Category Archives: Self Improvement

Christianity and Hypocrisy

You might think that I am going to write about the political situation here in Wisconsin where (presumably) the “pro-life” Christians voted that we should reinstate the death penalty, while also “preserving” marriage by making sure that gay people cannot have the same legal rights as straight folks in regards to their partner. If you wanted to read something like that, I am sorry to disappoint you.

In my own life, I have been quick to throw around the “H-word” and I have more than once in the run up to this election. Even though I might live in a glass house, I was somewhat secure in using that word, because we in the West have a role model for this.

Now it is true that when Jesus referred to people as hypocrites, he was calling us each to examine ourselves, to remove the log from our own eye, as it were. But it is inescapable that a running theme of the Gospels is “Jesus vs. the Pharisees.” The Pharisees were, of course, a real group within Judiasm of the time, but as with any group not all of them would show the charicature of behavoir that the Gospel writers ascribe to them. But the “Pharisees” that Jesus has a problem with are a part of all of us. Those “Pharisees” go through the motions of religious observance, but their heart does not match those motions. They are “hypocrites” because their insides and outsides do not match, or even worse maybe polar opposites. In many ways, this is simply calling a spade a spade, or at least this is the way I have seen it throughout my life.

Then I heard Pema Chodron give a Buddhist perspective on this. And frankly, I was quite moved.

She was talking about a situation where some habit was getting in the way of your spiritual growth. In Buddhism, any habit (unthinking repetition of a behavior pattern, that is) keeps you from being fully awakened. So let us just say the habit is an addiction to chocolate, just to keep things simple. She pointed out that there are basically three positions you could take in regard to your chocolate habit once you decide that it is a hinderance to you and you need to stop.

The first might be called complete faith or even enlightenment. You stop. For whatever reason, you just know what to do and you do it. Your inside and outside match perfectly and at least in this small area, you have awakened. But not many of us fall into that category.

The next position she calls “half faith.” You know you should avoid chocolate, you know it is bad for you — but that smell. The anticipation of the sweet taste! Temptation! This, says the Buddha, is also the path to awakening. If you are mindful of your struggle — even if you sometimes fail — you will bring an awakened presence to your decision to avoid the sweet temptation. In fact, you might even say that starting from this position, even with its inevitable failures, leads to a “greater” awakening than the first instance, as you have been fully aware of both the temptation and the need for restraint. Most people would not refer to someone trying so hard to “do the right thing” as a “hypocrite,” but sometimes this person’s inside and outside might not match.

The third position is less than half faith. Sometimes much less. This is a person who can, say, intellectually agree with the position that chocolate is a hinderance, but is not going to make a serious effort to actually give it up. If they intellectualize to much — that is to say, if they shoot their mouth off too much about how bad chocolate is — but eats it anyway, we have ourselves a hypocrite. And the Buddha says, this too can be a path to enlightenment.

What? Saying one thing and doing another can be a path to enlightenment? Yes, if it is done with mindfulness (remember too, that we are talking chocolate here, not genocide or something). If you are going to eat the chocolate anyway, do it mindfully. Look at the circumstances that lead you to the craving. Look carefully at the results of your “slips.” See how it feels to say one thing and do another. You can actually look at all those things about yourself non-judgementally and non-moralistically. In really examining your habit, even as you succumb to it, you may find yourself awakening — and moving to the first position.

I can’t speak for him, but I think that if the Buddha was confronted with the Pharisees, he might say something like “Your desire to serve God is admirable, and your strength in carrying out the religious observances can serve you well. But do we not serve God by serving others, as Rabbi Hillel so eloquently pointed out? How do the laws and observances help us serve our people?”

Yes, Jesus was saying essentially the same thing. But you have to admit he set sort of a trap for us. In judging the Pharisees he tempts us to judge — and therefore be judged as well. It is a trap I have fallen into far too many times.

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Book Review: The Power of Now

When you hear a cover version of a once popular song, it is difficult, if not impossible to know if the artist who did it was truly in love with the older song, or if it was just pure commercialism. After all,  if a song was a hit once, it probably will be again, or so the theory would go.

And this is the biggest question I am left with after listening to an audio version of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now.

In the introduction Tolle claims to have become instantly enlightened while struggling with a deep depression. Upon saying to himself “I feel my life is intolerable,” he says he realized he must have a deeper identity, one behind his conscious mind or what he experienced as his conscious mind. And in that moment, he discovered — or rediscovered — most of the precepts of the Buddha. And perhaps he did.

On the other hand it is also possible that through some research he came across Buddhism and some other ideas and put them together into what he hoped would be a best selling cover version. I will let others be the judge of that, I know nothing of the man personally, so cannot even begin to guess, it is just a feeling I had as the book unfolded. But that does not mean the book itself is without value. Even the most cynical cash infusion cover version can also rock.

So, let us see what is in the book. The basis for his whole spiritual “system” is in fact Buddhism. In fact, if Alan Watts were still alive, he might want to talk to his lawyers about copyright infringement. But again, perhaps they were just on the same wavelength. And again, restated Buddhism is still powerful and Tolle does seem to add some ideas that are useful (and some not so useful).

The “power of now” as Tolle calls it is simply mindfulness by another name. But since Tolle asserts that your mind, or more technically your “egoic mind” is the entire problem, he certainly cannot use the word “mindfulness.” To get at the same concept he states that “you should be the silent watcher” of your egoic mind. Which sets up an interesting internal dualism that he seems to ignore. He seems to say that was have two minds, one deeper and more “real” than the other.

Tolle gets to that point by making the ego into more or less an independent organism. Which is not entirely a bad conceit. If you equate his “egoic mind” with the Buddha’s notion of the “self,” they are actually pretty close. And it is easier of thinking of dispensing of the “eogic mind” than the “self.” Treating the egoic mind as an more or less independent entity, Tolle postulates that it wants to perpetuate itself, it wants to survive. Since it evolved to solve problems, it then finds or creates problems so that its existence can be continued. Is is possible to anthropromorphise one process of the mind? Philosophically there are some deep problems with this approach, but ultimately Tolle is more interested in the psychological (though he insists on always calling it spiritual) side of Buddhism.

The eogic mind is much harsher and more dangerous than the veil of thought that Buddhists see as our normal state of affairs. The ego is a hard shell in Tolle’s theory. A hard shell that wants to solve problems, but also control, manipulate and anything else it needs to do in order to ensure its survival. Again, this has some philosophical problems, but in looking at the problems of modern, western society, also has some value as a point of view. In fact, Tolle pretty much states that all the problems of the modern world come from people making their egoic mind into their identity. And frankly, it is a point well taken. Some 30 years ago in the book I consider to be the Bible for business, Further Up the Organization, Robert Townsend constantly refers to  overdone buildings, over staffed departments and organizational dysfunctions of all kinds as monuments “to a diseased ego.” And the concept works perfectly well in both cases.

For better or worse, Tolle goes even further in creating another mental creature, the “emotional pain body.” In essence this a further corruption of the egoic mind, but this on, obviously, is focused on emotions. He says that in the same was as the ego wants problems to solve and therefore creates them, that there is something inside that wants or needs emotional pain and “feeds” on that. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression can attest to the feeling that there is some creature inside of you that seems to wants to feel worse and worse. Many writers have described depression as essentially an external force (my blue friend, as it were). The trick, Tolle insists, is to keep the pain body separate by not identifying it as “you.” Excellent advice actually. But philosophically speaking it is not necessary to create another entity, no matter how compelling. The “pain body” is a facet of the “egoic mind” which is part and parcel of the illusory self, which the Buddha described. In Tolle’s view, the head seems be getting pretty full of “beings.”

But all in all, Tolles, descriptions and prescriptions are actually pretty good, and updating the language to modern psychological terminology is good too. I think his restatement has quite a bit of value, especially for someone who may already be struggling. But this value has to be approached carefully, for there are serious problems with the system presented, and those problems feel a bit “new-agey” to me.

In my thinking, New Age “stuff” is of degraded value not because it is weird or from different sources, but rather because so much of it reflects the worst sort of “magical thinking.”  Ring a Tibetan singing bowl in just right way and you can “clear your space” of troubles.  Yeah, right.  Or as one author put it: yoga without the mediation and philosophy is just Asian gymnastics.  Not completely valueless, but not the same either.  So how does Tolle get “new agey?”

The first area is in the shortage of methodology.  Bascially he just says over and over to only “experience the present moment.”   Ummm, thanks Eckhart.  Glad to see that all that Zen training I have heard about is just a waste of time.  Maybe you can live every second in the present moment, but I haven’t been able to so far.  Yes, the Buddha could boil his teaching down to one sentence (as could Jesus, actually) but the Buddha also spent some 40 years trying to explain what that sentence meant — and how to accomplish it!

The second area of this kind of concern is the total lack of any ethical or moral dimension to his system.  Essentially Tolle skips over much of the Buddha’s Noble Eight-Fold Path.  Two folds seem plenty enough for Tolle, seven and eight only.  But to some extent, living “rightly” is necesary, if you don’t want your “mind” saying stuff to you all day.  If you have a hidden agenda, your cognitive dissonance will eventually break through your mindfullness.  The Buddha understands this, Tolle never mentions it.  Which in some ways is understandable, if your focus is more psychotherapeutic, which Tolle’s ultimately is, starting with guilt is probably not the way to go.  But as a philosophy, ethics have to be more explicitly mentioned.

Finally there is the issue that gets back to Tolle’s underlying motivation — God.  Tolle wants to call “Buddha-nature” God.  He is not the first to do so, of course.  And this gets back to my original hesitation.  Is he doing this out of a sincere belief or is he labeling it this way to help book sales?  Afterall if you disguise the Buddhist method a bit and sell it as a program to come to know your true nature, which is “God,” you have something that will sell a lot more easily in the West.  Especially in the United States right now.

My reason for cynicism is this.  Throughout the book he correctly disparages some of our misuse of religious and moral terms, feeling that they have been corrupted by incorrect use.  Mostly true.  Usually then he offers another term or phrase for what he “really” means.   When he introduces “God” into the discussion he goes to great lengths to say what God is, or actually is not.  To be fair, he does start out by trying to explain, to paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, that the god that can be described is not the real god.  But then, of course, he goes on to describe God anyway.  There is also some other “new agey” stuff about changing the consciouness of the plane and energy fields and what not, but they are easy to overlook.

Underneath it all, and to perhaps unfairly apply a label, Tolle is a Deist.  God is everywhere, in everthing, but God is “no thing.”  Which is totally fair.  But coming at the end of the book as it does, I had a different impression throughout the book.

Tolle often mentioned a person’s inner essence and such, and liked to label that “God.”  In the West, when we say “God” our mental picture is, for the most part, of the personal, supernatural being of our religions.  It feels a bit like Tolle is greasing the skids a bit by having “God” within us (which is what Christianity preaches to some extent) even if he does come clean at the end.  But ultimately the question must be asked, if you are talking about some ultimate nature of the universe, why call it “God?”  If your “God” is “no thing” then is it not so far from our common conception of “God” as to not be God?  The Buddha was much wiser, and simply refused to discuss such a thing as mere metaphysics.  Perhaps Tolle should have been too.

All in all, though it is not a book I can whole heartedly recommend, there is much value in the Power of Now.   Especially for a person who is currently hurting badly, as it has a very strong therapeutic tone.  But if you find the ideas attractive and helpful, you will almost certainly have to find other sources for method.  For that, I would strongly recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn as the best “non-Buddhist” (but only slightly) source for the introduction and application of Buddhist thought and psychology for Western ears.

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Where I See Buddhism Working…

This is actually skipping very far ahead of the discussion that I was planning, but sometimes events do actually influence my thinking. 🙂

I talked with a friend of mine today. I have never actually met her in person, just online. She strikes me as a real saint. Works as an EMT and a daycare provider. Has several kids of her own and has taken care of more foster kids than you can shake a stick at, and adopted a few. All this with a lazy slacker husband, who has not worked in a couple of years. Superhuman she is. An angel allighted on the earth.

But she is completely overwhelmed. She feels depressed and unworthy. In fact she is on medication for her “depression.” She prays and reads and goes to a Christian counselor (not that the label matters much) but still gets worse. It is a darn shame actually.

Now, don’t think for a moment that I blame “Christianity” for this, or that I think religion should cure clinical depression. But I could not help but think of the advice she might get from a theoretical Christian friend and a theoretical Buddhist one.

OK, her actual friend told her to pray more. He probably also assured her that God loves her and that her reward will be great in Heaven. I have said similar things in the past and heard them as well. The only problem is that many times it just doesn’t cut through the depression. As one of my commenters pointed out, in its most usual current form, Christianity is an exclusivist religion. I can tell you that one of the most heartbreaking feelings is when someone says or feels something like, “But what if He doesn’t?” I am sorry to say but at that point you can say, “He really does love you” all you want and all the person can see is the gates of Hell in front of them. And in most churches, Hell is very real. So a brick wall has been reached. Often times they feel that their “sins” (as my friend seems to) will keep them from heaven. Which is perhaps the very definition of depression.
Don’t misunderstand, I know there is more the Christian theology than that, and their are lots of other thoughts images and such that can be used. But the road is uphill, I am afraid. But now, let us look at a Buddhist approach.

Same sad, unworthy, overburdened person.

“My friend, you are not unworthy by any means, you are filled with Buddha-nature, your inner goodness or wholeness, or call it the grace of God if you will.”

“No, I am not, am bad, I have sinned”

“But the Buddha says that everything that is alive has Buddha-nature. It can’t be taken away or lost. You have it, snakes have it, plants have it. If it is alive, it has Buddha-nature.”

“Then I must have lost it.”

“You can lose it. It is in every living cell. It is hidden, that is all.”

“Hidden? Where? Somewhere out there?”

I’ll drop the dialogue here. 🙂 It is hidden, the Buddhist would explain, under your ego or wordly mind or some words to that effect. This is the “voice inside your head.” The one that has an opinion on everything, the one that tells you that you should do something else, should be somewhere else, are not working hard enough and so on. The problem is that you take that voice too seriously. Don’t take it seriously, it is just a bunch of thoughts, an illusion. And it is these thoughts that cause our suffering.

It was at this point that my friend interupted me and asked how she could do that, that her head was always full of thousands of thoughts, that the only way to escape them was to take sleeping pills and lapse into a chemical coma. Yes, exactly.

Depression is but an extreme case of samsara, or confusing our thoughts with reality. Thinking that the voice inside our heads is US, instead of our free and clear Buddha-nature (or natural God state, if you want to put it that way).

The Buddha taught a method for quieting those thoughts, and looking beyond the mind and seeing or at least glimpsing the underlying Buddha-nature. Now, I will not claim for one second that the Buddha’s teachings were unique or that other cultures have not discovered the same thing, because they have. But it strikes me that only Buddhism makes it a central part of their religious philosophy. Try asking your priest or minister how to meditate (not pray) . Ask them how to practice mindful watching (or mindfulness, as Tich Nhat Hahn puts it). Perhaps you will get an answer, but most likely not. Maybe even a lecture about the evils of dealing with “eastern mysticism” or something worse.

But Buddhism teaches the actual practice, step by step. How recognize a thought as it bubbles up and how to let it go, to see it as simply a small cloud in a clear sky (as one of the teachings of the Buddha says.) This quieting of the ego is a godsend (no pun intended) to the anxious or depressed person. Which pretty much describes all of us at one time or another.

I was always told in my Catholic education to seek God in the quiet places, but I was never taught how to really be quiet. It is not easy, that is for sure. I would go to those quiet places, but all I would hear was my raging ego: arguing, disputing and frankly, telling me that I was unworthy.

In Buddhist meditation and mindfulness training I am starting to find that quiet place. I have seen glimpses of the Buddha nature. I hope that my friend can find that same quiet place — either by Christian, Buddhist or by whatever means makes sense to her.

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My Problem with Christianity: Part 1 — Introduction

A few nights go some friends were talking and one of the guys was complaining about the poor service at a restaurant. He said, “I don’t know what it is about restaurants, I just don’t get appetizers.” A wiseacre in the group said “What’s to get? They are little pieces of food and you eat them.” Which struck me as a bit funny, but I was rolling on the floor when the first guy, more emphatically said, “No, I just don’t get them!”

And for me, it is the same with Christianity, for the most part. I just never really got it.

I was raised Roman Catholic and at one time would have been considered a pretty religious kind of guy. Went to church every Sunday, was an altar boy, went to Catholic schools for 10 of my 12 years and so on. Went on retreats, did the soup kitchen and social service kind of thing, read the Bible, found the New Testament pretty quotable and did so liberally and read the Catechism and other Catholic teachings and writings. Not exactly a theologian or anything, but for the most part better educated in things Catholic than most people in the pews, by my estimation.

I will be the first to admit that all this education and reading did not add up to any kind of spiritual practice. I did OK on the social justice kinds of things, both with the checkbook and volunteering, but prayer was not something I did a lot of and I never really felt any supernatural presence in my life.

To be honest, mostly what my education did for me was to make me cynical and critical, not only of the church hierarchy, but of the whole notion of God or any supernatural reality. Perhaps cynicism is just a natural state of mind for me or, as I like to think I evaluated the evidence and came to a logical conclusion.

As more of a mind clearing exercise, not thinking that anyone would actually care to read this, in the next few posts I am going to talk about some of that evidence and how I weighed it and how that has resulted in my moving away from Christianity, at least in the strict sense. Along with that I will talk about some of the aspects of Buddhism that have appealed to me and how they compare and contrast to my “street level” understanding of Christianity.

Stay tuned. 🙂

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Change of Direction

Anyone who knows me, and you know who you are, knows that I have been searching for something for some time now.  If I knew exactly what I was searching for, I suppose that I would have found it by now.  But apparently I haven’t.

When I read the Tao Te Ching a few years back it really struck a chord with me and resonated on a pretty deep level, but still something was missing.  In fact something was missing in pretty much every aspect of my life.  I am not sure, but I think maybe I am starting to put the pieces together.

For most of my adult life my spiritual life, such as it was, was in complete conflict with my intellectual life.  It went something like this:  I was raised Catholic and pretty much everything I was told only raised further questions in my mind.  And as George Carlin once said in a routine about why he is no longer a Catholic, the answer usually was “It’s a mystery!”  Well, I am not much on mysteries.

A few years ago, I saw Garry Wills’ book “Why I am a Catholic.”  Considering that it was his writings that raised some of my questions, I eagerly devoured the book.  Unfortunately the short answer was, that Jesus said some good things and that as an organization Catholics were a pretty nice group.  That may be enough for Mr. Wills (no disrespect intended, I think he is a wonderful author) but it was not enough for me.

In my next couple of posts I will go into what I see as the shortcomings of not only Christian theology (at least from my point of view) but also the shortcomings of a Catholic education as I experienced it.

I have recently turned to Buddhism not because it is exotic or foreign or even pretty much atheistic.  I have turned to Buddhism because it has a concrete method of doing things.  Jesus told us to love our enemies, but frankly he did not say exactly what he meant or how to accomplish such a remarkable feat.

The Buddha on the other hand operationally defined what he meant by compassion, and gave a concrete plan of how to achieve a state of loving-kindness.  Not only that, but there is good evidence (which will come in later posts) that the advice the Buddhists offer squares almost perfectly with modern psychological studies.

Now it is true that the methods described by the Buddhists are actually found pretty much in every religious tradition.  Every faith prescribes ethical living and loving kindness.  Every faith has a tradition of meditation.  But it seems to me that it is only Buddhism that emphasizes this method first and then allows one to apply it to whatever metaphysical beliefs you might have.  In fact, the Buddha himself refused to discuss metaphysics at all, such as  speculating on who or what even if God is.

Most other faiths have the metaphysics first, and then, perhaps if you are lucky you may find someone who will teach you the methods.

So, I will be going back to method and invite you along for the journey.  But hang on it will be a bumpy ride, I am sure.

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Long Time

It has been a very long time since my last post here, and much has happened in my life.  Unfortunately, I have to honestly say that in those things that have happened to me, I have not always been able to apply the lessons I am trying to learn here.

One of the lessons of the Tao is basically, what goes around comes around, so do not get too attached to things.  This is a very difficult lesson in one specific area of my life.  I have something that I am extraordinarily attached to, and even worse it is not physically present, so the attachment is purely emotional.  Which leads to great emotional disturbance at times, when my desire is disturbed or questioned.  I need to work on this.

I have also been busy with things that I do not consider to be very "important," but that cannot be ignored.  This makes me impatient and angry.  Also not exactly a Taoistic way of being.  But fortunately, as Chapter six points out, I have reason to keep on trying:

The valley spirit never dies.
It is the unknown first mother,
whose gate is the root
from which grew heaven and earth.
It is dimly seen, yet always present.
Draw from it all you wish;
it will never run dry.

(Translator: T. McCarroll)

I may run dry, and I have at times over the past two weeks, but I can always come back to the center, back to draw from the well. 

Breathing deeply, and letting things take their course, even my ardent desire, I can return to the center. 

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I’m Not Angry!

One of the greatest rock 'n rollers in history was Elvis Costello. On his first album he included the song "I'm Not Angry" which is so ironic as to not need comment. The song literally seethes for its two and half minutes. Costello half screams, half growls the song's title, occaisionally adding, sotto voce, "anymore." It is a song I can often relate to, except for the "anymore."

Anger is my most dangerous emotion, it literally consumes me when I raise its ugly head. And somewhere in my study of psychology someone pointed out that anger turned inward is depression. I have been there as well. There is much in Taosim about controlling yourself and modifying your thoughts and therefore your feelings.

Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching has this to say:

The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

(S. Mitchell translation)

Deep Breath. The saints make me feel unworthy and the sinners just plain tick me off. Deep Breath. I do need to accept both, they are both part of the Tao. People can't disappoint you or anger you if you accept them as they are. Both Taoism and Albert Ellis point this out. But this is difficult for me, I am extremely judgmental.

The sage retains tranquillity,
and is not by speech or thought disturbed,
and even less by action which is contrived.
His actions are spontaneous,
as are his deeds towards his fellow men.

(Chapter 5, S. Rosenthal translation)

Tranquility in the face of "provocation" is exactly what I need to strive for. "Good" things come and go. "Bad" things do as well. Even in his song, Costello offers this Taoistic rationale for not being angry "anymore:"

There's no such thing as an original sin.

He is right, every slight, every wound has been done before, there is nothing new in the Tao, as it contains all things. So there is only one thing to do, as Stephen Mitchell ends his Chapter Five: "Hold onto the center."

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