Never Compare

I tell worried students to never compare themselves to others. Our starting lines are different in the race to improve work and hone talent. It does no good to either feel superior (you’re not that near the finish line, so keep running) or inferior (you’re no worse than 90% of beginners). What helps most is to steal. If Sarah turns a line in an attractive way around a shape, rip it off as best you can. If Tom develops exquisite transitions in his tonal changes, take a close look and figure out how he did it. We all have innate abilities, but those who make the most progress remain humble enough to pick-pocket their betters…

I recently heard a passage from a book on Christianity that admonished seekers to jump all in. The writer declared that faithful Christians must trust God completely. Anxiety and fear are signs of weakness, a failure to acknowledge that God walks beside us as we make our journey from this life to the next. True Christians avoid doubts.

Perhaps the writer intended to motivate and inspire readers like a cheerleader demanding loud support from a crowd. But I found the strident words annoying. Some of us struggle for our faith. Who was he to judge?

I sometimes envy folks who have a steady belief in the promises of their faiths. They look forward with greater sureness and joy. My steady companions, however, are doubt and dread. They dog my steps like familiar, persistent enemies.

Perhaps there’s still room for hope. I’ve met people at church who are kind, steady and full of hope. They pray for each other and try to lighten the loads of those in need. Instead of just wishing that my spiritual light would shine as brightly as theirs, I could study them carefully like a robber scanning the floor plans of a bank.

Pastor Bob knows that life is tough and full of suffering, but focuses on the goodness he finds in others. I could try that. Irene feels the supporting influence of prayer carrying her through uncertain times. I could pray for guidance and send hope and assurance to others. Ruth is driven to step in and provide help where needed. I could turn away from my troubles and look for ways to be useful. Arthur focuses on finding God’s presence in the Living Moment. Sounds good to me.

In the end, leading a vibrant spiritual life might be a matter of ripping off the right people.

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Is the Past Ever Past?

Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Kazuo Ishigura’s latest novel, “The Buried Giant”, develops the idea that the past may temporarily be forgotten, but consequences still play out. And memories of the past, once regained, lead to vengeance, destruction, regret, loss and sorrow. No one can escape the past’s role as karmic hunter drawing ever closer to its prey. No one can truly make amends and move on with clean hands and a clear conscience.

This sort of thinking dooms us. Imperfect creatures in an imperfect world make mistakes. The repercussions of past choices and actions pummel us as we try to make our next moves. How can we move forward if the past keeps pulling us back?

Christianity offers an out. If we admit our faults and seek forgiveness (usually after pledging fealty to The One who voluntarily sacrificed himself to sponge away our sins), we can walk again on a clean, well-lit path. The past hasn’t disappeared, but we are no longer bound to it.

Buddhism offers a second remedy. By focusing our attention on the ever present, ever changing Now, we open ourselves to infinity. The past is discarded like as snake shedding its skin. Every second is boundless, and so is the next. We die to the past moment by moment as we focus our awareness on the emerging Newness. The only problem, of course, comes when we run out of time. We can’t focus on Now when dead.

Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest and psychologist, offers a third path. He states that to be a Christian, one does not have to follow Christ’s example. By living in awareness we enter into Christ Consciousness. Christ’s example of sacrifice, of showing love and mercy to those in need, flowed from an intense awareness of the living presence of God within each moment. We may have sinned. We may have made mistakes. But we can still enter heaven if we learn to walk in Christ’s state of consciousness. In that state of being, a new and perfect Creation continually flows forth from God like water from a spring.

De Mello’s way seems the most attractive, but leaves open an obvious question: who among us can hope to achieve Christ Consciousness?

The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

The Instructor

Once upon a time there was a drawing student named Henry.  He worked at Disney and believed in Jesus.  He drew Bibles, crosses and mouse ears when given the chance, and he hated the instructor.  He knew, just knew that the man had no faith in Christ or Walt Disney.  And the instructor frowned every time Henry brought out his pictures of his lovely wife and two darling children.  Didn’t he like children?  Or didn’t he believe that Henry was their father?  Why couldn’t he be the father?  He had the right equipment and knew how to use it.  The instructor didn’t care that Henry did his absolute best, had put his past permanently behind him.  Jesus saved him, and then he found Lisa, and now he was happy.  Really, really happy…What did the instructor know about anything but drawing bottles and boxes?  He could talk all day about perspective, but did he have any?  Did he understand true suffering, the suffering of Jesus for mankind, the suffering of mankind trying to be like Jesus no matter how much it hurt?  That smug bastard was the king of his classroom, but not King of the Universe.  Henry wanted to be there when God gave the instructor his Final Grade.

Helen sat next to Henry.  She hated the instructor too, but wasn’t sure why until Henry told her that the instructor was arrogant.  Helen hated arrogant men, and this teacher (He wasn’t a real professor, was he?) was dirty minded too.  The instructor had asked her if Robert bothered her and didn’t believe it when she told him that she liked Robert.  Robert was funny.  The instructor said, “I saw you bend over to pick up your back pack off the floor, and Robert bent over your back, hugged you from behind, and whispered in your ear, ‘See you next Tuesday.’  You’re okay with that?”  Helen was fine with that.  Robert just kidded around, and she hadn’t felt anything sexual.  The hug had been funny and nice, and she didn’t care whether Robert had pressed up against her butt and his hands accidentally grazed her…The instructor was the real pervert imagining filth when grown people were just having a bit of fun, horsing around.  She wasn’t a weak woman like her mother who let men do what they wanted and pretended to like it.  Helen could take care of herself better than some fake professor who saw harassment in one harmless little hug.  Arrogant bastard.

Robert sat two easels away from Helen, but he’d already decided that she wasn’t the one for him.  Too old and lean.  Stringy blond hair.  There were several girls in the class, younger, juicier, who deserved his attention.    But one stood out:  Charlotte.  She was a tough chick who wore work boots, skinny jeans, tank tops, and pink lipstick.  She smoked cigarettes with him during break.  She liked his jokes, dirty girl, and paid close attention when he got close to her and touched her shoulder and told her about his mother, the artist.  Most girls thought that he was weird when he went on and on about Mom, but Charlotte listened…Mom knew that he was a special and had lots and lots of talent.  Robert didn’t care that the instructor gave him Cs.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he drew abstract textures while everyone else drew still lives.  Real artists didn’t bother with anything but abstraction and the human form.  He loved the human form.  And it didn’t matter that Charlotte asked him to stop touching her arm, her shoulder, to stop bumping his hip against hers (“Oops again, hah-hah!”) when he passed by her easel.  She pretended to be pure but acted like she had plenty of experience.  He could tell.  Girls liked to put up some resistance at first, but gave in eventually.  Most did.

Joseph knew that the instructor didn’t respect him.  The instructor was annoyingly tall and walked around like the giant god of the world.  But Joseph had talent, more talent than the instructor, and he would show the man how good he was once the instructor brought in models.  Joseph had signed up to draw nudes, but that man made him draw bottles and boxes, toys, a doll and a beach ball.  Junk didn’t inspire him, and an artist needs inspiration to do his best work.  At midterm that prick had given him a D and told him to do some homework in the second half.  He might get a B if he applied himself.  Joseph did not do B work, but he did choose what kind of work he did. And he didn’t do homework.   Homework was boring.  Homework was useless practice when he, Joseph, already knew how to draw his hand, a still life, the interior of a room.  Couldn’t the man see that?   Maybe he was too tall to look down and see Joseph.

Mary was tired, really tired of being told what to do.  She worked as an airline stewardess and took the class for fun, as an escape.  She spent the week slaving for people who acted as if she were a servant, and now she wanted things to follow her terms.  She’d paid good money for this class, and technically, though he’d never admit it, the instructor was her employee.  And he was so rude to her, never saying anything nice about her work when it was obvious that she was the best drawer in the class.  Oh, he gave her As on nearly every assignment, but he always slipped in some nitpicking criticism about any little mistake he could find.  He must spend hours finding a line that wobbled a sixteenth of an inch, a tone that smudged slightly.  Why couldn’t he tell her just once how good she was, and then shut up and go away?

The instructor could tell that half the class hated him.  Henry was meticulously polite but sneered at him when he thought that the instructor wasn’t looking.  He whispered like a conspirator with Helen during breaks.  Helen glared at him as if his very existence offended her.  Joseph stared stone faced whenever the instructor looked at his drawings.  Nothing he said made an impression on Joseph.  Mary thought that she was running the show.  She lectured him on his duties as an instructor.  She told him one day, “First you have to greet me, say ‘Good morning, Mary.’  Then you have to praise me.  Then you can tell me all the things you think I’ve done wrong!” Robert oddly enough, thought they were buddies.  But Robert was a loon and a lecher who had taken the class to harass women.  And Robert’s sketchbook had odd little poems about suicide, about using a piece of glass to slash his wrists.  The instructor had reported him to the dean’s office, but they were worried about legalities and seemed to think that the instructor showed a negative bias toward Robert.  Thank God there were a few students who took him seriously, who worked hard and tried to improve.

The instructor’s wife pretended to listen when he complained about the class.  He joked, but wasn’t really joking, when he said, “My quest to be loved by everyone at all times has failed once again!”  She sighed and said what she always said at times like these: “There’s always another class.  There’s always another semester.” Continue reading

We Are Immortal (whether we want to be or not)

My basic and surely flawed understanding of Buddhism is the following:  all of existence has its source in emptiness.  Emptiness is a field of potential energy and form, and the universe and everything in it (throughout time) is an interaction between being and nonbeing.  Things show up out of nothingness and then they disappear into nothingness as other things show up.

We humans are an energy signal that takes on the form of a body on this earthly plane from time to time.  Coming here involves suffering because of ego attachment to our bodies, our possessions, to our desires.  Once we truly see that we are just a flux in a field of energy and that there is no “Me” in any special sense, we are freed.  Our energy signal changes, or ceases to exist, and we are no longer required to return to this planet in the form of men and women.  Our individual pulse of being is subsumed into the great field of emptiness.

I have never found this comforting.  I am still attached to Me.  I’m not sure I’m ready to let my identity go, erase my existence, and return to nothingness.  I can’t get to the point where I tell the kids as we sit before a cozy fire on a wintry evening with cups of hot chocolate in hand that my sincere desire is to find a way to permanently annihilate Me, and that I fondly wish that my wife, son and daughter, their future spouses and my grandchildren will escape the wheel of karma once and for all and just let bygones be good and gone.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and have trouble accepting Christianity’s story of faith, that if I believe in the right things and follow the right rules my eternal life has already been set up for me.  The priests sometimes seemed like insurance agents advising that I had nothing to worry about as long as I stuck closely to the terms of my heaven sent policy…So where do I go if I’ve evolved into a reluctant agnostic who finds Buddhism a little too chilly?

I just came across a few thoughts from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor (161-180 AD), that I  found helpful:

Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them.  For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.  —The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The first part reminds me of Buddhism, but the last line gives me a different perspective.  In a sense we are nothing but the extensions of everything that has come before, and our presence, influence and actions will collectively lead to everything that will be in the future.  I, as an individual, am the product of an act of procreation that occurred in May,  1958.  I’m also the result of tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, the evolutionary whims of primates, and the specific teaching of the Catholic Church that prevented my father from using a condom on a romantic evening in spring.  I’m not a special case, obviously, but I wouldn’t exist in my current form if the Big Bang hadn’t banged, the stars hadn’t formed when and where they formed, and if the gravitational constant of the universe was another number.

Our influence on the future, on the other hand, while not immediately significant in any measurable way, will still continue after our deaths.  We will collectively make the years that follow us better or worse whether we like it or not.  We are immortal in that whatever comes next will spring forth from the spent husks of our lives.

My kindness will lead to other kindnesses, and my short temper will lead to new offenses and hurt feelings.  My faults, virtues, weaknesses and strengths will continue to echo forward after I cease to exist whether I like it or not.  We are all connected in a web of influence and consequence that extends in all directions for all time.

This immortality business can seem like a burden, a huge responsibility.  I’m human and highly fallible.  I’m not always going to play nice.  My best hope for a decent legacy, for the future of my immortality in this realm, is to bat for a fairly high average.  The goal is to be decent, helpful and loving more often than I am selfish, vindictive and cold-hearted.

And the stakes are high even if there isn’t a Big Man In The Sky hiding behind the Crab Nebulae (or the outer rim of the multi-universe) busy keeping track of my sins and thinking up punishments with which to torture me for eternity. Even if there is no God out there to look after me and to care about my existence, I will still matter.  I, you and we will all matter now and forever in that we are the source “of that which will be.”

I have no idea what will happen to me after I die.  My sister and grandfather appeared to me in dreams shortly after their deaths and gave me messages of reassurance.  They told me that they are all right, much better than all right.  But they didn’t order me to follow one creed or explain what it’s like on the other side. (I doubt if that’s communicable.)  So I’m left to stumble along as best I can without really knowing if there is a point to being an honorable human being.  Kindness and decency may have nothing to do with my eventual destination, if there is one.  But I do hope that my legacy in this world is mostly positive as it’s going to last for a long, long time.