Friday, November 19, 2010

Viewing the Elephant

An Indian story is often told about several blind folks trying to describe an elephant to each other. One is feeling the elephant's leg, and says "the elephant is like a tree". Another is holding the elephant's tail and describing it as a rope. A third is touching the trunk, telling the others it is like a snake. And so on. I imagine that many have heard the story. And I have often heard it told in the context of the limitations any of us have grasping the Truth, or God. That is, God is so big, so vast, that any one of us will only ever comprehend a small portion of who/what is the divine.

I was reminded of this story the other day when I was listening to interview with religion scholar Stephen Prothero (author of God Is Not One:
The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter). In the course of the interview, he pointed out that whether we are faith-full people (i.e., believers), or people of no faith (i.e., atheists), we spend way too much time trying to convince the other of our position. He pointed out that both religious folks and atheists ought to agree on one thing: religions matter. And the question arose for me: "What if we simply granted that, and went forward?" Fire-and-brimstone preachers will not convince the (so-called) "New Atheists" to repent and attend church any more than the "New Atheists" will convince the preachers to give up their flocks and start dancing, drinking and playing cards on Sunday. So much hot air trying to convince the other of our view of the elephant!

So, to return to that elephant. As I mentioned, the story is often told to highlight our limited view of the divine. I'd like to turn it around a bit. Each of those folks touching the elephant had his or her own experience of the elephant. For example, the one who was holding the leg, thinking it a tree, may have found security; the one at the trunk/snake may have been frightened. How could one convince the other that their experience was definitive? I recall at this point, the factoid that clowns are often scary to some small children (despite Ronald McDonald's happy meals!). Although MY experience with clowns may be that they are funny and harmless, I cannot change a frightened child's experience through debate and argument. It would probably be much better for the child if I simply listened to his or her story.

Many of us, I suppose, have had the experience of trying to retell the story of a vacation. In the middle of my recounting what we could see from the hotel room, one of the others who were there would interrupt, with "No, that's not what was outside the window. It was a BIRD, not a mountain!" Or my sense of the Rocket Coaster ride may have been stomach-turning, while my friend's might have been exhilharation. Well, it may have been both, but we certainly experienced the situation differently. And, if we could cease arguing over who's experience was right, our listener might have a richer understanding of our vacation.

Golly, do I expend a lot of energy trying to convince others I'm right. The only thing about which I'm right is my experience-it's mine, and will probably never be anyone else's. There are other experiences out there that will never be mine, but I'd certainly like to hear about them. My world will certainly be richer.

The elephant is there. Let's talk about how we experience it. And learn-and celebrate-how complex our experiences might be.



Friday, November 12, 2010

The mission? No mission!

In the spring of 1996, I traveled with a group of university students to Costa Rica on a "mission trip." As we were planning for the trip, we were informed by the folks in Costa Rica that they really didn't want us to come down there to DO anything. The impression we received was that they were a bit tired of northerners coming south to "fix" things. They had had enough of a sort of superior attitude. What they wanted was the opportunity to show US what they had accomplished, what they could do, what they were providing for us.

When we arrived, we were treated to an amazing week. We saw the national shrine in Cartago. We visited La Selva, a fascinating rain forest. We saw plantations that catered to the Home Depot tastes of Americans. In Puerto LImon (on the Caribbean coast), those who looked carefully got great views of 3-toed sloths. And all during the week we were the recipients of very gracious hospitality -- including an introduction to one of the great treats of Costa Rica: Lizano Salsa.

While we all enjoyed the week, the students were a little disappointed that they didn't get to DO anything. After all, a mission trip is about painting a hospital, or digging a well, or teaching kids. It is NOT about riding in a van, seeing amazing countryside, and being well-fed. THAT sounds more like a vacation. But as we continued interacting with our hosts, we found out that there is great value in being a recipient. We learned of the colonial history of Costa Rica. We learned of their history of peaceful coexistence in a very conflicted area of the world. We learned of their environmental concerns. And we learned that the Ticos (native Costa Ricans) simply loved giving. And we were having a difficult time simply receiving.

I understand that in many cultures of the world, reciprocity is expected. If I receive from you, I am culturally expected to give back. And in our competitive culture, there is almost an unspoken "what I give back should be bigger/greater than what I received." It seemed to me, however, that our hosts in Costa Rica simply wanted to know that their hospitality was appreciated. That was service enough. And the mission trip, although not as we expected, changed us nonetheless.

Gratitude is central to our religious lives. Regardless of tradition, we all recognize that much of what we have is beyond our ability to attain, or beyond our deserving. And we develop rituals of thanksgiving, many of which include "giving back."

But I wonder if our felt need to "return the favor" diminishes our own experience of a gift given us. That is, if we spend so much time deciding how to respond that we miss out on simply enjoying the gift, and the spirit of giving behind it. I wonder what it would look like simply to say "Thank you," to affirm the giver's intention, to validate their pleasure in making me happy. Perhaps not always, but sometimes.

The mission? No mission!

To all of you who've given so much to me . . . Thank you.



Friday, November 5, 2010

Dancing with the **STARS**

Shortly after my wife and I got married, we were at some event that included ballroom dancing. We both believed that we knew how to dance; we had both enjoyed it prior to our marriage. We soon discovered that while I (she) knew how to dance, she (I) didn't. We recognized that while we each knew we knew how to dance, we didn't know how to dance with each other. So, because we wanted to continue dancing, we decided that the only way to move forward was to allow a dis-interested third party TEACH us BOTH how to dance. After many classes, we became pretty good dancers (and NO, that's not me in the picture above-he has too much hair!)

Earlier this week, we started another class-the first in years. We needed one more step for our repertoire to keep us on the floor just that much longer. After that initial class, and after our in-the-car-on-the-way-home debrief, it occurred to me that one of the reasons I had had so much fun was that, once again, we were both blank slates upon which a new set of steps could be inscribed. Neither my wife nor I had the upper hand (or foot). We were learning together.

What a thought! To begin to address a common goal from a point of relative equality.

Last evening, several hundred folks heard, as the first of this year's Bridges to the Future speakers, Richard Clarke, one of President Bush's primary counter-terrorism advisers on 9/11. He was asked about our current troop presence in the Iraq/Afghanistan area. Part of his response was that both Republicans and Democrats want to reduce our presence to either a police action, or a war. His retort was that we need to be over there for both reasons, and many more. And then he added "leave politics out of it" (to much applause!). What I took away from that was the assertion that we will NOT solve any of the issues in the Middle East (or, by extension, anywhere), if all we're doing is trying to play a domestic game of one-up-manship using the problems themselves as pawns.

On the bookshelf behind me in my office sits a copy of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi's wonderful little book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. The premise of the book is that true Zen mind (a mind on its way to clarity) of necessity is beginner's mind.
"The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind that can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything."* How different that is from my certainty that MY way of dancing was the best (and universal). How different that is from the political debates that claim to solve a problem, while only advancing a position.

It is in my nature, I believe, to privilege my own position, my own opinion. It is also pretty prideful (of which I'm not necessarily proud). I know, however, that I'm not alone. I'm reminded of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who invited the thirsty to come to the waters. But to do so empty-handed, perhaps with a beginner's mind: "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; . . . 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55.6, 8-9).

Dancing with the heavens -- thoughts not necessarily my thoughts, ways higher than my ways. Beginner's mind. Beginners' minds. Can we do that (and especially now in the wake of last Tuesday's election)? Can we begin together to address our future? And what must we set aside to do so? What are the higher ways?



*From the description of the audio version of the book on Peter Coyote's website.