they were nowhere to be seen as I dressed in the locker room. On returning to the temple, I recounted the story to Iida-san, and she began to laugh as hard as the sento ladies had. “Oh John-san,” she said. “They are not used to seeing western men naked, and they were enjoying your hairy body.” A week later, I told the story to my American friend, Birger. He, too, laughed, and then asked “Did you understand anything at all?” “Well,” I said, “I did pick up the word ‘saru,’ which means monkey.” “Well, old buddy,” he said, “at least they got something right.”