Sunday, December 29, 2013

Waltz with your Fears

I find that absurd metaphors often guide the heart's intuition to places the rational mind can't go on its own.

The following is a poetic dialogue that occurred between a friend and myself. I asked her a question in a moment of fear, and her answer led us to one of the most delightful metaphorical explorations of how to deal with unpleasant feelings and experiences that I've ever experienced. Here goes:

Where do we go when the heart-wantings come for us?

To our heart’s shrine,
Who knows your authentic desires.
We go the lake that does not wave;
It is as still and whole as the
Day ice water ran into it.

But what when cupid’s arrows
Disturb the still waters of the heart shrine?

If the heart feels
Elation as disturbance,
Perhaps there is a need to give pause and
Recollect without the
Fogginess that the
Arrow undoubtedly brings;
Take a dip in the coolness and clear the
Way between rationale
And happy lustings.

The heart’s elation is no disturbance.
It is a sunrise.
But in the new light,
Forgotten fears reveal their ugly faces.

Dear one,
When the past comes knocking,
Don’t answer the door.
It has nothing new to say.

What a potent thought!
This potency pierces the pestilent parlance of prophets past and 
Puts recollection to pause.
I see that the present is always new.
So, ugly fears now visible in the light of elation,
I bow to you.
Will you waltz with me?

Peppered with grace,
The profundity proliferates to penultimate 
gratitude for song and dance—
A party is made by its guests.
My guests and I waltz through time immemorial,
Sweetening the day with our streaming hearts
And succulent turns.
There is no end to gratitude,
Just that closeness.

Every guest is welcome in our dance.
Pain, we are grateful for your presence.
Sorrow, we give thanks for your ballet.
Longing, we bow to your strange ability to tango.
All are welcome,
And each will receive a gift bag at the door
Filled with honeycomb rubies
And scarlet ribbons.

The glint off those jewels
Is the very smoldering furnace of our deepest yearnings,
Made manifest by those strange guests.

What do we do with our heart longings?
The same we do with all our dearest friends:
Bow, give gifts, dance, and smile.
This is the recipe for something marvelously delicious!

Our hearts have long told us these
Immeasurable things;
All we have to do is listen.
After all,
We ourselves live at the 
Head of the banquet table.

And we ourselves are the feast!

Painter and paint brush…

And every color is an important part,
The galling gray along with the
Buoyant blue and prescient pink.

Dearest, put on your dancing shoes!
Let’s see what sorts of love-mischief we can 
make with our day :)

I hope you all remember your dancing shoes and make some great love-mischief! Every breath can remind us we are ALIVE. And every living moment can become a reason to rejoice!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Jesus: Life, Death, and Labels

It's Christmas, and I've been reflecting increasingly on Jesus and the meaning he has in my life.

I wouldn't call myself a Christian or Mormon. But I'm definitely a lover of Jesus. As I've discussed before, I love religious metaphors primarily for they evoke inside of me. And Jesus evokes SO MUCH inside of me. Whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was actually the promised Messiah or God Himself is not something I can ever know. But I can observe what interacting with Jesus as symbol and metaphor do to my heart.

And I find it utterly expansive, and here's why:

Jesus lived by embracing. He was a "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," but he met his sorrow and pain fully and completely and without every looking back. And he embraced the pains and suffering of others, too. He taught something radical--that pains and sorrows were blessed! Those who mourned were blessed! He taught that those who embrace their weaknesses would be the ones who shone as lights to the world.

The paradox of Christ is, I think, encompassed most fully in the teaching that we must lose our lives to save them. What an odd thought--that loss of life is necessary to live completely. The story and symbols of Jesus are inseparable from the ways that life and death interact with our lives. He was an Eternal Being, the great "I AM," and the only way for him to deliver eternal life to his people was to die. And he embraced death.

To me, this is deeply symbolic of the fact that life and death are utterly inseparable. Life can only survive off of death! We have to ingest dead plants and animals to convert them into the energy of our own lives. How interesting that we would need to ingest the symbols of a dead God each week in order to continue living spiritually.

The ritual of the sacrament within Mormonism and of communion in the broader Christian world is holy to me not because of anything in and of itself, but because of what it points to. Ingesting the symbols of a dead God to resurrect my spiritual self points to the holiness of every meal I eat. Each meal was brought to me by the process of Life--the dynamic of which is the force that I personify in God. These sacred rituals taught by Jesus point me not to an escape of this world and its process of life and death creating each other, but an embrace of it.

And there's an interesting death that I believe has to happen within us in order to wake up into being--the death of the stories we tell ourselves. We give ourselves reasons for our suffering, we tell ourselves narratives about our lives. We adopt labels and make observations about the type of person we are. In order to actually live, these parts of us have to die. Life is utterly dynamic--constantly changing and evolving. The labels we give ourselves often bind us to a dead past.

Letting go of labels very difficult. In the last year I've abandoned the label of "Mormon" and the label of "straight." And it really did feel like death! When I finally came out to myself and decided I didn't believe in the truth claims of the church anymore, it felt like straight, heterosexual Josh died. And I literally went through the grieving process.

Immediately, I started grasping at labels again. I grasped at "gay," "atheist," "existentialist," "Taoist," etc. But none of them really expressed wholly who I am.

I love Rumi's poem "Only Breath"

Not Christian, or Jew, or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, Sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West...

My place is placeless, a trace
Of the traceless...

Only that breath breathing human being.

Equally powerful is a similar poem by Hafiz:

I have learned so much from God that
I can no longer call myself a Christian,
A Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of itself
with me that I can no longer call myself
a man, a woman, an angel, or even a pure soul.

Love has befriended Hafiz so completely
it has turned to ash and freed me of 
every concept and image my mind has ever known.

Both Hafiz and Rumi had experienced this death I'm talking about--the death of the ego. The annihilation of everything we think we know about ourselves and the world--the complete embrace of life exactly how it is without expectation or judgment.

Jesus said himself that he came "not to condemn the world, but that it might be saved."

Maybe our salvation doesn't rest on finding the right name to be called--whether it's Christian, Mormon, Jew, Hindu, etc. Maybe salvation is available at every moment by choosing to participate fully in being. Jehovah, after all, declared himself to be the great "I AM." Jesus died so that we could be reunited with being itself.

And so today, on Christmas day, my interaction with the concept of Christ inspires me to practice letting go. To die to myself and awake to Being. To choose to embrace life completely as it is, no matter the pains, fears, and sorrows that are there along the way. Christ evokes within me the feeling that true beauty is encompassed in the Whole--it is in difficulties as much as joys!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thoughts on Compassion for Others, Life, and Self

I desire to be compassionate. But I find myself so often feeling feelings of judgment and dislike for certain people, and its often the very people for whose experiences and pains I ought to have the most compassion. A thought that has changed the way I approach compassion recently was written by Joseph Campbell in his book "Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation."

I've noticed that I often write about ideas as if they're new and revolutionary when in all actuality they're known by many, many people. The reason I write like this is because they are new and revolutionary to me. Hopefully people who read this and other stuff I write will be able to get something out of it...but the ultimate benefactor of writing these thoughts down is myself.

Campbell wrote that "compassion is that which converts disillusionment into participatory companionship." I want to explore the implication of this explanation on my views on compassion for others, for life itself, and for myself.

The word compassion comes from the Latin "compati," which means "to suffer with." 

I believe that the deepest form of compassion is the willingness to share your being. Mindful awareness and an acceptance of others' pain as your own is the root of a compassionate heart. I love the phrasing Campbell uses. Compassion converts disillusionment into something else. In order for disillusionment to be converted, it must first exist! Campbell premises compassion on the the acknowledgment that each of us will encounter negativity within ourselves towards other people. When someone fails or betrays us, when they utter an unkind word, or when they fail to meet our expectations, we experience disillusionment.

The people I have the most problems with are the ones that do not meet my expectations. When people are impolite, don't follow certain social norms, or exhibit characteristics I dislike in myself, my heart reacts with negativity. I love that Campbell says compassion converts this negativity into "participatory companionship" because companionship is not a feeling! Companionship is the choice to participate in someone's life despite the way you might feel.

This thought is freeing to me. It means that I don't have to be trapped by my emotions. I can choose, despite my emotions, to participate. I can choose freely to give of my being and awareness to people who make me feel frustrated.

I love the thought of compassion for life itself, which is one Campbell discusses frequently. Life can be disillusioning. We begin as children with grand visions of what it will hold for us: adventures, romance, great joys. Slowly, student debt piles up. A lover betrays us. We fail again and again to find that special someone we had always believed would be out there. Marriage is far from bliss. Children shout and scream, and nothing ever seems to go the way we want it to.

These frustrations are also based on expectations. We have certain things we want back from life. I'm willing to work as long as life guarantees me some degree of success. I'm wiling to be happy as long as life meets my basic requirements. But something interesting happens when we embrace the "radical idea" I wrote about last week. We slowly drop our expectations on life.

I lose my job? Sacred. I find $100 on the ground? Sacred. I loose $10000? Sacred. Someone betrays me? Sacred. And so on and so on. Agreeing to accept everything as a kind mentor relieves us of the expectations we've built up over time and allows us to develop compassion towards our living.

Ultimately, compassion towards life is a willingness to suffer along with life. It's a willingness to turn our disillusionment into a form of companionship where we walk side by side with what is rather than with our visions of what we expect our lives to be.

And the same freeing realizations about compassion towards people apply in compassion towards life. Compassion isn't a feeling. If life brings us feelings of anger, frustration, or failure, we can choose to embrace these feelings. We can make the choice to continue to suffer alongside our imperfect life.

Joseph Campbell wrote that "What evokes our the imperfection of the human being." When I practice mindful living and see my own weaknesses clearly, other people's imperfections cease to become burdens or frustrations, but rather become my common ground with them. Love is evoked when sameness is recognized. By stepping fully into the reality of my weakness, my hearts is opened to compassionate living.

In order to fully accept my own weakness, I need a third type of compassion: compassion for myself. Self-compassion is a very strange concept because it relies on the paradox at the core of selfhood: that I am both a subject and an object. I am the self that can somehow transcend itself. I can feel hatred for my own being. Likewise, I can practice compassion for my own being.

When I feel pain inside of myself, often my response is to cut it off. Despair comes knocking, and I quickly lock the door. More than the feelings themselves, it's often my anxiety over my anxieties or sadness over my sadnesses, that bring the most acute suffering. The self, however, can practice compassion towards itself.

I am not my feelings; those come and go. I am the awareness that is aware of my feelings. If you attach yourself to your feelings, then when you feel ways you wish you wouldn't, you associate those with some flaw inside yourself that you want to reject or get rid of. This creates self-hatred. When we practice mindful non-attachment to our feelings, however, we see that our awareness is separate from the feelings themselves. This is what enables us to embrace them! 

The more I practice mindfulness, the more convinced I am that the explanations I give for my feelings are not always true. Often when I feel sadness or pain, my mind's first reaction is to concoct an elaborate story giving all the reasons for its presence. Usually the story involves some sort of flaw. Practicing mindfulness, I'm aware of this mental process and I see the feeling for what it is: a feeling that just needs to be felt.

And so when feelings come, I try to respond to them compassionately by being there with them. I try to treat my fears, insecurities, and sorrows like crying children that just need to be held. I bow to them and embrace them and welcome them into my heart. This sort of compassion for self is, I think, the root of compassion for others and for life itself. If we never practice being compassionate to ourselves who we're with constantly, how can we practice it with beings who live completely outside of our minds?

We may be disillusioned by what we find within, but we can use that disillusionment to drop expectations and convert by the means of compassion into a participatory companionship with ourselves. How often do you simply sit and be with yourself and watch your mind and give it attention? I've found this is one of the most healing processes I've ever experienced.

The interesting thing about all of this--about compassion for others, life, and self, is that its core is the ability to suffer. The more compassion we have, the greater our ability to suffer! This teaches something important, I think, and that is that opposites create each other. It is not simply that we must know bitter to know the sweet--it is most literally that the deepest of joys are constructed from the deepest of pains. The joys of loving-kindness are multiplied as our ability to suffer increases. 

And perhaps it's not the ability suffer, exactly, that increases, but rather the mind's equanimity. 

When mind reacts to suffering and joy with equal jubilation, it cannot really be said that the mind itself is suffering anymore. It is only observing and embracing suffering. Maybe this is what it means to be free from suffering--not that the suffering vanishes, but that you are free to embrace it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Where is God?

My last two posts have been about inner healing by searching within and the radical idea of treating every moment as sacred. I'm now going to combine them in my personal answer to the question "where is God?"

A disclaimer upfront: it would be absolutely arrogant to claim to actually have an answer to this and other questions I address in my blog. Everything I write and the conclusions I come to are based completely and entirely off observations of my own inner living and the results that I achieve with these thoughts. Interact with them how you will.

To the question of where God is located, the honest Mormon would answer: "housed in a body of flesh and bones reigning supreme on a planet nearest the star Kolob, though his power is omnipresent."

An atheist would answer: "nowhere. There is no God."

I answer: "God is the dynamic of my own interior."

As I discussed in my last post, to me, the actuality of the existence of a being called "God" is far less important than what interaction with the concept does to my mind. Notice that I use the word "interaction" and not "belief." That is important. I don't think one needs to have any sort of belief whatsoever in God to interact with the concept and observe the results.

Ultimately, to me, God is a useful personification of something that exists inside of us that defies categorizations or labeling (that thing referred to in the first two sentences of the Daode Jing as the path that cannot be walked and the name that cannot be named). And you don't even need the personification of "God" to interact with the concepts I'm discussing. Many systems, such as Daoism and Buddhism, largely skip the concept entirely. The personification is most useful for people who have interacted with God in the past, but find themselves drifting in religious persuasion and want to reconnect with God but don't know how.

God's location is discovered by active interaction with the concept and observing what it changes in your mind and heart.

The first problem encountered in interaction with God is the problem of knowing. We have to examine the processes by which we make judgments and gain knowledge. We are beings floating through an ever-changing dynamic we call "the present." Our mind gathers data and makes judgments based on the perceptions--based on sight, sound, touch, taste, etc. The world external to us is interpreted through senses and memories. But a fundamental question underlies the whole process: how do we know we can trust anything we sense or remember to be an actual indication of the realities of the external world?

We could say that data over time gives us different levels of certainty about our data collections--but this assumes the veracity of memory. Nothing is absolute.

Many thinkers find this level of questioning dangerous. It can lead the soul down paths of nihilism and skepticism that seem dangerous and destructive to many. But I disagree. Questions are, to me, the ultimate expression of faith. The truth will protect itself, and it is the obligation of a thinking person to let the questions take us where they will in the hope that where we end up will be better or more complete than when we started. Uncertainty is frightening to many; I find it liberating. Religious observance throughout time has often been a celebration of mysteries!

To me, questioning the processes by which we sense the outside world result in a marriage of the internal and external. Because the external world is only perceived and interpreted internally, reactions to external factors are as much an indication of the internal reality as they are of the external. The two together form a complete whole.

If you have been religious or spiritual in your life, reflect with me on the process by which you would interact with God. For me, the primary avenue was through prayer. I would say words in my mind and then wait for feelings or impressions as answers. I would also connect God to certain events or experiences--it was the feeling of transcendence, or "the spirit," that accompanied great acts of kindness, looking down from mountain tops, or staring up at a starry night. It was associated with internal feelings of what ought or ought not to be done.

As we apply the same mindfulness we did to the process of knowledge to the process of feeling or interacting with God, we must come to the conclusion that God is a primarily an internal phenomenon. These places of wisdom, mindfulness, compassion, and transcendence that I find myself capable of achieving are precisely that force that I label "God." And they reside within me. To find them fully, I must embark on an inward-facing journey.

To the theist: the reason I think this rather than seeing God as a being external to myself is that I once believed completely that God was an actual being who controlled the universe. It was only after abandoning the trappings of the God I thought I knew that I was able to discover the processes that were actually happening inside me--awe induced by mindfulness that results in compassion, loving-kindness, and equanimity. This same process is evoked by many different religious structures. As I changed structures, I became aware that the core experience did not change.

This reminds me of a quote by Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century Christian mystic:

"The ultimate and highest leave taking is leaving God for GOD, leaving your notion of God for an experience of that which transcends all notions."

And, of course, who would I be if this didn't bring me back to a poem by Hafiz?

Tiny Gods

Some gods say, the tiny ones,
"I am not here in your vibrant, moist lips
That need to beach themselves upon
the golden shore of a
Naked body."

Some gods say, "I am not
the sacred yearning in the unrequited soul;
I am not the blushing cheek
Of every star and Planet--

I am not the applauding Chef
Of those precious sections that can distill
The whole mind into a perfect wincing jewel, if only
For a moment
Nor do I reside in every pile of sweet warm dung
Born of earth's

Some gods say, the ones we need to hang,
"your mouth is not designed to know His,
Love was not born to consume
the luminous

Dear ones,
Beware of the tiny gods frightened men
To bring an anesthetic relief
To their sad

One of the most wonderful things these thoughts evoke within me is a respect for all life. If God is the dynamic of my own interior, then he is the dynamic of yours as well! Each pair of eyes I look into are part of the very face of God. I love the symbolism Christ's atonement. He transcended the bonds of separation to become at one with each of us--our pains and sorrows are literally the passion of the Christ! All of these symbols point to me of what I see as the ultimate truth--that the Ultimate is accessible within and lends to a view of all things as unified, which evokes loving kindness, compassion, and equanimity in the heart.

Once again, these thoughts are more the catalog of my own personal journeyings through spiritual thinking. The joy is that everyone, as Rumi puts it, can "unfold your own myth," and hence the need for spiritual and theological creativity.

My advice to anyone searching for God would be this: watch your thoughts and feelings closely. Find what gives you nourishment, and walk in that direction. But always keep in mind the limits of knowledge. I've found that a good appreciation of mystery is more important than a sure knowledge when it comes to spirituality.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Radical Thought

I'm going to write about the most transformative and radical spiritual thought I've ever had. And I'm going to try to demonstrate that it can be applied whether or not you believe in God. It comes from the New Testament, Zen Buddhist writers, Sufi writers, and many others. It's an idea that has changed so much about the way I live.

"All things work together for good in them that love God." --Saint Paul

"Each portion of life has the whole of it." --Thich Nhat Hanh

"Now is the time to know that all you do is sacred." --Hafiz

The thought can be summed up like this: everything, absolutely EVERYTHING that happens to us in life is sacred. If we cherish each moment as a gift from the most loving of givers, the moments begin to change us. No matter, no matter, no matter what happens, it can work together for good in me if I cherish it.

Now the reason this is radical is because there's so much we detest in the world. People's minds most often go to the extreme--am I suggesting that poverty is sacred? Am I suggesting that world hunger is holy? Am I suggesting that cancer is a divine gift? Am I seriously suggesting that the deaths of people we love are to be cherished? And what about things that people do wrong--murder, rape, genocide. THESE ARE NOT HOLY THINGS, the mind shouts. Holiness is their opposite! 

What I am proposing is that evil dissipates in love's embrace. Suffering is dispelled by complete acceptance. Joy is born in praise!

Let's think for a moment about what it means for something to be sacred. A simple definition is that things connected to God are holy. In Mormonism, the temple is a holy place because it's God's home. The closer the connection to God, the more sacred something becomes.

This definition of the sacred is one premised on God's existence, and doesn't work very well for our athiest and agnostic friends (just to be clear, I don't identify as theist, atheist, OR agnostic. I identify as "deeply in love" :) ). And I believe that this insight of the holiness of all things is applicable to everyone, whether or not we believe in God. So there has to be another definition for sacredness.

Now the interesting thing to me about humans and things of divinity is not our ability to discover the divine, but our ability to create it. I think that theological and spiritual creativity are among the most precious gifts of humanity. Each civilization and religion has treated different things as holy, and many of the internal results are similar. I find that everyone tends to treat something as sacred. Most of my atheist friends treat skepticism as sacred. They cherish their ability to question and find truths through the scientific method. 

I posit that belief in God fulfills a psychological function. Many theists tend to stray away from this idea because it's easy to then conclude that belief in God is only an evolutionary necessity and has no basis in reality. This doesn't have to be the case. If there is a God, it would make sense that his spiritual interactions with us happen by physical means. Many theists would say that the "psychological function" is just the effects of God working on your mind and heart. I think there doesn't have to be a difference. What's important are the consequences--how does what you hold sacred and what you worship impact the way you think, feel, and experience life?

And so whether or not one believes in God, the question can be the same: how does one maximize the psychological God function? If God exists, then this is maximizing his presence. If God does not exist, it's merely tapping into a part of the psyche that makes you feel transcendent and joyful.

Joseph Campbell wrote that religion plays four functions: it evokes awe and wonder, gives an understanding of the ordering of the cosmos, provides basic rules for the functioning of society, and provides ritual methods for the individual to understand their journey through life: from childhood to adolescence into adulthood, and then on through the steady decline towards death. In modernity, the functions of understanding the cosmos and providing basic rules for society have largely been replaced by the scientific method and secular political processes. Where anti-religionists miss out, however, is by pushing out religious methods as metaphors for evoking awe and wonder as well as ritual methods for understanding life-processes. Religious people miss out, too, though. When they treat metaphor as fact it can stand in the way of embracing mysteries and not-knowing, which produce the very awe they seek.

The "radical thought" I'm getting at is mostly applicable to the first utility of religion in provoking awe and wonder. Utilizing the human capacity to treat things as sacred is one of the best ways to evoke these feelings, what we refer to in Mormonism as "the spirit." The first time I ever went into the temple, I experienced incredible feelings of awe precisely because I had treated the temple as sacred and holy my whole life. Things like prayer and testimony meetings similarly evoke feelings of awe. 

Non religious people similarly experience awe--just read the writings of Carl Sagan. He was completely filled with the awe and wonder of the universe (and his thoughts are really awe-inspiring. Go to this Wikipedia page about the "pale blue dot" photo taken of earth from the edge of the solar system and scroll down to "reflections by Sagan." It's beautiful.) 

Rumi wrote that "awe is the salve that will heal our eyes." Awe is so important because it is invoked by and further encourages big-picture thinking. Awe and wonder feel transcendent of the present moment and put small things like worries and stresses into perspective. They have a calming effect and "heal our eyes" in the sense that they allow us to see and think about life from a more broad perspective.

The important part is that awe changes us. 

Think about it. Reflect back to the moment when you've felt the most wonder and transcendence. Maybe it was sitting on a mountaintop. Maybe it was performing a religious ritual. Maybe it was when a math equation FINALLY made sense. Revisit those feelings for just a moment and ask yourself this:

Inside of that moment and that feeling, was there any compulsion to hurt yourself or others? What did those feelings do to your desires?

Now I'll answer the question for myself. In moments where I've felt most wonder-filled, my most immediate desires were towards compassion and loving-kindness. It always makes me want to relieve suffering and help people feel better.

I can't make any objective claims about the nature of reality as a whole for everyone, because I have only my own experience. By I do hypothesize that Rumi is correct, and that awe changes us.

So how can we utilize our ability to make things sacred to change the products of our living and bring more meaning into our lives?

This is where the "radical thought" comes in--what would happen if we treated all things as sacred? What if we treated all moments as precious gifts, no matter their content? 

Think back with me to the last time something awful happened to you. Maybe you were in a car accident. Maybe you failed a class. Maybe you were betrayed. Maybe something awful happened to a loved one. Now ask yourself this: what does treating this experience as a bad thing do to your mind? For me it produces feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and disconnection. It makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and give up. It leads me more towards attitudes that are harmful to myself and others.

What would change if you treated that experience as a sacred gift? It may feel difficult or radical, and it is. Letting go of suffering is always radical. We would have let go of it long ago if we weren't so attached!

But try for a moment. Try to imagine that this awful experience was a gift from a giver whose primary aim was your joy. 

When I do this, a question arises in my mind. Why would the giver think I needed this experience? Immediately, my mind reflects and searches for understanding. And usually, it comes. I realize that I was given the gift of patience. I was given the gift of understanding just how much I loved the person I lost. And those gifts are sacred to me. And these holy products are inseparable from the gift itself. Our pains produce our most precious virtues.

Let's take this even a step further. If you've ever been a devoutly religious person, think back to performing sacred rituals. What did it feel like? What did you do with your mind? As I blessed the sacrament or performed baptisms or other rituals, I would try my hardest to be there completely and wholly, trying not to let my mind wander. I would be aware of everything, including my breath.

Now what if we treated breath itself as a ritual? What if we made every moment sacred by blessing it with ritual awareness of our breath? And if every thought was a ceremony performed in obeisance to the moment? What if each meal was as holy as the sacrament or communion? What if EVERYTHING was a reason to shout praises? Think of how filled with awe and meaning your living would be if you stopped discriminating against moments and accepted each and every one as something divine.

Many people find this form of spiritual practice to be a type of quietism--if there is nothing wrong in the world, why work to change it? Ram Dass responds most perfectly to this question:

"The world is perfect as it is. Including my desire to change it."

Awe and wonder provoke feelings of compassion and loving kindess--and these feelings are themselves a mandate for change. And they are holy. But they cannot be evoked completely by judging moments and holding one as more sacred than the other. Perhaps the sacredness of a difficult moment lies precisely in its ability to evoke new forms of goodness within ourselves. Our desire to change the world and the way the world is cannot be disconnected. They are unified and whole: One and Holy.

And so maybe the difference between building a system that distinguishes one sacred thing from another and the system that treats everything as sacred is that the first advocates change. The second is the change.

As I've made clear from the beginning, none of this is necessarily true in the objective sense. Perhaps sacredness does not exist exterior to the human mind. But what I focus on is not the exterior of the human mind, but rather my ability to change its interior by thought experimentation.

To those who see truth as exterior to themselves and think that these thoughts are not in line with the nature of reality, I would say experiment. If you are a theist who believes that God is real and your feelings of holiness exist because of his presence, see if mindfulness and treating every moment as sacred don't bring him closer to you than you ever have been before!

In the Sermon on the Mount Christ proclaimed "blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Perhaps Christ's meaning was not that if you strive your hardest to make your heart pure God will appear to you, but rather that a clear, pure mind will see God everywhere. 

Perhaps a mind cleared through mindfulness practice sees the divine in even the mundane. 

Perhaps God is with is us in his Completeness and we are missing out because we ourselves are not present, but lost in a world of judgments, wishes, and dreams.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Loneliness, Inner Healing, and "the Careful Donkey-tending Work"

Thoughts after writing this post: I don't know that the path to inner healing is universal. It's probably different for everyone. These are the thoughts that came to me after reading a poem by Rumi. I wrote it in the second person, but the "you" I'm referring to is myself. That probably sounds weird...and it kind of is. But this is me talking to myself and giving myself advice for the future based on my experiences in the past. These thoughts have brought me a lot of healing and peace, so I thought I'd share them.

Rumi tells the story of a wise man who was travelling in Turkey on the back of an old, weak donkey. When he arrived at the inn, he gave the inn keeper specific instructions on how to care for his beloved donkey. The next morning he awoke to find it neglected and hungry; the inn keeper had failed in his duties. Rumi concludes his story:

There are such vicious empty flatterers 
in your life. Do the careful,
Donkey-tending work.

Don't trust that to anyone else.
There are hypocrites who will praise you, 
but who do not care about the health
of your heart-donkey

Be concentrated and leonine
in the hunt for what is your nourishment.

My heart-donkey gets hungry so often. Instead of feeding it, I often wish that there were someone lying next to me who could do the difficult work of loving me so that I could just collapse in their passion. Morning after morning, I look in the mirror to find only my own two eyes staring back at me. I feel weary of the lonesome journey through the desert and eager to find an innkeeper to care for my heart-donkey.

At moments, the mirage of an inn on the horizon arises. I hope with all my heart that I've arrived, and sometimes there are people there who promise to feed my heart-donkey and to keep it safe and warm.

But the difficulty is not so much that others aren't willing as that they aren't able.

And this is my message: only you can feed your heart-donkey.

Being in a relationship won't fix the loneliness for good. Having people accept you the way you are won't fix the emptiness. Having your dream job won't fix the emptiness.

Think back to how many times people have given you a listening ear or showed you great compassion. None of it finally healed the wounds at your core.

You have to begin by being willing to care for yourself and to do the dirty work, the "careful donkey-tending work." You have to hunt for what is your nourishment.

Selfhood was the gift the universe gave to you. And what a strange thing it is--you are a miracle. A self that can transcend itself. You are both a subject and and an object. The feeler and the felt. The face and the mirror. The traveler and the donkey. Your being is utterly unique in creation.

You are unprecedented.

Within the duality of self is the capacity to be your own caretaker and to look after your own needs. It begins with compassion.

When someone you care for comes to you with a problem, the appropriate response is not to turn them away and tell them it's stupid. You listen, you accept their pain into your heart, and you give them what you can. Instead of rejecting your own weaknesses, flaws, and loneliness, accept them. Feel them. Acknowledge them. Be with them. And then give yourself what you can.

Joseph Campbell says that "the principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship."

I've found that my feelings most often transform themselves when I greet them with "participatory companionship." If I don't shout at my heart "I don't want to feel this way!" or at life "give me something different!" and instead bow to my pain, sorrow, loneliness, fear, and the situations life deems fit to grant me, greet them with a smile, treat them as dear friends, and say "darling, you are welcome here," the feelings are no longer frustrating. They become kind teachers and mentors.

In another poem, Rumi says "these pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them." The reason no one but yourself can do the donkey-tending is that no one can or ever will be able to understand completely how you feel. Only you can delve into the depths of self and emerge triumphant with the light of being. Follow your personal trail of tears until it leads you to the fountain of living water within. Tend to your emotions; trace them back to their source.

Inner wounds are born from untended thoughts and feelings. Inner healing begins in an embrace.

This reminds me of a poem a friend and I wrote together:

It’s better to cry than to be angry;
Let the heart experience sorrow fully and heal fully.
Bitterness taints sweet wine,
And it is better to lie down.
For armor is heavy,
And rust riddled.

Sorrow is a kind mentor.
Like a mother duck gently leading her ducklings to water,
If embraced,
Leads to the inner fountain that quenches
All thirst.

Thirst quenched,
Float in the still waters of the fountain.
At least we can be at peace with the sorrow
And greet it as a friend.

And so to the self-critical, lonely, and afraid person that we all are from time to time, I say this: stop looking outside yourself for peace. The only cure for your heart-wounds is already inside of you. Tend to your own heart-donkey instead of searching frantically for someone to do the work for you. Follow your feelings to their source, and bask there in the arms of peace.

"The way is not east or west. It's in."

“Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
― Kahlil Gibran

"If [a teacher] is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” 
― Kahlil Gibran

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Living the Questions: a letter to my fellow gay Mormon lovelies (and everyone else, too)

Dearest lovelies:

I frequently read blogs and follow what is being said in various social media forums in the LGBT Mormon community, and I decided I wanted to write a Christmas-time letter of gratitude for everything you are, as well as catalog a few the most important things I've learned this year, for my benefit as much as anyone else's. 

Each week attending church in my rural Utah ward as a teenager I never considered the thought that there were other people like me out there somewhere in the church--minds and hearts that experienced the same feelings and fears I fought with daily. In fact, I never thought much about it. Even if there were, I wouldn't know how to go about finding them and I definitely wasn't open enough to reach out to them.

In August of last year I watched the BYU "It Gets Better" video for the first time; it was incredibly powerful for me. It was my first realization that there weren't just a few others out there going through the same thing as me, but many others. They mentioned on the video that there was a very active LGBT Mormon blogging community; I immediately set out googling. I found the moho directory and began my endless blogging binge. There were so many eloquent portrayals of the same pains I was living and so many stories told that resonated with me deeply.

Eventually, I started an anonymous blog of my own, which led to me connecting to other blog authors. I soon discovered that the authors of two of my favorite blogs lived near me. We set up a time to meet, and it was my first time actually talking to people who were themselves going through the same thoughts and feelings as me.

Slowly as they met people and I met people, a small local community began to take shape. With many new gay Mormons and broader online connections, I've developed deep friendships with so many incredible people. This, probably more than anything else, has made this last year one of the best of my life despite the manifold difficulties. I just want to say thank you to the each of you.

The questions that we face as LGBT people in the world of Mormonism are life-defining. Our choices can utterly change the course of our living and impact our closest relationships, often in difficult ways. When we first begin to meet these questions, they often feel like arrows piercing an already wounded heart. We're often tasked with reconciling seemingly contradictory experiences and beliefs. The impacts are visible so often in the words published in blogs and Facebook groups. Sorrow, depression, and even despair seem to be constant companions of this community in one form or another. 

In "Letters to a Young Poet," Rainer Rilke wrote,

"I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language... The answers... [can]not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." (emphasis added)

That thought has brought me great peace: that the point is to patiently live everything. My mind is so often filled with wishes. I get so caught up with them that I forget to be present for the Everything that is unfolding itself to me moment by moment. Trying to live more fully here and now, no matter the grief, doubts, or sorrows that accompany the present, has deeply enriched my life. 

Questions are vehicles. You have to jump into them fully to find out where they'll bring you. And the hardest part of jumping in is leaving behind where you were, a place that, even if dreary, has been your home for so long--and you're not sure where the questionings will lead you. In fact, living the questions requires faith. Not faith in the answers you may have once held on to for dear life, but faith that no matter where the question-journeying takes you, as Julian of Norwich proclaimed, "all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."




I've been sitting here staring at my computer screen for nearly an hour trying to come up with what to say next. I have so many emotions and so many thoughts and so many gratitudes that want to pour out faster than my mind can translate them into words. I keep going back to my favorite poems by Hafiz and Rumi, and they say everything I want to so perfectly! And here they are, everything I want to say to every LGBT Mormon (and all people, really) who finds themselves in a place of difficulty (emphasis added):

First, from Hafiz: 

Come in, my dear
From that harsh world
That has rained elements of stone
Upon your tender face.
Every soul
Should receive a toast from us
For bravery!

All your worry
Has proved such an
Find a better

Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God...

My dear, please tell me,
Why do you still
Throw sticks at your heart
And God?...

This is the time 
For you to deeply compute the impossibility
That there is anything but Grace.

Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
And giving
Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day. 

All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.

All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of

My eyes sing with excitement-- they see your Divine Worth!

Happen if God leaned down
And gave you a full wet



Doesn't mind answering astronomical questions
Like that:
You would surely start

Reciting all day, inebriated,


There is a Beautiful Creature
Living in a hole you have dug.

So at night

I set fruit and grains

And little pots of wine and milk

Beside your soft earthen mounds,

And I often sing.

But still, my dear,

You do not come out.

I have fallen in love with Someone

Who hides inside you.

We should talk about this problem--


I will never leave you alone.

Now retire, my dear,
From all that hard work you do

Of bringing pain to your sweet eyes and heart.

And now a few from Rumi:

Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. 

Unfold your own myth.

These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.

What matters is how quickly you do what your soul directs.

Soul, if you want to learn secrets,

your heart must forget about 

 and dignity. 

You are God's lover,

yet you worry 

what people 

are saying.

Be empty of worrying.

Think of who created thought!

Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?

Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.

Flow down and down in always 
widening rings of being.

Each of us comes to different conclusions. For some the path is in the church, and for some the path is out of it. For some it's in AND out! No matter where your questions take you, I toast the bravery of each of your souls! I'm so happy for everyone in this community who has found joy. For those who feel they have yet to find it, I wish I could be there to see the look on your faces when someday it leaps out at you with an enormous "peek-a-boo!" And in the mean time, I hope we can live the questions until they take us to that place where joy is hiding. Every moment is valuable: moments of profound happiness along with those of piercing pain.

If I had to sum up everything I've learned this year, it would be in this one last poem:

----Your search for happiness is like a
Rainbow grasping at clouds.
Unbeknownst to you,
Your simple being is a symbol of hope for many!
Let go of cloud-grabbing and learn to
Bask in the folds of your own light----

God declared that he is the great "I AM." My hope is that I, and you, and each of us can join him and rejoice in being, no matter the state we find ourselves. It's wonderful how accepting life precisely the way it is changes things.

Thank you to each of you for every forward step you take. 


Josh DeFriez

“Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. It is a daily practice... No one can prevent you from being aware of each step you take or each breath in and breath out.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

“Life is a garden,
not a road.
we enter and exit
Through the same gate
Where we go matters less
than what we notice”