Monday, December 24, 2012


The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  -- Isaiah 11:3-6

This is a wonderful vision.  A wonderful dream.  But how will it ever come true?

How will the wolf live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion with the calf, without devouring it?  How will predatory animals live with prey animals in gentleness and peace?

Only when predators change who they are in their very core.

The wolf, leopard, and lion would have to completely change the way it perceives a lamb, kid, and calf.   No longer would it see an easy target.  No longer would it see something to overpower.  No longer would it even see something that it needs to kill and eat for its own survival.   It would have to depend on something else for its survival. 

This passage is, of course, an allegory for peaceful co-existence among humans.  What is true of the wolf, the leopard, and the lion, is true for us humans -- the greatest predators on earth -- who have turned violence towards others, even our own species, into a science, a technology, a vocation, and a form of entertainment.

So, in order for us to live peacefully with other people, we have to lose all desire to overpower other people.

All other people.  Those we know and those we do not know.  Even those who transgress against us.  Even those who try to overpower us.

How does this happen?   How do we humans change who we are in our very core?

How do we make the above dream a reality?

Well, as Mahatma Gandhi put it... We must be the change we want to see in the world.  It starts with me.  And you.

In the last few weeks, I have been learning how to be more compassionate -- specifically how to be as compassionate towards other people as I am towards my own children.  There is a difference.  When it comes to my own children, I am quite willing to sacrifice my own needs and desires for their sakes, but when it comes to other people, I become more insular.

In my last posting, I wrote that it is my ego that so often gets in the way of my ability to be compassionate towards other people.  I described the ego as that which is within us that rises to our defense, that justifies our thinking and our actions.  Our ego serves to foster our own security and to protect us from all harm.  This is not necessarily a bad thing:  it keeps us alive.   But, if left unchecked, our ego makes us more and more self-centered, more insular.  Someone with an overblown ego looks at other people as beneath him or her, looks at other people as unworthy of consideration unless they can provide some service, and even looks at other people as expendable. 

I wrote that in order to change this self-centeredness, we need to let go of our egos.   We need to release the tight hold we have on ourselves, and on our lives.  We have to be willing to lose our lives in order to find the kind of life God envisions for our future.

But, what does this mean in practice? 

The first step for me, as I learned last week, is recognizing when my ego begins to rise to my defense.

It unfortunately does not take much for this to happen.  Someone could be rude or say something hurtful, or say something that is not true about me.  And I will be off to the races, saying something rude or hurtful right back -- or at least thinking it.  When I think about how much unhappiness my ego creates in my life, and in the lives of those around me, I wonder if our overblown egos in general are not the cause of most of the suffering in the world.  

And it all starts at this very basic level:  the way we communicate with other people.

So, what if I start at this very basic level and learn to change the way I react to the words of other people?  What if I ignored my reaction?  What if I kept the words of other people with the people who made them?  What if I saw their words as revelations of their core -- not mine -- and therefore not needing my ego's self-defense.  Would that make a difference in how I communicate with them?

I think so.  I have seen this a few times already.  Already I am learning to catch my ego rising to my defense at the critical words other people direct at me.   And I have been deliberately choosing to ignore my reaction to them.  Just doing this, just ignoring my reaction, allows me to hear the other person better. 

Words are not isolated entities.  The words of one person are always in response to a perception of something else.  The perception may be accurate or not, but it creates thoughts and more words, which are in turn perceived accurately or not.  Effective communications requires that we accurately hear the other person:  that is, that we hear what they perceive and not necessarily the words they use to communicate their perception.  However, when we allow our ego to quickly respond to words, and how they affect us, we do not even have a chance of understanding what that person perceives.

Accurate perception takes time.  And a silenced ego.

A silenced ego requires complete trust in a benevolent God.

The quotation above, from Isaiah Ch. 11, begins and end with the following words...

The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, ...  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear .. and they will not hurt or destroy on all my mountain.

The more I learn about Jesus, the more I learn just how radically different was his wisdom and understanding from that of the world.

Dear God, thank you for your continued guidance.  Please teach me to communicate with more and more wisdom and understanding in all areas of my life.  Love always, Pam

Friday, December 14, 2012

To Have Compassion

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  -- Matt. 14:13-14

I love this description of Christ:  he had compassion for them.  This phrase is repeated throughout the gospels whenever Jesus sees someone in need.  He has compassion for them, and he helps them.

Somewhere (can't remember where), a long time ago, I read or heard that the word "compassion" shares roots with the word "womb."  Essentially, compassion is visceral.  When we are moved with compassion, something physical within the deepest part of us literally shifts.  You may have experienced for yourself that very uncomfortable sensation in your stomach when you see your children in danger, seriously ill, or hurt.  That is our womb lurching to protect our children.  I wonder if this is what Jesus felt when faced with the plight of so many people.  He felt compassion for them.  

This last Sunday, my pastor, Gayle Bintliff, preached a wonderful Advent sermon about being open to change, to being open to looking at life and our lives in a new way.  She asked, "What are we willing to change or let go of so that we can receive him?  What are we willing to give up so we can truly turn in a new direction?  A life-giving direction? ... Are you carrying an attachment to the way its always been?  Could you let that go so that you could receive all that God is longing to give you?  ... One author...goes on to say -- what God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment and love.  ... Maybe sometimes we just need to STOP, to BE, to LISTEN, TO WAIT... actually make space in our hearts, our lives for the ONE who comes to bring salvation, the healing of the world."  I was struck by how well these words mirrored my thoughts over the last couple of weeks.

For I have been discovering just how strongly my ego dictates my life.  When my sense of who I am, or my desires, or perceived needs, are threatened, I respond by blindly rising to my defense -- whether this is ultimately good for me or not.  If I am being told I am wrong, or that I should do things differently, my first response is usually to deny, or dismiss, this person, without really considering if they are right or not.  Even if this person is a friend or family member.  I am beginning to realize just how much my ego gets in the way of my ability to listen to other people, gets in the way of understanding them.  It even gets in the way of my ability to understand myself.

For example, my husband and I often go round and round, arguing about the same things, mostly because I refuse to change the way I do things that bother him.  His requests are not unreasonable.  Some are actually to my benefit, like eating more healthily.   I just don't like being told to do things differently than I want to do them.  But, the last time he expressed his same-old grievances, something else happened.  I gave up the fight.  Why?  What finally caused me to change?  Well, I wrote about his grievances in my journal, and I wrote down my defenses and self-justifications:  they were, basically, cries of "What about me???  What about what I want???"  And I heard this when I read what I had written.  "Am I really that ego-centric?  That self-centered?" I wondered.  It was an awakening.  And just like that, the way I thought about those things my husband was asking me to do changed.  The tight hold I had on "little old me" was gone.

The same thing happened when I wanted to learn how to help people who are dying, or whose loved ones are dying (see the last posting, "A Wise Heart").  I saw that it was my fear of getting lost in my own emotions that was keeping me from really being open to the intense emotions of other people.   And then again, I felt God telling me to release the tight hold I had on myself, that he would be with me, even in the depths of despair.

Then, last week, as I started reading about Christian meditation in order to prepare for a class I will be facilitating next year, I heard again this same message.  John Main, the great Catholic priest and proponent of Christian meditation, explained it this way:  Meditation "is learning to stand back and to allow God to come into the forefront of your life.  So often in our experience, we find that we are the centre of our world.  So many of us see reality revolving around us.  We think quite naturally of situations and of people primarily in terms of "how is this going to affect me?"  Now that's all right as far as it goes.  But if we really imagine that we are at the centre of the world, then we are never going to see any situation, or any person, or ourselves, as we really are.  Because of course, we are not at the centre of the world.  God is at the centre.  Now meditation is trying to take that step away from self-centredness to God-centredness."  ("the hunger for depth and meaning: Learning to Meditate with John Main," pg. 29)  John Main suggested using the mantra, "maranatha," when we meditate.  It is an Aramaic word meaning "Come, Lord."  It is an invitation for Jesus, and through Jesus, God, to come into our heart, our center, our womb, and move us according to his will.

How important this message must be!  Wherever I turn, I am hearing it again and again.

Yesterday, I asked my pastor for a book about listening, and she lent me Paul Tournier's book, "A Listening Ear:  Reflections on Christian Caring."  I was amazed to read again about meditation, only Tournier meditated through journaling.  I had never before thought of jounaling as a form of meditation.  But Tournier describes our need to "bring our human relationships before God in order to smooth the way.  ...It is only insofar as I can overcome my own reluctance to recognize the truth about myself, that I can help others to overcome their own resistance." (pg. 15)  I must see myself as I am, flaws and all, before I can truly have compassion for someone else.  I can do this through meditation, through deep prayer, through journaling.

All these pieces fit together so tightly.  If I truly want to have compassion  for other people, then I must let go of my ego, that false sense of who I am that protects, defends, and pushes out other people, which I cling to so tightly.  In order to release my ego, I must first see it.   It's as if our ego is a secretive, mischievous, ghost that disappears with a great "poof" if it is ever seen.   The only way to see it is to be quiet for a moment, and truly be open to what our spirit has to tell us.  When all that which is not godly within us is released, then God will have room to fill us and guide us in the way he wants us to go.

Dear God, help me to clear myself out of my center.  Help me to always be open to your word.  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Wise Heart

Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.  --  Psalm 90:12

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I started reading "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," by Sogyal Rinpoche, again.  I know it was, on the surface, a strange choice to take with me on our annual, extended-family-and-friends, get-together at Sahuaro Lake Ranch. And I did feel a little odd reading about death and dying during a time of fellowship and thanksgiving, eventhough these ideas are not completely unconnected.

After all, we have all heard how facing our own death can make us appreciate life so much more.  We are often advised to "live like we are dying" by people who have been there, because when we do so, we tune into all that is most important and precious in our lives.  Keeping our death in mind teaches us to live more deeply and gratefully the life we have been given.  I understand the inherent truth in this advice.  Unfortunately, I just can't seem to live this way for long. 

However, I didn't seek out this book for that reason.  I wanted to get back into reading it because I was looking for a more specific understanding about death.  You see, a beloved uncle has an inoperable brain tumor.  And a friend's beloved aunt had just had a heart-attack and was dying.  My friend said to me, in the midst of her heartache, that, "It's a fact of life."  Well, yes, I thought, death is a fact of life.  But it's a fact of life that makes me uncomfortable, unsure of myself, and really, really out of my depth.  I recognize this about myself, and I don't particularly like it.

I should be better at this than I am.  Many of my closest family members have died.  I was with my mother during her last days of life.  Yet, I still don't know what to do for people who are dying, or for people who are grieving the death of a loved one.  My usual response is to ignore the obvious, to change the subject, or if it must be spoken about, assure the person that, "All will be well."  However, I know that while this attitude helps me cope, it doesn't help the other person very much.  I know deep down that it would be better if I could get more in touch with the fears and sadness and pain of the dying person, or the ones who love them.  That, however, scares the heck out of me.

Why is that?  I wonder what I am afraid of.  Do I fear that their sadness or fear or anger will transfer over to me, and I will become overwhelmed with emotion?   That, unfortunately, rings true.  I'd like to be able to help someone who is dying.  Or help a friend whose loved one is dying.  But how do I do this without feeling like I am dying?   

Well, it turns out, I can't.  It is that very part of me the clings to self-protection, to my own well-being, security, and happiness that is the problem.  I have to be willing to let all of that go, to let it die, essentially, if I am going to be able to truly help someone who is in pain, angry, afraid, depressed or grieving.  I cannot keep a protective wall around my heart and at the same time open my heart to the emotions of the other person.  In fact, the more I cling to my self, the less I will be able to help someone else. 

Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  And "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Sogyal Rinpoche writes, "Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing, life itself reveals again and again the opposite:  that letting go is the path to real freedom." (pg 35-36)

In order to really help someone who is dying, Rinpoche advises us to first think of the person as no different from you, with the same desires, needs, and fears, as you.  Second, imagine that you are the dying person, facing your death, in pain, alone.  He writes, "Then really ask yourself:  What would you most need?  What would you most like?  What would you really wish from the friend in front of you?... what the dying person most wants is what you would most want:  to be really loved and accepted."  (pg. 179)  Unconditional love is what a dying person wants.

Isn't that what everyone wants?  It dawned on me that every person who is suffering, angry, fearful, depressed, etc., could be helped, if we have the courage to put ourselves in the place of that person, to face all the fear, pain, anger, and sadness that that entails, and really try to understand them. 

Rinpoche writes.  "As you grow to confront and accept your own fears, you will become increasingly sensitive to those of the person before you, and you will find you develop the intelligence and insight to help that person to bring his or her fears out into the open, deal with them, and begin skillfully to dispel them. ...To learn really to help those who are dying is to begin to become fearless and responsible about our own dying, and to find in ourselves the beginnings of an unbounded compassion that we may never have suspected....and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings."  (pgs. 184, 191)

That is what I would like to have: a limitless compassion for all beings.  And so, I must learn to release my walls of self-protection, and let go of my heart.

Dear God, thank you for these teachings about the heart of things.  Help me to learn to grow in compassion, as I learn to grow in your love.  Love always, Pam